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Chan Chan – a city of mudbricks

Adobe walls in the city of Chan Chan

Chan Chan is huge – an adobe city over 20km^2, made up of ten “palace complexes”, of which only one is open to the public. The site is so big that the Pan-American highway cuts through the middle of it, and as we drove along I could see adobe walls on both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see. It was the capital of the Chimú people between about AD1000-1470, when they were conquered by the Inca who in turn were vanquished by the Spanish Conquistadors. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and deservedly so.

Part of a decorative frieze

It was so big that it was difficult to take pictures of. Christopher would have done a better job with his SLR and a wide-angle lens. As it is, you’ll have to make do with some snaps of some of the details that caught my eye. I rather liked these animals – possibly squirrels? – that formed a frieze along one of the walls of the palace complex.

These look like pelicans to me

These heavily stylised birds around the edge of one of the ceremonial courtyards look like pelicans to me. The rhombus-shaped decoration on the wall apparently represents fishing nets. Chan Chan is very close to the Pacific Ocean, and the sea was clearly very important to the inhabitants. On the other hand, it could just be decoration!

Detail of a frieze of a double-headed rainbow serpent at Huaca Dragon

After Chan Chan, and covered by the same entrance ticket, my guide took me to another Chimú site, the Huaca Dragon, or “Pyramid of the Dragon”. The name is misleading though – it’s a temple platform rather than a true pyramid, and it was the Spanish who identified the mythical creatures on the walls as dragons – that was a concept alien to the Chimú, who apparently considered it to be a double-headed rainbow serpent.

General view of Huaca Dragon

I’m not over-keen on the heavy restoration of the site, clearly visible in the photo above, but it does give one an idea of what the temple would originally have looked like. Imagine all that bas-relief brightly painted, and you’ll get an idea of how garish it would have once been. The metal scaffolding is there to support a temporary roof, which can be hastily erected should rain-storms be forecast. Since they were all made entirely of mud-brick, all the sites I saw were seriously threatened by erosion. According to my guide, meteorologists are predicting another El Niño event early next year, and the accompanying downpours could cause major damage to the ruins