Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom

A soaring, pyramidal stone gateway was rising just in front of me. It was covered with terraces of carvings, shaped by mythological world of ancient Khmers and their beliefs. The gate was one of five identical monumental portals built as a part of a defensive, twelve-metres long wall surrounding a squared area of Angkor Thom – the Great City (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Walled City

Each of the four of the wall’s sides measures three kilometres (Renown Travel 2010-2020). The fortifications were “built […] at [nearly eight metres] high, […] and [with] moats that are [one hundred kilometres] wide. [Their construction is] of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top [but without battlements]. As the [city’s central temple, Bayon], itself has no wall or moat of its own, those of the city are interpreted by archaeologists as representing the mountains and oceans surrounding the Bayon’s Mount Meru” (Teo 2014).

“The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the ‘Beng Thom’ – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall” (Glaize 1944).

Portals to the stars

There are four gates at each of the cardinal points, namely the North, the South, the East and the West Gates, built in the middle of the four sides of the wall. While the West Gate is said to be best preserved of all (Glaize 1944), “the mysterious East Gate […] is left in ruins. [It] once served a different purpose and is also known as the Death Gate. Legend has it that it was through East Gate that convicts were sent to be executed” (Teo 2014). From the gates roads lead to the very heart of the City (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The additional fifth gate, called the Victory Gate, is today well preserved and placed on the axis of the Royal Palace to the East Baray and was apparently dedicated to processions of the victorious king (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate

I was just admiring the South Gate. Today it is the main entrance for tourists coming to this famous and gigantesque archaeological site (Teo 2014). Like always during peak seasons, that entrance to Angkor Thom was extremely crowded with a traffic jam of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, small cars and even elephants carrying tourists (Ibid.). All around there were heard voices of people shouting over each other in different languages, the terrifying screech of vehicles and the sound of horns.

Another reason why the place attracts loads of people is the fact that the South Gate is situated “on the path between the two great Angkor complexes” (Teo 2014). Adjacent to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom additionally constituted the successive capital of the Khmer Empire, which was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and since then it has been constantly crowded, maybe except the time of the Red Khmers regime (Ibid.).

Three Towers

Each of the gateways, although some overgrown with sprouting roots, made a truly hypnotic impressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are composed of a group of three aligned towers (Glaize 1944); the central tower of the portal is flanked by two smaller towers (Teo 2014).

Between them, there are the sculpted statues of three-headed “elephants Airavan, whose trunks are pulling lotus flowers” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:136). The animals are mounted by the Hindu god Indra with his two wives (Teo 2014). Behind, there are possibly the remains of the Naga’s snake heads, as it is visible in the nineteenth century’s engraving (see Pałkiewicz 2007:136, photo). Between the side towers there is the entrance with the arched vaulting (Ibid.:136). “The opening of the gates are [seven] meters high by [three and half] meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night” (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The entrance is crowned with the major sculpture of the gates: four megalithic faces beautifully enlivened by the play of light and shadow (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are placed at the height of twenty-three metres above the ground, looking down on those who dare to enter their kingdom (Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The so-called ‘face towers’ are similar to those erected at the Bayon (Renown Travel 2010-2020); they “contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions” (Ibid.). They are apparently crowned with a headdress resembling a closed flower of lotus. “[The sculpted heads] are believed to represent [Avalokiteshvara] or Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains [two] faces looking in opposite directions; [every] of the smaller towers have [one] face, each looking in one of the remaining two directions” (Ibid.). According to “the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297, […] there was [also] a fifth head on the [very] top at the time, of which nothing, [however], remains today” (Ibid.).

Also known as a gopura

By its intricate carvings, the whole construction of the five gateways looks as if it was shaped by a cascading waterfall. In Indian architecture, also typical of South-East Asia, such a stone gate in the shape of a multi-storey stepped tower, narrowing towards the top and richly decorated with carvings, was referred to as a gopura (PWN 2007:135). Like in the Khmer Empire, since the Middle Ages, gopuras had been usually placed from the four corners of the world, in the wall surrounding temples in southern India (Ibid.:135).

Five causeways

The five gopuras are all preceded by the causeways thrown over the moats, which are, like the gateways, identical in their construction and decorations (Theo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Before I passed through the South Gate and entered the Great City, I stopped for longer on the causeway to enjoy my eyes with a view that I deeply remembered (Pałkiewicz 2007:131). Behind a hundred-meter wide moat was the citadel, Angkor Thom, the capital of the late medieval monarchy, where the administrative, religious and commercial life of the kingdom was concentrated (Ibid.:131).

“It was [undoubtedly] the world’s largest city during that time, [ruled] by the famous and great king Jayavarman VII. [He] took over […] the Khmer Empire at a difficult moment, [just] after the invasion of a Cham fleet [that] had destroyed the [previous] capital […], and had taken away the greater part of the country’s properties. […] Angkor Thom covers an area of [nearly] 10 km² [and 900 hectares) within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors” (Teo 2014; see Glaize 1944); apart from a large complex of Bayon, the City also includes four small temples at the corners, known as the Prasat Chrung, Jayavarman VII’s Palace and densely decorated terraces (Glaize 1944; Renown Travel 2010-2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:165-177).

Asuras and Devas

The entrance to the city is guarded by 108 statues of colossal size, holding, or rather pulling, a giant Naga serpent in their hands (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998). The length of the snake body is estimated to around 75 metres (Baskin 2012). On the right side, there are 54 Asuras (demons) with grimace faces, announcing misfortune, and opposite them on the other side of the causeway, there is the same number of demigods (Devas) with distinctively  good-natured expressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998).

“Lining either side of the causeway are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent [seven]-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping.”

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

The other four city causeways are similarly decorated; however, Maurice Glaize (1944), a French architect, archaeologist and Conservator of Angkor (1937-1945), notices that at “the north gate […] the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.”

Unfortunately, many of the statues’ heads are now gone, which is especially visible on the northern causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Lessik 2015; see Pałkiewicz 2007:131, photo); they were mostly cut off during the time when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979 (Lessik 2015). “While [their] ideology might have been part of the decapitations, apparently the main reason was that the […] heads were worth money. Hundreds if not thousands of heads and sometimes whole statues and other antiquities were stolen and sold to buy arms” (Ibid.). Today the statues are more or less preserved but, according to the journalist Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:131), they bear the hallmarks of carelessly conducted restoration works, because their bodies and heads were not well matched to each other.

Samudra manthan

However, regardless of their modern scars, made by time and men, the statues still express a clear message transmitted from the past (Copestake, Hancock 1998).

They are actually a three dimensional version of the Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk (Samudra manthan) (Ibid.). The sculpture complex is nearly analogical in its interpretation to one of ten bas-relief scenes carved on the inside walls of Angkor Wat (Ibid.). Both, the sculpture of Angkor Thom and the bas-relief of Angkor Wat represent the same mythological event, though with some differences (Ibid.). The story is the most famous Hindu parable, frequent in Cambodian culture, and it dates back to the times when Devas (semi-gods) and Asuras (demons) fought with each other for domination over the world (Rafał 2018). Although the Khmer Empire of the king Jayavarman VII was primarily devoted to Buddhism, the Khmer architecture and art had preserved many symbolical elements of the Hindu beliefs, which were intertwined with the major rituals, dedicated to Buddha.

Pulling the Naga

As the legend says, long eras ago, the Devas weakened with time and the Asuras grew stronger (Rafał 2018). The depressed Devas finally went to the god Vishnu for help (Ibid.). He ordered them to get Amrit, the nectar of Immortality, which, lost during the Great Flood, lay at the bottom of the endless ocean (Ibid.). However, the Devas were not able to do it themselves, so as strange as it sounds, they made peace with the Asuras and ask them for help (Ibid.).

To extract the Nectar of Immortality, the spirits used Mount Mandara as a whisk and wrapped it in the bulk of the multi-headed serpent Wasuk (the snake king of Naga) (Rafał 2018). Devas grabbed the serpent’s tail, and Asuras held its heads (Ibid.). Pulling it alternately, the serpent spun the mountain that churn the Ocean (Ibid.). The mountain, however, began to collapse into the depths of the water, to which Vishnu came in the form of the Kurma turtle and supported it on his shell (Ibid.).

Amrit

The churning took thousands of years; first, the terrible kalakuta poison appeared, which was a by-product of churning and threatened all existence on earth (Rafał 2018).

In order to save the world, Shiva drank the poison, but did not manage to swallow it because his wife Parvati held his throat to stop the poisoning of her husband’s body (Rafał 2018). From then on, Shiva’s neck was blue in colour (Ibid.). During the churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk, jewels began to emerge from the water, including: Moon, Ayravata – an elephant with four tusks, Kamadhenu – a cow of abundance which is an eternal source of milk, goddess of alcoholic beverages, Kalpawryksza – a wonderful tree that fulfils all wishes, a white horse Uććhajśravas, Sankha – the conch of victory, the miraculous bow, the heavenly Apsaras, and finally Lakshmi – the goddess of happiness, wealth and beauty (Ibid.). After all this, Dhanwantari (the doctor of the gods) came out of the ocean holding a pot with Amrit (Ibid.). The gods and demons rushed on the vessel, whereupon Vishnu transformed into a beautiful Mohini and took Amrit (Rafał 2018). The demons, enchanted by her beauty, fell down before her, asking her to decide who deserved the Nectar of Immortality (Ibid.). Mohini gave the Amrit to the Devas who drank it quickly (Ibid.). Only one of the demons – Rahu, managed to enter the ranks of the gods under disguise and taste the drink (Ibid.).

