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Machu Picchu: Peru’s Ancient Lost City

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Machu Picchu – A Lost City of the Incas in Peru

Situated 2,430 meters above sea level, surrounded by rocky peaks and valleys of lush tropical forest, and with the sound of ancient water fountains gushing past almost perfectly maintained buildings and community structures, Machu Picchu is a place unlike any other in the world where the legend of the past is as vividly present as it is. Many of us know it as spectacular ancient ruins among the jagged peaks of South America, occasionally brought to mind by the profile picture of a friend standing next to a llama.

What is still unknown about this city is its greatest wonder.

The Inca Civilization

The Inca Empire covered much of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, northern Chile, and northwest Argentina when Christopher Columbus first arrived on the continent of South America, spanning 4,300 miles, or the length of the Roman Empire. The Incas built one of the most advanced empires in pre-industrial times. Their sophisticated agriculture and irrigation techniques, efficient taxing, and well-organized sociopolitical administration system made for a prosperous state that expanded quickly.

Cusco, the epicenter of the Inca Empire’s political and economic system, served as its capital. As a result of the Inca Civilization’s conquests, which brought together a large portion of South America’s indigenous cultures, their capital represented the achievement of 3,000 years of indigenous cultural growth in the southern Andes. Its spatial arrangement, a few sections, and individual buildings that survive from the Inca capital are astonishingly still visible in Cusco.

The written language of the Incas needed to be improved, and the majority of our knowledge comes from records of the Spanish conquest and rule. The Sacred Valley, which spans 100 square kilometers and is home to historic settlements, archeological ruins, and abundant natural resources, has been identified by recent studies as the Inca Empire’s center. In recent years, it has developed into a popular destination for those seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the Inca Empire. Treasures abound in the area, ruins, and antiquities just waiting for daring explorers to discover them. A lot of the ruins have spiritual importance. One such example is the magnificent Temple of the Condor, which was fashioned as a condor with its wings spread out of a naturally occurring rock formation. The Incas saw the condor as a symbol of spirit and higher states of awareness. Nonetheless, studies have shown that the ancient remnants discovered in the Sacred Valley were utilized for a broad range of functions, including food storage facilities, tombs, and research centers for agriculture.

Not all of the Inca wealth was made known to the Spaniards, even though they were aware of the existence of the Sacred Valley. Hidden from foreign hands and Spanish swords, rare valuables were guarded in the neighboring highlands. Hiram Bingham of Yale University, who was looking for the Incas’ “lost city,” discovered what is likely one of the most significant archeological sites of the Inca Empire in the 20th century, putting an end to the legends surrounding these locations.

Lost Cities of the Inca by National Geographic video

A National Geographic documentary about the fascinating and mysterious pre-Columbian Inca lost city of Machu Picchu


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Machu Picchu, the other lost city

Hiram Bingham, who had been taken there by three native men, ceremoniously revealed Machu Picchu to the Western world. Later, it was recognized as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World (2007) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983). It provides observable proof of the Inca Empire’s legacy at the height of its might and prosperity. It was constructed in the fifth century. The urban design showcases the Incas’ adept social, economic, and governance structure, while the city provides proof of their status as a hub for agriculture, astronomy, rituals, and religion.

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu (UNESCO/NHK) video by UNESCO

The True Purpose of Machu Picchu

There is no written record of Machu Picchu’s existence; therefore, until 1911, when it was uncovered, it was arguably the Incas’ best-kept secret. Unintentionally, Hiram Bingham had originally been searching for Vilcabamba, the “Lost City” of the Incas, which served as a haven for the final Inca kings. For fifty years, he thought he had located it, but Gene Savoy’s 1964 discovery of the actual “lost city” disproved his theory. Still, scientists can’t agree on three fundamental questions—who, what, and why—despite a century of inquiry and the resources of an entire city at their disposal. There are three primary theories regarding what Machu Picchu was constructed for and for whom.

  • Military Stronghold

According to one theory, Machu Picchu served as a military stronghold. The city is well hidden from the valley below because of its advantageous location atop a high hill with sheer canyon walls enclosing it on three sides. Furthermore, Machu Picchu can withstand a protracted siege since it is self-sustaining. The mountain receives water from fresh springs and fountains; its food comes from terraces and other hills.

