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South America Sample Essay

South America


The paper analyzes the Citadel of Machu Picchu and the ancient city of Teotihuacan that attract many tourists all over the world. These mysterious places have been exciting archeologists and historians for centuries because Machu Picchu and Teotihuacan have a great historical and cultural value. An interesting and extensively discussed fact is the relation between mythology, architecture and religion of American civilizations. The paper presents numerous facts indicating that many features of the Inca and Aztec architecture were influenced by religious and mythological concepts. For instance, the schemes of most ancient American cities seem to be influenced not only by the cardinal directions but also by their mythological meanings in the Incas’ and Aztecs’ culture. These cities were constructed to resemble a microcosm displaying two different worlds: the underworld and the world which was inhabited by people. The paper accentuates its attention on religious beliefs of the Inca and Aztec people and how they shaped the layout of Machu Picchu and Teotihuacan; it also compares the two religious beliefs and their influence on these ancient cities.

Keywords: Incas, Aztecs, Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan, religion, pyramids, architecture, culture, deities

Mesoamerican and South American architecture is famous for its ceremonial and urban monumental structures, including pyramids, temples and tombs. This architecture encompasses various historical and regional styles, which developed throughout the different periods of history due to cultural exchange between the different American cultures for thousands of years. It is important to research mythological beliefs of ancient American civilizations to better understand the influence of their religion on the architecture.

The Incas had a polytheistic belief system, which meant that they worshipped many gods. The Incas believed that their emperors were demigods, those who have a connection with the gods. There was a supreme god, Viracocha, the creator of the Universe. According to Incas, the Sun was the father of their emperor while the Moon was the wife of the Sun. Another main god was Inti, the god of the Sun. He was represented through such symbols as the golden disk and the seated boy, called Punchao, with rays projected from his head. The Incas considered that Inti had offspring on Earth and it was the royal family. The Incas held many ceremonies and rituals for this god. Many Inca settlements throughout their empire had a Sun Temple. The Incas used religious objects, held rituals on sacred places such as rocks, mountain peaks, caves etc. Religious ceremonies of the Incas followed their calendar, which consisted of twelve lunar months. Every month the Incas had colorful festivals.

The Incas believed in life after death, they cared for the dead, whom they had embalmed and mummified before burial. After that, the relatives brought different objects and food to the tombs of the dead. The Incas thought that the deceased could use these objects in the afterlife. After the emperor’s death, the priests came to the tomb and tried to talk to the dead monarch. It is thought that the priests were able to communicate with the soul of their emperor who was in heaven. The Incas held sacrifices, in most cases they sacrificed animals and sometimes humans.

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The Incas used divination. It was used to inform people of events, and to predict battle results. The Incas believed in duality; according to their mythology, there were two realms, the upper realm (which was inhabited by the gods of the sun, moon etc.) and the lower realm (the earth mother).

Machu Picchu is a 15th-century site which belongs to the Inca culture located high in the mountains of Peru. Yet, like many ancient cities of America, it was mysteriously abandoned. The name of the city may be interpreted as “old peak.” Its main structures are the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows, which were dedicated to Inti, the Sun god. Another place, The Popular District, included buildings and houses of lower-class people.

The Inti Watana ritual stones are arranged to point at the sun during the winter solstice. The Incas believed that these stones held the sun in its place during its annual path in the sky. Experts think that it was built as a calendar or an astronomic clock. As it can be observed, the Incas paid much attention to the rituals connected with the Sun, and their religious beliefs had an influence on the construction of Machu Picchu.

Ritual caves Inti Mach’ay were designed to celebrate the festival called the Royal Feast of the Sun. It was celebrated by the Inca nobility and was associated with the winter solstice in December. This cave includes walls, steps, entrances, and windows. Inti Mach’ay also includes a tunnel-like window. It is considered that the window was constructed to allow the sunlight into the cave for certain days during the time of the December solstice. For this reason, the cave was inaccessible for much time of the year (Dearborn, Schreiber & White, 1987).

There are several theories about the use of Machu Picchu. According to an American explorer H. Bingham (1922), Machu Picchu was the last city of the Inca. This theory is considered to be outdated. Later archeologists discovered that the actual last city was Espíritu Pampa. Another theory suggests that the site might have been a temple which was devoted to the priestess and Virgins of the Sun who dedicated their lives to the Sun god. This hypothesis is dubious because in spite of prevalence of female skeletons, male skeletons were also later found in this place. Many historians believe that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat; this theory was proposed in 1980s. According to J. Reinhard (2007), Machu Picchu was built with religious motives. The place is encircled by the river which was considered to be sacred for the Incas. The rising and setting of the sun aligns with the mountains which were of high religious importance during the periods of solstices and equinoxes. Today one can say that this place served as an astronomic observatory, a center of worship and a rest place of the royal family.

