The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans

The Bronze Age. Dusk in the eastern Mediterranean (Westbrook 1995). The people on the island of Thera felt something frightening and cataclysmic in the air (Ibid.). They were preparing to abandon their home island (Ibid.). They had filled storage jars with wine, olive and wheat as if one day they would have come back to reclaim them (Ibid.). They carefully closed each lid (Ibid.). They also hid some valuables in their houses’ basements or under door frames (Mitchell 2011). Yet, their most precious possessions, like gold and jewels, they took with them (Westbrook 1995). They carefully sealed their houses as if protecting them from thieves and rushed to their boats (Mitchell 2011). What those people felt was the earth itself trembling beneath them but they had already survived similar earthquakes in the past (Westbrook 1995). That time, however, it was not a mere earthquake (Ibid.). Those people were to never return to their olive, wine and idyllic life they had depicted in their frescoes (Ibid.). They would have simply fled into the night and into the sea (Ibid.).

Sunset at the northern coast of Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Idyllic Island

In the Mediterranean region, in the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands stands out in a Greek archipelago (Masjum 2006). They are thrown north of Crete, with a huge caldera at their center (Wengler 2009). The archipelago’s dark and brooding nature appears in contrast to the white limestone and pristine marble of the buildings (Masjum 2006). This islands are collectively known today as Santorini (Ibid.). The terraced landscape and rich volcanic soil make the them ideal for vineyards (History Channel 1980s). For this reason, Santorini is home to some of the finest wines in the world (Ibid.). But while tourists travel to Santorini for sun and the island’s quaint village life, archaeologists keep searching there for more clues about the destruction of the Minoan empire (Ibid.).

In the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands of Santorini stands out in a Greek archipelago. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

For years, teams of various scientists, each specialized in a particular field, have joined their forces to solve the mystery (Lilley 2006). They are still finding new evidence of a dreadful disaster that overwhelmed Europe’s first civilisation (Ibid.) ‘Did their terrible fate create the myth of Atlantis, the continent-city that drowned?’, speculates the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘They worshiped the sea and the sea [eventually] turned against them’ (Ibid.)

Everlasting myths

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabulous civilization that had been swallowed by the sea but no one has been able to trace the origins of Plato’s story yet (Lilley 2006). Appearing evidence from the island of Crete led some archaeologists to speculate that the Atlantis legend was in fact created in the Mediterranean (Ibid.). Is the legendary destruction of Atlantis just a folk memory of what happened to the Minoans, who flourished on Crete in the Bronze Age, over two thousand years before Plato? (Ibid.)

One of the most charming and visited cities on Santorini, Oia, also known as Pano Meria. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Atlantis was mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, in the fourth century BC. (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). The great Athenian philosopher claimed the story had originally come from Egypt (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). It was handed down to him from an Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who had in turn heard it from Egyptian priests from Sais, the capital of Lower Egypt (Ibid.). Solon, and after him Plato, both claimed these were facts, no fiction (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). According to their accounts, a highly advanced civilization would have developed on the island of Atlantis (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18-21).

The Minoans

In the Bronze Age, the Greek islands were in fact home to an advanced civilization, competing for cultural, artistic and commercial influences in the region, even with the pharaohs of Egypt (Mitchell 2011). These were the Minoans (Ibid.). Centuries before the Greek built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements through exquisite carvings and stunning frescoes (Lilley 2006). They were the first Europeans to use writing but at the height of their powers they were wiped from the pages of history (Ibid.). Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries (Ibid.). Some think the Minoans were slaughtered by conquers from overseas (Ibid.). Others claim that the cataclysmic eruption destroyed them (Ibid).

The Bull Chamber with the relief fresco, probably representing hunting for a bull. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from the legend of Atlantis, there are also other famous stories passionately haunting human imagination. Until the twentieth century, the Minoans had been the mysterious people known only from Greek myths about hybrid monsters and human sacrifice (Lilley 2006). The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been studying Minoan culture on Crete for twenty-five years (Ibid.). He has explored ancient caves in the centre of the island (Ibid.). For hundreds of years, people have believed their winding corridors were actually the Cretan labyrinth, which was the home of legendary Minotaur (Ibid.). Greek myths describe the beast as a feeding on human flesh, half-bull and half-human creature, who was imprisoned in the subterranean chambers by King Minos (Ibid.). According to the myth, the Minotaur had a very particular taste (Ibid.). He liked to consume its human prey alive (Ibid.). ‘To keep a Minotaur fed, Minos executed the tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once they entered the labyrinth, they never left it’, recounts Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). The myth suggests that Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were even cannibals (Ibid.). Or was this simply a propaganda generated by Greek fears of a powerful people? (Ibid.).

Remains of the so-called palace of King Minos with architectural elements characteristic of the Minoan culture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When the explosion of Thera occurred, the Minoan empire must have been at its highest (Westbrook 1995). However, despite their power and remarkable achievements, the Minoans disappeared after 1500 BC (Lilley 2006). Their fate is still a mystery (Ibid.). Were they wiped out by ancient Greek invaders, described by Homer in his epic poems about the Trojan war? (Ibid.). Or was it a catastrophic natural event, like the one that supposedly destroyed the Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Knossos

In 1900, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans started excavating at Knossos in northern Crete, near the modern capital of the island, Heraklion (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). The whole western world was astonished by his discovery (Lilley 2006). Evans devoted forty years of his life to this endeavour, for which he was eventually knighted (History Channel 1980s).

The Minoan ‘Prince of the Lilies’ (copy) on the wall of the “Knossos Palace”. The original restored fresco is preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the excavations started, it shortly turned out that the archaeologist had come across the capital of the highly advanced civilisation of the Bronze Age (Lilley 2006). Whilst the ancient Europeans were living as barbarian warriors, building clay huts, Cretans were creating monumental architecture and living in overwhelming luxury (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Men in Knossos must have moved about proudly and confidently (History Channel 1980s). Women were attired elegantly and glamorously (Ibid.). Evans exhumed in Knossos a huge architectural complex, he soon called a palace (History Channel 1980s; (Lilley 2006). It was a complex of buildings of the size of four football fields consisting of one thousand and three hundred courtyards, halls, passageways and rooms (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). All of them belonged to one single building, which was the heartbeat of the Minoan empire (History Channel 1980s). The palace was approached by massive entrance portals, leading  deep inside its subterranean complex (Ibid.). Above the surface, the palace was two to three storeys high and built of cut stone (Ibid.). The walls were decorated with serene motifs of flowers and animals (Ibid.). War was not glorified there (Ibid.).

Minoan ‘Ladies in Blue’ Fresco, largely recreated according to a modern interpretation, basing just on a few preserved fragments. Nobody can actually know how it looked initially. The original is exposed at Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architecture was so bewildering that Evans was convinced that he had found the Minotaur’s labyrinth, incorporated into the King Minos’ royal residence (History Channel 1980s). He found there marble walls and alabaster floors, which had been protected by the earth for millennia (Ibid.). In the lavishly decorated private chambers of the priest-king, as Evans assumed, a bathtub was even found (Ibid.). Staircases functioned as ingenuously designed air-conditioners (Ibid.). Light shafts provided subdued lighting (Ibid.). Below the floors, complicated drainage conduits have been built for bathrooms and, first in Europe, flush toilets (Ibid.). Even rainwater, which was collected in the open courtyards of the palace, passed through a special system of drains (Ibid.).

In the storehouses of the palace of Knossos, archaeologists have found huge jars, also called pithoi, for wine, oil, grains and honey. Some are larger, some smaller but many a time they are approximately the size of a human. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the storehouses there were as many as four hundred storage vats for wine, oil, grains and honey (History Channel 1980s). The Minoans’ capital itself was a masterpiece of contemporary town planning, with its buildings being connected by Europe’s first paved roads (Lilley 2006). Surrounding the palace, there was a town with a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants (Ibid.).

The Empire

Based on what Evans found, archaeologists have built a more accurate picture of what this once great empire looked like (History Channel 1980s). Modern technology offers an impression of extraordinary splendour of the civilization around the whole Crete; ceremonial buildings, holy places, storehouses and workshops were once grouped around large central courtyards (Ibid.). Successively, archaeologists have discovered similar Minoan settlements with the so-called palaces throughout Crete and far beyond it (Lilley 2006). Among them, Knossos is believed to have been the most significant.

Representation of a probably dancing woman or goddess. The preserved fragment of the fresco is showing only the upper part of the woman figure with open bodice and tresses flying in the air. The original can be seen in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The copy is exposed in the Queen’s Megaron at Knossos, Crete, where the fragment has been found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Minoans were the contemporaries of the mighty ancient Egyptians, with a language of their own and a distinctive culture, widely revered by others (Masjum 2006). Highly cultured and civilized, the Minoans held much promise as a people (Ibid.). It was their culture that provided the seed of Greek civilization a thousand years later (Ibid.). They had an advanced state of bureaucracy and organization (Ibid.). The Minoans were equally skilled craftsmen capable of producing exquisite treasures and sophisticated objects of art (Lilley 2006). Their pottery was known throughout the contemporary world for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship (History Channel 1980s). Its distinctive geometric patterns and naturalistic imagery were prized even by the pharaohs (Ibid.).

Merchants, not warriors

The source of Minoan wealth was their rule at sea (Mitchell 2011). They were peace-loving traders who placed strong emphasis on commerce and not war (Masjum 2006).

Fragments of the cup-bearers fresco found in the area of the South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A geologist, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, says  that the Minoans created a commercial empire (Masjum 2006). ‘They did not have any defensive walls or anything to protect themselves because they had the [powerful fleet], and they were known in the entire eastern Mediterranean as traders’ (Ibid.). Also artistic influences of the Minoans were far-reaching (Wengler 2009). Minoan pottery and other various artifacts carried by their ships have been found from Spain to Mesopotamia (Lilley 2006). Their distinguished artistic style and motifs, flourished in frescoes also in foreign palaces of Mycenaeans, Egyptians and even Canaanites, such as Tel Kabri, in modern day Israel (Cline 2013). In the Egyptian city of Avaris (also Awaris), in the north-eastern region of the Nile Delta, the Egyptologist, Prof. Manfred Bietak has found a Minoan fresco, dated back to the sixteenth century BC. (Wengler 2009). It represents a recurring theme of the Minoan iconography, especially on Crete, which is a bull-leaping (Ibid.). Bietak claims that the fresco must have been painted by a Minoan artist, probably living and working in Avaris and decorating an Egyptian palace in a typical Minoan style (Ibid.). At the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the artistic influence of the Minoans on Egyptian art became highly noticeable (Ibid.). The presence of Minoan frescoes in the Nile Delta is further evidence of close contacts between these two worlds: Egyptian and Minoan (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Tell El-Dab’a, in Egypt. The archaeological site is also known as Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, which was developed in the Nile delta region of Egypt. However, the fresco itself is dated back to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents a bull-leaping, which is a recurring theme in Minoan art. Photo by Martin Dürrschnabel – Own work by Martin Dürrschnabel, de:Benutzer:Martin-D1,(2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Minoan Frescoes from Tell el-Daba” (2017). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient times, the Minoans traded with the peoples of the Aegean and were amongst the first to sail to distant foreign lands (History Channel 1980s). After the British author, Gavin Menzies (2011), their boats voyaged westwards through the Pillars of Hercules to finally reach not only the British Isles but even northern America. Although scholars have rejected such theories as pseudohistory, all of them agree that the Minoan representatives surely travelled to the Near East and up the River Nile to the legendary city of Thebes, in Egypt (History Channel 1980s; Cline 2013). The palaces in their homeland of Crete, in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were on a smaller scale than in Egypt but archaeologists claim to have observed in Cretan monumental architecture, structural designs similar to the temples dedicated to Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Isis or Hathor (History Channel 1980s). As Diodorus of Sicily writes in the first century BC. (Bibliotheca historica, Book I, 61), the architect of the labyrinth in Knossos, Dedalus, had first seen such an edifice in Egypt and designed a similar one for King Minos (Santarcangeli 1982:85). Although the Egyptian one was more monumental than the Cretan, it apparently served as its prototype (Ibid.:85).

The North Entrance to the Palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, the Minoans’ maritime empire was so vast that it even rivalled the ancient Egyptians (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Nonetheless, the islanders must have been popular and respected in ancient Egypt (Ibid.), particularly because they did not sail with warships on buccaneering raids but as peaceful merchants (History Channel 1980s). Apart from mutual trading, as some scholars underline, there may have also been other Egyptian – Minoan relations, especially in the context of religion and ritual (Santarcangeli 1982:73-85). Yet, all of the sudden, all records of the Minoans came to an abrupt end in the papyrus texts of the Egyptian scribes. Why? (History Channel 1980s).

Northern coast of Crete. Today it attracts flocks of tourists, especially because of the sun and warm sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With time, the Minoans colonized Aegean islands also in the parts of mainland Turkey (Lilley 2006). Consequently, their powerful fleet could significantly control the Mediterranean’s trade routes (Mitchell 2011). At their intersection between Europe, Asia and Africa was Crete, the strategic centre of Minoan power (Ibid.). One hundred and twelve kilometres north lay the island of Thera, known today as the group of Santorini islands (Ibid.).

