Monday, July 24, 2006

The Navel of the World.

That´s what the Incas called Cusco, the erstwhile imperial capital where I spent most of the past week. I haven't researched the reasons behind the 'navel' designation, but I wonder whether it has something to do with the city's geography. An Andean metropolis that is home to nearly half a million people, Cusco sprawls across a bowl-like valley surrounded by mountains. I suppose that the valley containing Cusco could be seen as a navel in the midst of a very mountainous stomach. Given the important role that Cusco played in the political, religious and social life of the Incas, it may also be surmised that the city was the navel at which everyone in the empire gazed. I hope that any scholars with knowledge of the real meaning of the 'navel' title will forgive my fanciful musings.

Cusco is a profoundly Catholic city, filled with Spanish colonial churches, convents and religious monuments. Cusco is a place where one can see nuns in habit walking down the street and boys removing their hats and making the sign of the cross as they pass churches. It's also a place where many restaurants and shops routinely close on Sunday, opting to observe the Sabbath rather than stay open to serve the hordes of tourists who maintain a year-round presence in the city. Cusco's Plaza de Armas (pictured above) bears vivid witness to the Church's cultural dominion over the city, as prominent churches front on two sides of the square - the Cathedral (left) and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (right). Considered one of the most architecturally significant Spanish churches in Peru, La Compania is also a fine example of the style of "Jesuit baroque" characteristic of many of the churches established by the pre-Suppression Society. For my part, I have to admit that La Compania is one of the most beautiful churches I've seen in Peru - which is saying a lot, as this country has a lot of lovely old churches.

Though La Compania exercises physical dominance over Cusco's central square, other factors suggest that Cusco is much more of a Dominican town than a Jesuit one. The Dominican presence in Cusco began with Friar Vicente de Valverde, who arrived in the city with Francisco Pizarro in 1533 and later became Peru's first Catholic bishop. Following the Spanish conquest, the Dominicans established a church in Cusco on the site of the city's most important Inca temple, Koricancha. This church, Santo Domingo, still exists - in fact, I attended a bilingual Spanish/Quechua Mass there yesterday morning. Much more sensitive to native culture than their 16th-century predecessors, the friars who staff Santo Domingo today not only offer services in the language of the Incas but also operate an excellent museum preserving some of the ruins of Koricancha as well as a fine selection of 17th and 18th-century religious paintings and other artifacts. (For some good pictures of Koricancha and Santo Domingo, click here.) Not to be outdone by the friars, Dominican women also have a notable presence in Cusco. A block away from Cusco's Plaza de Armas one can find the convent of Santa Catalina, a colonial foundation where a group of cloistered Dominican nuns follow a strict routine of common and individual prayer (and bake cookies, which are offered for sale at the entrance to the convent). Around the corner from Santo Domingo, two separate congregations of Dominican sisters (one named for Santa Rosa de Lima, the other for the Immaculate Conception) operate girls' schools - right next door to one another. On the grounds of one of these schools - the Colegio Santa Rosa de Lima - the Dominicans run a hostel, which is where the novices of Loyola House stayed during our time in Cusco. For all the old jokes about animosity between Dominicans and Jesuits, the sisters were very gracious hosts and treated our group very well. In fact, I'd be very happy to stay with them again, and I'd recommend their hostel to others seeking lodging in Cusco.

During our time in Cusco, we also made visits to Machu Picchu and various other Inca historical sites in the area known as the Sacred Valley. There's a lot more I could say about this, as well as about my stay in Cusco (for example, there's a great German restaurant there that I visited a couple times). However, I had better stop here as we're leaving for the airport in a few minutes. Once I've gotten back to the States and had an opportunity to get reacclimated, hopefully I'll have a chance to share more about my time in Peru. If I don't have that chance, I hope my readers will be content with the assurance that I had a great month in the country and look forward to spending more time there. AMDG.


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