Category Archives: ASIA

Passageway through the Stargate

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

Walled City

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

South gate of Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Portals to the stars

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

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

South Gate

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

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

Three Towers

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

Three towers at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

The Gate is known in architecture as gopura. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Also known as a gopura

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

Five causeways

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

South Gate; a row of Devas pulling the body of Naga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Together with Asuras at the South Gate to Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Małgorzata Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Asuras and Devas

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

Some of the heads of the statues along the causeways are badly restored, damaged or even missing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

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

North Gate leading to Angkor Thom. The statues are deprived of heads, possibly sold on the black market. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Samudra manthan

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

A row of Asuras (demons) between the moat and causeway of the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Pulling the Naga

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

Various scenes from the samudra manthan episode. Source: “Samudra manthan” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Amrit

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

One of the four faces adorning the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

One of the restored heads at the South Gate representing a demon with a grimace face. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Bas-relief and full sculpture

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

South Gate moat. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Message

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

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

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

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

Another message

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

Intricate carvings of the gateways looking like cascading waters of stone. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Precession

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

South gate of Angkor Thom along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons. Two rows of figures each carry the body of seven-headed Naga. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Astronomical phenomenon

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

Representation of precession by Samip
Neupane. Source: Edyprop EP (2020).

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

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

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

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

Zodiac

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

Who was first?

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

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

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

North Gate Bridhe with Devas. Photo by Colin W. (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Approach to the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Astronomy hidden in myths

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

Numbers and numbers

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

The South Gate: all the gates are “lined with 54 gods and 54 demons.  Both teams are holding a Naga (a snake-like creature with multiple snake heads) that is 75 meters long” (Baskin 2012). Photo by Michael Lai (2013). Source Retiree Diary.

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

Language of ancient architecture

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

The South Gate: Naga snake’s heads are also held be Devas as well (not only by Asuras visible on the other side); such an arrangement, contrary to the narratives, is possibly the architectural result of preserving the symmetry. Photo by Steve Baskin (2012). Source: Camp Champions Blog.

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

Scientific message of fairy tales

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

Western face of the East Gate, also known as the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Through the Gateway

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

South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Pixabay (2016).

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

Three towers of one of the gopuras in Angkor Thom. Photo by Stacy Rushton (2020). Source: Freeimages.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy

On the threshold of the Neolithic, the hunter slowly turns into a farmer and breeder (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). This is a special period in the development of the matriarchal system (Ibid.). The forces of nature continue to play a major role in human life, yet the new lifestyle changes its spiritual approach (Ibid.). Moon worship is replaced by solar cult but it is still closely related to female aspects and so responsible for factors influencing land fertility and annual harvests, which are highly significant to Neolithic society (Ibid.). The cycle process and persistence of nature flows from its divine matrix (Ibid.). Mother Earth supports life, is responsible for death, but also guarantees rebirth (Ibid.).

Neolithic face of Magna Mater

In the Paleolithic, the dark, hidden uterus corresponded to cave sanctuaries (see Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic), and in the Neolithic it was identified with the earth itself – the eternal parent (Jabłońska 2010). Magna Mater managed vegetation, nature, and her fertility originated in the ground which, as the humans observed, gave birth to all forms of life without interruption (Ibid.). The Neolithic likewise saw a similarity between the growth of humans and plants, with the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (Ibid.).

Seated “goddess” of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey (the sixth millennium BC). Neolithic Magna Mater was usually enthroned and flanked by two animals. In this representation, she is giving birth to a child.

While naturalistic cave art fades away with the end of the Paleolithic world of the hunter-gatherer, the image of the Mother-Goddess stubbornly repeats the well-established pattern: exaggeratedly lush shapes with lack of care for facial features, arms and legs, as if the essence of femininity was limited to the heaviness of a figure distorted by motherhood (Nougier 1898:39). Such domestic female figurines still had a right to exist, as does life that awoke in Mother Earth’s womb (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48).

Goddess in the first cities

In the Neolithic Age, when the first cities were sprouting, goddess worship was not only common, but it clearly flourished and gained importance (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48). This is evidenced by the finds of numerous figurines of the goddess – mother in the houses of the first urban settlements, such as the Anatolian Çatalhöyük or Hacilar (Ibid.:25-48). The place where religious rituals were performed was apparently a part of the house adapted for these purposes, most often decorated with geometric patterns and heads of bulls, animals dedicated to the goddess (Ibid.:25-48). In the museum reconstruction of the home sanctuary in Çatalhöyük, a plaster relief of the Mother Goddess is displayed, surrounded by bull heads (Ibid.:25-48). The local statuettes were most often carved in stone, made of burnt clay, and later also of terracotta, and although they resembled the Great Mother of the Paleolithic, the Neolithic female figurines were distinguished by the multitude of representations (Ibid.:25-48).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling with the bulls’ heads – a possible symbol of the Neolithic goddess. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey.

They were depicted in a standing or sitting position; once they resembled a young girl, another time a giving birth mother, and finally an old woman (Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-48, 183; Żak-Bucholc 2005). These three views allude to the three aspects of the goddess and at the same time to the three stages of a woman’s life; the Virgin is the first image of the triple goddess, the second is the Mother, and the third is the Old Woman (Ibid.). In this way, the goddess figure makers probably wanted to emphasize the sacred cycle of life and death (Ibid.). Since the Neolithic times, various forms of the image of the Mother-Goddess had slowly emerged, and iconographic figurative groups were formed (Ibid.). In this way, the original idea had been subject to further modifications over time, which took place within the great ancient cultures (Ibid.).

Mother enthroned

One of the famous iconographic groups is the enthroned Goddess and Lady of the Animals (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The oldest example of such a divine position is represented by a figure found in Çatalhöyük (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Now preserved at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Mother Goddess dates from the sixth millennium BC (Ibid.). As the one of the most important artifacts, she is enthroned among the rich collections of other Neolithic female figurines in the museum (Ibid.). Like the Palaeolithic Venus, the image of the Çatalhöyük mother goddess is characterized by generous body shapes and slightly delineated facial features, with a high forehead, headgear or single roller hairstyle (Ibid.). The heads of the two leopards are flanking her throne (Ibid.). Between the legs of the figure, at the level of the throne, a small, oval form is visible (Ibid.). Possibly, it is the baby’s head that emerges from the mother’s womb (Ibid.). Accordingly, the clay figurine of the goddess represents a woman giving birth (Ibid.). The second of the three stages of a woman’s life – motherhood – refers directly to the cult of life, fertility, and the very idea of ​​Magna Mater (Ibid.).

Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey”. In: “Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük. Photo by Dilmen N. (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another figurine illustrating motherhood is a terracotta statue of a mother with a child in her arms, which also dates back to the sixth millennium and comes from the Hacilar area (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). Unfortunately, the baby’s head has not survived to our times (Ibid.). The mother was caught in a sitting position; her posture seems very natural and relaxed, as if it came from the joy of having a baby and holding it in her arms (Ibid.).

Lady of the Animals

The image of the goddess sitting on a throne, or standing upright – the position similar to a pole or column – and surrounded on both sides by sacred animals, is probably a prototype of the representations of the later Animal Goddess – Artemis of Ephesus (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:25-33). In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, votive objects of a zoomorphic character were usually offered to the goddess; these were most often terracotta vessels, statuettes or frescoes depicting leopards, bulls, wild boars, deer, bears and birds (Ibid.).

Goddess on the Mountain

Yet another reference to the Throne of the Lady of Animals theme can be a plastic depiction of a female figure standing on a small pedestal or a hill, with animals, often lions facing her (Żak-Bucholc 2005).

Throne Room in Knossos (Minoans; the Bronze Age). If the Throne was once occupied by a Priestess, it may have been symbolically meant for a mountain peak, which was the seat of the goddess.

This iconographic group is known as the Mountain Goddess, and the mountain the goddess stands on can be interpreted as a form of a throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Often the embodiment of the goddess was the Throne itself, flanked by animals, which is best depicted in the Throne Room of the Minoan Knossos – assuming, however, that the throne belonged not to the king Minos but to a priestess (Ibid.; see Lady of the Labyrinth).

Female column flanked by beasts

Another form of representing a goddess is a column or pillar, most often with a pair of lions (lioness) on either side of it. Such depictions of a deity are typical of the Hittites (Żak-Bucholc 2005). One of the best examples of the representation of the Goddess as a column, however, is the Lion Gate in Mycenae (Ibid.).

Detail photo of the Lion Gate in Mycenae, Argolis, Greece. The goddess is played by a column flanked by two lions/lioness. Photo by Van der Crabben J. (2012). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

In Minoan art, the most typical is in turn the image of the Goddess as a woman holding writhing serpents in both hands (Żak-Bucholc 2005). Regardless of the accompanying animals of Magna Mater, the iconographic group described above shows the Lady ruling over the forces of Nature, who is therefore responsible for maintaining harmony in the Universe (Ibid.)

Woman supporting her breasts

Another form of depicting a goddess is a woman supporting her breasts, precisely a female figure with her hands under her breasts or crossed on the breasts, or with her hands supporting them (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005).

Twin goddess supporting breasts. Çatalhöyük, 6000-5500 BC. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara. Photo: Zde (1999). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Such representations date back to the Neolithic age and appear in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt (Żak-Bucholc 2003; 2005). This iconographic type shows the goddess who feeds the world, who provides nourishment to creation as its mother and protector (Ibid.). In ancient Egyptian mythology, the milk of the goddess Hathor, often pictured as a divine cow, is provided with the pharaoh himself (Ibid.). This group also includes Minoan images of a goddess with bare breasts, or some of the Anatolian figurines exhibited in the Museum of Ankara, such as the Neolithic figurine of the so-called Twin Goddess with two heads and bodies, but with only one pair of arms, the left of which supports two pairs of breasts (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations 2006:30).

Lady of the Moon, Sun and the Earth

In the Neolithic, the goddess’ pietism was still associated with the sky; next to the moon, the sun’s disk becomes the main attribute of a woman (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30). Such devotion was intertwined with the telluric cults associated with the earthly sphere (Ibid.). Both cults seemed to penetrate and complement each other; the Sun is the growth force of all seed that draws life-giving juices from the Earth, that blooms, bears fruit, shrinks and dies to be reborn (Ibid.). This is how the cycle of life and death takes place, for which the cult of the Great Mother is responsible (Ibid.).

