Tucked away in the rocky countryside northwest of Cuzco, Peru, Machu Picchu is believed to have been a royal estate or sacred religious site for Inca leaders, whose civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.
Historians believe Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire, which dominated western South America in the 15th and 16th centuries.
It was abandoned an estimated 100 years after its construction, probably around the time the Spanish began their conquest of the mighty pre-Columbian civilization in the 1530s. There is no evidence that the conquistadors ever attacked or even reached the mountaintop citadel, however; for this reason, some have suggested that the residents’ desertion occurred because of a smallpox epidemic.
There are many theories of the purpose of Machu Picchu and amongst them are that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, a religious site, pointing to its proximity to mountains and other geographical features that the Incas held sacred, a women’s retreat or a city devoted to the coronation of kings, among many examples.
The site’s finely crafted stonework, terraced fields and sophisticated irrigation system bear witness to the Inca civilization’s architectural, agricultural and engineering skills. Its central buildings are prime examples of a masonry technique mastered by the Incas in which stones were cut to fit together without mortar.