Friday, 5 August 2011

The Search for El Dorado*

                                    The World’s longest held secret

How long can you keep a secret for? An hour, a week, a month, maybe a year.....before that gnawing desire to tell someone finally gets the better of you.
I am going to tell you about the secret that was kept for hundreds of years by hundreds, even thousands of people, but they never let on and told outsiders their secret. But when the secret finally came out, it was compounded by an awful betrayal.

A city was built in 1462 by the Inca civilization in Peru at the height of its powers. Allegedly it was constructed for the Inca Emperor, Pashacuti, although there are also other theories. The site chosen was already a sacred place and the Incas left no stone unturned, literally, in making this a magical, unique place.

They built the city in the classical Inca style from grey granite, with polished dry-stone walls, using no mortar. The result is a masterpiece of engineering and design, with the highest standards of craftsmanship, in a place of almost impossible access. The city became the secret. Its very existence fell into doubt, despite its importance to the people of the surrounding area.

Positioned at 8,000 feet above sea level, and on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba valley, it is only 80 kilometres northwest of Cuzco. The city thrived for about a hundred years until it was abandoned. Various theories exist for its abandonment ranging from disease to fear of the Spanish discovering it. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Peru, they conquered most of the country, but despite setting up their capital in Cuzco, they never found this city, despite looking for it ceaselessly.

The Spanish arrived with a crazed craving for all things golden, and didn’t mind what they plundered to achieve their objectives. The Peruvians saw what the Spanish were doing to their country, and decided not to tell them anything about this city in the mountains. A wall of silence built up around the city, and the secret held. When survival is at stake, nothing else matters. Consequently the city became overgrown, and developed its own disguise, with the help of Mother Nature. Limited access and the difficult terrain helped to preserve the secret.

At the turn of the twentieth century, another type of foreigner came to Peru searching for and researching its secrets. These were the sole explorers or archaeologists. They came supposedly not to conquer, or plunder, but to discover facts and delight in new discoveries. Some of these suspected that there was more to be discovered beneath the surface, but still the secret held.

Eventually an American archaeologist, called Hiram Bingham, from Yale University started his various expeditions to the area. His regular appearances and supposedly scholarly intentions with impeccable credentials seemed to confirm his trustworthiness.  

Bingham started to dig below the surface and built up confidence with the locals. But when the secret was revealed, it was revealed by an eleven year boy who led Bingham to the most sacred site of the Incas, Machu Piccu. The secret that had held for four hundred years was out.

But, like many secrets that come out, it was followed by an awful betrayal. Despite being rightly hailed as being the discoverer of Machu Piccu, and showing its importance to the world, Bingham excavated and discovered priceless objects of the Incas, which he transported to Yale University for further study. The betrayal came when Yale University claimed title to the artefacts.

The process had been overseen by the National Geographic Society who had been witness to the fact that the artefacts had only been ‘loaned’ to the University. Infact, the ‘loan’ has lasted a hundred years, almost the same time as the city’s original life, although in 2007 Yale and the Government of Peru announced that they had come to an agreement on the permanent return of  most of the items. They thus provided a fitting end to the tale of the world’s longest held secret of the city of Machu Piccu. 

                                                               Image from

*This is the second article in the series of The Search for El Dorado.

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