Nymphaeum and its Forms in Ancient Greek Landscape

Greek: nymphaion; Latin: nimphaeum.

In ancient Greece, the term Nympaheum (plural: Nymphaea or Nymphaeums) initially described natural cavities, grottoes or groves with natural springs where nymphs and water deities were believed to have resided and as such they were worshiped. “Subsequently, artificial grottoes took the place of natural ones”; these were special well structures or pavilions, located at the water springs.

Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit. Photo source: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” “Nymphaeum auf dem Monte Smith”. In: mapio.net.

Featured image: Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs, Manchester Art Gallery 1896.15. By John William Waterhouse – Manchester Art Gallery (1896). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Nymph” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Nymph” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3b7Tz9r>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

“Nymphaeum” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vYRogH>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

Photo: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” (2020). In: mapio.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/2CqbU3a>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 279. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Apollo at the Top of the Acropolis of Rhodes

Although the Google Map showed an estimated time of reaching the hill of Acropolis in thirty minutes, my uncle and I did not take into account the heat, generously sent by Helios, and the fact that we should first climb the path leading up to the hill (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of the Gods). At some point, we had to slow down our walk as the hillside grew steeper and so we were both out of breath (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). And even if we kept moving up, the site seemed still far in the distance. Why is it always so hard to see the summit while you are climbing up?

On the way up the hill

Located on the western edge of the city of Rhodes, the hill with the Acropolis on its eastern slope is called Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte San Stephano by the Italians (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020). But there is also its third name, Monte Smith, after the name of the British Admiral, Sir Sidney Smith who built there in 1802 (Ibid.) “an observation post to monitor the movements of Napoleon’s fleet during the Egyptian campaign” (Via Gallica 2020). “[The] Acropolis of Rhodes and its imposing Temple of Apollo, dominates the views” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Acropolis of Rhodes on Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte Smith. Video source: Tourism Rhodes (2015) “Acropolis of Rhodes”. In: Tourism Rhodes Youtube Channel.

From the site, which is situated at altitude of 111 metres, it is possible to see a small valley surrounding the city and the western coast with precipitous cliffs overlooking blue waters of the Ixia Bay (Rice 1995:384; Via Gallica 2020; Themis 2020). Especially at sunset, the site “offers breathtaking [and panoramic] views [reaching as far as] the island of Symi and […] the Turkish coast, about [twenty] kilometres away” (Via Gallica 2020).

Two acropolises instead of one

As recent excavations have revealed, the ancient city of Rhodes had in fact two acropolises; the other one with the Temples of Aphrodite and Dionysus was situated on the site now occupied by the Palace of the Knights and Collachium (the northernmost part of the Medieval City) (Via Gallica 2020; Medieval Town “Collchium” 2019).

The remains of Panagia tou Bourg (Our Lady of the Burgh), the fourteenth century Catholic church built by the Knights of Saint John who operated a hospital on Rhodes for the Crusaders, in the Medieval Town of Rhodes . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city of the Classical Greece was therefore much larger; “it stretched from the northern tip of the island at the site of the current” (Via Gallica 2020) Medieval Town and went south-westwards to where today are the remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes (Ibid.). The latter “was a large elevated plateau […], lying just inside the main fortification wall, running [east-west], along the southern boundary of the [ancient] city” (Rice 1995:384). Unlike most ancient acropolis, that one was not fortified (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020); so “it is not a towering citadel which dominates the lower city, but it does present a distinct elevated profile when Rhodes is seen from the sea – the means of approach in antiquity. [Ancient] streets running [westwards and southwards] from the main inhabited areas in the [east] and [north] gave access to the [Acropolis] from the [city], and it could also be reached from outside […], through the city gate situated near the southern end of modern Odos Sophouli (ancient north-south street P)” (Rice 1995:384).

Many tourists spend their time shopping at Ippokratous Square in the medieval walled city of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, it is possible to get there from the Medieval Town either by bus or on foot, leaving through the western side of the city walls (Via Gallica 2020).

Lecture on Greek architecture

The Acropolis finally opened to us, revealing its treasures. “Far from the urban liveliness, [we were] standing on the top of Monte Smith hill” (Themis 2020), accompanied just by striking musical performances of Greek cicadas. I felt utterly tired but deeply satisfied we made it. My uncle even speeded up while we are approaching a row of reconstructed columns towering ahead as if the city’s guardian (Tourist Guide 2020). They are the part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, “which are visible today from the commercial harbour even above the intervening modern building” (Rice 1995:384). they. ‘Amazing’, my uncle admitted, still panting. ‘Now I can give you a lecture if you want’, he exclaimed enthusiastically, gasping for breath.

It must be emphasized that many areas [of the site] are now overgrown or filled in since they were last investigated many decades ago, which makes any observations based only on what is visible to the naked eye today superficial and in need of refinement” (Rice 1995:387). But in its glorious past, the site must have looked impressing; “it consisted of a monumental zone with [sanctuaries], large temples, public buildings and places of worship, [including underground cult places] (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019]. Significant buildings] were mainly built on terraces reinforced by powerful walls” (Via Gallica 2020).

