Monday, 7 October 2013

Preview: Machu Picchu

In the 1990s, the Peruvian government had a great idea. The mountaintop ruins of Machu Picchu, or "the Lost City of the Incas" as they are often romantically dubbed, were an ever-growing tourist site and source of income for the nation. However, as the 15th Century Incas had thoughtlessly built this future tourist site in the remote mountains, access was difficult, especially for the kind of wealthy and obese old person who fills the slots of package tours. And so, what better than a direct line to the unique archaeological site by means of a cable car? A tourist could pop up for a couple of hours, take a few nice photos, and be back for afternoon drinks without breaking a sweat. Just, surely, as the Incas had intended...

Naturally, there was an outcry, with some major protests. Peru's most precious site couldn't be tarnished by cable cars just for the sake of money! The government, wisely, reconsidered - and said that they would paint the cables green, so not to alter the landscape! Strangely, this didn't appease the protestors, and by now the wider world was taking notice. Machu Picchu was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, and when it comes to matters of heritage they are very much the heavy mob: you do not mess with UNESCO. They stepped in, and like a professional boxer breaking up a fight between children, just looked at the government, waggled their finger, and said, "No. Bad idea." That effectively killed the plans, and in 2001 there was a change of government. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the issue of Machu Picchu was the decisive factor in the elections, it was a campaign issue, with the "pro-Machu Picchu" party winning.

All this indicates a strange irony of Machu Picchu - it is far more important to Peru today, as a ruined version of itself, than it ever was when it was intact. Despite its subtitle as a lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu was never anything close to a city. It was not a significant settlement. With a population of something like 500, it could generously be described as a town, but its functional reality means it was actually more like a royal estate. Or a more accurate description even could be as a simple holiday home for a king. The people who lived there just maintained it for him. Machu Picchu was not terribly important to the Incas at all.

Likely, Machu Picchu was built by a king called Inca Pachacuti in around 1450 to 1460. The world "inca" simply means "king" or "emperor", but has come to mean the whole civilisation that existed when the Spanish arrived in 1533 and overthrew them. As the Incans never bothered developing a writing system, much of the Inca's history we have is from the chronicles written by the Spanish Conquistadors as they took over; however, archaeology is able to back up the key details. Pachacuti was the 8th ruler of the Incas, which only emerged as a notable tribe in around the 13th Century. His name, possibly, means something like "Reformer of the World", and if this is true it reflects the impact he had upon his people. For before his rule from the mid-15th Century, the Incas were just one of many tribes in the area; after him, they were the foremost power in the region, absorbing the other tribes, and potentially going on to greater things had the Conquistadors decided to make themselves at home.

So, it's a curiosity that the Incas themselves were recent inhabitants to the area before the Spanish arrived. Their empire stretched for 2500 miles, and Machu Picchu was simply one of many estates built for Pachacuti and his successors. The name, partly from the indigenous Quechua language and partly derived from Spanish, means simply "Old Peak", but this isn't the original name. The original name isn't known, although there is a suggestion it may have been "Patallaqta" meaning "stepped high city", but to confuse matters there is another site in the area also with that name. Either way, both names suggest that the settlement is pretty high up. And yes, it's fair to say that Machu Picchu does have some fairly nice views.

2430 metres above sea level, Machu Picchu is built along a mountain ridge, and is surrounded by mountain peaks. While the structures that constitute the settlement are impressive, it's fair to say that it's their surroundings that have made the site famous. There are ruined towns across the world, many bigger and older than Machu Picchu, but none have that mystique of being lost in the mountains. The location was not necessarily a case of Pachacuti trying to show off either. Although I've touted the country estate idea as being the reason behind Machu Picchu existing, it is very likely that religion played a large part too. Worship would have been a central function of the place.

The religion of the Incas was a veneration of nature and agriculture, with focus put on outstanding natural features, such as mountains, as well as the sun and the stars and that kind of thing. The royal family and ancestors were also worshipped. With the prominent granite peak of Huayna Picchu just to the north, wrap all this up together, and Machu Picchu was a prime site for worship. A ritual stone is located at one end of the site and is believed to have been a tool for marking the movement of the sun over the course of the year. Other buildings in what is termed the upper town are thought to have been temples or observatories, or variants of these. Of course, without any handy texts to corroborate this, it should be said that all this is just the best working archaeological theory - and there are others too, if less likely - but it seems pretty likely.

