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Machu Picchu history


Machu Picchu

Historians and archaeologists coincide that Machu Picchu was built by the Inca Pachacutec, the greatest statesman in Tahuantinsuyo, who governed from 1438 to 1471. Archaeologists infer that the citadel's construction dates from the fifteenth century approximately, a date confirmed by carbon 14 (radioactive carbon) dating. Machu Picchu's construction coincides with the start of the expansion of the small feudal kingdom of the Incas. According to archaeologists, the final battle defining the Incas' victory over the Chancas, a prestigious victory that gave much power to Inca Pachacutec, was fought in this area. Pachacutec was the first Inca to expand beyond the valley of Cusco after his epic victory over the Chancas. He was the author of Tahuantinsuyo's expansion and is recognized as the "constructor" of Cusco. This was one of his greatest works.

Machu Picchu's origin is attributed, with a certain degree of authority to Pachacutec, a warlike leader, noted for both territorial conquests and the development of religion and spirituality. This is why present archaeological researchers tend to support the theory that it was a royal hacienda destined for the worship of the Inca's gods, as well as a mighty challenge to the monarch's construction skills. Built as a refuge for the elite of Inca aristocracy, the fortress was located on the eastern slope of the Vilcanota Cordillera, some 80 km from Cusco, the capital of the empire. Its strategic geographic location was amazingly well chosen. Surrounded by steep cliffs and secluded from the sight of strangers by the thick jungle around it, the citadel of Machu Picchu had the special virtue of possessing only one narrow entry point, which enabled a successful defense by a handful of warriors in the event of surprise attack.

Occupied by at least three generations of Incas, the fortress of Machu Picchu was abandoned in a sudden and mysterious way. The most likely theories explain its disappearance from historical memory by the fact that its existence was unknown to the lower castes, and all but the small circle of the Inca's immediate retinue were forbidden to approach it. Pachacutec's conquests included the valley of Tampu, that was inhabited by a sister tribe to the Cusco, but one that did not escape its all-encompassing rule. Due to its natural beauty and mild climate (one of the best in the Andes), as well as its fertile soil, Tampu was chosen by Pachacutec as the seat of the new imperial nobility, and the valley was embellished with several of Tahuantinsuyo's most attractive cities, such as Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. The choice of Machu Picchu's site must have been made with great care, because it was, and still is, the ideal place to locate a center for worship. According to researcher Antonio Zapata, it is located in a mountain chain of sacred significance, starting at Salcantay (the apu, or great spirit) and ending in Huayna Picchu. It was a privileged spot to view the heavens and the movements of sun and stars, which were the deities of the Incas. Moreover, according to his research, there was a nearby quarry supplying white granite of very fine quality.

Machu Picchu was abandoned as the empire collapsed under Spanish conquest. Although the citadel is located only about 50 miles from Cusco, the Inca capital, it was never found and destroyed by the Spanish, as were many other Inca sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew to enshroud the site, and few knew of its existence. It wasn’t until 1911 that Yale historian and explorer Hiram Bingham brought the “lost” city to the world’s attention. Bingham and others hypothesized that the citadel was the traditional birthplace of the Inca people or the spiritual center of the “virgins of the sun,” while curators of a recent exhibit have speculated that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat. Regardless, the presence of numerous temples and ritual structures proves that Machu Picchu held spiritual significance for the Inca.

To the Inca, the world and its environment were sacred. “Pachamama,” mother earth, cared for them, and they in turn were responsible for her care. The Inca believed the spirits of their creator resided in the natural elements—the sun, the moon, the earth, mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, wind—and they erected temples and other ritual spaces to honor these spirits, including many at Machu Picchu. The Incas’ harmonious relationship with nature is evident in the way the structures of Machu Picchu blend rather than compete with the extraordinary natural beauty of the setting. Although the region’s indigenous people were forced to convert to Catholicism after the Spanish conquest, they have maintained their traditional beliefs as well. However, because many ancestral sacred places are archeological sites and tourist attractions, the indigenous people have little access or control over them today. This is certainly the case at Machu Picchu.

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