Chan Chan – Among the Largest Mud-Brick Cities in the World
The Inca civilization is one of the most notable Pre-Columbian civilizations that existed in Peru. Prior to its rapid rise to power, however, there were other prominent civilizations, which today, are rarely mentioned and receive little attention in the exploration of the country’s ancient history. One of these civilizations is the Kingdom of the Chimor. This was the largest Peruvian civilization prior to the rise of the Incas. It was responsible for building one of the most impressive cities in Pre-Columbian South America – Chan Chan.
Chan Chan, which literally translates to ‘Sun Sun’, is located about 10 minutes outside Peru’s northern city of Trujillo in the once fertile river valley of Moche and Santa Catalina. This city was built in A.D. 850, and lasted until its conquest by the Inca Empire in A.D. 1470. Chan Chan was not only the capital city of the Kingdom of the Chimor, but also the largest city in Pre-Columbian South America. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that it is one of the world’s largest adobe (mud-brick) complexes. Chan Chan reached nearly 20 square km, with a city centre of 6 km, and housed almost 100,000 people during in heyday in A.D. 1200. The entire city, from its grandest temples to its humblest residences, was constructed entirely from bricks of sun dried mud. Spectacular reliefs, sculptures, and wall carvings adorned the entire city.
The impressive city of Chan Chan
Chan Chan is a reflection of the Chimú’s strict political and social strategy. This is evident in the layout of the city. The heart of Chan Chan consists of nine large rectangular complexes, known as citadels or palaces, which were delineated by high thick earthen walls. Within these units, various buildings were arranged in an open space. These buildings included temples, residential homes and storage buildings. In addition, reservoirs and funerary platforms were built in the citadels. Beyond these nine citadels were 32 semi-monumental compounds and four production sectors for activities such as textile weaving, metalworking and woodworking. Further north, east and west of the city are extensive agricultural lands and a remnant irrigation system. Thus, one can see that the city of Chan Chan had a well-defined hierarchy, in which an urban core was supplied by the industrial products of its suburban areas and the agricultural produce of its farmlands.
A reconstructive layout of the citadels. Credit: Lizardo Tavers
The first European known to have laid eyes on the spectacular city of Chan Chan, was the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, and his men, who arrived at the site around 1532. Since then, the city has been pillaged by Spanish treasure hunters and their modern counterparts, the huaqueros (‘grave robbers’). In the reports of Pizarro’s expedition, the walls and other architectural features of Chan Chan are described as being adorned with precious metal. For instance, Pedro Pizarro, one of Francisco’s kinsmen, found a doorway covered in silver, which is estimated to have been worth more than $2 million by today’s standards.
Although the treasure hunters are a serious threat to Chan Chan, they are not the most dangerous. As a city built entirely of adobe, Chan Chan’s greatest threat comes from the environment. Thus, heavy rains, flooding and strong winds have the potential to dissolve the mud brick structures of the city. During the time of the Kingdom of the Chimor, the El Niño phenomenon, which occurred every 25 to 50 years, caused the most damage to Chan Chan. Today’s climate, however, has made the occurrence of this phenomenon more frequent, hence posing an increased threat to the site.
Efforts are underway to protect Chan Chan, but is it enough? Credit: Martin Garcia
Despite the increased rate of erosion at the site, archaeologists are making a valiant effort to preserve the site. For instance, tent-like structures are being erected in various parts of the city to protect it from rainwater. Furthermore, whilst some friezes are being hardened with a solution of distilled water and cactus juice, others are being photographed and then covered to protect them. In the long run, however, these actions may not be enough.
Featured image: Chan Chan . Photo source: Planedia.
Brogan, A., 2014. The Ancient Chimu City of Chan Chan. [Online]
Available at: http://gosouthamerica.about.com/od/perregnorthcoast/a/Chan-Chan-Peru.htm
Curry, A., 2009. Climate Change: Sites in Peril. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/0903/etc/climate_change.html
Hathaway, B., 2009. Endangered Site: Chan Chan, Peru. [Online]
Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/endangered-site-chan-chan-peru-51748031/?no-ist
Kolasinski, A., 2011. Travel to Chan Chan, Peru's ancient adobe kingdom. [Online]
Available at: http://www.peruthisweek.com/travel-travel-to-chan-chan-perus-ancient-adobe-kingdom-30090
Rough Guides, 2014. The Chan Chan Complex. [Online]