Restless island

The island of Santorini may provide a clue to solving the Minoan disappearance from history (Lilley 2006). The wild scenery and jagged cliffs draw countless tourists but they do not realize that this is in fact a highly explosive volcano (Ibid.). Nor did the colony of Minoans, who lived on Santorini in the Bronze Age and had built their town on the most dangerous island in Eurasia (Ibid.). At that time, the island was known as Thera. Its crescent shape testifies to a violent volcanic past (History Channel 1980s). Its harbour is now a gigantic caldera, so deep that no ship’s anchor can touch the bottom (Ibid.). In the middle, a volcanic dome rises out of the sea (Ibid.). Today it is an awesome monument to the fourth largest eruption in the last twenty thousand years (Ibid.). It was a cataclysm that some believed led the Minoan civilization to its final end (Ibid.).

“Some scholars identify [Atlantis] with the Greek volcanic island of Thera. […] The circular rim of [the island’s] crater is clearly shown in the aerial photograph” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1967, archaeologists discovered the Minoan town of Akrotiri, located on the southern coast of Santorini (History Channel 1980s). It was buried on the slopes of the vast volcano crater (Lilley 2006). Traces of Thera’s wealth can be seen in the ruins of this town (Mitchell 2011). Kitchens and storehouses offered a glimpse of people’s daily life (History Channel 1980s). At the moment they were found, storage jars still contained green kernels and olive pips (Ibid). Along the streets stood buildings whose walls were richly decorated with sophisticated frescoes (Mitchell 2011).

Famous Minoan Spring Fresco in the West Wall Swallows Scene, Akrotiri, Santorini. Subjects undertaken in art by the Minoans on Thera mostly showed the beauty and serenity of nature, with its different colours emanating during the day. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: W. Sheppard Baird (2010). “Minoan Spring Fresco West Wall Swallows Scene”. In: Official Art Gallery.

Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist, pays attention to the way Akrotiri’s inhabitants may have celebrated their life, which is well reflected in Minoan art. ‘If you take a look at the wall paintings that have been discovered [there], they are portraying their landscape. This is a happy landscape: animal bouncing around and [girls] picking saffron’, he says (Lilley 2006). ‘They [are] showing a nice lifestyle, comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed’ (Ibid.). People living on Thera, like the Cretans, built a highly advanced  society, provided with such facilities as the world’s first home toilets combined with an underground sewage system (Mitchell 2011). For such a luxury most Europeans waited another two thousand years (Ibid.).

Island cursed by gods

In the rubble of the ancient town, scientists have found clues, which suggest that Thera eruption may have coincided with the downfall of the Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s).

Unearthing the Spring Fresco. ©”Prehistoric Thera” by Christos Doumas, published by the John S. Latsis public benefit foundation. In 1974, Marinatos passed away and the following year Doumas himself took over running the excavation, bringing to light an amazing wealth of finds and information. Unlike in Knossos, Minoan frescoes of Akrotiri are better preserved due to having been covered by the layers of volcanic ash and pumice stones. Photo and caption source: Tassoula Eptakili  (2017). “A Life’s Work: The Excavation of Akrotiri in Santorini”. In: Greece Is Santorini. Colours intensified.

Gradually the buried city began to divulge its secrets (History Channel 1980s). However, working among the crumbling walls was dangerous and the man who first discovered Akrotiri, the veteran Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), was killed by falling rocks and buried in his town (Ibid.). His daughter, Nanno Marinatos, is carrying on his work (Ibid.). She says that most archaeologists agree that the Minoans established a theocratic empire of the seas (Ibid.). Still they do not know what their ruling class was like (Ibid.). Marinatos thinks that its representatives were priests and they claimed their special connections with a deity (Ibid.). Minoan priestesses apparently had the greatest power of all (Mitchell 2011).


Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

As Marinatos claims, Minoan priests usually appeared in front of the public dressed as deities, which is well defined by the preserved frescoes (History Channel 1980s). Indeed, the Minoan art represents the mysterious world, where powerful priestesses performed strange and dangerous rituals (Mitchell 2011). Their task as it seems was to communicate with the gods, often through complex rituals in which saffron served as a hallucinogen (Ibid.). Like all ancient civilizations, the Minoans believed that their gods were present everywhere (Ibid.).

Fresco of a fisherman with Coryphaena hippurus from Akrotiri, Thera. Probably an offering to gods. Photo by Marcus Cyron (2008). Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Fresco of a fisherman” (2015). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Deity was responsible for every natural phenomenon, from the birth of a child to earthquakes, from the seas to the mountain peaks (Mitchell 2011). And the ancient peoples seemed to treat them as flesh and blood figures. Minoan gods were not considered gentle and merciful beings, but rather impulsive and often vindictive (Ibid.). To obtain the favour of the gods sacrifices were made to them and rituals were a way for priests to know their desires (Ibid.). In many houses in the town, rich and colourful paintings reveal images of the Minoan spiritual life: priestesses paying homage to their gods, maids and youths depicted at different stages of their initiation (History Channel 1980s). Even the young man with his abundant catch of fish, archaeologists believe may be on his way to the sacrificial altar (Ibid.). But with time, the Minoan belief system had to begin to break down (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). It was due to the geological forces that contributed to the destruction of Thera and this glittering world sank in the chaos of the powers of nature (Ibid.).

Earth-shaker is getting furious

In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011).

Stone Staircase destroyed by a devastating earthquake in ancient city of Akrotiri, Thera. It was also one of the warnings, announcing the final explosion of the volcano. Photo and caption source: Alan V. Morgan (2020). “Stone Staircase in a Wrecked Building at Akrotiri”. In: The Greek Field Trip, 1994.

One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011). The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Ibid.). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).

Heralds of the coming disaster

Yet before the deciding earthquake came, the great eruption announced itself slowly and gradually (Wengler 2009). As the black mountain, the volcano was slowly coming to life (Ibid.). One of the first signals of volcano activity were hydrothermal explosions caused by heated groundwaters (Mitchell 2011). Boiling fountains of steam bursting from the sea were accompanied by the first tremors shaking the island (Wengler 2009). Sea quakes caused giant waves to form (Ibid.). These were the heralds of the coming disaster a few months ahead (Ibid.) A Minoan wall painting from the island of Santorini represents a giant wave and drowning people beneath it (Ibid.). Is this a portrayal of the events just before the eruption? (Ibid).

Detail of the so-called Naval Battle shown on the north wall frieze of Room 5 of the West House in Akrotiri, Santorini. Some scholars think that casualties in the water have resulted from the naval battle, others point to giant waves of the sea quakes, which were the heralds of the coming eruption. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015). “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time.

For over seventeen thousand years, the magma reservoir beneath the island’s surface was closed but recurring tremors kept deepening cracks and lava began to rise (Mitchell 2011). The rising magma was accompanied by the larger release of sulphurous vapours and other toxic gases (Ibid.). It was another sinister harbinger of the approaching eruption (Ibid.). Foul-smelling sulphurous vapours emerged and spread (Wengler 2009).

Typical of the Minoan architecture, a column tapered at the bottom and larger at the top, with a pillow-like capital (bulbous). Minoan columns were made of timber and painted black and red. Designed is this way to be more resistant to seismic shocks. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Certainly, for the inhabitants of the island it became a race against time (Wengler 2009).  According to archaeological research, the damage after the final earthquake was so severe that residents of Akrotiri had to leave their weakened homes and probably moved to temporary camps, in the hope that they would be able to return to their town soon (Mitchell 2011). “There is evidence [that] people [even] started to repair the damage, but before repairs were complete, another set of quakes hit the town. It appears people abandoned it then and left fairly quickly, as many belongings were [found in Akrotiri]” (Jensen 2018). Undoubtedly, the residents had tried to save whatever they could (Wengler 2009). Just before the eruption, they managed to gather food and water supply and other domestic equipment, but eventually, food jars and the beds tied together and ready to go had to be left behind (Ibid.). The excavations at Akrotiri has showed that while some houses were almost completely emptied before eruption (Ibid.), in others, precious belongings were found safely under the bed or wooden frame (Mitchell 2011). Houses’ doors were shut tight (Ibid.). When the mountain belched hot volcanic ash, for the Minoan islanders it was high time to leave their island (Wengler 2009). Experts believe the population got off Thera just in time; unlike in Pompeii, no trace of human remains have ever been found in Akrotiri (Wengler 2009; Jensen 2018). Yet nobody knows where they sailed to take refuge (Wengler 2009). 

Stages of eruption

‘And suddenly [the volcano] exploded’, says Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist (Lilley 2006). Thera was erupting (Ibid.). The vast volcano blasted ash, gas and rock up to into the stratosphere (Ibid.).

“Sheer volcanic cliffs bear witness to the terrible cataclysm that befall Thera” (Harpur, Westwood 1997). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On Santorini, a team of geologists, volcanologists, botanists, archaeologists and physicists has regularly studied the site of the disaster (Wengler 2009). Evidence of the volcano power is all around the island (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). There are deposits that are more than sixty metres deep in places (Lilley 2006). The scientists have made an attempt to reconstruct different stages of the Thera’s eruption (Ibid.). ‘There, in that cliffs face,’ Prof. Floyd McCoy points to the multicoloured high rock face on Santorini, ‘[there are] all four [visible] layers representing the four major faces of this huge dramatic eruption’ (Ibid.).

Ruthless gods

Following the final earthquake, the pressure of magma burst the rock, which for thousands of years had clogged the volcano funnel (Mitchell 2011). It was only a preview of an impending explosion (Ibid.). The volcano was only clearing its throat (Ibid.).

A number of the fragments of frescoes found at Knossos have been restored to give the sense of what the original image might have looked like. [The] ‘Cup-bearer’ from the South Propylaeum shows a young man carrying a large silver rhyton. This is the only life-size figure in a Minoan fresco whose head and torso are preserved. Today exposed at Heraklion Museum, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Earlier generations had already seen similar but minor eruptions and recognized them as signs from the gods (Mitchell 2011). These were signs whose understanding was the task of the priests (Ibid.). For the Minoans, there was no better way to satisfy threatening and unpredictable gods than through sacrifice (Ibid.). They performed such rituals in sanctuaries, high in the mountains, where they were physically closest to the gods (Ibid.). Twenty-three such places have been discovered in Crete itself, and in them the remains of thousands of clay figurines (Ibid.) Clay parts of the body were to heal the same human limbs, and animal figurines were to heal and protect livestock (Ibid.). In Minoan shrines, bones of animals have also been found, of goats, sheep, pigs and even bulls (Ibid.). Possibly blood sacrifice was considered the most powerful (Ibid.). The power of priests and priestesses depended on their ability to win the favour of the gods, but the forces released beneath Thera’s surface could not be stopped any more (Ibid.). Consequently, confidence in the powers of priests weakened, which eventually led to the collapse of Minoan social and religious systems (Ibid.).

From the earthquake to Plinian eruption

Plinian eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Donald A. Swanson. Photo and caption source: Volcano Discovery (2020). “Illustrated Glossary: Plinian eruption. Volcanology”. In: Volcano Discovery.

From the structure of volcanic sediments in the initial phase of eruption, the island was covered with bright ash (Mitchell 2011). It was enough to poison the sources of drinking water (Ibid.). But it was not the worst awaiting the people living on Thera (Ibid.). What distinguished this eruption from all others experienced so far by the inhabitants of the island was the interaction of two types of magma that triggered a catastrophic chemical reaction (Ibid.). This reaction spewed about a hundred and fifty billion tons of magma onto the surface and made the eruption the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world (Ibid.). Columns of glowing gas of ash and stones flew at over nine kilometres up into the stratosphere, forming a cloud shaped like an atomic mushroom (Ibid.). Consequently, large clouds of rubble and dust rose into the sky after the explosion (Ibid.). Their force can be compared to the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Ibid.). The sound of explosion must have been heard even in Egypt, and clouds of smoke have been seen from Crete after a few minutes (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Thera’s eruption has been called the Plinian, which is the most devastating of all (Mitchell 2011). “Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are […] marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder” (“Plinian eruption” 2020). Hence its name. Such “eruptions are marked by columns of volcanic debris and hot gases ejected high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas-driven eruptions” (Ibid.)

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Yesterday (2020). “Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend”. In: Yesterday.

During the first four hours of Thera’s eruption, the volcano ejected five billion tons of magma from the crater (Mitchell 2011). The day turned into night, because volcanic dust began to cover the entire island (Ibid.). The cooling magma began to fall as pumice (Ibid.). These were small stones filled with air bubbles but deadly in such large quantities (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy points out to the cliffs on Santorini, saying that at this stage of the eruption, the first layer was created (Lilley 2006). ‘[It] is that brown [one] at the bottom. [This] granular brown layer that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock. It represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion’, he says (Ibid.).

Deadly ashes

Probably one of the first stages of an initiation for Minoan women: a young girl gathering saffron. Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Anonymous author. Public domain. Created: 1600-1500 BC. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But it was ash, not pumice stone, that posed the greatest threat (Mitchell 2011). Volcanic ashes are different from ordinary ones, as they contain silicone (Ibid.). Drawn into wet human lungs, volcanic ash turns into liquid cement (Ibid.). Breathing then is difficult and finally impossible (Ibid.). Although archaeologists have not found any human remains in Akrotiri, it is still possible some residents of the town could have been stopped on the island, imprisoned by subsequent deadly effects of the eruption, either in their contemporary camps (Ibid.), or elsewhere on the island. Some scholars estimate that in Thera’s case, there were probably only few survivors who had escaped the island (Mitchell 2011).

Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains

The layer on top of the pumice from the cross-section of the cliffs proves the real power of this mighty eruption (Lilley 2006). This is the ash left by pyroclastic flows (Ibid.). ‘Pyroclastic flows [are made by] hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano, the caldera (Ibid.). But what caused these blasts? (Ibid.).

The archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. The ancient houses were strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs to avoid their destruction during often on Thera earthquakes. Photo source: photos of the archaeological site of Akrotiri. In: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020). “Akrotiri” In: Santorini Island, Greece.

When the magma first erupted, it left behind a huge empty chamber (Lilley 2006). The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a vast cavity (Ibid.). Then seawaters rushed into the expanding crater (Mitchell 2011; Lilley 2006). Upon contact with magma, the water turned into vapour, starting another wave of eruptions (Mitchell 2011). ‘Magma and water do not mix [but] create an explosion’, explains Prof. McCoy (Lilley 2006). ‘The entire Aegean Sea [was] pouring in this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and explosion was tremendous […] and from that [came] these pyroclastic flows’ (Ibid.).

The violent reaction of water with magma led to a phreatomagmatic eruptions (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that the sound pressure level of this explosion reached three hundred decibels (Ibid.). It was enough to burst the tympanic membrane of everyone within sixteen kilometres (Ibid.). Moreover, the power of this eruption threw rocks from the inside of the crater, turning them into deadly rockets – lava bombs (Ibid.). Such burning lumps of stone could reach the size of a small truck and weigh up to eight tons (Ibid.). As the crater widened, the pressure was pushing the column upwards (Ibid.). The gases and rocks forming it began to fall in all directions (Ibid.). Pyroclastic flows reached the speed of two hundred and ninety kilometres per hour and a temperature of seven hundred degrees (Ibid.). Finally, the sizzling wave of rocks fell into the sea, and when it made the water surface boil, it began to move even faster on the layer of hot steam (Ibid.). After the final monstrous pyroclastic flow, ten metres deposit of ash and pumice were left, which have eventually formed the third layer that the best demonstrates the awesome forces of this eruption (Lilley 2006).

Santorini cliffs encrusted with white buildings, standing out clearly against the brown background of the volcanic rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And on their top Santorini cliffs are built of the final, fourth layer (Lilley 2006). ‘It started to rain’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move downslope. That’s what we call debris flows and then it was over’ (Ibid.).

Far-reaching disaster

What caused Thera eruption to be so far-reaching? (Masjum 2006). Thera sat on a string of volcanic islands straddling four plates (Ibid.). This convergence of plates creates the chain of volcanic islands and makes Thera eruption highly potent (Ibid.). Magma is formed when the African plate gets pushed beneath the Eurasian (Ibid.). The result is a gas rich and thick magma that erupts explosively (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy believes that the explosion was so loud that it could be heard throughout southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East (Ibid.).

More importantly, the blast has changed completely the shape of the land (Masjum 2006). Thousands years before the Minoan eruption, Santorini was believed to have joined as one island but after several eruptions the single island was blasted apart into smaller ones (Ibid.). At the time of the Minoans, the volcano was situated at the centre of these islands (Ibid.). When it erupted, it again changed the shape (Ibid.). When the centre of the volcano eventually collapsed, it formed a huge caldera (Ibid.). Today all that remains of the volcano is Nea Kameni, a tiny uninhabited island within the flooded Santorini caldera (Ibid.). With the birth of this new island the volcano is slowly rebuilding itself (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy claims that ‘over next twenty thousand years, this island is going to get larger and larger and then possibly it explodes again’ (Ibid.). ‘In the course of history of this volcano, an eruption repeats itself every twenty thousand years’, he explains (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Nigel Jones (2011). “Blast from the Past! With the Most Breathtaking CGI Effects ever Seen on TV, a Drama that Imagines Atlantis’s Catastrophic End Makes for Explosive Viewing”. In: Mail Online.

I sat down on a whitewashed fence interrupted by the deep blue of a wooden gate suspended over a steep cliff. Only the navy blue waters of the sea stretched further, fading into turquoise green, crashing against the feet of the island. The idyllic landscape and tranquility of the island contrasted strongly with the ragged nature whose dormant forces were likely to wait yet a while before they finally break free.

Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans on Crete as well? (Lilley 2006; see: Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter).

Featured image: Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Photo source: Far Future Horizons (2016). “Atlantis: The End of a World and the Birth of a Legend”. In: Far Future Horizons.

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:

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Antiquated Antiquarian (2015). “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XGi4mv>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

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Eptakili T. (2017). “A Life’s Work: The Excavation of Akrotiri in Santorini”. In: Greece Is Santorini. Available at <https://bit.ly/2zD4loH>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

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Masjum M. (2006). Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Menzies G. (2011). The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed. Orion Publishing Group, Limited.

Mitchell T. (2011). Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Morgan A. V. (2020). “Stone Staircase in a Wrecked Building at Akrotiri”. In: The Greek Field Trip, 1994. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TDUzJC>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Photos of the archaeological site of Akrotiri. In: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020). “Akrotiri” In: Santorini Island, Greece. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d39fd1>. [Accessed on 25th May, 2020].

Santarcangeli P. (1982). Księga Labiryntu [Il libro dei Labirinti]. Bukowski I. trans. Warszawa: Wiedza Poweszechna.

Sheppard Baird W. (2010). “Minoan Spring Fresco West Wall Swallows Scene”. In: Official Art Gallery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZKidrV>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

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Yesterday (2020). “Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend”. In: Yesterday. Available at <https://bit.ly/2M8O2mm>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Back in Time between Peatlands and Cliffs

Over fifty years ago, “a team of archaeologists from UCD, [in Ireland], led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. [The] link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists [keep returning] to the village to progress the work [that was started by the] local man, Professor Caulfield” (McNulty 2008).

Professor Seamus Caulfield at fieldwork in the wetlands of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Again in Belderrig

Our team of students reached Belderrig in the very late evening. It was a part of a residential fieldtrip to Mayo, organized by the School of Archaeology, between the 6th and 8th October, 2017. Our destination, Belderrig or rather “Béal Deirg […] is a Gaeltacht village and townland in County Mayo (“Belderrig” 2019), in the north-western Ireland. The journey started at our University in Dublin and took nearly five hours. Factually, “coming to Belderrig is travelling back 1000 million years and more. [As] a rural area located in a region rich in historical and archaeological heritage, […] it is a [gift] to the geologist, archaeologist and the botanist” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

Archaeologists and students at pet bogs in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having reached our destination, we were first directed to the local pub to warm up and have dinner. Oh yes, those hearty Irish foods with dark beer are so good, especially on rainy and windy days of autumn, like that one. When we finally finished, the night had already fallen down, and it was completely dark when we finally went to bed in one of the cottages accommodating students.

Rewarding experience

Next morning, I got up earlier and went out for a short walk. The smell of salt air was overwhelming. Outside, there was waiting “the largely undisturbed openness of the countryside and the closeness of the wild Atlantic that stands in contrast with small cosy [whitewashed] cottages with their fireplaces. […] Once in Belderrig you forget traffic, haste, stress, depression” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

After our self-made and quick breakfast, Professor Caulfield guided us to the open fields of the area to examine the site trench with an excavated section of a bog and the lay-out of the ancient walls. It was creepy cold and windy out there. And foggy damp, which is actually typical of wetland, especially in autumn. Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. The only way to excavate was cutting through the topsoil with a sort of sharp shovel, driven into the ground with enough force to cut through the entire layer. Our experienced teachers showed us how to do it and it was fun for all of us. Still the conditions of archaeological work in Ireland are quite hard: bog water is extremely cold and with the mixture of strong wind the weather gives you an unpleasant feeling of coldness in your body. Waterproof clothes and wellingtons do not mean bog-proof so one can get completely soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, the sites are so beautiful in Mayo, you can easily forget about your wet clothes and just enjoy the field trip.

The site trench with an excavated section of a bog in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Archaeological digging is a quite complicated process but it is also a rewarding experience. Also each time it is different as it depends on where you do particular research: in the bogs or in bone dry sand. One time you plunge in water, the other you catch sunburn. Every time, however, it’s very exciting to feel and touch the history. This is one of the reasons I love archaeology.

6,000-year-old site

“When the Celts arrived in Ireland, the island had been inhabited for over 7 000 years. These pre-Celts have left no written records: they were literary pre-historic. But they have left extensive archaeological evidence, of which Newgrange is the most celebrated example”

Laurence Flanagan (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts.
Wetlands in the are of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In July, 2008, an archaeological team “recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. […] Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated” (McNulty 2008).

Fieldwork in Belderrig…
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A significant part of the archaeological survey in Belderrig is the study of the ancient stone-walled field systems. “The lack of good agricultural land in the […] region is one of the main reasons why the structures stayed relatively intact under the bog for [the millennia]. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how [they] were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape” (McNulty 2008).

For years, the site has consequently become a subject of one of the most important archaeological “study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region [in around 4 000 BC]. The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields” (McNulty 2008).

Archaeological evidence from the coast

We walked slowly along the rough seashore being followed by the sound of the “Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier” (McNulty 2008).

Open spaces between the bogs and the coastline in Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is truly “a beautiful sprawling coastal area, scenically located adjacent to the […] Ocean between Ballycastle and Belmullet. [It] offers a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. […] From [there we had] fine views as far as Porturlin and Portacloy to the north west, [with] the Stags of Broadhaven [rising] majestically in the distance. On a clear day one can see the Sligo coastline and the cliffs of Killybegs and Teelin, [in County Donegal].

The Belderrig coasts.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Belderrig Cliffs also contain some of the most spectacular coastal geology [and archaeology] in Ireland” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020): “[the erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools” (McNulty 2008).

Megalith on the way

Walking across the prehistoric mountainous landscape, we came across a megalithic structure, whose stone elements were protruding out from the ground.

The region between Ballycastle and Belmullet offering a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In prehistoric architecture, a MEGALITH is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BC.

Toppr (2019); see Lucie-Smith (2003), p. 136.
Buried wedge tomb in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This one found in the filed, however, was rather small in size. Accordingly, it was a lesser-type of megalithic graves, known as wedge tombs, commonly found in Ireland. Wedge tombs look like stone boxes of different size with a sloping roof slab (Byrne 2020). “They are somewhat similar in appearance to some portal dolmens. Like the other kinds of monuments, they would have originally been covered with a cairn of stones” (Ibid.).

Cliffs of the Atlantic Way, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Céide Fields

Between Belderrig and Ballycastle, archaeologists discovered an extensive Neolithic field systems (Jackman 2018: site 68). Following the main Atlantic Way, we were travelling there on our last day of the field trip in County Mayo.

A pine tree 4000 years old from Belderrig. Photo taken in the visitor centre. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before we reached the site, we stopped on the cliffs, and like from a viewing platform, we were looking for a while at the rolling bog land of Céide Fields (High Fields) (Fagan, Durrani 2016:281). They were impressive. “During the Neolithic period the climate would have been both drier and warmer than now” (Jackman 2018: site 68). Millennia ago, the Céide Fields were covered in forests of pine, birch, hazel and oak (Ibid.: site 68). Once they were felled by Neolithic farmers, the landscape was used for agriculture (Ibid.: site 68). However, “[over] millennia the climate has changed, and become both colder and wetter, allowing for the development of the blanket bog that has sealed and preserved much of this fascinating ancient landscape” (Ibid.: site 68). It is precisely Neolithic and dated back as far as to around 3 500 BC (Lavin 2011:111; Kelly 2016:119; “Céide Fields” 2020). “Radiocarbon dating for a hearth beside the remains of a house confirms [such a dating of the site, namely], that humans lived [there] a few centuries before [the third millennium BC]” (Lavin 2011:111).

One of the walkways running parallel to the Neolithic field wall at the Céide Fields. Source: Jackman (2018: site 68).

Today, the Céide Fields cover remote coastal area and “[consist] of megalithic burial monuments, dwelling houses and enclosures within an integrated system of stone walls, all of which are spread over 12 square kilometres. […] Many of its features are preserved intact beneath blanket peat that is over 4 metres deep in places. The significance of the site lies in the fact that it is the most extensive Stone Age monument [in Ireland with the oldest known field systems] in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe” (Kelly 2016:119; see “Céide Fields” 2020). The Céide Fields also provide an actual image of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago, so it is better to understand how the Neolithic agriculture worked (Lavin 2011:111).

Another megalithic tomb

Strong gusts of wind coming from the Atlantic Ocean kept pushing us forward across the Fields. Apart from the remains of the prehistoric past scattered all over, we met a few clusters of sheep looking at us curiously, as if judging our rights of being present in their territory.

Behy Court Tomb in the middle of the Céide Fields. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are wooden walkways over the fields to make visitors feel more comfortable while walking and to avoid getting wet. No need to say, we deliberately gave up such facilities to reach real treasures of the site, walking directly through the bog, beyond the tourist track.

One of the most significant landmarks of the Fields was the megalithic monument, known as Behy Court Tomb. It is situated just in the middle of the Céide Fields, still partially buried in the bog peat. As explained by our professors, it was initially described as a passage tomb as it features an entrance passageway leading to the cruciform gallery inside it, which is an important characteristic of this group of Neolithic tombs (Earth is Mysterious 2019-2020).  Court tombs usually have neither an entrance passage or a cruciform gallery but an elongated rectangular burial chamber with the exedra or forecourt (Ibid.). As the latter element has been also found at Behy Tomb, it could be simply described as a hybrid variant of court and passage tombs. Still, it is usually defined as a court tomb in the professional literature on the subject.

Broken Fort

Before heading off back to Dublin, we were yet planning to visit the nearby site of Downpatrick Head, which is strongly associated with Saint Patrick and his mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.

