Certain places around the world defy any rhyme or reason and are instead defined by a distinct air of mystery and recognition of ancient, untold times and civilisations. Machu Picchu is such a place.
The hike to the top
My excitement upon arriving to Peru was more for the upcoming hike through the Andes than the visit to the popular attraction. However, on the final journey up to Machu Picchu and our subsequent exploration through the mountains and ruins I was left in unbridled awe.
It’s the kind of place that my mind couldn’t comprehend, try as it might. It defied all I had known and been taught about South America’s ancient peoples and opened my mind to considering the vast and complex worlds that were birthed hundreds of years ago. Even though it had been many years’ since living communities had walked the mountains, and many tourists had walked the paths instead, the force and touch of the Inca people was apparent at every turn.
To hike up and through the towering mountains days prior was to gain a greater respect for the vast and unapologetic landscape, and the work required to make life in such a place. To take the winding road up to the final point, see terraces etched into steep mountains in the middle of nowhere, and walk through ruins of a once thriving location, was to acknowledge the seeming impossibility and reality of what the Inca people had created.
Uncovering the Inca city
While a lot of detail around the history of the Inca people remains a mystery, some is known. It is said that Machu Picchu is a 15th century Inca citadel that was created as a place of rest for Inca emperor Pachacuti. It’s made up of two sections: the agricultural sector defined by a network of terraces, and the urban sector, which showcases the classic Inca dry-stone walls and has three primary structures, the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
The entire area includes around 200 structures and is said to have been a home for religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural life and learning. Subsidiary centres, an extensive road and trail system, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces give insight into the advanced technology and practices of the Inca people.
The 700-plus terraces were designed to preserve soil, promote growth and play a part in a larger water-distribution system that conserved water and limited erosion on the steep slopes. Water was supplied to the site from 14 natural springs, running through 16 cut-stone channels to various areas. The entirety of Machu Picchu covers 32,592 hectares of mountain slopes, peaks and valleys. At the centre La Ciudadela, the Citadel, sits at more than 2,400 meters above sea level.
Built around 1450, it was abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest. Tucked away in the great Andes, it remained unknown to the Spanish and the rest of the world until North American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to public attention in 1911, after being led to the site by Melchor Arteaga, a local Quechua-speaking resident. Some accounts report that Bingham came upon three farmer families living at the site, which supports certain theories that Peru's mountain people's always knew of the place.
In 1912, several dozen skeletons were excavated, with most of those initially identified as female. As a result, Bingham suggested that Machu Picchu was a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun, also known as the Chosen Women, an elite Inca group. Later, in the 21st-century, new discoveries were made that stated a significant proportion of the skeletons were male, and concluded there is great diversity in physical types of the Inca people regardless of gender. New findings from skeletal and material remains have resulted in scholars saying they believe Machu Picchu served as a royal retreat.
With no written history, many realities have been alluded to but remain inconclusive. For instance, the location appears to be a central point for a network of sites and trails, both manmade and natural, and aligns with astronomical events including the solstice sunset.
Developing history and ongoing mystery
As time goes on more theories and ideas emerge. More recently, Italian archaeoastronomer Giulio Magli shared his conclusion that the journey to Machu Picchu from Cusco could have served a ceremonial purpose. According to legend, it would be similar to the celestial journey which the first Inca took from the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. He said the Inca built the Inca Trail to prepares pilgrims for entry into Machu Picchu, and the final leg of the pilgrimage would have concluded with climbing the steps to the Intihuatana Stone, the highest spot in the main ruins.
Regardless of what is fact or fiction, to visit the site or see images is to get a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived there, and to consider the intricate, wise and now forgotten systems, technologies and insights of those we know as the Incas.