Straddling a saddleback mountain, the magnificent “Lost City” of Machu Picchu is one of travel’s great milestones, to say nothing of its place as one of the world’s great mysteries. Its precise architecture, erected without mortar, has proven itself capable over its 400-plus years of withstanding earthquakes. Even more remarkable, the saddleback on which it rests was not a natural formation; it had to be sculpted to meet the needs of its brilliant Incan city planner. Earth and massive dry stones had to be moved, foundations laid, rocks crushed for drainage. All this work was accomplished by a society without iron tools, work animals, or wheels. No one really knows how they did it.
But they did. And in the century since it was discovered by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, scientists have made some fascinating conclusions about the site’s layout, conclusions that illustrate the size and scope of the place.
Machu Picchu was built to include an urban sector and an agricultural sector. More than this, it had an upper town and a lower. As you might expect, temples were part of the upper town and storage warehouses were in the lower.
About 200 buildings are spread out across wide terraces that step down from the saddle, with a massive central square at the middle. Terraces were also used for irrigation and gardens. Stone stairways linked many of the terraces. In the east, the citizens’ houses draped down the mountain. On the other side of the square were various religious and ceremonial buildings.
Plenty of mystery also surrounds the significance of Machu Picchu to the Inca. A newer theory disregards the idea that people lived on the mountain and says instead that the site was a grand religious place, like a Mecca, that marked the end of a ceremonial pilgrimage, and the Inca Trail was laid out on an intentionally arduous path whose spectacular vistas are meant to reward the long, hard walk.
Other theories suggest that the site’s most important structures were oriented to coincide with the location of nearby holy mountains and with the location of the sun during solstices and equinoxes. One idea goes so far as to suggest that the city itself was built upon this very site so that it would be encircled by the Urubamba River, which the Inca considered holy. Or, perhaps, goes another theory, it was a royal retreat – the equivalent of a hunting lodge where the Inca Emperor Pachacuti could escape to relax and entertain guests.
Much of the wonder of Machu Picchu, of course, rests in its very mystery. Were we to strip the mystery and intrigue away, then where would its allure lie? Do we really want to know with certainty why Machu Picchu exists, or how it was constructed? Better, perhaps, to leave its grand and magnificent design to the imagination.