History of Cuenca: an overview

Johan Klok | Last update: June 2, 2021

Introduction

The Cañari, Inca, and Spanish civilizations are the main forces that shaped and formed the valley in which Cuenca is situated.

14th century – the Cañari

The Cañari civilization flourished in the region from 600 AD to the Inca conquest around 1470 AD. In the 14th century, the Cañari founded the city of Guapdondélig on the location where the Pumapungo archeological site is now. The word guapdondélig means “land as big as heaven,” probably reflecting the natural, geographical and strategic advantages of this site.

The houses and other buildings were probably simple structures made from earth. Some structures of the Cañari can still be seen at the small archeological site of the Manuel Agustín Landívar Museum.

15th century – the arrival of the Incas

The Incas arrived in the valley around 1470. They occupied Guapondéleg and the surrounding area and renamed the city Tumipampa or Tomebamba, meaning “Tumi Plain” respectively “Knife Plain” in the Quechua language. The town became an important place for the Incas, second only to Cuzco. People from Cuzco migrated to the city to build up the town. They brought with them new techniques for working with stone. Ultimately the Inca empire disappeared due to the internal rival and the arrival and conquest by the Spaniards. After being abandoned by the Incas, Tomebamba was sparsely populated until the 1550s.

16th century – the start of the colonial period

On 12 April 1557 – ten or fourteen years after the first occupation of the region - Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca was founded by the Spanish general Gil Ramírez Dávalos. He got his orders from the Viceroy of Peru, Hurtado de Mendoza, who also ordered to name the city after his hometown in Spain: Cuenca. Gil Ramírez Dávalos founded the city on a site west of the ruins of Tomebamba. The urban layout was designed according to the principles of the Procedures for the Creation of Cities in the New World, as declared by King Charles I of Spain in 1523.

The Viceroyalty of Peru

The Viceroyalty of Peru (in Spanish: Virreinato del Perú) was the Spanish colonial administrative district that originally contained most Spanish-ruled South America, including Ecuadorian cities like Quito and Guayaquil. The head of the Viceroyalty was the Viceroy. The capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru was Lima.

The Procedures for the Creation of Cities in the New World

The Procedures for the Creation of Cities in the New World ordered the following: a Hippodamic grid with the north-south and east-west streets intersecting every 84 meters. At the center of the grid had to be the Central Square, around which were to be located the administrative authorities (the cabildo [town council] and the audiencia [royal appellate court]), the ideological authorities (the main church), and the repressive authorities (the prison and at the center of the square (as a symbol of domination) the pillory. Another requirement was that expansion would be possible in all four directions.

Cuenca was characterized by racial and social marginalization. The indigenous people had to live in the outskirts of the city, the present-day districts of San Blas and San Sebastián. The Spanish and Creole population lived in the center of the town, the present-day district of El Sagrario.

During this same time, the catholic church started the evangelizing of the indigenous population. For that reason, some churches – like the San Blas church and the San Sebastian church – were strategically located.

19th century– the start of the republican period

Cuenca achieved its independence on 3 November 1820. In the second half of the 19th century, the agrarian economy of basic necessities turned into an agricultural economy of exports. Especially cereal husks and Panama hats were exported. A period of economic prosperity started. Cuenca became the country’s third-largest city and the birthplace of writers, poets, musicians, and artists.

In 1965 Cuenca was connected to the Quito – Guayaquil railroad, which made it possible to travel by train to Quito and Guayaquil.