Mount Sinai Trekking

That night was simply full of magic and mysticism. When we reached our starting point to head off the Mount Sinai, the world had already laid down in darkness, yet disfigured with a thousand spots of light coming from clusters of bonfires and torches. Black silhouettes of Bedouins and camels were standing out sharply against their orange flames, casting their elongated shadows on the rocky ground, like the finest dancing lacework. Above us,  the navy-blue dome of the sky was spread out, sprinkled with shiny stars.
Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai, Egypt

Awe Inspiring Feeling

I felt at once happy, excited … and cold. It was January. By the Red Sea, about three hours away, the weather was much warmer, letting me swim and sunbath all day long, but here the temperature was far lower, and suddenly I felt a freezing blast of air all over my body. I trembled from cold and quickly started to follow an example of my friend putting on herself subsequent layers of a pullover, waterproof jacket, scarf, winter hat and gloves.It’s difficult to imagine I was wearing my bikini yet in the afternoon …

Egypt or Saudi Arabia

Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai.
With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Catherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.
Mount Sinai
At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.

Before going on a spiritual journey

It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.
I admit I was not so well prepared at that time as I would do, planning my trekking anew, but for those who would like to climb up there, if it’s possible in the future (I mean here the political situation in Egypt), it is good to know such essentials. Additionally, you should definitely take good trekking shoes and warm clothes if you climb up in winter.

Fourth Wise Man

At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Some people mounted camels led by Bedouins, others decided to go on foot. We chose the latter way of transport … and we survived! Moreover, anytime you feel tired walking, you can also hire one of these useful desert  animals to carry you up.
Mount Sinai
Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Under starry sky, among muffled sounds of mixed languages and the clamor of grumbling camels walking between us, I felt as if I was back in time, going to welcome the newly born Christ.

South Korean Sweets on the Egyptian Desert

Halfway, the path was getting narrower, with rocky stairs up and down and partially icy. Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock.
Finally, just one hour before the expected sunrise, we got to the last stop to be fully ready to take our final climb to the summit. I was chilled to the bone. My friend as well, and as she was much more tired than me, she refused to go any further before she took some rest. I quickly agreed to do so. We entered one of numerous tents put up for pilgrims, just at the foot of the summit. A warm stream of air hit me from the inside. Only a loud gurgle of boiling water and a Bedouin’s voice recommending a variety of refreshments could be heard over the hubbub of the crowded people, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. And all of them squeezed together on wooden benches were trying to win as much of a heavy blanket so they could to cover their frozen legs under.
“There is enough space for you to sit down with us!” said eastern-looking man smiling so widely his eyes turned into two horizontal lines.
“Thank you a lot” I replied.
“Welcome, welcome! he uttered, still smiling.
We sat together one by one and I reached for a piece of the desirable blanket.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like it much – I apologized  my friend. I kept yet in mind she refused to use it several times on the way as they did not look clean enough to her … and they smelled strongly with camels.
“It doesn’t matter” she said hiding her legs under the smelly blanket. “Well …  I’m going to stink, but at least I would feel warmer … and I’ll take a shower first when we finally get back to the hotel!”
Mount Sinai
Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
I smiled to her. I really like her gentle irony and sarcastic sense of humour. She is so honest in it. I’m sure that if it was somebody else sitting by my side, such remarks would make me crazy but Gosia behaves in such a sweet way I’ve just got addicted to her. Since our first journey together to the Middle East, we have already travelled many times, and I hope we will keep travelling together in the future.
“Some soup?” asked me the same smiling man moving a vaporous bowl full of noodles toward my nose.
“Oh no!” Gosia refused. “It’s too risky. I don’t trust them. They may not have boiled the water enough. I’m not going to stay in the middle of nowhere suffering from an Egyptian diarrhea.”
Of course she said it in Polish and luckily the eastern-looking man did not understand a word. Instead he made a big gulp of his noodle soup not caring much if the water had been prepared appropriately.
“No, thank you. We are fine” I replied “Where do you come from?”
“From South Korea. I’m here together with my friends to see the sunrise” he replied waving to a group of smiling young people from the opposite bench. “And you?”
“We are from Poland, and we are here just for the same reason as you are.”
Mount Sinai
Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Their passion for travelling is an answer itself.
“Are you single?” the man asked out of the blue.
“Well … I felt disconcert “…why are you asking?”
“If you are single, my friend is single too” he said to me and then added something in Korean, surely to his single friend. The latter approached me with a piece of Korean sweet and encouraged me to try it: “It will give you power to reach the summit”  he promised while I was unwrapping up something that looked like orange jelly. I tried it carefully. It tasted like jelly.
“Do you want some?” I asked my Gosia.
“No, thank you. I don’t feel like having a Korean diarrhea either …” she said outright. “Enjoy!”

Sunrise

The very last length of the track turned out to be the most challenging of all. The stairs carved out along the path were filled with sharp stones covered in ice, and the slope itself was dangerously steep. Our Egyptian guide was doing his best trying to help us to move forward even if he kept sliding down the rocky steps. When eventually we reached the summit I forgot I was tired, frozen and out of my breath. The view itself was breathtaking …
“Wow!” I sighed.