  • Ceremonial Site

However, the city also offers proof that it was a location of ceremonial activity. Numerous structures have religious significance, and the mountain’s unusual seclusion raises the possibility of spiritual significance. Furthermore, the Incas called the Urubamba River almost entirely encircles Machu Picchu, Vilcamayo, which translates to “Sacred River.” To bolster the claim that “Machu Picchu formed a cosmological, hydrological, and sacred geographical center for a vast region,” Dr. John Reinhard compiled data from several historical, archeological, and ethnographical sources. It’s plausible that Machu Picchu was once a temple dedicated to Inti, the sun god.

  • Royal Retreat

According to more recent research, Machu Picchu was used by Emperor Pachacuti and his court as a royal retreat. The primary source for this most recent theory is a 16th-century Spanish conqueror paper. This speaks of a Picchu royal estate constructed in the same period as Machu Picchu. On the other hand, the architectural design of the buildings—which bears the hallmark of Inca estates erected by Emperor Pachacuti—provides additional evidence. Furthermore, archaeologists have recognized several structures as the emperor’s residences. Additionally, there are open plazas that may have been used for sports events, feasts, dances, and rituals.
Archaeologists need clarification on the various bones and objects discovered at Machu Picchu. The discovery of over a hundred skeletons proves that they come from all around South America. For instance, many forms of head modeling, customary among coastal and some highland tribes, have been found. Many pottery styles have also been discovered, originating from many parts of South America, extending as far as Lake Titicaca. Regardless of the actual objective of the city, it’s probable that these individuals originated from various parts of the empire, maybe serving the monarch.

Machu Picchu is nestled amidst the breathtakingly magnificent tropical highlands, an archaeological wonder, and an actual work of art. It is unlikely that we will ever fully comprehend the motivation behind Machu Picchu’s construction. Since spirituality was deeply ingrained in the Inca people’s way of life, it probably served as both a retreat and a place of worship for the emperor. Whatever it was, the location deserves to be protected at all costs and is well deserving of its current status.

Layout of the City

Machu Picchu’s close relationship with the natural world reflects the Incas’ profound respect and bond with the land. The land was used to build and atop the city, creating an aesthetically pleasing coexistence. By utilizing the site’s natural features, the buildings and community structures were skillfully incorporated into the hillside, taking advantage of their various purposes. The more than 700 agricultural terraces and sophisticated irrigation systems, which take advantage of the slopes’ natural features and are designed to reduce erosion, conserve water, and improve ideal farming conditions, illustrate this well.  The Spanish conquistadors were so impressed by the Incas’ excellent landscaping endeavors that they gave the Andes Mountains their Quechua name, andenes. The region’s rich natural life adds even more to the city’s tranquility, making the expansive views unique.

Along with being extremely well-organized, the city was divided into smaller sections by walkways and lanes. A wall and a sizable plaza split Machu Picchu into two sections: the lower farming sector and the upper residential area. The two parts are connected by a vast irrigation system that, according to accounts, supplied water to every home in the city from a sacred spring. The town was supposedly further divided into three districts, according to archaeologists: the Popular District, the District of the Priests and Nobility, which is distinguished by its more elegant buildings and reddish walls, and the Sacred District, which is home to many of the archeological treasures, including the Temple of the Sun and Intihuatana.

Machu Picchu Map location

Construction Methods

The structures’ exceptional quality can be attributed, in large part, to the creative construction techniques employed. A minimal number were constructed with mortar. Instead, the stone blocks were fitted together so precisely that a knife blade could not be jammed between them even after hundreds of years. The fact that this technique, known as ashlar, is so familiar could be attributed to the land’s vigorous seismic activity. With this technique, the structure has no risk from the stones’ slight movement and subsequent resettlement.

The fact that Machu Picchu was constructed without a wheel, iron, or steel is perhaps even more astounding. Experts are still determining how the building pieces were moved, some weighing as much as fifty tons. Although the Incas did not have many powerful animals, and their steep terrain and dense foliage made it impracticable for them to use them, relics from the Inca period show that they were aware of the notion of the wheel.

Updated:June 4, 2024

Published:May 3, 2016

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