Temples of Trujillo

Trujillo, in addition to being about eight hours from Lima by bus,  is also located smack in the middle of multiple historical complexes built by the Moche people. Mostly, when talking about Peru, you hear about the ancient Incans, a people from a time so mysterious and long past (some five to six centuries, give or take) that we are only now fully discovering the details of their lives. To give some perspective: The Moche are older. Much older. Over 1,000 years ago, before the Incans had even formed a civilization, the Moche were already living in massive city complexes with intricate pottery, food storage warehouses, and colorful temples.

In a single long weekend, Ivo and I were able to trek through the dust of three completely unique sites.

Chan Chan

To start with the ‘least oldest’, Chan Chan was built around 850 CE and then lasted, and lasted, and lasted… until finally being conquered by the Incans in 1470 CE. That’s over six magnificent centuries of this positively enormous city thriving as a market, storehouse, and general kingdom.


To enter the complex, we first had to work our way through a maze of carved stone walls. Even with all the paints washed away, the carvings are so vibrant. It seems strange in the sand, where the stone gets washed out by the surroundings, but each wall that we passed on our left (where the archaeologists had been able to refresh the images) had a single, repeating mural: a rainbow arcing over a twisting, writhing collection of sea creatures.



Once we made it past “security”, or presumably where the gate keepers would have sorted through the entrants, the complex opened up into an enormous open square. To be honest, I thought this was it. My first thought on entering the square was actually, “Wow! Chan Chan is incredible!” I assumed we would poke around the square, take some photos, then be back on the bus. About two hours later, I was deeply grateful a Peruvian friend had warned me to wear gym shoes.


Behind the main square was yet another maze of freshly excavated storehouses. Ingeniously, the Moche carved the walls of their storehouse rooms to have these peculiar diamond-shaped holes. As the wind swept through the city, the walls channelled it into the rooms, cooling the foods stored inside.


Especially humanizing were the intricate little designs left alongside the corners of each wall. Although seemingly random to me, our guide informed us that these were in fact directional markers. The way the creatures on each corner face indicate which way to turn.


Even then, it seems, there was some poor guy running late, desperately trying to find the room with the potatoes and terribly thankful for the little ducks (?) pointing the way.


Around another corner was the remaining water reserve for the city.  Now that the people are long gone and the city has been reduced to gray stones, this was quite a shock to walk past. Evidently, though, these were once quite common, and probably both a practical and beautiful feature in a bustling city.


The reeds that are still growing in the reserve were used, among many other things, to make boats.


Finally, around most of the sites we visited, there are still at least three or four of these lookers either basking in the sun or making googly eyes at tourists for food (to varying degrees of success). True, the Peruvian hairless dogs are not winning any beauty contests. However, you have to give them credit: These dogs have been surviving (thriving?) off their unique looks for over 1,000 years. They were sacred to the Moche, often buried alongside dead royalty; it was believed the dog’s spirit would lead the dead soul to the after life, and provide companionship while doing it. Over a millenium later, they are not only still guarding the same ancient temples, but also found trotting throughout the city, often creating some of the most alien-looking mutts you have ever seen (imagine that mixed with anything, just try).


Huacas del Sol y de la Luna

Just as Chan Chan was coming into existence, the Temples of the Sun and Moon in another region nearby Trujillo were beginning to fade out of use. From 100 to 800 CE, the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna were undergoing constant and ambitious renovations. These temples are the remains of Cerro Blanco, which used to be another capital city for the Moche people; the city was named after the volcanic peak that rose up behind them.


Among the reasons for the constant construction was the issue of flooding; again, this seems strange to me, given how oddly dry and rocky the area looks now. However, back then, the risks of flooding were severe, and compounded by the fact that the Moche were still building with adobe. As you can imagine, the sun-dried clay did not do especially well in pools of muddy water.


We only looked at Huaca del Sol from a distance; thanks once again to the repulsive (albeit inspired) greed of the Spanish, the waters of the nearby river were rerouted to run across its base, allowing for easier pillaging of the gold inside. The now collapsing adobe structure used to be the impressive city-center temple, with four levels and multiple expansions.

Fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, however, the Huaca de la Luna remained largely untouched. This was the temple we were truly able to explore. In comparison to the Huaca del Sol, which mainly served as a burial temple for upper class politicians, the Huaca de la Luna was more on the truly sacred side, serving a ceremonial and religious purpose. Upon first walking in, you can immediately see why flooding might be an issue.


The massive amount of adobe bricks required to keep the temple functional were apparently gathered from multiple groups of workers or city areas. Though archaeologists are not certain yet, they suspect that the unique little markings on each of the individual bricks indicate where they came from, and helped to keep track of who “donated” the most to the sacred Huaca de la Luna.


