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22 March 2011

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu lies in the southern hemisphere, some 13 degrees south of the equator. It is 80 kilometers northwest of Cusco, on the crest of the mountain Machu Picchu, located about 2,450 metres (8,040 ft) above mean sea level, over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) lower than Cusco, which has an altitude of 3,600 metres (11,800 ft).
As such, it had a milder climate than the Inca capital. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Latin America and is the most visited tourist attraction in Peru.


The Incas started building the estate around AD 1400 but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction.
The ruins of Machu Picchu are divided into two main sections known as the Urban and Agricultural Sectors, divided by a wall. The Agricultural Sector is further subdivided into Upper and Lower sectors, while the Urban Sector is split into East and West sectors, separated by wide plazas.

The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. The Incas were among the best stone masons the world has seen, and many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.

Some Inca buildings were constructed using mortar, but by Inca standards this was quick, shoddy construction, and was not used in the building of important structures. Peru is a highly seismic land, and mortar-free construction was more earthquake-resistant than using mortar. The stones of the dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing.
Machu Picchu - stonework. Credit: World-Mysteries.com
Inca walls show numerous design details that also help protect them from collapsing in an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and "L"-shaped blocks often were used to tie outside corners of the structure together. These walls do not rise straight from bottom to top but are offset slightly from row to row.

The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals as well as terrain and dense vegetation issues may have rendered it impractical. How they moved and placed enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after the stones were placed, the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.

The space is composed of 140 structures or features, including temples, sanctuaries, parks, and residences that include houses with thatched roofs. There are more than one hundred flights of stone steps –often completely carved from a single block of granite –and a great number of water fountains that are interconnected by channels and water-drains perforated in the rock that were designed for the original irrigation system. Evidence has been found to suggest that the irrigation system was used to carry water from a holy spring to each of the houses in turn.

According to archaeologists, the urban sector of Machu Picchu was divided into three great districts: the Sacred District, the Popular District to the south, and the District of the Priests and the Nobility.

Located in the first zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity. The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses. In the royalty area - a sector that existed for the nobility - is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the Amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the Ă‘ustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.

As part of their road system, the Incas built a road to the Machu Picchu region. Today, tens of thousands of tourists walk the Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu each year, acclimatising at Cusco before starting on a two- to four-day journey on foot from the Urubamba valley, up through the Andes mountain range to the isolated city. Further evidence of Machu Picchu's role in long-distance trade comes from non-local artifacts found at the site. An example of long-distance transport is the presence of unmodified obsidian nodules from the Chivay Obsidian Source that were found at the entrance gateway to Machu Picchu by Bingham. In the 1970s, Burger and Asaro determined that these obsidian samples were from the Titicaca or Chivay obsidian source, and that these samples from Machu Picchu represent the further transport of this obsidian type in prehispanic Peru.

The Guardhouse is a three-sided building with one of its long sides opening onto the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. This three-sided style of Inca architecture is known as the wayrona style.

Machu Picchu's sunset panorama.  Image Credit: Martin St-Amant - Wikipedia

The Ancient Walls: The Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is one of the few places left unscathed by the conquering Spaniards. Searching for more gold, Pizarro marched his men up the Urubamba River and around the horseshoe bend at the base of the mountain.
Serenely perched 1500 feet above the thundering waters, Machu Picchu escaped the fate of most of the Inca empire.
At some point, for reasons that elude us, life in the city ended and the forest took dominion. It was rediscovered in 1911 by a young American named Hiram Bingham.

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet
It is now generally thought that at the time of the conquest, knowledge of Machu Picchu had been lost by the Incas themselves. This hasn't stopped modern historians from somehow attributing its construction to Pachacutec, the 9th Inca who reigned in the mid 15th century, and gets credit for much of the achievements of that civilization.

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet
Hiram Bingham was told of a plant whose juices softened rock so that the surfaces would join perfectly. There are reports of such a plant, including this one by one of the early Spanish Chroniclers: While encamped by a rocky river, he watched a bird with a leaf in its beak light on a rock, lay down the leaf and peck at it. The next day the bird returned. By then there was a concavity where the leaf had been. By this method the bird created a drinking cup to catch the splashing waters of the river. Considering the fact that lichen softens stone to attach its roots, and considering the ongoing extinction of plant species, perhaps this isn't really such a far-fetched notion.
Eric Von Daniken, in his series of books beginning with Chariots of the Gods  theorized that the Andean stoneworks were built by Alien/Gods who visited the earth long ago, bringing civilization to primitive man. The scientific community simply snickered.
Whatever one thinks of his theories, he brought to the public an awareness of the many ancient monuments on earth that seem to defy rational explanation.

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet
In his novel "Slapstick" Kurt Vonnegut quips:
"...there must have been days of light gravity in old times, when people could play tiddley winks with huge chunks of stone."
Pedro de Cieza de Leon wrote of an old Inca legend about the creator-god, Viracocha. Once to show his power he caused a huge fire, then extinguished it. As a result of having been burnt so, the stones were so light that even a large one could be picked up as though it were made of cork.

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet
Because Machu Picchu was never discovered and ransacked by the Spanish Conquistadors, it is something of a time capsule. The stoneworks here show astonishing differences in quality of craftsmanship. In many places there are walls in the lower levels of the fine quality that is the hallmark of ancient Andean stoneworks. Then as the walls rise, the quality of work diminishes. The lower layers are always finer, always more precise, than those above. One gets the feeling that these are remnants of old walls that were discovered and built upon by later hands.

Machu Picchu  © 2003-2004 by Richard Nisbet
The structures at Machu Picchu are not as gigantic as those at Sacsahuaman, but some are surely finer. In a few cases, as in the "Temple of Three Windows" these walls stand among the most inspired structures created by man.

Temple of Three Windows. Machu Picchu.