The Sun and Moon, however, recognised Rahu’s disguise and reported it to Vishnu (Rafał 2018). The enraged god cut off the demon’s head when he had not yet swallowed his drink (Ibid.). The separated head of Rahu remained immortal thanks to Nectar and ascended to heaven as a planet, and his dead body (Ketu) fell to the ground (Ibid.). Rahu, wanting to take revenge on the Sun and Moon, tries to swallow them every time he comes close to them, but since it has no body, the Sun and Moon are safe (Ibid.). Hence, according to Hindu theology, the cyclical eclipses of both celestial bodies take place (Ibid.).

Bas-relief and full sculpture

The rejuvenated Devas defeated the Asuras, but the age-old struggle between them every now and then is reborn again (Rafał 2018). Nevertheless, thanks to the Nectar of Immortality, the Devas always win with the Asuras and still have control over the universe (Ibid.). The bas-relief in Angkor Wat adds to the story of the Churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk some characters of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Ibid.). This is why there is Ravana among the demons, and Hanuman along with demi-gods (Ibid.; see In the Realm of Demon Ravana; Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). On the whole, there are 92 demons on the left, and on the other side, 88 gods are pulling the Naga’s tail in the opposite direction (Ibid.).

On the causeways of Angkor Thom, The Ocean of Milk seems to be represented by deep waters of the moats, which flow under the causeway and stretch around the city (Copestake, Hancock 1998). Yet the numbers of Asuras and Devas differ from what is illustrated in Angkor Thom; while approaching the City’s gates, on the right there are 54 demons and, on the left, 54 demi-gods, depicted while pulling the bulk of the serpent (Ibid.). Moreover, unlike in the story, the Naga’s heads are not only wielded by Asuras but also by Devas. It is probably the matter of symmetry and representation of the guards as the open cobra fans in front of the gateway.

Message

Some scholars ascribe a mythological-religious meaning to the sculpture represented on the causeway (Glaize 1944).

“[This] double railing in the form of a [Naga] was perhaps ‘one way of symbolising a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition (and not only), is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialised here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country.’”

Mr Cœdes and Paul Mus (Glaize 1944).
Airavata, the three-headed elephant, is the mount of Indra, who is the king of the Devas. Photo by Michael Gunther (2014); modified. CC BY 4.0.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Glaize (1944) seems to share such an idea; it is supported by “the presence of [a guardian deity, Indra], at the extremity of the access causeway” (Ibid.). That would confirm the hypothesis suggested above that the Naga imitates the rainbow as, according to the Hindu mythology, the bow belonging to Indra is in fact the rainbow as well (Glaize 1944).

Another message

According to the author, Graham Hancock (1988; 2016:265-266), the complex of Angkor Tom is a monumental, metaphorical representation of precession.

Depicted there numbers bear out this theory: 54 figures in a row on each side of the causeway, so 108 statues per bridge (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). There are five causeways leading to the city and surrounding the whole complex, so it gives 540 statues on the whole (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). As the author claims, these are all the Precession numbers (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). The bridge leads to a gateway (gopura) so the gateway itself and what lies beyond are possibly connected to the mystery of precession (Copestake, Hancock 1998). As such Angkor Tom appears as a vast, sacred enclosure, with its meaningful measurements and a sacral complex in its centre, known as Bayon, the very heart of the City (Ibid.).

Precession

But what does the precession actually stand for? One would assume it sounds like the subject of astronomy. And indeed, it is so. But the process of precession gains more importance in terms of its presence in ancient myths (literature) and architecture (art), assuming it is the case. Then the precession becomes the study of archaeoastronomy. That fact becomes even more intriguing when its duration is taken into account. In order to understand entirely the astronomical mechanism of precession, mankind must once have observed its whole and complete process.

The problem is that it takes nearly 26 000 years. Accordingly, its mystery must have been studied by long generations. An archaeoastronomer and Egyptologist, Jane B. Sellers, points out that astronomy, especially precession, is an indispensable tool for studying ancient Egypt and its religion (Hancock 2016:261). According to her, ‘the vast majority of archaeologists do not understand the phenomenon of precession, which affects their interpretations of ancient myths, gods and the correlation of ancient temples’ (Ibid.:261). ‘For astronomers, precession is a well-known fact and it is the responsibility of ancient scholars to learn about this phenomenon’, she claims (Ibid.:261).

Astronomical phenomenon

It is worth starting here from the very beginning. The planet Earth spins around its axis in a rotary motion, and it goes around the sun in a circular motion (Kosmiczne … 2020). Hence, as a result of the first movement, day follows night (24 hours), and of the second, there are seasons (365 days).

But some astronomical phenomena, such as the position of the constellations of stars in relation to the Earth, are due to another phenomenon, which is called precession (Kosmiczne … 2020). The earth axis moves along the side of the cone surface with its vertex in the center of the earth (Ibid.). In other words, the Earth’s axis draws a circle against the sky (Ibid.). This phenomenon can be compared to a spinning bittern toy (Ibid.). When the axis of such an object is not vertical, the gravitation tries to overturn the toy (Ibid.). Still it cannot be overturn, but characteristically staggers, which is a reflection of the phenomenon of precession (Ibid.). The Earth rotates around its axis, which is not perpendicular to the orbit encircling the Sun, but is invariably deviated from the perpendicular direction, at approximately 23.5 degrees (Ibid.).

Steven Sanders (2013). “Precession of the Earth”. This movie was created with Blender and is used in the Spitz Fulldome Curriculum for the SciDome planetariums around the world. In: RBITA. The Absolute Magnitude.

The Earth is not exactly a ball because the spinning flattened it slightly at the poles and bulged at the equator (Kosmiczne … 2020). The forces of gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun to the Earth’s equatorial bulge tend to position the deviated axis of the Planet perpendicularly to its orbit (Ibid.). The Earth, however, spins too fast to yield to these forces, which in turn generates a compromise: the processional movement of the Earth’s axis along the surface of the cone and the axis perpendicular to the Earth’s orbit (Ibid.). In this way, the Earth’s axis cannot be straightened while maintaining a constant inclination to the orbit plane (Ibid.). Yet the axis cannot maintain a fixed position in space and draws an entire cone in about 26,000 years, a period called the Platonic year, the Great Year or the Great Return (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). Every Platonic year the points of equinoxes are at the same point on the sky (Kosmiczne … 2020). The Sun returns to the starting point and the new Great Year begins anew (Ibid.). Precession very slowly affects the appearance of the Earth’s sky (Ibid.). The reflection of the Earth’s orbit on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic, and of the Earth’s equator is the Celestial Equator (Ibid.). Due to precession, the Celestial Equator traverses the ecliptic at 1 degree every 72 years, and the Celestial Pole traces a circle around the Ecliptic Pole with a radius of 23.5 degrees  (Ibid.).

Hence the position of the stars in the sky is not constant and changes gradually over a very long precession cycle (Ibid.). As a result of the precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars in the sky changes, including the polar star (Ibid.). Currently, due to precession, the polar star is Polaris (Ibid.).

Zodiac

The phenomenon of precession is predominantly related to the zodiac. The zodiac is a belt on the celestial sphere that consists of 12 parts, about 30 degrees each (Kosmiczne … 2020). The sky changes at a rate of 1 degree every 72 years (Ibid.). The Sun, therefore, spends about 2,160 years in each of the 12 houses of the zodiac constellations (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). The constellation where the Sun is at a given moment very slowly moves along the horizon, until finally another constellation takes its place (Kosmiczne … 2020). The boundaries of the zodiacal constellations are arbitrary, hence there are minor differences in the exact determination of the zodiac era (Ibid.).

Who was first?

The slow pace of changes in the sky caused by the precession of the equinoxes is very difficult to be observed in the lifetime of a single human being (Kosmiczne … 2020).

Animation of the cycle of precession of Earth’s axis, depicting the orientation of the axis in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (2012). By Tfr000. CC by-SA 3.0. Source: “Precesja” (2020) Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Who and when then discovered it? In 1687, Isaac Newton argued that the precession phenomenon was caused by the forces of gravitation (Ibid.). In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus characterized the precession as the third movement of the Earth (Ibid.). However, people must have known about the precession thousands of years earlier (Ibid.). Already in the second century BC, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus (Hipparch), wrote about the phenomenon of precession and is credited with its discovery (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:246-247).

By comparing his own measurements during sky observations with those of his predecessors in ancient Babylon and Alexandria, Hipparch noticed that the positions of the stars in the sky were different (Hancock 2016:246-247). To explain the inconsistencies, he presented the precession hypothesis and assigned a value of 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, now the value is more precisely calculated and so is recognised as 50, 274 arcseconds (Ibid.:247). The arcsecond is the smallest unit of the angle (Ibid.:247). There are 60 seconds per arcminute and 60 arcminutes is 1 angular degree; 360 degrees is a complete turn of the Earth around the Sun (Ibid.:247). The annual change is 50, 274 arcseconds (less than an arcminute) (Ibid.:247). And it only takes 72 years (precisely 71,6) for the spring sunrise to shift one degree. By these means it shows how slow the whole process is (Ibid.:247).

Astronomy hidden in myths

In 1969, a historian of science, Prof. Giorgio de Santillana proposed that the phenomenon of precession was already known thousands of years before the discovery of the Greek astronomer (Kosmiczne … 2020). Santillana pointed out that ancient civilizations knew about the mechanism of precession and referred to it in their myths, many of which have survived to our day (Ibid.). Despite criticism from scientists, some experts over time expressed the belief that the phenomenon of precession was indeed known much earlier than it was initially assumed (Ibid.). But then how did the ancient reveal their knowledge of precession? Like in many cases, it was possible only by means of a universal language of mathematics and astronomy. It is a pity I was not very dedicated to science at school …

Numbers and numbers

Ancient myths tell stories, such as one cited above, most of which seem to be just a fruit of human imagination. As such the myths are many a time treated entirely as fictional fairy tales. For some experts, however, their certain details seem rather meaningful, especially because they constantly have been repeated throughout ages (Hancock 2016:263). Among them, there are interesting numbers associated by some scholars with important astronomical events (Ibid.:262).

