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Discovering the pinnacle of Ecuador

Ecuador’s capital of Quito, high in the Andes mountains, is one of the world’s most breathtaking cities, as Tim Tatton-Brown explains.

Aerial view south over Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Situated in the High Andes of Ecuador, at well over 9,000 feet above sea-level, Quito is the highest and one of the most extraordinary capital cities in the world. Added to this, its position close to the equator gives it a unique climate with no high- and low-pressure systems, which means that very hot sunny days (and much ultra-violet radiation!) alternate with colder, cloudy, and rainy days. If this were not enough of a natural onslaught, the city has been subject to many earthquakes, and is also quite often covered in layers of ash spewed out by its surrounding enormous volcanoes (most recently in 1999). Yet at the heart of the modern city of nearly three million people is a wonderful ‘historic’ colonial city laid out on a grid by the Spanish conquerors of the Inca in 1534. The city is probably South America’s best-preserved colonial city, and as such was one of the first places to be inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Encountering high societies

I came to Ecuador in January, primarily to study the country’s unique collection of high Andean volcanoes and the totally different ‘offshore’ volcanoes of the Galapagos. The latter form a group of islands in the Pacific 600 miles due west of Ecuador, and are now justly famous for Charles Darwin’s brief visit in 1834. They, and their unique tame wildlife, are also a World Heritage Site, and are simply spectacular. However, in many ways a much more interesting place for archaeologists (and vulcanologists) is the central north–south double-spine of mainland Ecuador, where pre-Columbian High Andean civilisations flourished in the great uplands of the sierras.

The Inca had finally conquered the area in 1462, just before the arrival of the Spaniards, making Quito the chief city of the northern part of their vast empire. Throughout this area, one finds many traces of the pre-Columbian peoples, both at archaeological sites and even more so in the surviving indigenous people and their colourful way of life. This is, of course, overlaid by Spanish things – particularly churches, but also by miniature bull-rings and so on – and by modernity – roads, cars, buses, and football pitches; in fact, both bull-fighting and football had pre-Columbian counterparts. It is, however, amazing to remember that there were no wheeled vehicles or horses before the Conquest, and the great Inca paved roads, which criss-crossed this area, were for people on foot, with their few pack animals.

The high Sierras are now full of burgeoning urban centres, places like Riobamba and Cuenca, which like Quito began as new cities laid out on a 16th-century grid. All around them, and rising up to almost the highest levels of the Sierras, are signs of age-old agriculture – the growing of maize (sweetcorn), potatoes, tomatoes – all of them crops that, after the Spanish conquest, filtered out to the whole world. I was particularly surprised to see that, even on the edges of the highest open moorlands (here called the Paramó, and now the final haunts of the greatest of vultures, the condor), very poor people were trying to plough up the ground – at 13,000 feet – to plant potatoes. I was interested to note that among these sparse fields, one could see little huts set into hollows that reminded me of early Anglo-Saxon sunken post-built ‘grübenhauser’. Perhaps these marginal people will benefit from global warming, as did the marginal Bronze Age people on England’s Dartmoor in an earlier ‘warmer’ period.

Into the capital’s historic heart

Further on from Quito’s main square, the Plaza Grande, are two large open squares used for markets: this is the Market Place (Plaza), in front of San Francisco.

Let us now return to the Quito area, at the very heart of the northern sierras of Ecuador. Modern life is very difficult in this region, since it is hemmed in by huge volcanoes and vast deep gorges. Even driving along a brand-new road, from the equally new airport to the centre, one has to go up and down the deep hillside between about 9,000 and 10,000 feet several times. I was also amazed to discover that in this area of vast deposits of volcanic ash, thousands of Australian gumtrees are growing (they were introduced to Ecuador from France in the 1860s). Approaching the historic city, one is then struck by the enormous number of new houses that run up all the hillsides around the old centre. The largest recent expansions of the city now have to be, by the nature of the terrain, to the north and the south. This makes Quito one of the longest (22 miles north–south) and narrowest (3 miles east–west) great cities in the world.

The historic city of San Francisco de Quito (to give it its full name) was laid out with strings and measuring rods on 6 December 1534. An irregular grid was constructed (rather like a bigger version of the grid in my own home city of New Sarum in Salisbury, England) on the sloping hillside, with at its centre a large open square, the Plaza Grande. Around this were quickly built the most important buildings: the cathedral, archbishop’s palace, governor’s palace (now the presidential palace), and the municipal palace (city hall). West and south of this, on the edge of the original grid, are two further large open squares – used as markets – flanked, and dominated, by the vast (and still existing) Franciscan and Dominican friaries. These were constructed by the local indigenous population under the direction of friars who had been sent out from Spain to forcibly convert them to Christianity. On the other side of the world, at exactly this time, Henry VIII (and Thomas Cromwell) were dissolving all of the great English friaries and pulling them down.

The huge Franciscan friary here, with its large north-west-facing church surrounded by two cloisters and five other courtyards, was started in 1536, and is said to be the largest religious complex in South America. As well as the equally grand Dominican house, at least 20 other churches and convents were soon built in the city, which was created the centre of Real Audiencia of Spain in the Viceroyalty of Peru. Remarkably, almost all of these churches are still in regular use, and full of devout indigenous people, attending many masses. There has been even more of a revival of worship under ‘their’ new South American Franciscan Pope.

Quito’s most opulent church, ‘La Compañia', with beyond it the Museo Numismatico in the old Central Bank of Ecuador.
Quito’s most opulent church, ‘La Compañia’, with beyond it the Museo Numismatico in the old Central Bank of Ecuador.

In praise of Quito

The grandest and most opulent church of all in central Quito is the church known as ‘La Compañia’. This was built from 1605 by the Jesuits, and inside its Baroque interior it is almost entirely covered in (Inca?) gold. The most magnificent architectural feature, however, is the external south-eastern façade (the church also faces north-west), which was added between 1722 and 1765. It is covered in Jesuit symbolism, including sacred hearts, saints (especially Ignatius Loyola, of course), angels, and putti. Only two years after it was completed the Jesuits were expelled from South America by the King of Spain because they had become too powerful.

On the western edge of the city are the buildings of another magnificent institution, the great hospital of San Juan de Dios. This was founded for King Philip II of Spain (only a decade or so after his ill-fated marriage to Queen Mary in Winchester Cathedral), and it was in use as a hospital (in both ancient and modern usage of the term) until 1974. In 1998, it was reopened as the City Museum (Museo de la Cuidad), where one can see displays of both pre-industrial medicine (for example, blood-letting) and modern. The great church of the hospital is yet another fine ecclesiastical building, still in use, with an upper choir at the outer edge of the nave of the church (here the church faces south-west).

In addition to its archaeology, Ecuador is full of volcanoes, among them the active Tungurahua volcano shown here.
In addition to its archaeology, Ecuador is full of volcanoes, among them the active Tungurahua volcano shown here.

Despite the chaotic, and often very violent, political history of Ecuador since it broke loose from Spain in the early 19th century – and its eruptions and earthquakes – Quito is still a superb ‘colonial’ city that is very well worth visiting (for at least a week!). And that is without me having mentioned the many fine hotels and restaurants, nor the fact that since 2000 Ecuador’s currency has been the American dollar.

Tim Tatton-Brown is an architectural historian and archaeologist, and the former Director of the UK’s Canterbury Archaeological Trust. For over 50 years, he has been visiting and studying volcanoes, and even climbed mounts Ararat and Kilimanjaro in his youth.

All images: Tim Tatton-Brown


This article appeared in issue 77 of Current World Archaeology.

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