My uncle and university professor of Fine Arts, giving a lecture in front of the Temple of Apollo Pythos on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Different constructions vary in their dating but most buildings were erected during the Hellenistic times (323-31 BC) (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). “These public structures would have been a visual highlight above the busy harbours, drawing the eyes above and away from the bustling dock areas” (Rice 1995:348). Apart from the Temple of Apollo (C), on the Acropolis stood the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies (B) (Ibid.:384). There was also “the stadium (D) with an adjacent [Odeion] (E), very probably a nearby gymnasium (F) and possibly the theatre (G)” (Ibid.:384). The lecturer in classical archaeology, E. E. Rice (1995:384) says that “it […] appears likely that the main civic sanctuary of Helios […] was located on the eastern [side] of the [Acropolis of Rhodes]”.

In the third century BC., it may have housed one of the legendary Wonders of the Ancient World and Greece, the bronze statue of the Colossus of Rhodes, (Ibid.:384). From that point, the mounting representation of the patron Sun god, Helios, would be visible to those approaching the island from the sea.

A composite photo in a modern setting at Rhodes, showing how the Colossus (a random image selected for illustration purposes, which, while reflecting the statue‘s actual height, is not meant to be an accurate representation of its stance or configuration) would have dominated the city and harbours below– if, as proposed here, it was once located atop Monte Smith (Fig.1; p. 86). Photo source: Kebric, R. B. (2019) “The Colossus of Rhodes: Some Observations about Its Location”. In: Athens Journal of History, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 83-114.

On the Rhodian Acropolis, there were possibly also landscaping features, characteristic of ancient sanctuaries, such as trees and sacred groves surrounding the buildings (Ibid.:386). Such a theory is attested by the observation made by the orator Aelius Aristides, from the second century AD, (Ibid.:386) “that ‘the Acropolis is full of fields and groves’. […] The open spaces of the Rhodian [Acropolis were probably] due to the fact it was a virgin site when the city of Rhodes was founded and designed at the end of the fifth century BC. […] The new structures which were built upon the [Acropolis] were therefore inserted into the natural landscape which already predominated; [these were] fields, groves, natural rock hollows [and] cliff faces […]” (Ibid.:386).

Stadium and Odeion

In an olive grove to the east of the Acropolis, there are the partly restored Temple of Apollo, the stadium and the Odeion (Via Gallica 2020). The so-called stadium of Diagoras was built around second century BC. (Themis 2020; Via Gallica 2020).

Acropolis of Rhodes: the ancient stadium. Photo by Tango7174 (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is located southeast of the hill and oriented north-south (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). It measured according to the Greek standards, over one hundred and eighty metres in length and around thirty-five in width (Via Gallica 2020). This was one of the very first sites that were excavated in 1912 and, like the Odeion, it is was largely restored (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). Hence their perfect condition known at present (Ibid.). The stadium could contain over ten thousand spectators, attending various exhibitions and athletic games (Stefanu 2017). There “athletic competitions were staged as part of the Haleion Games, an important celebration held by the ancient Rhodians in honour of the god Helios” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

However, taking into account that the uppermost part of the monument has not been excavated yet, its size and so the capacity of the stadium may have been much larger (Stefanu 2017). Among the stadium’s authentic parts, there are sphendone (a semi-circular part at the end of an ancient Greek stadium), the proedries (seats of honour, dedicated to the officials), (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019), “and some of the lower seats in the auditorium. Also preserved is the starting mechanism for the athletes” (Ibid.). The stadium was made from the local limestone, with rectangular blocks but of different sizes, which depended on their location (Stefanu 2017). Each element has got smooth surface and fits perfectly in the whole construction without the use of mortar (Ibid.). To the east of the stadium, there was additionally a gymnasium, which was partially uncovered (the western side along with its north-east corner) (Via Gallica 2020). It was a large square building (around two hundred metres wide), where many works of art were uncovered (Ibid.).

Odeion of the Acropolis of Rhodes. Photo by Tango (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another important element of the ancient site lies northwest of the stadium (Via Gallica 2020). It is a white marble Odeion (theater) built in the second century BC (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). It was possibly used for attending musical performances or rhetoric lessons given by famous speakers, as its stage is too small to be a scene of a theater (Ibid.). One who was standing in the middle of it could be well heard around, at each point of the construction (Stefanu 2017). There were probably eight hundred spectators who could watch performances (Via Gallica 2020). Although the Odeion looks impressive today, it has been entirely rebuilt by the Italian archaeologists, and only its bottom shelf is authentic (Ibid.).

The view from the Acropolis of Rhodes on the Odeion and the partly visible stadium on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today tourists usually enjoy the sunset sitting on the stairs of the stadium or of the nearby Odeion, which regularly hosts musical and theatrical performances (Themis 2020). At the time of our visit, however, there were just a few tourists walking around the reconstructed columns; it was definitely too hot to enjoy the Acropolis by staying for longer in the sun. Our sightseeing unfortunately fell at full noon, but we had no choice due to limited time on Rhodes. If we had stayed on the island a few days, we would have certainly taken the evening walk to the Acropolis with the family, of course, just for volunteers …

Agora and necropolis

The both constructions, the stadium and Odeion, were once situated just in the centre of the ancient agora (known as the forum in the Roman times) (Stefanu 2017). It was a very central site, where all the political and cultural events took place (Ibid.). Piles of ancient stones placed together there consist of finds from the archaeological excavations; they all come from the ancient agora and contain precious parts of various buildings, sometimes covered in Greek writings (Ibid.). It is a pity, they are not exposed in the museum as objects of further studies (Ibid.).

