By Josefina Barrón
Photos: Alejandro Balaguer
A rare orchid graces the trunk of a tree. A hummingbird flutters. Water flows from a spring bubbling up on the side of the mountain and travels through the stone channels of the ancient Inca city. This exuberant path contrasts with the mountain geography a little higher up and descends into a subtropical forest populated by endemic species and unfathomable abysses. At slightly more than 6,500 feet above sea level, and more than 1,600 feet above the river that runs along three of its sides, the site was chosen by Pachacutec, the ninth Inca, for the construction of a seemingly inaccessible city on the rocky promontory joining two imposing mountains: Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu.
The sun most certainly played a role in the decision of Pachacutec, who was a descendant of the Sun god. Machu Picchu is bathed in sunlight all year round, with long daylight hours. Its lofty location must have inspired the Inca, not to mention the presence of a granite quarry at the top of the mountain, which ensured the materials needed to make this dream a reality. I can’t imagine how many lives were sacrificed during the construction of the city of Machu Picchu, or what it must have been like for the laborers, forced by the Incas to break the rocks, carve out the colossal blocks of stone, and chip away at them tirelessly. They created the shapes of astonishing precision and beauty that were lowered and assembled into complete, perfect walls, using no tools other than stones of greater hardness. There was never a labor shortage as workers were taken from their homes and forced to contribute to the powerful state, which under Pachacutec experienced its first formidable expansion.
In fact, to create this work, the Incas used the knowledge and techniques they had assimilated during the conquest of different kingdoms and cultures over a period of decades, a process of cultural evolution that lifted their achievements to splendorous heights.
Pachacutec built the magnificent buildings in the city of Ollantaytambo after defeating the rebels that lived there. The Colla people, originally from Titicaca, contributed their knowledge of stonework and were drafted as laborers in the magnificent Inca cities. The Collas inherited this knowledge from their ancestors, who had maintained a culture that reigned for many years on the Tiahuanaco plateau, between Perú and Bolivia. Subjugated by the Incas, they worked long days on the granite blocks that now make up Machu Picchu.
Observing the stone walls carved by the Tiahuanacotas three hundred years ago, a historical truth becomes clear: dominant civilizations magnified and refined their cultures by incorporating the knowledge of the civilizations that preceded them, and their rulers knew how to grow in form and substance by taking advantage of the wisdom of the people they ruled.
Something that astonished engineers, and that must have weighed in the decision to declare Machu Picchu one of the seven new wonders of the modern world, was the city’s complex system for surviving the torrential rains that fall over this region of Peru during more than a third of the year. The rains are capable of quickly transforming the city into a lethal mass of mud and stone, but the Incas knew what to do. They built hundreds of terraces around the mountain –many hidden beneath the undergrowth– and they built the steps leading to the top of Huayna Picchu and the summit of Machu Picchu even higher. The view from the summit of Machu Picchu is breathtaking; the city appears tiny.
But this masterpiece encompasses more than just the city on the top of the mountain. The workers began down below and worked their way up the mountain, step-by-step, until they arrived at the site where the edifices were built; the remains of these structures appear in the typical postcard views of the place. Each of the terraces is composed of three layers: a top layer of organic matter, a layer of sand below it, and, at the bottom, gravel and bits of the crushed stone left over from the huge blocks used to construct the city. These progressive layers filtered the torrential water that fell from the sky and the terraces never flooded. The Incas avoided erosion through concentrated efforts to dig below the surface and refill the space to create the technically astonishing retaining walls. Thus, Machu Picchu has endured over time.
But the water they struggled to contain was also welcomed with devotion. They built channels and fountains to celebrate it, like the fountains fed by a waterhole on one of Machu Picchu’s flanks. This freshwater source, capable of supporting one thousand people, was channeled downhill in a finely polished stone aqueduct. It stopped first in Pachacutec’s apartments, so that the emperor enjoyed the purest water. This fresh water must have been another reason why the city was built here. And, like everything Inca and pre-Inca, Machu Picchu was completely integrated with the landscape. The connection between faith and nature was the essence of the ancient Peruvians’ religiosity. Mother Nature’s natural phenomena were the gods they worshipped, feared, and venerated.
