A visit to Machu-Piccha in Peru is truly awesome. To spend time in the Andes and absorb the stunning setting and the amazing buildings was a real privilege. While there, we read and heard a lot about the Incas. It is a spectacular story with telling lessons. The Incas quickly grew to a position of dominance, took over leadership of a large tract of Peru and neighbouring countries and then lost everything in as little as 20 years once the Spaniards moved in to colonise the area. And the Europeans did so with a very small number of men.
As told today in Peru (Ecuador had a slightly less glowing version) the Incas were the sort of leaders you would want. They were a meritocracy, there was movement between the classes, women were viewed as important, they were very well organized, they had accumulated much wisdom about agriculture, engineering, materials and the cures for illness that were to be found in nature. Does that not sound idyllic? But some men on horses with a few hundred rifles and some unusual diseases were able to topple all of that very quickly.
My initial reaction was disappointment that the utopia described must be flawed and that the core assumptions of what is needed for society (e.g. equality for women and opportunity to move between ‘classes’ based on ability rather than inheritance and marriage) might be incorrect. But, as pointed out to me by a fellow- traveler, these facts of history do not show that some of the ideals that were part of the Inca culture are not valid. It just had not anticipated the paradigm shift represented by the colonizers. It just means that it is not sufficient to do what is right and that is a hard lesson.
The tactics of the Spaniards are instructive. Use force to overcome the local team and follow that up with the religious certainties carried by the Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans to replace the existing culture. Looking at the churches dripping in gold that were built and sited by the conquerors to ensure the destruction of the Inca places of worship, it was hard not to be reflective and concerned.
In a society that is still today very poor, the ornate extravaganzas seem very inappropriate. Similar displays of ostentation are found all over the world. Each time the clash between the now and the hereafter ends with a victory for the latter. But then another lesson from history is that those societies that are poor have to place their faith and bets on an improvement in the after-life. Should we question that particular balance of options as we travel through the wonders that it created and destroyed? The Incas promised one future in the after-life, the Christians another but both linked behaviour and sacrifices today with a reciprocal benefit in the future. And where today, are there similar paradigm shifts occurring in mankind’s history? Did 9/11 herald a change where the Inca-like certainty of the dominance and security of the western world was shown to be more fragile than anticipated? The Incas spent most of the period of their dominance building the sites that we visit with awe today. They were there for the long haul, they believed. And so do we!