How did the Incas build Machu Picchu?

John Henrique Nov 11, 2020

Machu Picchu was, next to Cuzco, one of the two most important urban centers of the ancient Inca civilization.

The pre-Columbian city of Machu Picchu is a symbol of the Inca Empire and is currently Peru’s most visited tourist destination.

The site, built in the 15th century, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

What was the city of Machu Picchu?

According to American archaeologist Gary Ziegler, Machu Picchu was a religious sanctuary for the Incas.

The city was built in the shape of a bird – a Condor, more precisely, which was a sacred animal for the Incas.

Machu Picchu was also an astronomical observatory, and its Intihuatana sundial can accurately indicate the two equinoxes. Twice a year, the sun is positioned precisely above the stone.

The strategic location of Machu Picchu

The city is located at 2,450 meters (8.038 feet) above sea level, in the Peruvian Andes, in an area that was densely covered with forests and full of venomous snakes, known as Vilcabamba.

Although many people think that Machu Picchu is the name of the city, it is the name given to the mountain where it is located. Machu Picchu is a Quechua word and literally means “Old Mountain”.

This place was a strategic point, because from there the Incas could observe what was happening below, in the Urubamba Valley. Also, the site is surrounded by the river that flows around the mountain.

This location provided some protection for the city. From there, the Incas could see potential enemy forces moving in the valley, but people in the valley could not see the city hidden in the mountain.

The city of Machu Picchu is also often referred to as a “citadel,” which is the name given to fortresses built at strategic points in cities, but Machu Picchu was not built for military purposes.

The isolation and the way it was planned clearly show that it was built for civilian use.

Building construction techniques employed in Machu Picchu

The stones were cut and fitted perfectly
The stones were cut and fitted perfectly.

The Incas’ civil engineering projects were incredibly advanced, especially if we take into account the fact that it was a society that did not use pack animals, iron tools, or wheels.

Machu Picchu’s structures were built using a technique called Ashlar, where the stones are cut to fit together. The cut was so precise and the stones fit together so perfectly that not even a credit card can be inserted between them.

The main material used in the construction of the city was granite stones, which even today are difficult to cut, and are extremely heavy.

Despite this, the Incas had no difficulty in building the stone blocks, as the material for the construction was extracted from the very place where the city was built.

Most of the stones used in the city of Machu Picchu were small compared to the buildings in Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuamán.

In addition to the aesthetic benefits of this style of construction, there is another major advantage.

Peru is a seismically unstable country: Lima and Cusco were leveled by earthquakes, and the city of Machu Picchu itself was built on top of two geological faults.

Because of this type of construction, when an earthquake occurs, the tremors cause the stones to move slightly, but then they return to their original place.

Without Ashlar, many of Machu Picchu’s most well-known buildings would have collapsed long ago.

The buildings of Machu Picchu

About 140 buildings were built in Machu Picchu. Most are houses, some are temples, but there are also food warehouses, water fountains, a prison, and even a guardhouse on the edge of the city.

Although historians estimate that about 5,000 people worked on the construction of Machu Picchu, the city could only accommodate between 750 to 1,000 people.

In addition to the buildings, the city of Machu Picchu has plenty of stairs. It is estimated that there are more than 100, some of them with more than 100 steps, and most of these stairs were carved out of a single piece of granite.

The stairs were made of large stones.
The stairs were made of large stones.

Thanks to this complex method of construction, the stairs are extremely resistant and have passed the test of time.

The roofs of the buildings, on the other hand, were made only of grass and branches and did not last long.

Machu Picchu aqueducts and irrigation system

Drinking water, bathing, and even irrigation of agricultural terraces were ensured by the ingenious system made by the Incas!

Waterways and irrigation systems passed between buildings and around the city, and many of these structures are still functioning, even though they are approximately 600 years old.

As you can see, although the city of Machu Picchu was built by the Incas in the 15th century, it was extremely well planned, and every detail was well thought out.

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Written by John Henrique

John has a degree in IT and is the founder of Hyperaxion. He is a science enthusiast and can usually be found reading a book, stargazing, or playing video games.


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