Machu Picchu stands as a reminder of the once great Incan Empire. Built sometime around 1450, the exact purpose behind what are now the ruins of this massive Peruvian complex have long remained a mystery. Because of the range of buildings uncovered at the archaeological site scholars have surmised that the original purpose of Machu Picchu could’ve been as a military base, ceremonial center, or, more likely, simply as a retreat for the elite members of society. Given the information historians have learned about Incan society and religious practice it’s widely believed that rituals involving human and animal sacrifices regularly took place at Machu Picchu.
Geography and Architecture
Located at a height of almost 8,000 feet and situated between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River Basin, Machu Picchu covers an area of approximately five square miles. This picturesque landmark is made up of approximately 200 structures including temples, plazas, and individual residences. Because the original builders didn’t have access to materials such as mortar, iron, or steel, Machu Picchu was painstakingly constructed by custom fitting cut stones together. The area has been divided into urban and rural sectors as well as an upper and lower town. The site also contains a temple devoted to the Incan Sun God Inti, a mausoleum, guardhouse as well as an area set aside for use by royal members only,
It’s been estimated that Machu Picchu (or 'Old Peak' in Quechua) was deserted around 1572, which was some time after Spanish forces took over the area. Some historians have speculated that the residents of this ancient city succumbed to an epidemic of smallpox. The fact remains, however, that Spanish troops, led by Francisco Pizarro, were unaware of the existence of Machu Picchu during the period in which they began invading this portion of Peru in search of gold, silver, and other treasures. Although the site may have been known by local indigenous peoples for many years it remained hidden to the rest of the world until its rediscovery in 1911.
Rediscovery and International Fame
Although there’s some evidence that other explorers may have actually rediscovered Machu Picchu before him, American explorer and politician Hiram Bingham is officially credited as being the first person to bring the area to the attention of the modern world. During an expedition in 1911 Bingham and his small crew were searching for the lost Incan city of Vilcabamba. After meeting with a local resident who told him about ruins located high up in the Andes mountains Hingham managed to clear his way through the overgrown jungle only to stumble upon the ancient site of Machu Picchu. In order to document his discovery the explorer not only took an extensive array of photographs but he also removed a large array of ancient relics and assorted historic objects.
Conservation and Tourism
Today, Machu Picchu attracts visitors from around the world. So many tourists venture into the site that, in order to help preserve the environment, limits of 2,500 visitors per day have been placed on admittance to this highly popular landmark. Due to its historic and cultural importance the Peruvian ruins have been named as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Visiting Machu Picchu is not without risk, however, as tourists face a number of challenges including dangers due to flooding, altitude sickness, and the possibility of natural disasters such as deadly earthquakes and landslides. In recent years there's been an increasing number of calls for the local government to enact restrictions to help prevent further deterioration of Machu Picchu. UNESCO officials have even called for the area to be put on its list of of World Heritage in Danger.