Astronomical Sanctuary Atop the Hill

We were travelling in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, moving along the mountain range of Sierra Madre. The mountains climb there from 500 to 3 250 m above sea level, bringing low temperatures with frequent frost in their higher parts. For some, it does not even sound like Mexico … especially in February.

Shivering from the cold and … excitement

When the alarm rang it was 5 am. That morning was really chilly. I forcefully shivered when my feet touched the icy cold stone floor. The unpleasant feeling made me literary jumped into my shoes. Then I quickly switched on a small electric heater. The red diode came on together with a characteristic loud noise. Finally I felt a gentle blast of warm air. Still shivering I grabbed my clothes and went to the bathroom, of course, dragging the buzzing heater behind me.

The constructions of Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With a cup of hot coffee warming up my hands, and wrapped up in my balmy cardigan, I felt much better when we finally arrived at Monte Alban. Outside it was still cold but just a thought alone about the site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery and I was ready to give up my warm seat in the car.

Like an eagle perched high-up

Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest; it is located around 1 940 m above sea level and 400 m above the altiplano of the Oaxaca Valley, which offered us breath-taking panoramic (360°) views of the horizon and so of the huge area surrounding the site (Wikipedia 2019; Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Precisely, Monte Alban occupies the meeting point of three arms of the Valley, known as the Etla, Tlocolula and the Valle Grand (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Before the fifth century BC, they were inhabited by various tribes, of which the most important was the community of San Jose Mogote in the Etla branch (Ibid.). That population is believed to have initiated the city of Monte Alban and effectively unified local tribes under their control, either by means of a peaceful alliance or by force (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

The city offered us breath-taking panoramic views of the horizon. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is thought that Monte Alban had played a very important role in Mesoamerican history since its rapid development around the third century BC. Its importance ceased only in the eighth century AD, when the site was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Archaeologically, the history of the city is divided into several successive stages, such as “Monte Alban Early I”, “Monte Alban Late I”, “Monte Alban II”,“III” and “IV”, etc., which all correspond to certain periods of time, from the fifth century BC to the beginning of the fifteenth century AD (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Strom 2019). The first phases (the Zapotec dominance) correspond to the city’s cultural growth, where it had played the role of a religious centre till the eighth century AD, whereas during the last two phases the gradual fall of the city was followed by its final abandonment (Mixtec and other cultures) (Strom 2019). Only during the latter phases, the city became surrounded by fortifications (Strom 2019; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

The site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Origins shrouded in mystery

The matter of the city’s origins itself is strongly debated (Heyworth 2013). Apparently, the very first settlement appeared on the site already before the fifth century BC but with a limited population till the time when the Zapotecs grew in number and became more powerful mainly due to the mentioned centralization (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Generally, Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec empire, where approximately 20 000 people had lived at its heyday (Ibid.). Between the first century BC and the second century AD, Monte Alban developed to an influential political metropolis, being in lead within the Oaxaca region and possibly beyond it (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). We can even assume that the city owed its pivotal role not only to its central role in the Valley but also for that it was built at the crossroads of trade routes between the highlands of Teotihuacán to the west and the Mayan lowlands to the east (Ibid.).

Real architects of the city

Who was the real architect of the city? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although it was the centralization process that eventually gave the beginning of the dominant Zapotec civilization, it does not mean that the people of San Jose Mogote were the real architects of the city (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In fact, none of the tribes in the Valley, including the initiators of the Zapotecs, had built anything that would be even slightly similar to the style of the sophisticated architecture found at Monte Alban (Ibid.). They had also been far from using such advanced engineering and building techniques as those employed in the city (Ibid.). What is even more thought-provoking is that among the construction phases of Monte Alban, the earliest ones are the most innovative (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

Artificial flattening of the hill with the Sunken Patio on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

One of the most puzzling features of the city is the fact that it was actually built atop an artificially flattened hilltop (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Such a position could obviously provide a sense of security and make a city a fortified stronghold (Ibid.). But was it the case? In truth, a gradual development of a rather ceremonial space and the use of principles of sacred topography suggest that Monte Alban was built for quite different purposes than to play just a defensive function (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Strom 2019). Besides, as discussed above, “the city’s [fortifications] were added several hundred years after the city had risen to power” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

Successive phases of construction

Officially, it is assumed that monumental architecture had appeared on the site since the third century BC, however, other theories say it may have happened even earlier (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Irrespective of the real time of its initiation, the city was built in successive phases (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Firstly, the hilltop must have been artificially levelled, primarily in the areas of the Main Plaza and the North Platform with the Sunken Patio (Ibid.). Then there emerged its first constructions, such as the System IV, Monticle M and J (the so-called Observatory) (Ibid.).