Piles of ancient stones placed together on the place of the ancient agora of the Acropolis of Rhodes. It consists of finds from the archaeological excavations, now in the shadow of trees. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

South of the ancient city, there is also a Hellenistic necropolis of Saint John (Agiou Ioannou) (Tourist Guide 2020; Via Gallica 2020). “The most important of these are the large corner funerary complex with tombs featuring vaulted masonry tombs, the cluster of yet more tombs of vaulted stonework crowned by a monument with triglyphs and metopes and the tomb carved into the rock that includes a monumental gateway. Of greatest interest is the underground quarry where burial chambers were dug into the sides of the tunnels”(Tourist Guide 2020).

Stairs leading to the temples

Nonetheless, the most significant part of Monte Smith is the Acropolis (Stefanu 2017). From the place of the previous agora, there are stairs leading up to the Greek temples of Acropolis of Rhodes, which were, like other ancient sanctuaries, built upon an area of elevated ground (Stefanu 2017; “Acropolis” 2020). Hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city (“Acropolis” 2020). Today, on the site, there are mostly huge pieces of stones, such as blocks of local limestone and marble, possibly from Naxos or from Pharos, scattered everywhere around the place (Stefanu 2017). Some original building material had already disappeared; they were mostly reused for the construction of post-Hellenistic buildings (Ibid.).

The restored part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“[Once] situated on the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies was orientated east-west and was a poros Doric peripteral temple (having a columned portico on all four sides). Four oversize column drums and parts of a capital and architrave still [can] be seen on the site. This was where the Rhodians kept the texts of their treaties with other states.

The temple stood in a larger temenos bounded by a stoa on the east” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). The only reconstructed structures, however, belong to the Temple of Apollo, which was also built in the Doric style (Via Gallica 2020). The temple stood “on the southern part of the hill, on the west side of a large rectangular terrace. It [was] orientated [east-west, and like the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies it was also a poros peripteral temple, but smaller […]. Part of [its north-eastern] side [has been restored” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019): rising from the incomplete stylobate, there are just four columns and a small section of the entablature as the remains of the temple colonnade. It is also evident that its entrance must have once led through a wide staircase (Via Gallica 2020). Although the temple does not exist anymore, the preserved remains are still able to witness to its monumental character (Ibid.).


Nothing was left from the once impressive façade of the stoa (a covered walkway or portico for public use); only its foundation has been preserved to our times (Via Gallica 2020; “Stoa” 2020). Southeast of the stoa wall, there starts “the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut chambers [carved in] the slopes beneath the [Acropolis] summit; other similar [underground] systems are [cut] into the ridge that curves to the [south and west], towards the main buildings on the summit, and to the [north] where it meets the [western] edge of the [Acropolis]. These structures, partly open to the sky but beneath ground level, have traditionally been described as nymphaea” (Rice 1995:387-388) or the Temple of Nymphaea (Via Gallica 2020).

Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit. Photo source: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” [“Nymphaeum auf dem Monte Smith“] (2020). In: mapio.net.

“The word nymphaeum originally meant a shrine of the nymphs, but since nymphs were traditionally associated with caves, and caves with water, the term came to be [later] applied to an ornamental fountain” (Ibid.:388). Archaeological study shows that the Temple of Nymphaea on the Acropolis of Rhodes “consists of four subterranean cave-like constructions cut into the rock with entrance steps, communicating passages and a large opening in the central part of the roof. […] Water cisterns and lush vegetation complete the picture” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019) “Despite the undoubted fact that shade, water and attractive decoration would have made these places pleasant enough to visit and linger in during an ascent to the [Acropolis], they nonetheless led directly to the summit where the main religious buildings were located. The alignment with the grid plan and direct connections with streets and stoas make this evident” (Rice 1995:403).

Why were such underground structures built? What function might they have had? It is believed “they were places for recreation and worship” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). “Cults of the nymphs were [highly] popular [in the Hellenistic] period; they and Pan were also worshiped in Rhodes. [A late] fragmentary inscription found on the Rhodian [Acropolis], dated to the third or fourth century AD, […] mentions a shrine of Pan (a ‘Paneion’) near of sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, [the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister]” (Rice 1995:402). Nothing else is known about the Paneion but there are the remains of other places of worship, which may have once been the Artemision (a temple attributed to the cult of Artemis) (Rice 1995:402; Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Apollo’s restored temple behind the trees on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The cult ‘Thermia’ of the goddess Artemis presumably had associations with thermal waters. It can be hence speculated that ‘some grottoes indeed had passages which connected into the underground aqueduct system” (Rice 1995:402-403). If so, the artificial caves would have “played an important role, since water supply was vital to the survival of the city, and they might have functioned as shrines to deities directly associated with water, [which is manifested by] recesses in the interior walls for statuettes” (Ibid.:403). “[The] evidence of the votive dedications [in the caves] shows that these areas clearly had a primarily […] religious function. The extensive systems of grottoes covered a significant part of the Rhodian [Acropolis, including] the separate system of [south] of the [Temple] of Apollo precinct” (Ibid.:403), and so it may have once been linked to the temples themselves. It is hoped that future archaeological excavations by modern methods may go some way [further] in revealing its mystery (Ibid.:402).  

