Sunday, February 16, 2014

Inca buildings and Machu Picchu

 A shrine to enduring love- a world's wonder
Our trip to Peru had many highlights. Of course the reason we went was to fulfill one of my wife’s lifelong ambitions, to see the ancient site at Machu Picchu. She was born and raised in India and we had visited the Taj Mahal together in 1985. One can read about Shah Jahan’s shrine to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal and look at many pictures, but actually being there takes the experience to a new level. The pictures simply do not do its ethereal beauty any kind of justice.

I had of course heard of Machu Picchu and knew that it had been built by the Incas and not discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards. I had also seen pictures of the site, mainly the famous one shown on tourist material that gives a view from a high point, with a sharply peaked mountain in the background.

It was time to do some reading and as usual before a big trip we took out a Lonely Planet book from our local Saskatoon Public Library. Their picture shows how complex and amazing the site really is.

Before we headed to what is probably Peru’s most famous spot we had the good fortune to spend a few days in the city of Cuzco. The main reason I had been pleased that our itinerary with the excellent Intrepid Company made this stop was the matter of altitude. The elevation at Machu Picchu’s high point is 2430 m (almost 8,000ft). That was going to be hard enough for prairie dwellers. For the last five years of our Kenya days we had lived in a small cottage on the weirdly named Lunatic Lane in Nanyuki at 1905m (6250 ft.). While there my doctor wife had seen a number of cases of altitude sickness some of them fatal, mainly in young, very fit military men who had ascended Mt. Kenya all too quickly and been overcome. I had seen a couple of cases of the same thing in cattle living around the 2500m mark. Cuzco is quite a bit higher at 3400m (11,200ft). If we could acclimatize to that, even a little bit, then Jo’s main goal should / would be no problem.

We were in for a surprise. Our guidebook mentioned that Cuzco is the ancient capital of the Inca kingdom and indeed we saw many fascinating things, both in and around the city. What struck me, more than anything else, was the stonework. It was explained to us by our charming and excellent guide Patricia who took five years of university to become a registered guide.

Detail of stone joints
Sacsaywaman, aka "SexyWoman"
While the huge rocks at sites like Sacsaywaman are amazing both for their sheer size and the fact that they must have been fitted after months or maybe years of shaping (you could not hope to slide a credit card between them, and there is no mortar), it was the intricate moulding and shaping in the Qorikancha church, which lies in the city centre, that really caught my eye. Maybe that is because I am a sometime woodworker and have some idea of the challenges, say in making a chess table. I have lots of fancy tools to make things fit. Seven hundred years ago the artisans who built these things did not have quite as much :) 

Qorikancha has several types of stone lock
One type of lock
 As you can see from the photos they used several different patterns to make the stones both fit and lock. Again no mortar. If the archaeologists and historians are correct, the stonemasons used hematite  to grind the granite-like rocks. Wow! Is probably the least one can say. 

A partly opened wall showing diffefrent locked stones
Of course the church is sadly more famous for what is missing than for what remains. The Spaniards removed many tonnes of solid gold sheets and sculptures, melted them down and shipped them back across the Atlantic via what is today Panama.

Patricia explained the likely reason for this intricate work. It was to earthquake-proof the buildings. There have been many (at least 40) such seismic events since the first recorded one in 1586. Patricia mentioned the 7.0 Richter scale one in 1950 that occurred right in the Cuzco region. 

Long before that the Inca builders had worked out that the interlocking stones and trapezoid doors and windows protected their buildings against the hearth’s shakings. Indeed, where the conquering Spanish had destroyed all but the bases of the old temples their newly built churches sometimes collapsed, leaving the older walls intact.

So, with excitement and anticipation we headed off by bus and train to Jo’s dream site. There we saw more amazing stonework. 

Temple of the sun – east and south-facing windows
The detail at the most important religious spot, the temple of the sun, is just as intricate at that at Qorikancha, as is the work at the House of the High Priest. At most other spots it is less crafted but just as robust.

The terraces for agriculture and their retaining walls all lie facing towards the rising sun. All those workers, for all those years, needed food. A real example of home-grown! Patricia told us that recent work has shown that most of the structure, some 60%, lies underground in the foundations. 

Descending tanks, all feedng one another
Intihuatana - see the hitch at right
An important part of the structures is the Hitching Post of the Sun (Intihuatana) which was used by astronomers to predict solstices. Water too was a vital part of the complex - the tanks at right all feed one another.

Anno domini, dodgy knees and rain-soaked stones forced us to adopt the discretion is the better part of valour approach to the last steep climb up to the hut of the caretaker of the funerary rock at the very top of the ancient site where those iconic photos are taken. Luckily group member Arran Smith, a newly minted vet (qualified almost 49 years after me!) shared his own pictures. He caught this one just before the clouds descended and obscured the wonderful view.

Arran’s view - thanks Arran!
Just like the Taj, none of the pictures does any sort of justice to the experience of being there.


Elliott said...

Awesome photos! I've been dreaming of a trip to Peru for a long time too, but now with little children we may have a few more years to wait.

Jerry Haigh said...

Hi Elliott,
Thanks for the comment. We did indeed have a great trip, but of course with young kids it woud be aproblem, as they woud not appreciate the marvels. Then of course the money thing. It's not cheap, but one can travel on local buses, which some of our friends have done.
Good luck