Chan Chan: The Ancient City Of Mystery Hidden In Peru

In the narrow coastal region of Peru that lies between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean where there is no natural source of stone, the common building material is adobe - brick made from sun-dried mud. The substantial remains of a huge, ancient city constructed of this material can be seen at Chan Chan, once the capital of the wealthy, populous, and powerful Chimu empire.

Chan Chan was once an ancient city built from adobe in Peru
Chan Chan was once an ancient city built from adobe in Peru

From Chan Chan, a city covering an area of about 6 square miles (16 sq km), the Chimu appear to have controlled a region stretching for about 600 miles (966 km) along the coast. These people are believed to have risen to prominence in the 12th century, after the decline of the powerful Tiahuanaco civilization. They were accomplished builders and engineers (Chan Chan could not have existed without careful management of the scarce water supplies) and highly competent metalworkers. Their basic building units - adobe bricks in a variety of shapes - were modest enough, but there is evidence that some of the more important buildings at Chan Chan were once decorated with beaten gold panels. Examples of brick and mosaic designs and ornamental patterns incised in mud plaster can still be seen, but all the precious items at Chan Chan (there is talk of gardens where plants were made of gold) disappeared long ago.

Stories about the foundation of Chan Chan speak of a man called Naymlap who arrived by sea, established a city, and then departed westward again. The city is also associated with a dragon who created the sun and the moon, and the various strands of myth and legend provide very few clues to the truth. It is clear that the Chimu had a highly developed sense of social organization. The rectangular planning of the different areas at Chan Chan suggests an appreciation of logic and order, and there may be some symbolic significance in the precision with which different buildings are aligned.

The heart of Chan Chan was the temple citadel of Tschudi, where the council chamber is a particularly fine survival. Here 24 seats were formed in the walls surrounding a rectangular courtyard. This seems to have been a debating chamber, and its unusual acoustic effects make it possible for people sitting in different seats to communicate by whispering rather than shouting (this can still be experienced today). The council chamber is one of a number of buildings surrounded by a defensive wall. Barracks, a reservoir, residential areas, and platforms used for religious ceremonies can also be seen.

The imposing structures at Chan Chan were a feat of engineering for their time
The imposing structures at Chan Chan were a feat of engineering for their time

The Tschudi citadel seems to have been one of about 10 separate complexes at Chan Chan, some of which had walls up to 30 feet (9.1m) high. Huaca Esmeralda (the Emerald Temple) and Huaca Arco Iris (the Rainbow Temple) are just two of the numerous other impressive sites. The Emerald Temple only discovered in 1923 and seriously damaged by severe rains two years later, is in the form of a pyramid with two temple platforms and a wealth of unusual relief decoration full of images of the sea and fish. The Rainbow Temple (this is just one name for the building also associated with dragons and serpent-like creatures) is another pyramid, surrounded by a high wall and elaborately decorated with images of different creatures.

Temples of the Sun and Moon

One legend connects the founding of Chan Chan with the creator of the Sun and Moon, and pyramid temples to both deities are close to the Moche River, not far from Trujillo. The Temple of the Sun seems to have been built by an earlier civilization than the Chimu; it has been attributed to the Mochica people and is said to date from the 6th century A.D., but some authorities think it was built two or three hundred years later. A colossal adobe structure, it has a base that measures 340 feet (140m) square and stands 75 feet (23m) high on top of a platform 60 feet (18m) high.

The Temple of the Moon, a short distance away, seems to have been built about the same time, and archaeologists have suggested that both pyramids were part of a single complex, perhaps connected with a cult of the dead. Evidence of a large graveyard has been found, and there were once a number of ceremonial buildings in addition to the two temples. The Temple of the Moon is noted for its fine frescoes. One of these shows numerous inanimate objects, including pieces of armor and weapons, coming to life and attacking people. This is a motif that can be seen on some Mochica pottery, and it lends support to the idea that these temples do, in fact, belong to the 6th century A.D.

There are extensive remains in a number of different areas. Some are official tourist sites, others are less easily found. Trujillo, the nearest town, has an airport with connections from Lima. The journey by bus from Lima takes about 9 hours. Chan Chan is north of Trujillo, and the Temples of the Sun and Moon lie to the south. Both sides can be easily reached by taxi or local buses.

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