The Inca ceremonial center of Machu Picchu, located in the Urubamba Valley 44 miles northwest of the Inca capital of Cuzco, Peru, is a stunning example of large-scale mountain-top stone construction. Machu Picchu, meaning "old peak" in the native Quechua language, was probably selected for its spiritual and cosmological significance and functioned both as a ceremonial center and a royal court. Constructed around 1450 but abandoned under unknown circumstances in 1530, it is likely that the ninth Inca emperor, Pachacuti, lived at Machu Picchu, from which he controlled the surrounding area. Although the Spanish conquistadores never found Machu Picchu, the collapse of the Inca Empire in Cuzco certainly contributed to the demise of Machu Picchu. Some scholars have wondered why this "hidden" mountain retreat was not used as an Inca stronghold against the Spanish, while other historians have argued that the sacred significance of Machu Picchu may have prevented it from being used as a citadel, where the Spanish could have destroyed the last remaining altar dedicated to the sun god Inti. Scholars have also long been puzzled by the seeming remoteness of Machu Picchu, located on a mountain ledge 2,430 meters above sea level with a drop-off of 600 meters down to the Urubamba River; perhaps the answer is that the complex was a secret stronghold for the Inca royal family.
   On the other hand, future excavations might reveal that Machu Picchu was in fact located at the center of a busy network of Inca settlements in the valley and mountains along the Urubamba River. The nearby mountain peak of Huayna Picchu stands over Machu Picchu and can be visited via a narrow Inca path that runs along a ledge to its top. Furthermore, visible evidence of Pre-Columbian stone villages and terraced mountain ledges dot the countryside around Machu Picchu. Most of these have not yet been studied, but in 1981 a 325-square-kilometer area around Machu Picchu received a national protected status so that further archaeological work can be completed at some point. Perhaps in the future this most splendid example of Inca construction will be seen as the rural branch of Inca rule, the full administrative branch of which was located in the more urban setting of nearby Cuzco. A vast network of paths links these mountainous communities together with one long mountain road running from Cuzco directly to Machu Picchu.
   Machu Picchu consists of 140 granite structures built in a concise five-square-mile urban plan that also includes open plazas and paved streets. The center is divided into three areas: a sacred area, an area of popular housing, and a section of more elaborate homes. The sacred area consists of an open square with a stone formation called the intihuatana which, with the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, functions as an astrological clock dedicated to the sun god Inti. Intihuatana can be translated as the "hitching post of the sun"; it is oriented to reveal the spring and fall equinox. The intihuatana at Machu Picchu is the last one remaining, as all others were destroyed by the Spanish in their attempt to introduce Christianity in South America. The popular housing zone consists of simple thatched dwellings and storage buildings, while the royal area, located over a slope, consists of houses decorated with reddish walls, trapezoid-shaped rooms, gables, and thatched roofs. Human remains also suggest the location of a nearby mausoleum. The stone buildings are all constructed with a superior dry stone wall technique called ashlar, in which massive stones are cut to fit perfectly together without mortar. Irregularly shaped rocks fit at perfect junctions, and the walls lean slightly inward, characteristic of Inca construction. Despite the sometimes severe earthquakes and the pillaging of Inca stones to build Spanish churches in Cuzco, Inca wall junctions remain perfectly tight, with no spaces or cracks or collapse. Without the wheel or the horse, the Inca used manpower and llamas to drag these large rocks up the mountains. Water fountains, water channels, and drains bring rainwater from a holy spring, and llamas roam freely around the area.
   Stepped terraces surround the complex, often cut into the mountainsides with precipitous, vertigo-inducing drop-offs. On these terraces, the Inca cultivated different types of potatoes that could be preserved year-round. They also grew corn and ate llama meat that was dried and stored. Food storage areas were located across the Inca Empire, and some scholars argue that it was their success with food production and storage that allowed the Inca to carve out such a large empire, one that rivaled the Ancient Roman Empire in size. The quipu, a series of ropes tied in knots at different points, much like an abacus, was probably used as an accounting method to document food storage, tributes paid to the empire, and other practical govern-mental matters, but it is possible that the quipu(or khipuss) functioned as more than an accounting method. Perhaps it was also used toward the end of the Inca Empire to transmit private communication at a time when the Spanish were asserting control over their world.
   In the end, approximately 80 percent of the Inca died of European diseases, and Cuzco fell to the Spanish, along with the nearby Inca limestone-walled complex called Sacsayhuaman and the town of Ollantaytambo south of Cuzco, where the Inca retreated from the Spanish in Cuzco. The Inca community of Vitcos was the last Inca refuge, and the site of the final resistance against the Spanish. This was the settlement that Hiram Bingham had set out to find in 1911 when he came across Machu Picchu. Bingham did not discover Machu Picchu, for locals will confirm that it was never lost, but his best-selling book brought the ceremonial complex into popular knowledge. The location of the Machu Picchu artifacts at Yale University is currently under dispute in that the university has refused to honor the Peruvian government's request to have the objects returned to their homeland.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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