Inca stone masonry in Cusco, Peru

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2012


The small plane from the Peruvian coast soon reaches cruising altitude but the jagged Andes rise up sharply bringing the earth close again. At 3,400m, the air in the former Inca capital of Cusco is crisp and thin and my leg muscles burn for lack of oxygen. In Inca cosmology, this demanding terrain was the center of the universe and they laid out their stone-built capital as a map of the heavens. The Inca venerated the sun and lavished their temples with gold, but it was in stone that they surpassed all other civilizations. Their walls are a marvel of craft even now: on Hatunrumiyoc, a narrow lane just off Cusco’s main square, I run a hand along the seams between enormous, irregular blocks of green andesite that are nearly my height yet were cut to join seamlessly without mortar. And at the ceremonial center of Sacsayhuaman, overlooking the city, giant Cyclopean blocks have been fitted to form an impenetrable, zigzagging labyrinth of bastions 360m long. How could 15th century masons working without metal tools have cut stone with such precision?

I travel to San Jeronimo at the edge of modern Cusco, where the last mud-brick houses give way to farmland, to meet a young stonemason named Alberto. He brings out a few old stones rounded by river currents: these are original Inca hammerstones and they fit naturally into the hand, my thumb sliding smoothly into the indentation worn by some long ago mason. Alberto takes one up and begins to pound the uneven face of a large boulder. The motion of his hands is controlled rather than vigorous, letting gravity provide some of the force; slowly, methodically, the hammerstone’s small advantage in hardness and resistance to fracture turns the face of the boulder into a pulverized dust. Alberto blows on it, the cloud disperses, and I see that the boulder is perceptibly closer to a flat plane. Using a smaller hammerstone now he works the edge and I can discern a pattern forming – one that I will later see at Inca temples from Machu Picchu to Pisac  — of coarse pits in the face of the stone and fine marks along the edges. Alberto smiles. He is young but he knows the old ways; he knows, too, that what the Inca had that he does not is time, the near-infinity required to work the giant boulders to perfection.

In the Sacred Valley, on the road to Machu Picchu, I stop in the town of Ollantaytambo, where a rebellious Inca emperor made his last stand against the invading Spanish before his final, sorrowful retreat into the Amazon. Here I have brought another teacher, this one in spirit: a few photocopied pages from Professor Jean-Pierre Protzen’s study of the great Fortress at Ollantaytambo. Protzen is an ideal companion: he studied the stonework, developed an idea of how it might have been done, and then took up the stone himself to test the idea against the experience of his own hands. I follow him up the steep stone-walled terraces that are a signature of the Inca, who etched them in the mountainside to turn slopes into land that could be cultivated. Up, higher, to the smooth encased wall of the Enclosure of the Ten Niches, where large, odd-shaped blocks are cut to fit together like flawless jigsaw puzzles. Then, finally, to a cluster of stones so imposing and beautiful that it can scarcely be imagined at this altitude: the Wall of the Six Monoliths, the only surviving section of a temple largely destroyed by the Spanish. I sift through the photocopied pages in my hand, then look again at the wall before me. Six perfectly planed blocks tower over me, each appearing to weigh a hundred tons or more, the angle of the sun revealing a hint of geometric decoration on their polished surfaces. The blocks are awesome in their scale, a reminder of mankind’s small place in the universe. Yet it is the slender, immaculately crafted strips of stone between the blocks that move me: they are mankind’s contribution to nature’s beauty, the small addition that unifies the whole.


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Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of Peru.