14 November 2021

Machu Picchu: Diverse Perspectives

For most people, this view is the one most associated with Machu Picchu, the broad mountainous prominence dotted with ancient buildings, sharp peaks towering above them.  It is little wonder this place is the most instantly recognizable icon of Inca civilization for so many. Yet a closer look gives a greater insight in to how it must have felt to live there, its thick stone walls echoing to the sounds of everyday life. Take a look at Machu Picchu from different perspectives.

Machu Picchu
The walls are perhaps the most remarkable thing about the place.  They are known as dry stone and as such there was no mortar holding them together.  Their structural integrity came entirely from the forces of compression and the way that the stones interlock with each other.  At Machu Picchu this interlocking is an art from in itself. 
Our contemporary sensibilities, so used to uniformity in the shape and size of brickwork, are surprised (perhaps even shocked) by this randomness but it was anything but.  Each stone was carved and chosen for its specific place – the process must have taken a lot of time but these walls were built to last.

Image Credit Flickr User Eugene Kaspersky
Image Credit Flickr User Eugene Kaspersky
Image Credit Flickr User Paul Fernandez
Yet they look so new - their condition certainly belies their almost 600 year age.  Close up the walls of the houses and temples look as if they could have been made just a short time ago, not circa 1450.  Why are they so pristine?  Although archaeologists have rebuilt many of them, the stone buildings of Machu Picchu were only inhabited for around a century.  Why were they abandoned so (comparatively) quickly after their construction.

Image Credit Flickr User Templar137
Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Knott
Image Credit Flickr User Matthew Knott
Hands up if you thought that will be because of the Spanish conquest.  Yet there is no written record that the invaders even visited the city. Neither are there the tell-tale signs of conquistador presence: they defaced most of the sacred rocks they came across with sixteenth century graffiti.  Machu Picchu was, nevertheless, deserted by 1572.

Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the Run
Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the Run
Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the Run
It is thought that smallpox, which had been introduced by the conquistadors, made it to Machu Picchu before they did and that it decimated the population.  By the time the Spanish arrived in the area the place was already abandoned by its builders.  They never found it and the jungle encroached on the site rapidly, covering it.  Yet it may have been ‘forgotten’ for another reason. It was never really a city, it was an estate.

Image Credit Flickr User Iuk
Image Credit Flickr User Dachalan
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Image Credit Flickr User Wandering Tripod
It was built (it is thought) for the ninth Sapa Inca (Great Inca) Pachacuti.  It functioned as an estate, a kind of retreat for him.  If you think Hitler and Berchtesgaden, which the twentieth century dictator used as a residence in which he could take stock and plan his next moves, you get the idea.  It is also claimed to be in alignment with important cosmological events significant to the Incas.

Machu Picchu
Image Credit Flickr User Theodore Scott
Image Credit Flickr User Dave Austria
Many other theories, of course, abound.  Yet the city was not – as many believe – completely abandoned. Although explorer and treasure hunter Hiram Bingham announced its discovery to an amazed world in 1911, the truth was it was inhabited.  A number of local Quechua people lived in the ruins and Bingham was led by a boy from the tribe to the site.  Bingham’s habit of secreting objects out of the country did not endear him to the Peruvian authorities.

Image Credit Flickr Eduardo Zarate
Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the Run
The marvelous terraces which surround the buildings supplied the estate with food – it is even thought that one of their purposes would be to grow test crops in micro-climate to see where they might thrive in the Inca Empire.  They also reduced soil erosion and the risk of landslides and helped to ensure that the buildings survived the centuries.

Image Credit Flickr User Eugene Kaspersky
Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the Run
Yet they had another purpose too – they made the slopes surrounding the buildings of the estate much steeper than they would otherwise have been: any invader would have found it incredibly difficult to use them as a route by which to gain access to the citadel.

Image Credit Flickr User Latin America for Less
Image Credit Flickr User Stankuns
We often see Machu Picchu from one particular perspective.  When you see if from others, it changes the experience.Notice the trail, snaking its way towards the estate (which is not as flat as some pictures show us, after all).

Image Credit Flickr User Benjamin
Image Credit Flickr User Benjamin
Then, zoom in to the trail, winding its way up the side of the mountain.  One begins to grasp (on a new level) the enormity of the place and the scale of the work which took place here.

Image Credit Flickr User Thomas Thomas
Image Credit Flickr User D Stanley
Image Credit Flickr User James C Farmer
We so often look at Machu Picchu – and fair enough, there is enough to gaze at for any length of time.  We look at and towards. Yet what did the Inca see as they woke up in the morning? Their first sight would be outward, beyond the estate. I would like to imagine that the first thing they did would be look out of the window – and give thanks for living in such an astonishingly beautiful place.

Image Credit Flickr User Ben on the run
Image Credit Flickr User McKaySavage
Image Credit Flickr User Julia Manserona
First Image Credit Flickr User DBMerino