Ollantaytambo, a unique Inca city in Peru

Graanschuren, Foto Stevage CC BY-SA (httpscreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)

Seventy kilometres north of Cuzco in Peru lies the archaeological complex of Ollantaytambo, one of the most famous Inca cities. It lies on a slope at the beginning of the so-called ‘Holy Valley’. It is said in old texts that Ollantaytambo, together with Pisac, formed a strategic point which provided a view over the most important roads of the empire, roads which led straight to Cuzco. The lowest part of the complex, at ca. 3,050 metres, contains the remains of a city centre of the Inca period, on top of which the modern city is built.


This Inca city had the same layout as Cuzco and other cities with a trapezium-shaped floor plan. The city stands on a large flat area on the banks of the Patakancha river, a tributary of the Urubamba. The contours of the old roads and their crossroads are still clearly visible.

Archaeologists estimate that around 1,000 people lived here and it was first and foremost a place for second homes belonging to the ruling class. The city should be viewed as an administrative centre. On top of a rocky hill on the other side of the river stand the remains of another gigantic complex which was probably never completed.


The city lies against a hill and the topmost part can be reached by a long stone stairway. The slope on which the upper part stands consists of seventeen walled terraces which, according to Spanish historical writers, were used for growing flowers.

Above the terraces are walled spaces, passages and stairways which lead to a number of unusual ruins, which appear never to have been completely built. The most striking is one which archaeologists call the ‘Sun Temple’, although it is by no means certain that it actually was a temple. There is a high wall made up of six red monoliths (large stones), 4 metres high and made of porphyry. The front surfaces of the blocks have strange protuberances, the meaning of which are unknown. On the middle block is a bas-relief of the same image which can be seen on the monoliths at Tiwanaku. Thus there may well be a connection between the Incas and the culture around Lake Titicaca. It is possible that the large porphyry stones came from a quarry 7 kilometres away. It would have been an incredible feat to move the stones to the place where they now stand, and we have no idea how they did it. It shows how much trouble they took not only to transport the stones but to build the entire city of Ollantaytambo.

The Sun Temple built from six large porphyry monoliths. www.flickr.comphotosmckaysavage8115063679inphotostream

It is possible that the city was built on an old holy place used as an astronomical observatory by an astral cult. This was later ringed by walls and terraces. The Incas were probably still busy with its construction when the Spaniards arrived in the region and all building work stopped.


During the period when the Spaniards arrived, Ollantaytambo was a battleground. A battle was fought here between the Incas and the Spanish troops. In 1535 a famous Inca emperor called Manco Inca Yupanqui waged a successful war here against Pizarro.

In the area around Ollantaytambo are many important Inca monuments showing that the rock- and stone-working skill was at its highest level. One example of such a monument is Intihuatana, with trapezium-shaped alcoves which probably served as places to observe the sun.

Zonnetempel. www.flickr.comphotosmckaysavage8115063679inphotostream

Text                      Harrie Wolters

Translation         Alun Harvey


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