It only takes one look at the sheer slopes and dense vegetation surrounding Machu Picchu to appreciate what a Herculean task it must have been to build this mysterious and isolated city in the heart of the Andes.
It’s not the easiest place to get to today, and in the 16th Century its remoteness would have been incredible – which may be the primary reason the city survived for the past 500 years.
In a 1913 edition of National Geographic, Hiram Bingham, discoverer of the ancient site wrote,
“Machu Picchu is essentially a city of refuge. It is perched on a mountain top in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible section of the Urubamba River. So far as I know, there is no part of the Andes that has been better defended by nature.”
Even today, there are no roads leading in from outside the valley. To visit, you must take a train or hike for 3 days on the Inca Trail.
The ruins have fascinated and challenged archaeologists from the beginning, but even after years of research and the application of modern technology, very little is actually known about the city and its origins. And as is usually the case, in the absence of hard data, conjecture abounds.
After the discovery of over 100 skeletons, which were predominantly female, the very “Tarzanesque” sounding “City of Chosen Women” was proposed. But this idea was later scrapped, and it was proposed that the site was a royal retreat or country palace. With this new theory the skeletal women were demoted from royalty to servants.
But regardless of who actually lived here and why, given the majestic location, the exceptional quality of the stonework, and the ritual stones present, it’s obvious that Machu Picchu was a highly important city.
At its zenith, the city had three parts: a religious sector for nobility and ceremonies, an urban area that supported day-to-day life, and terraced fields for growing food.
Of course, no discussion of Machu Picchu is complete without touching on the stonework. The Inca Civilization produced some of the most skilled and precise stone carvers in the ancient world, and the complexity and precision achieved is unparalleled in human history.
Some buildings were constructed of blocks so snugly fitted, that mortar wasn’t necessary, and a knife blade couldn’t be inserted between them. Blocks had up to 12 angles and interlocked perfectly with adjacent stones making walls incredibly strong and stable. Achieving this level of precision with 16th Century tools staggers the imagination.
The Inca didn’t have a written language, so many details of their culture have been lost. But Machu Picchu is a vivid reminder of their advanced civilization, and it should be on every traveler’s must-see list.
James & Terri
Last updated February 2, 2020