Thursday, December 08, 2011

Sillustani, Peru

Yesterday afternoon on the spur of the moment I decided to take a bus trip outside of Puno, Peru to see, well, I wasn't clear on just what I was signing up for. What the hell. I only live once, and if I don't do things of probable interest, then I won't have lived even that much. So, I got into the bus and off we went, to Sillustani, as it turns out, and there I had a great time, making up for the miseries of my trip to Machu Piccu. I had no idea what to expect until I got to the site. Then I had not only the pleasure of a new and interesting experience in ruins, I also had a nice time chatting with my fellow bus-riders.
From Wikipedia:
Sillustani is a pre-Incan burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo near Puno in Peru. The tombs, which are built above ground in tower-like structures called chullpas, are the vestiges of the Colla people, Aymara who were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The structures housed the remains of complete family groups, although they were probably limited to nobility. Many of the tombs have been dynamited by grave robbers, while others were left unfinished.

[T]he term "chullpa" remains used today for the towers. Many of the chullpas at Sillustani show pre-Inca characteristics that were later redressed with Inca stone blocks. Similar chullpas are found throughout the entire south Central Andes with the above ground burial styles going back at least to mature Tiwanaku (ca AD 500-950). The insides of the tombs were built to hold entire groups of people, most likely extended families of the Aymara elite. Corpses were not intentionally mummified, but in the dry environment created by the closed tomb, they survived for centuries. Most mummy bundles indicate burial in a fetal position. Some of the tombs also have various animal shapes carved into the stone. The only openings to the buildings face east, where it was believed the Sun was reborn by Mother Earth each day.

I've been doing this for so long now that there's little new in what I see. I have some mummified bits from the desert in Arabia, and I have had the dubious experience of encountering desiccated bodies. But, in spite of this not being so new to me that I had no choice but to be impressed, I did have a good time comparing this Stone Age site to others. It gives me a chance to compare the universal in humanness. Much of this site brings to mind the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands north of the mainland in Scotland.
It's the circles that make it so much like my ancestral homeland, and that this is a desert as well, though, like Glastonbury Tor, once surrounded by water. It was so much like home that I became nostalgic for the lost years of my wandering life. I felt at home here in a way I don't feel at home in most places, even though there is nothing here for me at all, nor there. This is a burial site. But it is a Stone Age site that evokes feelings of life and family for me.
The way this is laid out gives a mistaken impression of Avebury. In truth, it is a pre-Inca and Inca burial site. The round-houses are the burial sites. We do things differently now in the Modern world, sometimes well, I think, but seldom as monumentally. Below we see the two cultures, pre-Inca and Inca, as they build their monuments to the dead:
The loose stone is pre-Inca, and the fine cut work, resembling the work of my ancestors in the islands north of Scotland, are Incan. We can see the contrast a bit more clearly here:
Here we see the burial sites themselves, cone-shaped, unlike those I've seen elsewhere. However, these inverted cones look to me like proto-keystones, the downward pressure keeping the stone stable. It's not Hagia Sophia, but it is lovely and clever.
Families were interred here, as they are in Arequipa today. I see that little changes in human nature, sometimes assuring, sometimes a matter of despair. But that people find reason and dignity and value in work and the fact of an end to life itself, that too is a constant that I appreciate. My ancestors were stone-cutters and builders in the far islands, cutting tombstones and building castles and churches. I feel some good affinity with these builders. It doesn't always come to much, but there is that longing we have to make good the good that was.

Many of the stones lay scattered across the site. It gives us a chance to see up-close that they are hollowed out and were then packed with clay to reduce damage from earthquakes, somewhat similar in intent to Japanese high-rise buildings that have cores filled with hydraulic oil today.
And then the spirit of man makes whole that which is ruin.

I recall laughing at men using cranes to reconstruct buildings at Luxor, Egypt. I was a purist who had no real sense then of the grandeur of building, whether one uses modern equipment to do so. The alternative to using modern machinery is to do as the contemporaries had done, not practical, merely sentimental. But, given the technology of the time this is, as Hiram Bingham points out in his book The Lost City of Machu Piccu, very clever. Like the Romans at Massada, build a ramp and haul material up:
Burial mounds. It's not about death at all, I think, but about coping with the mysteries of loss and the hope and faith of meaning in this life. For those who are insistent that this life is all there is, then one is unlikely to build much for the future, burning bodies, giving up on the living too, diminishing this life for the sake of this life, as it were, by not striving for the transcendent, by building greatness for all to come.

It's about living, all this monumental building of tombs. The circles of the site, here and elsewhere, as my companion for the day, Miguel Piaggio, points out, is a reconciliation of life with the sun and the moon, a creation of Order, a making of the synthesis of an otherwise incoherent and frightening dialectic of meaninglessness. I've seen this too, this unity of man and the Sun, the light of the solstice flooding into the protected space inside the tomb, shining for that brief time, on the departed, restoring him to life, as one sees at Maeshowe, as here too.

In all, I find it life-affirming, the celebration of meaning even in death.

I had a day of pleasant company with fellows interested in such things, and we had what I missed at Machu Piccu, i.e. a day of quiet contemplation and memories of my own life and times. It makes all the falling down and breaking a tooth, getting an infection, getting altitude sickness, being sleepless and hungry and cold and tired, and whatever small or large miseries await me, all worth the while. A Dag Day at Sillustani, I call it.

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