The ancient ruins of Volubilis near Meknes, Morocco, are one of the best preserved of the ancient Roman Empire. Only partially excavated and surrounded by wheat fields, the Romans established a colony on this southeastern edge of the empire before finally being abandoned in the third century.
Streets in the old part of Ollantaytambo are narrow, cobble-stoned, inaccessible to cars and trucks. Along one side, water flows in ancient Inca canals, still used today, no more than a foot wide. Quechua is spoken more than Spanish. Life goes on here as it has for centuries. There is no indication that less than a half mile away, a crush of tourists descend everyday on the railway station to board trains for Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that Ollantaytambo has some of the most impressive megalithic ruins in the world.
That Ollantaytambo lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu is why it gets short shrift by tourists who’d rather spend their time at those popular destinations. A shame really because Ollanta, which locals call it for short, has its own important history and architecture. The town used to be the royal estate of emperor Pachacutec. It was here in 1537 that during the Inca rebellion, Manko Inka Yupanqui defeated an invading Spanish army led by Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s half-brother. Like a spectacular movie battle scene, volleys of arrows, slingshots, spears and stones rained down on the Spanish troops from high terraces and water flooded the valley that the Incas somehow diverted from Rio Urubamba. Despite the historic battle, Fortaleza de Ollantaytambo had more than a defensive purpose.
This was the first town in Peru where my wife and I stayed last year (2016), following the Amazon rain forest. Like all tourists, we were here to take the train to Machu Picchu. Still, I was also looking forward to spending a day to see ancient megalithic ruins that some regard as the equal of any in the world. No matter where we walked, The Fortress, as it’s sometimes called, loomed over the entire town.
The first thing I noticed was the impressive terracing (andene) that looks from the bottom like one side of a gigantic stepped pyramid, an illusion of perspective. Andenes are one hallmark of Inca engineering.
A long stairway on the left side leads to the top. From anywhere along the climb, it’s easy to see why researchers think they served some agricultural purpose, much like the terracing at Moray; the surfaces are broad, deep and flat. Because they’re oriented toward the sun, it’s believed that the terraces were solar energy collectors to provide heat for crops, long after the sun set. Not only that, the resulting microclimates made it possible to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa at different altitudes.
Near the top, we turned left to a stairway that led past incredible stonework that I saw time and again in Peru. Immense, polygonal stones were fitted together with such precision that no mortar was necessary. This section contains The Ten Niches (Diez Hornacinas). Why go to so much trouble to build a ‘fortress?’ The complex must have served more important ceremonial or astronomic functions.
The Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) is the site’s stunning architectural achievement. Monoliths weighing up to 50 tons and rising 15ft (4.6m) high form a six-section wall made of pink granite (rhyolite), transported from the Cachicata quarry 4mi (6km) away, each stone separated from its neighbor by shim-like inserts. Again, the seams are unimaginably tight. How were these stones brought here across the 1000-ft (300m) deep Urubamba river valley and dressed so beautifully? These are not the handiwork of Bronze Age tools.
The wall might have once been part of a larger structure. Where’s the rest of it? I noticed the ground nearby littered with other gigantic pink stones. Some researchers suggest that the ‘temple’ was left unfinished when the Spanish invasion happened, others feel that the rubble was the aftermath of a massive earthquake or other catastrophe that toppled the structure long ago.
The rest of the complex consists of Inca-era walls, buildings and passageways of mortared field stones that, while impressive and extensive in scale, clearly don’t match the technical sophistication of Templo del Sol or Diez Hornacinas. Why is there such a big difference?
We wandered through this sprawling area until we got to an area called Inka Misana. The crowds were sparse. Most visitors don’t go through this part, though it’s not far from the main entrance. More large blocks of impressively finished stone were on the ground. Equally incredible were what appeared on the hillsides. You could even say, what didn’t appear. Large cubed sections had been skillfully and smoothly removed from solid rock, with no visible gouge marks, as if the stone were cut by some sort of machinery or unknown technology.
How in the world did the builders accomplish this? Certainly not with hammer and chisel. I’ve wondered before about the different building styles at Machu Picchu. I think the same applies here in Ollantaytambo. Is it so hard to imagine that different peoples may have been responsible for the three styles, the Incas being the most recent, calling into question everything we think we know about human history and its technological achievements?