Shu supporting the sky goddess Nut arched above. Photo by British Museum. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

No wonder that among the peoples of Bronze Age Anatolia, the chthonic deity of the mother-woman was represented in writing with an ideographic sign denoting a solar deity (Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32). In the mythology of the ancient civilizations of the fertile Crescent and Egypt, the divine shield of the Sun traverses the heavens to finally extinguish and be reborn from the womb of Mother Earth; hence the object of worship was also mentioned in Anatolian texts as “the underground sun” or “the sun in the water” (Popko 1980: 26-29, 63-73; Nougier 1989:39-40; Jabłońska 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33).

The bow of Nut

The most beautiful illustration of beliefs about the rebirth of the Sun is the ancient Egyptian image of the Heavens’ Goddess, Nut (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:170; Karaszewski 2011; Żak-Bucholc 2003;2005). The wife of the telluric deity and the mother of the superior gods of Egypt was usually depicted in art as a woman whose body, bent into a bow, formed the vault of heavens, but at the same time marked the underground path of the sun (Ibid.). The personification of Nut thus combines the earthly element with the sky; according to Heliopolitan beliefs, during the day the goddess touches the earth only with the tips of her hands and fingers, creating a sphere of air, but when the sun approached the west, her body could completely fuse with the earth (Ibid.). Nut swallowed them, which brought night, and every morning at dawn the goddess again gave birth to the Sun, which emerged from between her thighs, giving rise to a new day (Ibid.). The repeating cycle of death and rebirth of the solar disk echoes Stone Age beliefs of mankind (Ibid.). The body of Nut, dotted with stars and arched, resembles a crescent, which brings to mind the Palaeolithic lunar cult (Ibid.). Another image of Nut emphasizes even more the connection of ancient Egyptian beliefs with the beliefs of the original hunter-gatherers; keeping in mind the sacred dimension of the horned animals (Ibid.). It is not surprising that Nut or Hathor were also imagined as the Heavenly Cow, on whose back the sun traversed the sky. In this view, the spouse of the goddess Nut was represented as Taurus (Ibid.).

The sky goddess Nut depicted as a heavenly cow. Photo by King Vegita (2006). Source:: “Nut (goddess)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Hittite mythology of Anatolia, which is heavily influenced by Mesopotamian myths, it is typical to divide the deities into “lower” – telluric or underground, and “upper” – uranic, related to the sky sphere (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). As patriarchy progressed, most solar deities become masculine, yet female sun deities often had a superior function (Ibid.). They usually combined the element of heaven and earth, hence the association of the goddess with the Earth’s sun. According to Anatolian texts, the Earth’s Sun was based in the land of the dead as it descended into the abyss of the earth at the end of the day (Ibid.). The concept of the relationship of the Sun with the underworld reveals a dual image of the Mother Goddess, perhaps frozen in the image of the Twin Goddess of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.).

Lady of Hatti

Apart from the Egyptian Nut, the solar goddess, also known the Lady of Hatti, had a similar character (Popko 1980:37; Kapełuś 2008:46-47). During the Hittite period, the goddess became one of the main deities of the pantheon (Ibid.). She was called “Queen of Heaven and Earth, mistress of the kings and queens of the country of Hatti” (Kapełuś 2008:46). In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the same title was borne by the Sumerian goddess Inanna, with whom the Semitic goddess Ishtar was identified (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33).

Nut swallows the Sun. Photo by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)  (1976). Source: “Nut (goddess)” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The main attributes of such goddesses were the animals flanking them; most often they were lions, other times horned animals, or owls and lions (Drenowska-Rymarz; Wygnańska 2008:46-47; Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32-33). The goddess herself is usually depicted naked, standing, with a tiara on her head (Ibid.). Her arms covered with wings are most often raised upwards, and her feet end in claws (Ibid.). The silhouette of a woman is based on zoomorphic pedestals which brings to mind the iconographic type of the enthroned goddess discussed above, whose majesty is nature (Ibid.). A similar image of the goddess is a visualization of the original idea of ​​belief related to the power of Magna Mater over the Element (Ibid.). The symbol of the goddess was a star, which gives her the character of uranium deities (Ibid.). Yet it was also the Lady of the Earth; in one of the myths in the Akkadian version, Ishtar, as a solar deity, descends into the underworld to also take over the land of the dead. In turn, Inanna went underground in the fall to return in the spring. Her return heralded the rebirth of nature (Ibid.).

Warrior and the dragon

Around the fifth millennium BC, with the emergence of breeding and pastoralism and the rise of the first cities, patriarchy prevailed in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The goddess then takes on the characteristics typical of men; Ishtar is the goddess of love, but on the other hand, she is an armed warrior and a cruel lover (Ibid.). The masculine principle dominates the pantheon of ancient deities; the goddess ceases to be the lady of the universe (Ibid.). From then on, power is unevenly distributed between female and male deities (Ibid.).

Minoan goddess/priestess/votaries with snakes. Knossos. (Minoans, the Bronze Age). Typical depiction of the Lady of Animals with chthonic powers. Both figures hold snakes and the one on the right additionally has got a lion/lioness on her head.

The latter play a superior role (Żak-Bucholc 2005; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Jabłońska 2010; Drenowska-Rymarz, Wygnańska 2008:46-47; ”Artemida” 2020). The aforementioned victorious fight between god – warrior and dragon is the best illustration of the collapse of matriarchy (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the cult of the Great Mother has survived to historical times (Ibid.). Successive incarnations of Magna Mater proliferate in ancient cultures. In Mesopotamia the Great Mother is known as Inanna and Ishtar, in Egypt – Isis and Hathor. The Hittite Kubaba, known as the Phrygian Iron Age Cybele, became one of the many divine designs of the Mother-Goddess of the Neolithic (Ibid.). The features of the latter were inherited by Artemis of Ephesus (Ibid.). We also find the Great Mother in the Greeks in the form of Demeter or Gaia. There are many examples (Ibid.). The Catholic Church raised Mary to a pedestal; she was granted the status of the Eternal Virgin, Immaculate, Assumed, Second after God, Mother of God and all creatures (Ibid.).

From patriarchy to matriarchy

The subject of the work is relatively difficult to analyse in detail due to its breadth and territorial scope (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31). It combines such diverse scientific disciplines as archaeology, anthropology, religious studies, cultural studies and art history (Ibid.:31). So far, there have been many scientific works on the subject of the Mother Goddess, her iconographic representations in art or on the matriarchy itself (Ibid.:31). Nevertheless, learning about the religious practices of the lunar or solar cult, which are connected with the image of the goddess in art, requires further, thorough research (Ibid.:31). Most of the readings on the topic are based on more or less credible theories and are still looking for evidence to support them. The theme of Mother Goddess worship goes back to the Upper Paleolithic, an era studied solely through archaeological excavations and artifact interpretations. Therefore, an important key to the matriarchal culture of the Stone Age are the depictions of deities supplemented by a written source, created only by people living already in the patriarchy.

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Burda, B., Halczak, R. M. Józefiak, M. Szymczak (2002) Historia. Od dziejów najdawniejszych do schyłku starożytności. Gdynia: Wydawnictwo Pedagogiczne Operon.

Drenowska-Rymarz O., Wygnańska Z. (2008) ”Ludy Mezopotamii”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa.

Jabłońska, N.(2010)Matriarchart”. In: Wiedza i Edukacja. Świat Wirtualnej Nauki. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U8tfEf>. [Accessed 26th February, 2020].

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Members of Staff at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (2006). The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey. Ankara: Dönmez Offset.

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War and Peace of Ur

During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).

“5 tips to enjoy a no hassle museum visit”. In: Museums Made Easy by Amaya (2017).

I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.

Room 56

Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).

The lionheaded eagle, called Imdugud in Sumerian. It seems to have been especially associated with the city-state of Lagash and with its chief deity, Ningirsu. Here it is surmounting a lintel made from sheets of copper, Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-Ubagid, Iraq, c. 2500 BC. Room 56 in the British Museum.

For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.

Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56.

My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).

Mound of Pitch

The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).

William Loftus’s sketch of his discovery of the ziggurat, in 1850. Source “Ziggurta of Ur” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC, although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur

In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).

Woolley Photo of the Ziggurat of Ur with workers Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 BC., Woolley excavation workers (Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). Source: German (2014). Khan Academy.

One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).

Ziggurat of Ur, c. 2100 B.C.E. mud brick and baked brick, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq (largely reconstructed). Source: German (2014) Khan Academy.

The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).

The ‘gold trench’

In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).  

A reconstruction of the great death pit burial scene. Notice the two musicians holding lyres just beyond the oxen. (Originally appeared in the Illustrated London News, 23 June 1928). Source: McTague (1999–2020) Live of Ur.

Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC; see Gibbor in the Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).

Public secret

At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).

Agatha Christie with husband Max Mallowan (left) and lead archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Ur, southern Iraq, in 1931. Photograph: British Museum. Source: Jongh (2014) The Guardian.

The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):

I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.

Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).

Royal tombs and resourceful researcher

Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre, 1922. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).

Object from the Tomb PG 779

A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020).  When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).

Plan of grave PG 779, thought to belong to Ur-Pablisag (1900). The Standard of Ur was located in “S”. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).

But what was it?

As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).

Peace (detail), The Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm, Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.

Stylistic Conventions

Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art  (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement  (Ibid.).

The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).

Conventional interpretation

The original Warka or Uruk Vase, dated to
c. 3200–3000 BC. National Museum of Uruk.
Source: “Warka Vase” (2020) In: Wikipedia.
The Free Encyclopedia.
 

The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).

The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).

War and Peace

From the reconstructed Standard of Ur, it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.). “For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Dr Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).

Royal entourage

The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. The ruler as a larger figure among his entourage. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. War captives led by soldiers to the ruler. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).

King’s mounts

Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).

In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.

Battle wagons

On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.

The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2 550 BC. War panel, detail. The illustration of the battle wagons in the bottom register are showing the movement speeding up from left to right. The British Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).

Pictures in motion

There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons trampling the enemies. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).

Rhythm and hierarchy

The so-called Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects and is probably symbolic of Sumer. the British Museum; Room 56.

The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).

