Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Ruins of Machu Picchu (Enlarge)

The ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, are one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites in the world. While the Inca people certainly used the Andean mountain top (7972 feet elevation), erecting many hundreds of stone structures from the early 1400's, legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning 'Old Peak' in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far earlier time. Whatever its origins, the Inca turned the site into a small (5 square miles) but extraordinary city. Invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs, Machu Picchu seems to have been utilized by the Inca as a secret ceremonial city. Two thousand feet above the rumbling Urubamba river, the cloud shrouded ruins have palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and some 150 houses, all in a remarkable state of preservation. These structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountain top are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of even a thin knife blade. Little is known of the social or religious use of the site during Inca times. The skeletal remains of ten females to one male had led to the casual assumption that the site may have been a sanctuary for the training of priestesses and /or brides for the Inca nobility. However, subsequent osteological examination of the bones revealed an equal number of male bones, thereby indicating that Machu Picchu was not exclusively a temple or dwelling place of women.

One of Machu Picchu's primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana stone (meaning 'Hitching Post of the Sun') has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. The Intihuatana (also called the Saywa or Sukhanka stone) is designed to hitch the sun at the two equinoxes, not at the solstice (as is stated in some tourist literature and new-age books). At midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun "sits with all his might upon the pillar" and is for a moment "tied" to the rock. At these periods, the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they "tied the sun" to halt its northward movement in the sky. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the December solstice (the summer solstice of the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind Pumasillo (the Puma's claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range, but the shrine itself is primarily equinoctial.

The Intihuatana stone, Machu Picchu
The Intihuatana stone, Machu Picchu

Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to the Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. Intihuatana stones were the supremely sacred objects of the Inca people and were systematically searched for and destroyed by the Spaniards. When the Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence, thus the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain in their original position. The mountain top sanctuary fell into disuse and was abandoned some forty years after the Spanish took Cuzco in 1533. Supply lines linking the many Inca social centers were disrupted and the great empire came to an end. The photograph shows the ruins of Machu Picchu in the foreground with the sacred peak of Wayna Picchu towering behind. Partway down the northern side of Wayna Picchu is the so-called "Temple of the Moon" inside a cavern. As with the ruins of Machu Picchu, there is no archaeological or iconographical evidence to substantiate the "new-age" assumption that this cave was a goddess site.

Although Hiram Bingham was the first person to bring word of the ruins to the outside world in 1911, other outsiders were said to have seen Machu Picchu before him. The site may have been discovered in 1867 by a German businessman, Augusto Berns, and there is some evidence that another German, J. M. von Hassel, arrived even earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874. In 1904, an engineer named Franklin supposedly spotted the ruins from a distant mountain.

Macchu Picchu Ruins
Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru


Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru


Road from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu, Peru


Detail of stone work at Machu Picchu

The INCA and their History

At the time of Columbus’ landfall on the New World, the greatest empire on earth was that of the Inca. Called Tawantinsuyu or ‘Land of the Four Quarters,’ it spanned more than 4300 miles along the mountains and coastal deserts of central South America. The vast empire stretched from central Chile to present Ecuador-Colombia border and included most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina (this is a land area equal to the entire portion of the United States from Maine to Florida east of the Appalachians). It exceeded in size any medieval or contemporary European nation and equaled the longitudinal expanse of the Roman Empire. Yet for all its greatness, Tawantinsuyu existed for barely a century.

The origins of the Inca are shrouded in mystery and mythology. According to their own mythology, the Inca began when Manco Capac and his sister, Mama Occlo, rose out of Lake Titicaca, having been created by the Sun and the Moon as divine founders of a chosen people. Manco Capac and his sister then went off with a golden rod to find a suitable location to found a great city. Through a series of adventures, geomantic resonances, and astronomical correspondences, the site of Cuzco was chosen.

Archaeological research, on the other hand, indicates that the pre-imperial Inca were simply one of a number of petty tribes in the south central region of Peru. From roughly 1200 AD to the early 1400’s, the Inca engaged in numerous battles with local rivals, but never achieved supremacy over any of them. Around 1438, however, the Inca emperor Viracocha and his son, Pachakuti, defeated a powerful rival, the Chankas. From this time the empire building era of the Inca began. Other rival tribes around the Cuzco area were soon united and campaigns were launched into the Titicaca basin and beyond. During the ensuing reigns of the emperors Pachakuti, and Topa Inca the Inca armies expanded the frontiers of Tawantinsuyu from southern Columbia to central Chile.