Monticle J, known also as the Observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Monticle J aka the Observatory

Particularly the latter seizes viewers’ attention (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), especially while being observed from the bird’s eye view. Although the Monticle J was one of the first building constructed at the site, its peculiar shape (Ibid.) and “juxtaposition to the rest of the Main Plaza and its temples” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014) make it unfit to the overall plan of the city (Ibid.). The building’s “odd pentagonal shape points, literally, like an arrow to the south-west and it is believed it was deliberately designed to align with the star Capella on its heliacal rising” (Ibid.). It is supported by the fact that the Observatory’s shape itself reproduces on earth the position of five dominant stars of Auriga Constellation, in which Capella is the brightest one (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).

View of Monte Alban and its mountainous surrounding. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In turn, “the understanding of heliacal phenomena is important to the growing studies of archaeoastronomy and the history of science [in general]” (Schaefer 1987:S19) What is it all about?

The building’s “odd pentagonal shape “. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Bradley E. Schaefer (1987:S19) explains that “celestial bodies undergo periods of invisibility, when the Sun is nearby. These periods of invisibility are bounded by the dates of the star’s heliacal rising and setting. The star is first glimpsed during morning twilight on the date of heliacal rising”, when it re-emerges at sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). “The apparition […] of the star ends on the date of heliacal setting when the Sun approaches too close to the object” (Schaefer 1987:S19), that is to say, when the star rises after the sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). Aveni (1978) claims that “the heliacal rise of Capella from Monte Alban occurred on the day of the first solar zenith passage[1]in the year 275 B.C” (Schaefer 1987:S31), which is actually the theoretical date of the construction of the Observatory (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). In order to capture that event, the building was provided with the so-called zenith tube (Ibid.) – a narrow horizontal passageway or shaft (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Strom 2019) “which only allows light to shine directly through it on a specific day, when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky” (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). That phenomenon takes place on 2nd May (Strom 2019).

[1] [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).

Engineering feat

As much as the Building J proves the importance of astronomy to the inhabitants of Monte Alban, their real feat of high level engineering was achieved by the artificial flattening of the hill (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), or as we should rather say – by the cutting off the top of it in order to build the city. “The Main Plaza alone stretches for 300m from north to south and 200m from east to west” (Ibid.). Additionally, to the north of the Main Plaza, there is also the so-called Sunken Patio (Patio Hundido), which was hewed further down into the rock (Ibid.) and so “scientifically designed to reflect sound and amplify it” (Ibid.). Actually, a much easier way to achieve the same effect would be a construction of walls around the perimeter (Ibid.). Yet, for some reasons, the city architects had chosen a gargantuan task of “[digging] down into the hilltop to carve the space out” (Ibid.).

Actually, I am getting used to this ancient phenomenon of making things far more complicated than necessary. Here we can ask the question usually posed by alternative archaeologists: ‘Was it then a difficult task to them at all?’

To make the thing even more intriguing, “the Patio Hundido is replicated twice at Monte Alban with smaller scale versions known as System IV and [Monticle] M” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Furthermore, all these three patio groups are aligned in such a way to reflect not only celestial events but also to show their mutual geometric relations with other compounds of the city (Ibid.). That fact, in turn, makes the whole city “an observatory or [even a complex] celestial timepiece” (Ibid.).

