Earthquake Destroys Cuzco

A violent earthquake shook the Peruvian city of Cuzco and the area surrounding it, leveling most of its colonial buildings and resulting in considerable loss of life.

Summary of Event

On March 31, 1650, quite unaccountably, the sound of church bells clanging unharmoniously filled the air of Cuzco, Peru. They were neither announcing a holy day nor summoning worshipers to Sunday mass: March 31 in 1650 fell on a Thursday. Rather, the bells were ringing because the earth below the churches in whose belfries they hung was undulating wildly, as an earthquake struck the area, one that by modern standards would have measured at least 7.5 on the Richter scale. [kw]Earthquake Destroys Cuzco (Mar. 31, 1650)
[kw]Cuzco, Earthquake Destroys (Mar. 31, 1650)
Natural disasters;Mar. 31, 1650: Earthquake Destroys Cuzco[1690]
Environment;Mar. 31, 1650: Earthquake Destroys Cuzco[1690]
Architecture;Mar. 31, 1650: Earthquake Destroys Cuzco[1690]
South America;Mar. 31, 1650: Earthquake Destroys Cuzco[1690]
Peru;Mar. 31, 1650: Earthquake Destroys Cuzco[1690]
Cuzco, destruction of
Earthquake, Peru

The Spanish historian of South America, Garcilaso de la Vega, Vega, Garcilaso de la has written a great deal about early Peru. The Inca Empire was conquered by Francisco Pizarro, after which Spanish settlement developed quickly. Cuzco, the capital city of the Inca Empire, which stretched from Argentina to the southern border of what is now Colombia, was a thriving city when Pizarro and a band of his Spanish followers arrived there one and one-half centuries before the earthquake.

At that time, Cuzco’s indigenous population was estimated to exceed 200,000. By 1650, the year of the great earthquake, with a growing population of Spanish settlers and increasing numbers of Incas, probably at least 250,000 people lived in the city and its environs.

Cuzco, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas and has the greatest altitude of any major city on the American continents, with an elevation of slightly over 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). The mountains near it reach skyward to almost 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), with El Huascaran, its tallest peak, spiraling to 22,205 feet (6,768 meters). The regular volcanic activity in these mountains is directly related to the frequent earthquakes in the area. The activity of the Nazca Plate, which runs along the Pacific Ocean west of the Peruvian coastline, constantly pushes the land upward, spawning recurrent earthquakes. Since 1568, more than seventy major earthquakes have been recorded in Peru, including the devastating 1650 quake. Peru, therefore, has an average of a major earthquake every six years. Besides its major tremors, Peru records more than two hundred smaller earthquakes every year.

The Incas, well aware of the dangers that earthquakes posed, had developed long before the seventeenth century a type of construction that made their cities almost impervious to earthquakes. When Cuzco was virtually leveled in 1650, nearby Machu Picchu, although it experienced tremors about equal in force to those that destroyed Cuzco, remained essentially intact. The Spanish settlers in Cuzco in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries constructed their buildings very much in the way they were used to constructing buildings in their native Spain, building them along verticallines that left them vulnerable to earthquake damage. The Inca structures had unique trapezoidal lines that made them almost impregnable. Architecture;Inca Empire

The Spanish often anchored their new structures to the Inca foundations that remained after they dismantled Inca buildings to make room for more European structures. When the earthquake of 1650 struck, nearly all the European-style colonial buildings crumbled, but their Inca foundations and the few Inca buildings that had not been dismantled survived the earthquake nearly intact. These Inca structures, like all the Inca buildings in the area, were built with huge stones that often weighed between 2-3 tons (1,814-2,722 kilograms). These colossal stones were fitted together so intricately and precisely that a blade of the thinnest knife could not be inserted between them. The Incas used no mortar in their construction, yet their buildings possessed a structural integrity that has never been equaled.

