The last episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America looked at the Chimú people and their Kingdom of Chimor. They lived in the coastal areas of Peru from around 800AD through to 1400AD when they were conquered by the Incas. The coast of Peru is a desert broken up by river valleys created by the melt water from the Andes running down to the Pacific Ocean.
Cooper started the programme in the ruins of Chan Chan – the capital city of Chimor, which was fairly large & would’ve been inhabited by ~35,000 people at its peak. I’m not sure if this was just the people who lived inside the city (the elite in palaces, and the artisans in houses squeezed in between) or if it also included the poorer people who lived around the walled city & grew food etc. The city is now a tourist attraction & actually a lot of what you can see is reconstruction based on photos & drawings from the past.
The Chimú had arisen after the collapse of a preceding civilisation, the Moche. They grew from a small settlement to a medium sized kingdom on the basis of their irrigation works. Cooper spoke to an archaeologist who works on this, and he was saying that the biggest problem the Chimú faced was that “if all you do is add water to the desert, then you get nothing but wet desert”. Which made me giggle a bit, I liked the turn of phrase. Basically they had to bring in top soil from the river valleys as well as build canals. And unlike our canals which are built straight they built their canals with twists & turns to slow down the water & prevent it eroding the land so much.
The management skills that the culture had to develop to build up their irrigation systems translated well to the management of an empire, and the Chimú set out to conquer themselves one. One neat thing while watching this programme was that J & I had been talking just beforehand about something we’d seen a while ago about some other South American culture (the Lambayque people) and then it turned out they were one of the people’s the Chimú conquered. Cooper told us one reason the Chimú kept conquering was that each new monarch inherited the title from his or her predecessor, but the wealth was inherited by other members of the family. They had to make their own reputation to receive tribute, and the best way to do this was to conquer somewhere new & prove you were worth giving food & wealth to.
Before we watched this episode J & I had been laughing about how all the previous episodes had been dwelling on the happy, happy, hippy side of the cultures, and how all the cultures chosen had apparently got no or little hierarchy. But then this one was the complete opposite – the Chimú had a very strict hierarchy, and you couldn’t change the class you were born into. They even had it built into their creation legend – the commoners came from a copper egg, the women of the royal families came from silver egg, and the men of the royal families from a golden egg. The King was so important he walked on crushed Spondylus shells (which were even more valuable to the Chimú than gold).
And it seems that they practised human sacrifice, of children. The remains of some children between 10 & 14 years old, and in good health, have been found – each was bound and then had their chests cut open & the ribcage forced open. So here we’re back to the gruesome sorts of things one thinks of about Mesoamerican & South American cultures – like the Aztecs & the Incas. The sacrifices were probably due to the extreme weather events that the Chimú land suffered – during an el Niño year the desert can experience extraordinarily heavy rainfall. Around the time the child sacrifices were made there is a band of clay (wet desert!) in the strata, indicating a particularly bad spell of this sort of rainfall.
Overall this was a good series & Jago Cooper is a good presenter. I enjoyed seeing the remains of the different cultures & the scenery of the places they lived – and I thought they did well with emphasising both the differences between the sorts of lives these various people’s lived & our own, and with making them feel like real people. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the happy, happy hippy thing in some of the episodes (particularly the one about the Tiwanaku).
We finished off two series this week, because the third episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City was also the last. This covered the 600 years or so of Rome’s history – at a gallop! It started where it left off last time – with the Papacy leaving Rome to take up residence in Avignon. Montefiore told us how St. Catherine of Siena was so horrified about the Papacy not being in Rome that she wrote several letters practically commanding the Pope to return, and then eventually travelled to Avignon herself and brought the Pope back.
During the Renaissance the Popes and the elite families of Rome indulged themselves in decadent & lavish palaces full of works of art. This is the time of the Borgia Popes, and the time of Michaelangelo etc. And even the Papal residences began mingling classical pagan themes with Christian themes in their decoration. To add to all this expensive building & decoration Pope Julius II (chosing his papal name partly in honour of Julius Caesar) decided it was time St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in a suitable style. To pay for these works the Church sold indulgences – forgiveness for your sins (even the ones you hadn’t committed yet). And this is what so incensed Martin Luther that he kicked off the Reformation.
Because the subject of this series is Rome Montefiore then told us about the counter Reformation – the Catholic Church’s own answer to the excesses of the Renaissance. Although that didn’t mean giving up the lavish art habit – Pope Fig Leaf as Montefiore said he’s remembered (real name Pope Clement XIII) just had them paint over the genitalia in the Renaissance art so the paintings were more modest. And Montefiore went to a church which had a large Baroque statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa which might have everyone clothed, but it’s still spectacular & lavish & sensuous.
Montefiore moved us pretty briskly through the rest of Rome’s history picking out just a detail here & there. The sack of Rome by unpaid mercenaries at the end of the Reformation period was used to highlight the ludicrousness of a more modern Pope’s flouncing about being “practically a prisoner” when he wasn’t nearly so threatened (personally or physically). But the threat was still there as this was the end of the Church’s domination of Rome – the fascist Mussolini dealt the death blow when he confined the Pope’s authority to the area of the Vatican State, and the rest of Rome was then under secular Italian rule. And that’s pretty much where we left the story.
I did enjoy this series, but it felt very rushed to fit the whole three millennia into 3 episodes. Even though the theme was the religious history of Rome it felt a bit too much like a history of the papacy for the last couple of episodes.