Accordingly, 12 – number of zodiacal constellations; 30 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic assigned to each constellation; 72 – number of years during which the sunrise point on the equinox moves one angular degree; 360 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic plane; 2160 (72×30 ) – the number of years during which the Sun moves on the ecliptic plane by 30 degrees, that is, it passes through one of the 12 zodiacal constellations; 25920 (2160×12) – the length in years of the full precession cycle, i.e. the so-called Great Year, also called the Great Return; 36 – the period in which the sunrise on the equinox day moves by half a degree; 4320 – the period when the sunrise on the day of the equinox moves 60 degrees, which are two constellations of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:262-263).

Language of ancient architecture

Jane B. Sellers is convinced that these numbers form a code of precession, which appears not only in ancient mythology but also in sacred architecture (Hancock 2016:263,265). Examples include the Egyptian temples in Dendera and Karnak, Baalbek in Lebanon, some Hindu temples, in Indonesia the temple of Borobudur, and in Cambodia, the city of Angkor Thom described above (Hancock 2016:265-269; Kosmiczne … 2020). Such knowledge may have been present even at the time of architects of Göbekli Tepe (Kosmiczne … 2020). A fairly rich set of numbers was also included in the so-called long count of the Mayan calendar (Hancock 2016:265).

Moreover, among the major numbers of precessions, there are present their various possible combinations; the precession code allows to freely shift the decimal places, thanks to which almost any sum, permutation, quotient or fraction of basic numbers related to the precession rate of the equinoxes can be achieved (Hancock 2016:263). For example, if one add 36 to 72, they get 108, the number of the statues on one causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Ibid.:263,265). 108 can be multiplied by 2, which gives the number of demons on one side and the number of demigods on the other (Ibid.:263,265). In turn, 54 can be multiplied by 10, which gives 540 statues on all the five causeways, or 108 can be multiplied by the number of causeways (108×5), which gives the same value: 540, the number of all the statues (Ibid.:263,265). What is more, the number 54 is quite frequent in ancient architecture; in Baalbek, for example, there are 54 monumental columns surrounding the temple (Ibid.:267).

Scientific message of fairy tales

It is also worth to mention the fact that the given set of ancient precession numbers are more precise than Hipparch’s calculations made in the fifth century BC (Hancock 2016:264). His calculations show that the precession rate is 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, which shows that the Sun moves one degree on the ecliptic surface in 80 or 78.26 years (Ibid.:264). As calculated today, the true number is 71.6 years (Ibid.:264). Thus, the number 72 given by ancient myths is much more accurate than the later calculations of the Greek mathematician (Ibid.:264).

Myths also give 2160 for the amount of years, during which the Sun goes through one sign of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:264). Today, this value is said to be 2148 years, and the value proposed by Hipparch is 2400 and 2347.8, respectively (Ibid.:264). Finally, the complete precession cycle according to myths is 25920 years, when the Sun completes its journey through all 12 zodiac signs (Ibid.:264). The Greek’s calculations show that it is 28,800 or 28173.6, whereas today it is known that this number is 25,776 years (Ibid.:264). So Hipparchus’ error is 3000 years, and the one visible in the myths is only 144 years, and probably only because the narrative context forced the authors to round the number 71.6 to 72 (Ibid.:264). In architecture, too, it was necessary; In Borobudur, in Java, 72 statues of Buddha are imagined (Ibid.:266). So to follow the exact values, sculptors must have created only 71 whole statues, with one completed just in 0.6 parts.

Through the Gateway

I stared at the carvings of the causeway for a long while, as series of numbers spilled out of my head. I tried to find astronomical solution in every number imagined in the sculpture: the number of mythical serpent’s heads, of elephants’ fangs and trunks, of the faces illustrated on the South Gate. Then I multiplied, divided and subtracted the collective results. In the end, I lost my strength. I don’t have such a head for mathematics as the ancients did …

Finally, tired with my own thoughts, I decided to enter the gateway. Standing in front of the huge gopura, I looked up at the carved faces; they had their still and narrow eyes gazing in the four cardinal points. Suddenly, a scene from my childhood movie came to my mind. In Never Ending Story, the main character, Atreyu, walks through the Sphinx Gate, and when he is losing his confidence, the eyes of the stone colossi get alive and are slowly opening to strike him with their deadly rays. Although I did not feel confident at that time either, I gathered all my courage and walked through the gateway. Bodhisattvas’ eyes remained focused and unblinking.

After a while I found myself in the citadel covered with a damp equatorial forest (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). I had the impression that everything came alive there; sounds of birds were heard in the air, heavy drops of rain fell on the undergrowth and trickles of water flowed from the branches of trees here and there (Ibid.:136). It was the result of heavy rains that rolled through Angkor at dawn. In November, the end of the rainy season still made itself felt. But it was a warm, refreshing rain. The late morning slowly gave way to a sunny day making Angkor Tom’s fragrances and colours more intensive (Ibid.:136). I had entered the kingdom of myths and art but also of astronomy and mathematics.

Featured image: South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Free photo at Pixabay (2016).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).

Aghmat

In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).

Expansion

After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Photo by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez with narrow streets and alleys. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almoravids buildings with their own (Ibid.). Legend has it that the architectural predecessors of the mosques built by Almohads in Marrakech were all pulled down as they had not been correctly aligned with Mecca (Ibid.). This was a big bold message to the people of Marrakech; the Almohads made it clear that their interpretation of Islam was the correct one (Ibid.). Today, the Almohads’ Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Franus 2012:159). Its squared minaret tower is seventy meters high and is a great landmark for newcomers (Ibid.:159).

One of the greatest mosque, however, was going to be built in Rabat at the end of the twelve century (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). It had four hundred columns and pillars and it was big enough to hold the entire army (Ibid.). It would have been the largest mosque in Maghreb, if not in the entire Muslim world (Ibid.).

The unfinished architectural project of the mosque in Rabat, stopped after four years since it was started in 1995. Photo by Monika Ryglewicz. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architectural project of the mosque was as ambitious as the great architecture of the North Africa or the buildings of Mecca (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet it has become just an unfulfilled dream (Ibid.). The reason why there is no top of the minaret or a lack of the roof over the prayer hall is that the third Almohad Muslim Calip, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died in 1199, just four years after the project started, and the mosque remained in an unfinished state (Ibid.). Its grand vision had been never completed (Ibid.). To this day, only the forty-meter-high Hassan tower has survived (Franus 2012:149). It was designed in the manner of Moroccan minarets (Ibid.:149).

Behind the gate, enchanted gardens of Rabat surrounded us; the air smelled wonderfully of roses, oleanders and belladonna, called deadly nightshade, a plant with magical properties (Franus 2012:149). Although it is poisonous, Roman women used it to dilate their pupils, which made them look more seductive (Ibid.:149). White ibises walked among the trees and storks nested there as well (Ibid.). We were accompanied by a pleasant breeze from the Atlantic (Ibid.:149).

Like a watered garden

Gardens in Rabat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All that the Almohads used to create were composed of all the traditional elements of Berber culture, also applied by their predecessors (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the scale of their intellectual achievements seems much higher (Ibid.). Some medieval poet compares their empire to the watered garden in a perfect balance of the monarch’s power and people’s prosperity (Ibid.). In such a favourable environment, there was a place for an artistic development (Ibid.).

Marrakech’s most impressive gate constructed in 1185 by the Almohads is Bab Agnaou (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It leads to the later built Kasbah within the already walled Medina (Jacobs 2019). The gate was originally just the main southern entrance into the city (Ibid.). Unlike the walls and the other gates, Bab Agnaou is not red, but green, made from a locally quarried stone (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It is richly ornate which makes it different from rather simple and modest gates of Marrakech, designed at the time of the Almoravids (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019). It is carved with embellished scallops and floral designs, which makes it very sumptuous with layers upon layers of decorations (Ibid.). They are, in turn, “surrounded by Koranic quotations written in an Arabic […] script called kufic” (Jacobs 2019). The gate’s “name means ‘Black people’s gate’, possibly because it was used by black slaves of African descent, or perhaps because it leads south, across the Sahara to West Africa” (Ibid.).

The glory days have gone

Almost all that the Almohads has built seems now more impressive than constructions left by their predecessors, and that also applies to their Berber kingdom (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). As for the Almoravids, the Almohads used Marrakech as their imperial base for a further expansion, which was even more successful and ambitious than previously (Ibid.). The Almohads not only took over the territory, which was run by their opponents but also seized the neighbouring lands of Africa, which stretched into what is now Libya, whereas in Andalucía, they made their second capital in Sevilla (Ibid.). Consequently, after the Almohads, the empire became even stronger force in the Mediterranean (Ibid.).

Intellectually and economically, the Almohads were in charge of an empire that ranked alongside the greatest of that time in the world (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This was the high point of the Berber kingdom but controlling such a massive realm brought its own problems (Ibid.). The death of the last great leader, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, meant the beginning of the end of the Almohad dynasty (Ibid.). Squabbles over his succession allowed rival Berber tribes to divide the power over the empire (Ibid.). The Almohads were also humiliated by the Christians in a decisive battle in Spain, from which their army had never really recovered (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the authority of the Almohad rulers in Africa was lost as Arab tribes rebelled against (Ibid.). None of the Berber dynasties that succeeded the Almohad dynasty was powerful enough to control the North Africa (Ibid.). Any attempts to return to the glory days of the Almohads failed (Ibid.).

Last night in Marrakech

I made my way through the perpetually jammed street to reach the most famous square in Marrakesh and in all of Morocco, Jemaa el-Fnaa (Franus 2012:159).