Gil González Dávila, Dávila, Gil González a noted Spanish chronicler of Peru and an eyewitness to the earthquake of 1650, wrote, “Cusco, how can he who saw you yesterday, and who sees you today, not be moved to tears?” The destruction of the quake was immediate and extensive. Moreover, although the major tremor probably lasted for less than one minute, the area was wracked by continuing aftershocks that terrified an already demoralized populace.

At the height of the seismic activity, a statue of Christ was brought from the cathedral onto the adjoining square, whereupon the tremors ceased. People attributed the respite to a miracle related to this figure, which they venerated and named El Señor de los Temblores, or the Lord of the Earthquakes. The statue is still paraded around Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas every Easter Monday on a silver litter supported by forty-five litter bearers, in commemoration of the great earthquake of 1650. Many paintings of this statue have been made and are found in churches throughout the area, placed there to protect the churches from future earthquake damage.

Cuzco’s cathedral, although badly shaken, sustained less damage from the earthquake than that suffered by the colonial residences and the churches of San Agustín, Belén, Santo Domingo, La Companía de Jesus, and La Merced, all of which were badly damaged and, in some cases, were reduced to little more than heaps of rubble. The construction of the Cuzco cathedral, begun in 1556, was nearly complete in 1650. Because it was damaged minimally by the earthquake, the cathedral was finally completed in 1654, just short of one century after construction was started. This Renaissance style structure was built in the shape of a Latin cross.

The construction by the Jesuits of the church of La Companía de Jesus, Companía de Jesus, La which has a most intricate interior, was begun in 1576 and was nearing completion in 1650 when the earthquake struck, causing its completion to be delayed until 1668. It remains one of Cuzco’s best examples of the Andean Baroque style of architecture that dominated the area after the almost total reconstruction of the city that was occasioned by the earthquake and that went on unrelentingly until about 1700.


The earthquake and the subsequent reconstruction brought about notable changes in the way future colonial buildings in the Andes were constructed. The former vertical style of the Spanish settlers was drastically modified and became more in keeping with the trapezoidal style of the Incas. As a result, when an earthquake of approximately the same intensity as the quake of 1650 struck Cuzco on May 21, 1950, structural damage to the city’s buildings was considerably less than the overall destruction that had marked the earlier disaster.

Because most of the valuable wall murals, or frescos, in the churches of Cuzco were lost to the quake, the rebuilt churches used fewer wall murals for decoration, replacing them with huge canvases of religious scenes. These could be stored easily and safely as circumstances demanded, and they would suffer little damage in earthquakes. One such canvas in Cuzco’s cathedral depicts the earthquake and its aftermath.

Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo Mollinedo y Angulo, Manuel de was a patron of the arts who brought much of his valuable art collection to Cuzco from Spain and played a considerable role in the reconstruction of the city, as did such Jesuit architects as Juan Bautista Egidiario and Diego Martinez de Oviedo, major figures in the reconstruction of La Companía de Jesus. Architecture;Peru The bishop helped to establish the Escuela Cuzqueña de Pintura, a noteworthy art Art;Peru school, in which students were trained to produce the kinds of religious art that the reconstructed churches required. Among those who studied there were Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallao, Pumacallao, Basilio Santa Cruz Marcos Zapata, Zapata, Marcos and Basilio Pacheco, Pacheco, Basilio all of whom produced religious paintings that can be seen in Cuzco today.

Further Reading

  • Dobyns, Henry E., and Paul L. Doughty. Peru: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A clear, concise account of early Peru under the Spanish with several references to the earthquake that leveled Cuzco in 1650.
  • Falconer, Kieran. Peru. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995. This beautifully illustrated book, aimed at juvenile readers, has sporadic references to the earthquake that struck Cuzco in 1650.
  • Fisher, John R., ed. Peru. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1990. Several of the contributions to this useful collection address the role earthquakes have played in Peruvian history.
  • Hudson, Rex A. Peru: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993. A comprehensive overview of Peru with occasional references to the earthquake of 1650.
  • Meyerson, Julia. Tambo: Life in an Andean Village. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. An easily accessible account of life in the high country of Peru. Excellent for background reading.

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