Winter Palace

The first major exhibition devoted to the Incas' fabled cold-weather retreat highlights Machu Picchu's secrets

Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until the 20th century. (Frans Lanting / Corbis)
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According to Richard Burger, Machu Picchu was probably established between 1450 and 1470 by the Inca emperor Pachacuti as a royal preserve, a sort of Inca Camp David. Here, members of the royal family relaxed, hunted, and entertained foreign dignitaries. Other scholars, including Valencia, believe that Machu Picchu may have served also as a district center for administering recently conquered lands on the eastern slope of the Andes. In either case, Valencia says, the site was situated at the nexus of important Inca trails, connecting the highlands and the jungle, in a region rich in gold, silver, coca and fruits.

Apart from a few tourists, and llamas roaming at will through the ruins, their soft, melancholy faces peering at us over the ancient walls, Valencia and I wandered alone. We made our way along narrow cobbled lanes, through the roofless shells of temples, workshops, storehouses and houses where the grandees of the Inca world once dwelled. Hundreds of stone terraces descended the slopes. Ruins seemed to bloom out of the blue-granite boulders that littered the landscape. In many cases, laborers had chiseled these huge rocks in place to form temple walls, stairs, altars and other architectural elements.

At the height of Pachacuti’s reign, most of these buildings’ interior walls would probably have been covered in yellow or red plaster. The temples may well have been lavishly painted with the cryptic figures that survive today in the patterns of this region’s exquisite woven fabrics. And of course, five centuries ago, crowds, garbed in distinctive regional dress, including elaborate garments made of alpaca and vicuña and dyed in brilliant colors, would have thronged the streets. (According to Yale’s Lucy Salazar, the Inca Empire was multiethnic. The inhabitants of Machu Picchu constituted a microcosm of that world. “We have found the remains of individuals from as far away as Ecuador, Lake Titicaca and the Pacific coast, as well as the Andean highlands.”)

In the empire’s heyday, Machu Picchu teemed with life. On any given day, stonecutters chiseled walls for new buildings, and metalworkers hammered jewelry for the imperial treasury. Caravans of llamas arrived, laden with supplies from distant regions, while local farmers, bent beneath loads of maize and potatoes, carried their harvest into the city. Byways bustled with royal couriers and soldiers. Envoys of the emperor, borne on litters, were preceded by royal retainers, who swept paths before their masters.

Spanish-colonial chronicles describe day-to-day existence for the imperial entourage. The emperor and his nobles often banqueted in ritual plazas—with mummies of their ancestors beside them, in accordance with tradition, which held that the dead remained among the living. Dozens of acllas, or chosen women, prepared and served platters of roast alpaca, venison and guinea pig, to be washed down by chicha, or fermented maize. It was these young maidens who gave rise to the legend, promoted by Bingham, that Machu Picchu was home to a cult of “Virgins of the Sun.”

At the luminous heart of this activity, of course, was the emperor himself, whom the Incas believed to be the physical offspring of their most powerful deity, the sun. Pachacuti (He Who Shakes the Earth), who reigned from 1438 to 1471, is regarded as the greatest Inca ruler, credited with creating an administrative system essential to maintaining an empire. Pachacuti’s residence is only a shell today, but it nevertheless manages to suggest the luxury that royalty enjoyed in an age when ordinary citizens lived in windowless, one-room huts. Spacious even by modern standards, the royal quarters housed interior courtyards, rooms of state, private bathrooms and a separate kitchen. (So sacred was the emperor’s person, reported the Spanish, that attendant acllas burned garments after he wore them, lest anything that touched his body be contaminated by contact with lesser mortals.)

And yet Machu Picchu was not, in any modern sense, a city. There were no factories, shops or markets. Indeed, there was likely no commerce at all: the emperor, who laid claim to everything produced within his realm, redistributed food and clothing among his subjects as he deemed fit. While defense may have played a role in the selection of Machu Picchu’s site—the region had only recently been subdued, and enemies, the wild tribes of the Amazon basin, lived only a few days’ march away—the ritual-obsessed Incas must also have designed it with the sacred in mind.

To the Incas, the mountains were alive with gods that had to be placated with ongoing offerings of maize, chicha or meat. Occasionally, in times of famine or disaster, human beings were sacrificed. The most sacred site within Machu Picchu was the Intihuatana (Hitching Post of the Sun), a massive stone platform located at the highest point of the city. At the center of this great terrace lay a revered sculpture, a stylized mountain peak chiseled from a block of granite that may have served as a kind of calendar. “The Intihuatana was a device to control time, a sort of spiritual machine,” Valencia says, standing on the lofty platform. “If I were an Inca priest, I would be carefully watching how the sun moved month by month, studying its relation to the mountains. In effect, I would be reading the calendar, determining when crops should be planted, harvested and so on.”

Archaeologists place the population of Machu Picchu at somewhere between 500 and 750, more in winter when the imperial entourage came to the lower altitude retreat to escape the chill of Cuzco. (Farmers who raised food for the settlement probably lived nearby. Cuzco’s population was between 80,000 and 100,000; the total population of Peru was perhaps eight million.) Though Bingham speculated that Machu Picchu took centuries to build, current thinking has it completed in 20 to 50 years—lightning speed by preindustrial standards. The explanation, says Valencia, lies with the “limitless labor available to an Inca ruler.”

The Incas apparently continued to occupy Machu Picchu, at least for a short time, after the Spanish conquest. Archaeologists have found the remains of horses, which were introduced into Peru by the conquistadors, as well as a few Spanish-made trinkets, probably brought to Machu Picchu by travelers from the capital. New construction seems to have been under way when the settlement was abandoned. But why did everyone disappear? And where did they go?

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