A view from one of the gallery windows facing the courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My companion, Iwona, decided to buy a few mint seedlings to plant them in her garden upon arrival. The seller offered a thousand and one of their varieties, which were highly valued in Morocco and used to brew the famous Moroccan mint tea. We drank litres of it here (Franus 2012:159). Only for the sake of the tea serving ceremony, was it worth ordering this famous drink, which not only invigorates but also quenches thirst. I also decided to treat myself with a Moroccan souvenir – henna (Ibid.:159). After a while, my hand looked like a work of art woven into orange lace (Ibid.:159).

It was terribly hot (Franus 2012:159). After a while we ran away to the hotel and returned to the square around 7 in the evening (Ibid.:159). At that time, nothing was left there from the sleepy afternoon atmosphere (Ibid.). The crowd in the square thickened and it reached its peak one hour later (Ibid.:159). I felt like being at a festival of street performances, but here all the actors performed simultaneously (Ibid.:159).

The clamour, the smells of spiced dishes and music vibrated in the air and deafened (Franus 2012:159). In one of the streets leading from the square, I bought and dressed jellabiya (a traditional dress) to blend in more with Moroccan folklore (Ibid.:145,159). After a while we were sitting in a restaurant resembling a Moroccan palace: the stuccoes, mosaics and carpets were filled with the sounds of enchanted music and dancing of an orientally dressed dancer (Ibid.:158).

The heirs of Maghreb

In the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Morocco was revived but it was built by a different dynasty claiming the right to rule as true interpreters of Islam (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Although this dynasty has got the Arabic origins not Berber, they have declared themselves the heirs of the kingdom the Berbers had earlier created (Ibid.). One of the cities the Arabic monarchs developed is Meknes, known as the Versailles of the South (Franus 2012:149). It is surrounded by a twenty-five-kilometre-long wall that winds like a serpent through fertile fields, vineyards and fruit orchards (Ibid.:149). Today the city is a provincial centre, but in the seventeenth century it was the capital of Morocco (Ibid.:149).

It flourished during the reign of Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, established by the Arabs (Franus 2012:149). Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif himself was one of the country’s greatest and bloodiest sultans (Ibid.:149). Therefore, it seems strange the fact that his tomb has become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world (Ibid.:152). Even at the beginning of his reign, the monarch cut down seven hundred slaves as a warning to his enemies, and decorated the walls of Fez with their heads (Ibid.:149,152). He had no mercy on anyone, not even his own children (Ibid.:152). He himself did not feel safe as he made Meknes an impregnable fortress, able to resist possible enemies for years, but at the same time it was supposed to be full of gardens, palaces and fountains (Ibid.:152). The city itself impresses with the colours of the Greek islands, where blue and white dominate. It reminded me a little my favourite city in the north of the country, Chefchaouene, which is called the Blue City due to deep blue colours of its walls (Ibid.:151).

Royal horses and the largest gate of Africa

In royal granaries, consisting of a series of rooms connected by corridors, grain and legumes were collected (Franus 2012:152). The supplies were to feed the population during the long siege. Only walls covered with wild vines and bushes remained of the equally impressive Royal Order Stables (Ibid.:152). There is not enough money for a restoration or thorough excavations. Some sources mention twelve thousand horses that were supposed to be kept there (Ibid.:152). However, the calculations show that there were no more than 1,200 of them, although it is still impressive (Ibid.:152).

The horses had royal conditions there (Franus 2012:152). They were even supplied with water via an underground system (Ibid.:152). The most famous decoration of the city, however, is the main gate of the Old Town of Meknes, Bab Mansour, known as Africa’s largest gate (Ibid.:152). It stands opposite a huge souk, where you can buy olives arranged in giant pyramids and supposedly the best sweets in Morocco (Ibid.:152). “The gate structure was completed in 1732 by Mulay Abdullah who was the son of Sultan Mulay Ismail. This gate marks the main entrance of the imperial palace built for Isla Mulay and the ancient city of Meknes. The door was designed by a Christian converted to Islam whose name was ‘Mansur’, hence [the gate’s] name. Adjacent to the gate within the walls are the Royal Order Stables, the Royal Prison and the Meknes City Museum” (“Mansour Gate” 2019). Bab Mansour itself looks like a gate to another world (Franus 2012:152). It is ten meters high (Ibid.:152) and “is decorated with green ceramics with paintings with Islamic motifs. [Its] white pillars are columns that [once] used to stand in the Roman city, Volubilis, which is about [thirty kilometres] north of the city” (“Mansour Gate” 2019).

The Alaouite dynasty is still in power today (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the Berber story and their large achievements deserve their place among great histories of Africa (Ibid.).

Waterfall and the ocean

Just before heading off to Agadir, we stopped yet at Ouzoud Falls. The heat of the sun hid for a moment in the crowns of dense trees and in the splash of falling water. Macaques were popping out of the bushes, in hope for a delicious bite from the tourist’s hands. The heavenly smells of tagines, which were served in the open air, were hanging around, inviting for a Moroccan feast.

In the late afternoon, I was already standing on the wide beach near Essaouira, a charming port city and resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I watched the ocean waves washing away the sun-heated sand (Franus 2012:137).

Everything seems extraordinary in this country. From the multi-colours of the mountains, the fairy-tale kasbahs, the green of palm groves rising up among the sands, the architecture of imperial cities, people who look like they have just been transferred from the past, to craftsmanship that captivates with its unique fantasy (Franus 2012:135).

Featured image: The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, reflecting in the water. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Bab Agnaou” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a6jLzL>. [Accessed 8th August, 2020].

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Atlas Mountain Guides Compony (2020) “Day trip: Timnel Mosque”. In: Atlas Mountain Guides Compony. Available at <https://bit.ly/2DJhCxF>. [Accessed 8th August, 2020].

Babas L. (2019) “Morocco’s ancient capitals … three cities you never heard of”. In: Yabiladi. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PzlHae>. [Accessed 8th August, 2020].

Casely-Hayford, G. (2010-2012) Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 2, Episode 4: “The Berber Kingdom of Morocco”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.

Franus A. (2012) “Maroko”. In: Podróże życia. 10 niezapomnianych wypraw w różne zakątki świata. Warszawa: G+J RBA. National Geographic Society.

Jacobs D. (2019) “The Stories Behind Marrakech’s City Gates”. In: Culture Trip. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YLznVJ>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

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Listening to the Singing Colossi

We had already crossed to the west bank from the east bank of the Nile, departing from the iconic temples of the living gods in Karnak and Luxor and heading off to mortuary temples of kings and queens of the pharaonic Egypt. The sun slowly started to set down a little by little, turning the sand red till the foot of the barren mountains sheltering the Valley of the Kings further in the west. We followed its path to the dusk. “Suddenly, up ahead, sitting incongruously in a field by the side of the road, perched a pair of enthroned […] statues, each of the size of a [multi-story] building” (Perrottet 2003:335). The outlines of the two sitting figures made of stone were sharpened by the sunlight of the setting sun and their features seemed outstanding. Amazed by the gigantic monuments, we clambered out of our bus and came closer to face them in their whole majesty.

The temple largest of all

The so-called Colossi of Memnon, for the twin massive statues actually are, “sit [on the floodplain, today] in a recess, while [once they must have been] visible for [kilometres] around” (Perrottet 2003:335). They are situated in the Upper Egypt, in the area of the ancient Theban Necropolis, located west of the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). “[Although] much damaged [today], they have even preserved “a potent aura of [magnificence], if not of magic” (Perrottet 2003:335). As such they “still attract much tourists by their gigantism and their mystery” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). Each colossus is composed of two pieces of stone; the weight of each seated figure is estimated at around 720 tons, whereas their pedestals are of 300 tons a piece (Foerster 2016). The base of each statue, although taller than most people are, is still partly buried underground and so they both can turn out to be larger after being completely unearthed (Jimmy 2017). An geologist and ethnomineralogist, Eric Gonthier even estimates the weight respectively to 1 300 tons for the statues and 500 tons for their platforms (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). Including the stone platforms on which they stand (each 4 metres high), every colossus reaches a towering 18 metres in height (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). Additionally, the two statues are rising about 15 metres apart from each other (Ibid.).

The last feature suggests they were originally intended to guard the gates (pylons) of the vast mortuary or memorial temple, as it is visible in other Egyptian temples of the New Kingdom, mostly on the eastern bank of the Nile (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). “Egyptian colossi [as those of Memnon] therefore have played an especially conspicuous role in the afterlife of ancient Egyptian art. They have often outlived the buildings to which they were attached” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). The already not existing sanctuary has been ascribed to Amenhotep III (1411-1375 BC), the pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). Accordingly, the twin statues are believed to depict the pharaoh (as much as the colossi of Abu Simbel show Ramses II) “in a seated position, [with] his hands resting on his knees and his [now ruined head] facing eastwards towards the river. Two shorter figures are carved into the front throne alongside his legs: these [are said to represent] his wife Tiye and mother Mutemwiya. The side panels depict the Nile god Hapi” (Ibid.)

The massive construct of the temple is thought to have been erected during the pharaoh’s lifetime (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). Taking into account the size of the so-called Amenhotep III’s statues themselves, in his days the complex must have been the largest and most opulent in Egypt and so it has been estimated as covering a total of 35 hectares (Ibid.). By comparing the Colossi of Memnon with other gigantic seated figures in Egypt, such as the colossi of Abu Simbel (10 metres tall), and the statues at Luxor (14 metres in height), it seems that Amenhotep III’s temple outmatched even later constructions of great pharaohs, such as Ramesses II’s Ramesseum or Ramesses III’s Medinet Habu (Ibid.). Even the greatest of all, the Temple of Karnak dedicated to Egyptian gods themselves, as it stood in Amenhotep’s time, was apparently smaller (Ibid.). Isn’t it strange?

Why did the temple disappear?

