MACHU PICCHU: This mountain-ringed Inca sanctuary, never found by the Spanish conquistadors, was “discovered” for the outside world in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham. Remote and legendary, the labyrinthine hilltop complex is the most spectacular archaeological site in South America.
It is believed the citadel was built by the Inca emperor Pachacutec starting in about 1440 and was inhabited until the Spanish Conquest in 1532.
A haunting reminder of the Inca Empire, the site inspires feelings of cosmic harmony – a bridge between past and present. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in his classic poem Heights of Machu Picchu, wrote:
Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed thickets of lost jungle
until I reached you Machu Picchu:
High city of laddered stone,
finally resident of what is earthly
you did not hide in the dormant raiment
To call Machu Picchu a ruins does not do it justice. Atop the mountain ridge, 250 houses and temples still stand intact after more than 500 years with walls slanted inward to withstand earthquakes.
As part of the engineering marvel, the Incas constructed an intricate water system of fountains and aqueducts fed by underground springs and made the stone complex self-sufficient with terraced outcroppings for farming.
Why Machu Picchu was built, and what purpose it served in Inca society, remains an enduring mystery.
Yale anthropology professor Richard Burger and his partner archaeologist Lucy Salazar argue that Machu Picchu’s main function was to provide Pachacutec, his royal entourage and his guests a warm and pleasant “country palace” during the cold Cusco winter months of June, July and August.
Peruvian archaeologist Luis G. Lumbreras first theorized in the 1970s that Machu Picchu is in fact Patallaqta, a “Royal Mausoleum” built — much like the Egyptian pyramids were for the ancient pharaohs — to venerate Pachacutec after his death.
American researcher and explorer Paolo Greer argues that an underground Inca niche with fine coursed stonework excavated in 2009 next to the Torreon (or Temple of the Sun) is, in fact, Pachacutec’s tomb.
In 1987, Spanish historian María del Carmen Martín Rubio discovered 46 lost chapters from Narrative of the Inca, published in 1557 by Chronicler Juan de Betanzos, gathering dust in the private collection of the Fundación Bartolomé March in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.
Betanzos was the official Quechua interpreter for the Conquistadors. His wife was the Inca princess Doña Angelina Yupanque, who had been betrothed in dynastic marriage to her half-brother Atahualpa before Francisco Pizarro had him murdered and took her as his concubine. She married Betanzos after Pizarro’s assassination.
Given his fluency in Quechua, and his wife’s first-hand knowledge of Inca royal lineage, Betanzos is considered one of the most reliable of the Spanish chroniclers.
“After [Pachacutec] was dead,” Betanzos wrote, “he was taken to a town named Patallacta, where he had ordered some houses built in which his body was to be entombed. He was buried by putting his very well dressed body in the earth in a large clay urn.
“Inca Yupanque ordered that a golden image made to resemble him be placed on top of his tomb. And it was to be worshiped in place of him by the people who went there,” the chronicle continues. “He ordered that a statue be made of his fingernails and hair that had been cut in his lifetime. It was made in that town where his body was kept.”
Lumbreras, Greer and Martín Rubio believe the “Patallacta” described — and there are several locations in the Cusco region with that name — is in fact Machu Picchu.
High mountain archaeologist Johan Reinhard suggests that Machu Picchu functioned primarily as a sacred center, where huge landscape alignments of mountain deities and celestial bodies converge.
Reinhard showed how the Intihuatana, the hitching post of the sun, marks a geographic intersection, east-west and north-south, between important mountain deities — Huayna Picchu, or “Young Peak” (North), Wakay Willka, or “Tears of God” (East), Pumasillo, or “Puma’s Claw” (West) and Salkantay, or “Savage Mountain” (South).
According to Inca legend, the Sun was ritually tied to the Intihuatana — the hitching post. At the time of the solstice, when the Sun was farthest from the earth that connection to Machu Picchu acted as a kind of cosmic lasso, preventing the sun from straying any further away on the horizon, ensuring its orderly orbital return.
Looming above Machu Picchu, due North, is the ceremonial mountain peak of Huayna Picchu, while directly south lies Salcantay — one of the most sacred mountain “Apu” deities for the Inca. In May, during the rainy season, the Chacana, or Southern Cross, rises to its highest point in the sky directly above Salcantay.
Surrounding the four Crux stars are other star groups and the Yana Phuyu (YA-na FOY-you), a river-like expanse of dark cloud constellations representing the spirits of the animals here on earth.
For the Inca, this corner of the Milky Way was integrally associated with rain and fertility.
On the December solstice, the Sun sets behind the highest snow peak of the distant Pumasillo mountain range to the West. And twice a year, on the solar equinoxes, the Sun comes up behind the snow-covered peak of Wakay Willka (Mount Verónica) and sets behind San Miguel (Mount Vizcachani).