Ollantaytambo should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
In 2009, we avoided it because of its remoteness and the difficulty of getting there on unpaved roads. This time, we reversed course and decided to visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park (a mouthful, but it used to be called Chaco Canyon National Monument). This is the mother lode of all ancient Puebloan ruins, having begun building early in the 9th century and thought to have served as a major crossroads to travel and trade with peoples as far away as Mesoamerica. It is one of the cultural and archaeological treasures of the National Park Service, yet no plans, let alone funds, have been drawn up to improve access or facilities. Is this a good thing or bad? Making it easier for more tourists to come—and come they will if given the chance—would certainly have a major impact. With only a small campground for overnight stays, the vast majority of travelers can only make this a day visit. Still, visitors come from all over the world.
During my Southwest trip-planning, I made sure to secure a campsite in advance.
Chaco boasts the largest preserved series of ancient Puebloan complexes. The architectural achievements alone are enough to marvel at. The scale and detail of the masonry are impressive. Five distinct styles can be seen that evolved over centuries, all using stone tools, eventually developing into a matrix of large sandstone blocks chinked with smaller stones set in mortar. To support the multi-levels above, the walls of some structures were built a yard thick at the base, then tapering as they went upward. Chaco shows signs that it had connections with civilizations as far south as Mesoamerica in some architectural influences, which means there must have been considerable travel and sharing of ideas over vast distances.
Pueblo Bonito, the most famous of the complexes, is estimated to have had around 600 rooms and 40 kivas, but archaeologists think that only a very few people lived there relative to its size, implying a residence for elites. Of course, this is all speculation because there was no written record left behind. There are other structures throughout the Chaco valley that seemed to have been inhabited by many more people. There is also evidence that Chaco engaged in trade with peoples to the south and in Mesoamerica. All this illustrates how much we don’t know about ancient America, the likely rich heritage and far-flung civilizations that left behind no records, all gone by the time Columbus arrived in the Americas. The Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and other tribes all claim ancestry to the Chacoans.
Damage to Chaco’s architecture, as throughout the Southwest, is extensive. Nature will takes its course since sandstone and mortar are not resistant to water and wind damage. We saw quite a few leaning structures or walls that tilted one way or the other. Behind Pueblo Bonito, a large sandstone block collapsed within the last 70 years that destroyed a back portion of the complex. It was called Threatening Wall for the longest time, and it lived up to its name. Humans, including early archaeologists, have also contributed to damage by removing or otherwise damaging some of the material, not to mention plundering ancient artifacts. One great 400-foot D-shaped wall behind Pueblo Bonito is supported by buttresses and modern cements used in places to prevent erosion, but there is internal debate within the Park Service as to how much it should intervene when modern-day Puebloans and Navajos urge that the structures be allowed to disintegrate on their own and “returned to the earth.”
To see the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl complex is to see the largest kiva ever constructed in the Southwest. It must have held hundreds of people during ceremonies, impressive in both scale and effort to create it. As a community, it was second in size to Pueblo Bonito, consisting of over 500 rooms.
To our complete surprise, we had the good fortune of serendipitously having timed our arrival with the autumnal equinox. The campground filled up fast with people who arrived for this very purpose. We got up early to observe this astronomical phenomenon. At dusk on the mornings of September 23 and 24, at Casa Riconada (another complex) as you gaze eastward through two portals that are aligned east-west, the sun rises precisely through the center of the portals. Also, the leading edge of a bluff on the horizon marks exactly where the sun will rise. Furthermore, looking westward over the easternmost wall, its portal shadow will frame the western portal dead center. No one can say for sure whether this feature was intentional or not, but it is compelling enough that a volunteer archaeo-astronomer spends quite a bit of time studying and giving lectures about all the astronomical alignments throughout Chaco.
We were originally going to spend two nights camping at Chaco but decided to move on after a single night of freezing temperatures and soul-deadening freeze-dried food. We’re wimping out in our old age. One phenomenon we got to experience was the heavenly vault of the Milky Way in all its glory, a sight we modern humans rarely get to see. There were no clouds or light pollution to obscure all the stars in the sky as well as the belt of clouds that comprise billions of stars at the outer edge of our galaxy. It was really humbling.
An hour north of Flagstaff lies Wupatki National Monument. From Page, it was a leisurely hour and a half drive to the entrance. There are some 800 ruins within the monument, a staggering number even if you expected a large settlement. Only a few are open to the public. The largest and most impressive, Wupatki Pueblo, is close to the visitors’ center and easily accessible by a short paved path. There are over 100 rooms in the structure, constructed of flat Moenkopi sandstone rocks that have a characteristic reddish color.