Successive ways of destructions

All the ancient acropolises on Rhodes and elsewhere are located on the mounts, as much as the sites falling on the axis dedicated to both, Apollo and Saint Michael (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). The following conquerors of Rhodes also reached there but did not respect the ancient sites and they left their signs on them as the remnants of war, having scratched the beauty of the temples (FM Records 2014). Who and why destroyed them?

The park around the Old Town of Rhodes with footpath and cannon balls in the grass. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, there were three periods that had greatly contributed to the destruction of the site (Stefanu 2017). The first devastation was, however, caused by nature and happened already in 226 BC, when a huge earthquake hit the island of Rhodes and toppled down most of the buildings on the site, including the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). The temples of the Rhodian Acropolis were rebuilt but in 42 BC they were again destroyed (Ibid.). This time it was because of the Roman senator, Casius, and his army (Ibid.). Yet, the most modern warfare turned out to be the most destructive to the Acropolis (Ibid.). In 1944, the Germans installed their artillery on the hill, which was consequently bombarded by the British (Ibid.). That it turn affected the temples, which suffered considerable damage (Ibid.).

Time for excavations

Successive excavations and restoration work carried out on Rhodes in the twentieth century allowed to uncover the sites and reconstruct some of the ancient buildings. However, historically diverse, multiply layers of uninterrupted constructions makes such sites difficult to excavate and interpret archaeologically (“Lindos 2020”).

The Temple of Pythian Apollo, on the southern part of the hill, was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and part of the architrave.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The [Acropolis] of Rhodes offers different archaeological problems from those posed by the rest of the ancient city. Unlike the lower town, the hill has not been much built over, but neither has it been much excavated except for the Temple of Apollo Pythios and the stadium-Odeion area, which [had mainly been] investigated and reconstructed” (Rice 1995:387)  by the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens from 1912 to 1945 (Via Gallica 2020). Other areas have been partially studied both by the Italians and by the Greek Archaeological Service after the World War II (Rice 1995:387).

“From 1946 onwards Greek Archaeologists [have conducted] a series of excavations, bringing into light important findings regarding the site’s history and topography. During the 60’s and 70’s more reconstruction work was carried out to the west foundation of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. In 1996 further reconstruction was added on the Temple and the [Nymphaeum]. There is still an ongoing excavation in the Acropolis archaeological park, a protected area that covers an area of 12,500 m². As the archaeologists say, the current findings represent only a fragment of the glorious past of the ancient city of Rhodes” Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019).

Back to the port

Suddenly, my uncle awoke from thoughts on the ruined temples and quickly looked at his watch. He looked terrified. ‘She’s going to kill us’, he said. I knew who he meant.

Tourist Port lies outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. It is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port. A perfect point to take a swim while waiting for a ferry. Photo by I. Sailko (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Rhodes (city)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Around thirty minutes later, we were back at the port of Rhodes. We had made our way back much faster as, according to the basics of the physics and fear, we were walking down, additionally being pushed by the vision of my furious aunt. Meantime, we got a message that the whole company was waiting for us in a cove with a small beach, just outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. The place is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port, so we could wait in the proximity for our ferry to go back to Asia (Rhodes Oldtown 2020).

Our catamaran waiting in the port of Rhodes to come back to Turkey in the evening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When we got there, again breathless, everybody was either enjoying sun or swimming in the warm sea. My aunt did not even notice at first we came back. She just waved to us from water. After a while, I reminded myself that I was still wearing my bikini underneath, and soon I also dived into blue sea. It was a great refreshment after the archaeological adventure full of sun and effort.

The island’s ambiance took me centuries back (FM Records 2014). It seemed as if the Sun god had shed beauty to his land; on Rhodes, visitors got the impression of living in a fairy tale as they are carried away by the blue sea, warm beaches, locals’ welcoming smiles, picturesque ports, churches, and soaring ancient temples (Ibid.).

Leaving behind the remains of the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Rhodes island offers visitors a history that goes back in time thousands of years, to the ages of mythology. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Acropolis of Rhodes on Monte Smith; like in other ancient acropolises, its sanctuaries were built on an elevated ground; hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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Limestone Flakes of the ‘Ostraca’

Greek: ostraca (plural) – oyster shells, ostracon (singular).

Ostracon is usually understood as a potsherd (“a piece of pottery, usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel” (“Ostracon” 2021) or a flat stone piece (normally a flake of limestone), which was mainly used by artists from ancient Egypt and Greece for their freehand sketches and written notes.

“Generally discarded material, ostraca were cheap, readily available and therefore frequently used for writings of an ephemeral nature such as messages, prescriptions, receipts, students’ exercises and notes” (“Ostracon” 2021). Very exceptional are “the so-called figural ostracons [featuring] drawings, often sketches by artists or architects. The artists sketched their ideas on them with great freedom, avoiding the limitations of official art, thanks to which their sketches were more spontaneous, not devoid of the sense of accurate observation and a clear satirical message. One of the most beautiful and known examples of an ostracon paintings is a representation of an Egyptian dancer performing a somersault (Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom, between sixteenth and the eleventh centuries BC.; see: Egyptian Dancer from Turin and Her Acrobatic Somersault).

