Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city located in the Peruvian Andes, is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest archaeological mysteries. The city was built in the mid-14th century and abandoned just over 100 years later, leaving behind mysterious structures and artifacts that have been the subject of much research and speculation.
The mystery of Machu Picchu holds many questions. When you see its ancient walls emerging from the morning mist, it is hard to deny that Machu Picchu is a true feat of engineering and design. But why was such an impressive structure abandoned? War? Disease? Divine intervention? There is still much debate about when exactly Machu Picchu was abandoned and why.
Like other monuments built in its time, Machu Picchu was built near Cuzco, in the Vilcabamba region, a rugged and forested area typical of the Amazonian Andes.
This ancient citadel is recognized as the most important archaeological site in South America, and is an exceptional example of landscape architecture. The impressive Inca citadel is located high in the Andes Mountains, nestled between two peaks, and is known as “The Lost City of the Incas”.
It was saved from destruction by the Spanish colonists, and remaining totally hidden, only became known again in 1911, when an American explorer stumbled upon the majestic ruins, shrouded in dense foliage, located high in the clouds.
The ancient site includes a central plaza, agricultural terraces, sacred ceremonial areas with intricate carvings, palaces, perfectly crafted stairways and arches, towers, food stores, ornate fountains and water channels. One of the most notable elements is the Temple of the Sun, a well-known Inca construction with a round conical tower and a central stone that is illuminated by the sun’s rays during the winter solstice.
In a way, given its strategic location, it could have been a military post, for defense, to control possible rebellions. It is also believed that it was the ideal resting place for the Incas, the largest sanctuary dedicated to Pachacutec, who saved Cuzco from the Chanca invasion. And it may even have been a cemetery for women, true virgins, dedicated to the deities and to the service of the Incas.
In general, all historians agree that Machu Picchu served as a home for the Inca aristocracy.
Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city located in Peru, was abandoned in the mid-sixteenth century, around 1572. The exact date of the abandonment of the city is unknown, but it is believed that it was at that time due to the Spanish conquest of Peru that same year.
The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire caused the destruction of much of the Inca civilization, including many of its cities. This alteration of the Inca way of life would have caused the abandonment of Machu Picchu.
There are many hypotheses in this regard:
One of the strongest hypotheses about the sudden abandonment of Machu Picchu is based on secrecy and the effect of time on memory. Working class citizens, who constituted the bulk of Inca society, did not know of the existence or whereabouts of Machu Picchu, since knowledge of the routes leading to it was forbidden to anyone who was not part of the small circle of the Inca elite.
When these elites left for whatever reason, no one else knew of the existence of the mountain citadel. It is possible that the great city simply faded from the collective memory of the Incas over the years before disappearing completely into oblivion.
Another theory about the abandonment of Machu Picchu has to do with the arrival of the European colonizers. Some scholars argue that the Inca people quickly realized that wars with foreign invaders were imminent and that every man, woman and child would have to fight to protect the Inca state from imminent destruction.
Machu Picchu, along with the other Inca sites in the area, may have been left behind due to the recruitment of able-bodied warriors throughout the civilization by Manco Inca and his successors between 1536 and 1572.
Historical evidence even shows that, instead of using Machu Picchu as a base for their resistance to Spanish domination, these rebels sought refuge in the more remote Vilcabamba region.
Another possible answer to the mystery of Machu Picchu, also linked to the arrival of the European conquerors, is disease. Carried from Cuzco by the Incas who exchanged valuable military information from one cultural center to another, some scholars believe that a plague of foreign origin may have been responsible for the decimation of Machu Picchu’s population.
But if this hypothesis is true, why were so few (if any) human remains found at Machu Picchu?
Although war and plagues seem plausible reasons for the abandonment, some historians also consider it possible that the sudden evacuation of Machu Picchu may have been related to the death of Pachacutec, the great emperor of the Incas.
This line of thought is based on knowledge of the ancient Inca custom of building a “new royal hacienda” for each new ruler. According to this theory, it is possible that the next ruler in line exercised his newly conferred power and moved the seat of his empire to another location after Pachacutec’s death.
Since the Incas were a spiritual people, some historians have speculated that the inhabitants of Machu Picchu came to believe that they lived in a sacred place where mortals were not allowed to live. Archaeological evidence reveals that different parts of the site were dedicated to various Inca gods: Inti, god of the Sun, Viracocha, the Creator, and Killa, god of the Moon. In fact, some historians even believe that Machu Picchu was a center of refuge for the Nustas, or “Virgins of the Sun,” before the arrival of the Spanish.
The truth about why Machu Picchu was abandoned may never come to light. Fortunately, regardless of this great mystery, this wonder of the ancient world is still available for us to experience and explore while pondering its many mysteries.
And speaking of mysteries, the structures at Machu Picchu were so well built and so well aligned with numerous astrological events – including the solstices, equinoxes and many constellations – that some even speculate that there may have been some extraterrestrial involvement in the construction of the great citadel. But that’s another kind of theory.
Despite the continuous influx of tourists, as the city remains one of the most emblematic and visited ancient sites in the world, Machu Picchu continues to exude a sense of awe and grandeur, especially in the quiet hours after sunrise and before sunset, when the mist and light combine to create an aura of recondite magnificence.