The Makings of History / Found, but Not Lost

Machu Piccu in Peru is entangled in issues of politics, occupation, oppression and genocide, and a relentless war between 'old' and 'new' historians; there is an indirect connection between Machu Piccu and the Holocaust.

I needed to get away from it all, at least until after the holidays. So I booked plane tickets to Machu Picchu. A few months ago, locals had celebrated the so-called 100th anniversary of the lost city's discovery. Enveloped in splendor and mystery, it sits on a ridge of the Andes, looking out over Peru's Urubamba Valley.

But instead of tranquility, we found ourselves entangled in issues of politics, occupation, oppression and genocide, and a relentless war between "old" and "new" historians. Patriotic longings for a glorious mythical past flourish there, and even the breathtaking view can't suppress the question: Whose history is this? And when I got back home, I recalled an indirect connection between Machu Picchu and the Holocaust.

'The old mountain' - Getty Images
Getty Images.

The amazing mountain in the photos is not Machu Picchu; it is Huayna Picchu, but it photographs better than adjacent Machu Picchu. The latter is the ruins not of a city but, quite possibly, of an academic campus of sorts, and it wasn't "discovered," because it is doubtful it was ever "lost."

The "discovery" nourished the career of an American politician named Hiram Bingham III, a professor of South American history at Yale University. When he was 36, he toured Peru and heard about the "Old Mountain," Machu Picchu. The guide who took him there in July 1911 knew the site, and there were a few farmers living there. It seems that researchers from Europe had been there too, and had marked Machu Picchu on maps. But no one did more than Bingham to publicize Machu Picchu, and for that reason the toy-like train that zigzags to the foot of the mountain, carrying nearly 1 million tourists a year, is named after him.

Bingham, who was married to the heiress of the Tiffany jewelry empire, returned to Machu Picchu several times at the expense of Yale and the National Geographic Society. He was a hero of the Society's magazine for years. Now, via online archives, one can see how the magazine that once expressed American conservatism and cultural arrogance has been overcome by political correctness. The magazine also shows that Bingham's scoop was not actually a scoop.

When World War I broke out, Bingham served as a pilot. After the war he was elected governor of Connecticut and later senator. Many of the things he wrote about Machu Picchu were later found to be untrue. He himself had trouble deciding whether he had discovered the cradle of the Inca Empire or its last bastion; at one stage he tended to think he had found both. Both explanations have been refuted.

Bingham took many of the objects he found at Machu Picchu from Peru to Yale. Only in recent years has the university stated its willingness to give them back, in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the Peruvian government and a tortured discussion about who owns the finds: the elite university that funded their discovery or the heirs of the "primitive" people who once used them.

Our guides in Peru waxed nostalgic about the lost Inca Empire, stressing the murderousness of the Spanish conquerors as if they had suffered personally, and expressing longings for renewed Inca glory. They cited various and contradictory theories about Machu Picchu's purpose: a fortress, a temple, a dwelling for virgins of the sun or a sybaritic estate for the emperor.

One guide offered a truly amazing thesis: This was a center for excellence and a school for leaders. There were several dozen buildings there, erected only 50 years before they were abandoned amid the oncoming Spanish conquest, in around 1530. According to the guide, the buildings housed young, talented men and women who came to train for leadership positions. Even though they did not have a written language, they researched agriculture and astronomy.

On the way home, I remembered the associations Hiram Bingham evokes for me. Not Hiram Bingham III, but rather Hiram Bingham IV, one of his seven sons: In World War II he was the American consul in Marseille, where he issued U.S. visas to Jewish artists and intellectuals persecuted by the Nazis, including Lion Feuchtwanger, Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt. He was a controversial figure and he did not win recognition as a Righteous Gentile, but his family received a letter of appreciation from Yad Vashem.