Ostrakon of Cimon, an Athenian statesman, telling his name (as “Kimon [son] of Miltiades”); 486 or 461 BC., Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. Photo by Marsyas (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Ostracon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: A possibly satirical ostracon depicting a scrawny cat giving a bolt of cloth and a trussed up goose as an offering to a seated mouse, likely representing either a noblemen or a noblewoman with bared breasts. Either a satire on upper-class life, or perhaps a scene from a fable. New Kingdom, either nineteenth or twentieth dynasties, circa 1295-1070 BC., from Thebes. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Ostrakon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


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Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 158.

Story of The Rock-Cut Tombs of Ancient Telmessus

Lycian Turkey is just one of numerous parts of the world, where monumental tombs were carved out of the rock to satisfy religious needs of contemporaries, who by all means wished their dead kings, rulers and relatives to find the right way to the afterlife. As it seems, the more large and intricate a tomb was, the more privileged the dead was and the more direct and straight was their journey to the next world.

Worldwide phenomenon

The idea of making rock-cut tombs is a very ancient one (Ching et al. 2010:173). The oldest known examples come from Egyptian Thebes as they date back to the sixteenth or fifteenth century BC. (the Middle Kingdom) (Ibid.:173). There are also Hittite rock-hewn sanctuaries, which were made in 1250 BC. (Ibid.:173). Examples of such sepulchral architecture can be also found in Italy and they belong to the so called Etruscan culture (from the eight to the third centuries BC.) (Ibid.:173). A huge necropolis of rock-cut tombs is also present near the town of Paphos, in Cyprus, where several tombs are designed in the form of an impluvium (Ibid.:173). The roc-cut tombs in Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey date back to the end of the fifth century BC. (Ibid.:173).

Nowadays, some of the tombs are largely damaged. In the time of their construction, there was a financial fine for any violation of the tombs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The custom of cutting the tombs out of the rock was brought further eastwards by Darius the First (522-486 BC.), whose own tomb was carved out of the cliffs (Ching et al. 2010:173:173). It is actually one of the four rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid kings at the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis, in modern-day Iran (“Tomb of Darius the Great” 2020). “They are all at a considerable height above the ground” (Ibid.), as much as the tombs in Lycia. One of the most impressive site with rock-hewn tombs of strikingly similar character are located in the lost city of the Nabateans, which is Petra, in Jordan (Ching et al. 2010:173; see: Markoe ed. 2003). They are said to have been built between 300 BC. and 200 AD. (Ching et al. 2010:173).  

Common but outstanding

Although rock-cut tombs were often made in imitation of traditional buildings, their construction techniques are very different (Ching et al. 2010:173).

The “Harpy Tomb” of Kybernis, a solid sandstone pillar with the sarcophagus of Kybernis on top (c. 480 BC). One of the best preserved examples of a typical Lycian pillar-tomb. Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter (2010). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Masons building such sepulchral monuments must have started from the top of cliffs and continue downwards so that the discarded stones did fall down to destroy the new building elements (Ching et al. 2010:173). Working from the top down required a different type of planning and engineering (Ibid.:173). It is also significant to remember that such a technique was used not only for sepulchral architecture but also for temples (Ibid.:173). Buddhist chaityas or viharas in China and India, and Hindu caves (Ellora, Ajanta) probably go back to the third century BC. and were continued throughout the first millennium AD. (Ibid.:173). The same technique was equally applied for rock-carved churches in Cappadocia, Turkey (around 900 AD.), and in Lalibela, Ethiopia (around 1200 AD.) (Ibid.:173). What is unique is the fact that the same technique was also used in secular architecture, namely, in the case of urban buildings, like houses, carved out in solid rock at a mysterious ancient site of Tiermes, located on the edge of the Duero valley in modern-day Spain (Ibid.:173). The dating of the fortress, as it is referred to, is questionable (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Nevertheless, it is believed to have been carved either at the Celtiberian or Roman times, probably between the first century BC. and the first century AD. (Ibid.).

Tombs commemorating ancestors

Veneration, or even, worship for ancestors, was undoubtedly universal in the ancient world (Bean 1989:31).

One of the most impressive temple-tombs in Fethiye sepulchral complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All peoples inhabiting Anatolia before the Greek colonization built beautiful, monumental tombs in commemoration of their ancestors; the Lycians developed this art to perfection, which was undoubtedly easy for them thanks to the soft sandstones found in their land (Miszczak 2009). Although early Lycian buildings were mostly overbuilt, as elsewhere in Asia Minor, first by Hellenistic and then Roman constructions, Lycia remains one of the best places in Anatolia, where the native culture of the region is still visible and can be admired at each step (Bean 1989:30). Although various foreign influences are visible in the Lycian monuments, they have yet retained its unique character (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Transporter of the souls

Many examples of the sepulchral art shows a high quality of still well-preserved mason work and are covered in tell-tale sculptures adorning the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Reliefs depict, among others, mythological scenes, funeral feasts, battles and animals (Miszczak 2009).

Persian influence on the tombs is evident in the way scenes of feasts, battles and hunts are depicted, for example in the tombs of Xanthos, while he Greek influence is most clearly manifested in mythological scenes, for example, in the original Lycian representations of lions, the favourite royal symbol in this land (Ibid.). On the other side, the distinctive feature that distinguishes the Lycian tombs from the classical Greece and Rome is their location (Ibid.). While in the Greek and Roman cultures, the burial places of the dead were customarily located outside residential areas, often along the roads leading to cities, the Lycians made the tombs an integral part of the urban landscape, which is evidence of their relationship with contemporary cultures of the East (Ibid.). A good example is Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly presented along the port (Ibid.).

