The phrase “I live to serve” takes on an entirely different meaning if you are an Inca. When the Inca King Huayna Capac died in 1527, 4,000 of his servants, court officials and friends were put to death, too. With policies like these in the Empire, who would want to serve the king?!
As it turns out, the king’s servants whose lives were sacrificed, were spared the most desperate and sad years in the Incan Empire’s proud 300 year history. Already by 1529, just two years after Huayna Capac’s death, the Spanish conquistadores under the leadership of the nasty Francisco Pizarro, were poking their noses into the Empire’s treasure chests. Once they saw all the gold and silver in the Incan temples, the Spanish were almost giddy with excitement. Pizarro returned to Spain to get the “green light” from the government for an all-out invasion. Eventually he set foot on Inca territory in 1532, with a governor’s title attached to his name and the permission to conquer the Incas and take away their riches.
But let me back up for a moment, because all of this happened just at a time when the Inca Empire was at its peak. They had successfully persuaded, sometimes with bribery and in not too gently a manner, numerous tribes to the north and south of the Incan capital Cusco, to join the Empire. Becoming part of the Inca’s administrative system, paying taxes to Cusco and accepting the Inca’s superior religion was sold to them as the next the cool thing. Finally, during the time of Huayna Capac’s reign, the Empire stretched geographically from today’s Colombia to Equador, Peru and Chile to the north-western corner of Argentina. Estimates of the Empire’s population under Inca control at that time vary from 4 million to 37 million.
When you are this ambitious and successful, you’ll need a fancy royal estate and religious center far away from the hustle and bustle of Cusco, preferably at a secret location, surrounded by sacred mountains, steep cliffs that nobody can climb and water sources that cannot be poisoned by your enemies – and that is how Machu Picchu came into being.
Situated on a “saddle” between two mountain peaks at an elevation of 2,430 m (7,970 ft) and 80 km (50 mi) northwest of Cusco, Machu Picchu was both a fortress and a sacred religious site. After intense debate as to what the purpose of Machu Picchu might have been, researchers and archeologists now agree that the citadel was built as a city for the Inca elite and nobility. Remarkably, the place remained undiscovered and hidden from the world until Hiram Bingham, an explorer and professor at Yale University, found the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu with the help of locals in 1909. Professor Bingham was actually looking for a different Inca town: Vilcabamba, where the Incas took their last stand against the invading Spaniards. Instead, he found the “Lost City of the Incas” as Machu Picchu is now known. Subsequent expeditions, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, concluded that Machu Picchu had never been visited and plundered by the Spaniards, making the find even more valuable.
The truth about Machu Picchu, long shrouded in mystery, is gradually coming to light. Interpreting the ruins of the city has been difficult, though, as the Incas had no written language and left no records behind. The only documents in existence are observations made by the Spaniards about Inca culture, their temples and religious rites before the Incas were annihilated by conquistadores or decimated by diseases (e.g. smallpox, typhus, measles and influenza) brought to the Americas by the Europeans. Those records helped Bingham interpret the many buildings and structures he found in Machu Picchu. And as he explored the ruins, he assigned a likely purpose to each and named them: Temple of the Sun, Royal Residence, Sacred Plaza, Temple of the Condor, Intihuatana (hitching post of the sun) and Main Gate, to mention a few.
The Incas were expert masons who had the ability to construct mortar-less walls, a technique referred to as “ashlar”, using polished granite stones that fit together so tightly, that a blade of grass could not be inserted between them. From his previous expeditions Bingham knew that this spectacular craftsmanship was only used on important structures, such as places of worship and residences for the priests and royalty. Store houses and worker residences on the other hand, were constructed in comparatively crude fashion: roughly hewn stones held together by mortar. These buildings were then covered with plaster and painted.