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The sunrise had just started. When the very first rays reached the rusty rocks of the summit, the Sinai Mount shone up reflecting the sunlight. Beneath, the curtains of darkness opened and blazing red landscape appeared to people gathered together at the top. Some were sitting side by side covered in blankets; others were standing up like enchanted columns of rock. Flashes of cameras brightened time after time. While the sun was rising higher and higher, the Sinai mountains uncovered their rugged outlines to the coming day, casting their dark shadows against a rocky desert.
It does not matter if Moses had ever been here. In such moments like that, you can definitely meet God and talk to Him …

Saint Catherine and Her Monastery

And then there left just trekking down. It was much funnier as it was already taken in the warm, Egyptian sun. In front of our eyes desert colours were dancing happily; even usually unmoved camels were pleased with the daylight and surely with the fact they could throw heavy loads away from their backs.
Mount Sinai
Saint Katherine and Her Monastery
At the end of the way down, we came to the high walls of Saint Catherine Monastery. Built in the sixth century, the monastery is one of the oldest working Ortodox Christian monasteries in the world. It is very famous for its unique collection of Byzantine pre-iconoclastic panel icons that miraculously survived the hard time of religious turmoil on the lands of Byzantium. By the same tradition which leads Moses’ track to the Sinai Peninsula, the Burning Bush from the Bible grows just in here, within the walls of the monastery. According to the narrative, Moses heard the Voice of God who had taken the form of the burning bush not consumed by the flames. At that time Moses was ordered to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
Before we stared visiting that religious pearl in the desert, we opened our lunch boxes and enjoyed the silence of monastic atmosphere.

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Unexpectedly, Gosia interrupted it thinking aloud: “I feel sorry for Moses” she said seriously “Poor man … he must have been exhausted just walking up and down…”

Egyptian Uprising

Few days before our trekking to the Sinai Mount, at the end of January, 2011, we landed on the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh. On the coach to the hotel I noticed numerous armed soldiers spread out all over the way. Suddenly our coach was ordered to stop by a military. From the perpendicular road a long black limousine went across in front of our coach. Then I found out that inside there was Sajjid Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was coming back from an emergency summit meeting organized in the face of the situation in Tunisia. A week later while we were crossing Israelite-Jordan border in Eilat, we learned about the Egyptian Revolution that had forcefully burst out in Cairo.

Featured image: Sinai mountains, Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth

In 1891 a precious silver cauldron appeared during peat-digging in the bog Rævemosen, near Gundestrup in Himmerland. The vessel had been deposited in the bog – an immensely valuable sacrifice to the powers above. Before this occurred the cauldron had been taken apart. The rim and the large silver plates, which make up its sides, were taken off and placed in the bottom of the vessel.

Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron is composed of internal (A to E) and external silver plates.

The Gundestrup Cauldron’s motifs draw the observer into an alien universe far from that of the people who deposited it in the bog in north Jutland.

Elephants, lions and several unknown gods, represented in a foreign style, indicate that the cauldron originally came from a distant area to the south or southeast. Exactly where it was made is still open to question. Perhaps it was a gift to a great chieftain or could it have been war booty?

Inner Plate E Detail: “Warriors and Cauldron” (embossed silver, gilded, La Tene III) is one of the most interesting and intriguing scenes embossed in the cauldron. It may represent a ceremonial scene with a larger than life god-like figure on the left and three musicians playing and ancient instrument – carnyx, on the right. In front of the god, there is a row of probably dead warriors standing in the underworld. A depicted dog is to symbolize that sphere. They are wearing helmets, spears and shields – so they must have been killed in the fight. Above them, there’s a lying plant with bell-like flowers and roots – maybe the Celtic representation of the Tree of Life. The warriors seem to be waiting for a bath in the cauldron. Can it be just the same on which the scene is depicted? One of the warriors is just caught by the god, hanging upside down held by the leg. The riding horsemen above the tree are apparently the already revived in the afterlife.

Featured image: The Gundestrup cauldron: Plate E: Warriors and Cauldron. Source: “The Gunderstrup Cauldron” (2018) In: British Museum. Accessed on 21st, Jun., 2018.

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Cypriot Heart

At first sight it seems to be a dazzlingly white, dry and rugged rock thrown into the deep blue sea. Then comes response to other senses, especially to smell. And the same voice keeps echoing: “it’s enough to breathe in and get healthy.” A vibrating aroma of various spices is merging together with a sweet taste of the air and salty wind. Yeah, I know well that blissful feeling overwhelming me full length every time I am travelling around the Mediterranean region.

Many a time I need to screw up my eyes because of the burning sun, looking for a shadow or for a tiny cup of strong Cypriot coffee or tea, under a huge parasol. Another time, it is enough to plunge under the surface of crystal clear water and admire gleams of the sun dancing on its sandy bottom, creating flickering geometric patterns. I’ve heard Cyprus is perfect for taking first steps in scuba diving. Probably next time I’ll go for it at Ayia Napa sea caves … but only if it happens to be in Cyprus again…   

Cyprus Divided and United

Before I get here I was struggling to assign the island to the right continent. Placed just between Europe, Asia and Africa, it’s often described as a part of Eurasia. Which I guess in some ways means a good compromise.

