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Chan Chan - A Magnificent Pile of Mud
 

Chan Chan - the city of mud
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When we think of mud we're usually reminded of bad, rainy weather, mud wrestling or even mud baths, but...GREAT CITIES? The city of Chan Chan here in Peru is the largest adobe, or mud city, in the world! It was also the capital city of the Chimu Empire, which controlled the entire coastal region of Peru stretching from the northern border town of Tumbes down to Lima.

Chan Chan was built over time, beginning about 900 AD, until it was taken over by the Inca in the late fifteenth century. During those six hundred years the Chimu built at least nine palaces in honor of their kings. Even more palaces were probably built, but then destroyed by war. When a king died, his eldest son would take over and become the new king. The old palaces would remain intact but would function only as tombs or temples while the city leaders would move on to a newly built palace for the next king. The new king only inherited power, but none of the old king's possessions, so in addition to building himself a new palace, the next ruler had to go out and conquer more people to obtain gold for himself. At the height of the Chimu Empire, there were as many as 50,000 inhabitants in Chan Chan, and countless gold, silver, and ceramic treasures were created in the region.

Our guide explains some of the history of this labyrinth of mud
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Our guide, Alfredo, led us through the Tschudi Palace, which is the only palace open to visitors. It was named after a Swiss scientist who visited Peru in the 1800's and it is also the only palace that has been restored.

These walls were made wider at the base, using larger stones mixed with the mud, while they narrowed at the top, making them sturdy and high. Leaving some space between stones let them move a little if there was an earthquake.
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Chan Chan was built next to the sea for easy protection from enemies, but they put the entrances far away from the sea so the city walls could successfully shield it from the winds blowing in from the ocean. As we approached the Tschudi Palace, we noticed a few other defense systems protecting the palace. Between two large hills in front of the palace, a great wall once stood which was built as the first line of defense. The only opening to the palace was narrow in order to keep the number of invading forces to a minimum even if they actually penetrated the towering walls. Then, as soon as we entered we had to turn either left or right, since there was no direct way in but rather a series of winding corridors to follow. It felt like entering a maze, which would also be good for confusing the enemy.

Click image for larger view
Mighty Kevin poses in front of the symbol of power!
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The palace was divided into two distinct sections. The first section, near the entrance, was public and the second one was private and therefore more protected. The public area had a ceremonial square, a religious square, and administrative rooms which dealt with the daily bureaucracy of running an empire, including receiving and storing taxes and donations to the kings, such as beans, potatoes, gold, silver, and textiles. The private section of the Palace is where the king had his family quarters, and where members of the administrative offices lived as well. Craftspeople, who made works of art for the king out of precious metals and pottery, also lived in the Palace.

As we entered the ceremonial square, we noticed a symmetrical design that looked like two inverted sets of stairs carved out of the wall. For the Chimu this was a sign of the power and authority of the king. There were also other designs which showed that the environment was very important to the Chimu, including a sea otter. There are no more sea otters around here, and the Chimu knew it was becoming extinct, so it was very important to them as well as other fish, birds and symbols that represented tides and fisherman's nets.

Can you identify the otters? Hint: They aren't wearing floppy hats!
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The detail of the relief has worn away over the centuries, like many parts of the palace, due to rain and flooding. The relief work is now being restored and even recreated so that people can see what it was meant to look like. During their time, the Chimu used juices from cactus plants, which acted like glue to cover and protect the forms in the reliefs.

The moon held special religious significance for the Chimu. Their principal god was the god of the moon called Si. Eclipses of the sun were celebrated as the triumph of the moon over the sun, whereas lunar eclipses were associated with sad events such as death. Inside the Tschudi Palace there was an enormous pool or reservoir, which drew water from a spring under the ground. The Chimu may have used this pool to honor the moon, its reflection could clearly be seen in the water. With the sun beating down on me, I kept wishing the pool were still filled with water for me to swim in. There was also a religious square for tributes to the moon in which idols and other offerings were left.

And the fish go up, and the fish go down, just like the tides!
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After the kings died, it was traditional for them to be buried as mummies in their palaces. They were buried with their pottery and sometimes with a dog, since it was believed that a dog had the power to foresee the king's death and then guide the king to the next world.

On a grislier note, just like in the Moche culture, servants and concubines were sacrificed in honor of the king's death and buried along with him. Sometimes these poor folks were also sacrificed to the gods. Many were decapitated with the use of the tumi, or ceremonial knife, but others were poisoned, and buried alive, after which they would suffocate to death. About 80% of the people who were sacrificed were women.

No one knows exactly how Chan Chan lost its importance in this area after the Incas conquered the Chimu around 1470. Apparently, Chimu King Minchancaman retained symbolic power but was moved to Cuzco along with many of the imperial artisans, which allowed the Inca to take over Chan Chan peacefully. However, the people of Chimu increasingly resented the occupation until a major Chimu revolt occurred about twenty years later, at which time the city was strategically abandoned by the Inca. The Chimu eventually dispersed or were incorporated into the Inca Empire.

Kevin

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