The city of Chan Chan, capital of the Kingdom of Chimor, also known as the Chimu Empire, represents America’s largest prehispanic mud-brick settlement. Its complexity has come to light only after years of intensive excavations. This large city covers 7.7 square miles and is centered on a 2.3 square mile urban core dominated by a series of huge enclosures – the palaces of the Chimu kings.
The origins of the city go back to the beginnings of the first millennium AD when the first large enclosure, probably the Ciudadela Chayhuac, or Chayhuac Citadel, was built. Subsequently, many more ciudadelas, eleven in total. By the time the Inca conquered the Chimu domain, around 1470 AD, the capital was the center of an empire that covered a stretch of 621 miles of the Pacific coast and controlled about two-thirds of all agricultural land ever irrigated along the Pacific coast of South America.
Agriculture was a major concern of the Chimu, who built many miles of irrigation canals, including inter-valley canals, to expand the area under cultivation. A long canal was built from the Chicama River to the north, in order to irrigate farmland near Chan Chan in the Moche Valley. The enormous area harvested in the Moche Valley in prehispanic times still surpasses the area currently cultivated.
The archaeological site is characterized by very tall walls, some of which are 26 feet high, which enclose each of the 11 citadels. Together with Huaca Obispo, Chan Chan’s largest stepped pyramid, which lies at the north of the city, they form the bulk of the monumental architecture at the site. Each of these palaces, most of which are laid out in a very similar fashion in spite of the differences in size, are characterized by three types of structures: U-shaped audiencias, storerooms and wells. In general terms the sites high walls, long corridors, tortuous, winding passageways, and small entrances show how meticulously the regime controlled the flow of people within the enclosures.