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Saqsaywaman (Satisfied Falcon in the Quechua language) is a walled complex on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco. Like many Inca constructions, the complex is made of large polished dry stone walls, with boulders carefully cut to fit together tightly without mortar.
The site is located at an altitude of 3,701 m.
Because of its location high above Cusco and its immense terrace walls, this area of Saqsaywaman is frequently referred to as a fortress. The importance of its military functions was highlighted in 1536 when Manco Inca lay siege to Cusco. Much of the fighting occurred in and around Saqsaywaman as it was critical for maintaining control over the city. It is clear from descriptions of the siege, as well as from excavations at the site, that there were towers on its summit as well as a series of other buildings.
The large plaza area, capable of holding thousands of people, is well designed for ceremonial activities and several of the large structures at the site may also have been used during rituals. A similar relationship to that between Cusco and Sacsayhuaman was replicated by the Incas in their distant colony of where Santiago, Chile now lies, with an Inca settlement that predated the city and the ritual site of Huaca de Chena. It is also clear from early accounts that the complex held a great number of storage rooms. Pedro Pizarro described storage rooms that were within the complex and which were filled with military equipment.
The best-known zone of Saqsaywaman includes its great plaza and its adjacent three massive terrace walls. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in prehispanic America and display a precision of fitting that is unmatched in the Americas. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones.
This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cuzco. The longest of three walls is about 400 meters. They are about 6 meters tall. The estimated volume of stone is over 6,000 cubic meters. Estimates for the weight of the largest Andesite block vary from 128 tonnes to almost 200 tonnes.
Following the siege of Cusco, the Spaniards began to use Saqsaywaman as a source of stones for building Spanish Cuzco and within a few years much of the complex was demolished. The site was destroyed block-by-block to build the new governmental and religious buildings of the city, as well as the houses of the wealthiest Spaniards.
In the words of Garcilaso de la Vega "to save themselves the expense, effort and delay with which the Indians worked the stone, they pulled down all the smooth masonry in the walls. There is indeed not a house in the city that has not been made of this stone, or at least the houses built by the Spaniards." Today, only the stones that were too large to be easily moved remain at the site.
On 13 March 2008, archaeologists discovered additional ruins at the periphery of Saqsaywaman. They are believed to have been built by the Killke culture, and while clearly ceremonial in nature, the exact function remains unknown. This culture built structures and occupied the site for hundreds of years before the Inca, between 900 and 1200 AD.
The Inca used similar construction techniques in building Saqsaywaman as they used on all their stonework, albeit on a far more massive scale. The stones were rough-cut to the approximate shape in the quarries using river cobbles. They were then dragged by rope to the construction site, a feat that at times required hundreds of men. The stones were then shaped into their final form at the building site and then laid in place.
The work, while supervised by Inca architects, was largely carried out by groups of individuals fulfilling their labor obligations to the state. In this system of mita or "turn" labor, each village or ethnic group provided a certain number of individuals to participate in public works projects.
Although multiple regions might provide labor for a single, large-scale state project, the ethnic composition of the work-gangs remained intact, as different groups were assigned different tasks. Cieza de León, who visited Saqsaywaman two times in the late 1540s, mentions the quarrying of the stones, their transposition to the site, and the digging of foundation trenches. All this was conducted by rotational labor under the close supervision of Imperial architects.
Protzen, a professor of architecture, has shown how the Inca built long and complex ramps within the stone quarries near Ollantaytambo, and how additional ramps were built to drag the blocks to the construction above the village. He suggests that similar ramps would have been built at Saqsaywaman.
Vince Lee, an author, architect, and explorer who has studied various ancient sites where people moved large megaliths, theorizes that the blocks at Saqsaywaman were put into place by carving them precisely. The method used to match precisely the shape of a stone with the adjacent stones is unknown; it may have been scribing or by templating. The blocks would be towed up a ramp and above the wall, where they would be placed on top of a stack of logs. The logs would be removed one at a time to lower the stones into place.
Today, Peruvians celebrate Inti Raymi, the annual Inca festival of the winter solstice and new year on 24 June. Another important festival is Warachikuy held annually on the third Sunday of September. Some people from Cusco use the large field within the walls of the complex for jogging, t'ai chi, and other athletic activities.