The Ransom Room

 In the northern highlands of Peru lies the historic city of Cajamarca, where the great Inca Empire came to an end. It was on this land that the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro plotted the downfall of the Inca ruler Atahualpa, capturing him and imprisoning him in a modest chamber adjacent to the grand plaza. In a desperate bid for freedom, Atahualpa promised to fill the chamber once with gold and twice with silver, as high as his outstretched hand could reach. This exorbitant ransom is one of the highest ever paid in human history. Despite his efforts, Atahualpa was executed by his captors after a mock trial. The room in which all this took place is known as the Ransom Room or "Cuarto de Rescate" (Rescue Room), and can still be seen in downtown Cajamarca.

By the early 16th century, the Inca Empire was one of the largest civilizations in the Americas, extending from the northern border of modern Ecuador to the Maule River in central Chile, across the Pacific coast and the Andean highlands. In 1532, after three years of brutal civil conflict, Atahualpa ascended the throne of this vast territory by decisively defeating his half-brother and outgoing emperor, Huascar. However, Atahualpa's reign proved fleeting.

Amid internal conflict within the Inca Empire, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Pizarro set out on a quest to conquer South America. Landing on the island of Puna in January 1531 with a modest force of 168 soldiers and about two dozen horses, they headed south toward the center of the Inca domain. Positioned on the heights of Cajamarca with a formidable army of some 80,000 battle-hardened soldiers, victorious in the recent civil war against Huáscar, the Inca felt little threatened by Pizarro's meager contingent, despite their exotic attire and advanced weaponry.

In a seemingly friendly gesture, Atahualpa welcomed the adventurers deep into his mountain kingdom, intending to lure them into an ambush. Unbeknownst to him, Pizarro had retaliated with a smaller but significantly more powerful army armed with steel weapons and long swords, which were far superior to the wooden, stone, copper and bronze weapons used by the Inca. In a brief and brutal encounter, the Inca forces were destroyed, and Atahualpa himself captured.

It didn't take long for Atahualpa to realize the true intentions of the Spanish invaders: they were greedy for gold and silver. He witnessed the plundering of Inca camps and temples in Cajamarca, witnessing the plundering of precious treasures. Atahualpa understood the harsh reality that his freedom depended on his ability to pay a ransom. Thus, he proposed a transaction to Pizarro for his release: he would fill his confined chamber once with gold and twice with silver, to the level of his outstretched arm. The room was 22 feet long and 17 feet wide. Atahualpa, being a tall man, could reach his arm more than eight feet. This height is now marked by a red line.

Over the ensuing two months, porters gathered from all corners of the empire, and provided vast wealth to appease the invaders. The wealth contained not only gold coins, but also priceless artefacts made of gold and silver, as well as countless tons of precious metals in the form of jewelery and temple decorations. To speed up the process, the Spaniards pulverized heavy objects, ensuring slow accumulation within the chamber. This collected treasure was melted down, refined into 22 carat gold and carefully matched. Atahualpa's ransom included over 6,000 kilograms of gold and twice as much silver, equivalent to nearly half a billion dollars by today's standards. Twenty percent of the booty was allocated to the King of Spain, while the remainder was distributed among the soldiers based on their rank. Legend has it that even the humblest of the soldiers received a share, a total of 20 kilograms of gold and 40 kilograms of silver.

Meanwhile, Atahualpa's three royal generals, Quisquis, Chalchuchima, and Ruminahui, had already begun to raise a large army. After living for several months in fear of an impending attack, the outnumbered Spanish considered Atahualpa too much of a liability and decided to kill him. Pizarro held a sham trial, charging Atahualpa with rebellion against the Spaniards, idolatry, and fratricide against his brother, Huascar. Atahualpa was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. When Atahualpa expressed concern that his soul would not be able to pass on to the next life if the body were burned, Friar Vincent de Valverde offered to commute his sentence to death by garrote, but only if he converted to Catholicism. Agree to happen. Faced with a strict ultimatum, Atahualpa agreed to be baptized into the Catholic faith and assumed the name Francisco Atahualpa in honor of Francisco Pizarro. He was strangled to death with a garrote on July 26, 1533.

The Ransom Room is still located in a small courtyard in the grand plaza, nestled among the commercial establishments on the street and accessible through a verandah. Built of volcanic stone, its condition has been described as "deteriorated by pollution and weather fluctuations". Archaeologists have excavated the floors but the walls of the building are still largely intact, right up to the red line that marks the height to which Atahualpa promised to fill the room with treasure.

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