COLUMBUS WAS not exactly Mr. Nice Guy, but he looks like a saint compared to Francisco Pizarro, one of the savage Spanish conquerors who followed the Admiral of the Ocean Sea to the so-called New World.

Barely 40 years after Columbus's first landfall in the Americas, Pizarro and his little band of butchers attacked and destroyed the great Inca empire, which embraced the headwaters of the Amazon and Paraguay rivers and thousands of miles of the Pacific coast of South America.

The destruction was so treacherous, purposeful and thorough that only bare shreds of this ancient culture survived. To mark the 500th anniversary of the European invasion of America, Washington's Textile Museum is holding what amounts to a wake in honor of the Incas, whose weavers once produced some of the world's finest textiles.

Cloth was central to Inca culture. The most prized gifts were made of it and taxes were paid with it. Nearly everybody was a weaver at some point in his or her life, and fine fabrics had such religious meaning that idols were made of them and others were sacrificed to the gods along with, and apparently often instead of, humans and animals.

Although the Spaniards found warehouses full of elegant weavings sufficient to fill many ships, virtually all were put to the torch. The Textile Museum collection of Inca tunics and accessories, said to rank with any on the planet, is composed mainly of garments and fragments taken from graves found along the Peruvian coast, preserved by the bone-dry climate.

Words fail curator Ann Pollard Rowe when she tries to describe the human and cultural holocaust the Spanish brought down upon the Incas, who apparently were a far kinder, gentler people than the blood-soaked Aztecs. In Inca society, Rowe says, no one starved or went naked, justice was done and even those chosen for ritual death may have sacrificed themselves willingly.

Under the Spanish, she said, "Millions died, whole societies were wiped out, traditions and skills were lost . . ." She shuddered. "When you read the conquerors' own accounts of what they did to these people -- murder, rape, burning at the stake, brutal slavery, starvation, constant beatings -- it just overwhelms you."

Rowe turns with relief from recounting the sad fate of the Incas to describing the richly woven fabrics in the exhibit. The origins of most are clouded, and the meaning of their designs is obscure, because the Incas had no written language and their conquerors had little interest in their culture. The main sources of information on the styles of Inca robes, tunics, tabards and shawls are the illustrations in a 1615 document drafted by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, an Inca survivor, beseeching the King of Spain to curb the savagery of his priests and soldiers.

Researchers have identified some royal designs and various military styles, but the samples are so few and the history so fragmentary that much mystery remains. No tailoring was done; except for some embroidering of borders and sewing of side seams, tunics were worn just as they came from the loom. "The weaving was very slow and careful," Rowe says. "Efficiency doesn't seem to have been a priority."

For the king, nothing was too good, including cloth woven from bat hair. More commonly, vicuna and alpaca wool were used in the highlands and cotton along the coast. Slow though production might be, cloth was used with breathtaking prodigality: The 300 square yards of cloth used to wrap one mummy required more than two acres of irrigated cotton and incalculable spinning and weaving.

Quality varied widely, partly because Inca styles and methods were overlaid on those of the peoples the Incas conquered. (The Incas were enthusiastic warriors, but instead of slaughtering prisoners like the Aztecs did, they handed out new clothing and told their captives to go home and get busy planting and weaving.) Careless loomwork, runny dyes and sloppy seams are found in a few of the garments, leading Rowe to speculate that they were produced for the annual levy: "Makes you wonder if it's the Inca form of tax evasion."

And makes you ache to think of the way Inca king and commoner alike were crushed in the collision with Europe's Christian soldiers.