Remote and mysterious, this mystic site is situated high in the mountains of Peru and is saturated in Inca history and culture.
Machu Picchu is perched on the Vilcanota mountain range in Peru and sits at an altitude of 2350 meters above sea level. At either side of this sacred settlement, the mountain sides drop to the Urubamba river 600 meters below. Built by the Inca in the early 1400s, Machu Picchu (or Old Peak in the Quechua Indian language) has been sacred to others in earlier times.
The mystery of Machu Picchu is that no one knows exactly why the Inca abandoned the site. In 1533, the conquering Spanish took Cuzco, the Inca capital located 70km away. They began destroying Incan temples to build churches and outlawing Inca rituals. Forty years later after the taking of Cuzco, Machu Picchu was abandoned, never to be seen by the Spanish invaders and not to be ‘rediscovered’ until the 1900s.
The site’s grey granite walls are mortarless, often with blocks of over 50 tons, yet are perfectly jointed.
In July of 1911 Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu for the world. The Yale University professor was in the area to discover what had happened to the Inca. A local informed him of possible ruins on Machu Picchu, and climbing up on hands and knees, he soon found himself face to face with the Incan ruins.
Other explorers arrived at Machu Picchu before Bingham, but only Bingham had the support of Yale and the National Geographic Society. Bingham believed that he had found the birth place of Inca civilization based on the findings of oddly-shaped, colored stones that he believed were ‘record stones’ used by the Inca to keep accounts before they invented the ‘quipa’, knotted and colored ropes. Machu Picchu is the only site where these ‘record stones’ have been found.
Sun worship was central to Inca culture and Machu Picchu was one of the only sites to survive the Spanish purges of Sun-worship artifacts.
For the Inca, the most powerful deity was the Sun, responsible for the sustenance of all life. One of the Inca ways of worshipping the Sun was the use of the Intihuatana Stone (meaning. ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’) located at the top of Machu Picchu. This sculpted granite stone was used like a calendar or sundial to indicate the two equinoxes and other important celestial periods. Inca priests would carefully study the Sun, mountains and the shadows cast on the Intihuatana Stone, allowing them to determine the correct time for the planting or harvesting of crops, or the arriving seasons.
On the two equinoxes (21 March and 21 September) at midday, the Sun sits precisely above the pillar, creating no shadow. Then the Inca would hold ceremonies in which they ‘hitched’ the Sun to the stone to stop its northward journey in the sky. When the Spanish arrived in Peru, they searched out and destroyed Intihuatana Stones, aware of the absolute sacredness of these objects for the Inca.
When a stone was broken, the Inca believed that the deities or spirits of that place disappeared. Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish; the stone and its spirits fortuitously remaining intact. Today, legend has it that sensitive people who place their forehead on the stone are opened up to the spirit world.
The Inca had a royal heritage with dress as ornate as any western king or queen.
No one knows for sure what purpose Machu Picchu served. Some scholars propose it was a center of administration or a secret ceremonial city.
In any case it lies at the center of important Inca trails in an area that was rich in precious metals, cocoa and fruit.
The Inca divided Machu Picchu into the agricultural and the urban. Agricultural terracing )along the fresh water springs) allowed the center to be self-sufficient, as well as preventing erosion. The urban section is U-shaped with temples to the north and houses, palaces, baths and storerooms further south. There were no marketplaces, suggesting that all was under the domain of the Inca emperor or his staff.
Could Machu Picchu have been a mountain retreat for spiritual pursuits?
In 1983, Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now over 300,000 people a year travel to the site by train, helicopter, or on foot. This large increase in tourism has brought its disadvantages.
The road that leads to the site has already suffered two landslides in 1995 and 1996. Nevertheless, commercial enterprises are hoping to build a cable car to replace bus services. The proposal is currently on hold as strong vibrations from the cable car would put the site at maximum risk for a landslide.
Another incident of note includes the filming of a beer commercial in 200 where a prohibited crane fell and damaged the sacred Intihuatana Stone. So are the spirits still dwelling there?