It takes your breath away, and not for the rarefied oxygen at high altitudes. It takes your breath away because it is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic places on earth (Plate 23). We do not know what the Incas called it; we only know that it lies between two paired peaks, and that a peak was called Machu Picchu, the old Picchu, in contrast with the other, Huanya Picchu, the young one. These names were reported in 1911 to the archaeologist Hiram Bingham by people living in the area, and he named the town as the peak, Machu Picchu, a name that today is incorrectly assumed to be Incan.
Machu Picchu stands on the ridge below the top of the rocky peaks, in a position of extraordinary beauty, overlooking the Urubamba valley; according to some, the profile of its twin mountain Huayna Picchu recalls a gigantic crouching puma protecting the town (Salazar and Salazar 1996), but maybe it is just an illusion. Incredibly foolish things have been written about Machu Picchu, so let's look first at available information that is accurate.
The town is invisible from the valley below and, although it may seem incredible, there is no proof whatsoever that it was ever visited by the Spaniards. It is not even certain that the existence of such a town was ever mentioned in postconquest documents, although it should be mentioned that a city called Picho, which may have been what we call Machu Picchu, is cited in a few writings of the second half of the 16th century (Rowe 1990). Perhaps the town disappeared from history because it had been abandoned for a number of years before the conquest, maybe due to the arrival of virus
diseases (measles and smallpox) brought to the Americas by the Spaniards that spread in the Incan empire, decimating the population a few years before Pizarro's arrival. Machu Picchu was then invaded by vegetation and was known only to some farmers who lived in the area, until 1911, when the American explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham left the first Western footprint on its ground.
Everything else that has been written on the history of this town is speculation, if not fantasy. For instance, we do not know when it was constructed and we do not even know if the city was entirely built by the Incas or not. There are in fact several parts of gigantic walls built with huge stone blocks that were integrated with walls built with smaller blocks, in the typical Inca's squared style. In spite of this, it may be read in many scholarly sources that Machu Picchu was constructed as a royal estate of the Incan ruler Pachacuti. This idea comes from the same paper cited above (Rowe 1990). However, I think that not many people did read it, since it does not contain any evidence whatsoever. Indeed, Rowe states, "we can suppose (podemos suponer in the original Spanish) that the Inca ruler choose Machu Picchu as a personal estate and as a memorial of war campaigns in the zone of Vitcos.''
Debatable assertions do not stop there. For example, it is known that a thousand people or so lived in Machu Picchu, and their survival was based on high-altitude agriculture on terraced fields and from springs that provided the city with water through a sophisticated system of aqueducts. When the burial grounds of these people were discovered, the bones were, however, considered to be mostly of females, which raised the suspicion that Machu Picchu could have been a sanctuary of the "Virgins of the Sun'' or, according to others, a gigantic brothel. The abandonment of the town engendered foolish legends of a priest running away with a "virgin," dishonoring the town, or of syphilis (traces of which appeared to be found in the "virgin's" bones, sic), which allegedly destroyed the entire population. Fortunately, a reexamination of the bones has shown that the number of females was overestimated, so that at least the virgin theory is now debunked (Burger and Salazar 2004).
All in all, we do not have many clues regarding what such a beautiful town, built according to a strict urban plan and with wonderful megalithic walls, lost under the top of a mountain, was used for. However, we do know that it is perfectly and wonderfully integrated into the nature around it, so much so that the masonry structures mix with the natural rocks in bewildering harmony, and the city is most naturally identified as a sacred place, perhaps a pilgrimage site. Its relationship with the landscape is probably by design; for example, the peak of the highest mountain of the
region, Salcantay, lies directly due south of the city (see Reinhard 2007 for a complete discussion).
There is another thing we can be sure of: the Machu Picchu people had a deep interest in astronomy. For instance, a building in the shape of the letter P, today known as Torreon, was probably used as an astronomical observatory. The building, similar to a large tower, is lighted through three trapezoidal windows, two of which point to sunrise on the June solstice and to the rising of the Scorpio constellation, respectively. An observer inside the Torreon, on the day of the winter solstice, would have been able to see the sun rising in the morning through a window and, in the evening, the Pleiades rising in the same window, while the Scorpio constellation was rising aligned to the southeast window (Dearborn and White 1983, 1989). A third window of the Torreon is oriented northwest and its probable astronomical purpose is still to be determined.
Another important structure of Machu Picchu, called Intimachay, was linked to the summer solstice (Dearborn et al. 1987). It is a cave located on the eastern side of the terraces below the city, famous because, near its entrance, the natural boulders of rocks seem to form two open wings of a bird; on the ground, a sculpted stone helps the eye to imagine a huge condor, just landing to watch the hillside of the city. The natural cave was modified internally by adding to it some refined masonry works and creating a
"window" (or a tunnel, to be more precise) on its facade which is 44 by 56 centimeters wide and 2.2 meters long, carefully cut into the rock. At the end of the tunnel a polished slab blocks the view from inside, except for a small portion of the horizon, where the midsummer sun rises. The section of visible horizon is very small, about 10 arc minutes, and allows the sun beams to reach the end of the cave only for a very short period (about 20 days) around the solstice.
Those two monuments certainly do not exhaust the subject of astronomy in Machu Picchu, and we still need to understand a lot more about it. Recently, for example, on the side of the mountain directly overlooking the town from the west, the buildings of Llactapata (already described by Bingham) have been closely reexamined, and it was discovered that the two sites are tightly linked to astronomical alignments (Malville et al. 2004). Machu Picchu itself is still full of enigmas, such as the Intihuatana, or Sun Stone. Despite the name, the purpose of this monolith, carved in granite on a terraced rocky peak, is not clear at all; maybe it was used as a gnomon, or as a viewfinder to observe the sun. Similar stones probably existed in many towns, and are usually called ushnu, a term that is applied also to stepped pyramids or huge platforms of ritual use. Most were destroyed by the iconoclastic fury of the Conquistadores, together with many other items of
the Andean culture; there is, however, another Intihuatana in the Incan complex of Pisac, 10 kilometers from Cusco. An intact example of an Incan ritual platform remains in the center of the huge plaza at Huanuco Pampa, and a unique example of an Incan stepped pyramid also remains, in Vilcashuaman.
Machu Picchu, despite all the unanswered question, is one of those few places where the level of humans and the level of cosmos still meet and mix in an extraordinary way. To underline this special character of the place, while the astronomers were keeping track of the movement of the sun and of the stars, in the most northern point of the complex an artist sculpted a large rock—today called Sacred Rock—as a replica of the profile of the mountains visible on the background, setting forever, in that way, the inextricable link between the town and the stone from which the town itself was born (Plate 24).
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