Religious banquet?

The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).

This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2250 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail. By Michel Wal. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).

Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).

The bounty of land

Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).

“Peace”, detail showing a lyrist and possibly a singer. “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).

The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).

The same language

The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).

Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).

Historic events?

Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2550 BC. Peace panel;
the bottom register, detail. Gifts carried
to the ruler shown at the top. The British
Museum; Room 56. Source: “Standard
of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free
Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).

Two sides of the kingship

The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top and middle registers. The royal wagon, soldiers and infantry below. The Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).

The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).

The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).

Still a mystery

The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery; the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).

Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, ca. 2600 B.C., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).

Fanciful scenes

Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).

End panels on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.

Heralds of failure or victory?

One of the end panels. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).

End panel; detail from the top register. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).

On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.

From war to peaceful bounties of life

The other end panel. Source: Shukur (2018). In: Sumerian Shakespeare.

The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.

As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.

The Standard’s story

But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum, Room 56. Photo by Denis Bourez from France – British Museum, London. Uploaded by SunOfErat. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).

Treasures of the museums

As Sir Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).

A Street Scene at Ur in the Level of the Abrahamic Period (2000-1900 BC.). Postcard; printed; photograph showing archaeological excavations at Ur, with Arab workmen standing for scale in the excavated street of an early second millennium B.C.E. residential quarter © Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015).

This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).

Lost national patrimony

As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.

Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current status is unknown. Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database. Source: Barker (2018).

Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the  discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).

Safe by all means

“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).

Ruins in the Town of Ur, southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background. CC by SA 2.0. Source: Ḏḥwty (2017). Ancient Origins.

This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Standard of Ur” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MT6wHM>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

“Ur” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UFGOec>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

“Warka Vase” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YzBmue>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

“Ziggurat of Ur” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Yt2cUY>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

Amaya (2017) “5 tips to enjoy a no hassle museum visit”. In: Museums Made Easy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UAKv4z>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Amaya (March, 2017) “The Standard of Ur”. In: Museums Made Easy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BTbUZ5>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Barker C. (2018) “Fifteen Years after Looting, Thousands of Artefacts are still Missing from Iraq’s National Museum”. In: The Conversation. Available at <https://bit.ly/2AlheUX>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Ḏḥwty (2017) “Where Sumerian Rulers Lie: The Royal Tombs of Ur’. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2MQfCFi>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].

Feinblatt E., Cornelius S. (2012) “Standard of Ur from the Royal Tombs at Ur”. In: Khan Academy; Smart History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XTVZCy>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

German S. (2014) “Ziggurat of Ur”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fkpX8r>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

Gerry (2010) “The Standard of Ur”. In: That’s How the Light Gets In. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BSGTED>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Jenkins T., Rodet M., Stefanidis I.D., Thomas N. (2019) “Do historical objects belong in their country of origin?” In: The History Today. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BWdwkN>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

JOM (2020) “Standard of Ur”. In: Joy of Museum Virtual Tours. Available at <https://bit.ly/30AfmlR>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

Jongh N. de (2014) “From the archive, 13 January 1976: Agatha Christie remains unsolved”. In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fmon6e>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

MacGregor N. (2020) “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4. Available at <https://bbc.in/2N7ZsY5>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

McDonald D. K. (2013) “Lecture 4: The Standard of Ur: the Role of the King”. In: 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. The Great Courses. Boston College.

McTague C. (1999–2020) Live of Ur. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Ap7MQt>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

National Geographic (2019) “Agatha Christie’s adventurous ‘second act’ plays out in Mesopotamia”. In: History Magazine: National Geographic. Available at <https://on.natgeo.com/2B1kcxI>. [Accessed on 13th June, 2020].

Sailus, Ch. (2003-2020) “Standard of Ur: Definition & Concept. Chapter 3. Lesson 24”. In: Study.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BYeRYx>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].

Shukur (2018) “Narrative of the End Panels on the Standard of Ur”. In: Sumerian Shakespeare. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Yo6ptb>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].

The British Museum (2015) “Standard of Ur”. In: Smart History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BYdtVN>. [Accessed on 11th June, 2020].

The British Museum (2020) “Room 56. Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC) The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery”. In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YhrCop>. [Accessed on 9th June, 2020].

Wakely G. (on behalf of Penn University) (1999) “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur”. In: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Production of the Education Department. Available at <https://bit.ly/2B4DUbK>. [Accessed on 12th June, 2020].

The Oldest Temple in the World and its Menagerie

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.).

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Göbekli Tepe being visited by tourists. Source: Dunning (2020).

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.).

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The location of Göbekli Tepe on the map, near the large nearby modern city of Şanlıurfa. Source : documentary shot from Burns (2017).

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.).

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Hunter-gatherers by Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .

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).

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The upper part of the ‘T’ – shaped pillar protruding out of the ground. Source : documentary shot from Burns (2017).

“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).

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Sites with similar ‘T’-shaped pillars from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) by Arekrishna (2017). 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). The excavation team 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).

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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. Source: Noren (2020).

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.

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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). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020).

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.).

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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). Source: Busacca (2017:317).

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.).

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Enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe (Photo: DAI). Source: Noren, A. (2020).

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.).

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Göbekli Tepe. Main excavation area with monumental Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A enclosures (Photo: DAI). Source: Noren (2020) “The Site”.

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, around fifteen kilometres away (Ibid.).

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Göbekli Tepe site during excaviations. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). 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).

The oldest temple in the world

Perhaps the key to understanding the site lies in its impressive carvings situated on the cluster of pillars (Conrad 2012). As described above, they are ‘T’-shaped and decorated with strange zoomorphic imagery. The latter represent elaborate and naturalistic zoomorphic characters, both in low, high and full relief, showing three-dimensional figures, signifying improbable menagerie (Conrad 2012; Noren 2020).

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Sumber sci-news.com/mage credit: by Nico Becker, Göbekli Tepe Archive, German Archaeological Institute. Source: Kompasiana (2018).

The masterpiece of the sculpture found also suggests their builders must have been highly advanced artists with engineering skills (Conrad 2012). Physical characteristics of the animals are very clearly depicted (Ibid.). Their anatomical details usually express a rather aggressive attitude, visible by their posture and grinning teeth (Ibid.).

T-shaped pillars and their flock

Klaus Schmidt argues that the animal component of the site is crucial in its iconographic interpretation (Conrad 2012). According to the Professor, represented animals have mainly wild, male and predatory connotations (Busacca 2017:313-314). He interprets the zoomorphic depictions either as having a protective role as the guardians of the pillars (especially high-relief sculpture), or being a part of a horrifying spectacle (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017).

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Eastern central pillar of Enclosure D (Photo: DAI). Fragment. Source: Noren, A. (2020) “The Site”.

The ‘T’-shaped pillars, as he points out, are in turn the abstract representations of human bodies with the upper part resembling a man’s head in profile, the shaft of the ‘T’ standing for the human corpus, with arms, palms and fingers incised in stone (Ibid.). Below them, there is the representation of a belt encircling the pillar with loincloth looking like an animal skin (Ibid.). Schmidt says that the ‘T’-shaped pillars are gathered on the hillside as if there was “a meeting of stone beings” (Scham 2008:27). Despite their anthropomorphic features, the pillars are deprived of facial features, which makes Schmidt think that the human-like monoliths personify spiritual beings, and probably they are the earliest imagery of deities or god-like ancestors (Conrad 2012). Accordingly, Schmidt also suggests that the disintegrated now temple doorway could metaphorically have stood for the entrance to the netherworld (Conrad 2012). If so, Göbekli Tepe must have been related to the cult of the death (Ibid.).

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One of the most enigmatic symbology shown on the ‘T’-shaped pillar 43 with vultures flying above the scorpion. Source: Scham (2008:25).

Vital to creating that dark world are the creatures carved on the pillars (Ibid.). It is not even difficult to imagine the site as a temple devoted to the dead, especially at night, when the portal leading to the flickering by the fire netherworld may have involved humans into strange rituals performed beneath the monumental human-like pillars, dressed up with the aggressive elements of nature (Ibid.). In the course of ritual performances, including sound, scents and probably under shamanic drug haze, the images on the pillars may have seemed alive and active (Busacca 2017). Gusaldo Busacca (2017), a PhD. student at Stanford University, admits, however, that very little can be said on the purpose and nature of such rituals. Some kind of ritual paraphernalia have been found at the site, such as benches, niches (altars), cup holes and limestone vessels, probably used for libations to the spirits and extensive feasting (Schmidt, 2010; Dietrich et al. 2012).

According to Klaus Schmidt, the site may have been also a pilgrimage location (Scham 2008:26). He assumes “that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices” (Ibid.:26). That theory is supported by the archaeological finds of animal bones belonging to various species, such as gazelles, goats, boars, sheep, wild birds and so on (Scham 2008; Busacca 2017). Most of these animals belong to the carved menagerie in question (Ibid.).

What was first: religion or civilisation?

As Prof. Joris Peters notices, although the animistic nature dominates in the Palaeolithic art of the caves, at Göbekli Tepe the control over the nature is visibly taken by humans in the disguise of the ‘T’-shaped pillars (Conrad 2012).

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Pillar 27 from Enclosure C with the three-dimensional sculpture of an animal catching a prey in low relief below. Photo (2008). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Schmidt also notices that all the zoomorphic images are carved only below the so-called head of the pillars, which suggests that people had already became superior to animals (Conrad 2012). Gods themselves had left their animal disguise and started to look like humans (Ibid.). As Schmidt underlines, such imagery may reveal the Stone Age man’s desire for having control over the nature (Ibid.). The new religion gave humans an enormous psychological advantage (Ibid.). It placed people above the animals and above nature, and that mental leap forward, as Prof. Joris Peters says, was needed to start to domesticate animals and plants (Ibid.). Accordingly, it was first the urge to worship that sparked civilization (Ibid.). The theory is yet radical: namely, it suggests that it was the religion itself which brought people to farming, and not the other way round, as it has been believed so far… (Ibid.). In this context, Göbekli Tepe would have been a dramatic point in mankind development (Ibid.).