North Cyprus
Nicosia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The island country is divided, or let’s say, torn apart into two parts. There’s the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Republic of Northern Cyprus. The former is Greek, the latter is Turkish, and not recognized by the rest of the world but Turkey. Cyprus formally belongs to the European Union. Nevertheless, the northern part just in theory. The border between two nations, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, is known as the Green Line and comes across Nicosia, the capital of the divided country. The formal division is even believed to be one of main tourist attractions. Maybe it is so, but for me it’s less than attractive. For some the line seems even artificial. All these mutual agreements and disagreements seem too tangled to me.

North Cyprus
View on North Nicosia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Here are some examples: Cyprus belongs to the European Union but not entirely; whereas Cypriots from the both sides and Europeans can cross the Green Line just waving their ID to the guard, the Turkish are not allowed to do so, still they can come to the northern part without visa. Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus in the south, the rest of the world pretends there is nothing such as the Republic of Northern Cyprus. Despite that unusual circumstances, the whole island fully and happily exists on the map and ordinary people from the opposite sides usually get on well much better than their politicians or governments.

After the Turkish invasion a great movement of Cypriots started: Greek Cypriots ran away from the north to the south, while Turkish Cypriots did the same deliberately the other way round, or it happened that British soldiers took them in trucks by force from the south northwards. Both sides left behind their family lands and houses. Even today, when the border is open, some Cypriots refuse to cross it as they reject the fact their country was cut in two. Passing by a village in the southwest I see a desolate mosque just next to a Christian church full of life and people and I’m surprised when I hear that Cypriots from there take care of the mosque in hope their Muslim neighbors may someday come back.

North Cyprus
Cypriot sweets. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Actually, I enjoy the whole island equally and I take just the same pleasure from meeting and talking to people either from the south or north. Apart from the language and religion, they share similar lifestyle; they love their island, are attached to their families, dine out together for hours, laugh, play vibrant music, dance, and celebrate every single moment. But maybe I’m wrong and I am unable to notice differences that are striking to Cypriots …

Timeline of Cypriot History

Like in many places worldwide, Cyprus has been settled, invaded, conquered, occupied and struggled about throughout ages. Its beginnings come down to the 10th millennium BC. Cyprus was subsequently home to Neolithic cultures, Mycenaean Greeks, the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians till the fourth century BC, when it was overcome by famous Alexander the Great. Soon after the island was ruled by Ptolemaic Egypt, followed by the Classical and Eastern Roman Empire, Arab caliphates, the French Lusignan dynasty and the Venetians. And finally, in the sixteenth century it was sized by the Ottoman powers. In the nineteenth century the British came in turn and the island was formally annexed by Britain in 1914. British military bases are still here, on the piece of land where no tourist coach can stop.

Such a mixture of complex flourishing societies gave basis to multiplied legends, stories and superstitions. All of them added some essential elements to a collective bag of the Cypriot history. The final result is a unique cultural blend offering an unforgettable experience to archaeologists, historians, and tourists.

A Female Fertility Deity

The island itself looks like … a marble Cycladic abstract figurine in the shape of violin that is believed to represent a female fertility deity. And so Cyprus is famous for being dedicated to one of the most famous Greek goddesses, Aphrodite. As the synonym of beauty, sexuality and fertility, the goddess is believed to have been born out of the sea foam on the Cypriot coast, just near Paphos. Aphrodite’s birthplace is known as Petra tou Romiou and it is surely one of the most charming landmarks in the Cypriot landscape.

Cyprus
Aphrodite’s Beach, Cyprus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Near the coast filled with little polished stones of various colours, there is a huge rock emerging from the sea, with smaller ones around it. Wherever the newly born goddess put her foot on the shore while taking her first steps on, she left behind a track of stones in the shape of heart. If you find any and then offer it to somebody you love, they will never leave you and stay with you forever. When I reached the famous Rock I didn’t mean to look for any hearts of stone, but I felt as if enchanted by this magic place and finally I found myself out there bending over and tossing stones around in an effort to try my luck. Finally I picked up one out of a towering pile. It was a heart … well … at least it was similar to one. Some tourists bend under the loads of stones taken away from Aphrodite’s beach. With a first glance, they all look like hearts but long after the goddess’ magic stops working, they turn out to be just shapeless pieces of rock. Or maybe I do not believe in enough … Suddenly I got angry with myself. How a man can be so easily deceived with a bunch of superstitions. I launched my heart stone with all of my might to the sea and I said in thoughts to beautiful Aphrodite  : „Keep it for yourself!”

Cyprus
A giant wave rose up in between the rocks and fiercely crashed against my back. Aphrodite’s beach, Cyprus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nothing happened. The sea was calm and mild with a warm breeze and white-crested waves lapping on the shore. I moved down towards the water. A wave rippled directly beneath my feet and I felt its nicely cold touch on my sunbathed skin. As the sun was shining stronger, I closed my eyes and turned back to the sea, wholly lost in my happy thoughts. And then it happened … A giant wave rose up in between the rocks and fiercely crashed against my back.

Surely one may think it was Aphrodite who replied.

Before I realized what had happened, my friend asked me laughing ”Are you OK …?”

Of course, I was … only a little frightened, all wet and entirely surprised with the unexpected attack from the sea.

“I was going to swim here but only in my swimsuit. Now it makes no sense.”

“Maybe you should try” she replied with a smile. Three times round the rock and you will find your true love.”

Aphrodite’s beach, Cyprus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

„Well, maybe” I agreed resigned while trying to pull my wet dress up a bit, as it became quite heavy after having soaked the salty water like a sponge. It’s not a nice feeling when you get a kick from a goddess taking revenge on you.

