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Nichols: History of Machu Picchu could offer lessons to next president

POSTED: June 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An event in Israel in 1975 caused me to make plans to travel to see a mountaintop fortification in Peru. I was in the third week of a personal tour of Israel, when I went to make some publicity photographs of an agricultural high school called Kfar Silver, not far from the town of Ashdod.

To arrange my schedule, I visited the office of the headmaster and talked with his secretary. On the wall behind her desk was a poster about 3-by-2 feet in size. The secretary smiled and said: "Machu Picchu is the one place I want to see before I die." I looked at the poster, and decided I also had to see it before I died.

Several years later after I ran a workshop at an academic conference in Venezuela, I took several days more for a quick trip to Lima and Cusco, Peru.

Machu Picchu was greater than my expectations. It was built in the mid-15th century by the Inca Emperor Pachacuti. At an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, Machu Picchu is a cluster of buildings on the very top of a mountain ridge towering some 2,000 feet above the Uruhamba River below.

The buildings had rooms for about 500 persons, an athletic field, a religious altar and terraces where inhabitants could grow food and survive any attack. The buildings have lost their roofs which were probably thatched. But the workmanship of the stonemasons is obvious as most walls remain as they were when first built. With no putty, rocks of different sizes sit on top of each other so tight that a knife cannot be inserted between surfaces.

Machu Picchu was built at the peak years of the Inca Empire, but it was occupied for only a hundred years, and when Peru was conquered by the Spanish, the conquistadors never discovered this mountain retreat. It remained hidden in the jungle until discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham III, the man on whom the Indiana Jones movie character was based. (Note: His son, Hiram Bingham IV, was long in the diplomatic service and has his face on a new stamp from the U.S. Postal Service.)

When Machu Picchu was built, the Incan Empire stretched along the Andes from Chile to Columbia. The Incas had a very advanced social system in which conquered peoples were forced to marry into the Inca family. They built a system of footpaths for runners to carry messages in relays so that the center was informed of all important events all across the empire. Although they never developed a written language, they did develop a system of knots in strings that conveyed needed information.

Thus in pre-Columbian Latin America, the Incan Empire was a major organization in South America. It had evolved military, social and economic measures to keep order and provide for the needs of its diverse peoples.

Then came the Spaniards. They had guns, horses, body armaments unseen in the New World. They also brought diseases for which the local peoples were completely unprepared.

The Inca went from being emperor of his own world, worshiped along with the sun, to being captured, his culture almost destroyed, and his world of his laws and customs turned upside down. The Incas faced change that caught them like a cyclone in Asia.

In 1983, UNESCO named Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, and it has been selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

I wonder if the Incas have a lesson for our next president? I often see the old concept that our enemy is a state or coalition of states. When we talk of our war on terrorism do we still think mostly in old terms of state-to-state conflict?

Like the Inca emperor, our next president may face a totally unexpected world in which ideas are the main enemy, cultures are the main instrument of conflict, and hearts and minds of people everywhere matter to us as our economic world (oil, Wal-Mart, etc.) becomes entangled with so many factors over which we no longer have instruments to control effectively.

Will our Fortress America become our American Machu Picchu? Will we be overwhelmed with new and unexpected types of threats that upset our established order of life?

I believe the next four years might be the most dangerous years in our history since before the Civil War. Let us all pray that our next president has the wisdom and courage to make necessary, even if unpopular, decisions about how to deal with the unexpected dangers that lurk beyond every bend in the road to our nation’s future.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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