Astronomical Observatory

Scattered blocks of stone among mysterious constructions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Gathered evidence shows that the inhabitants of Monte Alban were able to understand and predict such celestial events “as the passing of comets, eclipses, helical risings, equinoxes and solstices” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In these terms, Monte Alban may not have been originally designed as a fortified stronghold whose function would be narrowed to controlling the region (Ibid.) “but rather [as] a sacred sanctuary dedicated to reading the celestial objects of the skies” (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, “the astronomy may have been the real reason for building on the craggy impractical hilltop – for Monte Alban is one of the few cities in the world that enjoys incredible 360° views of the horizon” (Ibid.).

Who were the Danzantes?

Depiction of a woman whose new born child may have just died or maybe she miscarried when she was pregnant. Was it due to epidemics? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilisation (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from? Some clues are provided by other mysterious elements found at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Ibid.). These “are a series of [300] iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilisation of Mesoamerica, called the Proto-Mayans or the Olmecs (Ibid.).

The Olmecs and Monte Alban

Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC, that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of Mesoamerican history.

Is it just a coincidence?

Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation who later became credited with monumental architecture, used calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The anthropomorphic representation is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).

Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”

(Childress 2007:14)

The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.

Slain captives or epidemic victims?

The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses, however, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (San Jose Magote also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).

Plague and Cloud People

I sat on one of the blocks of stone crumbling in the center of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).

Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial appearances (Ibid.).

Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.

Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!

On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan. On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even have been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).

Course of steps of one of pyramidal structures … you can climb up and down for hours … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000;  Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).

One mystery leads to another

We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.

Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …

One mystery leads to another … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nevertheless, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019).


“Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Barnhart, E., Powell, C. (2010-11) The Importance of Zenith Passage at Angkor, Cambodia, pp. 1-23. University of Texas at Austin Chautauqua Program courses to the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia.

Childress, H. D. (2007) The Mystery of the Olmecs. Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press. 74

Delsol, C. (2010) “Olmecs to Toltecs: Great ancient civilizations of Mexico” In: SFGate. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2013) “Monte Alban – Ancient Observatory.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2013) “Monte Alban.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Are the Danzantes Evidence for an Epidemic?” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Brief History.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – The Encrypted City.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Ortega, M., Miguel, M. J., Camacho, A. (2005) “Microstructural study of the treasure of tomb #7 of Monte Alban, Oaxaca.” In: Microscopy and Microanalysis. pp. 19-24.

Owen, B. (2000) “Mesoamerica: Olmecs and Teotihuacan.” In: World Prehistory: Class 17. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Schaefer, B. E. (1987) “Heliacal Rise Phenomena.” In: Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, vol. 18, pp. S19-S33.

Strom, C. (2019) “The Zapotecs of Monte Alban – The First Civilization in Western Mexico?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

A Survey of the Long Story of Irish Crosses

One of the books I have come across while studying early Christian sculpture of Ireland, is the work written by Hilary Richardson. With the prominent High Crosses in the title, and with a depiction of a naive outlines of carved panels of the Cross of Moone on the front cover, this physically thin book, but of substantial content, is another position on a long list of academic publications dedicated to one of the most distinctive landmarks of Ireland – the so-called High Crosses. As indicated by the title of the book, An Introduction to Irish Crosses, (1990) it is just the very beginning of a long story, as if a threshold to the mystery of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Beside High Crosses figuring in the title, the book also describes a considerable number of stone slabs predating the mature sculpture of Ireland and bearing the first signs of the coming Christianity.

Photo of the front cover from E-Bay: “An Introduction to Irish High Crosses” Paperback, 1990.

Just the Beginning of a Long Story

The work covers all the information in just a few pages of written text and gives basic information on the subject alongside with some interesting insights into assumed, yet controversial origins of High Crosses. Simultaneously, it can serve as a field guidebook to be with you while exploring High Crosses at first hand on various sites.

Also this is a highly illustrated book with a number of drawings and 199 black-and-white plates constituting the major part of its content, showing a variety and richness of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Interpreting a piece of art cannot be carried out without its proper image so it is essential that any description of art is accompanied by its complete illustration. Each picture from that section shows with details the same monument from various perspectives, which additionally allows a reader to see and examine particular features of sculpture on the crosses with a closer look. All photographs are also shown with a short caption. The major part of the pictures comes from the Photographic Collection of the Office of Public Works in Ireland.

Hillary Richardson, 1930-2015. Photo from “News and Events” at UCD. Available at <>.