The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face

Gusaldo Busacca (2017) underlines in his study of Göbekli Tepe that he takes “the hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face” (Ibid.:313) due to fragmentary evidence, time and cultural distance, and finally lack of written sources or oral traditions (Ibid.). Many scholars working at the site have already proposed their interpretations of the complex animal symbolism present there by using different contexts, such as shamanism (Benz & Bauer, 2015; Lewis – Williams & Pearce 2009), human-animal linkage (Verhoeven 2002), and burial rituals (Schmidt 2012), with a particular emphasis on the aggressive attitudes, predatory and wild aspects of the depicted animals. Other scholars also identify phallocentrism (the ideology that the male aspect is the central element in the organization of the social world) (“Phallocentrism” 2019), as the major symbolic theme of the most aggressive representations at the site (Hodder and Meskell 2011).

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Most of the ‘T’-shaped pillars at the site show wild animals, such as lions/leopards. Source: Scham (2008:22).

Basing on Schmidt’s research, Busacca (2017) claims that the most frequently represented animals are snakes, then foxes, boars, bulls and wild ducks. Less often motifs include cranes, spiders, quadrupeds, vultures, wild sheep, asses, gazelles and felids (Ibid.). Although the majority of depicted animals belong to predatory and venomous species, it is worth remarking there are also non-dangerous animals in the iconographic repertoire (Ibid.). Along the zoomorphic imagery, there are also abstract motifs, especially ‘H’- shaped pictograms, as well as some anthropomorphic motifs, like headless human bodies, which would suit the theory the temple was dedicated to the dead (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). Furthermore, Busacca (2017:316) notices that “the depicted motifs and their distribution vary markedly throughout the four main enclosures.”

Further attempts of interpretation

In terms of animistic ontology, Busacca (2017) focuses on exploring the role of images as a category of animated non-human beings (Ibid.).

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Pillar with the sculpture of a fox. Photo by Zhengan (2012). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

He calls these images “composite entities constituted by both material and immaterial components” (Ibid.:315) as they are placed between two different spaces: the present and the absent, the visible and the invisible (Belting, 2011). The scholar argues that prehistoric artists may have believed that the act of making an image sparked a specific relation between the carver and the spirit inside the material medium (Busacca 2017:315-316). The carver did not create an animal out of the stone but he released it (Carpenter 1973). In this context, the zoomorphic images should be reconsidered as active participants between humans and material objects (Busacca 2017:315-316). Animals do not simply represent but they are material personification of animal spirits (Ibid.:315-316). The author also underlines the importance of their location within the architectural space in which they first appeared (Ibid.:315-316).

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Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As the author remarks, the zoomorphic imagery has been mainly defined as a human concern with wild animals, “masculinity and violence prior to the ‘domestication of symbols’ that accompanied the transition toward agriculture and settled life” (Busacca 2017:319). The violent part of the iconography can be also linked to the dominant agents in prehistoric communities, identified as shamans (Benz & Bauer 2013). Another researcher, Borić (2013) claims that the dynamic and narrative postures of the carved beasts are the notions of “strong, dangerous spirits lurking beneath the skin of the depicted animals” (Borić 2013:54). Quite innovative interpretation is proposed by Yeşilyurt (2014) who argues that the site should be interpreted as prehistoric research laboratory, where the representations of animals actually illustrate research carried out on specific species.

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Bison in the great hall of polychromes, at Altamira Cave, Cantabria. Photo (2008) by Rameessos. Source: “Franco-Cantabrian region” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Stone Age menagerie in motion

Busacca (2017:322) also analyses the sculpture in the context of stylistic features, such as the dynamism and movement of the animal figures. In order to refer to stylistic techniques used at Göbekli Tepe, the author has borrowed the terminology used in the studies on Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic rock art, where similar style can be observed (Ibid.:322). Nevertheless, he underlines that “these similarities in techniques of visual representations should not be considered evidence of direct contact, ancestry or diffusion, but as independent, though similar, phenomena” (Ibid:322).

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The use of ‘split action’ in the depiction of possible bird figures. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The movement is shown at Göbekli Tepe by means of two major techniques which seem to have been applied selectively only to certain types of animals depicted (Ibid.:322). Both predatory and non-predatory species, including gazelle, wild ass and crane, have their legs bent and/or are caught in oblique position (postural information) which generates some sort of motion (Ibid.:322). The wavy lines of the snake depictions are equally the representations of movement (Ibid.:322). Also the use of ‘split action’ technique is applied by the reiteration (superimposition or juxtaposition) of the subject, where an animal is depicted at successive stages in time (Ibid.:322). Examples of such artistic approach is clearly shown in the representations of water birds, especially wild ducks (Enclosures C and D) (Ibid.:322).  

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‘T’ – shaped pillars of the site. Photo by DAI. Source : Noren (2019).

Description of the stylistic traits is followed by an analysis of the orientation of the carved imagery (Busacca 2017:313,324). To conduct the study, the author makes a distinction between the central  pillars, which are those arranged in pairs, usually larger in size, and radial pillars – those arranged along the enclosures (Ibid.:313,324).

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Internal subdivision of T-shaped pillars
Photo by Irmgard Wagner (modified). Source: Busacca (2017:322).

Radial pillars have been furthermore subdivided into two groups, frontal and lateral (Ibid.:313,324). All the locations of the carvings on pillars have been clearly labelled by means of simple abbreviations that the author has provided together with the photographs illustrating his concept (Ibid.:313,322,324). Accordingly, he marked them as follows: ‘FH’, ‘BS’, ‘LH’, ‘LS’, where ‘F’ stands for frontal, ‘B’ for back, ‘H’ for head ‘S’ for side, ‘L’ for lateral and left in some cases (Ibid.:313,322,324). Taking into consideration the lateral sides of the radial pillars, the author notices that 29 out of 34 total animals depicted on the pillars are facing toward the centre of the enclosure (Ibid.:313,322,324). High relief and full relief sculptures also indicate a centripetal orientation (Ibid.:313,322,324). As the author suggests “emerging from the walls or from the top of them with their full bodies or only with the head, these sculptures suggestively resonate with the general impression of a centripetal ‘jump’ of the animals into the enclosures”(Busacca 2017: 324).

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Göbekli Tepe and a panoramic view of the southern excavation field. Photo by Rolfcosar (2010). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, the bas-reliefs carved on the frontal sides are facing either downwards or upwards or the right or left (Ibid.:313,322,324). Hence their pattern is less clear to be easily defined (Ibid.:313,322,324). The author suggests that the dynamism and mostly centripetal orientation of zoomorphic depictions may refer to the liminal space of the enclosure calling for animal spirits to its centre (Ibid.:313,322,324). Providing that the ‘T’- shaped pillars represent anthropomorphic spiritual beings, as mentioned above (Schmidt 2010), the enclosures can be identified as places of encounter between humans and animal spirits (Busacca 2017:313,322,324). In this context zoomorphic images play the role of the bridge between human and non-human beings (Ibid.:313,322,324).

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Pillar 2 from Enclosure A with low reliefs of possibly a bull, fox and a crane. Photo by Teomancimit  (2011). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Busacca (2017) also emphasizes the importance of the iconographic repertoire in any attempt of interpreting enigmatic functions of Göbekli Tepe. Unlike in post-agricultural societies within which wild animals meant danger and wilderness, hunter-gatherers would have had rather social and inter-personal attitudes towards such beasts, still without excluding the always present threat of their violence, which is probably expressed by aggressive aspects of zoomorphic representations (Ibid.:327). The author suggests that “socialising with the animal on the peer-to-peer basis would be just another way of ‘domesticating’ the animal without bringing it under complete human control” (Ibid.:327). Such an idea, however, would contradict the interpretation proposed by Schmidt, according to which the carved ‘T’- shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe show humans completely superior to animals. Although Schmidt’s assumption does not negate the whole idea of ontological relations between humans and animals, their character would be quite different from that defined by Busacca (2017).

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.).

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Cygnus constellation with the brightest star Deneb. Photo by Star Walk (2017).

The 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.).

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Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). 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

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.).

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

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.

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Yeşilyurt M. (2014). Die wissenschaftliche Interpretation von Göbeklitepe. Die Theorie und das Forschungsprogramm. Berlin: LIT.

Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge

In May 2012, a NASA satellite passed over a 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 rock 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. Source: Louise (2013).

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. Tej Kumar Book Depo. Source: “Sita” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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). 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.

Fairy tales …?

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, it fits well in the sphere of myths, which is believed to have been actually presented in the epic. For many scholars 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 many 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). 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).


Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai in a modern version of Ramayana, Raavan (2010). Movie shot. Source: Raavan (2010) Catchplay.com+ TW.

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. 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. Source: Tiwari (2018).

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 on 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.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. Source: Tiwari (2018) and Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017).

“On the first day, fourteen yojans of bridge was constructed by the monkeys speedily, thrilled with delight as they were, resembling elephants. In the same manner, on the second day twenty yojans of bridge was constructed speedily by the monkeys of terrific bodies and of mighty strength. Thus, on the third day twenty-one yojans of the bridge was constructed in the ocean speedily by the monkeys with their colossal bodies. On the fourth day, a further of twenty-two yojans was constructed by the dashing monkeys with a great speed. In that manner, on the fifth day, the monkeys working quickly constructed twenty-three yojans of the bridge up to the other seashore.”


The translated version of the excerpt taken from Ramayana, describing the construction of Ram Setu. In: Tiwari (2018).

What could an archaeologist uncover?

Since the bridge was built, the layers of sand have accumulated over the structure making sandbars and shoals (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Some scholars, like Alok Tripathi, believe that archaeological examination of the site would uncover the successive layers of the ancient bridge, at the bottom of which, there should be the solidified wood, which would have become carbonaceous material over thousands of years (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Roy Chowdhury 2017). Consequently, Tripathi has submitted research proposal to investigate the structure (Roy Chowdhury 2017). He argues that the “belief that Rama’s army built that bridge is well-established. [The Vanara may have] filled the gaps between the islets with stones and logs [and] archaeological investigation may reveal material evidence, if any” (Ibid.).

The marine archaeologist, Alok Tripathi, working at the sunken legendary city of Dwarka, India, in 2007. Photo by Alok Tripathi. Source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017).

