Wide-angle elevated view of Machu Picchu from the upper agricultural terraces showing the Urubamba River on the west (left side), the granite quarry and the two urban sectors adjacent to the main square, Peru
Our small group was very fortunate to have Peter Frost, a world renowned explorer and National Geographic expedition leader, as our private guide for an afternoon walk through the restored ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [For an introduction to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail’s Sun Gate entrance to the site, please see our previous two blog posts.]
“Machu Picchu is an Inca settlement located in the High Andes of Peru in the Urubamba Valley, north of Cuzco. The site, perched high above the Urubamba river, has been variously described as a fortress, imperial retreat and ceremonial precinct. It was founded by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui in c. 1450 CE, had capacity for around 1,000 residents at its peak, and ranked amongst the most sacred of all sites for the Inca. Following the collapse of the Inca empire, Machu Picchu was abandoned and forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1911 CE by the explorer Hiram Bingham.” — Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu
General view of Machu Picchu from the south, with Huayna Picchu mountain in the background, Peru
“Machu Picchu is a fine example of the Inca practice of shaping architecture around the natural terrain. Ridges were made into plateaus for building upon and slopes were terraced using stone bulwarks. Further, constructions were made to aesthetically blend with their surroundings. For example, the profile of the Sacred Rock [the Intihuatana stone] actually mimics one of the mountain peaks behind it. Finally, very often windows and doorways were deliberately positioned to capture the best views of the surrounding mountains.
“Rock was a material the Incas had special reverence for. Stone was even thought of as a living substance and in the Inca language (Quechua) the word for it translates as ‘to begin’. Stone was shaped with great skill and natural rock outcrops were moulded to suit various purposes… The Intihuatana Stone (‘Hitching Post of the Sun’), also known as the intiwatana, sitting at the highest point of the sacred complex, was carved with great care into a device for astronomical observations and made a tangible link between the earth and sky. The carved stone pillar on top of the polygonal stone base was used like a sundial to record the movements of the sun and, during solstices, priests symbolically tied the sun to the earth using a cord.” — Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu
In the two photographs above, one of the remaining visible granite quarries used by the Incas for construction of the buildings at Machu Picchu from around 1450 to its abandonment around 1530 can be seen on the left side, below (and to the west of) the upper urban sector.
The two urban sectors adjoining the main square at Machu Picchu with the main temple and the Intihuatana stone on the hilltop on the left, center; Peru
“Machu Picchu (meaning ‘old hill’) was an imperial estate founded by and belonging to Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the Inca ruler, in the mid-15th century CE. The ownership of the site was later passed to Pachacuti’s successors. On its rediscovery by the explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 CE (although local residents in the valley had always known of the site’s existence) it was claimed as the last capital of the Incas. However, this proved to be untrue when the actual final capital was discovered at Vilcabamba, further downstream in the Urubamba Valley.
“Another hypothesis concerning the site posed by early historians was that Machu Picchu was a fortress and the strong walls, large towers, and dry moats were cited in support of this theory. The need for fortification perhaps sprang from a series of severe droughts which made the competition for resources fierce. This would also explain why the site was not occupied for very long as when the water situation improved the necessity for such citadel sites declined. Once again though, further study has revealed that most of the architecture was designed for religious purposes and the fortifications may well have been put in place to ensure only a select few could enter this sacred site. In further support of this interpretation, a road was discovered which linked the site to several residential settlements dotted along the valley. The most likely purpose of Machu Picchu, then, was as a sacred site, probably to the sun god Inti and with the additional purpose of reminding the recently conquered local population of the power and might of Pachacuti and the Inca empire centered at its capital Cuzco. The site was abandoned by the Inca shortly before Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arrived. The invaders never reached Machu Picchu, though, and the site would remain unknown to the wider world for 400 years.” — Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu
Details of the agricultural terraces and retaining walls built by the Incas on the western side of Machu Picchu, Peru_
“To feed the people in their swiftly growing empire, the Inca terraced great areas of mountain land, transported rich soils to the terraces, employed highly sophisticated irrigation systems, and experimented with a variety of crops.” — http://www.sacredsites.com
Three Windows Temple showing the detailed stone workmanship by the Incas at Machu Picchu, Peru
