We rarely think of what and who was in South America before the Incas. Certainly there (and with what a presence!) was Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city on the continent, “a masterpiece of inhabited space, and hierarchical construction which illustrates a political and social ideal that has rarely been expressed with such clarity,” as UNESCO observes in its description of the site that has been protected as world heritage site since 1986.
Chan Chan was built by the Chimu whose kingdom was at its peak just before the Inca took over. Some decades later the conquistadors established a new capital and called it Trujillo after the home town of the well-known Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. The old Chimu city was left to decay — and decay it did, quite literally, given its building material which was essentially sand turned into caked mud. Through centuries of abandon, plundering by treasure hunters and pouring of El Ninos the old Chan Chan got a rather battered look. Indeed, “Many of the structures excavated and surveyed in the past have entirely disappeared,” reports UNESCO. Some parts, however, have remained preserved for us to marvel at, and they merit the half-day excursion from Trujillo or the coastal town of Huanchaco. What remains visible is that the city covers an area of as much as six square kilometers (of the previous 20 square km):
“This zone comprises nine large rectangular ensembles delineated by high, thick earthen walls and known as ‘citadels’ or ‘palaces’. Each of these ‘palaces’ forms a type of independent urban unit which comprises several spaces, built or not as the case may be, around one or more squares, the ceremonial character is in some cases quite obvious. Among them are temples, dwellings, storehouses, kitchens, reservoirs, orchards, gardens, funeral platforms, cemeteries, etc. The cob walls decorated with raised friezes in which abstract motifs, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects add to the exceptional splendours of these large arrays of ruins. Outside these nine rectangular units four industrial sectors were found to the west and south. The main activities appear to have been woodworking, weaving and the working of gold and silver. An area further to the south seems to have been used for farming as witnessed by the remains of an irrigation system, but many temples have been found there as well.”
What is today barren desert was at the time of the Chimu and the preceding Mochi culture a blossoming territory “in the once fertile river valley of Moche or Santa Catalina”. What was once a blooming city, is nowadays a set of crumbling sand walls displaying the last remains of the elaborate symbolic ornaments and structures that reflected social hierarchies and divisions of labour. A wonderful constant through this drift in time has been the striking hairless dog. The dogs that we saw at the ruins are technically related to those depicted in Chimu and Moche ceramics dating back to the middle of the eighth century. Apparently, they almost disappeared for some time only to become a desired breed once again among Peruvians we were passing on the streets just about a year ago.