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A lost city in the clouds.

Summary: One of the most remarkable places on earth, the 'lost city of the Incas', the ruined city of Machu Picchu in Peru, ranks with the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even today, its origins and function remain a mystery. Built in the fifteenth century, the ruins of Machu Picchu lie halfway up the Andes Plateau, about 8000 feet above sea level. They are Peru's main tourist attraction and, despite the long journeys required to reach them, manage to draw around half a million visitors every year.

By Idris Tawfiq

What is truly amazing about this extraordinary place is that the city of Machu Picchu disappeared and was unknown to man, as if it had never existed, for centuries.

The one hundred and fifty or so buildings were constructed on the mountain known as Machu Picchu (the old mountain) by the Inca Emperor Pachacuti. Archaeologists are still not sure about the city's origins, but they are certain that when the city was abandoned, probably because of an outbreak of smallpox, it remained lost for several centuries, except to the local natives who continued to live there or visit the site.

It was only in 1911 that the city was re-discovered by the American historian and explorer, Hiram Bingham, whose book The Lost City of the Incas reintroduced this extraordinary place to the world. Since that time, Machu picchu has grown in the popular imagination, especially after the magazine of the national Geographical Society devoted the entire April 1913 issue to the site.

Because the buildings at Machu Picchu are built of the same granite as the mountain on which they stand, the whole area seems eerily prehistoric, as though the buildings actually grew out of the rock itself. All of the buildings use the traditional Inca technique of dry stone walls, polished to remarkable effect. No cement or mortar held the blocks together and in places the stones fit so perfectly that it is impossible to put a knife between them.

Since the wheel was an invention unknown to the Incas, historians have suggested that the massive granite blocks may have been pushed uphill by hundreds of workers. There are over one hundred flights of stairs, some of them carved out of a single block of granite.

Perched on top of the world, it seems that Machu Picchu was a sacred site. At no time were there more than 750 inhabitants, and all of these seemed to be of noble birth. Perhaps used only as a summer retreat, when the heat at the foot of the mountain would have been unbearable, the nobles who lived there received water, channelled individually to their villas, according to their perceived degree of holiness. In all there are temples and sanctuaries, as well as parks and the residential housing of the nobles.

Once thought to have been a defensive city, where the select inhabitants could have found refuge in time of attack, archaeologists and historians now favour the idea that the whole settlement was built as a place of relaxation for Emperor Pachacuti and his Court. The site may have been chosen because of what was believed to be a sacred alignment between the surrounding mountains with the sun.

Several of the temples within the sacred district are dedicated to the sun god, and astronomical calculations were made from a great observatory. The nobles lived in their own sector, with houses on sloped terraces. The massive Monumental Mausoleum was a place of ritual sacrifice.

Machu Picchu existed for only a century as an inhabited city. It was constructed in about 1440 and had been abandoned by the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1532. How a whole city, bustling and thriving as a centre for the empire's most noble and most important citizens, could just disappear for centuries is one of those strange mysteries of life. What had been the centre of the nation's events was left to ruin and to the elements.

The cool breezes, the reddish-brown walls set against the green of the mountain and the grey-black of the granite, as well as fountains and wells, must have made the city of Machu Picchu an idyllic place. Sheltered from the attentions of lesser mortals beneath them in the valley, the city's inhabitants must have felt like gods as they gazed down upon the world below them. In their mountain retreat they were sheltered from reality, too. The smallpox that devastated them swept through the community and destroyed it.

Muslims read in the Holy Qur'an in Surat Al-Hijr:

'The righteous (will be) amid Gardens and fountains (of clear flowing water).

Their greeting will be: 'Enter ye here in peace and security.'

And We shall remove from their hearts any lurking sense of injury.

(They will be) brothers (joyfully) facing each other on raised couches.' Holy Qur'an 15:45-47

All strength and power comes from Allah. No matter how much we try to create our own paradise on earth, there remains in our hearts that lurking sense of injury that leaves men never satisfied. Surely the message of Machu Picchu for today's world is that Shangri La doesn't exist, and we need to make the most of what we have, lest all the time we spend building cities in the clouds comes to nothing and we are left with nothing at all.

British Muslim writer, Idris Tawfiq, teaches at Al-Azhar University. The author of nine books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at and join him on Facebook at Idris Tawfiq Page.

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Date:Jan 8, 2013
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