Each granite block was dressed and shaped on-site by the Incas; mortar-free, the walls have withstood centuries of earthquakes and weathering at Machu Picchu, Peru
“Two thousand feet above the rumbling Urubamba river, the cloud shrouded ruins have palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and some 150 houses, all in a remarkable state of preservation. These structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountain top are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of even a thin knife blade.” — http://www.sacredsites.com
The Main Temple at Machu Picchu, Peru, exemplifies the Inca’s design, architectural and construction skills — in a culture without writing
“The Inca fashioned monumental architecture equal in beauty to any culture of the old world. Massive, multi-sided blocks were precisely fitted together in interlocking patterns in order to withstand the disastrous effects of earth quakes (in an earthquake, the stones on Inca terrace walls lock together, allowing the entire wall to simultaneously flex and cohere). Both secular and sacred architecture had spacious windows, niches for idols, and other purely artistic sculptural elaborations. Splashing fountains abounded and masterpieces of hydraulic engineering brought fresh water into buildings, while other channels removed wastes.” — http://www.sacredsites.com
A typical window with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains at Machu Picchu, Peru
The Intihuatana stone (meaning ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’) has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods at Machu Picchu, Peru
“One of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana stone (meaning ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’) has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. The Intihuatana (also called the Saywa or Sukhanka stone) is designed to hitch the sun at the two equinoxes, not at the solstice (as is stated in some tourist literature and new-age books). At midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun “sits with all his might upon the pillar” and is for a moment “tied” to the rock. At these periods, the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they “tied the sun” to halt its northward movement in the sky. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the December solstice (the summer solstice of the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind Pumasillo (the Puma’s claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range, but the shrine itself is primarily equinoctial.
“Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to the Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. Intihuatana stones were the supremely sacred objects of the Inca people and were systematically searched for and destroyed by the Spaniards. When the Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence, thus the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain in their original position.” — http://www.sacredsites.com
Closeup view of the eastern urban sector; note how the diagonal stairs and roof lines echo the surrounding mountainscape at Machu Picchu, Peru
Closeup of the upper agricultural terraces (with a very advanced, integrated Inca-designed watering system) at Machu Picchu, Peru
“These monumental landscaping projects, called andenes in the [Incas’] Quechua language, so impressed the colonial Spanish that they named the Andes mountains after them (recent satellite photography has shown that these Inca terraces covered more land than is currently cultivated in the central Andean nations).” — http://www.sacredsites.com
The shape of the southeast corner of the noble houses in the eastern urban sector mirrors the surrounding mountains at Machu Picchu, Peru
“At the time of Columbus’ landfall on the New World, the greatest empire on earth was that of the Inca. Called Tawantinsuyu or ‘Land of the Four Quarters,’ it spanned more than 4,300 miles along the mountains and coastal deserts of central South America. The vast empire stretched from central Chile to present Ecuador-Colombia border and included most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina (this is a land area equal to the entire portion of the United States from Maine to Florida east of the Appalachians). It exceeded in size any medieval or contemporary European nation and equaled the longitudinal expanse of the Roman Empire. Yet for all its greatness, Tawantinsuyu existed for barely a century…
“Around 1438… the Inca emperor Viracocha and his son, Pachakuti, defeated a powerful rival, the Chankas. From this time the empire building era of the Inca began. Other rival tribes around the Cuzco area were soon united and campaigns were launched into the Titicaca basin and beyond. During the ensuing reigns of the emperors Pachakuti, and Topa Inca the Inca armies expanded the frontiers of Tawantinsuyu from southern Columbia to central Chile.
“In the few short years before their overthrow by the Spanish in 1532, the Inca developed one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the entire pre-industrial world. (In discussing Inca achievements, however, it is important to state that they were not the singular invention of a few inspired emperors but rather the ultimate elaboration of numerous pan-Andean institutions.) The Inca accomplished their phenomenal growth through a mixture of diplomacy and warfare, and a sociopolitical management system based on highly effective taxation and the dependable provision of goods and services to the peoples of their realm.” — http://www.sacredsites.com