The modern statue of Saint Patrick at the headland.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Saint Patrick is actually believed to have carried his ministry in the north of Ireland, particularly in County Mayo. As some local folklore stories go, one of the pre-Christian gods or pagan priests, Crom Cruach resided on the headland (modern Downpatrick Head) and kept holy fires burning continuously (Makem 1997). “He dominated the whole area and [people] feared him. […] Saint Patrick was travelling in the area and approached the point of the headland. Crom Cruach rose up against him. The saint picked up a rock, carved a cross on it, lifted it with both hands above his head and roaring out a prayer, hurled the rock with great force into the [holy] fire. There was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. When the smoke and confusion cleared, the point of the headland had split off and was sitting out in the water with Crom Cruach still on it. He was destined to remain there until he died, which [was not] too long afterwards. According to the story, he suffered horribly, being eaten to death by midges” (Ibid.).

Very similar stories about the beginning of Christianity in Ireland, especially saying of the holy fire being extinguished by Saint Patrick, also circulate in County Meath. Similarly, they also refer to Saint Patrick’s fight with ancient priests and pagan gods on the Hill of Slane.

The beautiful legend told in County Mayo additionally offers an explanation for the origins of the sea stack of Dún Briste (Gaelic for Broken Fort) (Makem 1997). It is a single large rock at Downpatrick, protruding out of the ocean at the height of forty-five meters. Once joined to the mainland, now being lashed by foaming ocean, it is one of the most scenic landmarks of County Mayo and Wild Atlantic Way.

Spectacular cliffs at Downpatrick. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’, as it was known [there]), a lookout post was constructed [at Downpatrick] to keep watch for shipping or submarines that might stray into Ireland’s neutral waters and a large EIRE sign was created from white stones to warn aircraft away from crossing into Irish airspace” (Jackman 2018: site 70).

Private tour

Sitting over a cup of coffee inside the visitor centre at Céide Fields, I admitted to Professor Caulfield that I have been strongly interested in the studies on early Christianity in Ireland, once conducted by Françoise Henry (16 June 1902 – 10 February 1982), who was a scholar of early Irish art, archaeologist, and art historian at University College Dublin.

Doonfeeny standing stone with early
symbols of Christianity.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Henry was also a strong supporter of a thesis of Coptic influences on Pre-Romanesque art in Ireland. I knew Henry was studying early Christian symbols on prehistoric slab stones on the island of Inishkea North in County Mayo, where she kept returning between 1937 and 1950. Although the island was too far to get there, Professor Caulfield offered to guide me to another nearby site with cross-slabs, which was also on the way to our next scheduled destination. I enthusiastically agreed and drove to the site together with my guide, while the rest of the group was supposed to wait for us at Downpatrick.

Doonfeeny standing stone

Doonfeeny is a short five-minute drive from Céide Fields. We simply headed west on the road for a little over 2,5 kilometres and then turn right up a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of it (Jackman 2018: site 69). We followed this road for approximately 500 metres till we saw the tall stone pillar in the graveyard on one side and the ruins of a church on the other (Ibid.). We pulled in the car and started climbing up the hill to reach the slender trunk of stone soaring over the landscape.

Doonfeeny pillar in the graveyard. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

“The area around Doonfeeny is an important early medieval landscape, with a number of ringforts and archaeological monuments” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Probably the most outstanding is our object of interest, the square-sectioned, leaning pillar “that stands proudly on a green hill overlooking the Atlantic” (Ibid.). The stone is also called a Menhir or Cloch Fada, which means ‘Long Stone’ (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

MENHIR, from the Breton words ‘men’ stone, and ‘hir’ is a long, a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site.

Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).

Although Doonfeeny stone is upright and fixed to the ground on its own, it does not look like a huge boulder as its shape is elongated and slender. “Folklore has it that this stone is on alignments with clefts in neighbouring hills and solar positions” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

What was its original function?

“The Ordnance Survey letters (1838) describe the stone in the following manner: ‘A stone 18’ or 20’high and 9” thick, fixed in the ground and inkling to the East, on the N.W. side of which is cut the form of a cross about 2’ long, with a small cross 10” long and some ornamental incisions under it’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

Doonfeeny stone with the so-called Maltese cross, below the Latin cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Doonfeeny stone “was likely to have first been erected in the Bronze Age, perhaps to mark a territorial boundary, or possibly to mark the area as sacred” (Jackman 2018: site 69). The pillar is also called the Ogham stone as it boasts signs of ogham inscriptions. Ogham writing, apparently called after Ogmios, the Celtic God of writing, was the original “Irish alphabet used on monuments from 300 A.D. to 700 A.D.” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020) (see Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross). Unfortunately, the ogham inscription incised on the stone are today mostly time-worn and cannot be deciphered (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

“There once existed a tradition in parts of the west of Ireland that some of these standing stones were used as ‘Fertility [Objects]’ by women seeking to get pregnant, or alternatively, as a primitive form of contraception, and it is recounted that women were known to prostrate themselves before these stones all the while praying that ‘they might be delivered from the perils of childbirth’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020). “Although we may never know for certain the true intention of those who erected the stone, it still undeniably creates a powerful visual signpost in the landscape. it stands some [five metres] tall, making it [the second highest standing stone] in Ireland” (Jackman 2018: site 69; see Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

On the verge of Christianity

Doonfeeny cross with Latin cross (above) and Maltese or Greek cross (below).
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As much as other prehistoric sites, Doonfeeny pillar “was appropriated in the early days of Christianity, and two crosses were carved into the stone, a single line Latin cross with forked ends and horizontal base placed over a double-line Maltese type cross with a curved ‘birds-head-design’ line [at its foot]” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Some interpret the symbol of ‘birds-head-design’ as the wheel and sun-burst that possibly would symbolise the Resurrection (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020). “The crosses may date to as early as the sixth century or seven century, or perhaps even earlier” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Two forts and a killed swine

The site’s information boards says that the church ruins in Doonfeeny Churchyard date back to the seventh century (Sacred Landscapes 2020). Nevertheless, it was overbuilt on the site previously occupied by an ancient church, probably from the sixth century (Ibid.). The Ordnance Survey Letters (1838) and the board also inform that to the south of the church, there is a cemetery surrounded with a fosse in the form of a fort, which is Dún (Fort) giving its name to the parish: Dún Fhíne (Fine’s Fort) (Ibid.).

The layout of the Four Maols’ Fort. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

After the information on the board, north of the parish church there is an earthen work, called ‘The Fairy Fort of Doonfeny’. In fact, these are the remains of Rath Ui Dubhda, standing for ‘O’ Dowd’s Fort (Sacred Landscapes 2020). As a local story goes, the Four Maols, known as the infamous murderers, built the original fort there, which they dedicated by killing a swine (Ibid.). This pagan act was apparently inspired by a pro-Christian tradition, where the animal was a substituted for human sacrifice (Ibid.). The board ads that the Four Maols’ grave can be seen in Ballina, a town in north County Mayo (Ibid.). The grave is well recognizable as it is marked by a dolmen (Ibid.).

Saint Patrick again

From the site  we could see Dún Briste at Downpatrick Head (Jackman 2018: site 69).

One of the so-called blow holes in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It is enticing to consider that the ‘real’ Patrick may have seen this tall stone with his own eyes. It is not a great distance to Foghill, believed to be Foclut, the area that he described in his writings where he was held as a slave as a young man. The stone would have certainly already been standing for thousands of years before [St] Patrick’s time, and may have still been a distinctive marker on the landscape. If a young Patrick did see the stone, did he know what it symbolised? Or was it just another unknowable symbol in the strange pagan land in which he found himself?” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Legend-encrusted blow-holes

When we finally caught up with the rest of the group reaching atop the visitor centre at Downpatrick, we were rewarded with “a wonderful view of this ancient and sacred landscape stretching as it does off down by the majestic Céide cliffs and across the foam to historic Downpatrick Head with its awesome, legend-encrusted blow-holes and the mighty storied sea-pillar of Dún Briste” (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020).

Of the growling blow-holes we had already come across in the area of Belderrig, which are called Poille Beaga – ‘Small Holes’, the one on the headland of Downpatrick, Poll na Seantuinne or Poll na Sean Toinne, meaning ‘the Hole of the Old Wave’ (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020) “is by far the largest, most impressive and the one most associated with the history and folklore of the place” (Ibid.). Although they are all carved naturally by thousands of years of marine erosion, there are a few legends ascribing these chasms more supernatural origins (Ibid.).

Legendary Ireland

Such stories are ubiquitous in whole Ireland. They may have appeared when ancient people were looking for a reason of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, in many cases, they may directly refer to historical circumstances or characters who had fired the imagination (Harpur, Westwood 1997:6).

Picturesque cliffs between Belderrig and Ballycastle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).

Featured image: Dun Briste at Downpatrick, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Belderrig” (2019). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/361bvic>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

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“Megaliths” (2019) In: Toppr. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X5Gg1C>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

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Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. (2020) “Standing Stone”. In: Welcome to Ballycastle Co. Mayo. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T6eSiP>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Byrne M. (2020) “Irish Wedge Tombs”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WCd7vS>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

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Fagan B. M., Durrani N. (2016) Archaeology: A Brief Introduction. London & New York: Routledge.

Flanagan L. (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harpur, J. Westwood, J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

Jackman N. (2018) Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Guide to its Historic Treasures. Cork: The Collins Press.

Kelly C. (2016) “Rural Heritage and Tourism in Ireland: A County Mayo Case Study”. In: Heritage and Tourism in Britain and Ireland. Hooper G. ed., pp. 113-126. Glasgow: Palgrave McMillan.

Lavin P. (2011) The Shaping of the Celtic World: And the Resurgence of the Celtic World. Bloomington: Universe Inc.

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Makem T. (1997) “Céide Fields”. In: Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland. Thomas Dunne Books.

Mayo Ireland Ltd. (2020) “Belderrig in Co. Mayo”. In: Mayo Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/3byWbdV>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

McNulty A. (2008) “Back in Time in Belderrig”. In: Mayo News. Available at <https://bit.ly/361bvic>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

Sacred Landscapes (2020) “Doonfeeny Standing Stone & Church”. In: Sacred Landscapes. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T8ORPF>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Sacred Landscapes (2020) “Downpatrick Head”. In: Sacred Landscapes. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Z9of4V>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery

An ancient temple dated back to 10 000 BC. has been discovered in the Middle East (Conrad 2012). It was built when mankind was still in the Stone Age and before people discovered the so-called first signs of Neolithic human society: the pottery, writing, and the wheel (Ibid.). Consequently, its construction goes back long before the earliest great civilizations, like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Minoans. Then who built it and why? (Ibid.).

Building archaeological recording underway in the southeast hollow (main excavation area) at Göbeklitepe (September 2018). The new permanent shelter provides visitors not only with unprecedented views of the excavated monumental buildings but also allows them to get close to the archaeologists working at the site. The membrane canopy was designed by kleyer.koblitz.letzel.freivogel Architekten (with structural engineering by EiSat GmbH), btw. (see Donna Sink (2020). In: Archinect News). Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI). In: Jens Notroff (2018) “Visitors back at the ruins again”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

This is the story of Göbekli Tepe and its bewildering imagery.

From evolution to revolution

As it has been always taught, human species had evolved very slowly (Conrad 2012). For millennia, people had managed to survive by hunting and gathering their food till around 10 000 BC., when something extraordinary happened: their development strangely speeded up and in a comparatively short period of time people achieved the highlands of their development (Ibid.).

The location of Göbekli Tepe on the map, near the large nearby modern city of Şanlıurfa. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

What was it that made humankind change so drastically? (Conrad 2012). After scholars, the turning point in human history was the Neolithic Revolution, namely having learnt how to farm and produce food instead of gathering or hunting (Ibid.). The theory is that farming allowed people to settle down, then develop religious systems and finally build temples to gods (Ibid.). Subsequently, simple settlements grew to cities and then into powerful civilisations, which developed around 3 000 BC (Ibid.). Without having to hunt or gather for every meal, people  had more time to evolve out of the Stone Age (Ibid.). According to the traditional thinking, such complex structures as Göbekli Tepe could hence be only planned and built by already well-established agricultural communities, according to the following scheme: the Neolithic farming and settlement encouraged religious practices, which in turn led to temples building and a successive development of cities (Ibid.). So much about the theory …

From the theory to archaeological evidence

With the appearance of Göbekli Tepe, the traditional thinking has been turned on its head (Conrad 2012). An American archaeologist, Dr Jeffrey I. Rose, an expert on early human history and stone age technology, admits that “what has been found in [the southern-east Anatolia is] incredible as it puts a whole new spin on human cultural evolution” (Ibid.). As shown by archaeological finds, the builders of the site were not farmers at all but they were still hunter-gatherers (Ibid.). This is why the site is so controversial, and for this reason it upends the conventional view of the growth of civilisation (Ibid.).

Hunter-gatherers. Photo cropped. Source: Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .In: Archaeology & Art.

According to well-established stereotypes, hunter-gatherers are usually seen as a kind of mumbling primitives. Slavishly devoted to their survival and basic instincts, devoid of higher skills, feelings or religion, these people were able to produce artistic, architectural and sacral masterpiece unknown in the academic world before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe. Dr Rose (Conrad 2012) admits his own surprise, saying: “It’s like discovering that a three-year-old child built the Empire State Building out of toy bricks” (Ibid.). The same opinion is shared by Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the Urfa Museum: “They had barely emerged from the most basic way of life” (Scham 2008:23) he says,’ amazed that nomadic peoples were able to organize such a large labour force (Ibid.:23).  