As far as the composition of the book is concerned, Hilary Richardson – the author of the text, was responsible for drawings and diagrams, whereas John Scarry compiled the section with photographs. As a photographer, Scarry had been already familiar with different types of Irish monuments with High Crosses in the lead. He believed that such important monuments, as they have always been, deserved much more public attention than they had received so far. Chiefly for this reason, he engaged himself in the project together with the main author of the book, Hilary Richardson. Mostly remembered as an author of An Introduction to Irish Crosses, Hilary Richardson studied at University College Dublin together with another great specialist in early Irish art, Françoise Henry (1902–1982), whose hypotheses on the origins of High Crosses possibly influenced Hilary’s research. Hilary Richardson graduated in archaeology, anthropology and history of art, and became an academic in the Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin. She gave lectures on Irish High crosses internationally and published numerous papers on her research. She was invited at conferences in Austria and Italy, but mainly carried out her research in Armenia and Georgia.

Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars

Tall High Cross at Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Alongside very richly illuminated manuscripts, carved in stone Irish High Crosses are one of the finest fruits of early medieval art of Ireland, and like round towers they are the most unique free-standing monastic monuments that are dated back to the legendary Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. Apart from Ireland, they were also built on the British Islands, especially in the regions of Celtic Fringe, namely in Wales, Cornwall, Northumbria and Scotland. High Crosses largely contribute to early Christian art in Western Europe and are of international importance. They are distinguished by the diversity of sculpture and designed as paupers’ Bible by means of elaborate pictures coming from the Old and New Testament, apocryphal texts and hagiographic legends of saints, and hermits who lived in Egypt. There is also a significant number of crosses, either with just a few figurative scenes depicted in panels or with solely geometrical or floral decorations, or none of those. Christian symbols appeared first on slab stones around the early sixth century and since then they had been developed into High Crosses or the so-called Crosses of Scriptures in the tenth and eleven century, to finally give the place to the styles coming from the Continent in the twelfth century. The very shape of the ringed cross, widely known as the Celtic cross has been always strongly associated with Ireland.

Elaborated free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages

At the beginning of the book, a very basic map is provided with monument sites showing a general location of the crosses marked with numbers from 1 to 55 listed. In addition, there are County Boundaries marked with the first letter of a name for each county within the boundary, so it is easier to localise a given monument on the map. The map depiction is followed by “Preface” with a fragment taken from Pilgrimage Home by Padraic Colum (1985:78-80), giving a poetic description of an encounter with “a stone cross with a circle” and of emotions accompanying this meaningful and deep experience. In “Introduction”, the author describes the aim of this work as a comprehensive illustration given on individual features of the major Irish crosses and strongly highlights the artistic value of High Crosses in European history, as the only elaborate free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages. Hilary points to their uniqueness belonging to the Irish tradition but at the same time she reminds of their strong links with the monastery of Iona in Scotland and the Celtic monasticism in general.

Muiredach’s High Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is only a practical survey, a complete catalogue of sculpture is not intended here. Nevertheless, the material gathered by the authors is impressive and gives an idea about an abundance of stone sculpture in early medieval Ireland. By a thoughtful observation of a carving style of some sculpted panels, Hilary assumes the presence of individual schools and even the same hand of a master sculptor. As she correctly notices, in various studies on the crosses some of elements of the sculpture are outlined, whereas others rather neglected. Peter Harbison, a great scholar and specialist on Irish High Crosses is also an author of the guidebook known as Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, which is a sort of abbreviated version of the book entitled The High Crosses of Ireland published in three volumes. Likewise Richardson’s survey, a short guide by Harbison confines itself only to a group of crosses, namely those which bear figure sculpture. However, the sculpture excluded from his review has been listed by name in Appendix, at the end of the book. Richardson’s book lacks such appendix, which is a pity. On the other hand, the authors of An Introduction to Irish Crosses pay a greater attention to the detail of the panels appearing on the north side of the crosses or slab stones in the photographs, whereas in most works on High Crosses, including Harbison’s, that aspect of High Crosses seems to be neglected, apparently due to a poor lighting of that side of the monuments.

North Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the next part of the book, Hilary Richardson returns to the matter of an in-depth interpretation of the crosses and the symbolism expressed by their form and sculpture. The author focuses first on an appearance of a typical ringed Irish cross and gives a short graphical description of its general form, breaking it into several basic parts: a stepped base, shaft, ring, and a cap stone with its different types. More detailed characterization of the particular components of High Crosses and their supposed origins are given in the following parts of the written survey, entitled “Structure” and “Interpretation of the Cross”. Yet before that Hilary explains the general meaning of the Christian cross and Crucifixion and defines their iconographical representations in the Irish sculpture from the sixth to the twelfth century. She also underlines a particular role of the Emperor Constantine in shaping such an iconography, by changing the meaning of the cross from the symbol of execution and shame into the sign of triumph and symbol of Christian faith. Constantine was also the first who introduced the use of the Chi-Rho monogram, often enclosed in a circle of a laurel’s wreath, which may be the origins of the ring encircling the arms of High Crosses, as suggested by the author.

“Irish High Crosses: With the Figure Sculptures Explained” by Peter Harbison. Photo from Available at <>.

Next part of the book is entirely dedicated to stone carving in Ireland, where the author suggests pagan origins of the free standing monuments dedicated to Christianity. The latter undeniably developed from stone pillars erected in prehistoric times. First Christian forms, like a Latin cross with wedge shaped terminals, or a Greek cross inscribed in a circle with floral characteristics predate more complex and three dimensional monuments, fully carved in the form of the cross with a free circle around its arms. The oldest examples of free-standing crosses were usually depicted among interlaced decorations in low relief and supposedly appeared first in the far-west of the country. Hilary emphasizes the fact that we are missing an absolute chronology in case of many of these stone carvings around Ireland. In her opinion, slab stones with various forms of crosses incised usually indicate the times of early monasteries, others bear engraved inscriptions in the form of short prayers, many a time including the names of deceased, which is very helpful in their dating. As far as the function of High Crosses in concerned, the author reminds that their role cannot be confined to funerary memorials only, even if some contain such indications. The question of various inscriptions and their function on different crosses are more discussed later, under the title “Inscriptions”.

Orientation and grouping

Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Quite significant part of the survey says on the general rule for the orientation of crosses within the plan of an early Christin monastery, as it is presented in the diagram of the eighth century Book of Mulling. That aspect is usually omitted or hardly mentioned in most studies on High Crosses. Like other scholars, Hilary Richardson also makes an attempt to categorize the crosses into several groups according to their location and style. Peter Harbison divides High Crosses into two major groups: the crosses with biblical themes, created in the midlands and in the north, from ninth to the eleventh century, and those with less emphasis on the scriptural content and with bigger figures in high relief, erected mainly in the twelfth century. Hilary Richardson’s division is more detailed. According to the author, the crosses fall into four successive groups: the Athenny and Osory Group; Transitional Crosses, Scripture Crosses, and finally Late Crosses. Her classification ranges chronologically, like in Harbison’s case, from the ninth century and the earliest ringed carvings with more abstract decorations, through the introduction of biblical scenes to the representation of large single figures, usually of Christ, a saint or a bishop, in the twelfth century.

Mysterious Eastern origins

In the section entitled “Interpretation of the Crosses”, a reader can find thought-provoking assumptions on the origins of the very distinctive characteristics of Irish High Crosses, namely the stepped base, capstone, but first of all, the ring. Hilary suggests that they all developed from artistic forms established already in the fourth century, that is to say in the times of the Emperor Constantine. The author also claims very strong links of early Irish art with Jerusalem, Georgia and Armenia, where very similar features and stone carvings appeared. Such a theory strongly distinguishes Hilary’s survey from other works. Richardson’s proposal that Celtic crosses have their close parallels in the East Christian world, especially in the Caucasus, may have been influenced by the hypothesis proposed by another specialist in the subject, Françoise Henry. The latter theorised on cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and Coptic Egypt. That controversial idea had already been argued by Arthur Kingsley Porter in the first part of the twentieth century.

