Chan Chan Archaeological Zone (1986)

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The Chimu Kingdom, with Chan Chan as its capital, reached its apogee in the 15th century, not long before falling to the Incas. The planning of this huge city, the largest in pre-Columbian America, reflects a strict political and social strategy, marked by the city's division into nine 'citadels' or 'palaces' forming autonomous units. 

The site of Chan Chan was inscribed on the World Heritage List of Danger in 1986. 

Chan Chan is the capital city and chief administrative center of the Chimú kingdom, which flourished in Peru from AD 1100 to 1470. The ruins of Chan Chan are situated along the shore of the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Moche River, just north of the modern city of Trujillo, Peru. The largest urban center in South America before the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s, Chan Chan encompassed an area of 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi) and had a population of at least 25,000. At the height of its power, the Chimú kingdom controlled all of the northern and many of the central coastal valleys of Peru. 

Peru 1932. Ornamentation from the Chimu Kingdom.

Peru 1932. Ornamentation from the Inca Kingdom.

Peru 1971. Golden Statuette from the Chimu Culture. Peru 1980. Cup from the Chimu Culture.

The kingdom’s central site contained nine walled compounds known as ciudadellas, or little cities. Beginning in 1969, a team of Harvard University archaeologists studied and mapped the site, determining that each ciudadella represented the palace compound of an individual Chimú king. While a king was alive, the ciudadella served as his residence and administrative center, as well as the storage area for his wealth. Upon his death, the king was buried within the compound in an elaborate platform surrounded by treasures and accompanied by up to 300 sacrificial victims. The ciudadella then became his mausoleum, maintained by his kinsmen. The next king had to build his own palace compound. 

Peru 1986. Restoration of the ruins of Chan Chan. Peru 1987. Restoration of the ruins of Chan Chan. Peru 1989. Restoration of the ruins of Chan Chan.

Each ciudadella was a self-contained unit, surrounded by thick adobe walls 9 m (30 ft) high with only a single entrance. Each contained one or more large plazas where visitors were received and ceremonies took place, as well as residential structures for the king and his servants. A walk-in well provided an independent supply of water. Rows of storage rooms, accessible only through labyrinths of corridors, were monitored by an official who sat in a U-shaped room, or audiencia, carefully recording what went in and out. The king’s material wealth, consisting of food, cloth, and metal objects, was stored in these rooms. 

Many of the walls within the ciudadella were decorated with motifs carved into wet clay or produced by a technique called arabesque, in which adobe bricks are used to create raised designs. This art mainly portrayed maritime themes, such as birds, fish, boats, and water, indicating the importance of the sea in the everyday lives and religion of the Chimú. 

Residences for the upper classes surrounded the ciudadellas. To the south and west extensive areas of small irregularly grouped rooms housed the lower classes, a majority of the population. Religious rituals took place at a number of sacred huacas, or mounds, scattered throughout the city. Agricultural fields watered by extensive irrigation networks surrounded the city. 

  • Peru 1992. Restoration of the ruins of Chan Chan. 

Peru 1992. Restoration of the ruins of Chan Chan.

About 1470 the Incas invaded and conquered Chan Chan, incorporating the Chimú kingdom into the Inca Empire. The Incas took Minchançaman, the last independent Chimú king, to their capital of Cuzco and looted Chan Chan. The Incas ruled the old Chimú kingdom through Minchançaman’s son, Chumun-caur, who was set up as a puppet king. During the colonial period that followed the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 1530s, Spanish conquistadors systematically looted Chan Chan for its gold and other riches. 

Sources and links:

Other World Cultural Heritage Properties in Peru (on this web site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Peru-section. for more information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 03 aug 2006  
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