House-tombs in Fethiye. As their name indicate, they were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the Lycians interacted with the ghosts of their past by inviting them to their everyday life (Miszczak 2009). The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures (Ibid.). Round altars decorated with inscriptions or ornaments were often placed near the tombs (Ibid.). They were used to make offerings to the deceased (Ibid.). The offerings to the ancestors varied greatly, as can be seen from the finds from the tombs (Ibid.). Often these were terracotta statues and jewellery (Ibid.). After the Greek custom, the Lycian also put a coin in the mouths of the deceased, as a fee for Charon – the carrier (Ibid.). Sometimes it is even possible to determine the social status and profession of the dead, by means of a character of objects buried along them (Ibid.).

Cult of the dead and its legal protection

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great (before 334-333 BC.) (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Rock-hewn tombs and those of masonry are typical of the whole Asia Minor but they do not appear in such an abundance as in Lycia (Bean 1989:31). According to the latest research, there have remained one thousand eighty-five tombs carved in the rock in the land of Lycia, and partially also at its western border with Caria (Miszczak 2009).

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An opportunity to see them all in our times should be at least partially ascribed to the fact that already in the times of ancient Lycians, the tombs had been carefully preserved from any damage of profanation, sometimes by a special committee, called the mindis (Bean 1989:31). Also epitaphs inscribed on Lycian tombs often end with a warning of uttering a curse or imposing  financial fine for any violation of the tombs (Ibid.:31). Later, the responsibility for the protection of the Lycian tombs was taken over by the city (Ibid.:31). Such efforts visibly show how important for the ancient was the cult of the dead and the places of their final rest (Ibid.:31).

The tombs of Lycia

The tombs of Lycia are usually divided into four separate categories, according to their distinctive features, namely pillar-tombs, temple-tombs, house-tombs and sarcophagi (Bean 1989:30).

The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most typical of Lycia are the pillar-tombs, which are also believed the earliest preserved of all (Ibid.:30). They mostly appear in the western part of the region and feature a huge rectangular pillar situated on the stone base, whereas at the top of it, there is a grave-chamber, additionally crowned with a massive cap-stone (Ibid.:30). Their sculptured surfaces are limited to the top sides of the grave-chamber, if such carved decoration appears at all (Ibid.:30-31). Temple-tombs present on their front temple facades in miniature, which is the Hellenistic influence having appeared since the fourth century BC. and therefore they are not exactly in Lycian artistic character, though they definitely used to express Lycian beliefs of the afterlife, as much as the previous category of the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Temple-tombs are also typical of Caria (Caunus) and other parts of Anatolia (Bean 1989:30; see Bean, v.3 1989:139-151). However, those from Lycia slightly vary from the former; the façade of a temple is adorned with two columns in antis (two columns between antae) which are usually in Ionic order (Bean 1989:30). Such a façade also has an epistyle and a pediment (frontispiece) (Ibid.:30). A grave-chamber, which is a plain room with stone benches for the corpses, can be reached through the door from the porch (Ibid.:30). Similar interiors are characteristic of the third category, though its exteriors differ (Ibid.:30). House-tombs, as their name indicate, were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia, namely one, two or three-storeys wooden houses, including the projecting square or round beam-ends above the door opening, which later developed into a dentil frieze (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Numerous examples of different tomb types are encrusted together in the cliff-face in Fethiye; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type. The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Sometimes, their façades feature a pediment that can be in the form of a pointed arch, similar to the one in the Gothic style (Bean 1989:30). The walls of this type of Lycian tombs usually are carved in relief, which also appear in the pediment, and occasionally on the adjacent rocks (Ibid.:30-31). When it comes to the last category, it was very common in the contemporary world, however, the early Lycian sarcophagi vary from typical forms of generally known tombs (Ibid.:30). Firstly, the Lycian version is much higher and is composed of the three successive parts: a base, which played the role of hyposorion (a second grave-chamber for the owner’s dependants), an actual grave-chamber, and a crested, ‘Gothic’-like massive lid, which are both frequently in reliefs (Ibid.:30-31). In the Roman times, the Lycian sarcophagi diminished in size and intricacy, and the corner of their lids, yet still with the crest, became rounded (Ibid.:31). Apart from those four major categories of the Lycian tombs, there also exist their different variations (Ibid.:31).

Telmessus or Fethiye?

The finest specimens of the Lycian tombs are at the ancient site of Telmessus or Telmessos, located by the Aegean Sea, in Lycia (Bean 1989:40). The city’s name was only changed in the eighth century to Anastasioupolis, in order to commemorate Anastasios the Second, the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled from 713 to 715 (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021).

View of Fethiye Marina. The modern city of Fethiye was once known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

That name, however, had been forgotten till the tenth century, when the city was commonly known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). Finally, in the twentieth century, the city was renamed as Fethiye and it is called so in present (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). The town and its district, incorporating a long beach, Çaliş Plaji (Beach), with an extensive promenade along the coast, on which a row of hotels are based, remain today one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Turkish Riviera (“Fethiye” 2021). Fethiye is slipped away in the south corner of the gulf, and although it is quite hot in summer there, a fresh breeze coming from the sea makes the heat tolerable (Bean 1989:38), which is contrary to Alanya in the Mediterranean region, where the humidity reaches in summer 100%, and at around 40 degrees one feels boiling hot.