Actually, some legend has it you need to swim naked and it must be done at night to make your wish come true. Moreover there exist different versions of it; if you make three tours around the rock by swimming, you will fall deeply in love, or be fertile forever, or get younger, or it will bring you good luck. Or maybe all of these at once … Irrespective of which of the circulating legends is correct, the place is surely one of the most worth seeing on the island.

 

I didn’t find another stone in the shape of heart that day but a few days later I was sitting on another stony shore on the southeast coast of the same island, and while my fingers were playing with warm stones, they picked up one at random. When I saw it, I smiled to the sea. It was “my heart”.

… and yet something more on Cypriot gods

It’s believed that Aphrodite’s cult started during the Mycenaean times. By all accounts, the Greek goddess was brought to the shore of Cyprus on board a shell, to provide its inhabitants with happiness, beauty and fertility. Still she is not the first female deity venerated in Cyprus. Probably she originated from earlier goddesses, such as Mesopotamian Inanna or Ishtar, also widely worshiped on the island. Among all objects one can buy as a souvenir in Cyprus, there are very interesting pieces of silver jewelry for women, namely pendants representing Cypriot cruciform figurines dating back to the Prehistoric and Bronze Age. Tourists have a wide choice of their sizes and variations. I went for such a small copy of the Chalcolithic age deity, excavated in Pamos in the northwest of Cyprus, and exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Nicosia.

Cyprus
Idol of Pomos. Source: De la Rubia, V. (2015). Pinterest.

The original artifact is made of blue-green picrolite and is represented as wearing a pendant in the form of its own copy, so it is sure once it served as such and was probably used as an amulet or totem. You can also see it displayed on the Cypriot euro coins of one or two euro. At first sight it looks like a cross; the mysterious figure has its arms outstretched and placed perpendicularly to the elongated body. It’s hard to say which sex it represents. All in all, we can admit the figure is sexually ambiguous. Some scholars argue that cylindrical necks and heads are to show phallic symbols.  Risen legs put alongside look like female vulva. Moreover, we also get an impression the figurines’ bodies were deliberately made in the way they can easily “change their sex”. When we once take a look we may recognize the male aspect, another time, the female one. From this point of view they are gender-neutral and may be called hermaphrodites. If it is so, the matter of gender does not come from nowadays but was already present a long time ago. Figurines that contain both, male and female genitalia, are found in the whole Mediterranean region and were produced in numbers, from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, that is to say, at the time when art took strongly abstract forms. I was told that gender neutral figurines from Cyprus bring good luck as they represent the balance between two aspects, and so they let us keep such a balance in our lives.

Olive oils in Cyprus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Olive oils in Cyprus. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some Cypriot woman assured me it really works:

‘If you need evidence of its power … ‘, she said. ‘Just take a look at our flourishing island.’

Featured image: Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) “La nascita di Venere(detail). In: Husky (2009) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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Paradise Garland of the Islands

Once they just seemed an unattainable dream to me, scattered somewhere in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, now they have become an empirical experience of beauty and mystery.

Pure beauty

The Maldives are composed of 26 atolls, which in turn consist of 1196 small flat islands set on a scaffolding made of coral reefs surrounding underwater volcano peaks. Only 209 of them are inhabited. From above they look like scattered precious stones: emeralds or turquoise stones framed in silver.

Maldives
Bodufinolhu Atol. Maldives. Photo by Anna Piątkowska. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Lush vegetation of high and bent coconut palms, bread trees and flowering shrubs decorates them like an untamed green shag. Blue lagoon is spread around each atoll. Its turquoise waters stretch up to the steep edge of the reef, and finally disappear in the depths of the navy blue ocean. Delicate waves are throwing shells of different colours, sizes and shapes, and masses of dead corals, thanks to which you can enjoy the delicate silvery-white sand on the beaches. The air smells of flowers and the ocean.

Maldives
The air smells of flowers and the ocean …. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The fairly stable weather makes the Maldives a perfect place for holidays almost all year round. The best period, however, are the months from January to April. Later, you can experience frequent monsoons, rainfall and quite high humidity with temperature of about 30-35°C. From my own experience I know that in February there are strong winds and violent, tropical rain, which usually lasts about a minute. Certainly, you cannot get bored with the weather, but the Maldives are the most beautiful when the sunshine reflects in the Indian Ocean, and the islands are bathed in the shining turquoise waters and white sand.

Maldives
The islands are bathed in the turquoise waters and white sand. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hotels-Islands

The archipelago of islands forms a state called the Republic of Maldives, which is inhabited by about 280,000 people. It lies just 2.5 meters above sea level, making it the most flat and lowest-lying country in the world. Its capital is the city of Malé grown on the atoll of the same name. Velana International Airport receives hordes of tourists from around the world every year. Tourism is an important source of income for this corner of the world. Thousands of motor boats and hydrofoils filled with tourists are going in various directions from the airport to luxury resorts scattered on emerald islands.

