Machu Picchu (also referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”) was built sometime around 1450 and is believed to have been originally created as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. It is Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and is located nearly eight thousand feet above sea level on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley, about fifty miles northwest of Cusco. In 1572, during the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu was abandoned and its inhabitants were most likely wiped out by smallpox. Although it was known of locally, it was unknown to the outside world until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham brought Machu Picchu to international attention. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish conquistadors, the site still contains a great deal of Incan cultural artifacts and is considered a sacred place. In 1971 over 125 square miles including and surrounding Machu Picchu were declared a “Historical Sanctuary” by Peru, protecting the site as well as the amazingly rich local flora and fauna. It was also added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1983 as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”.
Peru is a highly seismic land and the classical Inca method of stone masonry in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together without mortar is much more earthquake resistant. Some Inca buildings were constructed using mortar as well but by Inca standards it was shoddy construction and was not used for important structures. The ruins of Machu Picchu are composed of one hundred and forty structures separated into two main sections by a wall, the Urban and Agricultural Sectors. They include temples, sanctuaries, parks and residences including houses with thatched roofs. According to archeologists the urban sector was divided into three districts, the Sacred District, the Popular District and the District of the Priests and the Nobility. The sacred district’s primary buildings are the Temple of the Sun, the Intihuatana and the Room of the Three Windows and were dedicated to their sun god and greatest deity, Inti. The popular district was home to the lower class inhabitants and includes storage buildings as well as simple houses. The nobility district is made up of a group of houses located in rows over a slope; different residences represented their owners with unique characteristics. For example, the wise person’s house featured reddish walls and the princesses’ homes had trapezoid-shaped rooms. There is also the Monumental Mausoleum, a stone block with vaulted interior and carved walls that was used for rites or sacrifices.
The agricultural sector of Machu Picchu is subdivided into upper and lower sectors and occupies all the southeastern part of the citadel. It features a variety of terraces in different shapes and sizes built into the hillsides. The upper half is home to five sections and over forty terraces while the lower half has seven sections, eighty terraces and four major fields. The terraces served were used for both agricultural purposes as well as erosion prevention. The terraces in the top part of the access road were used for agricultural purposes and were broader with projecting steps while the lower ones which are smaller and serve to avoid erosion produced by the heavy rains in the area. Be sure to visit the guard post found before the main gate, it gives you a great view of the urban and agricultural areas and is the perfect spot to take pictures of the Urubamba valley. In 2008, the World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. This was done because of heavy amounts of tourism the area generates as well as the uncontrolled development in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes including the construction of a bridge that allows for even more visitor access. UNESCO is also considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
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