Peru's Incas fight to unearth heritage buried beneath Catholic monastery

CUZCO, PERU — CUZCO, Peru -- Five centuries after seeing their holiest temples demolished and rebuilt as Catholic churches, the Incas are fighting back.

When the Spanish destroyed Incan civilization in the 16th century, they asserted their presence by building on sites worshiped by the Incas. In this wind-swept town, for example, Franciscan monks built the monastery of Santo Domingo on top of Koricancha, or Temple of the Sun, the holiest shrine in an empire that stretched from Colombia to Argentina.


But now, the survivors of that Andean culture and their allies are trying to unearth Koricancha -- much to the concern of the church that rests precariously on top.

The fight is being closely watched throughout Latin America, as native Americans in this former Inca capital fight to reclaim their buried cultural heritage -- even if it threatens the European culture grafted on top.


Symbolic of the changing times is that the Incas have found allies in government and business. Politicians now realize that votes can be won by championing the Indians' emerging ethnic pride, while developers see a tourist gold mine underneath the adobe-stained monastery.

Excavation has started 30 yards from Santo Domingo. Mayor Daniel Estrada plans to turn Koricancha's ruins into an Incan park, although the Dominicans are filing lawsuits to stop him.

"The monks act like this is 1533 [the year Cuzco fell to the Spanish] and they can step on our culture with impunity," says Raymundo Bejar, city hall's chief archaeologist and leader of a noisy minority which favors the outright demolition of Santo Domingo. "If the church really wants to undo the legacy of repression, they could start by giving us access to Koricancha."

Outright demolition, however, might be a bit much for many local residents, who are torn between a staunch Roman Catholic upbringing and a firm, if sometimes discreet, devotion to their Incan heritage.

Their iconography reflects that cultural mix: Jesus is clad in Andean skirts, while the Last Supper is usually depicted as a buffet of local delicacies. Traditional soothsayers and medicine men do a roaring trade. In one corner of Cuzco's main cathedral sits an oval stone where locals leave furtive offerings to the Incan deities.

"What's wrong with asking more than one god for help?" says an old woman selling candles on the cathedral steps.

After an earthquake in 1650, the Spanish dismantled the remains of Koricancha, recycled its stones and built their monastery on its foundations. In 1950, an earthquake destroyed many of the Spanish walls, revealing the sturdy Incan stonework for the first time in three centuries.

Facing a new cultural climate, the church agreed not to rebuild over the Koricancha walls and permitted the excavation of four Incan chambers in the monastery's courtyard.


Made from huge black stones so skillfully carved that they still hang together without mortar, the Koricancha walls are the finest surviving example of Incan masonry. Santo Domingo, by contrast, is rough-hewn and stained brown with adobe.

But Cuzco's two-tone culture is misleading. Although more than half its population has Indian blood, Peru is stubbornly racist. Most descendants of the mighty Andean civilizations have long been condemned to poverty, political impotence and racial derision. The 1992 Columbus quincentenary only poured salt in the wound.

Their disenchantment is occasionally tapped for political ends. Shining Path terrorists won Andean converts by wrapping Maoist teachings in Incan imagery. The son of Japanese immigrants, Alberto Fujimori eased his way to victory in the last presidential elections by pitting his nonwhite heritage against the Westernized style of his opponent, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.

Now in his third term and seen as a likely presidential candidate for 1995, Mayor Estrada plays the Incan card with vigor.

He has expunged from the municipal coat of arms a degrading herald showing Indians kneeling before Europeans. Incan walls are being exposed and refurbished. In the main plaza, a plaque criticizing the Spanish conquest now faces the Jesuit church. At enormous cost, Mr. Estrada has erected a 40-foot statue of the Inca empire-builder, Pachacuti, atop a 100-foot stone tower.

"After so many centuries of degradation, our society has developed a submissive and fatalistic attitude," he says, sitting beneath an enormous replica of the Incan sun god in his office. "We are regaining our dignity by paying homage to our Andean roots. Restoring Koricancha is an important part of that."


There is also a commercial side to the Incan revival. A fully-excavated Koricancha and the lost city of Machu Picchu, perched on a hilltop just northwest of Cuzco, could make a potent one-two punch for the local tourist trade.

Though most Cuzquenos want the Koricancha dig to continue, the Dominicans stand firm. They argue that Santo Domingo might collapse and that enough Incan walls are already exposed to make the site an attractive symbol of cultural union.

But there is perhaps another, more subtle, reason for their reluctance to help uncover the Incan equivalent of the Vatican: Andean gods are a distraction from their own.

"I respect the wisdom and beauty of Incan culture, but we are all Christians now and you can't turn back time," says Rev. Domingo Gamarra, director of Santo Domingo since moving here in 1990. "These people are just treasure hunters who smell gold beneath our monastery."

The quarrel echoes abroad.

In May, UNESCO examined the site, which ranks as a world monument. Its report says the Spanish walls are in no danger of falling, but recommends postponing further excavation until tempers cool. It rejects the mayor's plan for an Incan park, proposing instead a discreet museum inside Santo Domingo.


Mr. Estrada, however, already has made up his mind.

"We will excavate Koricancha no matter what," he says. "After all, who is in charge here now?"