Machu Picchu - learning > World Heritages > Machu Picchu


Description Quiz

T/F Quiz

Multiple Choice Quiz

Pre-reading Questions:
1. What country is Machu Picchu in?
2. How many feet Machu Picchu sits above sea level?

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu

Inscribed :1983 Criteria: N (ii)(iii) C (i)(iii)

Brief description:
Machu Picchu stands 2,430 m above sea-level, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height; its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Reading Passage
Machu Picchu, sacred city of the Incas, is accessible by train from Cuzco, or via a trek along the Inca Trail, in Peru. The "city" was never discovered by the Spanish conquistadores and remained lost for centuries.

Machu Picchu is an architectural jewel. The Beauty and Mystery of it's walled ruins, once palaces of the finest Inca stone work, are augmented even more by the lush, almost virginal landscape of the surroundings.Green jungle flora suffuses the abrupt topography. Orchids add a strange brilliance.

The ruins blend harmoniously amid the narrow and uneven topography. One thousand, three hundred feet below, snakes the Urubamba Canyon and its roaring river.Machu Picchu sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, on top of a ridge between two peaks of different size. The smaller peak, called the "Huayna Picchu", is the one most often seen in photographs of the ruins.

With the passing of the centuries, the ruins' original name has been forgotten.The name "Machu Picchu" comes simply from its geography. It literally means "old peak", just as "Huayna Picchu" is "young peak". The more accurate translation relates, however, to the concept of size, with Machu Picchu as the " bigger peak" and Huayna Picchu,the"smaller peak". With its discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archeological enigma. Its purpose continues to intrigue, with mysteries that perhaps will never fully be unraveled.

It was Hiram Bingham who, in charge of a Yale University expedition, discovered Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911. Bingham's goal had actually been to locate the legendary Vilcabamba which was the capital of the governing Inca's descendants. They resisted the Spanish invaders and used Vilcabamba as a fortification between 1536 and 1572. But on penetrating the Urabamba Canyon, in the desolate site of Mandorbamba, Bingham's expedition learned from a peasant named Melchor Arteaga that the hill Mahcu Picchu, at the top, held important ruins. To reach them meant ascending a steep slope covered with dense vegetation. Even though skeptical- the expedition was familiar with the many myths about "lost cities"-Bingham insisted on being guided to the spot. Once there, a child from one of the two families that lived there, led him to imposing archeological structures covered by tropical vegetation and abandoned centuries ago.

As an astonished Bingham noted in his diary: "Would anyone believe what I have found?..." How did this center of Inca culture hide itself in the mountain jungle? From our knowledge of Greek, Egyptian and other early civilizations with written records, it is hard to understand how such a fantastic site could have been hidden from the Spanish. Yet until its discovery in the 1911, Machu Picchu, "the lost city of the Incas", remained forgotten for 400 years. Actually, Machu Picchu is not a city at all. It was built by Pachacuti Inca as a royal estate and religious retreat in 1460-70. Its location -- on a remote secondary road in nearly impassable terrain high above the Urubamba River canyon cloud forest -- ensured that it would have no administrative, commercial or military use. Any movement in that direction to or from Cusco and the Sacred valley upriver would have been by other Inca roads, either the high road near Salcantay or by the Lucumayo valley road. Travel was restricted on these roads except by Inca decree.

After Pachacuti Inca's death, Machu Picchu remained the property of his kinship group, who were responsible for maintenance, administration and continued building. As an extraordinary sacred site (location as well as buildings), it was visited by Topa Inca and the last great ruler, Huayna Capac, although each in turn built their own estates and palaces. Few outside the Inca's retainers knew of its existence. Machu Picchu, like most Inca sites was undergoing constant construction and had a resident crew of builders as well as attendants, planters, and others, and the compound required a steady supply of outside goods. So in order to really understand how Machu Picchu remained a secret, it's necessary to understand how Inca culture constricted travel and information.


The Inca were a completely regimented society. Although great numbers of people were moved around for corporate state projects (mit'a) and resettlement, once at a location, they did not move.The royal roads were reserved for official travel.The Incas were able to control their remarkable state system through a pyramidal hierarchy with information and direction flowing down through 10 overseers to 100, to 1000 and so on. We know from historical writing and the archaeological record that the Incas did not possess a written language, although, they must have used some symbols and perhaps diagrams. We also know that the Quipu ( collection of colored strings and knots) was extensively used for accounting and record keeping. But Quipus need highly trained interpreters to read them, and the Spanish were unable to locate or interrogate even one of these specialists. The Inca also maintained a class or guild of verbal historians. But with the catastrophic collapse of Inca state structure following the arrival of the Spanish, these historians were scattered and forgotten.


But Machu Picchu was mostly forgotten even before the Spanish came. Small pox was the conquistadores' advance guard. Huayna Capac and an estimated 50 percent of the population died of small pox sometime around 1527. Inca government suffered, and after a period of turmoil, the empire fell into civil war over Inca secession. Machu Picchu was probably abandoned at this time -- both because it was expensive to maintain and with most of the population dead from war or epidemic, itwas hard to find the labor to keep it up.


The Pizarros arrived in Cusco in 1532. The first wave of Spanish were mostly illiterate, uneducated adventurers who had little interest in anything besides wealth and power. By the time scholars and administrators arrived, knowledge of Machu Picchu had been lost.


Manco Inca staged a country wide rebellion in 1536. After a failed siege of Cusco, Manco, along with remnants of the court, army and followers, abandoned his headquarters at Ollantaytambo. Fleeing back into the remote Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu, He burned and destroyed Inca settlements and sites accessible to the Spanish including Llatapata at the start of the trail to Machu Picchu from the Urubamba River.


But by that point it hardly mattered. The Machu Picchu trail and the site itself would have been long overgrown and the approach blocked by seasonal landslides that so hinder backcountry travel in Peru.



Urubamba Canyon

Huayna Picchu
ワイナ・ピチュ    (若い峰)

Hiram Bingham

Yale University


The Pizarros

Web Sites

UNESCO Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
About Peru > World Heritages > Machu Picchu

by Setsuko Watanabe, Aoyama Gakuin College of Economics

© 2006