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A GOOD READ: Exploring the empire in the clouds

One hundred years ago, Yale scholar Hiram Bingham rediscovered the spectacular Inca city Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes.

One hundred years ago, Yale scholar Hiram Bingham rediscovered the spectacular Inca city Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes. The so-called Lost City of the Incas was built around 1450 and abandoned a hundred years later, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Bingham brought the site, which had been largely forgotten, to worldwide attention in 1911.

Christopher Heaney vividly describes the ambitious and colourful explorer in Cradle of Gold, the Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu. A thoughtful, exciting and fascinating look at the end of the Incan Empire, the book also elucidates the moral, legal and practical dilemmas of Bingham's archaeological expedition to the mountains of South America. Happily, a century after being shipped to New Haven, Conn., a large collection of antiquities from Machu Picchu is going home, ending a long and bitter custody battle between Yale and the government of Peru.

Although Machu Picchu escaped Spanish plundering, the Incan Empire collapsed nonetheless. In 1532, about 168 Spanish soldiers and adventurers led by Francisco Pizarro invaded what is now Peru. In a stroke that combined daring with luck, the men captured Atahualpa, the emperor who had just seized power from his brother after a destructive civil war. After extorting a fortune in gold from the ruler, Pizarro executed him and moved on, almost unmolested by the Incas, to take their capital city, Cuzco.

In The Last Days of the Incas, Kim MacQuarrie writes beautifully about the tragic saga. Both a work of scholarship and an enthralling epic narrative, it clarifies misconceptions about the conquest, reconstructs gaps in the Spanish chronicles and restores Incan honour by emphasizing how bravely they fought against their conquerors. After the Spanish conquest, a war leader named Manco Inca raised armies in an attempt to unseat Pizarro and company. Though defeated, he created the small native state of Vilcabamba, which become a sanctuary for rebels who engaged the Spaniards in prolonged guerrilla warfare.

For a beautiful, accessible overview of the Incas, the book The Incredible Incas and their Timeless Land by Loren McIntyre and Louis S. Glanzman, published by the National Geographic Society, is second to none. This work shows how the Incas created the largest empire in South America prior to European conquest and describes the threat of their destruction by the savagery and injustices of the Spanish conquest and colonization. Stunning paintings and photographs of Inca life, artifacts and archaeological sites bring the social, political, economic, religious and cultural aspects of the civilization to life.

Breathtaking pictures capture the splendours of Incan civilization and the remnants of their endangered culture in Hans Silvester and Jacques Soustelle's The Land of the Incas. Silvester and Soustelle do a nice job of balancing historic and scenic landscapes with portraits of the land's beautiful people. Fans of travel photography will appreciate the vibrant colours, sharp imagery and superb compositions. With wonderful photography and thoughtful text, Silvester and Soustelle demonstrate that the spirit of the Incas endures to the present day.

Look for these books in your local public libraries.

A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Shirley Chan is multicultural services librarian at Coquitlam Public Library.

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