Maldives
Powder white beaches of the Maldives. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Luxurious hotels-islands seem a fairy-tale asylum, and an earthly paradise free from worldly worries. The Maldivian Government does not wish to have a far-reaching interference of this “holiday world” in the natives’ life. Although trips to Malé and other islands inhabited by Maldivians are organized, these are only tourist trails. Most visitors spend their time sunbathing, splashing in the lagoon, snorkelling or diving. Families with children set out to meet dolphins, and avid fishermen leave at night or at pale dawn for fruitful fishing. The inhabitants of the Maldives are considered friendly and kind, but they can be found rarely within the resorts.

Maldives
Coming to the Paradise. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Tourist workers come predominantly from India or Sri Lanka. Specialized in narrow areas, qualified guides and teachers working in diving centres come to the archipelago from around the world. Rarely does one thinks about monuments here and only few know that the Maldives have a rich and long history, just like a one hour-flight away Sri Lanka.

Tourist Folders and Reality

In the Maldives, Sunni Islam is a valid religion. Other denominations are forbidden. Every Maldivian resident must be a Muslim at the same time. Turning away from Islam threatens not only with deprivation of citizenship, but also with death. The state adheres very strictly to Sharia law, which partly also applies to tourists. At the airport, the entry card is filled in with the ban on importing everything that violates the laws of Islam, including pork, alcohol, dogs and all religious symbols – crosses, Christian rosaries, the Holy Bible, Buddha figures and Hindu deities.

Maldives
Tourist folders and reality … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Failure to comply with the law involves a fine or even imprisonment. Personally, I know a story of a student who, unaware of the Islamic law prevailing in the Maldives, took a souvenir from Sri Lanka with her – a wooden figurine of sympathetic Ganesha, a Hindu god depicted as half man, half an elephant. If it were not for the intervention of the university and the family, the girl would be in jail instead of in the paradise resort.

Scraps of the Past

Tourist folders do not contain the whole truth about this earthly paradise created by God and distorted by the terrifying human instincts. Behind the veil of the nature’s beauty, there is sometimes hidden a sad reality that has also affected the history of the Maldives to a large extent.

Maldives
Behind the veil of the nature’s beauty … Photo by Anna Piatkowska. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Independent explorer and traveller, David Hatcher Childress in his book Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific, writes that since the rule of Islam reached the Maldives, that is to say since 1153, it has been forbidden to perform images of living beings. That, in turn, has resulted in the total destruction of monuments of the past. Religious fanaticism blurred the treasures of humanity, as it did happen in the case of pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico and Peru, but there such a fanaticism was a veil for the insatiable greed of the Europeans. As the author of the book further writes, there is a strange impression that there was nothing in the Maldives before 1153. The author further mentions that in the nineties of the twentieth century, a statue of a man with long ears similar to those in India was discovered in the Maldives. It triggered an interest of another, quite controversial in academic circles researcher, Thor Heyerdahl. However, when he arrived, it turned out that the sculpture had been destroyed.

Maldives
Only the picture remained … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Only the picture remained. Thor Heyerdahl, the author of a book entitled The Maldive Mystery, and an eager supporter of civilizational diffusionism, believed that in the Maldives there was a cult of the Sun brought by ancient sailors who travelled by sea all over the world, reaching the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. He pointed out that the Maldivian mosques are not facing mihrab towards Mecca, but east and west as if they were to mark the main solar events, which according to the author meant that the religious buildings in the Maldives were a kind of reconstruction of ancient temples of the Sun. There are also island legends about Redin – ancient people and primeval islanders who built solar mounds and temples. They are described as people with Aryan features: white skin, brown hair and bright eyes. Thor Heyerdahl has had many opponents of his theories, who have thought that the aligned pyramids and solar temples are nothing more than the remains of stupas, as a reminder of the Buddhism that used to exist in the Maldives.

Maldives
Lush vegetation of high and bent coconut palms, bread trees and flowering shrubs decorates them like an untamed green shag. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are many more theories of the alternative archaeology. However, it is worth mentioning the generally accepted, factual information related to the history of the Maldives.

Female Queens

According to archaeological finds, the archipelago was inhabited for about 1500 years before Christ. The first settlers were probably Aryans. About 500 years before Christ next settlers came: Tamils ​​from the south of India and Singhalese from Ceylon. At that time, the population of the archipelago was mostly Buddhists, and the Maldives became the point of transit in oceanic trade between the Indian subcontinent and the Arab countries. The Arabs, in turn, brought a religious change with them. Before the Islamization of the Maldives, according to the Persian and Arab travellers, the women – queens ruled the archipelago.

After the reception of Islam, only four of them remained, and the last one died in the sixteenth century. At the same time the Maldives became an independent Sultanate. The acceptance of Islam is associated with a legend of delivering a virgin from the clutches of a monster by means of a Koranic prayer. It seems that defeating the creature with the word of the Koran convinced the Sultan of the new faith. His subjects, of course, were forced to follow the Sultan’s conversion. From the nineteenth century, the Islamic Maldives had already been a British protectorate, which lasted until the mid-twentieth century, when the Maldivians regained their independence first as a sultanate, and from 1968 as the Republic of Maldives.

Maldives
The mysterious history of the archipelago is still audible in the oral tradition … Photo by Anna Piatkowska.  Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The mysterious history of the archipelago is still audible in the oral tradition, Maldivian dances and songs, where one can hear a dialect of the Sinhalese language. Such echoes of the past brings an inspiration to many researchers and writers.