Major studies in the field

In the last section of the written part of the book, Hilary Richardson gives a list of the major studies on the Irish Crosses up to the time of her own research underlying an invaluable role they played in the development of the studies. In her list of authorities, there appeared the names of such famous scholars as Henry O’Neill, Margaret Stokes, Henry S. Crawford, Arthur Kingsley Porter, Françoise Henry, and Helen M. Roe. Since An Introduction to Irish Crosses was published, however, many other scholars have become involved in the further studies on Irish High Crosses, without whom such a list will not be complete. Among them there are Peter Harbison, Elinor D.U. Powell, Ryszarda Bulas and Oliver Crilly.

From general information to the details

In the “Catalogue of Crosses and Illustrations” which follows the written part, the crosses are enumerated alphabetically, according to their location. After a short description of a monastic site containing certain High Crosses, each of them is described with the sequence : north side, south side, east face and finally west face. Successive panels are listed from the bottom upwards. Small diagrams of the crosses are also provided to assist in the identification and location of particular features or scenes. Each description of the sequential panels contains an abbreviation which stands for the initials of an author of a given interpretation. The height of the crosses is given including the base, shaft and the head. There is also a range of plates referring to every cross with their numbers given in the brackets. As the author remarks, new discoveries are constantly changing a direction of the studies. A short bibliography at the end of the book is proposed to encourage a deeper interest in the subject and its development in time.

To summarize

Photo from Amazon: “An Introduction to Irish High Crosses Paperback” – 1990.

An Introduction to Irish Crosses itself is a very important survey listing and illustrating significant stone carvings among those erected in Ireland. It is a very essential introduction, and simultaneously, a guide which should be taken for reference in studies of the monuments.


Richardson, H. and Scarry, S. (1990) Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Cork & Dublin: the Mercier Press.

Colum, P. (1985) “Pilgrimage Home”. In: Selected Short Stories of Padraic Colum, Sterlincht, S. ed. Syracuse: University Press.

Harbison, P. Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, The Boyne Valley Honey Company, Drogheda, 1994.

Henry, F. Irish Art. In the Early Christian Period, London, 1940-1965.

Henry, F., L’Art irlandais, v. 1, Yonne, 1963-1964.

Kingsley Porter, A., “An Egyptian Legend in Ireland”, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, v. 5, Marburg, 1929.

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. It is] dressed in sandstone is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). AfterDr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) estimates the weight of stones from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.

Wondering in front of the pyramid

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld?

Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol), which would possibly make the pyramid reach the height of 64 metres (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Although, the linga had already gone, inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020). Accordingly, “the linga was dedicated prior to the construction of the rest of the temple” (Ibid.; see Sopheak 2020). Due to the lack of that element, however, the pyramidal outline of Prang is more emphasized (Sopheak 2020). Linga made of precious metal may have simply been looted (Ibid.), leaving behind a hole in the middle of the terrace, surrounded by a platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). The latter is symbolically supported by high-relief statues of life-size lions in the posture of atlantes (Ibid.). The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).

The pillars taken over by offensive nature

White Elephant

To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it.

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams

I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe moving the capital of the Empire to the remote Koh Ker had been caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the function of the complex as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is said above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid is. And I was wondering where his inspiration came from.

Genius Loci

The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).

Genius Loci of the site is still tangible

Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …


Ciccone, T. M. (1998-2020) “Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker, Cambodia.” In: Asian Historical Architecture. Available at <>. [Accessed on 14th February, 2020].

Cunin, O. (2019) Two Emblematic Khmer Shaiva temples – Prasat Thom and Banteay Srei. (PDF retrieved from Academia). In: Khmer Temple: Architecture and Icons. Visual presentation of a lecture given in April 2019 at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. See at <>.

Dr. Osmanagich, S. (2017) “Revealing the Mysterious Story of the Koh Ker Pyramid in Cambodia”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Higham, C. (2001) The Civilization of Angkor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Jolyon, R., Chau, I. (2013) Hematite from Cambodia. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 27th July, 2015].

Kàdas, C. (2010) “Koh Ker” In: Shortguide. Budapest: Hunincor.