Never-ending studies

The site was first mentioned in 1963, in a survey carried out by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago (Benedict 1980). American archaeologist, Peter Benedict identified lithics collected from the surface of the site as belonging to the Aceramic Neolithic (Schmidt 2011:917) but misidentified the upper parts of the ‘T’-shaped pillars for grave markers, postulating that the prehistoric phase was overlain by a Byzantine cemetery (Batuman 2011; Andrews 2016).

The upper part of the ‘T’ – shaped pillar protruding out of the ground. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

“The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation, and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, which may have disturbed the upper layers of the site” (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020). With time, attempts had been made to cut up some of the pillars, likely by farmers who thought they were ordinary large boulders (Curry 2008; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020).

Sites with similar ‘T’-shaped pillars from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN). Photo by Arekrishna (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe has been carried out since the early 1960s, only in 1994 the site emerged as the world’s first temple with an amazing discovery of  mysterious statues (Conrad 2012).

In 1994, on a nearby hill, a Kurdish shepherd had noticed a strange outline of a stone sticking out of the ground (Burns 2010). He turned out to be more interested in the find than his countrymen who discerned the protruding boulders before him, and began digging around the stone (Ibid.). Soon he discovered below a six-meter shaft (Ibid.). It had a regular structure and there was a relief showing an unknown animal (Ibid.) (see:). Thorough examinations confirmed that the stone was processed by a talented stonemason who used sophisticated tools (Ibid.). When the scholars found out about the accidental discovery, they were sure that the Shepherd had discovered one of the most important structures in the history of archaeology (Ibid.). In the same year, regular excavations began.

The team of archaeologists led by Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute started their regular work at Göbekli Tepe in 1995, in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum, and soon unearthed the first of the huge ‘T’-shaped pillars (Curry 2008; Noren 2020; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020). Schmidt writes that “as soon as [he] got there and saw the stones, [he] knew that if [he] didn’t walk away immediately [he] would be [tere] for the rest of [his] life” (Knox 2009), which eventually happened. Having found stone structures at Göbekli Tepe similar to those unearthed before at Nevalı Çori (Turkey), Schmidt recognized the possibility that the monuments are prehistoric and culturally related to other archaeological sites in the region (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020; see Noren 2020).

Photo (2016) of Klaus Schmidt (11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014); a German archaeologist who led the regular excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1995 to 2014. Photo source: Oliver Dietrich (2016) “Göbekli Tepe – The first 20 Years of Research”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Since then, there have been multitude of various studies carried out at the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe, which became extremely famous for its unique megalithic constructions. As such, it has attracted an international attention of scholars and researchers keen to discover its well-hidden secrets, especially by means of research on the iconography of the Neolithic in the Southeastern Anatolia. Yet before Göbekli Tepe was uncovered, scholars from around the world had become very attracted to the Neolithic period of the region, especially with broad excavations started at the site of Çatalhöyük in 1960s.

Hill of the Navel

The site of Göbekli Tepe is situated on top of a hill that is the highest point of the Urfa Plain in Turkey, with the Taurus Mountains to the north and east, and the Harrain Plain to the south. Turkey itself is an ancient land that bridges Europe and Asia (Conrad 2012). It is also a part of the Fertile Crescent – a swathe of the Middle East and Africa that includes modern Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq (Ibid.). In this green belt humans are believed to have first settled and the world’s earliest civilizations to have arisen around 3 000 BC.

Area of the Fertile Crescent, circa 7500 BCE, with main sites. Göbekli Tepe is one of the important sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. The area of Mesopotamia proper at this time was not yet settled by humans. Photo by GFDL (2019). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Turkish, the name Göbekli Tepe means ‘hill of the navel’ and to the anthropologists, such as Sandra Scham (2008:27), this is “the metaphor of a human birth to describe the creation of the world.” After her interpretation, the name of the site seems significant itself as by its name it refers to such sacred ‘navels’ as Cusco in Peru, Easter Island and Delphi in Greece (Ibid.:27). Local people believe the hill to be sacred as well (Conrad 2012).

Four stone circles

Ground penetrating radar has allowed to estimate the size of Göbekli Tepe to 300 by 300 metres (Conrad 2012). Professor Schmid and his team have so far excavated four huge stone circles, labelled as A, B, C, and D (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). They measure roughly from 10 to 30 metres in diameter (Ibid.). Each one is surrounded by a high stone wall, broken by intervals by large ‘T’-shaped pillars (Ibid.). In the middle of each, there are two massive monoliths up to five and a half metres tall (Ibid.). These enclosures are not analogous to any other existing archaeological structures in the world (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. The main excavation area in the southeastern area of the mound in an aerial photograph by Erhan Kucuk and a schematic map with pillar numbering. Courtesy of the German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:317). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

Professor Schmid knew that the site has covered many more enclosures than just the unearthed four (Conrad 2012). The map generated from the ground penetrating radar survey reveals that there are at least other sixteen circular structures still buried beneath the hill, and some of them are situated much deeper than the uncovered four (Ibid.). These are hence the oldest enclosures of all, dated back to as far as 13 000 BC, which is the end of the last Ice Age (Ibid.).

Although only a small part of  Göbekli Tepe has been unearthed, it can be concluded that it was built in two successive stages (Busacca 2017:316). The first structures excavated there were erected as early as 10 000 B.C., that is to say in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (Ibid.:316). Whereas the later remains are dated back to the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, and strangely they are much less sophisticated than the earliest structures which contain most of ‘T’ shaped pillars covered in zoomorphic sculpture (Ibid.:316). The earliest enclosures were built on the bedrock into slots only about ten centimetres deep (Conrad 2012). The builders set two central monoliths up to five and a half metres tall and carved from a single piece of stone, weighing up to fourteen and a half of tons (Ibid.).

Enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Around the two monoliths, the masons then built a wall of stones and mortar, nearly two metres tall (Ibid.). Set into the wall, there are smaller ‘T’ – shaped pillars between three and five metres high and weighing up to ten tons (Ibid.). Now disintegrated, there is the portal stone and apparently it was an entrance to the enclosure (Ibid.). Once incorporated vertically into the wall, it was carved from a single piece of stone, like pillars, and weighs several tons (Ibid.). Carving these huge sown blocks would have required considerable skills and some knowledge of geology as well (Ibid.).

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

Göbekli Tepe is a much more elaborated structure than Stonehenge, even if it apparently predates the British megaliths by about 6 500 years (Scham 2008:23; Conrad 2012). To build a place like this, Stone Age people would have required a pretty sophisticated level of organization, especially a well-coordinated workforce of stonemasons, diggers, quarry-men, and hundreds of people to drag the stones up and set them in place (Conrad 2012). Together with his colleagues, Klaus Schmidt estimates “that at least 500 people were required to hew the ten to fifty ton stone pillars from local queries, move then from as far as a quarter-mile [over four hundred metres] away, and erect them” (Scham 2008:26). Moreover, according to the theory of the Neolithic Revolution, people had not yet domesticated packed animals at that time to make them assist and so speed up the construction of the stone circles (Conrad 2012). So how did they manage to build something so monumental before they even discovered how to make a clay pot? (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Main excavation area with monumental Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A enclosures. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

In the quarry from where the stone was acquired, there is apparently one unfinished monolith of seven metres long (Conrad 2012). It is believed that by using granite picks, the Stone Age masons roughly carved it out as it is still in the bedrock (Ibid.). To remove it, they were likely to use primitive levers and a fulcrum (the point against which a lever is placed, on which it turns or is supported) They may have positioned the fulcrum at the front, and then the levers went over it. By these means, the masons were prying the boulder up (Ibid.). A crack on the stone, which is visible today, would suggest the monolith was broken while being lifted up (Ibid.). Having separated the blocks of stone from the bedrock, the builders may have transported them up to the hill by the method described as “rowing on land”; one can imagine people, instead of sitting inside the boat, standing outside it, and pushing down on the leaver and then pulling back on it and so the boulder would be moved forward (Ibid.). Around fifty people would be possibly needed to complete the task (Ibid.). Has this method been ever tried out with a real fourteen-ton (or heavier) block of stone? Is the number of fifty men able to crowd at once around the boulder, which is 15 metres long?

What was the site used for?

The site does not have its counterpart elsewhere, which makes it the oldest man-made construction yet discovered in the world (Conrad 2012). As such it constitutes highly significant monument to be studied (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “the site could not definitely have served for a daily life” (Ibid.). He has worked on other prehistoric sites in Turkey and he says that the structures of Göbekli Tepe do not resemble any kind of clustered dwellings that Stone Age people built (Ibid.). The temple sits on the hill with no direct access to water so people had to carry their food and drink up there, which means they could not stay at the site very long (Ibid.). They had to live elsewhere, possibly on the place of the modern city of Şanlıurfa (ancient Edessa), around fifteen kilometres away (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe site during excaviations. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Most archaeologists believe that if the monumental sculpted pillars of Göbekli Tepe show the representations of gods, it is likely to consider the site as some kind of a sanctuary (Ibid.). If so, it would have been the oldest temple in the world (Conrad 2012).

Shrinking temple

Despite various studies, Göbekli Tepe’s function and the meaning behind its imagery still remain unknown (Conrad 2012). The mystery deepens by the fact that after the huge effort to build this extraordinary structure, the people who used it, then subsequently buried it (Ibid.).

The downfall of the oldest temple in the world is as mysterious as the religion it once served (Conrad 2012). For over a thousand years, the temple had occupied the central place in the cultural life of the region (Ibid.). People from hundreds kilometres away may have gathered there and used it as a ritual space (Ibid.). However, as the importance of agriculture grew in time, the temple’s role must have diminished (Ibid.). Thousands years after the large circular spaces with the massive monoliths were built, they were filled in and covered over (Ibid.). Instead, smaller structures were built on top of it (Ibid.). Consequently, it looks like Göbekli Tepe was being downsized: the enclosures had got smaller, the pillars progressively shorter and their number in the surrounding wall had dwindled until there were none (Ibid.). Finally, Göbekli Tepe disappeared in around 8 000 BC, buried beneath man-made hill (Ibid.).

Following the star

Each built circle of stones had been used for several hundred years and then filled in to be replaced by another one (Burns 2017). In total, the builders of Göbekli Tepe constructed twenty such circles – temples, which were different in size (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “it was a part of the program to erect such a circle to use it for some time but later to backfill it completely” (Conrad 2012). Hence the modern appearance of the site, which looks like a mount (Ibid.). It was because eventually all these mounds with covered temples became one big hill (Ibid.).

Cygnus constellation with the brightest star Deneb. Photo by Star Walk (2017).“A Gorgeous Quarter Moon meets Saturn, and the Swan’s Wings bear its Best Features!”. In: Medium.

An author, Andrew Collins, proposes an alternative, yet controversial, theory, according to which the builders constructed the successive temples for astronomical purposes (Burns 2017). Namely, the reason of the multiple rebuilding of the site would be to follow a particular celestial body (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Archaeoastronomy survey has shown that 11 500 years ago, the twin central pillars of the most impressive of so far unearthed circles, the Enclosure D, faced the Denab in the sky, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus (Burns 2017). When the alignments of other twin pillars of Göbekli Tepe were studied in reference to the same star, it turned out that the Stone Age builders apparently kept following the Denab by building successive enclosures as the star slowly moved along the local horizon (Ibid.). Hence the twin pillars within successive enclosures were deliberately aligned according to the star that the people of Göbekli Tepe were observing (Ibid.). As in the process of Precession, the position of stars change overtime in the sky, the builders also had to re-align their temple periodically, each several hundred years (Ibid.).

The downfall of the temple

Some scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, put forward a controversial thesis explaining why Göbekli Tepe eventually ceased to exist. Namely, the Stone Age site is believed to have been destroyed by the Great Flood, recorded not only by the Bible but also dozens of other ancient sources coming from different corners of the world (Burns 2014-2015). Robert Schoch, PhD. (Burns 2014-2015) believes that there is enough evidence supporting the thesis that a great disaster had taken place at the end of the period that marked the end of the Ice Age; as a result, the great pillars of Göbekli Tepe were overthrown and the damage to the temple must have been large and extensive. Attempts surely were made to rebuild it, but people eventually gave up and buried the whole place (Ibid.). Perhaps they wanted to return there one day or leave it for posterity (Ibid.). Or else the temple was naturally covered with earth yet during the Flood, the waters of which had carried huge amounts of soil and organic materials into and over the temple complex.

After Dr. Rose, the reason why the site ultimately disappeared may be possibly explained by the appearance of a sanctuary within the now flooded archaeological site of Nevalı Çori, which was situated around thirty kilometres away from Göbekli Tepe (Conrad 2012). It was a Stone-Age village with a small temple from around 8 000 BC. (Ibid.). A small square enclosure had similar architectural elements as Göbekli Tepe: thirteen stone pillars in its walls and two faceless monoliths in its centre, with arms and hands carved on (Ibid.). In this context, it is a smaller and localized version of the Stone Age cathedral at Göbekli Tepe, looking more like a village church (Ibid.). Dr. Rose says that sacred spaces showing up at that time coincided with the downfall of the Göbekli Tepe so local communities had started to build their own sacred spaces, when the central temple stared losing its importance (Ibid.).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another explanation of the abandonment of the site is that the descendants of Göbekli Tepe builders were no longer hunter-gatherers (Conrad 2012). They were farmers and they did not follow the religion of their ancestors per se but rather the ideas it represented (Ibid.). Their traces can be found at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük (Turkey) – which is said to be one of the oldest cities, developed between 8 000 and 7 000 BC. (Ibid.). In a restored house of Çatalhöyük, there are the bull heads sticking out of the wall as much as zoomorphic representations carved on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (Ibid.). Bulls must have meant large, scary and killing beasts for the society of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.). Bringing that animal power and violence inside the house was probably an attempt to tam it and to domesticate (Ibid.). It could be also a celebration of the animal’s strength or the hunt and prowess of the individuals (Ibid.). On the other side, the respect the Stone Age people had for wild and powerful beasts also hid their desire to conquer them (Ibid.). Accordingly, it seems that spiritual and physical story of Göbekli Tepe was spread far and wide (Ibid.).

