A Rainy Day in Cusco

In the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin there is the most unusual statue of Jesus I have ever seen.

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For starters, He is black and wearing a colorful skirt. There is no sign proclaiming Him “King of the Jews”, though he is nailed to a cross with no top…more like a “T”. I marvel at this depiction, and my guide Juan tells me that the color is from centuries of candle soot covering the figure, which is believed to have the power to prevent earthquakes (which is a bit curious since in 1950 the dome of the church fell in from just such a disaster). The skirt was made from an expensive alpaca fur worn only by Incan royalty. The artist, Juan tells me, is having some fun at the expense of the Spanish rulers, who are severely Catholic. The man on the cross is not Jesus at all, but rather Atahualpa, the Incan ruler killed by Pizarro in 1533.

 

Nor is this the only sign of artistic license used as a subtle protest against the colonial rulers. In a depiction of The Last Supper, the feast on the table is of a local delicacy…a Guinea Pig. And the face of Judas, who famously betrayed Christ, is actually a portrait of Pizarro, who killed the Incan Ruler after promising him his freedom, or so one story goes. Another says the unfortunate king was secretly plotting his own release by building a large invasion force to oust the interlopers once and for all. Yet another says that the Incan interpreter employed by the Spaniards had it in for the king because of an ancient blood feud. It’s complicated.

In one transept, there is a giant triangle that Juan says is a Freemason symbol. It is in the church because that is where Simon Bolivar and other revolutionaries plotted the course for independence from Spain. They had nowhere else where they could meet in secret. Complicated indeed.

The church is full of treasures…an iconostasis covered in gold leaf, a monstrance made from solid silver weighing several tons (!), and of course it is full of the faithful as well. This is a country that is still 90% Catholic, though Juan tells me that this is changing. He tells me Muslims are moving in, as well as Chinese Buddhists. Africans practice their own folk religions on the coasts. I even saw an Amish man at the airport!

So there is a lot of ethnic and religious diversity in this country. Juan calls these emerging religions signs of freedom, and explains that even the old Incan religions are being practiced openly again…though without the human sacrifice this time around.

I ask him about the economy, and he tells me it’s just muddling along. He is disappointed in the new mayor, who has done nothing to stem the corruption. I see signs of poverty everywhere. Stray animals roam the streets. Pitiful sheds are homes for some. But there is also plenty of life. New cars fill the streets, people seem to be busy going to work, and the shops seem busy enough.

We walk through Saksaywaman, a network of walled ruins that once was a temple. It offers a fine view of the city below. I marvel at what is said to be the largest stone moved into position along the base. It is estimated to weigh 12 tons. I don’t doubt it. The stones fit perfectly together, like a jigsaw puzzle, with scarcely a crack between them. Juan says they still don’t know how the rocks were cut so precisely…no mortar required!

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Juan explains to me how cruel the Spanish were, and not for the first time. It seems that, according to him, they tore down these walls deliberately to build their church, then they murdered millions of their new subjects. I know that this is partly true, but there is an undercurrent of hostility in his remarks that I find somewhat disquieting. 500 years is a long time to carry a grudge, after all. It makes me wonder if men ever really forgive and forget what’s happened to them. I don’t think Juan has. His hostility toward the church and the Spanish rulers is almost palpable.

I point out to him that the Incans took a back seat to no one in the inhumanity department. The animist religion that he seemed so happy to see making a comeback demanded the bloody sacrifice of thousands of children every year in a ritual slaughter. But only the best-looking were chosen for such an honor. Europeans did not invent cruelty. He quickly admits that’s true.

I’m too tired to argue with him, though, because my head is throbbing. I’m a victim of altitude sickness, and I can hardly walk straight by the time I get back to my hotel. Apparently, I’m not the first one to suffer from this. In the hotel lobby, they sell aerosol containers of pure oxygen. I buy one, and have instant and blessed relief at 11,000 feet.

That’s enough for now. Tomorrow, I’m in the Sacred Valley.

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