The Incas displayed an enormous amount of energy in building temples, palaces, administration centers and road systems across their vast territory, during their 100 years of dominance in the Andes. According to Federico Kauffman D, such cyclopean task was motivated by politics and social control issues. A developing state required a large amount of administrative and religious staff, and it had to dazzle groups conquered with construction work, while always moving, and keeping a strong army and bureaucracy.
In this manner, the Inca architecture we admire these days had a religious and administrative purpose, rather than an urban one, as the sites of Vilcashuaman, Tambo Colorado, Huanuco Pampa, and Machu Picchu itself, demonstrate. Yet, this model didn't belong solely to the Incas. At this moment it is important to remember that Peruvian monumental architecture started more than four thousand years ago, during the initial period, with Caral, Las Aldas and then Chavin. If truth be told, those who built them had little to envy from their peers in Cusco. For example, in sites such as Chan Chan and the Huacas in Moche, great ceremonial spaces were built surrounded by modest and even precarious urban areas.
Still, the Incas learned many of these techniques; the majority inherited from the Tiahuanaco-Huari period, and took them to a whole new level. Following a hierarchy, constructions used for urban, or agricultural and cattle-breeding purposes where built with unpolished boulders and fitted one to the other with small rocks. This type of wall is called pirca or perqa.
On the other hand, state and religious constructions were built with carved rocks, some of great dimensions, and others fitted like a puzzle using medium-sized materials. The rocks they chose were mainly hard such as granite, diorite and porphyry, and were mostly extracted from nearby quarries and transported to the construction site to be carved onsite.
It is believed that the large blocks of rock were transported through humid, muddy roads, to reduce friction. Even so, it is almost impossible to imagine the large amount of man force needed to move the gigantic blocks that gave life to Sacsayhuaman or Machu Picchu. Perhaps they were transported by mitimaes (displaced laborers) brought from villages conquered in faraway lands, or by groups of laborers just fulfilling their tasks, or collaborating voluntarily.
Inca architects would choose which type of rock to use according to the function the building would fulfill: for administrative buildings and noble houses, medium rocks, and for fortresses and religious sites, enormous ones. In both cases the rocks were carved completely and not only on their outer edge, to ensure that the joints were perfect, and that not even a pin could go through them. This also ensured that the construction would last in time. What's more, if we consider that this solidity was accompanied by an efficient drainage system, and by solid foundations, it is possible to say that Inca walls are eternal.
However, what is really impressive is that the Incas were able to trace complex terrace systems, cities perched on mountains, and buildings with foundations that have survived strong earthquakes, without any writing or plans. In fact, we still don't know much about the tools they used to break and carve rocks, or to transport the massive blocks used in some walls. Regarding this last topic, Betanzos, a chronicler, states that they would use inclined areas of land covered with fine humid clay as ramps.
As for the type of slabs used, Kauffman asserts that there is no chronological difference between them, but that they were employed differently. So, while regular blocks were used to build perfect walls like the ones found in the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu, in others, regular blocks were lowered in their joints until forming "rounded" walls. One type of block they used is the so-called polygonal, such as the one found in Hatun Rumiyoc street in Cusco, in which the rocks fit perfectly like in a puzzle, or the walls that combine rock on the base, and adobe on the upper part like in the temple of Raqchi.
An outstanding characteristic of Inca architecture is the use of doors, windows and trapezoidal niches, some of which had double jambs. In addition, Hiram Bingham stated that in some doors the Incas placed wood and hay structures tied to gadgets found on the superior and lateral sides.
Regarding city planning, the Incas would adapt to their environment following certain patterns and norms in the central sections. Generally, cities were characterized by narrow streets, stone stairs connecting the different levels, as well as plazas, sacred sites, storage houses and large public buildings.
According to their function, Inca building units can be divided into ushnos or pyramidal buildings of religious character such as Machu Picchu; kallankas or spacious public buildings that served as shelters; masmas or double precinct houses with a central wall that supported the roof; huayranas, buildings with three walls and a central column to support the roof; canchas, used as farmyards or patios; colcas or storage houses; and tambos used as supply or resting houses on the road.
Lastly, it is possible to say, that as a result of an enormous human effort derived from their rigid social control, the Incas were able to build everlasting monuments that constitute today our most invaluable cultural patrimony, and source of knowledge on history and customs. Since these amazing sites were made possible by a great love and respect for the environment, only the gods could have lived amongst these rocks.
The Capac Ñan
If there is something that defines the Inca state is its great organizational spirit and notable work planning. One of the things that illustrate this better is the extensive road system displayed throughout the empire, the same that covered -according to John Hyslop- between 30 to 50 kilometers. This large road network also included suspension bridges made from braided ichu grass, and large amounts of tambos and administrative centers.
The road system wasn't invented by the Incas either. Actually, most of it was traced before them. Yet, they did were responsible for improving them with the use of terraces, drainage systems, and rocks placed as tiles that allowed the passing of caravans, beasts of burden, and great armies without damaging the roads.
Another reason for this effort to maintain the efficiency and perfect conditions of the trails came from the need of the State to move large populations of mitimaes to new lands, harvest the lands of the Inca, and send functionaries, chasquis and managers to all the corners of the territory.
There were two main branches of the Inca trail or Capac Ñan; the first connected Cusco with Quito, and the second connected Cusco with the coastal valleys. According to descriptions made by the first chroniclers that accompanied the conquistadores, in the lower areas the roads were surrounded by trees, while in the open zones, such as pampas and deserts, they were signaled with rocks, posts or pebbles placed on the side of the road. But the road itself was kept totally clear of obstacles.
The famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is probably the best example of the Inca road system. However, it is also possible to find very well kept paths in the Conchucos region, in Yauyos, Lima, and close to Huanuco Pampa in Huanuco.
The first impression one has when looking at the citadel built by the Incas in the middle of the mountain jungle of Cusco, is mere astonishment. Often, the first question that comes to visitors minds is: How were they able to build it?
Machu Picchu, the most important symbol of Peruvian civilization is located in a site almost impossible to reach, as it is practically hanging on a hill between two mountains that draw two large faults on the terrain. Despite this and that it was built in one of the rainiest areas in the world, it has managed to remain intact for almost 6 centuries. So there is no doubt that this site demonstrates the immense capabilities of Inca architects and engineers who managed to built such an enduring site.
Among the theories of why Inca Pachacutec, the ninth governor of the Tahuantinsuyo, ordered the construction of Machu Picchu are: that he build it as a retirement site, as a fortress to stop the advances of the antis, inhabitants of the Amazon jungle who were threatening the Empire, or as a site of cult to the Sun, inhabited by royal virgins called acllas.
In 1975, a French traveler called Charles Wiener had told the news about the citadel and included it in his map of the region. But it was in 1911 that Hiram Bingham found the site. Guided by Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer who had told him about the existence of the ruins, he ended his travels across these lands stating -according to what he had found- that he had discovered Vitcos, the mythical lost city of the Incas.
Machu Picchu is basically divided in two sectors: the agrarian zone, formed by andenes or terraces used for farming and contention, and the urban sector, subdivided in urban and sacred areas. The most standing buildings are the Temple of the Three Windows, the Priest's Mansion, the Royal Tomb, the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana, a rock carved in an irregular form used for propitiatory purposes, and as its Quechan name denotes, which had the capacity to "tie the sun to the earth".
The variety of styles and buildings used for the most diverse purposes turns Machu Picchu into the best site where to understand imperial architecture, and go to the depths of the magical state of mind that guided the hands of its noble builders.