“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead and gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onward by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”
These are the words of Hiram Bingham describing the beautiful canyons he was exploring in 1911. “Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.”
Bingham learned of ruins on top of Machu Picchu (peak of the old people) from a farmer in the canyon below
who agreed to take him there for the price of a silver half-dollar. He wrote of the discovery, “It seemed like an unbelievable dream. Dimly, I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away.”
The grand Inca citadel that we now refer to as Machu Picchu was built around 1450 and resides high in the Andes mountains above the Urubamba river about fifty miles northwest of Cusco. Thought to have been built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438—1472) and later occupied by emperor Tupac (1472—1493), it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest in 1572. Its inaccessibility kept it from being discovered by the Spanish and so the sacred monuments defaced by the conquistadors in other locations were spared in Machu Picchu.
In the book, Celestial Geometry, Ken Taylor describes one of those monuments, “In common with many ancient cities, Machu Picchu contains a variety of alignments with celestial events. The best-known astronomical feature is the granite monolith known as the Intihuatana—the Sun’s Tethering Post. At the solstices, so the legend goes, the priests tied the sun to this stone, so it couldn’t stray from its annual course. On the summer solstice (in December), the sun is seen to set behind Mount Pumasillo (puma’s claw), a mountain associated with crop and livestock fertility and sacred even today.
“The Intihuatana’s obelisk is said to replicate the shape of Huayna Picchu, prominent from the vantage point (other mountains were similarly honoured elsewhere in the city), reminding us that celestial and terrestrial observances may be combined in a single monument. The pyramid has a variety of carefully carved angles and surfaces that may have been illuminated or shadowed in specific ways on other important dates of the year.”
Bingham explained, “As the sun went further and further north and the shadows lengthened in the month of June, it was natural to fear that the sun would continue its flight to the north and might leave them eventually to freeze and starve. Consequently the priests of the sun, able, on the twenty-first or twenty-second of June, to stop its flight and tie it to a stone pillar in one of the temples, were regarded with veneration.”
The priests knew how far the sun’s shadow cast by the monolith would travel across the flattened portion of the stone before it would pause and then start traveling back again. Thus, they were able to proclaim that at that point, they had tied the sun to the monolith to prevent it from going any farther. They were also able to predict the equinoxes (spring and fall) by noting when, at noon, the monolith cast no shadow.
In 2000, as a Millennium project , the Wonders of the World foundation gathered votes to choose the new seven wonders of the world from a selection of 200 existing monuments. Machu Picchu was one of the monuments selected.