What is far more certain is that people lived in Machu Picchu. The majority of the site is residential, with grand accommodation for the elite of society, and smaller for the workers. There are numerous structures, from small one-room dwellings to much larger, probably public, buildings. Once these would all have had thatched roofs and wooden roof beams. This is all gone, leaving Machu Picchu to appear ruined, but in fact the stonework remains almost intact, despite the best efforts of the jungle to get through. The Incas were extremely skilled masons, shaping and getting precise fits from huge stones. The granite ridge that Machu Picchu sits on was shaped and quarried to build it - Machu Picchu effectively reshaped the mountaintop. The Incas seem to have liked their stairways - there are around 150 of them, in some cases carved from single boulders.

Still, what we have in the end is a well-built but ruined settlement that, in itself, isn't spectacular, but that becomes spectacular when seen in its surrounding context. The actual urban site is 530 metres by 200 metres, which is a reasonable size but for a town isn't particularly massive. But the size of the ruins aren't really the point. For me, Machu Picchu is going to a Wonder that is all about the context. And that makes me a little nervous. Because no doubt about it, this is one of my candidate Wonders that, if the bookmakers were on the case, would be an odds-on favourite for being in the final top Seven. That's rather a lot of expectation. But take away its natural surroundings, and Machu Picchu perhaps isn't anything world-class. But is that a fair way to assess it?

A Wonder isn't just about its bricks and mortar (or in Machu Picchu's case, just bricks - mortar not included), it's about the overall package it involves. That includes stuff like its history, its fame, and its surroundings. Certainly, as long as the weather behaves itself, I can imagine it being an astonishing experience. The best way to visit Machu Picchu is as part of an organised trek (solo trekking is no longer allowed), and to arrive at a peak overlooking the site and its surroundings, after a few days of mountain trekking, will no doubt be something special. Perhaps a good comparison might be the Great Wall of China. Take the Wall away from the mountains, and it's no big deal. But that's a preposterous way to assess it: the Wall is all about its location, its glory is in how it augments the natural landscape. And that is what I will be looking for in Machu Picchu, even if I have some quiet reservations that a top Seven spot may just be out of reach.

The joy of these travels is often about being wrong however, and this is one occasion I hope that's the case. I'll be visiting Machu Picchu some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. "Machu Picchu is going to a Wonder that is all about the context."

    "A Wonder isn't just about its bricks and mortar (or in Machu Picchu's case, just bricks - mortar not included), it's about the overall package it involves."

    It depends on how you weight your criteria. The more criteria fulfilled, the better the wonder? Or the better each individual criterion, the better the wonder?

    You have the Mont St Michel in your list, and I'd argue that if it wasn't perched on a rock in the middle of a bay, even with the exact same architecture, but built on flat terrain, it would merely be a pretty French village with a rather handsome abbey in the middle of it, that's all. Sometimes just one thing is all it takes to make something ordinary truly spectacular, and I reckon this is what we have with Machu Pichu.

  2. It's a good point. The criteria aren't exactly a science - they are all just different ways of looking at a potential Wonder. The only unifying thing is size and a sense of spectacle. That sense of spectacle can take the form of size alone, technical ingenuity, gobsmacking beauty, historical significance, the setting within their surroundings (i.e. context), various other factors or a combination of all these. As I've travelled and researched, I've realised that context is a far more important criteria than I'd initially anticipated. Something can "score" low on many criteria, but an astonishing setting can make it fantastic.

    Shorn of their context, many Wonders would be much less of a spectacle - Mont Saint-Michel, Edinburgh Castle, Machu Picchu, the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China, the Christ the Redeemer statue, and the monasteries of Meteora are just some that come to mind. All these are packed with their various merits, but if plonked somewhere dull would be far less exceptional. But the context brings out their qualities. The mountains make the Great Wall/Meteora/Machu Picchu a fantastically improbable feat of building, the harbour makes the Opera House even more beautiful and striking.

    A Wonder doesn't need to fulfill all, or even most, of the criteria, in my view. It just needs to stand out in some way. As you say, just one thing can something ordinary become spectacular, and that's what we have with Machu Picchu.

    It's a fine balance though. Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (click on the Sri Lanka link on the right if you want to find it) is the ruins of a palace or monastery on top of a colossal rock. The rock is incredible, the scenery is amazing - but the ruins are almost total. It's a wonderful place to visit, but I couldn't rate it high as a Wonder as it was too ruined, with the man-made element of the spectacular a very remote second to the natural. Machu Picchu needs to enhance the natural world around it, as the Great Wall does. It can't just be a hut on top of a beautiful mountain, it needs to be a man-made feat that brings focus to the settings, to create something unique and special. Machu Picchu surely has this, but that's what I'll judge when I see it for myself.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.