Whatever the meaning of its symbolism was, the visible links to its imagery can be found at later sites throughout the region (Ibid.), which signifies it was truly important.

Many myths and legends claim that sophisticated cultures already existed at the very beginning of human civilization (Burns 2010). Robert Schoch, PhD. claims that there are various signs from all over the world that advanced societies had developed much earlier than previously thought (Ibid.). The discovery of Göbekli Tepe is hence completely contradictory to the current view of the slow evolution of civilization (Ibid.). Interestingly, since the archaeological digs started on site, neither a single tool for stone processing nor human remains have been found (Burns 2010; 2017). The former lack contradicts the sophisticated carving created on site, whereas the latter excludes Professor Schmid’s theory of Göbekli Tepe as a burial complex (Burns 2017). It was not either a domestic settlement (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., claims that when something in archaeology is incomprehensible, given finds are usually assigned ritual significance but these are pure speculations (Ibid.). Taking into account such facts, will the discovery of Göbekli Tepe radically change the world view of the beginning of human civilization? (Ibid.) Is the find of Göbekli Tepe the missing evidence that mankind’s strangest myths about lost civilizations can be based on facts? (Ibid.)

Featured image: “Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa”. Photo by Teomancimit (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. (Image cropped). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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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Schmidt, K. (2011) “Göbekli Tepe: A Neolithic Site in Southwestern Anatolia”. In: Steadman S. R., McMahon G. eds. The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Legends of the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

“It is difficult to give an idea of the impression made on the voyager […] by the sight of a ravishing oasis, forming a dazzling band of green, above which rise the crenellated towers, massive bastions, richly crowned with ornamental architecture and fortress walls. If one has a chance to penetrate such a charming place at sunset, it is a veritable fairyland reminiscent of [an oriental] décor. It is a different world opening before us, a curious and strange, made of truly original traditions that make us forget the colourlessness of modern life”.

Wagner Minca 2016:174
The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the way southwards

Our journey to the world of refreshing pools and paradise gardens started in Agadir, a famous holiday resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, usually fulfilled with the hordes of tourists taking advantage of the sun and endless sandy beaches. We did not stay there long. The following day, we were already on the way to the southern Morocco, driven through the plain of Sous, luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance. The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches. Such a view gracefully builds the picturesque Moroccan landscape. Inspired by traditional Berber methods of production, the argan oil is itself regarded as the gold of Morocco and an essential elixir of youth and beauty.

The landscape was awash with charming argan trees bending under the weight of mountain goats climbing into their branches. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the afternoon we reached the fortified city of Tarudant, which had belonged to one of the richest and most powerful cities in all of southern Morocco till the seventeenth century. Apart from majestic, long defensive walls with impressive bastions and gates, my attention was caught by simple but elegant traditional Berber flat roofs made of wood and typically applied in the earthen Moroccan architecture. After leaving Tarudant behind, we followed a scenic route along the Drâa River with its green oases, charming villages and lush palm groves. With each kilometre southwards, red silhouettes of kasbahs were appearing more often on the hills, inviting us to enter their fairyland. Following them like signposts, we continued further along the edge of the Sahara desert and in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Travellers to Kasbah

Throughout Morocco, from the track of kasbahs to the country’s imperial cities, one’s senses seem heightened. They “are teased awake and gently assaulted by the tinkle of water from a fountain, by the heady pungent air of the attarine (spice street) in the souk (bazaar), by the spiced tartness of cracked olives, by the vivid hues of saffron, lapis, amethyst and jade, and by the smooth velvet feel of a long-simmered tagine sauce as it first caresses the tongue” (Crocker 2005:vii)

Souk in Tarudant. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Even today, travellers to Kasbah […], who chance upon a sheltered courtyard and pause in the cool shade of a fragrant jasmine or bay tree […] might catch a fleeting glimpse of the sensual delights borne by the Moors [centuries ago]” (Crocker 2005:vii).

Moroccan gardens are luxuriantly overgrown with citrus trees and filled with their delicate orange fragrance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Moors stood initially for the Berbers from Maghreb – the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (Crocker 2005:vii). Maghreb means the land where the sun sets, as “for the seventh century Arab conquerors, this part of the Mediterranean lay far to the west of their own Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo” (Ibid.:vii).

Moroccan cuisine looks and tastes delicious. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Berbers

Nowadays, Morocco is a modern Islamic state which is ruled by Arab kings but they rule over the country with a culture and history as diverse as its landscape (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Morocco has got its coasts facing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea (Ibid.). Snow-covered peaks of mountains of Atlas range are towering from one side of the country, whereas the bone-dry fringes of the Sahara Desert spreads out from the other (Ibid.). Dominant languages spoken in the country are Arabic, French and Spanish in the north but nearly half the population still speak Berber, the language of the indigenous inhabitants of these lands (Ibid.).

The Berbers’ origins are shrouded in mystery (2006:ix). It is deepened by the fact that members of some tribes have got green or blue eyes and red or blond hair (Medina, Juilleret 2016; New World Encyclopedia 2020). Generally, it is said they are mostly “the remnants of the original inhabitants of North Africa, presently living in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya” (Woronof 2006:ix). Still they also live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, with smaller minorities in Niger (Ibid.:ix). The word Berber has originated from the Greek barbaroi (Ilahiane 2006:xxx) which described people “who spoke neither Latin nor Greek or to refer to non-Phoenicians within the Carthaginian state. Ancient Greek writers also used ‘Libyan’ as another name to refer to the inhabitants of North Africa while also speaking of other Berbers as the Numidians [– the ‘Nomands’], a name that reflected that most of them practised pastoral nomadism” (Ibid.:xxx). But although the Berbers are usually thought as nomads, the majority are farmers (New World Encyclopedia 2020).

The Berbers describe themselves in their own language as Imazighen (singular Amazigh) (Ilahiane 2006:xxx), which means ‘free men’ (“Berbers” 2020). This is, in turn, perfectly reflected by their flag, where the Yaz (ⵣ) symbol, looking like a man with raised hands, stands for the Berbers motto : ‘Free Man, Free Woman. Free People’ (Ibid.). The symbol is red, which signifies life (Ibid.). Moreover, each colour of the flag “corresponds to an aspect of the territory inhabited by Berbers in North Africa: blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean” (Ibid.), green stands for nature and yellow for the sands of the Sahara Desert (Ibid.)

Oum (2013) “Taragalte” (Soul Of Morocco) Official Video.

Turning point in history

Whereas, a thousand of years ago, the present lands of Morocco belonged to the Berbers, today, these are the inner parts of the Atlas Mountains and the southern fringes of the desert that remain as predominantly Berber homelands (Chijioke Njoku 2006; Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Arid peaks of Atlas Mountains look like mushroom heads or multi-layered hats. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since ancient times, the Berbers were not unified by a nation-state (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Instead, on either side of the Atlas Mountains, there existed small independent Berber clans of farmers, traders and nomads (Ibid.). Although these people had been converted into Islam, they maintained their traditional Berber customs and they did not always follow the new religion to the letter of the law (Ibid.)

On the way through the southern Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1050, the situation had drastically changed (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This happened because of one Berber man who studied the Quran and became a charismatic, fiery preacher (Ibid.). Idealistic and uncompromising, he had a clear mission to change his fellow Berbers into proper Muslims, schooled in the strict fundamentals of their religion (Ibid.). His travels to Islamic centres of learning had left him a student of a strict legalistic interpretation of the Quran (Ibid.). As such, he has gone down into history (Ibid.). His name was Abdullah Ibn Yasin, the North African religious chief of the Moslem Almoravid movement (Your Dictionary 2010). He ran his converting mission in the Western Sahara, where he pulled together an alliance of tribes and he appointed himself a spiritual leader (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Gate to the Sahara Desert. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Consequently, from the Sahara Desert, a small group of Nomads came to transform the northwest corner of Africa into a vast empire that stretched from the Sahara to Spain (Ibid.). What started with one man’s mission grew into a kingdom which lasted for centuries (Ibid.). Its rulers generated tremendous wealth, created great architecture and promoted sophisticated ideas in an ordered society (Ibid.).

From Sijilmasa to Awdaghust

In 1054, Abdullah Ibn Yasin became a leader of an army of thousands of nomads who headed for Sijilmasa, one of the most important medieval cities in Africa and a major trading post at the northern edge of the Sahara Desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Since then, the war described as jihad had started (Ibid.). For Ibn Yasin it was a holy war to uphold a true understanding of Islam but it was also aimed at his fellow Muslim Berbers (Ibid.).

Sijilmasa ruins. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2020).

All that is left now of the city of Sijilmasa are but spectacular mud ruins (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The city was once built in the middle of one of the largest oasis in Africa and was inhabited by over fifty thousands of people (Ibid.). Date palms and irrigated fields at the site hide clues to a much bigger and more significant past than it is visible today (Ibid.). The taking of the city would be the first major foundation stone of the Moslem Almoravid Kingdom (Ibid.). Dr Eric Ross, an expert in Islamic studies, has been involved in the recent archaeological studies of the site (Ibid.). He says that in the eleventh century, Morocco was not looking towards Europe or the Atlantic but across the Sahara, which was wide open to trade, stretching all the way from West Africa to South Asia (Ibid.). So the city of Sijilmasa itself became a prosperous trading hub of cloth, manuscripts, horses but especially gold coming there from present areas of Mali and Senegal (Ibid.).

Argan trees and goats – typical landmark of Morocco. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Once Ibn Yasin had the city under his control, the Almoravids secured the source of the city’s gold trade (Ibid.). Therefore, they went south to the opposite side of the Sahara and seized the trading town of Awdaghust (today Mauritania) by controlling the supply of gold across the desert (Ibid.). By doing so, they had a virtual monopoly on one of the most lucrative of trades and they could carry on their jihad beyond the Sahara Desert (Ibid.).

In the grove of date palms. Moroccan dates are delicious! Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We were just approaching the ancient Sijilmasa. Passing by the towns of Tazzarine and Al-Nif, known for fossils mined by the local population, we were lowly moving along one of the most picturesque routes of southern Morocco, in the direction of Erfoud and through Ar-Rajsani, with the most famous souk in the region. In this town, routes begin leading through the Sahara. Along the way, the green swath of palm groves snaked up among fortified villages and Berber granaries, integrated into the landscape of green oases and mountains.

Gate to Sahara Desert

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert?

Dark silhouettes of our caravan cast against the dunes. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was in the small Saharan oasis Merzouga, where Erg Chebbi begins. It is the most popular part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, with its impressive dunes of pristine sand rising to the height of two hundred and fifty metres and stretching for thirty kilometres around. We rode camels for hours through the gentle golden-orange waves of the desert, climbed up and slid the dunes, enjoying like children golden snowfalls of sand.

Can you remember the last time you saw a spectacular sunset over the desert? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the afternoon coming, dark silhouettes of our caravan, cast against the dunes, were stretching like a ribbon along the way. As we progressed, the colours of the desert kept changing with time from glistening golden-yellow to extremely intense brick-orange with some reddish contours hovering on the horizon. Finally, the camels sat down and we could climbed down our mounts. The sun had slowly started to set sleepily sliding its last lights over the sand. It seemed as if the waning ball  was stripping all the desert off colours, leaving us behind among faded and cold hills of sand, in utter silence of the night.

Life-giving katara system

Apart from gold, essential for the successful mission of the Almoravids was also water (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012) and the Berbers “had the knowhow to find and move the scarce resource of water under the arid Sahara desert through katara – a part of the ancient irrigation system made up of a complex network of underground tunnels for funnelling water” (Toa Correspondent 2017). By its means, water could be provided where it was needed across the arid and dry landscape. The whole system is now visible by mounds stretching out across the landscape and it shows the Berbers’ ability to understand their land and work with it (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

The system looks on the surface like rows of mole hills but underground it reveals the Berbers engineering knowledge. When we stepped down to the man-made tube-like tunnels, we found ourselves in a parallel world of subterranean caverns and narrow passages, simply lit by the light from the “mole” chimneys opening to the sky. Such was an ancient experience and mastery of the Berbers that they use their katara underground complexes even today.

Riding camels across the Sahara Desert. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Across the Atlas Mountains

Finally, with a powerful army, Ibn Yasin had a potential to create an Islamic Berber nation (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet, before the Almoravids set the foundations for their imperial cities, such as Marrakech, they had to first cross the Atlas Mountains (Ibid.). It was because the Atlas range, rising to over four thousand metres above sea level, has formed a natural border between the desert in the south and more fertile and populous lands in the north, which the army was planning to conquer (Ibid.).  

Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid flattened peaks. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having traversed the Sahara Desert, we also headed off to the mountains. We took our journey through the Tinghir oasis enclosed by a palm grove, and stopped at the Todra Gorge. Nestled in a surrounding of brick-coloured waves of mountains, the village of Tinghir looks like a mosaic of blue, pink and grey tesserae, scattered between the green swath of palm trees and arid peaks.

The Todra Gorge attracts many amateurs of climbing. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Here, both the Todra and Dadès Rivers have carved out cliff-sided canyons [of several hundred meters long, stretching] through the mountains” (Jackson 2020). The Todra Gorge itself is quite narrow, with its walls rising to around three hundred metres. The river has shrunk so far, allowing “only the imagination to picture the powerful natural forces that once carved this region” (Ibid.). Enchanted by its irresistible magnitude, we spent a while to examine the gorge, and then returned in the area of Tinerhir to enjoy our next Moroccan meal full of colours and spices while “[relishing] this oasis town situated in the heart of an overwhelming fantastic region, [densely covered in] olive, pomegranate, [and] date palms” (Salloum 2020).

Tinerhir oasis in the heart of a beautiful region of olive trees, pomegranate, and date palms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Leaving behind one of the most charming landscapes of the southern Morocco, we drove along the Dadès River Valley to the town of El Kelaa de Mgouna. This region is famous for growing the extremely aromatic Rosa Damascena, also known as the Rose of Castile (Brooke 2020). Its exceptional scent hovers in the air of local valleys and is responsible for a “fragrant resurgence of [roses] in perfumes” (Ibid.). Millenia ago, the pre-Saharan valley of the Dadès carried one of the main trade routes through the mountains, which made it attractive also to thieves. Today it overlaps with the so-called Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, “fairy-tale forts, built by magical hands” (Salloum 2020).

Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

By Tinerhir and El Kelaa de Mgouna, we had entered the kingdom of kasbahs and their famous route. The outlines of adobe towers were “to be spotted at every corner […], while speeding 4x4s [moved] between different locations and the next thé à la menthe and couscous aux légumes” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165). Along our way, the fortified castles kept “peeking out of palm groves and edging the roads that cut through the valley” (Rough Guides 2020). They literally dot the landscape of the region (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

Terracotta-like colour of the kasbah walls are blending with the colours of the surrounding arid hills. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called “kasbah effect” (Ibid.:165) most notably dominates the areas of the great river valleys, namely the already visited Drâa and the Dadès, which encompasses the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs, we were just driving along (Rough Guides 2020). The land of kasbahs consequently covers a vast southern region of Morocco, from the city of Tarudant in the west till “possibly Erfoud at the most extreme eastern tip of this [route]” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), and includes such cities as Skoura, El Kelaa de Mgouna, Tinerhir, and Boulmane du Dades (Ibid.:165). The itinerary following their monumental castles “hypothetically starts in Ouarzazate, but that is anticipated by the [Ksour] Ait ben Haddou to continue for more than [three hundred kilometres] along the edge of the desert, [till] Merzouga” (Ibid.:165).

Tales of kasbahs

Kasbahs are first of all the significant Heritage of Earthen Architecture in Morocco (Marcus, Smith 2016). There are thousands of fortified earthen complexes and villages, known as kasbahs and ksour, found in southern Morocco (Ibid.). Nowadays, “the Berbers have, with some modifications, retained the fortress-like forms of architecture, [which was in the past] typically constructed to withstand enemy assault” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). Like in the painting from an oriental fairy-tale, “the Kasbah is an image of a mud castle in a desert-like landscape, the image exotic and typical of an orientalist idea of the people living at the edge of the Sahara. […] In this sense, the Kasbah is often represented as the ultimate castle in the desert, a fortress perfectly complementing the soft colours tainting the arid landscape” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165).

One of a few preserved kasbahs, situated on top of the hill. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Kasbahs were “built, in the absence of other available materials, out of [straw] and the mud-clay pisé of the riverbanks. […] They are often monumental in design and fabulously decorated, with bold geometric patterns incised into exterior walls and slanted towers. Seasonal rains wash off some of the mud, so the buildings require constant upkeep – once a kasbah has been left unmaintained, it declines very fast, with twenty years enough to produce a ruinous state if the walls are not renewed” (Rough Guides 2020; see Barriault 2013:35).

Native Berber architecture

The definition of kasbah has got a very wide meaning, “from a fortress isolated in the country to a city neighbourhood, where the members of the administration and the army lived” (Mimó 2020).

Kasbah remains at foot of the mountains. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, in southern Morocco, the word kasbah is usually applied to an earthen square structure featuring four towers at the corners (Ibid.) and usually owned by powerful families of viziers (provincial or local governors) or qaids (local judges) (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). So originally, in the Berber country, the kasbah was a fortified medieval castle, sometimes with the interconnected parts enclosing a village (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66) and “harbouring [its inhabitants] within its bewildering passageways” (Barriault 2013:35). Such functions of the Berbers medieval castles were used especially “[in the era of the Islamic invasions of North Africa and Spain, [when] a fortified section of the kasbah […] was where royal residents sought protection in time of danger” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66).

Kasbah towers are still well visible among the ruins. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Kasbah as an architectural construction is originally “Berber and in this language it is called Tighremt. The word kasbah is recent and linked to the arrival of Arab citizens to areas where there were such monuments” (Mimó 2020). There is yet another definition to describe the Berber architecture, linked to the notion of kasbahs. This is ksar or Ighrem in Berber (Rough Guides 2020). In the Sahara and pre-Sahara valleys of the Atlas Mountains, the Berber population lived within the ksar “which generally refers to fortified and walled villages” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66; see Mimó 2020). In such a sense, the ksar could include one or a few kasbahs within its walls (Mimó 2020). On the other side, according to other sources, ksar may also stand for “a fortified section of the [kasbah]” Chijioke Njoku 2006:66). However, a ksar (plural, ksour) is usually translated as a walled town with monumental, decorated gates and protected by watchtowers (Mimó 2020). It includes private houses, the mosque and a communal square (Ibid.). Ksour are said to be even more ancient than kasbahs (Ibid.). The oldest kasbahs preserved to our times are dated back to the seventeenth century, however, they may have appeared even millennia ago (Ibid.). There are also some ksour and kasbahs built in the nineteenth century by formerly nomadic tribes (Ibid.).

The range of High Atlas Mountains in the distance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the time of the Almoravid expansion, medieval kasbahs were fortified houses, owned and used by Berber wealthy families and merchants (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They served “as both residential [but fortified] houses and storerooms” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:66), used to house goods of trade, such as gold and silks, which came across the desert (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They had to be fortified because it was a dangerous territory (Ibid.). As such, kasbahs “were built [upon] hills with meandering paths and secret passageways for defence. Enemies were sure to lose their way, defeated by the residents, whose peace the invaders wanted to disturb” (Barriault 2013:35). On the whole, they are magnificent buildings but their fortifications give a sense of what it was like in those days (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).  

Doors to the glorious past

“French academic engagements with kasbahs re-emerged in the decades following the World War I, as waves of rebellion across the Protectorate rescinded and the southern regions became more passable by civilians (Minca, Wagner 2016:171).

Intense reddish colours of mud-bricked architecture.
Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, “the magnificent castles described by nineteenth century travellers [could be already reached by cars]” (Ibid.:171). It also brought “a new wave of researchers on the region – whose focus was the specificity of Berber social organisation and architecture in the timelessness of these untouched and authentic territories. All this investigation was framed as documenting ‘Berber’ life” (Ibid.:172), as opposed to the Arabic culture of the contemporary Imperial Morocco (Ibid.:172). Accordingly, anthropologists describe such architectural structures as kasbahs as non-Arabic  (Ibid.:172) and find their roots “delving into ancient global histories like Roman, Greek and the nomadic Sahara. Though they edge towards anthropology, these interpretations are less reflections of use by the inhabitants of kasbahs, and more archaeologies of living monuments, rendering kasbahs into authentic artifacts, even while they are serving as actual living spaces for their residents” (Ibid.:172).

Adobe ramparts of a kasbah among date palms. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, “the adobe ramparts, pathways and doorways [still] retain that majestic mirage [of the Berbers’ glorious past], though very independent homeowners and squatters now inhabit the endless apartments locked within fortified walls” (Barriault 2013:35). For centuries, visitors to Morocco have been “driven by the appeal of these mythical building style. [This is why] they have become an important form of tourist accommodation” (Minca, Wagner 2016:165), sometimes the result of the imaginative conversion of former abandoned or semi-abandoned original structures, which once were real houses (Ibid.:165).

Most prominent of all

Finally, we reached the altitude of 1160 metres above sea level, and the city of Quarzazate or Ouarzazate. It is the capital of southern Morocco, and because of its location, it gives an amazing view of the Atlas range on the horizon. Historically it was the intersection of trans-Saharan trade routes, where the multitude of fortified architecture had escorted us since we left the Sahara Desert and started approaching the mountains.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The most famous of all kasbahs preserved in Morocco is the Kasbah of Taourirt (Marcus, Smith 2016: Salloum 2020). It is located in the city of Ouarzazate and is “considered to be the mother of all kasbahs” (Salloum 2020). The earliest parts of the mud castle date back to the seventeenth century but most of the complex was constructed in the late nineteenth century by Si Hammadi el Glaoui, the ruler of Taourirt and of the powerful Glaoui family, who controlled the southern part of the country (Marcus, Smith 2016; Salloum 2020; see Barriault 2013:35). Si Hammadi expanded the Kasbah from a small group of buildings into a large defensive palace (Marcus, Smith 2016). It included stables, servants’ quarters, workshops, a market, wells and baths, and residences for his wives and children (Ibid.).

The Kasbah of Taourirt with lavishly ornamented walls
with geometric motifs: hazarbaf. Photo taken by
Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the structure encompasses a series of crenelated towers, rising out of a mass of closely packed houses and lavishly ornamented walls with geometric motifs (Salloum 2020). The latter are made with the decorative brickwork technique of hazarbaf, literally meaning ‘thousand weavings’ (Dictionary University 2020). In architecture it is a surface decoration where the exterior wall of the building is geometrically patterned in relief with bricks that create a play of light and shadow (Ibid.). Among the relieved ‘thousand waves’, there are wrought iron bay windows and other intricate traditional architectonic ornamentation, like alfiz, which all adorn the exterior (Marcus, Smith 2016).

The family’s private apartments are particularly richly decorated (Marcus, Smith 2016). Inside the Kasbah, the whitewashed are painted halfway up, whereas the lower parts of the rooms are usually covered in colourful zellige tiles, with the predominance of blue (Barriault 2013:36). Above the windows positioned at the ground level, there are either belts of tiles or stucco friezes running around the room with similar medallions between them. They all are filled with rhythmic linear patterns of arabesque, koranic verses or girth lines decorating the tiles. Ceilings of the private apartments are abundantly carved in cedar wood, subsequently pained in vibrant colours, whereas lesser rooms or passageways are covered with the traditional Berber wooden roofs with visible beams and geometric decorations filling the space between them. We had already observed the very same technique in the wooden roofs of Tarudant and other Berber cities on the way.

All the architectural elements and decorations applied in the Kasbah of Taourirt repeat themselves more or less in other earthly Berber structures, depending on the level of their usage and preservation. It is also worth to note that kasbah elements subsequently influenced and enriched the architecture of the Berber imperial cities, such as Marrakech. It is even believed that an outstanding square-shaped tower of Moroccan minaret (in other Islamic countries, it is usually round), took its origins from the Berber architecture of the kasbah tower. On the other side, the ingenious “Moroccan architecture has been [also] heavily impacted by the Islamic traditions and later European influences. [Modes] of religious worship and rituals, regional histories, and local material, [all that] have combined to give Moroccan architecture a diverse but unique expression” (Chijioke Njoku 2006:65).

Rehabilitation of kasbahs

Inside the Kasbah of Taourirt. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Unfortunately, kasbahs important and fragile architecture is threatened by abandonment and is being lost (Marcus, Smith 2016). Although the Kasbah of Taourirt was designated a Moroccan national landmark in 1954, it has suffered a gradual deterioration over the years and was mostly abandoned until the 1990s (Ibid.). Currently, it is under the protection of CERKAS, a public institution under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, which aim is to preserve the architectural heritage found in the Atlas Regions and the pre-Saharan Valleys of Morocco (Ibid.). In 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute and CERKAS partnered to develop a methodology for preserving the Kasbah and other sites featuring the earthen architecture in southern Morocco (Ibid.).

Typical elements of the earthen Berber
architecture (clay and straw) are very present in modern day hotels and private houses. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Structures in the Kasbah are now being stabilized and restored using traditional earthen construction and conservation techniques (Ibid.). Local materials from Ouarzazate region are being used and skilled craftsmen are training labours in traditional building crafts and techniques (Ibid.). Wall painting conservators are also working inside the richly decorated Caid Residence to preserve and protect important wall paintings (Ibid.). Generally,  the rehabilitation of Kasbah Taourirt can serve as a model for conservation of similar earthen sites in the region (Ibid.).

Mud-red fortress

Towering from the edge of the river valley, the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou contains some kasbahs and the most beautiful in all Morocco fortified ochre-coloured Berber village.

