A Jar in Machu Picchu


by Samuel Jay Keyser

There are two plaques at the entrance to the Machu Picchu sanctuary. The first reads, in part, Hiram Bingham, scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu in 1911. The association of the word ‘discoverer’ with Bingham is stretching it. This is undoubtedly why the author of the plaque thought to tone it down with the adjective ‘scientific.’

After all, when Bingham reached Aquas Calientes, the modern launching point for visits to the sanctuary, he asked a local farmer if there were any ruins nearby. The farmer or perhaps his son took him straight to Machu Picchu. Bingham is reported to have paid him un sol, roughly two bits, for his trouble.

Bingham was not so much a discoverer as a publicist. This he did very well. Thanks to him the Peruvians suddenly woke up to the goldmine that the jungle was hiding. Now several well-built, well-maintained and well-run Perurail trains chug between Cusco and Aguas Calientes every day bringing in hordes of visitors who are then shuttled up to the sanctuary and back in highly efficient Mercedes Benz busses.

Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. He wasn’t whistling Dixie. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is Peru’s Machu Picchu and Siem Riep, its Aguas Calientes. If you drive through Siem Riep, you pass through a town with virtually no infrastructure at all, poverty everywhere, unpaved roads, virtually no public amenities, to world class hotels built by the Japanese who split their take with the government of Cambodia. The people in Siem Riep, worse off than the Peruvians of Aguas Calientes, wear rubber sandals made from old tires. But look around Aguas Calientes and you ask yourself where are the new hospitals, the new schools, the paved streets, the amenities that make a town a home. The most modern things in Aguas Calientes are the trains bringing in the tourists.

There is a second plaque at the entrance to Macho Picchu, also in Spanish:

Considered a masterpiece of location, urban planning, design and construction of footpaths, buildings, sidewalks, canals with many fountains, the infrastructure of Machu Picchu illustrates the advances in civil, hydraulic and geo-technical engineering of an Incan town. Their drinking fountains, solid stone walls, surface and subterranean drains and the tapping of springs are all excellent examples of Incan civil engineering. (my translation)

The plaque is heavy on engineering and light on location. But the fact is that were it not for the mountains, Machu Picchu would be just one more tourist attraction in South America instead of the number one tourist attraction of the continent and a worldwide tourist target. Location is all.

The guidebooks describe Machu Picchu almost universally as a magical place that engenders a feeling of calm, a sense of soothing serenity. It is as if they were describing Machu Picchu through Valium-colored glasses. The guidebooks are right. I think I know why. Machu Picchu is nothing if not the taming of the wild. Here in the shadow of the lowering Andes, Machu Picchu declares that you can, after all, live safely in the midst of hostility.

There is controversy over why Machu Picchu was built. Was it a royal residence? Was it a summer resort for the Inca? Was it a religious site? Was it all of the above? I don’t think any of that matters. What matters is the aura of the city—a safe haven if ever there was one. The builders were right. The Spanish never sacked Machu Picchu. They never found it.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called Anecdote of the Jar:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

He could easily have been thinking of Machu Picchu when he wrote it.

About the Author:

Samuel Jay Keyser is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. Associate Provost from 1985 to 1994, he currently holds the position of Special Assistant to the Chancellor. In his career as a theoretical linguist he has published over 60 articles and four books. He is editor in chief of the journal Linguistic Inquiry and of the Linguistic Inquiry Monograph Series. Keyser is also author of the recently published I Married a Travel Junkie. He blogs here.