Historical records of fiction

According to historical records, such a land connection between India and Sri Lanka, as described by Ramayana, really existed and it was first mentioned in the ninth century AD in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, who refers to it as Set Bandhhai, which means Bridge of the Sea (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). By all accounts, the causeway interconnected Rameswaram Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu (Palk Strait), in India, and Mannar Island (Gulf of Mannar), off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka (Ibid.) and “was reportedly passable on foot up to the fifteenth century until storms deepened the channel. The Rameshwaram temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in […] 1480” (Ibid.).

Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon and Ram Setu reaching to India. Claudius Ptolemaeus (fl. AD 127-145, Alexandria). Map from Admin (2013).

Nevertheless, the structure was still marked on the nineteenth century’ maps. In 1804, a British cartographer describes the same structure as Adam’s bridge “in reference to an Abrahamic myth, in which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain, which the British identified with Adam’s Peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for one thousand years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint” (Ibid.). Yet, according to the Hindu tradition, the footprint has been actually left by the god Shiva.

Aerial photos

The Rama’ bridge was brought again into attention by aerial images sent by NASA in 2012. The stones in the satellite image are sitting on something that the oceanographers call a shoal or sandbar (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, geological evidence suggests that the ‘bridge’ was “made with chain of limestone shoals surrounded by a shallow sea of one to ten meters depth” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Some geologists, as Dr Erin Argyilan, admit that “the structure occurs in an area where there is shallow waters and sand could accumulate between two land masses [over the time]” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). As a result, a long and narrow strip of land was composed (Ibid.).

Natural or manmade

There is no doubt such a structure exists but the key matter is now answering the question whether the construction is natural or manmade. Provided evidence could either reject or at least partially confirm the events described by Ramayana.  

Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480, when it may have been yet passable. Map found via reddit from Brilliant Maps (2015).

In the past, some scholars claimed it to “[have been] formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it had been [shaped] by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). However, the fact that the remains of the structure are situated in the place indicated by the epic is itself quite intriguing. In case it is a natural formation, as some researchers believe, it would mean that the author of Ramayana or earlier oral folks must have based a description of the “fictional” Ram Setu on the appearance of the actual causeway joining India with Sri Lanka. On the other side, there is evidence supporting the claim that this strip of land is the same one described in Hindu literature (Louise 2013).

NASA and geology

Although Ram Setu was once believed to be a natural deposition of sand, silt and small pebbles, the NASA images definitely show it looks more like a broken bridge under the ocean’s surface than a creation of nature (Louise 2013; Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan, the former director of the Geological Survey of India thoroughly studied the causeway and went to conclusions in favour of the theory saying it is an artificial construction (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Also other interdisciplinary scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, claim that “although the sandbar may be natural, what is sitting above it is not” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Marc D’Antonio, the NASA Image Analyst agrees that it is not just a simple sandbar (Ibid.). He says: “there are larger objects within it that have not been eroded away” (Ibid.). Dr Alan Lester, the geologist identifies “these objects as stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of the sandbar island chain” (Ibid.). Dr Badrinarayanan justifies the same by the presence of coral reef above loose sands layer for the entire stretch of the causeway (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). As he explains “corals normally form above rocks and not over sand layers” (Ibid.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia. Source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017).

Traditional research methods also supported the NASA results by a deeper analysis of the causeway layers . A team of Indian archaeologists and geologists had embarked on the underwater expedition to physically explore the mysterious structure (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). “Dr Badrinarayanan and his team drilled [ten] bore holes along the alignment of [Ram Setu]. What [they] discovered was startling. About [six] meters below the surface they found a consistent layer of calcareous sand stone, corals and boulder like materials” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).  Next, some four to five meters further down, the team discovered layers of loose sand, and then again hard rock formations below the sand (Ibid.). But how the stones got above the sand layer is a mystery (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

Today some sections are still only between 1 and 10 meters (3 and 30 feet deep) as can be seen in this photo from NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite. Photo and caption from Brilliant Maps (2015).

According to further analysis of the boulders, the team of divers claims “they were not composed of a typical marine formation [but] they were identified as having come from either side of the causeway” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan’s team also indicates that stone boulders may have been quarried from either shore to be finally placed upon the sandy bottom and form the causeway (Ibid.). Could they be the so-called floating stones found in the coastal area of Rameshwaram?

Time for dating

Providing the above scientific results, it is strongly indicated that the structure in the satellite image is not natural but created artificially. And when a team of geologists dates the stones the mystery deepens … (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

In 2003, “a team from the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University, […] led by Professor S.M. Ramasamy […] claimed that the “Rama’s bridge could only be 3,500 years old, [which is hardly 1 500 BC and] as the carbon dating of the beaches roughly matches the dates of Ramayana, its link to the epic needs to be explored” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Professor S.M. Ramasamy did not mention, however that the carbon dating in 2013 had been conducted ultimately on corals grown on the causeway itself and so it represents only the age of the corals, not the stones (Ibid.). Meantime, the rocks underneath the corals have been dated back to thousands of years earlier (Ibid.).

Video Material. Source: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI).

The archaeologist, Chelsea Rose also notices that “the rocks on top of the sand actually predate the sand so there’s more to the story” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, scientific analysis of the stones reveals they are around seven thousands years old but are sitting on top of sand that is only four thousand years old (Ibid.).

Further dating

Such dating has been also supported by another method, which is apparently against the theory of the floating stones.

Today the causeway is around two metres below the present day sea-level, which can be explained by the fact that such floating stones as pumice would have eventually sunk (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Das 2017:26). Whereas the alternative theory says that the boulders were supported by the wooded scaffolding and when the bridge was completed they must have been at least one metre above the water level (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). In this case, the sea must have risen around three metres since the construction of the bridge took place (Ibid.). As oceanography reports say, in the course of seven thousand years, three metres rise of the sea level has occurred in the ocean due to climatic changes, such as global warming (Ibid.). Consequently, using such a dating tool, the bridge can be dated again to around 5 000 BC (Ibid.).

In spite of significant differences in dating the events of Ramayana, It can be definitely concluded that the causeway itself must be an artificial construction. Moreover, due to the overwhelming evidence, it can be convincingly dated back to around 5 000 BC, unless there is another strong evidence against such dating. At this point, it is not risky to suggest that the material remains of the bridge between India and Sri Lanka are equivalent to the structure described in Ramayana, and by these means, the bridge itself can become a basis for the chronology of the epic.

If the bridge exists, who built it?

What about Ramayana’s characters? Did they really exist? On the Indian subcontinent, such ancient texts as Ramayana or Mahabharata are taken literally so there is a strong conviction they tell the truth. And although such protagonists as Rama or Ravana are historical for Hindus, most western scholars reject the epic as a historical record and treat it as a legend or even a fairy tale.

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Source: Wikiwand (2020).

According to the sacred texts of the Ramayana, the bridge was built by the Vanara, the demigod ape-men (Louise 2013). Dr Rita Louise (2013) suggests that it may be a real story if we assume the ‘high’ time frames for the Treta Yuga are correct. If so, by introducing the Vanara ape-men, Ramayana may actually refer to the representatives of Homo erectus (upright man) who appeared in Eurasia by around 2 million years ago (Louise 2013).

Nevertheless, researchers are more likely to believe these were humans who constructed the bridge themselves, without any supernatural powers. Marc D’Antonio suggests that although it must have been a gargantuan task, “ancient people transported stones in to cover areas to make them higher and so make it more passable to keep the bridge” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). If the ancient text of Ramayana refers to a time of 5 000 BC, at this point in mankind history, building such a long bridge would have been a superhuman achievement (Ibid.). Still Dr Patrick Hunt, the archaeologist, claims that humans surely were capable to build the Ram Setu, as much as they were able to design and erect such megastructure as the Pyramids of Giza (Ibid.).

Ravana abducting Sita. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). Source: Vanara (2020) In: Wikipedia.

Also in India and Sri Lanka there are incredible ancient structures including mysterious religious monuments (Ibid.). “For this reason” says Hunt’, “we should never underestimate people of the past. If archaeological investigation actually finds that these chains of islands was indeed man made, it really could change our understanding of ancient people’s times and technologies” (Ibid.). Likewise, Marc D’Antonio admits that “the people who designed and built the bridge must have actually been very clever engineers and they certainly would have found a way to maintain this connection using stones and bring them in to actually make some type of a bridge between Sri Lanka and India” (Ibid.).

Other questions without an answer

There are, however, other questions one should answer. Generally, if scholars agree that men were skilled enough to build such megastructures as Ram Setu thousands of years ago, it must be also admitted that even in their times they were highly advanced in terms of technology and engineering. Meantime, archaeological finds in Egypt expose a number of primitive tools, which are claimed to have been used in the third millennium BC by the builders of the Giza Pyramids.

Tools, which were apparently used by the builders of the Egyptian pyramids. Documentary shot from Grimault, Pooyard (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids.

‘If they built pyramids with such tools’ one would say. ‘They had been able to build the bridge across the ocean as well’.

Yet, according to the theory of evolution, human technology should have been even less developed at the time of Ram Setu, which is believed to be an earlier construction than the Egyptian pyramids, not to mention the megalithic constructions of Göbekli Tepe, which are dated back even to 10 000 BC. In this case, how is it possible to explain that after all contemporary people were able to make it? Could it be sure that it was possible to construct the bridge only by means of primitive tools, said to be available at that stage of technological development? (Grimault, Pooyard 2012)

A ceremonial textile hanging with the depiction of the Combat of Rama and Ravana; late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA. Source: the Metropolitan Museum (2020).

One would say ‘yes’ as the tangible proof exists (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). So all the ancient constructions were made by simple means because they are there, and they were built at the time when men only used simple means so the fact that such constructions exist proves that it was possible to do it with simple means (Ibid.). But are such dead-end conclusions correct? After the engineer, Robert Bauval, the given ‘context [of the ancient architecture simply] does not fit the evidence’ (Burns 2010).

