The Inka site of Ollantaytambo, not far from Cusco, has all the usual stuff you find in well-preserved Inka sites–agricultural terraces, impressive waterworks, the occasional natural rock whose shape recalls the Inka Emperor’s profile, large structures for storing food, altars and temples and trapezoidal niches in walls for offerings to the gods, and of course the walls themselves, those amazing Inka walls in which all the stones fit together so wonderfully that they have survived all the earthquakes that have shaken the land in the last several centuries. All really cool stuff, and I would definitely recommend a visit, but, in a sense, same old same old.
What I mean to say is that I couldn’t really connect with Ollantaytambo the same way I connected with Machu Picchu, or Saqsayhuaman, near Cusco. Or even ancient and medieval places closer to home: Stonehenge, for example, whose huge stones, which I was able to experience up close on an archaeology fieldtrip four years ago, completely blew my mind with their size and age. Or this tiny, obscure Medieval church in Bologna (Italy), part of the Seven Churches complex, which feels like you’ve just missed, by a matter of minutes, its congregation of golden-bearded and -tressed people, with their funky helmets and animal pelts. (I’m thinking Middle Earth-type Rohirrim here, by the way, not so much actual ancient inhabitants of the city).
But Ollantaytambo clearly feels alive to someone, in the same way in which Stonehenge, or that little church, feel to me. As you can see in the above photo, the site rests on the slopes of a hill, and I decided, after my guided tour ended, to climb the hill, as far up and as far beyond the ruins as possible. And it was by doing so that I came across what I can only imagine is a modern-day offering–this vast collection of old polaroids, scattered all over the weird high-altitude vegetation, sometimes almost melted into clumps or bleached almost completely white by the sun’s rays. There were so many of them, every time I thought I’d seen the last one I’d climb a bit further and find more. A closer look revealed that they were all pictures of the same person: a child, which then grew up into a handsome teenager, shown riding his skateboard, smiling, making faces, and so on. And each photo was marked with a large-ish golden sun.
It was simultaneously spooky and compelling. Part of me was uncomfortable with the discovery–it felt a bit too much like intruding into someone’s private life and beliefs. Part of me feels uncomfortable writing about this in a blog that anyone can find online–in fact, if anyone’s reading this who is planning to visit Ollantaytambo, please don’t remove any of the polaroids from the site, if you decide to look for them.
Was the person who left the polaroids at Ollantaytambo symbolically sacrificing their own son? or were they symbolically sacrificing their own childhood? or what? and why?
It seems a fairly common practice, in Peru, to leave offerings to ancient monuments. At Saqsayhuaman, the keen-eyed visitor will be able to observe coca leaves left at the foot of massive Inka walls, or scattered, here and there, on the floor of a (now dry) artificial pond. And I’ve heard that, at an excavation that was going on in parallel to my own this summer, when one of the volunteer diggers fell ill, some thought it was because an offering had not been made to the site itself. These are the modern-day remnants of the Pre-Columbian belief that certain places, including both human-made structures and natural formations, possess a kind of life force that makes them a bit like gods. These places are known as huacas.
The polaroids completely altered my experience of Ollantaytambo. I was suddenly acutely aware of how alone I was atop the hill: the surrounding towns and fields had shrunken to abstract geometric patterns way down below me, and most of the other tourists probably didn’t even know you could go where I was. It was just me and the sun and the huaca. And the Andean vegetation, which, as I mentioned above, is fairly weird–it kind of looked, I realised, like underwater vegetation, only several meters above sea level, and variously dried, scorched, or bleached by the sun. Turquoise moss, little phosphorescent-like green tufts, dark-red tendrils creeping out of cracks between rocks, starfish-like purple and white things, pale cacti like those tube-like organisms that thrive in the deepest recesses of the ocean, and so on. And there was the occasional stump that looked a bit like it had a face (left), and someone, presumably previous visitors, had left stone circles and piles of stones, which, if I’d been a superstitious Medieval peasant, at that point I’d not have hesitated to attribute to gnomes and/or faeries.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe it’s that, to truly understand a site, it’s not sufficient to learn what every single thing in it is, but you have to experience the site–the place–at some deep, visceral level as well. After all, it is most likely that the ancient inhabitants didn’t think of the place as temple+altars+terraces+waterworks+etc., but thought of it, simply, as Ollantaytambo, or Stonehenge, or Machu Picchu, places with their particular meaning and atmosphere and energy. It feels like an obvious thing to point out, though maybe it isn’t–in fact, I think it is easy to forget this when you’ve taken a million tours of ancient sites and you start thinking of them as collections/combinations of the different spots/structures/objects that are deemed noteworthy enough to merit a little speech by the guide. However, if there are readers out there who have been inspired to think very different thoughts by this piece, I’d love, as always, to hear them in the comments section below!