Living in an area that is very much prone to earth tremors, Incan architects and engineers had to become experts in designing structurally sound buildings. All structural walls slightly lean inward and windows and doors were built with a trapezoidal shape. All structures built by the Incas had enormous foundations which were sometimes more substantial than the above-ground walls. During the centuries since the Spanish occupation, many earthquakes have put the structural integrity of the buildings in Cusco to the test. Without exception, the colonial structures crumbled while the Incan walls stood firm.
Aside from Machu Picchu’s remarkable ruins, the citadel also features many terraces. These were used to grow food (mainly grain and corn), to stabilize the slopes, to provide buffer zones during possible invasions and to serve as observation points and lookouts. As the citadel was protected by the Urubamba River and steep cliffs on three sides, enemy attacks could only come from one direction: the south-east. Research has shown that the terraces at Macho Picchu were sufficient to grow food for 4 times the town’s population, so they had to have purposes beyond food production. At the most, the citadel was able to accommodate 750 people, but we know now that approximately 500 Inca citizens were involved in the construction of the town.
It is believed that the construction of Machu Picchu began around the year 1450, during the reign of King Pachacuti. If you did your math and compared dates, you’d know by now that Machu Picchu was still a very young community when the conquistadores started to cause trouble for the Incas in the 1530s. There is plenty of evidence that not all building projects at Machu Picchu had been completed by the time the town was abandoned. The expansionist mindset of the Incas backfired on them when some of the recently conquered tribes joined forces with Pizarro. By 1542, Cusco had fallen to the Spanish forces, prompting the last surviving Incas to retreat to the town of Vilcabamba. Weakened by infighting and disease, they persisted until 1572 when the Spanish troops finally defeated this remaining pocket of resistance and assassinated the last King of the Incas, Tupac Amaru.
We still have no clear indication as to the fate of Machu Picchu’s population. If the Spanish didn’t invade the town, where did its population go? A common theory is that the men of Machu Picchu left the citadel to join the resistance in Vilcabamba in 1572. The rest may have been overcome by disease. Excavations at Machu Picchu found 173 human skeletons, 150 of which belong to women. After the death of Machu Picchu’s last resident, the citadel was given back to the jungle and was forgotten to the world for over 300 years.
Machu Picchu was and still is a remarkable site. Travelling there involves a grueling series of plane rides, train rides and bus rides and when you finally arrive at the gates of Machu Picchu, you realize you are not alone. As an UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World”, Machu Picchu is very popular. In fact, access to the citadel has now been restricted to 2,500 visitors per day. Line up early if you want to walk among the ruins alone and still sense the sacred energy of the place.
Before I close, here are some thoughts on the subject of religion, more specifically: forcing my god onto your god. This, of course, was a major issue for the few remaining Incas that survived the conquest of their lands by the Spanish and had to live under foreign masters following the collapse of the Incan Empire in the 16th century. In some ways, you can say the Incas got what they deserved. After all, they forced their Sun God and Mother Nature-based religion on the tribes in the annexed territories. It is interesting to note, though, that the Spanish employed natives to construct the Catholic cathedral in Cusco. In an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith and its dominion over the Incan deities, the cathedral was built on sacred Incan ground. By that time the conquistadores had destroyed all Incan religious sites. Only the immovable large stones that comprised the temple foundations were left. The fine polished stones that were portable, however, were hauled away from the temples and used in the construction of the new colonial cathedral. Locals were also asked to work as artisans for the cathedral. Quite secretively, though, the natives incorporated symbols of the Incan religion into the altar, wall murals and church pews.
To the surprise of the Catholic priests, the locals filled the new cathedral to overflowing during every worship service. As it turned out, the strong attendance was less proof of a sudden mass conversion to Christianity by the local population than a sign of longing and hunger for the old ways of worshipping Incan deities. The church-attending natives took comfort in the sight of their familiar Incan religious symbols, in the sight of the stones from their destroyed temples and in the fact that the cathedral was located on sacred Incan grounds. To re-direct the natives’ attention towards the Christian god, the temple stones were quickly covered with plaster. And today 85 % of the Peruvian population adheres to the Catholic faith.