Kossak, S., Watts, E. W. (2001) The Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lawrence, K. (2020) “Koh Ker: The Unsolved Puzzles of the Pyramid.” In: Sailingstone Travel. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Miura, K. (2016) “Koh Ker.” In: Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution. Hauser-Schäublin, B., Prott, L. V. Routledge: London&New York.

Quijada Plubins, R. (2013) “Khmer Empire” In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Sibson, M. (2019) “The Enigmatic Koh Ker Pyramid of Cambodia” In: Ancient Architects Channel. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Sopheak, H. (2015) “Koh Ker” In: Angkor Temples In Cambodia. Available at  <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Sopheak, H. (2020) “Prasat Thom temple complex in Koh Ker.” In: Koh Ker – Temple Town Tours. Available at <>. [Accessed on 15th February, 2020].

Gibbor in the Louvre

The Louvre Museum is without doubt one of the most famous and largest museums in the world. Its Department of Near Eastern Antiquities display, inter alia, 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered in 1840s by Paul-Emile Botta at the site of Khorsabad (ancient site of Dur-Sharrukin) (Joshua 2014; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). The city itself was built between 717 and 707 as the Assyrian capital in the time of Sargon II (Ibid.). The same site was harshly destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. After almost five years, it is still impossible to find words to describe the magnitude of the loss for the world’s cultural heritage …

First impression

Two sculptures brought to France from Dur-Sharrukin palace represent the hero, aka Gilgamesh, choking a lion (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). His figure constitutes a part of a monumental complex of the outside façade of the throne chamber: passageways guarded by colossal lamassu and a pair of genies (Ibid.). In the central passageway, between each pair of lamassu stood Gilgamesh (Ibid.). I remember yet its white and black depiction from my elementary book. At that time I interpreted the statue through the lens of school education. So who was Gilgamesh to an eight-year-old girl? Was he a “good” king-hero who fought against “evil” creepy-crawly monsters? All his heroic deeds were known to me from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I do not remember if we thoroughly studied it at all, but even for an adult it is quite difficult stuff to follow. Instead, I mostly paid attention to Gilgamesh’s appearance: alien and sinister. His up-right, muscular, frontal figure was overwhelming with physical strength and hieratic attitude. Wild looking, wide open eyes were set in a round face covered with plaited beard, and were piercing me through. I was just sorry for the lion stuck in his iron grip. The animal’s pulled claws and his silent roar made no impression on the hunter. At that time, Gilgamesh looked to me more like a motionless robot than a “good” hero.

Second impression

Gilgamesh, one of the two images of the hero

Years later I saw the sculpture myself in the Museum of Louvre. At that time, I studied in Paris so as a student of art history I was allowed to enter the museum after its closure, that is to say, after 9 p.m. I think it is still practiced and students under 26 are allowed to enter the museum for free when all the hordes of tourists are already gone. When I entered the courtyard to the Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, I felt intimidated by gigantic Assyrian wall reliefs and orthostats. Here I stood alone, face to face with mythical creatures, divine heroes and winged Anunnaki. Facing one of the colossi of Gilgamesh, smarter or not, I got a very similar impression as in the time of my childhood, additionally intensified by the dimension of the image. Gilgamesh’s eyes, once brightly coloured were mesmerising with a magical impact (Olivier 2011). The hero was an incarnation of divine and royal power, and his supernatural strength was believed to have protected the palace and the royalty (Ibid.) from the evil spirits, as much as the image of Medusa’s head in ancient Greece.

Magical Being

The second image of Gilgamesh in the passageway. Photo by (Flynn 2014)

As mentioned above, there are two Gilgamesh’s sculptures in the museum (Flynn 2014). Each is larger than life as they measure over five meters high. Both are represented in high relief (Olivier 2011). Unlike other characters from the orthostats, the hero is standing in a frontal position, with upper body and head facing the viewers, and with his legs in profile (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). Such a frontal representation is rare in Assyrian art and only reserved to illustrate magical beings (Ibid.). In his right hand he holds a ceremonial, royal weapon with a curved blade (harpe) (Ibid.). In one representation, he is wearing a short tunic with a large fringed shawl over it, hiding one leg and revealing the other, while in the second one two legs are visible (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). In the former, the lion is lifting its head and baring its teeth (Ibid.), the latter shows it biting Gilgamesh’s arm. In both cases, the lion is grasped by the left arm around which the hero is wearing a bracelet with a rosette in the centre (Olivier 2011), looking like a modern watch.