The temple itself “stood on the edge of the Nile floodplain, and successive annual inundations gnawed away at its foundations” (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). This is also visible today, when the Nile waters reach the Colossi’s feet. Also shortly after the temple was constructed, an earthquake destroyed it in around 1200 BC (Ibid.). It is said there were left only the two huge Colossi at the entrance still standing (Ibid.). Aftermath, the ruins of the temple could either have been dismantled by later kings, or purloined with its portions reused for later monuments (Ibid.). The Colossi themselves are claimed to have been further damaged by another earthquake in 27 BC, after which they were partly reconstructed by the Romans (Ibid.).

Who is Memnon?

The modern Arabic name for the colossi is Kom el-Hatan, but it is generally known as the Colossi of Memnon (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). Why? Because the statues apparently used to sing …

“Ancient Greek travellers named the northern statue [of the Colossi] ‘Memnon’ in honour of the Trojan War hero” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). However, with time the both Colossi were described alike (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Scott 1984:22; Littleton 2005:852). According to the Greek mythology, Memnon was the king of Ethiopia who led his armies to Troy’s defence but was ultimately slain during combat by the Greek warrior, Achilles (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; . “Zeus, who favoured Memnon, granted him immortality” (Littleton 2005:852). The crucial for the Colossi’s name, however, is the fact that according to the Greek mythology, he was the son of Eos (Roman Aurora), the goddess who is the personification of the dawn in Greco-Roman mythology (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). After her son death, Eos is said to have shed tears every morning; the signing of the statues was hence attributed to Eos’ mourning for her son (Ibid.). According to another version, the heard sound was actually the effect of Memnon’s singing to his mother (Littleton 2005:852), “when she appeared each day as the dawn above the eastern horizon” (Brome Weigall 2015:248). For this reason the Colossus “became famous in classical literature as ‘the signing Memnon’ because at sunrise it would emit strange sounds” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162).

Records of the stones singing

The earliest written reference to the signing statues comes from the Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (63 BC-24AD) who claimed to have heard their song during his visit at the site around 24BC (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Brome Weigall 2015:248; Mystery History 2019). At the beginning he was rather sceptical and “suspected a machine installed by [Egyptian] priests” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162), which could have been responsible for emitting the sounds (Brome Weigall 2015:248). The second century Greek traveller and geographer, Pausanias (110-180AD) compared the statue’s voice to the string of a lyre breaking (Mystery History 2019). Others described it as the striking of brass, a gong, the blast of a trumpet, the sound of harp strings, the singing of human voices or a strange ghostly, almost divine whistling (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Brome Weigall 2015). Many visitors also left inscriptions on the base of the statues reporting whether they had heard the sound or not (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Brome Weigall 2015:248; Mystery History 2019).

“[In] about 65AD, a traveller scratched a record of his visit to the [singing] colossus upon its pedestal; and from that time onwards it became customary to write verses or epigrams upon the pedestal. Eight governors of Egypt thus inscribed their names, and several other persons of distinction recorded the fact of their visit” (Brome Weigall 2015:248). Nearly ninety inscriptions are still legible today (“Colossi of Memnon” 2020). While inspecting the Colossi, we took a closer look at the base; “among the centuries of graffiti, [there] were strings of Latin epigrams and Greek poems, all written with the same motivation as modern tourist scribble. Nestled in among the Daryl Jones, Christmas 1811 and Ich bin ein Berliner were notes from the likes of Lucius Charisius (122 AD), [strategos of the local nomes (Rosenmeyer 2018:28)] and Falernus” (Perrottet 2003:335), a Greek poet and sophist (Perrottet 2003:335; Rosenmeyer 2018:171).

Evolution is coming backwards

For more than two centuries the singing statues also brought tourists from Rome itself, including several emperors (Brome Weigall 2015:248; Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Mystery History 2019). “When Hadrian and his wife, Sabina, arrived in [130AD], the singing Memnon remained silent on their first morning. But it spoke up the next day and inspired their court poetess to compose a paean to both Memnon and the emperor” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). However, some visitors failed to hear the sound, in which case it was believed that the demigod, Memnon, was angry (Brome Weigall 2015:248). “Emperor Septimius Severus in [202AD] was not either so fortunate. When the statue repeatedly refused to speak to him, he tried to conciliate it by repairing its cracks [made mostly by the earthquake in 27 BC]” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; see Scott 1984:22).

In comparison to the original construction, the repairing works undertaken by the Romans were conducted rather crudely (Scott 1984:22). Whereas the upper half of the northern statue toppled in the first century, after Strabo its lower part was not affected (Ibid.:22) and “[he] heard a sound issue from the remaining portion of the figure” (Ibid.:22). Nevertheless, the Romans decided to also repair the rear part of the pedestal (Ibid.:22). It was because they had assumed that it would not be able to support “the added load of the upper torso they intended to place on the truncated statue” (Ibid.:22). While being repaired, its “individual blocks of quartzite, each weighing about 10 tons were fitted together in five tiers for the trunks, and  a block weighing around 50 tons was used for the head” (Ibid.:22). The original stone used was quartzite quarried at Gebel el Ahmar, near Cairo, which is nearly 700 kilometres away! (Scott 1984:22; Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). “[The] newly worked stone [used by the Romans] came from quarries at Aswan, to the south of Thebes much nearer to the city than Gebel el Ahmar [(over 200 kilometres)]” (Scott 1984:22), and it was transported cut in much smaller blocks (Ibid.:22). ”‘The restoration [carried by the Romans] was a far simpler project than the original construction, or than a restoration by use of a single block,’ [admit] the Lawrence Berkeley scientists” (Ibid.:22).

Originally, each of the Colossi was carved out of one solid piece of quartzite stone, which according to some sources originally weighed over 1000 tons a piece (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). The famous report within Artie Gold’s Book of Marvels, from 1937, even contained an estimate of 1200 tons for each statue (Mystery History 2019), whereas Eric Gonthier claims they weigh now 1 300 tons a piece, so before being carved they must have been even heavier (Grimault, Pooyard 2012).

Side panel detail showing two flanked relief images of the deity Hapi and, to the right, a sculpture of the royal wife Tiye. Photo by MusikAnimal (2017). Source : “Colossi of Memnon” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (CC BY-SA).

Having been restored, the statue has never been heard to sing again (Boorstin 1993-2012:162; Scott 1984:22). How was it able to do so then? It is believed that after the earthquake in 27BC, the statue “was damaged in such a way that it made ringing noises early in the morning. Scientists suggest that air trapped in a pocket within a statue caused the mysterious noise” (Littleton 2005:852); it was possible as the sun heat “caused dew trapped within the statue’s crack to evaporate, creating a series of vibrations that echoed through the thin desert air” (Wolfe 2020). After the restorations of the pedestal, the pocket was apparently filled in and the mysterious sound stopped (Scott 1984:22). Against such a theory is, however, the fact that “the cracks have multiplied since then. [Yet] no song has come back with them” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162). “Even so, the name of Memnon remained attached to the statues” (Littleton 2005:852).

Evidence of high technology

Who created these Colossi? How were they made? As a matter of fact, if you research the Colossi of Memnon, there is virtually no explanation how these were cut and carved (Jimmy 2017). Still, they are clearly an astonishing ancient accomplishment and the monuments which are even today found highly compelling (Ibid.). After some authors they were not built by ancient Egyptians, who only adopted them, but were achieved by a now lost advanced civilization (Foerster 2016; 2019; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). Does it sound ridiculous? A thorough analysis actually reveals a definite evidence of high technology applied in the construction of the Colossi.

Transportation

First of all, the two massive blocks of stone must have been transported hundreds kilometres away (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). They weighed around 1000 tons a piece (or even more), assuming they were later cut and carved in a position on the site (Foerster 2016). As it is stated above, they were quarried and dragged from Gebel el Ahmar, nearly 700 kilometres away from Thebes, in modern day Cairo (Scott 1984:22). That quarry was actually proven to have been utilized by dynastic Egyptians for various statues and other stone structures but the question is how they were able to move so massive blocks of stone (Jimmy 2017). In comparison, the Romans restoring one of the statues used a quarry just 200 kilometres away from the site (Scott 1984:22). They also transported and utilized far much smaller blocks of stone than the Colossi’s builders (Ibid.:22). 

In the case of modern installation for the LACMA in 2012, the task was to move a 340-ton boulder sculpture and place it above a 140-metre viewing pathway. To accomplish the feat, the rock was loaded onto a 90-metre long, 196-wheeled transporter custom-built by Emmert International only for this reason. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Source:“Levitated Mass” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the case of more modern installation for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012, the task was to move a 340-ton boulder sculpture and place it above a 140-metre viewing pathway (Jimmy 2017; “Levitated Mass” 2020). To accomplish the feat, the rock was loaded onto a 90-metre long, 196-wheeled transporter custom-built by Emmert International only for this reason (“Levitated Mass” 2020). “Because of the transporter’s size and needs, the boulder could only be moved at night at a maximum speed of about [12 kilometres] per hour” (Ibid.). It was all about to move something that was less than half a weight of the each Colossus and almost the third of the weight of what every of these statues would have been prior to being cut and carved (Jimmy 2017).

The boulder is in its special made carrier and will go on display at the County Museum of Art by this summer. Photo by Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times. Source: Vankin, Willon (2012).

Generally, Egyptologists theorized that different stone blocks would have been moved by ancient Egyptians over tree trunks (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017). However, that is completely unrealistic when you consider something such big and massive as the Colossi over that far of a distance (Jimmy 2017).

Super hard stone

The fact the statues are both made of quartzite amazes (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). Quartzite is a super hard stone (Foerster 2016). It is seven out of ten on the Mohs Scale of Hardness, with a diamond being a ten (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017). Most megalithic structures around Egypt and elsewhere around the world are carved out of granite and basalt, which is approximately a six out of ten on the Mohs Scale and granite varies between six and seven depending on its kind (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017). How they were able to cut and carve the stone remains a complete mystery (Jimmy 2017). The dynastic Egyptians had not used steel to cut stones until about 800 BC. (Foerster 2016). So what did they use instead? Modern Egyptologists claim that stone hammers and bronze chisels were applied to cut and carve any stone, including basalt, granite and even quartzite (Jimmy 2017).

