The ruins of Machu Picchu are well-known for their historic and cultural significance, but equally important is their testimony to Inca architecture and civil engineering. As a people who used no draft animals, no wheels, and no modern tools, many wonder how it was even possible for the Incas to build Machu Picchu. Remarkably ahead of it’s time and magnificently constructed on a difficult site, Machu Picchu has remained a marvel for over a century as we study its magnificent remains.
Harmony With the Natural Landscape
One of the things visitors will notice first, even from the photos, is that the ruins are built on an incredibly unique site. Situated on a plateau between two mountains high in the Andes, the ruins spill carefully over both sides and take advantage of every inch of space on this steep, short and uneven surface. The landscape and buildings fold into one another; the site is not built in spite of the land, yet in perfect harmony with it. Natural elements are not removed when in the way of the structures, the buildings are simply built around them and the natural elements integrated. Further, many of the structures appear to be built simply to praise aspects of the natural environment (such as the specific temples described below).
Main Architectural Features of the Ruins
All of the buildings on Machu Picchu follow the same style of Inca architecture. The buildings have irregular walls made of large and perfectly-carved stones, each fitting together so tightly that not even a blade of grass could be inserted between them. The joints between these stones are flawless, and create a building shape in which the base is slightly wider than the top. Gates, windows, doors and sculptures recreate this trapezoidal shape, visible repeatedly over the ruins.
“Citadel of the Platforms, Stairways and Water Fountains”
In adapting to the hilly landscape, the ruins are overflowing with staircases. Sometimes jokingly called the “citadel of the platforms, stairways, and water fountains”, you’ll understand quickly when you see the hundreds of each. There are over a hundred sets of stairs, several with over a hundred steps in them. In some spots, you’ll see staircase of about ten steps carved entirely into boulders.
Cascading over the sides of the plateau, you’ll see the hundreds of farming terraces that remain today. All are perfectly connected for self-irrigation, and scale even the steepest parts of the slope.
Throughout the entire ruins, you’ll see water channels that run from the top to the bottom. Carefully planned before any of the city was built, you can see where they tapped into a local spring, created a water basin and then fed it out to a canal system that is accessible through 16 different fountains within the site. Visitors can actually follow the flow of water from the source at the top through every fountain to where it emerges at the bottom- still functioning to this day!
Machu Picchu has two sectors – the urban and agricultural- and the platforms, terraces and water canals perfectly exhibit the interconnectedness of the site as they bring all together.
Important Temples at Machu Picchu
In the East sector of the Citadel are buildings that are all oriented towards the sun and are meant to facilitate measurements of the stars, sunrise, and phases of the moon. These include The Temple of the Sun, The Temple of the Three Windows & The Temple of the Condor.
The Temple of the Sun includes the most important building at Machu Picchu, the Torreon, which is an artfully crafted tower meant to sit at the highest point on the sight. It includes a gnomic device and sundial carved into stone, and is the most important in conjunction with the astrological aspects of the site.
The Temple of the Three Windows is one of the oldest foundations on Machu Picchu. Right off the main plaza, it’s thought to be a sacred shelter. The three impressively large windows are meant to line up perfectly with the locations of the sunrise.
The Temple of the Condor is unique because of it’s integration of massive untamed boulders into the design. An underground part of the temple is built under one of them, thought to be a prisoners dungeon. This represents some of the best harmony with the natural landscape and unmovable rocks.
Even though Machu Picchu was built some 500 hundred years ago, there is still so much that we can learn from its architecture today. When you visit, make sure to exact the walls and carving up close, while also appreciating the precise layout from afar. Machu Picchu’s architecture is so representative of the impressive Inca construction that we see all over Peru, yet it comes together in such unique harmony on this site that there truly is nothing like it. Come see the incredible design that have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site!