Endless debate

Although the science has approved that the causeway between India and Sri Lanka is artificial, there are still fierce debates on the matter of the bridge’s connections with Ramayana’s legendary events (Tiwari 2018). People in India strongly believe in the supreme powers that have helped in the construction of the causeway, yet it is hard, especially for western scholars, to acknowledge the explanation of the bridge’s appearance through a mythological perspective (Ibid.). However, irrespective of the means used for its construction, Rama’s Bridge should be undoubtedly considered as an engineering masterpiece (Das 2017:27).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Ravana abducting Sita”. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). In: “Vanara” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ff6YwM>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

“The Celestial Chariot” (2020) In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aUfcHy>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Aerial image of Rama Setu in: Vinayak, A. (2018) “10 Mysterious Things About Ram Setu”. In: Native Planet. Explore your World. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ddbNoN>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Tej Kumar Book Depo. In: “Sita” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ff8rTO>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Basu, A. (2016) “Ramayana Definition”. In: Ancient History. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aQRxHN>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

Burns, K. (2010) “The Evidence”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 1, Episode 1. USA: Prometheus Entertainment.

Das V. M., Dr (2017) “Adam’s Bridge Formation (Floating of Stones) By Virtue of Prayer Done By Lord Ram Rather than Any Miracle Claimed By Hindu Believers . it Was Lawlessness That Triggered By Unconditioned Thought Expression By First order Of Universe (AGE By Quantum Entanglement)”. In: IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education (IOSR-JRME), Vol. 7, Issue 6 Ver. VII, pp. 25-56.

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

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Source: Wikiwand (2020). Available at <https://bit.ly/2Sugoe9>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

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

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Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie D. (1913). In: “Rama” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SJmCqX>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Jagadisa Ayyar, P. V. (1996) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delphi-Madras: Asian Educational Services

Louise R., Dr (2013) “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aSVfRj>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Map found via reddit (published in 2015) “Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480”. In: Brilliant Maps. Available at <https://bit.ly/3c0j3US>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Mittal, J.P. (2006) History Of Ancient India (a New Version) : From 7300 BC To 4250 BC. Vol. 1. New Delphi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors.

Movie shot from: Ratnam M., Trilok S. (2010) Raavan. Madras Talkies, India. In: (2020) Catchplay.com+ TW.

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Ptolomey’s Map. In: Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne Medium. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VWM7Wo>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Scroll.in. Available at <https://bit.ly/2yYFjzG>. [Accessed 1st May, 2020].

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Van Nooted, B. A. (2000) “Introduction” In: Buck, W. (2000) Ramayana. Delphi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Video Material: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI). Available at <https://bit.ly/2VTAAIJ>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

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The Holy Land Translated into a Mosaic

It was the end of January when my group was travelling north from Petra through the King’s Highway, in Jordan. It was the very moment when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had started and we learnt about it a few days earlier, while crossing the Israelite-Jordan border (see Mount Sinai Trekking). But we did not stop our study trip and continued to discover Jordan’s archaeological treasure till the time we had to come back to Sinai, in Egypt.

Travelling around Jordan

Madaba in Jordan

After having stopped at one of large Crusader castles – the Kerak, we headed off to Madaba, the city situated  half an hour south of the capital. “It is a relatively small [urban area] that is nowadays home to around 60,000 people” (Esparza 2017). Throughout history, the site has been populated by “the Moabites, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Rashidun and the Umayyad” (Ibid.). It “is now home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around [ten percent] of the total population of Madaba (Ibid.) and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ (Mack 2018). “Archaeologists affirm Madaba has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age” (Esparza 2017). The Bible itself mentions Madaba twice (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9) (Ibid.). “The city then stood in the very borders of the Moabite empire [but] during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the [second to the seventh], when the Christian community of the city established itself” (Ibid.).

The nineteenth century Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint George

What did the Middle East and, precisely, the Holy Land look like in the early days of Christianity (till around 614 AD)? Today,  those days are brought to life by a legendary, ancient mosaic forming a map on the floor of Saint George’s Church in Madaba, in Jordan (Stakelbeck 2018).

Early Christian mosaic map within a modern church

MOSAIC a design made by cementing small pieces (tesserae) of hard, coloured substances (e.g. marble, glass, ceramic or semi-prcious stones) to a base.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:141)
Dr. Merav Mack showing the patches of the mosaic under the carpet; in the shot from the documentary: “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: Stakelbeck, The Watchman.

Dr. Merav Mack (2018), a research associate from German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman, calls the mosaic one of the oldest maps in history of the Holy Land. “Originally, the map measured 21×7 meters, and was made with more than two million ‘tesserae’ (mosaic stones)” (Esparza 2017). Nowadays, its patches cover of the floor space in the apse of the active and rather modest nineteenth century Greek Orthodox church, yet adorned with some of the most beautiful icons in the region (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018; Raezer 2020). The modern church was built on the site of the sixth century Byzantine temple (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018). There, the mosaic map was originally designed on the floor of the apse. While a service is going on in the church, carpets are rolled down all over to protect the remains of the mosaic, and when the service is over, the carpets are rolled up again for visitors coming inside the church to expose the mosaic map (Mack 2018).

Intriguing characteristics

“Interestingly, the map is not oriented northwards, like modern maps are” (Esparza 2017) but to the East, towards the altar of the church (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018). In its center, there is an elliptical layout of the Holy City – Jerusalem (Sani 2014; Mack 2018). And although the map also features other famous and significant cities of the region, such as Jericho, Ascalon and Gaza (Mack 2018), it especially constitutes a unique guide to the Old City of Jerusalem, represented with all its major characteristics (Rogoff 2013). And irrespective of some minor errors in its layout (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995), the Madaba map remains one of the most important and revealing representation of the sixth century Christian Middle East (Esparza 2017). It is features more than one hundred and fifty cities, towns, and villages (Ibid.), “including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places” (Ibid.).

One of the boats floating on the Dead Sea

At the top of the map, there is a representation of the Dead Sea with the blue horizontal stripes symbolising waves, on which two boats are floating (Mack 2018). Inside them, there are sitting human figures (Ibid.). They are now defaced, which is apparently the result of the Muslim rule in the area (Ibid.). In the sixth century, when the map was created, the whole depicted land was under the Eastern Christianized Roman Empire: there were monasteries scattered densely around, especially in the desert, housing around five thousands monks (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018).

The River Jordan with two fishes facing each other.

The map also shows the part of land where the mosaic is preserved today, which is in the hills, on the eastern side of the River Jordan (Mack 2018). The latter is shown as a ribbon of water with depictions of fishes (Ibid.). Actually, in one section, there are “two fishes facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea […] Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians” (Ibid.), for one of their early symbols was fish. Additionally, the River Jordan is important as the site of Jesus’ Baptism (Mack 2018). The city of Madaba, itself should be located somewhere in the hills, at the point where the map is unfortunately cut off and ruined (Ibid.). Generally, “much of the map’s tiles have been chipped away or been destroyed but a large contiguous piece of the map still exists illustrating both locations and names ranging from geographic features to cities” (Liza B 2020).

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΠΟΛΙϹ ΊΈΡΟΥϹΑ[ΛΗΜ] (Greek: The Holy City of Jerusalem)

The Holy City of Jerusalem in the sixth century.

Generally, “the mosaic covers lands from Egypt to Lebanon, including sites such as Bethlehem and Gethsemane, but [as it is underlined above], the gem of the mosaic is the detailed representation of the city of Jerusalem” (Liza B 2020). The picture of Jerusalem is additionally highly ideological (Mack 2018). The city “was considered the navel of the earth, [as the place] of God’s salvation history” (Sani 2014), and so physically and metaphorically situated at the very heart of the contemporary Christian world (Mack 2018). And although it was depicted “completely out of proportion to the scale of the map, [it was] entirely in proportion to its historical and spiritual significance. [Accordingly], the detail of the Holy City is remarkable, down to the level of identifiable structures” (Rogoff 2013). Jerusalem of the sixth century “was an expansion of the Aelia Capitolina, as it was rebuilt and renamed by pagan Rome 400 years earlier” (Ibid.).

From a general layout to details

The Madaba map reflects Jerusalem’s contemporary landmarks: the Holy City is surrounded around by thick walls, protected by nineteen towers (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). “The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left)” (Raezer 2020). Actually, “a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople” (Ibid.). According to the perspective applied in the Madaba map, “the western part of the city-wall is shown from outside, the eastern part from inside” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995).  

Starting from left, that is to say, the north part of the city, there is the largest gate of Jerusalem consistent with Damascus Gate (1), and called Saint Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century (Rogoff 2013; Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). The gate is flanked by two towers and leads to an oval square with the tall column topped probably with the statue of the emperor Hadrian (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). The Arabic name of the gate, Bab el-Amud, which means the Gate of the Column, indicates that it existed yet after the Arabs’ invasion in the seventh century (Rogoff 2013). From the east, the city is opened by the so-called Gate of the Sheep Pool (2) (today’s Saint Stephen’s Gate) (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). To the south of it, there is the Gate Beautiful (3), aka Golden Gate, leading to the temple area, and farther, there is Dung Gate (4), seen from a different perspective than the previous three (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the south of the city, there is Sion Gate (5), from which the main street goes across the city to Damascus Gate (1) (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the west, there is Jaffa Gate (6), called Gate of the Tower in the sixth century, which is depicted here from the front. (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

From north to south

The Cardo Maximus (the main street in Ancient Roman cities) is running across the city, from north to south, that is to say, from Damascus Gate (1) to Sion Gate (5) (Mack 2018; Liza B 2020). It is lined with a row of columns on each side and covered with a roof (Ibid.). “Its western colonnade is interrupted by the staircase of the Anastasis-Church (7), known as the Church of Holy Sepulchre [whereas] the eastern one ends in front of the Nea Theotokos-Church (12)” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apparently, the mosaicist’s aim was to point out to the fact that the Cardo leads from both sides to the middle of the city, which is actually marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Mack 2018). In reality, the Church has never been centrally placed in the city (Ibid.). However, by placing it in the center of the map, the very idea of Christianity was expressed, namely the picture of heavenly Jerusalem with the holiest sites of Christian faith, where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he finally resurrected (Ibid.). Authors of the mosaic also represented the Church’s details, such as four steps leading to its three gates, and at its top – the golden dome, which is hovering above the tomb of Christ (Ibid.).

Jerusalem with its landmarks. Photo from Raezer, J. (2020).

