30 May 2014

Great Buildings: The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the Temple of the Sun, and the Transmission of History

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Quirkancha, the temple or house of the Sun was a site of religious worship in the imperial city of Cuzco during the time of the Inca Empire.  The myth of its founding is narrated by the 16th century historian known as the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (12 April 1539 – 23 April 1616).  According to Garcilaso, on a hill called Huanacuari, to the south of the city, the Inca king and his wife thrust a golden wand into the earth, where it disappeared into the ground.  The couple took this as a sign that their deity wished for them to remain there.  People were gathered from all four directions, and were told “that their father the Sun had sent them from the sky to be teachers and benefactors (43-44)."

To fully appreciate this foundational myth as it has been handed down to us by the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, we must understand that the Incas did not have a written language; they developed a system of mnenomic devices employing ropes and knots, or quipus. As the illegitimate son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, Garcilaso (whose birth name was Gómez Suárez de Figueroa) was taught to read and write in Latin and Castilian, and received a thoroughly Catholic education.

Garcilaso traveled to Spain as a young man to further his education with the expectation that he would receive his share of his father’s inheritance.  Met with frustration and unable to overcome the stigma of his bastardy, he nonetheless made his home in Andalucia, where he would embark on a course of study that produced one of Spanish America’s most notable works: the Royal Commentaries of the Inca and General History of Peru.  In the words of translator Harold V. Livermore: “The Royal Commentaries of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega is one of the first American classics—that is, one of the earliest books about America by an American, that has generally been accepted as a major work of the Spanish language… and if there are earlier authors in America, none of them can genuinely said to be a figure on the great stage of Spanish letters (xv).”  Garcilaso’s Royal Commentaries is still admired to this day for its graceful style, and as a relevant source text of Spanish-American literature.

As a baptized Indian, one of mixed heritage—and a boy who spent his early years under Spanish colonial rule—Garcilaso was profoundly aware of the tragedies that domination by Europeans had wrought upon his mother’s people.  What he most feared was that, with the suppression of Inca culture, his mother’s world would pass into oblivion.  He writes:  “…the name Peru, so famous in the world and rightly famous, since it has filled the whole world with gold and silver, pearls and precious stones.  But because it [the name] was imposed by accident and is not one they [the Incas] have themselves given, the native Indians of Peru, though it is seventy-two years since it was conquered, have not taken this word into their mouths… They used to call it Tahuantinsuyu, meaning ‘the four quarters of the world (17).'”  This need to correct and educate the Spaniards with regards to the territory they arbitrarily called “Peru” is evident throughout the Royal Commentaries. With the onslaught of colonization came the perils of obliteration, which  Garcilaso no doubt found personally unbearable but a loss of enormous cultural consequence to the rulers of his homeland.  He hoped that his history would result in better conditions for the indigenous people of the region. 

Although widely respected, the Inca Garcilaso is also a controversial figure.  Scholars have stressed that, because Garcilaso spent most of his life in Spain, his history relies heavily on secondary accounts.   Garcilaso does not hide this fact in his work—comparing his version with those of Spanish chroniclers.  He has also been criticized for catering to the colonizers by presenting an idealized view of the Incas as the spiritual counter-part to Christianity.  In keeping with the European Renaissance tradition in which Garcilaso was schooled, he naturally drew upon tropes that would be familiar to Europeans.  We do find in his telling of foundational myths constant references to the “the Sun, our Father.”  Rhetoric of this sort would not be taken as pagan by the European humanists but in keeping with the assimilation of Greco-Roman culture to Catholic theology. There is little doubt with whom Garcilaso’s sympathies lay.  When he writes on the “naming” and “discovery” of Peru, he does not shy away from asserting the degree to which the colonizers made a mess of things.

So what did the Temple of the Sun mean to the peoples of Tahuantinsuyu according to Garcilaso?  Namely, that it was the center of worship for the Inca Empire—a temple built to glorify their god.  The Spaniards looted the original temple, robbing it of its splendor, but the foundation of Quirkancha remains, on which the Dominican Convent of Santo Domingo was built.   For Garcilaso, the temple would always be a sacred monument—which he believed could be saved for posterity only by writing his history of the Inca empire.


Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (Part One), trans. Harold V. Livermore, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1966. 

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.