Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Machu Picchu

The Mystery of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Why did the Incas abandon Machu Picchu to the vegetation and the centuries? Among the answers: The settlement's water sources dried up, or the inhabitants were devastated by civil war, fire, or Spanish invaders.

Growing coca leaves may have been one purpose of the settlement, but another idea seems to come nearer to unraveling the mysterious purpose of Machu Picchu -- that it was foremost a spiritual and ceremonial center. The city contains a large number of religious buildings that were constructed with great care. One of them, the Temple of the Sun -- a semicircular tower of exquisite stonework -- functioned as an observatory focused on the heavens. A mark cut on a rock at the center of the tower lines up, through a window, with the exact spot where the sun rises on the June solstice. In the temple's recesses the Incas placed religious statues or offerings.

Another small cave at Machu Picchu served as an observatory for tracing the December solstice. Ritual religious bathing may have been done at the Fountains, a series of 16 small waterfall baths where the sacred focus may have been water. But the principal shrine at Machu Picchu was probably the intihuatana -- the "hitching post of the sun" -- a stone that the Incas may have used to observe the heavens and mark the seasons. Every Incan settlement had such a stone, but only this one was spared destruction by Spanish conquerors, who determinedly wiped out all signs of Incan "idolatry." No one knows for certain how the stone was used.

In another part of the city, the Sacred Rock is an upright flat stone whose margin traces the outline of the mountains visible beyond it; the rock's function remains a mystery. In the Temple of the Condor, Incan artists carved a rock into the image of a condor, again for reasons unknown.

Vast terraces that edge the settlement were used for farming and have defied the centuries. The community's noble members resided in the Royal Sector. Their spacious residences had stone lintels weighing as much as three tons; in Incan culture these customarily set apart the residences of the powerful.

Near the settlement lie other intriguing sites. The Intipunku, or Sun Gate, is a notch cut in a mountain ridge that frames the rising sun during fixed periods on the calendar. The famous Inca Bridge is located along an ever-narrowing mountain trail that, at some places, is cut into a sheer cliff. The builders cleverly left a gap in a buttressed section of the trail that they could bridge with two logs. As needed, the logs could be removed to make the road impassable to outsiders.

Perhaps it is no wonder that this nearly inaccessible mountain city remained hidden and unknown to outsiders for centuries after the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuac√°n, Mexico

To learn more about other landmarks and vacation destinations, see:


Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.
  • 1
  • 2