Although, the use of such primitive methods may have been more possible in case of smaller feats, which is ether doubtless, the size of the Colossi is astounding and to consider that the ancient Egyptian sculptors would have used the basic tools for both quarrying and then cutting and carving so large and hard boulders seems incredibly unlikely (Jimmy 2017).

Sun-blasted

Although the Colossi of Memnon are hugely damaged today, upon a closer inspection, there is an incredible advanced precision visible in highly precise cuts on the stone (Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). Such advanced cutting technology was utilized in various areas of these statues prior to their destruction (Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). There is evidence discovered by professional geologists that apart from having been toppled by the earthquakes, the Colossi had also been heat blasted (Foerster 2016; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019). Some theorize that they may have been subjected to a plasma blast from the Sun tens of thousands of years ago, which further validate the theory that the dynastic Egyptians did not create these statues (Jimmy 2017). Possibly they just found them, and it was actually the previous civilization existing before the great cataclysm who would have created the statues with some sort of advanced technology (Foerster 2016; 2019; Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019).  

Effects of a world-wide catastrophe?

According to some authors, there was a world-wide catastrophic event that struck the planet of Earth around 12 000 years ago (Foerster 2019). Some claim it was a comet or pieces of a comet that wreaked havoc, wiped out almost all life and changed the environment of the entire planet (Ibid.).

The Earth itself had once been in a vertical position, which changed after the catastrophe to twenty three and half degrees (Foerster 2019). Such a process in turn led to a sudden change of a climate, which shifted from tropical to temperate and from temperate to Arctic (Ibid.). In Catastrophobia (2001) Barbara Hand Clow shows that a series of cataclysmic disasters happened in around 12 000 years ago, caused by a massive disturbance in the Earth’s crust (Ibid.). As a result, most of the human population died out and those who survived had to find refuge in recesses such as caves (Ibid.). According to the author, this stands for the caveman period, from around 10.000 to 4000 BC (Ibid.). The rise of civilization, such as Sumeria, the Indus Valley and Egypt, was not hence a sign of the very first evolvement of human civilization but rather the renewal of humanity (Ibid.).

An American physicist, Dr. Paul LaViolette in turn states in his work Galactic Superwaves and their Impact on the Earth (2001) that the center of our galaxy is not a black hole but a pulsar and every thirteen thousand years or half of a precessional cycle (which takes approximately 26000 years), the center of the galaxy fills up with energy (Foerster 2019). Accordingly, around 12 000, it released this energy, which successively spread across the galactic plane, entered the solar system, created the asteroid belt and went through the Sun and shot solar plasma straight at the planet of Earth (Ibid.).

There is also the work by the geologist Robert Schoch, Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (2012) in which the author emphasizes the solar plasma theory (Foerster 2019). Finally, Brien Foerster in Aftershock: The Ancient Cataclysm That Erased Human History (2016) summarizes the most compelling aspects of all these theories and puts them together in a cohesive manner (Ibid.).

Schoch claims that the solar plasma did not strike all over the earth but very specific, random locations (Foerster 2019). Such a phenomenon is so intense in terms of heat that it would vaporize anything where it was struck, with all organic life in a first row (Ibid.). What the geologist proposes is that at the end of the Last Ice Age (around 12 000 years ago), the solar plasma caused especially the northern ice sheet to vaporize, which eventually led to the Great Flood (Ibid.). Mounting scientific evidence is showing the world’s oceans rose by one hundred metres very rapidly, within a year (Ibid.). So rather than the legendary Atlantis being a landmass that sank, the waters rose and buried its civilization and possibly others (Ibid.).

The erased face of the statues

The Earth’s life was destroyed but what was left behind would be stone structures (Foerster 2019). In some parts of the globe, however, there is observable strange damage to the stone surface (Ibid.). The geologists think that the stone must have been struck with intense and almost instantaneous blasts of heat of 2000 degrees Celsius (Foerster 2016; 2019). The evidence for such a heat is a crystalline nature of the interior of the stone, which had been heat flashed or cooked not to the point of melting but to the point of causing the stone to expand by creating major cracks on the surface (Ibid.). It is defined as possible evidence of an ancient cataclysmic heat of solar plasma (Ibid.).

The same is believed to have happened in the case of the Colossi of Memnon (Foerster 2016; 2019).  The surface of the front of the statues is completely erased but it is unlike simple defacement made by time, people or even an earthquake (Foerster 2016; 2019; Jimmy 2017). It is actually confirmed by geologists, that their face appears heat blasted by having been burnt off with possibly plasma ejection from the Sun (Foerster 2016; 2019). The surface there appears scorched, with visible crystalline structures which cannot be a result of a simple fire but intense heat that would have expanded the crystals inside the stone (Ibid.). It is supported by the fact that the Colossi’s sides are less damaged, with their back not destroyed at all (Ibid.). So it may have been an effect of a heat blast coming in from the east, likely at sunrise (Ibid.). This fits in turn with the idea of the geologist Robert Schoch that plasma stroke some sites on the earth 12 000 years ago (Ibid.).

Moreover, the same effects are also hugely visible at other megalithic stone statues and other structures in the area, which confirms the plasma ejection theory (Foerster 2016; 2019).

Lack of logical explanations

The Colossi of Memnon are listed as containing some of the largest megalithic blocks that have currently been recorded and investigated across the world and although these statues have virtually crumbled over the epochs, records of the Colossi stretch back many centuries (Mystery History 2019).

These structures once possessed an astonishing characteristic many claimed as a divine experience that drew countless individuals on a pilgrimage across the desert to witness it at first light of the Sun every morning (Mystery History 2019). The Colossi themselves are oriented towards the sunrise at winter solstice, which suggests that as many other monuments worldwide, they were designed as an astronomical device (Ibid.). Although modern academia would like to attribute these feats to ancient Egyptians, any logical explanation of how their construction was achieved or indeed how the Colossi were so precisely carved with simple tools remain absent from all given so far explanations (Jimmy 2017).

Not only their transport or creation but also their aim and the way of destruction call for further studies. Although throughout modern research, there have been a number of fearless individuals exposing the phenomenon of the statues to the world, it simultaneously seems to be overlooked or even deliberately ignored by mainstream academia (Mystery History 2019).

Striking anomalies

There are many other ancient anomalies that can be found across much of ancient Egypt and outside it (Mystery History 2019). Not only are the ancient pyramids in Egypt a clear feat of a highly capable ancient engineering but also many of the still existing ancient temples are testament to a now lost yet once incredibly advanced ancient civilization, and although many academic scholars takes for granted the theory that the pyramids once served as the burial places of pharaohs, the truth is that the original purpose of these ancient structure still remains unclear (Ibid.).

Ancient megalithic structures, such as the Colossi of Memnon show moreover clear evidence of lost technology, unquestionably left by high speed high rotation stone cutting technologies as many of the tombs and other artifacts found throughout the ancient ruins (Mystery History 2019). Many of them, though wrongly defined, still exist but there were also some astonishing structures in Egypt that although are now lost, they have been recorded and documented by the ancients, specifically by the Greeks and Romans (Ibid.). Today, the existence of such monuments is usually misinterpreted, erroneously identified or even questioned, as it is in the case of the famous Labyrinth of Egypt. Generally, what is actively taught is clearly inaccurate and there are many holes in the theories proposed by many modern-day scholars, unless they are proven by repeating the alleged process of ancient construction (Jimmy 2017). It is striking that the Colossi of Memnon and many other examples of megalithic structures around Egypt and elsewhere around the world could not simply have been made by the primitive methods proposed and stated by the main-stream scholars (Jimmy 2017; Mystery History 2019).

Although any speculations about the unknown origins of the Colossi of Memnon are openly denied, “these two battered [giants] remain. [Even silent, they are still standing proudly] on the Nile floodplains, [like] three-dimensional hieroglyphs of the grandeur of Egypt [and its mysteries]” (Boorstin 1993-2012:162).

Featured image: Colossi of Memnon. Source: “Valley of the Kings and Queens, Colossus and Hatshepsut Tour” (2020) Civitatis.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Colossi of Memnon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gp4eNm>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

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Boorstin D. J. (1993-2012) The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. New York: Vintage Books. A Division of Random House, INC.

Brome Weigall A. E. P. (2015) Guide to the Antiquities of Upper Egypt. Cambridge University Press.

Civitas (2020) Photo: “Colossi of Menon”. In: “Valley of the Kings and Queens, Colossus and Hatshepsut Tour”. In: Civitatis. Available at <https://bit.ly/31VUeav>. [Accessed on 4th July, 2020].

Foerster B. (2016) Largest Stone Sculptures Of Ancient Egypt: 12,000 Years Old? Available at <https://bit.ly/2YTLZcQ>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Foerster B. (2019) Aftershock: The Ancient Cataclysm That Erased Human History. Available at <https://bit.ly/38u2RKg>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020]

Grimault, J. Pooyard P. (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids. Ekwanim Production &Wild Bunch.

Jimenea F. (2020) Photo: “The Colossi of Memnon”. In: Elite Readers. Available at <https://bit.ly/3inUN2q>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Jimmy (2017) “Massive Egyptian Stone Statues – The Colossi of Memnon – Lost Ancient Civilizations”. In: Bright Insight. Available at <https://bit.ly/31CQDhf>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Littleton, C. S. (2005) Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology: Inca-Mercury. Volume 6. New York, London, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

Mystery History (2019) “Thousand Ton ‘Singing Statues’ Found In Egypt?” In: Mystery History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YTdwv5>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Perrottet T. (2003) Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. New York: Random House Trade.

