Question: Where in the world did palaces of mud become untimely mausoleums for royal wives?
Answer: Chan Chan, Peru
It was an epic city, rising from the baked earth of northern Peru: Chan Chan, capitol of the Chimú empire from the 9th century to the 15th. It was a cosmopolitan city—with shopping, entertainment, sports, and religious institutions—that sprawled over nine square miles. The main building material was mud, fashioned into grand adobe buildings with elaborate friezes up to 100 feet in length and elegant honeycomb construction patterns. To help citizens find their way around, the city instituted a series of road signs: carved pelicans with their beaks pointing toward landmarks. And it boasted an irrigation system with engineering unrivalled by anything else on earth.
Not everyone in Chan Chan was created equal. Chimú tradition held that the sun god created three eggs: gold for rulers, silver for their wives, and copper for everyone else. One’s treatment and status in life corresponded to the metal of their egg, with male rulers highly valued by the culture and everyone else less so by degree. As a result, the living was easy for royalty. Each king of the Chimú and his entourage lived in the best chambers of a palacio (a sprawling palace) that anchored a ciudadela: a neighborhood-sized complex with a plaza, storerooms, and tiny one-room homes for the working class (often with their workshops in the same room).
This was all fine for the elite until a king died. At that point, proximity to a golden egg turned nightmarish. The king’s first wife was drugged and, while yet alive, had her heart cut out in a public sacrifice; then, all the other wives (numbering in the dozens and more akin to concubines) were poisoned. The entire clan was placed in the funerario (burial chamber) of the palace and buried with sand—instantly transforming a palacio into a crypt. The succeeding king would open a new palacio for his family and cabinet, and start his own lush life.
Eventually, this led to the creation of nine palacios, the city expanding around them. But the Chimú Empire became a target of the Inca, who deposed the last king and took Chan Chan’s greatest artists and skilled tradesman to Cuzco. By the time Pizarro and the Conquistadors arrived in the 1530s, Chan Chan was an epic but mostly empty shrine to a lost empire—one which the Spanish happily pillaged for precious metals.
Nearly 500 years later, the majestic scope of Chan Chan—still the world’s largest adobe city—remains evident. Its greatest threat is now weather, as changes to the climate have yielded less time between El Niño seasons and increased rainfall overall. Peru’s National Institute of Culture is leading preservation efforts to help Chan Chan avoid a fate no one expected: a return to its muddy origins.
10 Facts About the First Palacio: Nik An
- To ward off intruders, Nik An had 36-foot-high walls and only one entrance, which was heavily guarded.
- The palacio walls were five times wider at their bases than at their peaks as a way to provide more stability in the event of earthquakes.
- The north and south walls of the Nik An Palacio are decorated with sea life as nod to the El Niño current (which comes from the north) and the Humboldt Current (rising from the south).
- Most creatures on the walls of Nik-An are recognizable, but the exception are the Anzumitos, which appear to be otter/sea lion hybrids, and for which no other evidence exists.
- The ceremonial courtyard boasts a ramp that rises to a second story at one end; its purpose remains unexplained, but it may have been used for ceremonial processions.
- The outside wall of the courtyard is covered with a frieze of an inverted seashore: sea gulls line the bottom of the scene with waves bearing schools of fish above them.
- The complex features a limpid freshwater pool, the Gran Hachaque, which is to this day outlined with living seagrass and reeds.
- A warren of so-called audience rooms winds through the palacio, with walls revealing not only more sea life and images of the sun, but moon deities, which the Chimú (unlike the Inca) revered.
- The heart of the complex is the mausoleum where researchers found the buried king, his first wife, and some of their belongings; an adjacent tomb contained the secondary wives, stacked haphazardly.
- The acoustically-dazzling assembly room was used for political meetings; 24 seats are carved into the walls of the large room, and any speaker in any seat can he heard perfectly anywhere else in the room.
Discover Chan Chan during your Before the Incas: Peru's Pyramids & the Lord of Sipán pre-trip extension to O.A.T.’s Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest Small Ship Adventure.