During our three-week stay in Fethiye, I visited the city a few times to enjoy its ancient remains and silent atmosphere of its streets. At that time I was spending my holidays with my little sister, Agnieszka, and my aunt’s large family (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods). As my uncle is a university lecturer of Fine Arts and a real devotee of antique art, he seizes any occasion to sightsee, even though his family prefers to spend their time in a slightly different manner. Once we all headed off to Fethiye for the best döner kebab in the area. Afterwards, we decided to wander around the town in search of its ancient remains, which are scattered within its modern boundaries.

Little known site with monumental architecture

Unfortunately, very little is known about the origins of the ancient site of Fethiye (Bean 1989:38). Although its monuments feature Lycian inscriptions, it does not appear as Lycian at first in history (Ibid.:38). After some records, in the fourth century BC., the Lycian dynast, Pericles, fought against the Telmessians and besieged their city (Ibid.:38). Since then, Telmessus had become a part of Lycia, as it is attested by a contemporary historian, known as Scylax (Ibid.:38).

Historic map of Fethiye by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Hayk using CommonsHelper (2006). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Naturally, it had also been a member of the Lycian League till the time Lycia stayed under the Roman Empire (Ibid.:38). The Telmessians held then a peaceful agreement with Alexander the Great (334-333 BC.), and at the time of by Ptolemy the Third, in 240 BC., the city was offered to Ptolemy, son of Lysimachus (Ibid.:38-39). After the battle of Magnesia, in 189 BC., it was handed over by the Romans to Eumenes of Pergamum and it stayed within the Pergamene kingdom till its end, in 133 BC. (Ibid.:39). Consequently, it was then included to the Roman province of Asia (Ibid.:39). Yet in the first century BC. the city possibly did not belong to Lycia anymore (Ibid.:38).

Treasure is either underground or high-up

First, we decided to take a closer look of the famous Lycian rock-hewn tombs; so far we had just had an occasion to catch a tantalising glimpse of their façades and mysterious openings in the hillsides, from the distance, while we were travelling by bus through the region. The major group of the tombs of Telmessus are located on the east, just outside the modern town (Bean 1989:40). Numerous examples of different types are encrusted together in the cliff-face; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type, in two or three storeys, and are much smaller than those of the previous group (Ibid.:40). The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes (Ibid.:40). They are all cut in the rock, encrusting the hillside, which looks out on to the east and west (Ibid.:40). Some of them may be reached by a stone staircase or by the strength of one’s own muscles, while climbing up the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, others are more or less inaccessible without special equipment (Ibid.:40).

Who was Amyntas?

The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors (Bean 1989:40).

An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster of the tomb, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Obviously, I was to climb the hill to see the details of the ancient grave. Together with my uncle, we quickly left behind other members of our family, who were walking lazily up towards the monument. From the foot of the hill, we were led up there by a modern stepped zig-zag path, which directs straight to the most famous and magnificent of all the tombs (Ibid.:40). It clearly manifests its temple façade, which is already very easily seen for those who look at it from below the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, only at closer look, this temple-tomb fully demonstrates its monumental size (Ibid.:40). At the foot of the tomb, there are yet four steps to reach the porch in the Ionic order, characterized by two columns in antis (Ibid.:40), of which the left-hand is broken at its base. Each pilaster features a row of three rosettes at their top (Ibid.:40). They are surmounted by a pediment (fronton) with three acroteria, mounted at its apex and its two corners; unfortunately, two of them bear the traces of large damage (Ibid.:40). Below the pediment, there is a dentil frieze, also known as a teethed cornice, which in this category of the tombs exchanged the wooden ornamental elements carrying the roofs in Lycian houses (Bean 1989:30, 40; Dosseman 2019).

Fethiye Rock graves Amyntas tomb. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These were in turn also imitated in stone by the Lycian house-tombs (Bean 1989:30; Dosseman 2019). An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019). Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb (Ibid.:40).

Robbers and vandals have already done their job

From the space of the porch (the narthex), I could see in detail the massive double doors to the grave chamber, which in Greek architecture, were hidden from the outside view by a portico; the door of the tomb is believed to be the most ancient and best preserved in Greek art, which greatly influenced this type of the Lycian tombs (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019).

Amyntas Tomb among Fethiye rock – cut tombs. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

My uncle had already stayed in front of it, analyzing its particular components. The imitated doorway opening of the grave-chamber is squared and framed by mouldings; additionally, above it, there is a protruding moulded cornice supported on console brackets in the form of volutes. The stone surface of the door is divided into four panels, which are additionally covered in decorations imitating iron studs (Bean 1989:40). It was possible to enter the chamber through the bottom right panel, initially sealed with a sliding stone slab (Ibid.:40). It the recent past, it has been damaged by grave robbers who broke into the chamber; as a result, the entrance now remains open (Ibid.:40). When we both came through the broken panel, we found ourselves inside a single chamber with a flat ceiling and three separate benches hewn in the rock along the sides of the walls, where the dead used to be deposited (Ibid.:40). Some modern ‘vandals’ had decided the grave chamber would have been the best place to confess their love, as the walls have been covered in graffiti inscriptions in black and red paint (Dosseman 2019).