One of the most famous landmarks of southern Morocco: thr Ksar Ait Bin Haddou. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses and sticking towers. Sitting atop a gorge, the fortress is accessible only by donkeys or on foot (Barriault 2013:36). To reach its entrance, we crossed the modern bridge suspended over the nearly dry bed of the Imarene River, which separates the ksar from the neighbourhood town buildings (Ibid.:36). For a moment “we stood in awe, just before beginning the trek upward. There, on low ground, we beheld a huge arched entrance, the same [terracotta-colour] of the imposing kasbah that rose behind it” (Ibid.:36).

The whole complex looks like a massive red bulk of
the flat mountain, encrusted with squared houses
and sticking towers. Photo taken by Gosia Nowa.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Many ksour, like this one, must have existed in Maghreb in the Middle Ages (Ibid.:36). They were cities “unto themselves – slave and villager quarters at the base, the ruling family ensconced in the fort at the top” (Ibid.:36-37). Like in the case of the Kasbah of Taourirt, the family owning the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou was the same “notorious Glaoui clan – a ruling French partisan family during the early twentieth century who completed the fortress” (Ibid.:37). We kept climbing the steep and narrow switchbacks of the ksar, leading past red adobe dwellings to its highest pyramidal-like stepped, mut-rutted terraces (Barriault 2013:37). As we were traversing our footpath, we encountered either goats or donkeys ramming the passageway or the natives selling their goods to passing tourists: colourful paintings, fabrics, herbs and spices (Ibid.:37). Some also offered the tastes of the Moroccan cuisine – a hot smoking tagine, hidden under a conical terracotta cooking pot and surrounded by sweet-smelling with rusted meat and spices (Ibid.:37).

“The higher we climbed, the fewer the inhabitants, the wider the view of the mountainous terrain that crested above the surrounding valley. The brown, barren earth unfolded before us like a forsaken moonscape. Certainly, approaching visitors, hostile or friendly, would be spotted from this height long before they actually arrived. The views of the sweeping mountains that rimmed the bleak plains more than compensated for our efforts to reach the pinnacle that afforded such sights” (Ibid.:37). We were standing there, “elevated above the impoverished lives below us” (Ibid.:37), and listening to the blows of wind sliding down the ridges of mountains. It was high time to go down. Still nobody moved as if enchanted by thousand tales of kasbahs.

In front of the Ksar Ait Bin Haddou. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Time to cross the mountains

Mysterious Maghreb culture can be compared to its indigenous shelter – the Berber kasbah (Barriault 2013:35). It is at once exotic, inaccessible, misleading but irresistible (Ibid.:35). It appealingly intoxicates our senses with a mystical and elusive essence of the damascene rose petals, drizzled on top of exotic dishes with spicy and herbal flavours; it wraps our skin with the melting velvet of argan oil and dresses it with delicate laces of henna tattoos. At once, it stimulates, clears the mind and brings relaxation.

With each rhythmic strike of a tambourine and magical sounds of Moroccan strings, we stepped back further in fabulous times. The Moroccan journey had led us far to the corners of this semi-abandoned but vibrant spectacle of the past.

Barrage El Mansour Eddahbi. Lake in Ouarzazate. Photo taken by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Marrakesh, [and other imperial cities], teeming with seductive life and sunshine, [were always] ahead” (Barriault 2013:37) but we were still lingering between the desert and the mountains, embraced by the arms of red mud-bricked walls.

Featured Image: The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka

In May 2012, a NASA satellite passed over shallow waters of the Indian Ocean (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). It sent back images of a chain of largely submerged objects running between Sri Lanka and India (Ibid.). The NASA image analyst, Marc D’Antonio, describes it as “a string of pearls between two islands” (Ibid.). Similarly, the archaeologist, Chelsea Rose compares it to “a rocky jetty but pretty bigger” (Ibid.). On closer analysis of the satellite image investigators calculate the line of rocks is over thirty kilometres long (Ibid.). What makes the image especially intriguing is that the displayed rocks are located in the area of sea, mentioned in an ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, which also refers to a mythical bridge (Ibid.).

The location of Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka on Google’s Map. Photo source: Dr. Rita Louise (2013). “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins.

The Way of Rama

The Indian Sanskrit epic is known as Ramayana. It literally means the ‘Way of Rama’ and constitutes one of the great epics of India, of which the other is known as Mahabharata (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). Both epics had originated from folk tales and belong to the so-called Smriti scriptures (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2020). Such writings encompass Hindu stories originally passed down by oral tradition (Ibid.). Ramayana is generally believed to have been written by the sage-poet Valmiki, between the fifth century BC and first century AD (Basu 2016).

According to the Sanskrit, Valmiki tells the story of Ramayana to Rama’s sons, the twins Lava and Kush (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the Ramayana date is not certain as much as the authorship of the epic (Van Nooted 2000:xv). The poet, Valmiki, himself is a half-legendary character (Ibid.:xv). Therefore, although Ramayana is very important of the Hindu tradition, it is usually said to have nothing to do with an exact historical chronology (Ibid.). As it speaks of the events recorded orally for centuries, the story itself may be much older that the written version (Ibid.:xv). However, to make their assumptions safe, scholars usually say “that Valmiki (if he really was the composer) drew upon a number of popular Rama folk tales for his epic, which he wove together into a great frame story, together with numerous exotic and fabulous incidents” (Ibid.:xv).

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Author: Tej Kumar Book Depo. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2018).

Chronological discrepancies

As a matter of fact, there are a few alternative chronologies concerning the events described by Ramayana, as much as it occurs in other archaeological areas, such as the Egyptology, where there is a difference of around one hundred years between the so called ‘high’ (the older) and ‘low’ (the younger) chronologies of the ancient Egypt. In case of the time frames for Ramayana, however, such a gap is incomparably larger.

According to the Hindu tradition, the events described by Ramayana took place during the Treta Yuga, which is the second of the four Yugas and the so-called Silver Age (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3). All of the periods are cosmic cycles as the starting point of each of them was formed by the conjunction of planets (Ibid.:3). Additionally, each successive age is shorter than the previous one (Ibid.:3). Some Hindu sources say that the Treta Yuga had lasted for 1 296 000 years (Ibid.:3). When did it start? According to such calculations, it was a period of time that began from over two millions years BC and ended around eight hundred thousand BC (!!!) (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3; Louise 2013), which sounds absurd (Louise 2013). This is probably why some scholars have re-calculated the time to make it “more” plausible. After their assumptions, the same epoch started in 5 500 BC and ended in 4 250 BC (Mittal 2006:xxiv). Such a time frame would be possible providing that twenty years is an average reign of each of sixty-three kings who were historically recorded (Ibid.:xxiv). Whereas according to the Hindu tradition, the average age of man in the Treta Yuga was three hundred years (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3), which is actually similar to the age ascribed to great biblical patriarchs in Genesis.

Statue of Rama in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India (published in 2012). Photo by Ashish3724 (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

There have also been other surveys carried out in order to prove the historicity of Ramayana. By using modern scientific tools, such as archaeoastronomy, some Hindu researches have studied if any exact dates in the western calendar can be attributed to Rama’s lifetime (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Ramayana, as much as Mahabharata, are regarded as traditional historical and religious texts of India and as such they are believed to contain real astronomical information also supported by observations recorded by the Hindu chronicles (Ibid.). Subsequently, the researches applied the ancient knowledge of configurations of celestial bodies to calculate the time when Rama’s birth may have happened (Ibid.). As a result, they have obtained the precise date of 10th January, 5 114 BC and then, using the same key, they have received further dates of successive events appearing in Ramayana, among which the construction of Ram Setu falls between the 14th and 20th September, 5076 BC (Ibid.). Accordingly, the research results are closer to the so called ‘low’ chronology of Treta Yunga, and consequently of Ramayana, if we can apply such a definition also to the ancient times of India and Sri Lanka.

Is the story a historical record or a myth?

The theory that the events of Ramayana should be dated back to thousands or even millions years ago is considered highly unscientific to western researches. But while it is not acceptable for real historical events, after the same scholars, it fits well in the sphere of myths, which is believed to have been actually presented in the epic. For many mainstream historians who have analysed the text, such a theory is supported by the fact that Ramayana tells a story filled with fairy like characters and describes unrealistic events typical of fiction: divine beings fly on aircrafts between masses of lands, giants, hybrids and demons walk the earth, ape-men construct an engineering feat, and all that is observed by powerful gods who decide about the course of earthly events. In this case, however, what means fiction for western scholars is a religious truth for the Hindus.

Ravana’s sister Suparnakha attempts to seduce Rama. He refuses and spurns her.
Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie, D. (1913). Public domain. Uploaded in 2015. Photo source: “Rama” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Rama of Ayodhya is the protagonist of the story (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). He is born as a prince but he is forced to abdicate his claim to the throne in favour of his half-brother (Ibid.:xiii). As a result, “Rama himself withdraws into the forest for thirteen years accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and a his devoted half-brother, Lakshmana” (Ibid.:xiii-xiv).

The action of the story is rising when they all get into conflict with “the legions of the dark, the Rakshasas or demons” (Ibid.:xiv). The struggle culminates when two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, humiliate Shurpanakha who is the demon king’s sister. As a result, her powerful brother, ten-headed Ravana takes revenge for his sister’s disgrace by abducting Sita (Ibid.:xiv). The demon takes Rama’s wife on board of his aircraft, vimana, and they fly together to Ravana’s kingdom on the island Lanka, today associated with Sri Lanka” (Ibid.:xiv). The demon’s capital, in turn, is usually localized at the famous Rock of Sigiriya, which is rising just in the middle of the island (see In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Movie Still From The Film Raavan (2010), directed by Mani Ratnam; starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai. In the photo:  Abhishek Bachchan. Photo Source: “Raavan” (2016). In: Bollywood Hungama. Bollywood Entertainment at its Best.

In search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana ally with the Vanara – an army of ape men and bears under the generalship of the mighty ape-man Hanuman (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Finally, they discover the place where Sita is kept captive (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). To reach the island, Rama is advised by the sea god to construct a bridge between the mainland to Lanka and move his army of ape-men on the enemy’s territory (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Once the bridge is ready, they all cross it from India to Lanka and a great battle between Rama’s army and Ravana’s demons ensues (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). Eventually, the good wins and at the moment of victory, Rama discovers his divine origins (Ibid.:xiv-xv): “[he] is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu who has come on earth to save mankind from oppression by demonic forces” (Ibid.:xiv-xv). Having killed Ravana, Rama wins Sita back and they come back to India by air using Ravana’s vimana (Ibid.:xv).

Ravana’s Celestial Chariot carrying Rama and Sita back to India, ca. 1650. Among the earliest Ramayana paintings of the manuscript, Panjab Hills. Uploaded by Yann (2015). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2020).

After coming back to Ayodhya, Rama is crowned king (Ibid.:xv). Yet the story does not end well. Rama suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to him during her stay on Lanka and he banishes her back to the forest (Ibid.:xv). There, Sita gives the birth to Rama’s twins (Ibid.:xv). At this point, Valmiki appears in the narrative (Ibid.:xv). He takes care of Rama’s sons and teaches them the story of Rama’s great exploits, which is actually the Ramayana itself (Ibid.:xv).

Floating stones of Ram Setu

The causeway or bridge between India and Lanka described by the Ramayana is usually referred to as Ram setu (Rama’s Bridge) but it is also known as Nala’s bridge, as it is the name of the ape-man engineer who has designed the whole construction (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).

The text of Ramayana gives the records of the building project in detail including all the techniques used (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). The bridge has been built over a natural sea ridge (Ibid.). First the Vanara used various wood to construct a pile foundation, and then on top of it larger stones were piled on, rising up to the flat finished level (Ibid.).

The Vanara Army is constructing the Bridge. The name ‘Rama’ is written down on the stones to make them float. Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery.

As the epic says, there were special stones employed; namely, they could float on the water surface after the name Rama was written on them (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). Actually floating stones can be still found on the coast of Rameshwaram, where the bridge starts in India (Ibid.). Some scientists claim it is pumice, which is the volcanic rock that can initially float on the water due to its smaller density (Ibid.). The theory of pumice stones, however, has been strongly contested (Ibid.). First of all, there is no volcano in the areas of Rameswaram, nor any evidence of its existence there in the past (Tiwari 2018). So how did pumice stones appear there, if they are volcanic rocks? (Ibid.). Moreover, an analysis of the stones “has revealed that floating stones in Rameswaram are not lightweight as pumice stones” (Ibid.). Hindu scholars claim that although rocks found near the bridge are similar to corals or pumice in appearance, at closer examination it is found that they are not (Das 2017).

After all, the concept of floating stones found in Rameshwaram and potentially used in Ramayana has not been explained yet (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). For scholars who try to resolve that matter, the problem occurs together with the following question: could the ancient builders of the bridge know the technology to make stones float on water? (Das 2017:27).

Natural or planned construction?

The bridge was built in a proper linear alignment, which is visible even today in aerial images (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). So it was not just random throwing of stones here or there or a usually irregular natural formation (Ibid.). “’It is the context which tells the story,’ said [the marine archaeologist, Alok] Tripathi, who became the first head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s underwater archaeology wing in 2001. ‘In nature, stones would lie haphazardly,’ he said. ‘If you find them aligned or you find layers of stone and sand, from the manner of their arrangement you know there has been human intervention’” (Roy Chowdhury 2017).

Scientific and literary data linkage

The measurements of the causeway, namely 35 kilometres long and 3,5 kilometres wide, are also analogous to the measurements of the bridge given by the epic, which is 100 leagues in length and 10 in width (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). This gives the ratio of 1 (width) : 10 (length) (Ibid.). As Ramayana goes, the whole project lasted for just five days (Ibid.).