Coming to the Paradise

After an hour of flight from Colombo and forty-five minutes spent on the speedboat fiercely fighting with waves, I finally reached my little paradise. I found a tropical night here. Along with a group of tourists, I left the shaky boat on a wooden pier thrown over the reef and suspended over the depths of the ocean. Through the full length of this bridge made with wooden beams, the lights flashed giving cheerful gleams to the waves in the lagoon beneath.

Maldives
Through the full length of this bridge made with wooden beams, the lights flashed giving cheerful gleams to the waves in the lagoon beneath. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We were led by a smiling boy dressed in a sarong – a long and colorful fabric wrapped around his hips, used by men especially in Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. After a very warm welcome of a tropical drink and oriental dinner, I fell down tired on my  bed in one of small apartment houses abandoned in the green jungle. A deep night had fallen upon me. I could hear the crack of branches striking against the window with the wind but tiredness and the coming sleep did not let me open my eyes for a moment. Curiosity, however, was stronger.

Maldives
made a few steps forward through the dense vegetation and stood on the edge of a blue lagoon shining in the pale light of the moon. Photo by Anna Piatkowska. . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I went outside. I could smell a warm breeze of the ocean. I made a few steps forward through the dense vegetation and stood on the edge of a blue lagoon shining in the pale light of the moon. The silence was disturbed only by the sound of waves. In the distance, the lights of the abandoned long pier shimmered in the distance. On the sand below the scarp carried by the roots of palm trees, crabs and „walking” shells were running across when they suddenly disappeared into their shells at the slightest noise. I breathed deeply with the sea breeze and smiled at the moon.

Maldives
Provided with proper equipment, we could set out to explore the depths and underwater treasures of the past. Photo by Anna Piątkowska. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simple Life

During first few days, including Valentine’s Day, which is much anticipated by lovers (similar events are permitted in the resorts), my time was filled with waddling in the lagoon, walking in the sun, playing with small sharks and rays wandering in the shallows and thinking how much this world is beautiful. The underwater landscape captivates me. There is a wide variety of coral species and aquatic creatures in the Maldives, whose colours highlight the rays of the sun infiltrating the reef.

Maldives
My island, Bodufinolhu, is suspended over one of the richest reefs … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My island, Bodufinolhu, is suspended over one of the richest reefs, but the most beautiful of them were located in the distance, farther from the resorts. Our diving instructor, a very nice and energetic Japanese, drew our attention once and again to flickering sea creatures. The sea turtles sleeping and hidden among the corals started at the sight of the divers and with curiosity extended their long necks towards us, swimming so close that they could almost be touched. However, they quickly got bored and swam away for peace and silence.

Maldives
Simple life. Maldives. Photo by Anna Piątkowska. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Provided with proper equipment, we could set out to explore the depths and underwater treasures of the past. Thanks to underwater archaeology there were many important discoveries related to the islands’ history. The results of the research are exhibited at the National Museum in Male, which is housed in two buildings in the Sultan Park. It also constituted a part of the Royal Palace. Even here some of the museum objects did not escape completely from the hands of fanatical Islamists. In February 2012, for purely religious reasons, the museum was attacked and several significant artefacts from the twelfth century were destroyed. Some of them were made of sandstone and limestone, so it was impossible to put them together. As Victor Hugo writes, „time is blind and man is stupid.” Still, one can admire in the museum one of the most interesting objects, such as a stone head of Buddha, but most of the museum artefacts do not represent people or animals. Greatest collection includes royal furniture, ceremonial robes, footwear, weapons and armour.

Maldives
I breathed deeply with the sea breeze and smiled at the moon. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Dancing Past

After huge dinner composed of a ton of fish, meat, curry rice, various vegetables and fruits, I sat comfortably in the bar to arrange my notes from the last trip. A colourful drink based on rum and coconut milk suddenly appeared on the table in front of my nose. „Yes” – I thought – „the scientist’s life is hard”. My existential thoughts were interrupted by loud music and the rustling of dresses swirling in dance. Tourists started to watch the performance.

Maldives
Perhaps a similar dance was performed by the legendary Maldivian queens mentioned by former travellers. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Six young women dressed according to the Sharia law, with headscarves completely covering their hair, were performing dance figures inscribed in the choreography probably of a long Maldivian tradition, strangely disagreeing with the status quo of the islands. The local tropical climate and music suited more to skimpy skirts seen on the islands of Polynesia, than to long skirts, gaiters and jackets covering tightly the whole bodies of dancing women. Perhaps a similar dance was performed by the legendary Maldivian queens mentioned by former travellers.

Featured image: Maldives. Photo by Anna Piątkowska. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Continue reading Paradise Garland of the Islands

In the Realm of Demon Ravana

High density of palm trees and a heavy breath of tropical climate were the first impressions that had touched my foggy senses since my arrival in Sri Lanka. Confused and exhausted, I crawled out of the airport dragging my suitcase behind me and carrying an unnecessary winter jacket over my shoulder. The flight was long and a nightmare, but a thought about staying on a warm island during the European winter slowly gave me a new strength to live.

Sigiriya
The Rock of Sigiriya being stormed by the crowds of tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Pyramid in the hands

Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I was planning, reading and watching a lot about that corner of the world, including the preparation of a bucket list things to do during my journey. I knew from experience that similar plans are subject to verification in the field. There were most famous monuments usually mentioned in tourist guides, especially Sri Lanka’s old state and religious capitals – the milestones of the island’s history. The official website of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka) connected all of them by means of a line creating an equilateral triangle, placed almost in the very centre of the island.