When we finally decided to come back, we realised we were alone in front of the tomb, and our family had been lost somewhere on the way up. After a while, we clearly discerned colourful figures on descend the hill; they were sitting down or impatiently looking in our direction. Deeply engaged in studying the tomb, we only now understood they had never climbed up the hill with us.

Sarcophagus outside the city centre

Apart from the visited site, there are many more tombs of different types within and around Fethiye (Bean 1989:40). Possibly, the best preserved and the most excellent in all Lycia is the tomb of sarcophagus category, which now stands beside the municipal building of the town (Ibid.:40). Like the Tomb of Amyntas, the sarcophagus dates back to the fourth century BC. (“Telmessos” 2021).  Its façade imitates two-storey wooden building with protruding house-beams (Bean 1989:40). However, the most interesting is its ‘Gothic’ arched lid that, along with the surmounting crest, is richly covered in reliefs, representing warriors (Ibid.:40-41). The ends of the lid, likewise the ends of the main chamber, are divided into four squared panels (Ibid.:40-41).

My sister and cousins resting at the stones of the Theater, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Telmessos Theater

Our sightseeing of Fethiye finished just behind the city harbour, where there are remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia (Bean 1989:41; TripHobo 2021). The so-called Telmessos Theatre is actually dated back to the Late Hellenistic, which is supported by the sign on the site, and it was reused by the Romans who added the stage in the second century BC. (Fethiye 2021). What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. (TripHobo 2021; Fethiye 2021). We were resting there for a while, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements.

The remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia. What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the late afternoon, full of excitement after experiencing the Lycian past, I finally left the hot city of Fethiye, and with the rest of the tired group we went back to the sandy shores, washed by the refreshing sea waves.

Featured image: The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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Stepped Pyramids in Architecture of Ancient Civilizations

A pyramid with several distinct levels, narrowing upwards and so forming successive rectangular platforms, steps or ramps of diminishing size and with sloping, or battered, with its sides placed on top of one another.

Stepped pyramids have their shape similar to a geometric pyramid. In architecture of ancient Egypt, such pyramids are officially perceived as the intervening stage between a mastaba and a true pyramid. As such, the Djoser Pyramid in Saqqara was created as a series of decreasing, overlapping mastabs. Such structures are equally characteristic of the pre-Columbian art in Central America. They also appear in a more slender shape as vimanas in India and tower temples (prasats) in Southeast Asia. In Mesopotamia, a slightly modified form of a stepped pyramid is known as a ziggurat. Less known are stepped pyramids of volcanic rock on the islands of Tenerife (Canary Islands in Spain) and of Mauritius. Some examples also appear in China.

Stepped pyramids are usually massive and are built using layers of various kinds of stone of different size, including huge megalithic blocks, or bricks. Such structures are architectural landmarks in various ancient cultures and locations around the world. They had been built throughout history, from deep ancient times till the time of Spanish Conquest in Mezoamerica.

Featured image: The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, in Egypt. One of the most famous stepped pyramids, perceived as an initial attempt of creating a pyramidal structure out of several mastabas, diminishing in size. It is believed to have been built in around 2650 B.C. by the mysterious architect, Imhotep. Afterwards, ancient Egyptians are accredited with constructing real pyramids, such as three famous pyramids on the Giza Plateau. Photo by Buyoof (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Piramida schodkowa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Piramida schodkowa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3zs5by9>. [Accessed on 29th August, 2021].

Lapkura (2021). “Sathmahal Prasada”. In: Lapkura.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UEc40l>. [Accessed on 29th August, 2021].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, pp. 204, 236.

Yucatan ‘Mountains Filled with Water’ in the Maya’s Underground

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks all the time long. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the ground, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep and borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

Cenote at Bolonchén, Mexico, used as source of water. Lithography by Frederick Catherwood (1842). Published in “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” (1844). Via web copy at Cenote Xtacumbilxunan, at Bolonchen, Yucatan. Public domain. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).


The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a ‘depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

Drawing of the Maya hieroglyphic sign for ‘cenote.’ From Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting. Drawing by Marc Zender. Drawing source: James Doyle (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”, Fig. 2. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298).

Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Featured image: One of numerous cenotes on Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by MarcTran (2019). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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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Votive offerings or Deposits in Ancient and Modern Societies

From Latin: ex voto – ‘by vow’

A religious object for a specific intention or as an expression of gratitude, or as a means of giving thanks for the fulfillment of a wish. They can include “one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use” (“Votive offering” 2021). Such votive objects or offerings are usually dedicated to gods (in polytheism) or to the God or saints (in Christianity) in a shrine, temple or a church, or others places of pilgrimage.

In pagan antiquity, a votive was often a symbolic offering, given to a deity or deities as a thanksgiving (agalma) or in order to ask for answering the faithfuls’ prayers. It was usually in the form of small terracotta or metal (bronze, lead) figures or body parts made of clay, and even vessels. The more rare form of votive offerings were statues or small buildings.

Christian religious offerings are symbolic items related to a specific intentions of the faithful or their gratitude for all that they have received from the God. Christian votive objects can take various forms, usually of devotional articles, such as lit candles and rosaries.

Featured image: Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos votive; a Mexican votive painting of 1911; the man survived an attack by a bull. Photo by Andreas Praefcke (2008). Photo and caption source: “Votive offering” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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