It drives me crazy when I hear an historical account and all the notable deeds and infamous characters are men. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with accounts like these. But despite all the macho stereotypes about Latin America, the galleries and museums that we’ve visited in the last few months have done a thorough job of representing women. This was not the case with all things Inca, including at the otherwise fabulous Machu Picchu.
We spent a couple of weeks in former Inca heartlands, on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and around Cusco in Peru. There is no doubt that the Incas were great builders, astronomers and administrators. They swept through much of the west coast of Latin America building an empire which thrived and died in just a 100 years, before being overthrown by the superior battle experience of the Spanish army, with its horses, armour and canons. But whether at the Inka Museum in Cusco or Machu Picchu itself, everything was about the activities of the men.
Don’t get me wrong, it was fascinating to see the fastidious and skillful stone masonry, which shaped each stone to fit those around it without the use of mortar. This method is so strong that Inca walls withstood powerful earthquakes, while more recent buildings crumbled. I was impressed by the Incas’ intricate knowledge of the movement of the sun and moon, which enabled them to build temples to be illuminated only on one day in the year. The stamina of the young messengers, whose feet pounded the new Inca roads connecting the administration’s centres, can only be admired. Yet all of these important Inca roles and historical contributions were, apparently, done by men. I wanted to know what the other 50% of the population were doing? How were the women involved in the worship of the sun and the moon? Did they have a role in the efficient administration? Could they inherit and own property?
I’m not sure I’ll ever get answers to my questions. This sort of information simply wasn’t recorded by the Incas most prolific chroniclers, the Spanish conquistadors, or the few Incas whose testimonies survived, most notably Garcilaso de la Vega (his mother was Inca, father Spanish). When the Spanish conquered the Inca cities, they set about destroying every site of Inca knowledge and building churches defiantly on the site of their temples.
This is why it is so remarkable that the Spanish never discovered Machu Picchu. Admittedly, it’s not somewhere you’d find without searching, tucked away as it is between folds of mountains, and nestling 2400 metres above sea level on the top of one. However, if it was as important as the effort to build it with such care at the top of a mountain suggests, the Incas must have gone to great lengths to keep it a secret from the Spanish.
Of course, knowledge about Machu Picchu wasn’t forgotten entirely. Local campesinos were well aware of its existence. But over time those farmers who were still cultivating the Inca terraces wanted everyone else, and especially the tax inspectors, to forget its existence in order to avoid any additional charges.
This was all to our benefit as we got to wander, and climb the hundreds of stairs, around a well-preserved Inca citadel. Maybe living in Britain, with its ancient cities and castles, has numbed my awe at medieval architecture? Although I found the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu interesting, what I will remember best is its spectacular location.
The thickly wooded, dark green, mountains envelope, and protect, Machu Picchu. All the surrounding peaks tower above the citadel, with their sheer sides dropping to the valley floor – except for the more softly rounded and aptly named “Happy Mountain” (I forget its proper Quechua translation). The light is incredible as the sun rises above the peaks, one by one, streaming between them and illuminating the Inca buildings. The mountain setting and the tricks the peaks play with the sunlight was clearly important to the Incas. A number of temple stones in Machu Picchu have been meticulously carved to mirror the mountain peaks you can see on the skyline.
I hope our photos give you a little of the pleasure I got looking out over Machu Picchu. Despite the macho version of its history, it is well worth a visit.
- Main picture of Happy Mountain and the Temple of the Sun