An official logo of Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka. Source:
KovalSky, V. “Pyramid in the hands” (2013). In: New
mysterious riddles of Sri Lanka. What unites the ancient
civilization of the Indian subcontinent with Africa,
Atlantis and South America?

The figure of the triangle was additionally covered by a pair of hands, as if in a gesture of protecting cultural heritage. This pyramid-shaped graphic sign contains three ancient capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Inside the triangle field, the majestic Sigiriya and Dambulla with temples carved in the rocks were enclosed. Although they are indeed the most visited places, which are must-sees according to tourist folders, and at the same time extremely important places for the Buddhist community, it does not mean that the number of important places in Sri Lanka should be limited to the mentioned heritage triangle. On the contrary.

Heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Source: Ministry of
Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious
Affairs (2018).

A similar sign of the pyramid enclosed in the hands, this time carved in the granite rock, can also be found elsewhere – in a place that is already outside the line of the geometric figure mentioned above, at the ancient site, called Mihintale. It is believed to have also been made by the same government organization to mark the place of Sri Lankan cultural heritage in the same way as it is represented in its famous logo. But why did the CCF choose a place for this sign beyond the delineated triangle? Why did they choose a less known site of Mihintale? The author of a series of articles devoted to the puzzling history of Sri Lanka, Vladimir Kovalsky (Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to yet another triangle … It is formed by ancient cultural-religious complexes suspended on rocks, and simultaneously, unknown Sigiriya’s sisters.

Seat of gods suspended in the sky

The main symbol of the island constantly appears on postcards, folders and on more or less successful paintings hung on the walls of hotel rooms. The massive monolith from magma rock shoots from the ground in the very center of the island to the height of 180 meters.

Sigiriya
The Way to the Top: Water Terraces.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

If you remember the tales about turtles, so big that their shells  seem to be islands covered with thick woods, you can easily compare them to the bulk of Sigiriya. The rock seems to bend under the weight of secrets that it wears on its steep back covered with tourists: „Lion Gate”, „Mirror Wall”, frescoes of women whose bodies are drowning in flowers and jewellery, and disappearing in clouds, megalithic constructions worked out in hard granite of unknown purpose … and only one note about this giant in the archives preserved on the island:

He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri
which is difficult to ascend for human beings.
He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall
and built a staircase in the form of a lion…
Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold,
like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.”

 Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)

The main character of this fragment tells about a builder of Sigiriya who, according to the record, was called the King Kassapa. He is believed to have ruled on the rock in the 5th century A.D. (477-495).

Sigiriya
The Granite Pool on the Top. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The fragment above comes from the chronicles called Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicles), which are a sequel to the much older chronicles of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicles). Mahavamsa covers the period from 543 to 300 BC, while Culavamsa deals with the period from the 4th century up to 1815 A. D. Over the centuries, the chronicles have been repeatedly transcribed and compiled, which greatly obscures the original history of the country. The text on Sigiriya itself appeared 700 years after the reign of the King Kassapa. There is no other evidence of the age of the Sigiriya complex. And this is indeed a multipart construction, as it is not limited to the rock itself, but it also covers a significant area around the monolith. First, the road to the top of Sigiriya leads through the so-called “Water Terraces” and before it starts to steeply roll around its protruding belly, it climbs up the stairs that wind through the corridors created by the formations of huge granite boulders. These, in turn, faithfully guard the passage to the famous „Lion’s Gate”, flanked by two paws armed with claws … but are these really the remains of a lion, as it is described in the fragment above?

Sigiriya
Lion’s Gate Flanked by Two Paws

If the chronicle does not lie, Kassapa had only 18 years to create the entire complex. Taking into account the material used, the impetus of the construction and quality of the tools available at the time, it seems rather unlikely. What’s more, after completing the feat, the king did not use its significant potential of defence, as if he had ignored the primal function of the fortress and the workload involved in its construction. In order to fight the final battle, he abandoned his insurmountable rock and faced heavy defeat at its feet. Besides, the circumstances of Kassapa’s death are also shrouded in mystery and have different versions. Finally, the victorious brother of the beaten king moved the capital back to Anaradhapura, and Sigiriya fell into the hands of Buddhist monks and with time it became a pilgrimage and tourist centre. Probably the Buddhist followers had inhabited the rock much earlier, precisely around the 3rd century BC, as soon as the Buddhism appeared on the island.

Sigiriya
Brick Constructions on the Top. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Sigiriya
Stepped-like Pyramid or a Palace? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Sigiriya is not a lonely island

In the same period, Buddhist monks undoubtedly formed monasteries in the caves of the Pidurangala rock, which is located a few kilometres north of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya
Sigiriya’s Fresco. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Both rocks are the monoliths created as a result of volcanic activity, and their stories are related to each other. Pidurangala’s peak resembles the form of a slanted, flat triangle, as if someone had cut the top of the rock across with the same ease with which the butter is sliced.

From the top of Sigirya, you cannot see this characteristic triangle, or a heart to be more poetic, because it lies on the other side of Pidurangala. The entrance to its summit is even more strenuous than in the case of the nearby Sigirya, but the view from there is magnificent, particularly on the famous neighbour, who is stormed by the crowds of tourists.

