Special UNESCO status sought to protect the 600-year-old Inca Trail; the effort has special significance for Cuenca

Jun 21, 2014

Editor’s note:

To support a proposal that the Inca Trail be granted UNESCO World Heritage status, members of Cuenca’s city government walked 20 kilometers of the 600-year-old road network on Saturday morning. The trail, called Qhapac Nan by the Incas, is also known at Camino Inca.

Cuenca’s support for the special designation of Qhapac Nan is nothing new. Mayor Marcelo Cabrero, in fact, supported the idea during his first term as mayor in 2007, sending a formal proposal to UNESCO officials at the time.

In addition to Cabrera, city councilman Monserrath Tello, chair of the city’s culture committee, has been active in the cause and participated in the Saturday walk that began at Gapal, headed for the Pachamama plateau in Llacao parish.

Qhapac Nan is especially important in the Cuenca area, where it breaks into several branchs, signifying the city’s importance to the Inca. Cuenca, or Tomebamba as it was known in Inca times, was the birthplace of Huayna Capac, the last leader of a unified Inca Empire. Huayna Capac began to build Cuenca into the northern capital of the Empire, a project that ended with the Spanish Conquest in the early 1500s.

By Ralph Bluenthal

It is an engineering marvel of antiquity, comparable, experts say, to the Roman road system, but more remarkable for the rugged terrain it has traversed for more than 3,000 years.

The Qhapaq Ñan, or “great road,” has long connected the peoples of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile as it winds for thousands of miles down the Pacific Coast of South America, through snow-capped Andean peaks, tropical rain forests and desert.

chl inca roadsLinking Cuzco, the Incan capital in present-day Peru, to the furthest outposts of the Incan empire, it carried traders, soldiers and runners, and later the horses of the conquistadors. In Ecuador, the road system splits into divergent branches near present-day Cuenca and Quito, an indication of those cities’ importance in the Inca empire’s heyday.

Now, in a 12-year cooperative effort that is its own delicate feat of engineering, the six long-squabbling countries that are home to the Incan road have banded together to ask the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to designate the network a World Heritage site this week. The road is one of 12 natural and cultural attractions recommended for recognition by the Unesco World Heritage Committee, which is meeting in Doha, Qatar. The application is by far the most elaborate on the list, and drew from reports by hundreds of experts who studied particular snippets of the road network or associated monuments in the various countries.

“It’s the most expansive piece of infrastructure relating to transportation in the New World,” said Gary Urton, professor of pre-Columbian studies and chairman of the anthropology department at Harvard University.

A designation marks a site as a place of central significance, one worthy of special measures to protect it. Countries submitting sites pledge they will follow strict conservation protocols in hopes of gaining prestige, a tourism bump and sometimes financial support.

Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology atOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Harvard and an expert on Peru who just returned from a university excursion there, said placement on the heritage list clearly helps promote sites as important travel destinations. “Machu Picchu and the Galápagos are on everybody’s bucket list,” he said.

The biggest threats to the road network today are encroachment from farms, particularly tractor plowing, as well as communication towers and transmission lines, urban development and mining, according to the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a professional group that evaluates submissions to the heritage committee.

“Parts of it have been adapted to modern means of transport and have been asphalted or even converted to motorway,” the evaluation said. “Larger sections remain in their original materials of the Incan era and are used by pedestrians and with riding animals, in particular horses, donkeys and mules.”

Although the selection of the road as a site is expected, the decision is not final until the 21-member committee votes, and political jockeying is not unknown. The panel recently removed from the list an emergency nomination from chl pumapungoPalestinian officials: the cultural landscape of Battir in Southern Jerusalem. The committee said that upon reconsideration it did not consider the site “unquestionably of outstanding universal value” and did not agree that it faced an emergency requiring immediate safeguarding.

Sites remaining on the list for designation include sections of the Silk Roads in China; Judean caves in Israel; a French cave with prehistoric art in the Ardèche; and the Rani-ki-Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, from the 11th and 12th centuries in Gujarat, India. Of the sites up for consideration, the road is the only one for which so many countries have made a concerted effort to protect a shared legacy. The six countries have a history of border wars in the 19th century, and violent conflict between Peru and Ecuador continued well into the 20th century.

Since the 1972 World Heritage Convention, 981 sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Past projects called success stories by the committee include the Giza pyramids of Egypt, Delphi in Greece, Angkor in Cambodia, and Dubrovnik in Croatia. Earlier Unesco efforts helped salvage the temples of Abu Simbel, Egypt, and flood-threatened Venice.

Present-day Peru, where the short-lived Inca empire reached its apotheosis in the century before the Spanish conquest in 1532, has some 100,000 notable archaeological sites, according to Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, an archaeologist who is Peru’s deputy minister of culture. They include the mountain redoubt of Machu Picchu, explored a century ago by Hiram Bingham of Yale, said to be the model for Hollywood’s Indiana Jones.

The road is not as famous as Machu Picchu but is striking both in its size and its evidence of early engineering acumen. Particularly noteworthy is the last remaining Inca rope bridge, the 500-year-old Qeswachaka Bridge of woven grass over the Apurímac River canyon about four hours’ drive south of Cuzco.

The world heritage nomination of the Qhapaq Ñan (pronounced ca-pac NYAN in the Quechua language of the Incas) is extremely complicated, involving evaluations of 137 sections of the network embodying 273 components, including temples, funerary towers, fortresses and wayside inns, covering about 435 miles of the original 20,000. Only those 435 miles would be designated.

The road system began forming as trails as early as 1000 B.C., Professor Urton at Harvard said, and was developed into a complex network by the Incas in the 15th century A.D., so it was in use for nearly 2,500 years, 3,000 if calculated to the present day.

The Incas, who underwent a spectacular rise to found the largest pre-Columbian empire in South America, expanded these routes into the road network to unite their territory through Cuzco and serve a population of 40,000 spread over thousands of miles, the monuments council evaluation found. Runners carried administrative reports in the form of knotted ropes — the Incas had no written language — traders bought and sold gold and copper, seashells, weapons, feathers, wood, cocoa and textiles, and fresh fish from the Pacific.

After the conquistadors arrived from the north in 1526, they used the roads to subdue the Incas, driving them into remote mountain territories.

“The road network was the life giving support to the Inca Empire integrated into the Andean landscape,” the researchers said.

Dr. Castillo Butters, the Peruvian minister, said that his country has in recent years gained world renown for its cuisine and that, similarly, recognition of the road could begin to change perceptions about its past.

“Our kids are starting to think of ancient Peruvians as great cooks,” he said, “when they should think of them as great engineers.”

Credit: The New York Times, www.nytimes.com; Graphic: Map of the Inca road system; In Ecuador and Peru, the trail is a popular route for hikers; Cuenca’s Pumapungo temple grounds, birthplace of Huayna Capac, the last king of a unified Incan Empire. 

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