Photo: “The Colossi of Memnon” (2019). In: Reddit. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZzGUW9>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Rosenmeyer P. A. (2018) The Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus. Oxford University Press.

Scott A. (1984) “Roman Repairs Stopped Memnon Singing”. In: New Scientist. No 1420.

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Wolfe K. (2020) Colossi of Memnon. In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ilzhvj>. [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020].

Abbey Inscribed in Life of Christian Community

More generally speaking, an abbey is a Christian community of monks overseen by an abbot, or of nuns by an abbess. Precisely, it is a monastic complex focused on a church or even a cathedral. In terms of architecture, the church stands for the main building of that community. The whole abbey is composed hence of various sacral buildings of a different purpose, associated with a set of usable rooms, such as a scriptorium, library, dining room, bedrooms, the kitchen or other utility rooms. Any abbey’s layout is dictated by the founding order. The idea of creating an abbey had been developed throughout centuries.

The monastic ideas first appeared in the Egyptian desert, in the fourth century, together with such great anchorites as Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Great who lived in an isolated place, far away from urbanist centres, in order to offer their life to God through the ascetism. Their godliness started to attract much attention of others who followed Saint Anthony into the desert. In such a way, first monastic communities started to grow; they were usually composed of small cells around the place where a hermit dwelled. With time, an original eremitical life changed into coenobitism, whose idea was continued by another Egyptian monk, Pachomius, who introduced a set of significant architectural elements; firstly, the church, monks’ cells, refectory (dining hall), kitchen, infirmary (hospital), and guest house for the community’s gatherings. The whole architectural complex was surrounded by an enclosure with strongholds. Such communities were known either as the laurae or caenobia.

Such a monastic progress was also observed in Hiberno-Scotland, where early medieval ascetics first built beehive huts in remote places, such as bogs or lonely islands, and then proceeded to constructing larger communal monastic sites with oratories, scriptoriums and stone high crosses. The idea of abbey as the ecclesiastical formation had already been known in early Christianity, for both male and female communities, but its Romanesque and Gothic variant was primarly spread by the Benedictines, whose order slowly replaced Insular way of worshiping God by an anchoretic life. The term ‘abbey’ originated either from Latin word abbatia or Aramaic abba, which refers to the idea of fathership. Hence, an abbot or an abbess. The title of an abbey for a monastic complex has been approved by the Holy Church of Rome, so although the term abbey can refer to each monastery with such a title, not all the monasteries can become an abbey. In England, abbeys were established by the Benedictines but after the Reformation of the English Church, they were transferred into cathedrals, though their names still include the term “abbey” (e.g., Westminster Abbey).

In the case of an abbey, it is a self-sufficient and autonomous structure. It is rather open to visitors, where at least a group of twelve monks lead a more communal life than in the case of a monastery, while the latter can be secluded and closed for people coming from the outside. Whereas a monastery is usually established to provide a dwelling place for monks and hermits, an abbey is the seat of an abbot to supervise the conducts of monks. Therefore, the community of an abbey follow their religious and daily duties under control of their abbot, and even train young ecclesiastics. In such a sense, the term abbey can be understood as a version of a monastery but of an untimelier idea of the monastic life. See: The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Admin, 2012. Difference Between Abbey and Monastery, in Difference Between. com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3RABOnu>. [Accessed 4th February, 2023].

Davies, N., Jokiniemi, E., 2018. Dictionary of Architecture and Building Construction, p. 3. Oxford: Architectural Press is an imprint of Elsevier.

Julita, 2010. ‘Difference Between Abbey and Monastery’, in DB Difference Between.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/3l3PLOl>. [Accessed 4th February, 2023].

‘Abbey’, 2022. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Ysx7hH>. [Accessed 4th February, 2023].

The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region

Turin was very warm but covered in clouds yesterday so I was afraid of an inclement weather on the following day, when together with my travel companion and friend, Gosia, we were going to climb up the Alpes. Our destination was the famous sanctuary of Sacra di San Michele; its impressive silhouette has perched on Mount Pirchiriano, which is jutting out at almost 1000 meters (exactly 936m) above sea level in Italian region of Piedmont, in the Alpes.

The Egyptian Museum and the Shroud of Turin

Piedmont, or ‘Piemonte’ in Italian, literally means the “land at the foot of the mountains”. It is located in the north-western part of Italy, bordered to the north by Valle d’Aosta and Switzerland, to the east by Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, to the south by Liguria and to the west by France. This beautiful land offers a lot of various attractions and breathtaking views, from beautiful alpine lakes and mountain landscapes to charming monuments and towns with vineyards. The region is also famous for delicious food, offering local cheese, truffles, and chocolate, not to mention delightful Piedmont wine and beer!

One evening, we went for a famous Italian dessert, which is undoubtedly tiramisu, and another time, we enjoyed by sharing a good portion of bagna cauda, which is a real speciality in Province of Piedmont: melted cheese, with olive oil and butter, flavoured with fresh anchovy and garlic, and all of that served in a hollowed-out bread, and with various snacks for dipping. Actually, Autumn and Winter seasons are just perfect moments for tasting fondue as it warms you up, and we were just in time for tasting it, visiting the region at the end of October.

Piedmont’s capital is Turin – the second largest cultural and economic centre in northern Italy, which can boast one of the greatest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, preserved by the Egyptian Museum (see: Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin), and the holiest relic of Christianity, which is the Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone), also known as the Shroud of Turin, because t is well-kept-up at the seat of the Archbishop of Turin, namely, inside the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista. Although it is not possible to see it but on special occasions, the faithful always have an opportunity to approach the chapel, where it is preserved.

Along the Demonic Rift, on the Fourth Stop on Saint Michael’s Sword

The architectural symbol of Piedmont is, however, Sacra di San Michele, which is also called Saint Michael’s Abbey, located above the municipalities of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino and Chiusa di San Michele. Either you follow ‘Saint Michael’s Sword’ from north southwards, as we do, or from the south northwards, that would be the fourth, out of seven stops on the pilgrimage way dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The complex lies also on the route of ‘Via Francigena’, an ancient pilgrim path from Rome to Canterbury, and while it is followed southwards, it is called Via Romea. The fact that Sacra di San Michele is the fourth stop on the pilgrimage path, either way it is taken, it is so half-way of the whole Line. Consequently, Sacra di San Michele is also located just in the middle of the ‘Via Michaelica’, namely the section of Saint Michael’s pilgrimage path between the two ancient and most significant monastic sites of Saint Michael, namely Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, in northern France, and Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Gargano, in southern Italy. Precisely, there are 1000 kilometres from each of those sanctuaries to this half-way pilgrimage stop, which the Mont Pirchiriano used to be in the past, before it actually grew in significance, as an abbey and a strategic point on the way, which is believed to have originally been traced by the Archangel himself, with his sword carried against demons.

A legend goes that a furious battle in heaven opened a long rift, stretching from Mont Saint Michel to Monte Gargano, by which some of the fallen angels were devoured before it closed back, creating the original way of the triumphant Archangel. Consequently, although the rift is not visible today, its presence is still marked by ‘Via Michaelica’. From the Middle Ages, the route was followed by pilgrims and today, by both, pilgrims and tourists, looking for an authentic experience of feeling the mysterious past.

Welcomed by the Archangel at the Foot of His Abbey

Saint Michael’s Abbey is located nearly 30 kilometres in a direct line, north-west of Turin. It takes less than an hour to reach the place by car but there are also good train connections from Turin to nearby towns, such as Saint’ Ambrogio di Torino, Avigliana or Chiusa di San Michele, from where you can either take a pilgrimage trail or a taxi to drop you just at the foot of the Abbey. We decided to call a taxi in the morning to get to the Sanctuario from Turin, and come back by train from Saint’ Ambrogio.  It was dictated by a need to arrive on Mount Pirchiriano just before it opens to avoid larger groups of people filling in the space of the complex. Moreover, we were not in a good physical shape to do trekking up from Sant’Ambrogio, which is quite steep and difficult to follow. Our taxi stopped in the park in the Piazzale Croce Nera, which is 500 metres from the Abbey. Despite my worries, the weather on our day of meeting with the Archangel turned out to be exceptionally good; a lot of sunshine with a light breeze from the Valley of Susa made our walking tour an agreeable experience. The road led us through a shadow of trees, between which an impressive corpus kept emerging with reddish and blueish colours between their branches. Just at the foot of its massive entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a modern statue of the Archangel with his sword embedded in the rocky foundation of the abbey.

Saint Giovanni in the Val of Susa

The Pirchiriano Mount’s name is quite ancient and means ‘pigs’, as much as the nearby Caprasio stands for ‘goats’, and Musiné for ‘donkeys’, which may be related to ancient beliefs of the Celts who had lived in the region till the mid of the first century AD.

Some monumental remains on the Mount witness to a story that the Pirchiriano had already been a military stronghold built by the Romans, who venerated there mostly unidentified Alpine deities. Longboards, who occupied the site between the sixth and the end of the seventh centuries, were successively replaced by the Carolingians, who left the Pirchiriano by the end of the ninth century, giving their way to the Saracens. Finally, the Pirchiriano Mount was entrusted to the Bishop of Torino, and by the end of the tenth century, first hermits arrived in the region and they mostly inhabited the Valley of Susa, in the north of the Pirchiriano. They mainly shared their desire for lives in isolation, entirely devoted to God by anchoritism of the Irish monks who had sought out a deserted place in the wilderness to fulfil their mission. Among hermits coming to the Valley of Susa, there was a monk, called Giovanni Vincenzo, who was one of Saint Romuald’s (951-1027) followers and students. The latter was a wandering reformer of Italian monasticism and hermitages, and responsible for the so-called ‘Renaissance of eremitical asceticism’ in Italy. In his mission, he was stimulated by the form of monasticism parallel to the original eremitism once founded in Egypt, which was then transplanted to Hiberno-Scotland (modern-day Ireland and Scotland). From there, such monastic ideas may have spreaded southwards, together with Irish monastic foundations in Europe.

