High in the Peruvian Andes, the citadel of Machu Picchu appears suspended in mountain mists. Perched precariously on a rocky outcrop with huge drops either side, this city of a long-dead race eluded discovery until the 20th century, some 400 years after its downfall. Today a traveller in Peru can complete the 70 mile (110km) journey from the city of Cuzco to Machu Picchu in just a few hours by train and bus.
A 500 year old emperor’s estate, as believed by most archaeologist, also referred to as Lost City of the Incas, built around the 1400’s and brought to light nearly half a millennium later by American Historian. This post depicts the glorious journey of the explorer in his challenging quest of discovering this lost marvel, as shown in the book – Strange Worlds Amazing Places: A Tour of Earths Marvels and Mysteries.
In 1911 the American historian and archaeologist Hiram Bingham toiled for five days along the valley of the River Urubamba before reaching the now famous ruins. He believed that he had discovered the Inca stronghold of Vilcabamba; a city that had been razed to the ground during the final Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1572. Bingham later made an attempt to communicate something of his astonishment at what he found in recollecting that “I seemed like an unbelievable dream”.
Bingham persisted in the belief that he had discovered Vilcabamba, which had been his objective when organizing the Yale Peruvian Expedition, but experts today maintain that the true site of this city is at Espiritu Pampa in north-western Peru. The comparatively small fortified city that Bingham stumbled upon was probably abandoned by the Incas before the destruction of Vilcabamba. The remains were in such an excellent state of preservation that it is unlikely that Machu Picchu was ever discovered by the Spaniards, who had a deserved reputation for plundering any settlements that they encountered. Furthermore, there is no mention of this site in their detailed chronicles.
Bingham’s party chanced upon Machu Picchu largely by luck. They had made camp in a river canyon where they met a farmer who told them of the remains of an ancient city on a nearby mountain called Machu Picchu (‘old peak’). Although skeptical, the next day Bingham and his party followed the farmer up the mountain through dense jungle. Near the top, 2000ft (610m) above the valley floor, they came across a stone-faced terrace hundreds of yards long and, beyond it, walls of pure white blocks of granite, covered in thick vegetation but remarkable nonetheless for their exquisite workmanship. Bingham wrote; “Dimly, I began to realize that this wall with its adjoining semi-circular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world”. In every respect, macho Picchu was an extraordinary place, not least because the people who built it did not possess iron tools, draught animals or, indeed, the wheel.
Returning a year later to clear away the vegetation and excavate the site, Bingham uncovered a multilayered complex of squares, baths, courtyards, water channels, houses, palaces and temples. The buildings were constructed of huge granite blocks, but no mortar had been used to hold them in place – the skilfully crafted blocks filtered together so precisely that a thin knife blade could not be inserted between them. Stonemasons had worked each block with several angled sides, so that when finished it fitted with the next like a piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle. The walls of the buildings are made cleverly hewn blocks of granite that fit together neatly with no need for mortar. Some of the largest bricks, which were shaped using only crude stone tools, weighs up to 100 tons and were probably hauled into position with ropes or levered into place. This design greatly increased the stability of a wall, which was essential in areas as subject to frequent earthquakes as the Andes.
The amazing skill of the Inca stonemasons is nowhere better displayed than in the three trapezoidal window openings in the Temple of the Three Windows. The exact function of the temple is unknown, although the rectangular stone a short distance from the windows may have been used as a back sight for solar observations.
Sited on a ridge between the two mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, the city has magnificent natural defences. The steep cliffs here allow for spectacular views of the narrow valley of the Urubamba River, along which enemies would have had to pass to reach the Inca capital, Cuzco some 70 miles (110km) away. The strategic implications of the site were exploited to the full, as might be expected from a people who carved an empire similar in extent to that of the Romans.
The citadel of Machu Picchu was founded during the 15th century and had possibly up to 1000 inhabitants, including priests, noblemen, craftsmen and farmers. Inca society was highly structured and hierarchical, with each person having rigidly defined responsibilities, rights and privileges. The rough stone houses of the general populace stood on the lower terraces while the homes and offices of the nobility were sited on the higher levels. To the west of the city is the sacred Intihuatana, meaning Hitching Post of the Sun, a low, irregular platform of perfect simplicity with a short stone pillar. The Intihuatana, dedicated to the sun god Inti and used in ceremonies, was carved from a single outcrop of rock. It bears testimony to the Incas’ interest and skill in astronomy, for the high priests used it as sundial and a scientific instrument able to indicate solstices and equinoxes. In front of the Intihuatana are two temples, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Principal Temple. These too were simple buildings and were probably roofless, thereby affording the priests ample opportunity to observe the heavens.
Both the sun and the moon were Inca deities. The sun, Inti was the most venerated, as the ancestor of the ruling emperor and father of all Incas. Inti was the husband and brother of the moon Mama Quilla, whose attendants were the stars and planets (with the exception of Venus who was a goddess in her own right). At the winter solstice ceremony, Inti was symbolically ‘hitched’ to the pillar of Intihuatana to ensure the sun’s return the following year, and the sacrifice of animals and children was common at festivals in honour of Inti.
The Incas probably abandoned Machu Picchu before the Spaniards’ arrival at the capital, Cuzco, in 1572, but the cause of the sudden evacuation is unknown. Wars among rival Inca tribes were common, and in some cases resulted in the annihilation of entire communities, this, or a devastating epidemic, may have been the reason for the city’s desertion. Perhaps it was ravaged by a plague so terrible it was permanently quarantined by the authorities. The abandonment of Machu Picchu may forever remain a mystery, but the enigma continues to fuel an intense fascination with the ruined city, surely one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world.