Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hidden Above the Clouds

Magnet # 301: Machu Picchu, Peru

Material: Ceramic

Purchased By: The Spinks Family

Today marks the anniversary of the day in 1911 when a historic city that had nearly been forgotten by the rest of Peru was brought back into the modern world. It was when Yale scholar Hiram Bingham III was led to first see the ruins of Machu Picchu. There are others who traveled to that area before he did and hold that they saw the site before his visit, but their claims hardly matter. Thanks to Bingham coming forward to tell of his journey, one of the world's greatest secrets was discovered and the city was opened to the public for study and sightseeing.

Machu Picchu dates all the way back to around 1450, when the Incan Empire was at its most powerful. Some truly impressive work went into the creation of the city - almost no mortar was used, the bricks were all different sizes, and yet they fit some of them together so tightly that not even a knife blade can be forced between them. The builders also added onto existing rock formations as they created their city. It's believed that Machu Picchu was not intended for military or commercial pursuits. About 140 buildings were created there, and most were residences, although a few other structures were erected there, such as a temple. Given all of the labor that went into the creation of the city, it's unfortunate that it was only inhabited for about a century before it was abandoned. Many of the Incas weren't even aware of its existence and when smallpox spread to the area, it pretty much wiped most of the residents there. The collapse of the local government and civil war in the rest of the empire cleared out those who were left. By the time the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived with his forces, most had forgotten the area had ever existed. Thus, as the Spanish plundered and destroyed much of the rest of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu went untouched and it would remain mostly so for centuries to come. Although it was never truly a lost city, as the nearby inhabitants were aware of its existence, the rest of the world hadn't a clue about this incredible site - at least, not until Hiram Bingham III impulsively explored the area on his way home from a trip to Chile. He only saw Choquequirao, a city near Cuzco that was similar to Machu Picchu and had hardly been forgotten. But the prospect of finding lost cities in Peru captivated him and three years later he returned, intent on realizing his dream. With the assistance of a local guide, he climbed to Machu Picchu, dubbing it "The Lost City of the Incas." When he came forward with his news of the site, it brought Bingham a great deal of celebrity and respect. He went on to become a United States Senator, although his tenure was marred by scandal. Nonetheless, he received an honorable burial at Arlington National Cemetery and some claim that he helped inspire the creation of Indiana Jones. As for Macu Picchu, or "Old Mountain," it has gone on to become Peru's most visited tourist attraction and has brought the country a great deal of revenue. Many consider it to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And it has also provided a great deal of insight into the lives of the Incan empire - it's rare for archaeologists to come upon such a well-preserved historic site as Machu Picchu.

I'm sure there are those who wish that, like others before him, Bingham had kept the existence of Mahu Picchu to himself, but for better or worse, he didn't. While visitors from all over the world are able to enjoy the majesty of this place, they are also a threat to its continuation. And when cable cars made it possible for more to make the journey to these incredible ruins, concern grew that more damage would be done to them. There are also those who are angry that Bingham took so many artifacts from the area and took them on loan to Yale University, which didn't return them until decades later when the Peruvian government forced the issue. But I suppose some might say it's still better to deal with these concerns and have the world aware of this incredible city's existence. Machu Picchu can certainly not be called a lost city nowadays, and it will likely never again be forgotten. But the discovery of such a place certainly poses the question - what other magnificent places are out in the world, just waiting to be uncovered? I'm sure they exist, and I hope to see more surface, be they under the sands, beneath the sea, or, yes, above the clouds.

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