In the few short years before their overthrow by the Spanish in 1532, the Inca developed one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the entire pre-industrial world. (In discussing Inca achievements, however, it is important to state that they were not the singular invention of a few inspired emperors but rather the ultimate elaboration of numerous pan-Andean institutions.) The Inca accomplished their phenomenal growth through a mixture of diplomacy and warfare, and a sociopolitical management system based on highly effective taxation and the dependable provision of goods and services to the peoples of their realm.

As the Inca began to expand their territories, the first step was to seek alliances with tribes upon the frontiers. Copious gifts of textiles, exotic products from distant regions, and wives to add blood ties to the alliances were offered to the chiefs of these tribes. Quite frequently these gifts were readily accepted (certainly the intimidating specter of the powerful Inca armies assisted in this process), but if certain tribes proved recalcitrant, the Inca simply overwhelmed them with superior military power.

In either case, the tribes were then incorporated into larger administrative units and political provinces. This strategy left Tawantinsuyu with more than 80 political provinces, each with different ethnic and linguistic characteristics. To address these regional differences the Inca imposed there own tongue, Quechua, as the language of the realm and the medium of governmental communication. Additionally, the Inca frequently moved entire populations around their realm, putting loyal groups into troublesome areas, and transferring recalcitrant tribes to loyal areas. These wholesale transfers of people were also used to introduce weavers and farmers, stone workers and artisans into areas where these skills were needed.

Inca statecraft, a system of truly extraordinary efficiency, was founded upon the ancient, pan-Andean concept of reciprocity. Goods and services moved from the local area to regional and state warehouses and were then redistributed back to the populace in several important ways. The state economy was based, not on currency systems, but on extracting taxes in the form of labor. There were three primary forms to this taxation: agricultural levies on local community-managed lands; a labor service required of able-bodied males that provided for monumental construction projects and military campaigns; and the textile production required of women, children and older men. The goods and services gathered in these ways were then divided into three shares. The first third went to support Inti (the Sun god), other gods in the state pantheon, and a wide variety of ceremonial activities. The second portion went to support the Inca emperor and the construction and military projects he initiated. The third portion was redistributed to the common people in the form of food, textiles, lavish festivals, and military protection.

The most visible, and remaining, examples of Inca genius are to be found in their monumental construction projects: in the form of roads, agricultural terraces, and administrative and ceremonial structures. The vast empire was united by an extensive and superbly efficient highway system. Two parallel highways, one along the coast and the other in the high mountains, ran north-south from one end of the empire to the other. Between these two major highways ran dozens of east-west roads linking the coasts, mountains, and jungles. Altogether there were more than 30,000 kilometers of these roads, the majority of which were beautifully paved, well drained, and equipped with storage houses, travelers’ lodges, and military posts. The produce of the empire moved efficiently along these roads, transported by hardy llamas strung together in caravans of a thousand or more animals. Furthermore, along the roads sped the most rapid communication system ever developed in the pre-industrial world; in the form of a constant movement of fleet-footed runners.

To feed the people in their swiftly growing empire, the Inca terraced great areas of mountain land, transported rich soils to the terraces, employed highly sophisticated irrigation systems, and experimented with a variety of crops. These monumental landscaping projects, called andenes in the Quechua language, so impressed the colonial Spanish that they named the Andes mountains after them (recent satellite photography has shown that these Inca terraces covered more land than is currently cultivated in the central Andean nations).

In their administrative and even more so, their ceremonial centers, the Inca most clearly displayed their brilliance with design and construction. Great surviving centers such as Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, and Cuzco, the Inca capital, are well known examples. In these places the Inca fashioned monumental architecture equal in beauty to any culture of the old world. Massive, multi-sided blocks were precisely fitted together in interlocking patterns in order to withstand the disastrous effects of earth quakes (in an earthquake, the stones on Inca terrace walls lock together, allowing the entire wall to simultaneously flex and cohere). Both secular and sacred architecture had spacious windows, niches for idols, and other purely artistic sculptural elaborations. Splashing fountains abounded and masterpieces of hydraulic engineering brought fresh water into buildings, while other channels removed wastes.

The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation issues, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position.

It must be noted, however, that the places mentioned above, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu in particular, are known to have been ceremonial sites many centuries and even millennia before the Inca developed and, furthermore, already had existing structures that were used for astronomical observations and ceremonial functions. Many contemporary people writing and speaking about the Inca are not well enough educated to know this matter yet, none the less, it is archaeological fact.

The name of the archaeological site Machu Picchu is sometimes misspelled as machu pichu, macchu picchu, machu piccu, machupicchu, macu picchu, macho picchu, machu piccho, machu picch, macha picchu, machu piccuh, mach picchu. The correct spelling is Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Facts


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Machu Picchu