Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca site located on a ridge between the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains in Peru. It sits 7, 970 feet (2, 430 meters) above sea level on the eastern slope of the Andes and overlooks the Urubamba River hundreds of feet below.
The site’s excellent preservation, the quality of its architecture, and the breathtaking mountain vista it occupies has made Machu Picchu one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world today. The site covers 80, 000 acres (32, 500 hectares). Terraced fields on the edge of the site were once used for growing crops, likely maize and potatoes.
In 1911, explorer Hiram Bingham III, a professor at Yale University, visited the site and published its existence for the first time. He found it covered with vegetation, much of which has now been removed. The buildings were made without mortar (typical of the Inca), their granite stones quarried and precisely cut.
The explorer found Machu Picchu largely intact, having apparently never been visited by the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, the only reference to the site at all in Spanish documents is a mention of the word “Picchu” in a 1568 document, the text implying that it belonged to the Inca emperor.
An emperor’s abode
Machu Picchu is believed to have been built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s. An empire builder, Pachacuti initiated a series of conquests that would eventually see the Inca grow into a South American realm that stretched from Ecuador to Chile.
Many archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as a royal estate of sorts, the presence of elite residences in the northeast sector of the site backing that idea up. It would have been used by the emperor and his family as a temporary respite, the site supporting a small number of year-round caretakers. Other examples of Inca royal estates are known in Peru.
Interestingly, the dwelling of the emperor himself appears to be in the southwest part of the site, away from the other elite residences. A building known today as the “Temple of the Sun” is adjacent to it.
A staircase running beside the royal compound leads to a plaza below, and the emperor was afforded a garden, a private bath and even a private toilet area — the only private one on site.
Although Machu Picchu has a wall, modest gateway and dry moat (likely used for collecting rainwater) it doesn’t appear to have been set up with military purposes in mind, and there is no evidence that a battle of any sort was fought there.
Temple of the Sun
Machu Picchu has a number of structures that would have enhanced the spiritual significance of the site.