Making sense of Machu Picchu
Does the similarity of its story to events that continue even today make it a monument to human nature?
PHOTOS: TEJAS EWING
REWRITING HISTORY: Machu Picchu was not a mysterious "Lost City", but rather a well-known royal retreat.
HISTORY is written by the winners. The adage may be simplistic, but it applies readily to the creation and production of knowledge in colonised nations. Edward Said, one of the founders of post-colonial study, highlighted the inaccurate assumptions about culture and societies that allowed colonialism to thrive. In his book Culture and Imperialism, he showed that despite the end of colonialism, these attitudes live on in the unstated assumptions on which the empires were based. Said saw bringing these assumptions to awareness as a first step in transforming the old tentacles of empire.
Many former colonies took hold of these ideas, for example, India's movement to reclaim local place-names. Elsewhere, the movement has spread to cover knowledge and history, often written by the colonial powers, with little local input. There are few places where this overturning of "cultural imperialism" can be seen more vibrantly than at the Incan ruin of Machu Picchu, in Peru. On a recent trip, my father and I were able to observe this process firsthand. Recent archaeological discoveries, combined with well-informed and passionate local guides enabled us to sift through decades of misinformation and learn the truth about this magnificent city.
Machu Picchu is a famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the jewels of any trip to South America. It's isolated atop a mountain peak nestled within a jungle valley, over 2,300 m above sea level. Its precarious location means that even today, only a government-run bus from the sleepy town nearby can reach it. It remains hidden from view until the vehicle has clambered almost to the top of the mountain along a one-lane dirt road. One can see why it was once known as "the lost city of the Incas". Unfortunately, this infamous misnomer was only the first of a series of mistakes made by the first foreigner to set eyes on the place: Hiram Bingham. On July 24, 1911, the Yale Professor of Latin American History, and amateur adventurer braved many dangers to reach the location, and today, the 4,00,000 tourists who visit each year can thank him for reintroducing it to the general public.
However, when it came to interpreting what he found, Bingham made a series of mistakes, which due to a lack of significant peer review, stood for decades. Similarly, his widely held credit for discovering the city is now questioned by the local guides of the region. Our guide, a part native Indian, part Spanish graduate student, suggested that the local tribal people of the area probably knew that a ruin was there since its construction, with knowledge of the location being passed from generation to generation. In that sense, it was never lost, nor did Bingham find or discover it. He was simply shown its location by one of many people who already knew where it was.
The prevailing reliance on Western academic traditions also contributed to his incorrect statements about the city, for he did little research on local knowledge or oral history, preferring to make interpretations based upon the raw data that he found. Combine that with Bingham's considerable desire for fame, and his penchant for telling a good story, and what the public received was a set of theories made popular in his best-selling book The Lost City of the Incas. In the book, Bingham explained his belief that the site housed the "University of Idolatry", a training centre and hideaway for Inca religious leaders, and a site of mysterious ceremonies and symbolism. In addition, he suggested that within the walls of Machu Picchu resided the "Chosen Women", the Virgins of the Sun, who found "a refuge from the animosity and lust of the conquistadors". Understandably, the glamorous nature of such claims took hold among the general public, and became the commonly held explanation of the ruin. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said points out that foreign cultures are set up as being different, backward and separate by the unconscious desire to mystify and exoticise their behaviour, history and geography. This is what happened to Machu Picchu, for the truth about the area is far less mysterious, far less exotic, and much more similar to our modern world than to an idealised view of the mystical Incan empire.
Laudable architectural skill
It is true that the city of Machu Picchu was built with a stunning level of architectural skill. The area is built of massive stone blocks, fit together without cement. Instead they are so well measured that even today, a needle will not fit into the cracks. And, the entire city is built with astounding symmetry with the phases of the moon, the stars and the rising and setting of the sun. However, these features did not occur through some mystical process for an unknown spiritual reason.
Instead, simple hard work, advanced science and an understanding of astronomy made these possible. And most interesting of all, the city was built for a rather mundane purpose.
Recent work, begun by Peruvian archaeologists and aided by American institutions, was spurred by the discovery of land-claims filed by in the late 1500s by descendants of the Incan royal family. These claims and subsequent research have solidified the explanation that Machu Picchu was in fact a royal retreat, a holiday resort built in the 1400s by famed empire-builder Pachacuti, in a location chosen for no other reason than its spectacular beauty. And the city was abandoned for no less ordinary reasons. As the emperor's empire grew beyond any level of sustainability, it began to collapse, and the retreat became too expensive to maintain in such an isolated location. As a result, it was abandoned and fell into disuse. The story draws parallels across time and space, and the universal themes do not detract from the overwhelming experience of visiting Machu Picchu. In fact, the similarity of Machu Picchu's story to events that continue even today makes it a monument to human nature, a concept that is far more compelling than astrophysical mysticism and virgin goddesses.
THE Inca population lived in South America between 1200 and 1535 A.D., extending their empire from the Equator to the Pacific coast of Chile and controlling the area of present-day Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. At the height of its existence the Inca Empire was the largest nation on Earth. Inca rule started with the conquest of the Moche culture in Peru. Because of the fierceness of their army, their hierarchical organisation, and their ability to assimilate other cultures, they became the largest native state to have existed in the western hemisphere. Within this area, the Inca established a totalitarian state that enabled the tribal ruler and a small minority of nobles to dominate a very large population. The height of their reign in the 15th Century came to a brutal end in 1535 when the Spanish conquistadors took over their territory.
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