5 Real-World Places Similar to Minas Tirith – #4: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

In the first post of this series, we took a look at the major qualities a real-world place would need to resemble J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings.

  • It has to be vertical, with walls, and a place people can call home.
  • It should also be home to the elite as well as symbol of something intangible and good to all people.
  • Finally, its construction should show a balance between the works of man and nature.

MP and HP captioned

#4. Machu Picchu/Huayna Picchu

Its balance between human endeavor and nature speaks for itself.


An elite and symbolic place

The conquistadors never reached Machu Picchu, but its people only lived there for about 100 years, as far as we know today, and they didn’t leave written records behind.

The Sacred Rock crowning Huayna Picchu is shaped like and aligned with nearby holy mountain Putuski.  (Jorge Lascar )

The Sacred Rock in Machu Picchu is shaped like and aligned with nearby holy mountain Putuski. (Jorge Lascar) There is another, differently shaped holy stone atop Huayna Picchu that I have read is aligned with the holy mountain of Salkantay, though I can’t verify that.

There are thus many unanswered questions about the place, but historians believe it could have been a royal estate of the Inca Pacachuti(5) as well as the center of a number of ceremonial, administrative and trade functions.

Major regional Inca roads converge on a big site near the city’s main gate. Ziegler and Malville (source 5 below) say, “This was likely a large staging area for llama trains, supplies, labor gangs, workers, warehouse goods and state business coming and going.”

Many structures in Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu also have ritual alignments – too many alignments, in fact, to list here. Those, plus the town’s location between two sacred peaks and its relationship with local geography, astronomical features such as the solstices and the Pleiades, etc., suggest to Ziegler and Malville that “it probably hosted a complex schedule of ritual events, celebrations and important gatherings throughout the Inca calendar. The predominance of mountain replication shrines and solstice alignments suggest that the primary spiritual focus at Machu Picchu was mountain worship and the sun.”

This spot must have been just about perfect for everything the Incas wanted to do.

A hallowed hill and silent tombs

Despite its importance, Machu Picchu, built around 550 years ago and rediscovered during Tolkien’s lifetime, probably never had the European-style bustle of Minas Tirith, but it does share unique architectural features with that city that makes me wonder a little whether news of Machu Picchu’s discovery might have influenced the writer, if only subliminally.

Here’s Tolkien, continuing to describe the City of Guard:

Walls - Check.  (Image: Theodore Scott)

Walls – Check. (Theodore Scott)

A strong citadel it was indeed, and not to be taken by a host of enemies, if there were any within that could hold weapons; unless some foe could come behind and scale the lower skirts of Mindolluin, and so come upon the narrow shoulder that joined the Hill of Guard to the mountain mass. But that shoulder, which rose to the height of the fifth wall, was hedged with great ramparts right up to the precipice that overhung its western end; and in that space stood the houses and domed tombs of bygone kings and lords, forever silent between the mountain and the tower.

Steep, little-used path up the hallows - check.  (Brian Ralphs)

Steep, little-used path up to the hallows – check. (Brian Ralphs)

But Gandalf took Aragorn out from the city by night, and he brought him to the southern feet of Mount Mindolluin; and there they found a path made in ages past that few now dared to tread. For it led up on to the mountain to a high hallow where only the kings had been wont to go. And they went up by steep ways, until they came to a high field…and it looked down over the precipice that stool behind the city. And standing there they surveyed the lands, for the morning was come…

And Gandalf said: “This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Six, Chapter 5


(Martin St-Amant)

The Temple of the Moon. (Martin St-Amant)

The layout of Minas Tirith has always seemed a little weird to me, not the citadel so much as the tombs behind it and the hallowed mountain that towered over the city.

In what legendary place did people bury their high-ranking dead on a ridge and worship the mountain behind their city? None that I know of.

However, the Incas built the city of Machu Picchu on a ridge and aligned it so that its main gate and several other important constructs would line up with Huayna Picchu.

There are also tombs on Huayna Picchu in the so-called Temple of the Moon (it’s just an arbitrary name, not necessarily a temple). While there are royal tombs down below in the city, those on Huayna Picchu are very special, built “with fine masonry blocks that have been carved to fit precisely with the irregular contours of large rocky outcrops that are serve as a roof. The walls, ornamental character clearly include false covers and trapezoids niches double and triple jamb. Although its specific function is unknown, it is clear that this is an elite group of buildings for the effort demanded them. It is believed to have funeral customs and all the tombs were looted at some point in the history of the region.”(2)

Well, Tolkien never specifically mentioned this beautiful Inca complex in Peru, as far as I know, so all we can do is speculate.

Every wonder today what Gondor would look like in Google Maps?

Machu Picchu – click to enlarge. Did you ever wonder what Gondor would look today like in Google Maps?


Minas Tirith has its Pelennor, and city and fields also sit side by side at Machu Picchu.

Experts estimate that Machu Picchu could have supported anywhere from 500 to a maximum of 1200 people.

The terraces alone – though they could have been farmed – wouldn’t have provided enough food for that many people. There was, therefore, a large area of land set aside for livestock and farming south of the town (right click on the Google Map to the left to see it).

Their water supply and drainage system was good, too.
In summary, there is a lot of detailed information about Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu online. Maybe you’ve already been lucky enough to visit it or might in the future.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just close with a 3D look at what the Incas built there. Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu are an excellent real-world equivalent of Minas Tirith!


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More information:
1. Google Translate version of “Machu Piccu” (Spanish).

2. Google Translate version of “Huayna Picchu” (Spanish).

3. BBC Travel: “What most people miss at Machu Picchu.“.

4. UNESCO: Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.

5. Gary Ziegler and J. McKim Malville, “Machu Picchu: Inca Pachacuti’s Sacred City: A multiple ritual, ceremonial and administrative center.

6. Wikipedia, Machu Picchu (English).

Categories: Tolkien Tuesday

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