The surprising fact is that “the street network of Byzantine Jerusalem remains essentially unchanged today, even in the modern Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Old City” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apart from the Cardo, there are four other streets depicted: the “second street begins on the east side of the oval square under an arch and runs to the south until the Dung Gate (4). It is colonnaded as well, but only the eastern colonnade is visible. […] The third street, starting from [the Gate of the Sheep Pool (St. Stephen’s Gate)] (2), is the beginning of the Christian ‘Via Dolorosa.’ [The] fourth street without columns — the Decumanus of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem – starts from Jaffa Gate (6) and runs to the east. It seems to end at the main street (Cardo Maximus). The fifth street, finally, branches off the Decumanus to the south: this is, probably, the Armenian Street” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Single buildings and constructions

Jerusalem with the main street (Cardo Maximus) across the city; from northern Damascus Gate to the southern Sion Gate.

Apart from centrally positioned Church of Holy Sepulchre, other main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem are also represented by the mosaicist (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Baptistery of the Church of the Anastasis (8) “stands west of a light-brown trapezoidal space, probably the market-place(Forum) of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). However, “its identification with the baptistery of the Holy Sepulchre [remains] uncertain. [Then, there is the] Church of the Sheep Pool (Probatica) (10), built in the first half of the [fifth] century over [the site] where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, [but it] was destroyed by the Persians in 614” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). Another church is the already mentioned “New Church of the Mother of God (Nea Theotokos) (12), built by the emperor Justinian and consecrated on November 20, 542, [which is] a fact important for dating the Madaba [map. Next, there are the] Basilica on Mount Sion (14), one of the most important churches in Jerusalem, second only to that of the Holy Sepulchre, [and] Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mount Sion (15), attached to the basilica in the south, for a time used as the Martyrium of St. Stephen. [Finally, there are also depicted the] Church of the House of Caiphas (16), [then the] Church of St. Sophia (17) [possibly standing] on the ruins of Pilate’s Praetorium, [and], the Church of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus (18)” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem shown “upside down” with the golden dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (visible above it).

There are also two other buildings identifiable in the Madaba map (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). In the eastern part of the map, there is “Temple Esplanade (22), indicated by a black line of cubes only [and the] Citadel (al-Qalca) (19), [situated in the west] on the right side of the Jaffa Gate (6). The Citadel of Jerusalem had been improved by Herod the Great. The Herodian Citadel was protected by three strong towers. […] Two of them are represented on the Madaba map, the bigger one identical with what is still called the ‘Tower of David” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Madaba map’s dating

Preserved patches of the precious mosaic on the floor of the apse.

The mosaic map was uncovered in Madaba in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1897 (Donner 1992-1995:13; Esparza 2017). It is dated back to the second half of the sixth century, which is also ascribed to its general style and special contents (Ibid.:13). By all accounts, the map tiles may have been composed into the floor mosaic probably during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian (527-565), and before 614, when Palestine was devastated by the Islamic Persians (Ibid.:14). Some observations on the map are also very useful in its dating (Ibid.:14). As mentioned above, in the depiction of Jerusalem, there is already the New Basilica of the Mother of God (Nea-Theotokos), which was consecrated in 542 (Ibid.:14). It is hence clear that the map itself was made later (Ibid.:14). Moreover, there are four churches on the map, which had been first mentioned in circa 570, namely the churches of Galgala, of the Egyptian Martyrs near Ascalon, of Saint Victor near Gaza, and the church of Zacharias (Ibid.:14).

Maps of the Mediterranean

Today, the map is one of the most significant archaeological “sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine both west and east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, as well as of Lower Egypt” (Donner 1992-1995:13). Consequently, it is the oldest known geographic map of Palestine in existence, except for “a small section of the so-called Peutinger Plates” (Donner 1992-1995:13). The latter comes from the fourth century A.D. and constitutes a road map of the Roman Empire, now preserved in Vienna, in Austria, as a medieval parchment copy of a possible Roman original record (Ibid.:13).

One side of the Jordan River. The Madaba map gives astonishingly many details.

Such mosaic pavements as the Madaba map were widely common in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially in the Mediterranean region and among them, there are also analogous mosaic representations of cities or even villages, for example the sixth century mosaics from Antioch or Jerash (Donner 1992-1995:13). However, the way in which they are represented substantially differs from the map depicted in the mosaic of Madaba (Ibid.:13). Mostly, the former give a more pictorial view of cities mainly depicted from the front (Ibid.:13). This manner of representation is also observed on the Madaba map but to a smaller degree (Ibid.:13). Yet more significant elements of the map under study, such as large cities, are usually depicted from above, which is a manner typical of a modern cartography (Ibid.:13). Additionally, all illustrated landmarks are accompanied by the Greek inscriptions for a better understanding of the picture. The writings are in different style (Ibid.:18): “black on a bright background, white on a dark background, red for texts of special importance. Some belong to cities or villages, others recall Biblical events or quote Biblical texts” (Ibid.:18).

Inferior and superior purposes of the Madaba map

The Holy Land seen in a bird’s eye view for the very first time.

Even if the sixth century examples are similar in style to the Madaba map, contemporary exact parallels depicted in a bird’s eye view are not known (Donner 1992-1995:13). As far as the Madaba map’ contents are concerned, it could have been made for different purposes (Ibid.:14). One of them, although interior, “was surely the intention to offer  information for Christian pilgrims” (Ibid.:30). Herbert Donner (1992-1995:14) claims that the Madaba map itself “looks like a cartographic illustration of two pilgrims’ reports from the sixth century: the first one written by the archdeacon Theodosius, […] the other one by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, [the so-called Anonymous of Piacenza]. We may add the so-called Breviarius de Hierosolyma (Short Description of Jerusalem), […] containing only a description of the Holy City. Naturally, not everything that these reports describe can be found on the Madaba map” (Ibid.:14). Apart from being just a guide for contemporary pilgrims, one of the superior purposes of the map was “the realisation of the exceptional idea, totally unknown before the [sixth] century, to illustrate God’s salvation history in a map. On the mosaic map both Testaments […] are represented and the holy sites are [fully] displayed to the spectator’s eyes. Further purposes can be considered, for example, a clear liturgical [and symbolical] function” (Ibid.:30).

An original illustration of God’s salvation history in a map.

Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the Madaba map was not just a metaphorical collections of Biblical illustrations with inscriptions but a real geographical and topographical map of the Holy Land (Ibid.:18). Accordingly, “it is not only the oldest but also the most exact map” (Ibid.:18) of the region before the appearance of modern cartography in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:18).

Madaba in the past and today

Madaba deliberately surrendered to the Muslims in 614. Consequently, the city was not destroyed and so the temple of Madaba, which was also dedicated to Saint George, may have been still used as an active church (Donner 1992-1995:14). Unfortunately, the eighth century brought an earthquake [and the fire] destroyed the temple. The city had subsequently been abandoned until the nineteenth century (Esparza 2017). “In the year 1884, when the new church of [Saint] George was being built in the place in which the old basilica stood, the mosaic was [uncovered], and incorporated in the new building across from the church’s magnificent iconostasis” (Ibid.). And even if it was made for the purposes of the early Christian Church, it is still valued in the eyes of modern pilgrims coming to the Holy Land, and visiting Madaba itself.

Christians made ten percent of the total population of Madaba and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ

Having left Saint George’s church, we also studied another sixth century mosaic work, namely the so-called Hippolytus Hall mosaic in Madaba’s Archaeological Park. This time, however, the intricate floor mosaic was not designed for the church but for a Byzantine private villa, and represents not a Christian story, but an ancient myth. Such a melange is in abundance in Jordan and everywhere in the Middle East, where various aspects of different cultures, traditions and religions have collided or intertwined for centuries.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Donner, H. (1992-1995) The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Palestina Aniqua 7. The Netherlands, Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Esparza, D. (2017) “The ‘Madaba Map’ is the oldest surviving original cartographic description of the Holy Land.” In: Aleteia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XGi9sj>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Liza B (2020) ”Madaba Mosaic Map” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/2V6c4U8>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

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

Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: Stakelbeck, E. The Watchman. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Raezer, J. (2020) “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides. Available at <https://bit.ly/34FIZ5a>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Rogoff, M. (2013) “A Mosaic of Jerusalem on the Ancient Madaba Map” In: Haaretz. Available at <https://bit.ly/3a7gRJs>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sani, E. (2014) “Madaba Map: The Holy City of Jerusalem” In: Flickr. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ydxrKr>. [Accessed 15th April, 2020].

Stakelbeck, E. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: The Watchman. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RBuCcO>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Al Fresco vs al Secco and Controversial Examples of Murals

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo from: “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour” (2008-2020).

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:195)
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -12 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Photo from: Wikipedia (2020).

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BCE. Thera Foundation, Petros M. Nomikos, Greece. Photo from: Richards, B., Sherman, H., Richardson E. (2001)

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Photo and caption from Dr. German, S. (2020). The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

Decorated prayer niche. Inv. No. 7987. Tempera Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah, cell 1725, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Coptic Cairo). Photo from: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum (2020)..

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:213)

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo from: Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014).
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo from: Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) .

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption from: Sekhon, B. (2020)

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Sigiriya
Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera?

Medium

As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

Sigiriya
One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

Ajanta painting. Photo from Hortman, J. (2020)

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.) (a separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over 50 meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco.

Pigments used

Furthermore, the author observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption from Sekhon, B. (2020) .

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67). Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … Photo from Rainbow. J. (2020).

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption from Sekhon, B. (2020) .

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

(Havel 1905 in: Dhanapala:66)
“Gallery of Art” at Sigiriya. Photo from Debutante, D., Cator, J. (2020) .

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site, also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unresolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented and the purpose they were made for at all.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cupola decoration” (6th century; mural painting in Coptic Museum, Cairo) (1996-2020). In: Web Gallery of Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T9xCOB>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

“Decorated prayer niche” (Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah) (2020) In: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uJZQq0>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

“Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/396c1fR>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

“Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” (2008-2020). In: Get Your Guide. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VvzrXU>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Dalrymple, W. (2014) “The Ajanta cave murals: ‘nothing less than the birth of Indian art’.” In: The Guardian. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pu9pAB>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

De Silva, R. (2019) “The Sigiriya Ladies: Who were they, why were they painted?” Available at <https://bit.ly/388vTxC>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Debutante, D., Cator, J. (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T90uXi>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Dhanapala, D.B. (Date is not provided) A Short Note on the Technique of the Sigiriya Pictures. University of Ceylon Review, pp. 64-68.

