Often referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” Machu Picchu is perhaps the most familiar icon of Inca civilisation known to man today As it appears that it was unknown to the Spanish during their conquest, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site.
Through its longevity, it exemplifies the formidable construction, engineering and agricultural knowledge of the Incas, shown in the design of its foundations, terraces, stonework and drainage systems. It was built in the assumed absence of a written language, without iron or steel and without the use of the wheel.
Today it is acclaimed not so much for its comprehensively designed isolated elements but for its integrated design that fuses both private and public planning concerns, with civil, hydraulic and geo-technical engineering requirements.
A variety of engineers, architects and agriculturalists amongst others continue to be fascinated with the site and its structures and with enhanced research technology, new perspectives on its history, construction and use continue to emerge.
Since it was discovered by Bingham in 1911, who declared the Inca wall of the Temple of the Sun as the most beautiful in South America due to its overall curved form, it has become an important tourist attraction. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. By 1976, 30% of those had been restored.
Ax cited by The National Geographic, Bingham described the revelations of the ‘lost city’ thus,
“…The superior character of the stone work, the presence of these splendid edifices, and of what appeared to be an unusually large number of finely constructed stone dwellings, led me to believe that Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.
The fact that one of the most important buildings was marked by three large windows, a rare feature in Peruvian architecture, and that many of the other buildings had windows, adds to the significant circumstance that the city was located in the most inaccessible part of the Andes. This leads to the possibility that Machu Picchu might prove to be Tampu Tocco, that mythical place from which the Incas had come when they started out to found Cuzco, to found their vast empire which was to embrace a large part of South America…”
It was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 as the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu and in 2007 it was voted one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in a worldwide Internet poll.
The ‘lost city’ is however vulnerable to threats from a variety of sources. Whilst natural phenomena like earthquakes can affect its access, the site also suffers from tourist development as the International Union for Conservation of Nature explains,
“…Since its discovery in 1911, a growing number of tourists visit Machu Picchu, reaching 400,000 in 2003. As Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually threatened by economic and commercial forces. During the 1980s a large rock from Machu Picchu’s central plaza was moved out of its alignment to a different location to create a helicopter landing zone. Since the 1990s, a no-fly zone exists above the area.
In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car, a bridge and development of a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants. Many people protested against the plans, including members of the Peruvian public, international scientists, and academics, as they were worried that the greater numbers of visitors would pose tremendous physical burdens on the ruins.
Due to the environmental degradation of the site, the World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention has also discussed the possibility of including Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. In 2009, a group of independant evaluators visited Machu Picchu to estimate the threats to the site. The site is now being monitored and certain measures have been put in place to ensure that Machu Picchu remains a site of extraordinary historical and natural value.”
Machu Picchu by McKay Savage
Tens of thousands continue to walk the Gran Ruta Inca (Inca Trail) crossing mountain passes between 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) to 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in altitude to visit it annually but for now only a certain number of people per day are allowed to make the climb to it and even fewer to the climb beyond it up Huayna Picchu.
Restoration work continues to it and the structures lining the route of the Inca Trail to this day which as Bingham described
“… has been an expensive one to build and will be expensive to maintain. The lack of it prevented earlier explorers from penetrating this cañon. Its existence gave us the chance of discovering Machu Picchu.”
The tourists come to marvel at temples built from perfectly chiselled blocks of granite and pay homage to the sun.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is now heading an initiative to restore and revitalise sections of the Gran Ruta Inca. The project aims to provide a unique resource for tourism and to promote the sustainable development of the high Andean corridor. It states that,
“The world will know portions of the Gran Ruta Inca that are 12-m [40-ft] wide or more, paved with stones, over 4,000m [13,000ft] above sea level, and it will be 1000s of kilometres in length.”
Part 1: City Planning here
Part 2: Engineering here
Part 3: Stonework here
Author: Mary Bon
Mary is an RIBA accredited architect with international experience in the field as well as proven research and writing experience for both established clients and innovative start-ups in the construction industry worldwide. She is now based in France and orientated towards bridging the gap between landscape and architecture whilst supporting the causes of local, national and international built and natural heritage.
This post is part of a series of City heritage and development articles, you can find all of the articles here:
Machu Picchu – The Lost City : Part 1 : City Planning
Machu Picchu: The Lost City – Part 2 : Engineering
Machu Picchu : The ‘Lost City’ – part 3 : Stonework
Machu Picchu: The Lost City – Part 4 : Construction Heritage Significance
Valparaiso : The Seaport City – Part 1: City Planning
Valparaiso : The Seaport City – Part 2:: Urban, architectural and landscape development
Valparaiso ‘The Seaport City’ – Part 3: Port and Transport Infrastructure, Earthquake and Fire Resistance
Valparaiso : The Seaport City – Part 4: Heritage Threats
Marseille : Phocaean City : Part 1 : City History and the Rade
Marseilles: Phocaean City : Part 2 : Heritage within the Urban Framework and Multi-Modal Transport System
Marseille Phocean City: Part 3 : EuroMéditerranée Project
Marseille: Phocaean City: Part 4 : Le Vieux Port
Cape Town : Mother City : Part 1 : Settlement History
Cape Town : The Mother City : Part 2 : Geological Construction Influences and associated Infrastructure
Cape Town: The Mother City: Part 3: Historic Architecture
Cape Town : Mother City : Part 4: Historic Design Figures and Historic Waterfront Renewal
Melbourne: Garden City: Part 1 – Historical Development
Melbourne: Garden City: Part 2 – The Hoddle Grid, C19 and C20 Architectural and Landscape Heritage
Melbourne: Garden City: Part 3 – Public Transport Facilities
Melbourne: Garden City: Part 4 – Urban Sprawl Issues