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It looks eerie, the great stones lying around, some cut, some not, some half-way-in-between. Like a ghost just passed and whisked everyone away. And perhaps that is not far from the truth.
For the Inca stone quarries above the village of Ollantaytambo in the Peruvian Sacred Valley are home to many kinds of ghosts and some of them you can see for yourself, in a sense, if you are ready to walk for 3-4 hours up (and the same amount down) in the thin air of almost 4 km above sea level.
You should be, if you have just a bit of the stamina and yearning to see the Inca world for yourself, away from the heavily beaten track of the much hyped and increasingly expensive Inca trail trek.
We started early in the morning while the sun was still only just kissing the eastern mountains, and walked in a good pace as long as the terrain wasn’t too step.
So we were half-way up the mountain-range that looms west of Ollantaytambo and near the summit of which you can find that 500 year-old-work-place left in a hurry.
As I said, it is eerie once you get up there. You certainly get a much more keen sense of the hard work it took to dig out, and shape these stones – ranging in sizes from your hand to your car.
And once they were ready, the stones had to be brought down the mountainside to the fortress, the houses, the temples of Ollantaytambo – whereever they had to go.
As I gently let my hand slide over the old stones I feel their smoothness and yet their heavy strength, and I keep thinking that it takes someone with extraordinary skill and patience to make these big stones do their bidding, to whip them into shape so to speak.
So who put their skilled hands on this particular part of the Inca heritage, 500+ years ago?
There were of course elite stone masons, but who was the average worker who did the grunt work, who did the majority of stones – for the foundations of the fortress, for the houses people lived in?
There is so little we know of the Incas who weren’t exactly emperors or wives of emperors or generals or high priests. Sure, we know a lot of general things about Inca life, but not of individuals.
Charlotte found a skeleton up there. We knew it was there from the guide. We knew there were burial mounds.
One of the locals said that it was the stone cutters who were buried up there. No need to waste time getting humans to the bottom of the valley when there are more important stones to get down there?!
The skeleton was in a kind of fetal position, in what appeared to be a small artificial cave made for the purpose – nothing special.
So who was this particular man? Who were his colleagues? The people who toiled on to the last, when the unthinkable happened: Rumors started drifting down the valley about invaders … who could not be stopped.
Yes, the Spanish conquistadors were coming. And they didn’t come to build but to tear down.
As in so many other instances, I feel I have to give the people who worked and died up there names.
So how about calling one of the workers Rumi – which is the Quechua name for “stone” – pure and simple. And Quechua is the language of the Incas, still spoken today …
If the stones Rumi worked on were used in the temple on top of the fortress at Ollantaytambo, they would have been some of the finest specimens – meant for holy places. But Rumi probably did not work on those stones. A caste of elite stone masons, a level above him did.
Some of them may have come from far away … maybe they never set foot in the quarry but waited until others got the best of the stones down to the temple for them to work on.
Rumi’s life would have been very repetitive with the hard work, climing to the top of the mountain in the morning, perhaps staying there several days at a time with some food and drink brought up, just enough to sustain the bodies who dug out and moved around and cut through the first of the stones, as they came out of the body of the mountain.
But then one day the repetition, the predictability, the pride in being part of the builders of the empire … all that stopped. There had already been signs … in January 1537 Rumi might have been part of the army defending Ollantaytambo from a Spanish expeditionary force.
The invaders were beaten back, but later in the spring they came again with further reinforcements, and the emperor, Manco Inca, decided that withdrawal, further into the valleys and jungles, was the only option.
Did Rumi go with the retreating Inca armies? If he survived the Spanish and the mountain surely he must have. Where else could he go?
Perhaps he, and his fellow workers, told themselves that all of this was only temporary, that they would be back to continue work in the place that they belonged.
That might have been a good way to think of the great stones they left around the path and all over the mountain-side, half-finished, some with finely chiseled cornes some not.
‘We will be back for you’.
But Rumi and his people never came back. They may have lived and survived, first in Vitcos, then in Vilcabamba, further and further away from the Sacred Valley heartland, spending their remaining years building and fortifying these outposts that suddenly had become capitals of the rump Inca state … We will never really know.
We don’t even know exactly at what time the work stopped. But walking among the stones left behind, it feels as if the ghosts of unfinished work are still there.
They never left …