- Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham arrived via horseback. We took an airplane to Cusco; the zig-zag train from there to Aquas Calientes; then a bus on to Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu was mentioned in historical documents as early as 1562, but it was 1911 before Hiram Bingham revealed it to the world. It had been abandoned and remained hidden behind a humid forest of exuberant vegetation. Its access was so difficult and its location so remote that the Spaniards had not looted and destroyed it and so it remains one of the most complete of Inca cities.
Had we been so inclined we could have entered the city via the ancient Inca Trail, which originally connected their entire Empire. There is a site near Aquas Calientes where hikers begin the trek that takes them several days. Their first sighting of the city comes as they pass through the Intipunku or Sun Gate. One afternoon Sonia Guillen and I and two other women hiked up to the Intipunku on the old trail and viewed Machu Picchu from the gate! Beautiful!
Machu Picchu is an impenetrable mystery and that may be its most alluring characteristic. Its architecture is classical Inca from the mid-fifteenth century with narrow streets and steep-pitched thatched roofs. A moat divided the agricultural and residential sections. The population was too great to sufficiently feed itself from the site, so it is believed that several nearby sites served as food producers.
Bingham did some investigation and excavations and found 173 sets of human remains, 150 of which were female. This led to some assumptions that have since been superceded. Since his time there has been continuing investigation and study, so the story of Machu Picchu still evolves. Hopefully it will never be fully understood. I love its mysteriousness!
Machu Picchu means old mountain. The site is situated straight up the mountain so you are always walking either up or down. From Intipunku or other elevated sites you can easily see the layout of the city. It is built on a number of levels with terraces held in place by rock walls separating them. Llamas are employed to keep the areas of vegetation mowed!
The Inca had cults relating to agricultural periods that included ceremonies in which their astronomical and engineering knowledge went hand in hand with religious beliefs. The Intihuatana was carved from living rock by creating steps at its sides and a central rod of rock projecting from its highest point. The rod was specifically oriented according to certain astronomical measures relating to the sun. The name means “Hitching Post of the Sun.” During the winter solstice, the Inca would ask the Sun God not to forsake them and would ceremonially tie the Sun to the rod so it would return in the spring.
The Inca understood and accepted the mountains and nature and built accordingly. There were frequent earthquakes so their buildings were constructed in a trapezoidal shape to withstand them. This can be observed even in the doors and windows. In the terraces they used layers of soil, sand and clay for drainage and to prevent erosion. Their stone buildings were built without the use of mortar and the stones often weighed many hundreds of pounds. We still don't know how they moved them.
Another feature that intrigued me was the water. At several sites we visited, water would still be running in channels and fountains that the Inca had created. The same was true at Machu Picchu. Along one stairway are sixteen ceremonial fountains, all connected by channels. Icy cold water continues to run through them.
The condor was a sacred bird, worshipped throughout the Inca Empire. There is a natural rock formation in one building that resembles the outspread wings of the condor so it is called the Temple of the Condor. For some, when viewed from a distance this entire Inca city has the shape of a condor with outspread wings.
Of course we shall never know for certain what the Inca thought, what they did and how they lived. They left no written accounts, leaving us to much conjecture. That is the mystery and that is the lure of the Inca. It is mostly left to our imagination and that is a good thing.
Margaret Padgett Partee is a grandmother, a traveler and a reader with a special interest in archaeology.