For all its political and economic power, Tiwanaku’s transcendental importance was undoubtedly religious. The first Spanish chroniclers to visit the site were told its name was “Taipicala”, after the stone at the centre, where it was believed the universe was created and from whence the first humans set forth to colonize the world. The Incas themselves consciously sought to associate themselves with the spiritual legitimacy of Tiwanaku, claiming their own dynasty had been brought into existence at nearby Lago Titicaca.

The US anthropologist Johan Reinhard has sought to explain the spiritual importance of Tiwanaku in terms of sacred geography, a system of beliefs related to mountain worship and fertility cults, which is still prevalent in the Andes today. The high mountain peaks are considered powerful deities, known as achachilas in Aymara, who control meteorological phenomena and the fertility of crops and animals.

The most spectacular manifestation of these beliefs is during the Aymara New Year on the June winter solstice, when hundreds of yatiris (traditional priests) from all over the region (as well as a sizeable contingent of gringos) congregate at Tiwanaku to watch the sun rise and celebrate with music, dancing, elaborate rituals and copious quantities of coca and alcohol. Evo Morales even sealed his election victory with a crowning ceremony here.

In terms of sacred geography, Tiwanaku’s position could not be more propitious, set close to Lago Titicaca with a view east to Illimani, the most important mountain god in the Altiplano, and aligned with Illampu and Sajama, the second and third most important peaks. Though it can’t be proved, it seems likely that the builders of Tiwanaku chose the site with these concepts in mind, even though it meant they had to transport stones weighing hundreds of tonnes from across the lake.

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