Lost Cities of the Americas (7 of 7)
Location: Peruvian Andes
Date of Construction: 1 440 C.E.
Abandoned: c 1530 C.E.
Built By: Inca
Key Features: Casa Del Vigilante (The Guard House); The Residential, Religious and Sacred Districts; Intihuatana (Hitching-Post Of The Sun); Main Temple; Temple Of The Three Windows; House Of The Wise; Princesses” Bedrooms
In 1911 American explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led up the steep path from the Urubamba Valley, deep within the Peruvian Andes, by local guides who had promised him something special.
What he found was Machu Picchu, known today as the ultimate lost city, a profoundly mysterious and affecting site that draws thousands of tourists a day despite its remote and inaccessible location.
Bingham thought he had discovered Vilcabamba, final refuge of the last Inca emperor in his desperate, doomed resistance to the Spanish conquistadors, but in fact he had stumbled across something older and far stranger.
In Quechua, language of the Incas, Machu Picchu means “Old Peak”, a reference to the sacred peak on which it was constructed, 7,709 feet above sea level.
It lies about 43 miles northwest of the old Inca capital of Cusco and yet despite its relatively central location it was completely unknown to all but a few locals since before the Spanish conquest.
Construction was probably begun by theSapa Inca (High King) Pachacuti in around 1440 CE, or possibly his successor Yupanqui (in which case construction wouldn’t have started until c 1460), but the site was almost certainly already abandoned by the time of the Spanish conquest in 1532.
At most around 1,000 people lived here, so lost “city” is something of a misnomer. In fact, the geographical and economic isolation of the site, away from the major Inca highways and equipped with so little agricultural terracing that it may not even have been self-sufficient, points to the fact that Machu Picchu probably wasn’t an important economic, military or administrative center.
Historians today consider that it was a personal retreat for the Inca and his family, rather like the country villa of a Roman patrician, but with spiritual and ceremonial functions at its heart, as well as a strategic role as an impregnable stronghold for the Inca elite in case of attack – a citadel rather than a city.
When the Inca, his family and retinue were in attendance, the citadel was full, but at other times it was probably inhabited by only a skeleton staff of caretakers and agricultural workers to tend the terraces that surround it.
Among the many mysteries of Machu Picchu is the question of why the emperor chose to build this remarkable complex in such an inaccessible and apparently unimportant spot. The solution is probably to be found in the link between landscape and spirituality that lay at the heart of Inca philosophy.
The Inca revered natural features such as peaks, stones, caves and springs as apus, (“shrines or sacred spots”), and Machu Picchu lies in the heart of a landscape rich in spiritual significance.
Both Machu Picchu itself and Huayna Picchu, the higher peak that rears up beyond it, were probably apus, and many of the citadel’s structures are built on or from natural rock outcrops and formations, some partially sculpted or modified, which probably had spiritual significance as well.
Many of the major buildings of the site have been interpreted as temples and when the Inca was in residence there was probably a whole retinue of priests and astronomers who worked with the site to determine important solar events and perform ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices and prayers.
Rough Guide to Machu Picchu
There are two main sectors of the city – the agricultural and the urban sectors. Climbing up to Machu Picchu from the southeast, the visitor first passes through the agricultural sector, which consists of more than 100 terraces, whereby the steep hillsides with their thin soils and inability to retain water are transformed into thin strips of field with stable soil, able to support crops. Small stone huts called collpa dot the terraces – these were probably storehouses.
Approaching the urban sector, the visitor passes the Casa del Vigilante – the Guard House – which commands spectacular views of the city and the Urubamba Valley. A little further along, the trail passes through the main gate and into Machu Picchu proper, which has three main districts.
The Popular or Residential District is where the simplest buildings are located, and is probably where the servants and workers of the citadel lived, including the skeleton staff who maintained the place when the nobility were not in attendance. The buildings are characterized by the steep pitched roofs and include workshops and factories.
Across the Main Plaza from the Residential District, in the Sacred or Religious District, are a number of buildings that were probably temples.
On a hill to one side of the plaza is one of Machu Picchu’s treasures, the Intihuatana, or Hitching-Post of the Sun, a large, carved and shaped rock that culminates in a roughly square upright pillar, believed to have played a central role in Inca solar rituals and calendar calculations.
Before the Spanish conquest such stones were found at the heart of all Inca communities, but the invaders destroyed all they could find in their attempt to suppress the religion. Fortunately they never discovered Machu Picchu.
Other highlights of the Sacred District include the Main Temple and the deliberately roofless Temple of the Three Windows, with its characteristic trapezoid windows (believed to offer greater stability against earthquakes).
