Machu Picchu: get to know the archaeological site that was the great jewel of the Inca Empire

Given its location, symbolism and beauty, it is not surprising that Machu Picchu is one of the great treasures of the P

Near the Peruvian city of Cuzco, on top of a mountain, is the extraordinary historical sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Located 2,453 meters above sea level and surrounded by a majestic mountainous landscape, this site was once an important palace and religious sanctuary for the Incas, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

Given its location, symbolism and beauty, it is not surprising that Machu Picchu is one of the great treasures of Peru. Here we present the history of this ancient archaeological site, from its beginnings as an Inca settlement to the origin of its current popularity.

What is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca citadel located in the Peruvian Andes. Its name, which means “old mountain” in Quechua, alludes to its location high up in the mountains. Built in the 15th century, the complex is believed to have been the residence of the Inca ruler Pachacútec, although it could also have been a sanctuary.

Due to its construction characteristics and peculiar location in the mountains, Machu Picchu is considered a masterpiece of engineering and architecture, with a rich history that spans more than seven centuries. Today it is a popular tourist destination, and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1983.

Where is Machu Picchu?
The ruins of Machu Picchu are located 80 kilometers from the city of Cusco, in the province of Urubamba, Peru. To get to them you have to climb to the top of the Andes, over the valley of the Urubamba River. The complex is located between the peaks of the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains, 450 meters above valley level and about 2,360 meters above sea level.

Inca history and origins
It is believed that the citadel of Machu Picchu was built around 1450 by order of Pachacutec, the first great ruler of the Inca Empire. The luxurious urban complex was ordered to be built between the mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, which rise above the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In addition to being close to the Inca capital of Cuzco, the climatic and geographical conditions of this area were ideal for the cultivation of corn and coca, a medicinal plant of great ritual value for the Incas.

Machu Picchu was a classic Inca llacta, with a mobile population that ranged between 300 and 1,000 inhabitants. The citadel was divided into two areas: in the urban area were the residences and religious sites, such as the Temple of the Sun or Torréon, while the agricultural area consisted of several staggered farming terraces built on the side of the mountain.

Despite its splendor, the Inca Empire was weakened by the start of a civil war in 1529, and in 1532 it was annexed to the territories of the Spanish Crown. Although the Spanish probably knew of its existence, Machu Picchu’s remote location meant that it was largely ignored by the colonial regime; Proof of this is that no Christian temples were built in the citadel, something common in “pagan” places of worship conquered by the Spanish. Less than a century after its creation, Machu Picchu was left uninhabited, and was soon covered by the dense vegetation of the mountain.

The “rediscovery” of Machu Picchu
Starting in the 19th century, various scientists and explorers began to speak of the existence of a “lost city” in the Peruvian Andes. These rumors reached the ears of Hiram Bingham, a professor of South American history at Yale University. Intrigued by the possibility of finding it, Bingham decided to make an expedition through the Sacred Valley of the Incas in 1911. Guided by Melchor Arteaga, a local tenant farmer, Bingham climbed the mountain of Huayna Picchu and reached the ruins on July 24, 1911. .

Although he was not an archaeologist by profession, the professor was surprised by the majesty of the area, and obtained the sponsorship of Yale University, National Geographic magazine and the Peruvian government to study the site in depth. Between 1912 and 1915, Bingham and his team did archaeological excavations at Machu Picchu, clearing the undergrowth and exploring the citadel’s tombs. National Geographic published an article about the discovery in 1913; thus, the citadel of Machu Picchu was put under the international spotlight.

The idea that Bingham “rediscovered” Machu Picchu is controversial, as the local inhabitants were always aware of its existence. In addition, it is important to mention that although Bingham was the first to recognize the importance of carrying out archaeological studies in the area, he is also credited with the extraction of more than 46,000 archaeological pieces—including mummies, bones, and ceramic pieces—that later were illegally moved and sold in the United States. Many of them were sent to the Peabody Museum at Yale University; After years of dispute with the Peruvian government, the university began the repatriation of the artifacts in 2011.

Machu Picchu today
In 1981, the area surrounding Machu Picchu was declared a historical sanctuary by the Peruvian government, a designation that protects both the archaeological zone and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. Additionally, it is part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1983.

Today, the citadel of Machu Picchu is the most visited tourist site in Peru. Every year it receives 1.5 million visitors, who go a long way to marvel at the beauty of this unique place in the world.