Machu Picchu, Peru
By Jared Johnsen
A secluded Inca citadel rests on the ridge of towering Andean peaks flanking the Urubamba River canyon. Over 200 buildings house the sacred city’s 1,200 residents in addition to providing them with worship temples, storage facilities, and vast tracts of land terraced for farming. It is the end of the 15th century at the royal estate and sanctuary named Machu Picchu, its walls still being carved to fit the stones for further construction. Yet, these new projects will soon come to a screeching halt. During the next 27 years, over half of the Incan population will become infected with small pox and die from this fatal disease. It is at this time the awe-inspiring religious sanctuary and retreat falls into disuse by the once-mighty Inca civilization. Five years later, the Spanish Conquistador Pizzaro appears in Cusco and defeats the already suffering Incan army and leadership. But what would happen to the great Machu Picchu? It lies still in the grass of its hidden ridge, tucked away from other trade and administrative routes through the mountains. Soon, it will be enveloped by the robust undergrowth of the jungle, and remain motionless in the soil like the fallen Incan warriors downriver in Cusco.
|Machu Picchu from the Trail|
In truth, it is a good thing that this Incan religious center was not discovered by the Spanish. All other sites they found were sacked and pillaged, scarcely leaving any of their architecture or temples intact. As luck would have it, the history of Machu Picchu would be a different one than most others. Its remote location – on an insignificant road in treacherous mountainous terrain, perched high above the Urubamba River canyon – seems to attest to the fact that it would have no commercial, military, or administrative use. So, it was not exactly a place of much concern to the Spanish either and the site remained mainly untouched for 4 more centuries. Then, in 1912 the structure was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, who was sent on an archaeological expedition by Yale. Much archaeological research has since been done to open vast windows from which to gaze into the function of this amazing site. Still, with no existing written language to decipher, many questions remain unanswered.
If you embark on the 4-day journey on the Inca trail, you will approach this marvelous site from the south. Your first view will be from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. At the farthest extremity, you will see Huayna Picchu soaring above the site, from which an outstanding view of the ruins and surrounding valley can be obtained. A hike to the top of it should not be missed if you can muster the strength. The site itself can basically be broken down into two parts: agricultural and residential. From both the trail and the ticket gate you will be coming into the agricultural zone as you enter the city. The contours of these slopes are lined with many layers of stone walls several feet high. To gain a high yield in the maize and potatoes they grew, the Inca employed this advanced terracing and irrigation method to reduce erosion and increase their area of arable land.
|Torreon From Below|
As you move further into the settlement, you will undoubtedly be guided through the most important temples and structures – and I won’t go into them really. But something worthy of notice is the beautiful craftsmanship used in these structures. Most of them are built of granite blocks cut with bronze or stone tools, and smoothed with sand. The mortarless blocks rest solidly together with a tightness impenetrable to even the blade of a knife. It is worth mentioning that at Machu Picchu the Inca often utilized existing stone formations for their buildings. You will notice sculptures that are carved into the rock and water that flows through cisterns and stone channels. There are even temples hanging on steep precipices displaying this at-oneness with nature, like the Torreon
. This astrological building is amazingly built upon the outcropping of an existing megalith and has windows through which the sun’s first rays over the adjacent mountain shine through on the summer and winter solstice.
Another of the many important structures at Machu Picchu is the Intihuatana
. This column of stone rises from a box-shaped slate of stone the size of an ice chest. The word Intihuatana
literally translates to “for tying the sun.” Normally it is translated as “hitching post of the sun,” but I think it is more helpful to think of it as the former because as the winter solstice approached, when the sun seemed to shine less and less each day, a priest would hold a ceremony, tethering the sun to this stone to prevent it from vanishing entirely. These pieces, known as gnomons, often existed at Incan sites but were always destroyed by the Spanish. This one remains, still offering the meaning and significance surrounding it at its conception.
Whatever you discover at Machu Picchu, just gazing down at this astounding group of mountain residences and astrological temples, one can’t help but imagine how the Incan must have revered it with deep pride and spiritual devotion. And even if we don’t fully understand the spiritual significance of this tremendous settlement – where skyscraping mountaintops act as the city walls – to the onlooker, it appears to be wrought with divinity.