Giovanni Vincenzo lived in his Celle on the Mount Caprasio. According to his hagiography, Giovanni, later canonized as a saint, was born in Besate around the year 955, and he was around 45 years old when he died.  The same records testify that he was appointed the fifty-seventh archbishop of Ravenna, under Pope John XIV, in the year 983, with the name of John X. After the accounts, he held the archdiocese between 983 and 998 over the decades, in which the empire was governed by the successive emperors of Otto dynasty. In this period, as evidenced by the history of Ravenna, the Kingdom of Italy was united with that of Germany within the Holy Roman Empire, and Otto, one of the main Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, set Ravenna as its capital. In 998, Giovanni Vincenzo retired as a hermit on Monte Caprasio in Val di Susa in the natural caves near the town of Celle, where he died around 1000 AD.

On 12 January 1150 his body was transferred to the parish church of Sant’Ambrogio in Turin, currently the church of San Giovanni Vincenzo, which we also had an opportunity to visit on the way back from the Sacra di San Michele. San Giovanni has become the patron saint of the community of Sant’ Ambrogio di Torino. However, some scholars claim there were actually two hermits called Giovanni, whose hagiographies had once merged into one story. They suggest that Giovanni who was actually involved in the legend of Saint Michael had never been the archbishop but a later need for his ennoblement in the eyes of the faithful made him be identified with the apostolic head of Ravenna. Anyway, we may not be allowed to know what was the true story of the saint.

Saint and the Archangel

But what did Saint Giovanni have to do with the Archangel? And what did trigger the process of building the monastery of Saint Michael on the Mount Pirchiriano?

The cult of the Archangel itself had developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and was brought to life in the East, in places similar in landscape to the sites of sanctuaries along the Archangel’s Axis, namely in isolation and in elevated places. The worship of Saint Michael may have migrated to Italy in the fifth century, as his first recorded apparitions happened in around 450 AD. on Monte Gargano. It is possible that Saint Michael was also worshiped on the Pirchiriano by Longboards, between the sixth and seventh centuries, so long before there was the very first church built in his devotion. The origins of the Abbey are itself shrouded in mystery, and the only source of information on its beginnings is given by two legends, later described in the chronicle of the Monastery. They are both beautifully illustrated in the “Fresco of the Legend”, inside the church of the Sanctuary, which explains the circumstances of the foundations of the Sacra di San Michele.

As the legend goes, Saint Giovanni experienced several apparitions of Saint Michael. It may have happened either when he retired from his function as the archbishop, if we accept that version of his hagiography or yet before he actually became the archbishop. The former is more probable if it is assumed that follow-up constructing works changing the initial church into a Romanesque abbey started between 983 and 987. It is also important to underline that the Saint lived at the verge of the period in which the fear of the end of the world was very strong and frightening. With the new millennium, when the expected end did not come, the construction majestically grew in its structure and significance, as if it was an expression of mankind’s gratefulness sent to the Heavens.

There are no Better Construction Engineers than Angels

The known tradition says that Saint Michael ordered San Giovanni to erect his church on the Mount, as much as it earlier happened in the case of Saint Aubert in Normandy. San Giovanni was less reluctant in fulfilling Saint Michael’s demand than the Saint from Mont Saint Michel, and he started to build the church on the Mount Caprasio, where he lived, and which was famous for praying hermits. The works he started, however, could not be completed because the stones laid during the day (in other version, which is more possible, it was wood) mysteriously disappeared at night. San Giovanni was sure the stones were stolen by some thieves, he stayed awake to guard site of construction. Yet, what he saw at night terrified him greatly, as he discovered that the thieves are actually angels, who transported the stones on another mount nearby, which was the Mount Pirchiriano. Then San Giovanni understood it was Saint Michael’s desire to build his church just there, on the opposite mount. After this miraculous event, the Saint obediently followed the angels to the Pirchiriano, where he set up his new hermitage and continued to build the Archangel’s church.

The first legendary building was actually a very small church, constructed with the help of angels, or according to a different version, entirely built by human hands, whereas the angels had just brought the needed building material and so the miracle of constructing the church was continued by people. Nonetheless, it was consecrated by the angels, or by the Archangel himself, which explains the name of the Abbey as Sacra: consecrated, thus sacred. Very similar legends of angels involved in building sacred sites abound; the most famous is a folk story of the construction of the eleven churches of Lalibela in the twelfth century, in Ethiopia, where angels helped people in their construction, by taking a night shift position. On the other hand, the pseudographical text of the Testament of Solomon reads that there were fallen angels summoned by King to build the Temple, what they did in fear of the power of God’s angels. Accordingly, the mentioned ‘Fresco of the Legend’ shows angels, along doves, who transfer the wood from one mount to the other. There is also depicted the Bishop of Torino, Amizzone, who was coming to the Pirchiriano with the intention of consecrating the church, when he found out it had already been consecrated by the angels.

Ugo di Montboissier’s Penance

The second part of the legend, or the second legend, tells a story about the Abbey’s later founder, namely, the Count Ugo di Montboissier, who once encountered the hermitage of San Giovanni on the Mount Pirchiriano, with a simple church, or rather a complex of three small chapels built onsite dedicated to Sain Michael. The Count had actually been looking for redemption for his sins. The Pope gave him a choice of his penance: either he would go for an exile, which would be for him a religious pilgrimage, or he would give foundations to an abbey. Having known the history of the church on the Pirchiriano, Ugo finally decided to continue building works there on a much greater scale than before.

The Fresco shows him leaving the town of Susa and heading off to the Pirchiriano in order to establish the Monastery. The foundation was entrusted to Benedictine order, different in its organisation and ideals from the previously established Insular monasticism. In the thirteenth century, Saint Michael’s Abbey lived its Golden Age, when its majestic Romanesque silhouette gained additional Gothic additions. Nerveless, the decay of the Abbey came together with the fall of the Benedictines. Consequently, after 600 years the Abbey stayed abandoned, that is to say it till 1836, when it was entrusted to Rosimini Fathers on behalf of the Vatican. In was also then when the bodies of the Savoy family were moved from Torino to the Sacra, giving the beginnings to the “Trail of Princes” (or Nobles). The Rosimini Fathers are still in the Sacra, taking care of the monument as the symbol of the region, and a very important witness to the glorious past, and of Saint Michael’s intercession.

“Antica Mulattiera” and the “Trail of Princes”

Due to the fact that Sacra di San Michele has been a significant destination as the pilgrimage site, there are a few trails around the Mount, which are perfect for doing trekking. I would recommend the mentioned above out-and-back trail, which is called the “Trail of Princes” and starts in the community of Avigliana, yet it can also be done from Mortera, to finally arrive at Mont Pirchiriario. The name “Trail of Princes” was coined after 1836, when a funeral procession brought twenty-four corpses of the nobles of the Savoy family, along the way from the cathedral of Turin to the Abbey on top of the Mount!

The entire “Path of the Princes” takes around 3 hours (9 kilometres) to be completed and is of a moderate level of challenge. When there are less travellers, one can rally enjoy solitude and beauty of the path itself, which amazing panoramic views of Sacra di San Michele and the lakes of Avigliana. Yet, we did not follow that path back that time. Instead, we chose the trail of Antica Mulattiera, which means as much as the ‘Mule Track’. It is the most ancient forest path that curves up in zig-zags along the way from Sant’ Ambrogio to Sacra di San Michele, and back; it has been used as a traditional way of approaching the Abbey for at least a thousand years. It is quite steep and rugged, and hence demands from visitors to be in a better physical shape.

Climbing down towards Saint’ Ambrogio

We slowly descended worn-away cobblestones of the road, moving forward the town below, and catching glimpses of the towering Abbey behind us. For those, who are just making their way up with great effort, its silhouette must be a real promise of rest, and so also a desirable destination. While climbing down, we encountered there 15 stone crosses at the windings of the road, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross.

It allows us to travel back in time and join in mind medieval believers, where a pilgrimage was an integral part of Christian life, even though modern pilgrims changed today in tourists, looking for pleasure in hiking, inspiring views and food tested on the trail, and much less in Christian religion and its angels. You can still be on a spiritual search for your destiny, and enter, in the way a medieval pilgrim did it, into the grandeur of nature that eventually explodes in manmade (and angel made) complex of Saint Michael’s Abbey. Then you can observe how its architecture merges into the tissue of natural landscape. At the final section of the path, we additionally encountered wooden characters, as if taken straight from the Land of Oz.

Before us, the gate to Saint’ Ambrogio opened, with its church just below the steep alpine slope of the Mount and the outline of the Sanctuario, high above, crowning its top. Such a beuty of architecture and nature inspires feelings of transcendence and creates a continuation of the legend also in modern literature. In the imagination of an Italian debuting writer, Umberto Eco, Sacra di San Michele became in 1980 a perfect setting of a mysterious murder within the walls of Benedictine Abbey. Although it is only a literary fiction, the Abbey itslef stimulates an atmosphere of mystery; its large and steep stairway is called the Stairway of the Dead, where a few tombs with skeletons of Benedictine monks were found in large niches, and each of them had his own history. Yet, “the silence of the centuries dominates everything” (Traverso, 1992:11).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

All Trails, 2023. ‘Sentiero dei Principi’ (2023), in alltrails.com. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3HynyrR>.

Kosloski, P., 2020. ‘How St. Michael helped build Sacra di San Michele, in Comics’, in ‘Voyage’. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kI2dTL>.

Rogano, F., 2017. ‘The legend of Saint Michael’s Abbey – Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte’, in Emadion. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3H67mfO>.

Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Val de Susa’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.

Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Sacra di San Michele, Italy’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.

Traverso, O., 1992. Sacra di San Michele. Monumento Symbolo del Piemonte. Genova: Edizioni D’Arte.