Machu Picchu

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors waged widespread war against native populations in the New World. In what is today known as Peru, the Spanish attempted to wipe the Incan Empire off the map. The conquest was finally successful in 1572 when the Spanish established the Viceroyalty of Peru. In addition to murdering multitudes, the Spanish went to great lengths to desecrate sacred Incan locations, attempting to erase the civilization.

Yet, in 1911, an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, and a local villager, Melchor Arteaga, reached a location on top of a mountain the Spanish had never discovered. Though it was known to locals and sitting just 50 miles from the Incan capital, a royal estate sat virtually untouched for almost four centuries. Today, that site is the most famous and most visited in Peru: Machu Picchu.

Historians and archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was constructed starting around 1450. It was likely created to be a royal estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth emperor of the Incas. Approximately 750 people inhabited the city-structure for 80 years before it was abandoned at the dawn of the conquest. Machu Picchu is one of the great melding locations of humanity and nature; the ruins and the surroundings are gorgeous and the ingenuity of the design is sublime.

Melchor Arteaga crossing the Urubamba River on the way to Machu Picchu on 24 July 1911

The structure sits atop the apex of a mountain also called Machu Picchu. In Quechua, “machu” means old, and “picchu” means pyramid, cone, or pointed multi-sided solid. Put together, the term often connotes “old mountain.” The peak rises just 30 feet shy of 8,000 above sea level; a lofty perch, but, interestingly, over 3,000 feet lower than the capital of the empire, Cusco. The plane atop which the ruins sit is surrounded by the Urubamba River on three sides. Sheer cliffs scale 1,500 feet from the waterway to the peak. This proximity to water often leads to misty mornings, which must be quite the visual show. The topography allowed Machu Picchu to be nearly impervious to attack. Its location was a military secret during its occupation. A covert bridge, cut into the mountain, provided a private entrance to the city.

The layout was cunningly constructed. Most of the design adapted to the mountain itself. The area was outfitted with horizontal terraces, used for farming. The terraces are incredible pieces of architecture for their age. Since Machu Picchu receives a large amount of rainfall, irrigation systems were unnecessary and the builders instead needed to incorporate drainage systems. These terraces served multiple purposes. They provided sustenance, but they also protected the area from landslides, through drainage and fortification.

One half of Machu Picchu was probably residential and the other religious. In the western, religious section, three great archaeological discoveries reside. The Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows, and the Intihuatana were dedicated to the sun god Inti, the greatest Incan deity. These edifices and stones, perhaps unsurprisingly, were astronomically designed and quite accurate. The Intihuatana is a stone; scientists believe it is an astronomical clock or calendar. The word means “to tie up the sun” or “the Hitching Post of the Sun.” The Inca believed the stone itself held the sun in its place along its path in the sky.

Temple of the Sun
The Room of the Three Windows - photo by PeruGuide
The Intihuatana - photo by Jordan Klein
The terraced field and a misty morning - photo by Christophe Meneboeuf

When Bingham and Arteaga “rediscovered” the site in 1911, it sat in disrepair, overgrown with centuries of flora. 

Despite the shoddy appearance, Bingham quickly realized the construction of this site was incredible. The individual rocks were all of regular shape and highly polished. The strangest aspect, however, was the complete lack of mortar. The stones fit perfectly together, requiring no binding agent to maintain integrity. How had humans made such a structure? How had all the quarry got to the top of the mountain?

Despite the insistence of ancient alien theorists, the construction was not the result of extraterrestrials. Instead, the Incas employed a technique called ashlar, of which they were masters. Crafting blocks to carefully fit each other can completely preclude the need for mortar. This practice actually dovetailed with the second question about the construction of Machu Picchu. Where did the rock come from?

The site sits atop a fault line. The location may have been specifically chosen because a bevy of raw materials – broken rock – waited for them on the fault. The genius of this possibility is stunning. Situated on a seismic danger spot, mortar would have been nearly pointless. Ashlar allowed the Incas to build a stable structure that could withstand some temblors. And using ready-made material meant lugging rocks up the side of a steep mountain was superfluous. Further, drainage of the ample rainfall was natural and the weathering of an adhesive was also avoided. Plus, it flat-out looks cool.

Ashlar in action

I could probably go on about this amazing building for a few weeks, so I’ll force myself to conclude.

UNESCO designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site in 1983. Since the early 1900s, archaeologists have worked tirelessly to restore the site to its previous glory. The before-and-after imagery is incredible. Thousands of tourists travel the Inca Trail each year, often starting in Cusco and spending four or five days hiking to Machu Picchu.

The geography, coupled with the stonework makes Machu Picchu a unique site and one to definitely aspire to visit. As always, if you have been fortunate enough to lay eyes on this splendor, please send me photos! Until next time, enjoy these parting images of the Old Mountain!

The state of the ruins as photographed by Hiram Bingham in 1912
Machu Picchu today - Photo by Pedro Szekely
Machu Picchu from the neighboring mountain, Huayna Picchu - photo by Martin St. Amant
Panorama of the site - photo by Diego Delso
Photo by McKay Savage

Further Reading and Exploration

Macchu Picchu – Official Peruvian Site

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu – UNESCO World Heritage Site

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