Sigiriya
Women in the Clouds. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Just fairy tales …

Before I came to Sri Lanka, in my imagination Sigiriya dominated the plain as a lone monolith. Now it turned out that it is just one member of the team of rocks monoliths that form an enigmatic whole.

Sigiriya
Water Terraces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Together with already mentioned Pidurangala, Sigiriya points out a peculiar top of the pyramid with two other peaks at its base: Mihintale – in the northwest of Sigiriya and Yapahuwa – in the southwest.

Sigiriya
Boulders and Caves on the Way to the Top.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Like Sigiriya, Yapahuwa has a flat bevelled top and steep walls. In the 13th century, there was a capital of the state and a religious centre with a famous Buddhist relic, which is now kept in Kandy. Mihintale, in turn, is a rocky table that carries huge blocks of granite. However, nature did not pull them up there. According to legends, the Mihintale summit once served as a place for anchoring aircraft, vimanas, described by Vedic texts such as Mahabharata.

Sigiriya
Climbing up the Rock.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The aforementioned Sri Lankan oldest chronicle, Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of Mahinda to Sri Lanka from India. Mahinda was a Buddhist missionary and a famous monk who was also the son of the ruler of India, Ashoka. With his coming he brought the new faith to Sri Lanka. Every tourist arriving on the island hears this story as a testimony to the beginnings of Buddhism there. I have heard it myself as well, but never in a full version of the story described by the chronicle. Namely, according to the full text Mahinda came to the island by landing in his vimana at the top of Mihintale, and his flight from India would have taken him less than a day …

Pidurangala - Sigiriya
Photo by Vladimir KovalSky: Two Rock Sisters: Pidurangala on the left and Sigiriya on the right. Source: KovalSky, V. (22nd March, 2013-2017) Chapter 3 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit.

As if I heard a modern report on an airplane journey from India to Colombo … The summit of Mihintale is also linked to the monk by his name – Mihintale means in Sinhalese as much as the „Mahinda Plateau”. According to ancient epic stories, both Sinhalese and Tamil, before the arrival of the monk, the same rock was called Sagiri, while the name Sigiriya is pronounced in the Sinhalese language as Sigri (Cf. Vladimir Kovalsky). Such similarities certainly testify to the relation between the rocks.

Sinhalese
Sinhalese women (except the Polish one in the middle) wearing Sari. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Of course, similar content about ancient flying machines is treated as a fairy tale. Still it is quite illogical that the record compiled in the 11th century on the history of Sigiriya is widely accepted as an irrefutable fact, and some of the content that comes from much older sources is cut off  in order to pass on only what the human mind is able to fully accept.

Ah, those ever-present pyramids…

On the stone in Mihintale, there is a carving of the already mentioned glyph of a pyramid or triangle covered by the hands. The top angle of the figure contains a smaller pyramid, as if an Egyptian pyramidion crowning the top of the main pyramid.

Sigiriya-Yapahuwa-Mihintale
Photo by Vladimir KovalSky:The Carving
of the Glyph of a Pyramid at Mihintale.
Source: KovalSky, V. (2013).
New mysterious riddles of Sri Lanka.
What unites the ancient civilization
of the Indian subcontinent with Africa,
Atlantis and South America?

The above-mentioned author, Vladimir Kovalsky (Cf. Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to this sign when he mentions a triangle made of rock monoliths: Sigiriya (Pidurangala) – Yapahuwa – Mihintale. The axis of symmetry of the triangle, from the top of Sigiriyia to its base, i.e. the horizontal line joining Mihintale and Yapahuva, meets with the axis of symmetry of the triangular peak of Pidurangala. As we all remember Pidurangala’s summit itself had once been shaped as a triangle. Couldn’t it be symbolically represented as a pyramidion of the pyramid carved in the Mihintale granite rock?

And who was Kuvera?

Kuvera or Kubera, mentioned above in the fragment of the Younger Chronicle (Culavamsa), was a god and legendary ruler of Lanka, today Sri Lanka. His half-brother Ravana (or Raavan) took power over him and became an undisputed ruler with his royal seat on Sigiriya (Alakamanda). There are other written sources telling of those events, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Raavan (2010)
“Raavan (2010)” – Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai – Bollywood Hindi Movie DVD Cover.

They belong to the epic Sanskrit of ancient India which was written on the basis of oral tradition, first formed during the Vedic period, namely in the first millennium BC. Ramayana focuses mainly on the armed conflict between Ravana and Rama, ruler of India, which was to take place millennia ago. Ramayana, meaning ‘the Way of Rama’, is one of the greatest Indian poems that has been adapted to many films and theatrical plays. Its authorship is attributed to also a legendary poet, Valmiki. Indian eposes describe the time of flying vehicles – vimanas, an advanced technology and a nuclear war … Even today, inhabitants of Asia take those stories as actual records of their lands and ancient rulers … Although it is still impossible for western scholars to explain certain phenomena or purpose of major constructions scattered around Sri Lanka (likewise everywhere in the world), similar records are only treated as a bunch of legends created by people with a vivid imagination, just as an ancient genre of sci-fi.

Featured image: The Rock of Sigiriya/One of Sigiriya’s Frescoes. Photo by Joanna Pyrgies&Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Continue reading In the Realm of Demon Ravana