Built for Inca royalty around 1450 A.D., Machu Picchu is a grand complex in the Andes mountains of Peru. It was occupied for 80 years, then for hundreds of years lay dormant. Here is a brief look at the ingenuity behind the building of Machu Picchu.
The citadel was an extensive complex with approximately 200 buildings, and housed about 750 people. It covered 80,000 acres (82,500 hectares).
It was roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector; with a variety of buildings including the royal palace and tomb, residential quarters, religious temples, the cemetery, prison area, and more.
In addition to the 200 buildings, Inca engineers also designed elaborate farming terraces and sophisticated canal irrigation systems. Water was guided through aqueducts into the citadel for use in agriculture and bathing. Pictured below is an indoor water feature with water that still flows.
This photo below of the Royal Tomb highlights the fine workmanship in the granite.
At the time, the buildings were constructed with thatched roofs. The thatching is long gone now, but there are a few buildings where officials revived the thatched roofs to demonstrate what it looked like.
The architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still admired today. Design incorporated the surrounding topography. With light and its resulting shadows, some designs mimicked the mountain peaks precisely.
This scene shows the parallels between the stone buildings and the mountains.
Building materials also incorporated the surroundings. They used the existing rock, primarily granite, in two basic ways: by chiseling the granite bedrock of the mountain ridge; and cutting granite from nearby quarries, transporting it to the site.
To transport the granite, builders cut it into blocks using nothing more than hard stones and bronze tools. Then hundreds of men, using ropes, logs, poles, levers and ramps, pushed it up the mountain.
Some blocks weighed more than 40 tons.
Amazing Feats #1 and #2: cutting hard granite with stone and bronze tools; and pushing 45-ton granite blocks up a steep mountain.
Elevation at Machu Picchu is 7,970 feet (2,430m). You can see here how steep the mountain is.
Amazing Feat #3, the one I never stopped examining as I stood among the rocks and walls of Machu Picchu: the way the stones fit together.
Once the blocks were pushed up the mountain and into place, builders fine-tuned the blocks until they were perfectly interlocking…so tightly and impeccably fitted that they used no mortar.
This technique, called ashlar masonry, was painstakingly practiced in the most sacred Inca sites.
In the 500+ years since its original construction, the buildings still remain standing, even in this earthquake-prone area.
Below are two of Machu Picchu’s celebrated structures. The first one is the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon, where they worshipped the sun, planets and Inca constellations.
Notice the trapezoidal-shaped windows. This design is prevalent throughout the citadel.
The second structure, below, titled Intihuatana, is what is believed to be an astronomic clock or calendar. It is a ritual stone arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. Inti was their sun god.
Just like the Inca empire, the Machu Picchu citadel was eventually lost to history. The Spanish conquistadors never found it, the reason it was still intact in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, an American lecturer and explorer, discovered it while on an expedition in search of a different site. (Although he was not the first to find it, he was considered the scientific discoverer.)
Beautiful Machu Picchu had been hidden under thick vegetation for hundreds of years.
During my two visits to Machu Picchu, occasionally a grazing llama ambled by, and a particularly enchanting sparrow sang, sealing in the natural beauty and rich history of this remarkable place.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.