There is even a large “ball court” that anthropologists feel suggest an influence from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
There are curious “blowholes” throughout Wupatki whose ancient uses remain a mystery. Scientists explain that they are openings (or “cracks”) in the surface to underground sandstone chambers, possibly caused by earthquakes or shifting, that suck air in or blow it out, depending on outside temperatures. You could say that the earth is breathing.
Wupatki is linked to Sunset Crater by a loop road off Highway 89. It is generally thought that the ancients were driven from the Sunset Crater area, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation and therefore more verdant, when the crater exploded in the 11th century, and forced to settle in the more inhospitable Wupatki area to the north.
Not too far from Mesa Verde is a complex of ancient communities that was built at the headwaters of box canyons and situated in a remote area stretching across both Colorado and Utah—Hovenweep National Monument. We set aside a few hours to visit the monument en route to Blanding. We would have been able to spend more time here were it not for bogus directions by our GPS unit that led us to a back road far from the park entrance. While our Garmin guided us flawlessly throughout most of our trip, the lesson is not to rely solely on technology. After backtracking through Cortez, we got to Hovenweep the old-fashioned way — using a map.
With little time left in the day, the ranger at the visitors’ center recommended that we visit the Holly group of towers. But, to get there, with ranger-provided directions in hand, we had to find the correct unimproved road off Route 10 and drive in over 8 miles of rutted, washboarded dirt road to reach the trailhead.
Much of what remains in Hovenweep National Monument are multi-storied towers, similar to those on display at Mesa Verde. Like all ancient ruins throughout the Southwest, their placement on sites normally unsuitable for habitation puzzles archaeologists. They speculate that they served defensive purposes based on the small sizes of their windows (almost like peepholes) and tight entry portals. A curious architectural variation here is that many towers have a “D”-shaped cross-section for reasons unknown. It seems logical that because these complexes were built next to seeps or natural springs in this generally arid environment, it would be reason enough to defend them against competitors at a time when an extended drought plagued the region.
A few towers were built on the most inexplicable foundations, such as on top of huge boulders or irregular rock slabs. Boulder House is one example. In fact, one tower was erected on an immense boulder that probably fell eons ago.
The trail connects to the one featuring the Horseshoe and Hackberry groups. The Twin Towers are notable for their elaborate masonry and respective shapes, one like a “D” and the other an oval.
Of all the beautiful flora we saw in the wild, the most spectacular had to be the claret cup cactus (also known as the hedgehog cactus). It is the most photographed cactus in the Southwest for its splendid scarlet color that can easily be spotted along the trails. Hummingbirds, primary pollinators of the claret cup, get their heads covered with pollen when reaching the nectar deep inside the flower. The finest example we came across was here in Hovenweep, a single cluster that immediately caught our eye. Since the flowers only last for a few days, we were lucky to have seen a few.
You hear a lot about the Southwest’s ancient cliff dwellings and wonder what they are about. What possessed the builders to create these permanent and elaborate structures in such inaccessible places? We ventured out to the most famous complex of them all, Mesa Verde National Park, to look at them first hand. To see these complexes up close is a remarkable experience. Fortunately, the warnings to expect huge crowds of tourists never materialized, in all likelihood because the peak season hadn’t quite begun yet.
The drive from Cortez or Mancos, the closest towns, to the park’s attractions is time-consuming. Past the park entrance, it’s another 14 miles and a climb to 8,000 ft on a winding road before reaching the visitors’ center. At the recommended speed limit, this takes about a half hour. If you plan to visit Mesa Verde for a few days and want to avoid this drive every day, my recommendation is to stay at the Far View Lodge in the park. We stayed in Mancos for the first night before getting a room at the Far View. Before moving, we had the good fortune of enjoying a wonderful breakfast at the Absolute Bakery in town.
Three of the ruins require advance ticket purchases ($3 per adult) and are led by park rangers. We were able to get on two tours (Cliff House and Balcony House). Long House is located in a section of the park that was closed due to staffing limitations, no doubt a reflection of the unfortunate budgetary constraints placed on our national park system.
Cliff House (top photo) is said to have 217 rooms and 23 kivas, making it the largest complex. As we wandered through here on the guided tour, we marveled at the size and sophistication of the architecture and the quality of the masonry. Though this and other ruins have endured since their construction in the 13th century, it’s sad that before their protection many artifacts were removed and many of the walls vandalized, some even knocked down, by thoughtless tourists.
