Incan Empire Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Incan Empire was one of the largest in the world in its heyday. In this lesson, we'll explore the architecture of this empire and see how the Inca managed to create their cities in the mountains.

The Incan Empire

In Europe, the Roman Empire stretched across the continent and filled the land with their roads, temples, and culture. In Asia, China's influence stretched far and wide, and later the Mongols managed to unify the entire continent under their control. In South America, the group to dominate the continent and define the very notion of civilization was the Incan Empire. The Inca were a Quechua-speaking peoples of the Andes Mountains, who developed a major civilization in the 13th century. In 1438, the kingdom of the Inca started a military conquest of the Andes, eventually becoming largest empire in the Western Hemisphere. Like the Romans and the Chinese, the Inca filled their empire with a refined architectural style, creating a civilization fit to rule a continent.

An Incan city
Incan city

Incan Architecture

The Inca were generally an urban people, and took advantage of the opportunities which the Andes provided to fill the mountain range full of cities. Now, before we talk about specific elements, there are a few important things to remember. First, the Inca were living and working in some extreme conditions. For example, the capital city of the empire, Cusco, was situated at over 11,000 feet in elevation on the side of jagged mountain cliffs. Second, the Inca created their civilization without a few things many others had, including the wheel and a system of writing. Creating a massive, urban civilization without these things was not easy, but the Inca managed. They may have found other ways to record their information, such as knotted chords, or had very refined oral traditions. We do know that they weren't the first to build elaborate structures in the mountains, they seem to have inherited a lot from the ancient Tiwanaku culture of the Andean highlands, but the Inca tradition is nonetheless quite impressive.

Incan Structures

Despite the fact that the empire stretched for roughly 300,000 square miles over a variety of terrains, and that they had no formal writing system, Incan architecture is marked by a very high degree of consistency. Most Incan structures were rectangular stone structures with a single entryway and no interior walls or supports. Roofs, therefore, were thatched grasses and wood, which were often sloped to prevent rainwater from accumulating. From modest homes of Incan farmers to the palaces of the divine Incan emperor, this was the basic model of an Incan structure. The only real variable was the size (the emperor's palace was quite a bit bigger).

Most Incan structures shared a common form
Incan city

These rectangular structures were often built in groups of three or more, centered around a walled open-air courtyard. This arrangement is called a kancha, and was very common. Incan structures were rarely built in isolation or one at a time, but rather were built as part of grander urban planning programs. Their designs were meant to utilize the tight spaces in the jagged mountains as efficiently as possible.

In addition to the palaces, homes, temples, and government buildings that generally followed this rectangular pattern, the Incans developed many other impressive architectural feats as well. The cities were set with impressive entryways. Furthermore, viewing platforms called ushnu were central features of every city. Roads connected Incan cities over miles of peaks and valleys. Incan builders also had to perfect the art of building retaining walls. Why? It wasn't for defense- most battles of the Andes were fought in agreed upon locations away from cities- it was for agriculture. A large, urban population needs lots of food, and wide-open plains are hard to come by in the Andes. For this reason, Incan engineers developed stepped platforms running up and down the sides of the mountains where the Incan farmers could grow their crops.

Stepped terraces made agriculture possible but were a unique construction challenge

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