By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

City a marvel made of mud

Wikimedia Commons/Håkan SvenssonRuins of the mud city of Chan Chan in Peru.
Wikimedia Commons/Håkan Svensson
Ruins of the mud city of Chan Chan in Peru.

The mud pies I made as a kid, I thought were quite remarkable — and then I went to the world’s largest mud city and, inarguably, it put my creations to shame.

Chan Chan in Peru, is a wonder city, almost a thousand years old. It was the capital city of the Kingdom of the Chimu Empire — a glory city that covered nearly eight square miles and had a population of between 50,000 and 60,000. Then came the marauding Incas.

I had not known of Chan Chan until our recent cruise offered a shore excursion to that site. Excavation of this ancient mud city — a maze of streets, canals, water reservoirs, terraces — started in 1976, and today Chan Chan is second only to Machu Picchu as a Peruvian tourist attraction. No one knows how long it will take to complete excavation of this entire settlement.

The beginning of Chan Chan — which means Sun Sun — goes back to the first millennium, A.D., yet some of its archeological findings are almost intact: storerooms, amphitheaters, wells, irrigation canals that attest to the advancement of that South American civilization. This city came on the scene about 850 A.D. and continued conquering and expanding until the arrival of the Incas.

It is a city that would intrigue urban planners. Towering adobe walls, 26 feet high, encircle 11 separate cities within. Each inner city or citadel had a palace and a king. Each separate little kingdom had a ceremonial room, burial chamber and residence. They were rectangular in shape, had high walls, a labyrinth of passages — and only one entrance, facing north. Building foundations were stone and mud. Floors were made of dirt, stones or broken adobe bricks. Wood, cane and carrizo, a reed grass, were also used in construction, and the roofs were made of interwoven bunches of straw. Kitchen and bedrooms were located at the site of a well, which provided water for an entire citadel.

Zulma, our guide, told our tour group that animals, such as dogs, llamas and pigs, were kept in small corrals inside the citadel.

Up a small ramp we followed Zulma, to the courts that are in a U shape, perhaps for government workers or important city people. The citadels served for administrative purposes as well as residences. Each citadel or kingdom was named, and the Tschudi Palace or citadel is a showcase of well-preserved friezes and decorations featuring geometric designs, birds and fish.

In each citadel’s burial chamber, the important males of that kingdom were interred. Some of those chambers are said to have been surrounded by as many as 44 secondary chambers. When passing to the underworld, the departed took along necessities. Kings were, perhaps, buried with several living concubines and officials, and many personal belongings. That civilization sacrificed food, animals and people to the gods.

In those “royal mausoleums,” enormous tombs contained elaborate offerings of ceramics, textiles and metalwork. Also found were the bones of dozens of women, perhaps indicating large scale human sacrifice.

Apparently, the descendants continued to “maintain” those remains long after the deaths of the rulers with the aid of “compounds” then said to have been used.

Only the nobility lived in the inner citadels. Commoners lived outside the royal inner circles and were probably forbidden to enter them. Fishermen, farmers, laborers — the “intermediates” — lived in smaller, less elegant compounds.

The high walls, long corridors, tortuous winding passageways and narrow entrances suggest considerable concern as to unknowns entering the enclosures.

Although archeologists found huge storerooms empty, traces were found of manufactured goods and imprints of textiles, perhaps in storage when the Incas came. The Chimu people apparently specialized in producing and trading luxury goods used as status symbols by lords. Value of these stored items was thought to be substantial.

Water was a prime consideration in this city, and today, its large deep walk-in wells are completely dry because of lower water table. Of Chan Chan’s 140 wells, 60 percent were inside the citadel zone and 12 percent in the outer residential area.

As with water, agriculture was of great importance, and the Chimu built miles of irrigation canals, including inter-valley waterways, to increase irrigated area. A long canal was built north from the Chicama River to irrigate farmland in the Moche Valley — an area that exceeds that of the present cultivated area.

But then, in 1470 A.D., the marauding Incas came. They captured that mighty kingdom that was 621 miles in length and controlled about two-thirds of all agricultural lands ever irrigated along South America’s Pacific Coast. For Chan Chan, the coming of the Incas spelled demise.

Metallurgy apparently was an important industry for the kingdom, and its highly skilled metalworkers were forcibly taken by the Incas to their capital in the Machu Picchu area.

Recovered tax records from the Chan Chan compounds revealed that colonial looters found not only considerable quantities of precious metals but also ceramics, textiles, woodworking — and a maize-preparation for beer.

At the end of our Chan Chan tour, as I awaited our bus, endless buses and taxis continued to arrive and disgorge tourists. And I chanced to look across the red-dirt compound and saw there, atop a high adobe wall, two vultures — as if a symbol — waiting patiently.

Athough Chan Chan no longer faces conquering Incas, it now confronts perhaps an even more invincible foe — the El Niño that brings heavy rains and flooding to that site near the Peruvian Coast — and resulting erosion.

Patiently, the vultures perch to await the outcome. And I wonder, will erosion be the winner? Or will this thousand-year-old city of mud survive and continue to share with tourists its incredible history?

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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