Balcony House was built on a smaller scale than Cliff House. It has far fewer rooms, about 35 to 40 and is so named because of its preserved balcony. The other unique aspects of this tour are the modes of ingress and egress. To get to the ruins, you descend a 32-foot ladder that vertically scales the cliffside. And, in order to leave, you crawl on hands and knees through a tight space (claustrophobes beware!) and finally climb a 60-foot ladder.
Spruce Tree House is experienced on a self-guided tour (no charge) that features a kiva with a restored roof. It is the third largest complex with about 130 rooms and 8 kivas.
In Mesa Verde, it is possible to see the evolution of the types of community construction. The park’s various archaeological sites clearly show a progression from the sixth-century pithouses …
… to the more elaborate pithouses of the 8th- through 10th-centuries …
… to the final forms — the rooms, towers and kivas — for which the Puebloans are now famous.
Archaeologists are still not sure why the more elaborate structures were built in virtually inaccessible alcoves just below the mesa tops. Though there is evidence that people lived on the mesa tops, did conditions change during the 13th-century to force families to move to protected alcoves, a possible hint that warfare became more prominent?
There are other mysteries, too. Why, for example, were many openings built T-shaped? One proffered explanation is to provide easy passage for people carrying loads on their backs, but really no one knows for sure.
And why were the axis-lines through the firepit, ventilator hole and sipapu aligned precisely south? To serve an astronomical function?
Incredibly, there are some 4,700 known archeological sites in the park.
The Puzzling Departure: No one knows for sure where the Ancient Puebloans went after they abandoned their cliff communities. The current thinking is that they migrated to lower ground and became the pueblo tribes of today. But the mystery of their departure remains. Although the theory of a serious drought has been popular, many archaeologists now have doubts that this is a viable single reason.
The emergence from an extinction event: You can’t help but be astonished that legends the world over tell of a series of catastrophic events that took place within recent human memory. Massive flooding, conflagrations, and extreme weather conditions are all described in tales that have been handed down orally for a very long time. The outlines of what took place are remarkably similar among all cultures. All of them describe the near extinction of humankind. The modern-day Native Americans, who include the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni, all have traditions that describe the survivors’ emergence into the present world after the catastrophe. The sipapu is a Hopi word for the “place of emergence” and is symbolically represented as a hole in the floor of all the kivas of the ancient Puebloans (for example, the hole at the bottom center of the very last photo above).
From the Colosseum, our guide led us on a walk through the Roman Forum, an area between the Palatine and Capitoline hills that served as ancient Rome’s commercial area. All the buildings now lay in ruins, with only pediments, partial columns, arches and fragments of floors remaining after 2,000 years. The state of the ruins, scattered over a large area, belies what must have been a magnificent civic center with grand structures and paved pathways, a tribute to the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans.
The Arch of Constantine, built by Emperor Constantine in AD 312 to commemorate his victory in battle over a rival co-emperor, marks the time when Rome converted to Christianity. It is now surrounded by a gate. As you walk past, you notice the decorations all over the arch. The marble friezes were re-used from earlier imperial monuments so that the overall impression is a lack of a coherent style.
All that remains of the Temple of Venus and Roma are a row of Corinthian columns and a portion of the temple housing an impressive apse with a coffered dome. The temple is thought to have been the largest in ancient Rome.
To commemorate his brother and the victory over the Jews at Masada, Emperor Domitian built the Arch of Titus. In one panel under the soffit is a depiction of the Romans removing valuable treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem, including the menorah.
The arch is said to be the model for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The Basilica of Maxentius was the largest structure built by the Romans at the time. It used to house an enormous statue, the Colossus of Constantine, that has since been moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It used the latest technology to build the vast interior space, including soaring ceilings of perpendicular, coffered barrel vaults, which can still be seen today. A 9th century earthquake leveled most of the structure. All that remains today is the north wall.
As you approach the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina,built in the 2nd century, it looks like a traditional temple with portico of Corinthian columns. But as you get closer, you realize that it is the front of a Roman Catholic church (San Lorenzo in Miranda), the temple having been converted in the 7th century.
A temple dedicated to the twins Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri, had to be rebuilt several times because of deterioration or fires that destroyed earlier constructions. The temple was used as a meeting place by the Senate as well as housing civic offices. Only a portion of the podium remains, three beautiful, fluted Corinthian columns topped by a portion of the architrave.