Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Machu Picchu - An Inca City of the Sun

When famed explorer Hiram Bingham first saw the overgrown ruins of the "lost city" of Machu Picchu in 1911 Peru he was stunned by the huge size of its stone blocks and the masterful way they were fitted together.

"It seemed like an unbelievable dream," he later wrote.  "What could this place be?  Why had no one given us any idea of it?"

After a century of study, experts now agree that Machu Picchu was one of a series of royal estates built in the Urubamba Valley on the Inca's eastern frontier.  The valley, which lies at a lower, warmer altitude than the Inca capitol of Cusco, provided an escape from the Andean winters.

Construction of Machu Picchu was begun by Inca ruler Pachacuti around 1450 and it was used for little more than a hundred years only.  When Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish entered Inca territory in 1532, the empire rapidly collapsed.  Spaniards raided and pillaged sites that promised gold or held strategic importance.  Remote Machu Picchu survived unfound, its buildings losing only their thatched roofs over time.

To look upon this sanctuary is to understand what the Inca saw as beautiful and sacred.  Huacas, or natural features believed to possess supernatural powers, surrounded Machu Picchu.  Mountain peaks, the meeting place of earth and sky, rise to the north and south.  Below the Urubamba River, carrier of life-giving water, curls along the valley floor.

The annual cycle of the sun, worshiped by the Inca as a god, can be traced from several observation points.  During the June solstice the Inca are thought to have held a festival at Machu Picchu.

It took enormous skill to build this imperial outpost in such a rugged environment, especially as the Inca possessed only wooden, stone and bronze tools.  They relied on only their own labor to move the massive, heavy blocks.  More than half the construction effort involved site preparation, drainage, and foundation work.  Massive retaining walls and breathtaking staircase terraces have kept the city from washing off its cliffside perch for more than 500 years.

For the descendants of Andean civilizations Machu Piccu is still a source of pride and identity, a testament to a history and culture foreign conquest could not obliterate.

"Tall city of stepped stone," wrote Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.  "High reef of the human dawn....The fallen kingdom survives all this while."

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