Living in harmony with nature, the Chimu venerated the sea – Deep in the heart of the Moche Valley and near the Valley of Trujillo not far from the Pacific ocean, lie the ruins of the largest mud city of pre-Hispanic Peru: Chan Chan. Capital city of the Chimu kingdom the citadel is without a doubt the most valuable heritage of what was one of the principal pre-Inca civilizations that flourished eight centuries ago on the northern Peruvian coast.
Chan Chan meaning “Sun Sun,” is sprawled across an estimated l8 square kilometers. At the peak of its glory in the year l200 ad, the city most likely housed nearly l00,000 inhabitants. While the mud used to build the city was far from solid, it was preserved by the desert climate. Chan Chan must have been the grandest city of its era! Even today, one can make out a variety of chambers surrounded by high walls. Surrounding these construction’s which have defied the ravages of time are a dozen smaller building’s used as housing, plazas, workshops, labyrinths and pyramids! Its massive walls are profusely decorated with geometric figures in relief laden with aquatic and mythological beings.
The Chimu built a host of plazas and temples, raising shrines to their gods, all of them pyramid-shaped. The civilization’s concept of architecture was based on adobe mud bricks made by hand, which are the traditional construction materials on the Peruvian coast. The Chimu inherited their construction techniques from the great Mohican and Tiahuanaco (Lake Titicaca) civilizations.
Agriculture was all important during that era, and the Chimu drew up a vast number of irrigation works of immense engineering skill, some of which are still in use today. The Chimu were experts in the study of native plants for healing, and food sustenance, and bred many animals such as the guinea pig, dogs, and a species of short necked llama, today extinct, which was used for transport.
The most striking characteristic of Chan Chan is its total dedication to the sea.
Their worship of the ocean was reflected in each and every one of the adobe mud-brick constructions where one can make out traces of murals, niches and recesses, as well as bas-relief stucco figures in the shape of sea animals, fishing tools, and sailing scenes. The figures come hard on the heels of others, giving the sensation of the eternal swell of the waves – fish swimming in the same directions; sea mammals resembling the sea otter; full moons portraying the celestial body’s influence on the wind and the sea; sea birds like pelicans carved into geometric designs, and walls etched into figures representing all forms of aquatic life. The ancient Chimu held the sea, which they called Ni, to be the origin of life. Thanks to their sea-faring skills, the Chimu were able to survive between the desert and the sea. The sea was everything to them: an endless supply of food and the source of inspiration for their most imaginative myths, and legends.
In contrast with the hostile desert environment which the Chimu had to work hard to make fertile, the sea was filled with edible species which sustained not only their physical lives but their souls as well. Their deities included fish, sea mammals and shellfish, the worship of sea birds was also significant and a vital resource: guano, which fueled the culture’s agriculture as a fertilizer. The whale was sacred, as was the otter. The Chimu felt special veneration for the sea lion which they believed accompanied the souls of the dead on their voyage to the afterlife.
Friends of the Otters, sea lions, and whales, the Chimu have bequeathed mankind the priceless expression of their spirit in their carvings and colorful paintings.
The growing appreciation of aboriginal art and culture is a gateway to enter the world of the profound imagery of the Chimu – a cosmic universe of balance and respect for an environment that today seems like Eden. Chan Chan is a majestic vision weaving the elements of harmony, beauty, and history.