Incredibly, the paint on the walls in the Huaca de la Luna is original. Some 1,200 years old at its youngest, and the reds, blacks, and yellows are still decorating the terrifying Moche god. Named Ai Apaec, the god has been popularized as “The Decapitator”; however, slightly more informed sources indicate that he was also known as the god of all things, the creator and “the doer”, who just happened to decapitate in his spare time.


Granted, this fine line left evidently Marvel unaffected, based on their translation of Ai Apaec into a villain for the “Dark Avengers”. Admittedly, I can see the resemblance…


As we made our way up through the temple, it ultimately opened up, leading outside and to a downhill ramp. Turning the corner, I was floored. Rising up towards the sky, built with nothing but mud and human ingenuity and will power, were the remains of eight “stories” worth of a mural-decorated temple wall.


The wall was so massive that modern archeologists were forced to build scaffolding just to reach and protect it. Again, traces of paint were miraculously left intact. Each level depicted a separate scene, some more violent than others. The Moche were no strangers to human sacrifice: Roughly 70 bodies have been discovered in this temple, none of them indicating that their fates were pleasant. The majority, it seems, after having their head cracked in with a ritualistic tool, were shoved off a wall to rot in the muddy earth below. Studies of the dense soil surrounding the skeletons indicate that this generally occurred during especially rainy periods, when flooding would have been an issue for crops, architecture, and the general survival of the city. In comparison to most other cultures I’m familiar with, the Moche actually prayed for the rains to stop.


The bottom line is that at this point, archeologists aren’t sure of the reasons behind the human sacrifice; in fact, they aren’t even sure who the men (most of the sacrifices were young men) were, whether outsiders captured in battle or willing city citizens. However, one of the more interesting theories is that the unfortunate dead are the losers of a symbolic “game”, which reenacted the battles of the gods.


Also still in place was what our guide told us is an ancient star chart. As with most ancient civilizations, the Moche looked up, and did a downright shocking job of capturing what they saw. This interpretation, though, is a combination of practicality and art, and has provided several puzzles to archeologists. One of my favorites is that up in the top center of the arch, with his crowned head partially degraded, is a squat red man with some sort of staff in his left hand and something even more indiscernable in his right hand. The extraordinary thing about him though, is his beard: impossibly, historians apparently know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Moche men had absolutely no facial hair. They were simply hairless. The mystery of the little bearded man is therefore, quite simply, how on earth did they come to envision and then draw him on their map?


Dama de Cao

Finally, to shift backward again, this time to 450 CE when the great city of Cerro Blanco was still young, the region now known simply as El Brujo Archeological Complex was once itself some combination of a city and religious complex. To reach this area, the tour agency called in a single young man to take just Ivo and I and one other young couple about two hours out of Trujillo to a deserted site that was clearly still being excavated.


The whole area was windswept, so much so that I was shocked anything was left after over 1,500 years of being battered by sand and earthquakes.  Under the tarp in the “courtyard” area, it was possible to make out several murals on the surrounding walls.



Specifically, the most poignant was the mural of a warrior leading a line of captured soldiers away, presumably, our guide said, to be sacrificed.


The reason that we really came out though, was because of a new discovery: In just 2005, archeologists found the best preserved Moche mummy ever discovered buried within this complex. More astounding though is the fact that this mummy, the mummy buried with all the trappings of royalty and a holy title combined… was a woman in her mid-twenties.


Hidden away in this still dust-covered site two hours out of Trujillo, behind a black curtain in a small museum where you cannot take photos, is the Dama de Cao. This mummy indicates the beginning of a massive historical re-write, especially as in 2013, another find confirmed suspicions. Essentially, the Moche, this ancient race of human-sacrificing warriors… was led by a succession of queens. That’s queens as in women, most of who probably stood not much taller than this young lady, at just about five feet. 

Screen shot 2013-09-18 at 12.17.12 AM

If the shock value of this gender news wasn’t enough, the details of the mummy itself were worth the trip alone.  Considering the 1,500+ years again, it was incredible to see the tattoos still winding up the woman’s arms.

~ ~ ~

In reflection, I did a little reading while writing this up– since all of these tours were in Spanish, I had a fair amount of fact-checking to do anyway. Basically, although I am deeply pleased that I do not have to live with them, it was generally fascinating to see so much of the Moche (albeit in various pieces of their timeline).

It is difficult to make sense of the violence, which is so startling to us at face value. Their victims were not fortunate. However, the intricacy of their culture is evident, and is utterly distinct in many ways from anything I’ve seen or studied before. Archaeologists don’t know why the Moche civilization fell; some sources point to natural disasters, while others indicate social unrest (probably due to the dwindling resources). Regardless, the legacy they left for the next wave of civilizations is evident, and I hope to read more soon about what role women played in the ancient culture.


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