On the right id the Residential and Industrial Zone, with its workshops and factories. In the foreground on the left is the Royal Zone, while beyond it is the Sacred or Temple Zone. In the middle is the Central Plaza. The Agricultural Zone is behind the camera.
The third district, between the Sacred District and the agricultural zone, is the Royal District, where it is believed higher status people stayed.
The buildings here are of fine stonework and have evocative names such as the House of the Wise and the Princesses’ Bedrooms. Rooms are trapezoid, again probably to help resist earthquake damage.
Next to the Royal Palace is the Temple of the Sun, believed to have been an astronomical observatory. The Temple of the Sun has a fountain built into its very fabric, highlighting the ingenious hydrological engineering of the Incas, who used aqueducts, shaped natural channels and natural springs in the area to supply the whole citadel with running water.
Also in this district are what is believed to be the jail and the Monumental Mausoleum, where mummies were stored in niches cut into the walls and sacrifices may have been carried out.
It is also believed that sacrifices or ritual torture may have been carried out in the Temple of the Condor, a partly natural rock chamber with a striking formation that resembles the outstretched wings of a condor.
Grooves in the rock, possibly for channeling blood, lead down into a pit. Similar grooves are found on altars and niches elsewhere in the city. Bloodletting and sacrifice may have been a major feature of life in Machu Picchu, as evidenced by archaeological discoveries in the city of human bones bearing the marks of butchery.
Mysteries of Machu Picchu
There is no doubt that Machu Picchu exerts a powerful influence on all those who see it. Partly this is a function of the design of the city and its relations to its surroundings. Machu Picchu stands as one of the greatest monuments to Inca architecture and craftsmanship.
Its layout is remarkably sympathetic to and harmonious with the natural space it occupies. Buildings appear to hang in impossible places and to have grown out of the roots of the mountain, so that the whole site works with and not against its apparently inhospitable location.
Its builders probably also designed it to reflect and pay homage to the surrounding sacred landscape in subtle ways that are hard for modern visitors to explicitly understand but that affect them nonetheless.
Another great mystery of Machu Picchu is the technical one. How could such an impressive scheme be realized in such a remote and inaccessible location, by a Bronze Age culture whose use of the wheel was restricted to children’s toys?
The answer is probably a combination of ingenuity, technical mastery of the arts of architecture, masonry and rock carving, and sheer manpower.
In particular, the skill of the Incas is epitomized by their extraordinary dry-stone construction, in which dressed blocks of stone are fitted together without mortar, but with such precision that even the thinnest knife blade cannot be forced between them.
Perhaps the most haunting mystery of Machu Picchu is the enigma of how it came to be lost and what happened to the people who lived there.
Archaeologists have unearthed about 200 skeletons of people buried on the site, but this is far fewer than the likely population of the city, suggesting that the inhabitants abandoned it or at the very least did not die off slowly enough to be buried.
Plagues and epidemics are known to have wiped out whole Inca settlements, while entire communities were sometimes put to the sword as punishment or in war, but there is no evidence of any violence or destruction, or of bodies scattered around the site.
The low number of burials suggests in fact that the city was not occupied for very long, being in use for only a few decades in total. In the center of the citadel is a large quarry, where the stone for construction came from, and it appears to have been in full use when abandoned.
Perhaps after years of struggling, it was decided that it was too hard/costly to continue construction and maintenance of such a remote site, particularly if the city was the pet project of one Inca emperor or royal clan, whose enthusiasm was not shared by his/their successors.
Above all, however, the fact that knowledge of Machu Picchu was lost to all but a few locals is testament to the way in which Inca society collapsed in the face of the diseases and physical and cultural destruction the conquistadors visited upon them.
A society with no formal written records (the Incas had no writing) relied on oral transmission and a continuity of scholarship for its cultural transmission and such education was restricted to a small elite.
The impact of the Spanish conquest was too much for such a fragile system and it was all too easy for a remote city, far off the main highways along a difficult trail that would have been overrun by jungle within a year without maintenance, to fall off the map. But the Incas’ tragedy is our blessing, for it means the lost city survived the ravages of the Spanish conquest.
The Future of Machu Picchu
Ironically, however, for a site whose reputation rests on having survived untouched for more than five centuries, there are now serious concerns about the future of Machu Picchu. The pressures of mass tourism are threatening the fabric of the site and the surrounding ecology.
It is a World Heritage Site but is officially “at risk” and Peru has been warned that the site might be stripped of its “Heritage” status if Peru does not take steps to preserve it.
The enduring mysteries of Machu Picchu may never be solved, but tragically they may outlast the site itself.