Dr. German, S. (2020) “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Hortman, J. “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest. Available at <https://bit.ly/39d6PGK >. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Jaspal, N. (2007) “Frescoes vs Tempera”. In: Heritage Preservation Atelier. Virtus and Labor. Available at <https://bit.ly/37XeEPy>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Kovalsky, V. (2013) “Chapter 2 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <https://bit.ly/32AEaZR>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

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

MacTaggart, J. (2020) “Italian Renaissance Art – Fresco Painting”. In: Artfactory. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wRxril>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Rainbow. J. (2020) “Apsara With Flowers. Sigiriya Cave Painting Art Print”. In: Fineartamerica. Available at <https://bit.ly/2I10NgK>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Richards, B., Sherman, H., Richardson E. (2001) “Frescoes from Thera” In: Greek Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/32E8GSD>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Sekhon, B. (2020) “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Vtr27t>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Somathilake, M. (2007) Further Analysis on Fresco and Tempera: An Analysis of the Technique of Murals in South Asia. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 53, pp. 109-132.

Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang

After about two hours and 120 km drive from Siem Reap, we were slowly reaching Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site with Cambodia’s second largest temple complex plunged in the jungle (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015).

King’s un/reasonable decision

In 924, for unknown reasons, King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker from Angkor, located around 60 km away (Lawrence 2020).

The Empire of Khmers with its capital in Angkor was once a dominant power in South East Asia, from 802 AD to 1431 AD (Quijada Plubins 2013). “At its peak, [it] covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam” (Ibid.). First, mainly Hinduism, then Buddhism were dominant religions in the region. (Ibid.). The Khmer were great architects and engineers. They mastered designing and building huge monumental temples with intricate carvings and sculpture – the landmarks of contemporary landscape (Ibid.). They also constructed huge reservoirs, known as baray, canals and an extensive road network with bridges (Ibid.).

Off the beaten track

The area of Koh Ker is still mined

The site of Koh Ker is off the beaten track for tourists (Lawrence 2020) visiting mostly the medieval capital of the Empire – Angkor. Yet Koh Ker stays one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Cambodia (Ibid.). In the past, it was called either Lingapura (city of lingams) or Chok Gargyar (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019) – translated as a city of glance (hematite) (Jolyon, Chau 2013), or as an iron tree forest (Kàdas 2010:8-9; Sibson 2019). One of the most intriguing facts about it is a great number of temples (180 sanctuaries) built in the area just for two decades of the 10th century, especially when Koh Ker was the actual capital of the Empire (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). As the area has only been partially de-mined after the war, only a small percentage of local temples can be visited (around 25) (Ibid.)

Three small prasats in the jungle

Making its way through the heavily forested area, our bus was bumping along muddy potholed and narrow road. Every ten seconds we were jumping up on our seats. Finally, I felt sick.

‘I have eaten too much soup for breakfast this morning,’ I admitted. ‘My stomach is coming up to my throat… The bowl was too big.’

My friend, Gosia, looked at me eloquently. ‘Too big?, ’she replied. ‘You could do hand washing in it!’

I was just going to defend my gluttony when our driver suddenly slowed down and exclaimed, ‘Take a look!’. He pointed out of the window to a row of three small sanctuaries of Prasat Pram, with two structures nearby, known as libraries (Lawrence 2020). They all looked like playing hide and seek behind the green paravane of trees. Nature had already taken over the site by its green branches sprouting upwards from the temples and cascading in tangled rooting down and around the buildings.

A while after, the bus stopped and its single door opened with a squeak.

‘Here we are, ‘the guide said. ‘Half an hour for this small marvel’.

Prasat Neang Khmau – the Black Temple

At once, everyone spilled out of the bus into the humid and hot air of the jungle. Anyway, after one week in Cambodia I had already got used to this tropical weather with drops of sweat running constantly down my back. It was November. The rainy season was coming to an end, still with some disturbing heavy showers from time to time. It was at once hot and cool but I preferred that over the air-conditioned temperature inside the bus.

We stood just in front of another temple, the solitary Prasat Neang Khmau. Its walls had blackened, possibly due to a fire in the forest that happened in the past (Lawrence 2020). “Despite being dedicated to Shiva, it faces west, while almost all other Shiva temples built by the Khmers face east” (Ibid.). Before we came back to the bus I climbed up the temple to look inside. The lingam altar table (yet with broken lingam) was standing there in the middle with incense sticks and flowers left there as gifts. “Furthermore, the lintel carving above the door featured a rare depiction of Brahma, though this can hardly be made out now due to erosion” (Ibid.).

The entrance to Prasat Neang Khmau

On the further way to the main temple of Koh Ker, we also took a glimpse of Prasat Chen, where the masterpieces of Khmer sculpture were once discovered (Lawrence 2020), and then we stopped at Andong Peng – rectangular pond filled with water (Ibid.). The area around us was heavily forested; each element was harmoniously merging with the jungle (Ibid.).except for a narrow path boring through the green thicket. After leaving the bus behind, it became our principal guide on the way to the heart of Koh Ker.

To the heart of Koh Ker

The chief component of Koh Ker complex is made by Jayavarman IV’s state temple – Prasat Thom. However, some of its structures had already existed, when Koh Ker became the capital of the Empire in 928 (Sopheak 2020). We were approaching it from the south-west. To the east of our path, there was the capital’s central reservoir, called Rahal Baray but we turned westwards to face a procession way going along the east-west axis (more precisely 15 degrees to the north-east), on which the main temple is arranged (Sopheak 2020). The whole complex is surrounded by the outer wall, divided further into two rectangular enclosures (Ibid.). The front one defines the limits of a moat, whereas the rear one encompasses the true highlight of the main temple – a stepped pyramid, referred to as Prasat Prang (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Generally, the main axis runs through the horizontally arranged, successive levels of the temple to finally reach seven ascending steps of the pyramid and climb up its peak – the holy of the holiest.

In front of the Eastern Gopuram

Central and linear

At the doorstep of the temple complex

The whole complex of Koh Ker is outstanding in the background of a typical Khmer urban planning, where the concentric ground plan is dominant, that is to say, where outer courtyards completely surround the inner ones (Sopheak 2020). In Prasat Thom, however, it is more a combination of linear and concentric designs (Ibid.). Whereas the temple within the front enclosure holds a typical concentric layout, the overall plan of the complex is characterized by an axis linear plan, with its successive compounds appearing one after another, according to their growing importance on the way to the peak of the pyramid (Ibid.). It immediately brings to mind an arrangement of ancient Egyptian temples of Karnak or Luxor, where the most important sanctuary was located at the very end of the temple, and was preceded by a line of pylons, courts and passageways.

The central sanctuary of the complex is known as Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020). It constitutes “an ensemble of nine Prasat towers surrounded by three enclosures. A ring of elongated buildings called libraries surrounds the core area between the first (inner) and second enclosure, [with] an impressive moat between the second and third (exterior) enclosure walls” (Ibid.).

From the outside to the inside

The causeway with partially fallen pillars between Prasat Kraham and the the first (outer) enclosure.

At the doorstep of the temple and east of the main pyramid, there are a few important constructions. Yet before entering the outer (first) enclosure, we saw the ruined but once large (first if counting from the outside) Eastern Gopuram (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020; Cunin 2019). It is a cruciform gateway tower with equilateral wings in the form of elongated buildings (palaces) on either side of the axis (Ibid.). The constructions were lighted by large windows with balusters (Sopheak 2020). Their walls were literary being devoured by offensive branches of trees and undermined by their roots. Then, the alley was leading through the successive compounds of the complex (Ibid.). The first Eastern Gopuram opens to Prasat Kraham (also Krahom) Gate Tower (Sopheak 2020; Ciccone 1998-2020). The latter is the second Eastern Gopuram but may have once been a temple on its own (Sopheak 2020). As it is built of red brick it is usually referred to as the “Red Temple” (Ibid.). Prasat Kraham is the actual entrance to the successive enclosures of the complex (Ibid.) but it is itself “located outside the temple moat of Prasat Thom” (Ibid.). Prasat Thom, in turn, “[remains the only] temple on the artificial island surrounded by the moat, [within the third (inner) enclosure]” (ibid.). In other words, it is the kernel of the concentric enclosure (Ibid.).

By Cunin, 2019: 3D rconstruction of the temple complex in Koh Ker

Accordingly, Prasat Kraham led us further. First we entered the causeway through the moat with a series of pillars along the way (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). One of its rows had already collapsed, looking like fallen dominoes. From the beneath of the bases of still standing pillars, tree roots were crawling down the path. Consequently, some of them were leaning inwards as if subjects beating nods to the passing ruler. At the end of the way, the Eastern Gopurams of the second and then the third enclosure were guiding us inwards (Cunin 2019). By these means, we found ourselves in the heart of the temple but at the same time only half-way to its sanctuary – the pyramid. And this is (apart from the Prang pyramid) what makes the plan of Koh Ker highly intriguing. Such a concentric – linear resolution in architecture must have been successful as its main concept was also later applied in a nearby temple of Banteay Srei (Sopheak 2020).

Quite complicated, isn’t it …? Hopefully, the ground plan of the complex will give you a better understanding of its layout.

By Sopheak, 2020: The central-linear ground plan of the complex

Chaotic order

In the front enclosure preceding the pyramid, there is a real variety of structures: “sanctuaries, galleries, libraries and gates. Some of them are still standing, but many have been reduced to rubble” (Lawrence 2020). At each step we took, we encountered precious remains of sculpture, smashed into pieces, and huge blocks of stone scattered around like mismatched puzzles. Some carvings and sculpture elements of the complex have been looted (see Miura 2016), others are fortunately preserved in museums.

In the heart of Prasat Thom

“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Ibid.). The pyramid grew in front of us like a mountain’s peak, just at the end of the procession avenue crossing Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020).

When the massive ‘Prang’ finally came into view

Southeast Asian pyramid built by Mesoamerican design

What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Ibid.).

Mysterious seven-tiered pyramid of Prang

Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid

Secondly, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).

Next, “the pyramid has seven [well-proportioned] terraces of regular height, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples [of] Bakong in Roluos and [of] Bakheng in Angkor” (Sopheak 2020).

Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.

Architectural marvel

Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.

These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).

Another megalithic site

“The artificial temple mountain [has got seven terraces.