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Another prominent American civilization was the Aztecs who lived in Mesoamerica and whose peak of cultural development lasted from the 14th to 16th centuries. The Aztecs were famous for their architecture. Teotihuacan was one of the most interesting and prominent cities of this civilization in the pre-Columbian times. Aztec religion had elements of human sacrifice, which occurred much more often than in Incas’ religious ceremonies. Aztecs’ religion had a large pantheon, according to their cosmology the world consisted of the upper and nether worlds. Celestial objects held different symbolic meanings and were connected to various deities. The Aztecs had a developed calendar system. This calendar included two cycles: the first cycle consisted of 356 days, and the second one was ritual and consisted of 260 days. The most significant deities of Aztec pantheon were Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war, Tlaloc, the god of rain, Quetzalcoatl, the god of civilization and order, Tezcatlipoca, the god of destiny, and others. All these gods had their own temples in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The recreation of the divine was a usual religious practice: mythological events were recreated by priests, they also impersonated specific deities.

Religion played a crucial role in the Aztec society. Religion was controlled by the high priests who governed the main temples in the capital of the Aztec empire Tenochtitlan. They held festivals and religious rituals that involved human sacrifice. Aztec temples were built in the form of step pyramids, each pyramid had two staircases. In front of a temple lay a large plaza. Aztecs believed that the world consisted of three parts: the earth which was inhabited by people, an underworld which belonged to the dead, and the upper world in the sky.

Teotihuacan was one of the most notable cities of the ancient times built on the American continent. It is located not far from Mexico City. It was a densely populated, important and well organized city for hundreds of years. Though it may seem in some way inappropriate to call Teotihuacan an Aztec city, because the city had been founded around 1600 years before the time the empire of Aztecs was at its height. According to Thelma D. Sullivan, the name of the city may be interpreted as a “place of those who have the road of the gods” (Millon, 1993).

The city was splendidly constructed and included religious, residential and other buildings. There were two temples, the pyramid (temple) of the sun is thought to be one of the earliest buildings in the city. Around 750AD the city lost its previous power. Later Teotihuacan became an important city to the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed that the current age began with the building of Teotihuacan. They named the two temples after the sun and the moon. Teotihuacan was not only a sacred city for the Aztecs but also a political and trade center. The population of this city practiced human sacrifice, the victims might have been enemy warriors captured in a battle. The central avenue of the city called “Avenue of the Dead” is surrounded by great ceremonial buildings, such as the Pyramid of the Sun. The layout and position of the pyramids is often compared to the pyramids at Giza and Orion. Further down the Avenue there is a large plaza which is called the Citadel. It was surrounded by temples which formed religious and political district of Teotihuacan. The geographical position of the city is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition concerning the planning of cities in connection with the Universe and the movement of celestial objects. The inhabitants of the city used the alignment of the sunlight as a marker for planting crops or performing religious rituals. Similar architectural peculiarities are also observed in the layout of Machu Picchu. According to another hypothesis, the site might have been oriented with the tallest mountain in the area. Pecked-cross circles which are found in the city and in its surroundings show how the inhabitants maintained the urban grid over long distances. It also gave them a possibility to orient the pyramids to the certain mountain that was invisible from their place. There is a large enclosed compound, the Ciudadela, which could hold about 100,000 people. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was situated in the center of the Ciudadela and was flanked by the houses of the nobility. The aim of the compound’s design is to overwhelm the visitors.

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As it can be seen from the above mentioned facts, both the Incas and the Aztecs paid much attention to the solar deities. Both religions were polytheistic and had various rituals performed by priests. Though these cultures had many common features such as building of pyramids, human sacrifices, some of the religious aspects, still there were differences, these cultures rose and fell at different reasons. Indian civilizations of America shared much with each other.

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Religious beliefs of both cultures had an influence on their architecture, including Machu Picchu and Teotihuacan. Both of these cities had temples dedicated to the main gods, for instance the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu or the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan. As it was mentioned, both cultures worshipped sun deities, and it is traced in the layout of these cities. With the help of the sunlight people could determine the solstice, perform rituals, and plant crops. Both cities performed not only a secular function but were religious centers as well.

These two sites are of a great architectural value and historical significance. Tourists from different countries come to Peru and Mexico to visit these ancient sacred places. Great temples, monuments, complexes, plazas may be considered to be architectural masterpieces.