The Blood of Rulers
But who were these Incas? In less than a hundred years, they went from being a group of just over ten immigrant families from the high plains who fled the Aymara invasions and settled around a swamp that would one day become the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, to creating an empire that covered much of South America. Under Pachacutec, and later his son, Tupac Yupanqui, and his grandson, Huayna Capac, the Incas expanded vertiginously to create the most extensive domain in the history of pre-Columbian America, stretching from the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon jungle up into Colombia in the north, and the Maule River in Chile to the south.
Although Perú is known as the Land of the Incas, they ruled for just 100 of the more than 5,000 years of history recorded to date in the country. I say to date, because history is constantly rewritten, especially in a country where, beneath its deserts and mountains, ancient remains continue to be found.
In the early days of their leadership, the Incas had to exert their power, ally themselves with others, negotiate, and even marry into other families in and around Cuzco to gain geopolitical space. From their arrival in Cuzco, they struggled constantly with the neighboring Ayamarca, Pinagua, Poque, Hualla, Tampu, and Lare peoples.
Legend has it that the founder of the lineage, and the man considered to be the first Inca, Manco Capac, walked until he was able to sink his staff into the most fertile land of all, which turned out to be Cuzco. From then on, each of the thirteen Incas would do their part to forge the empire. Each was supported by a royal panaca, or set of families comprised of the monarch’s descendants, except for the monarch’s heir, who formed his own panaca. The head of this new panaca had to conquer lands and generate wealth for his people. This seems to be one of the more convincing theories to account for the extraordinary growth of the Inca Empire in so few decades.
Machu Picchu belonged to Pachacutec’s panaca, not the Inca state. Documents and chroniclers refer to it as the “Royal Hacienda of the Inca Pachacutec.” The monarch and his court came there to rest. Food from the Amazon jungle was transported to the site on the backs of packs of llamas and periodically chasquis, or messengers, brought the Inca fresh fish and news from all corners of the empire. An impressive network of roads united the territory and many of these narrow roads are still used today.
The panaca owed everything to its founder. This may be why the leader’s mummy was as revered in death, as the man had been in life. The mummified body was visited periodically, consulted on important decisions, honored with food and coca leaves, and paraded through the lands acquired for the panaca in public ceremonies.
I can imagine Pachacutec’s panaca carrying the mallquis (mummies of the Inca and his most important wife) through the city of Machu Picchu, the rays of the sun god falling over their wrinkled bodies adorned with gold and fine vicuña cloth. Tragically, the Spaniards captured the mallquis of these sacred patriarchs of the Empire and destroyed them; they knew this was one of the most effective ways to root out the deepest feelings of Inca religiosity; it was like ripping their hearts out.
Machu Picchu never stopped construction, because the panaca never stopped giving back to its founder. With each generation, the construction of Machu Picchu continued. Archaeologists found unfinished walls and enclosures that can now be seen by visitors. But while the empire expanded, other monarchs like Tupac Yupanqui and Huayna Capac built cities in other places. Machu Picchu was abandoned, isolated, only occasionally visited by Pachacutec’s panaca.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the native people suffered a dramatic decline. Brought down from their high Andean domains into new settlements specially designed to control them, they began dying in droves from new diseases to which they had no immunity. Their stonework perpetuated their legacy.
Sunrise in Machu Picchu. The fog settles on the stones. Silence reigns. The sun caresses, struggles, caresses again, bathes. The birds sing, the water sings, every blade of grass sings. The dew becomes honey. A flower catches my eye. I climb to the top of the great mountain that gave its name to the city. From the summit, the sumptuous buildings seem to disappear between the rocky folds and vegetation. But they are down there, immense in substance and form, and will survive us, as will their souls.