Hero or Tyrant

My feeling at the sight of the sculptures faithfully corresponded to a mythical story I learned about the Sumerian hero: Gilgamesh was a wandering god-king, tragic hero but tyrant. In his destructive desire to become equal to gods (God?), he failed the final battle for immortality and, despite his heroic deeds, he was doomed to death as all human beings.

They came from nowhere

Among numerous artefacts uncovered at the site of Dur-Sharrukin, one of the most-valuable finds was the Assyrian King List (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). Whereas Assyria came to power in Mesopotamia only about 1900 BC, the king lists enumerate much earlier rulers of Sumer, located once in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia since at least 4500 BC. That region is commonly described as the cradle of civilization due to Sumerians’ outstanding achievements (Cartwright 2018). They appeared in Mesopotamia from “nowhere” and are believed to have invented as the first in human history writing, wheel, agriculture (irrigation), ceramic, bronze, advanced astronomy, astrology, calendar, mathematics, legal code, monumental architecture (ziggurats) and the idea of city-states (Bright, J. 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019).

King List

Sumerians also documented on their clay tablets the antediluvian list of demi-divine kings, identifying ten kings who lived for tens of thousands of years before the Flood (Bright, J. 2018). Similar record of extreme longevity is also found in the Bible (Noah lived for 950 years) (Ibid.). No need to say that this particular part of Sumerian “history” was automatically classified as a myth (and its biblical version was re-interpreted) (Ibid.). Nevertheless, scholars acknowledge the King List at the moment it starts with the House of Uruk – the first royal dynasty of Sumer who reigned just after the Great Flood (McLoud 2019; Kosmiczne … 2020). For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes (c. 3800-2850 BC) (Ibid.). Assuming the List gives a right order, Gilgamesh appears there as the fifth king of Uruk who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2600 BC (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; Kosmiczne … 2020).

  1. Mesz-ki-ag-gaszer
  2. Enmerkar
  3. Lugalbanda
  4. Dumuzid
  5. Gilgamesh
For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes.

The fifth King

Evidently, there are not more “historical” records about the fifth king of Uruk than it is given by the Epic of Gilgamesh. This literary history begins with five independent Sumerian poems going back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). The Old Babylonian version (eighteenth century BC) is the first surviving version of the Epic, whereas the standard one is much later (thirteenth – tenth centuries BC). Longer, twelve clay tablet version was discovered in the Library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (seventh century BC) (Epic … 2020).

Mighty One

After the Epic, Gilgamesh was in two-thirds god and in one-thirds human (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As such he was distinguished to obtain lost knowledge from the antediluvian world (Epic of Gilgamesh, lines 5-9) (Ibid.). To do so he journeyed to Mount Hermon (the legendary mount between Syria and Lebanon, in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range) (Ibid.). According to the apocrypha Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) Mount Hermon was the place where a group of fallen angels – the Watchers – descended to earth, whereas in the Mesopotamian tradition it is known as the dwelling place of Anunnaki – “those of royal blood” – or in other words – sons of god (Hines 1989:73; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Are those the same?

Who were Anunnaki?

“[T]he true identity of the Anunnaki [or Annunaki] is to be found in the Eastern tradition of [demi-gods], spawned by cross-breeding between divine beings and mortal females at Mount Hermon. […] These beings are often associated with knowledge from the world before a great deluge and were later assigned roles in the underworld. This would suggest [they should properly be compared to the Nephilim and the fallen “sons of God” brought up in Genesis Chapter 6]” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; see Hines 1989).

Sons of God

In the Hebrew Bible the expression: “sons of God” appears four times and always refers to angelic beings (in Hebrew: singualr מַלְאָךְ‎ mal’akh, plural: מלאכים mal’akhim)(Gentry 2019). Only with the coming of Christianity, the title of the Son of God has been ascribed to Jesus. The Bible says (Gen. 6:2,4):

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. […] The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

As Dr. Peter Gentry (2019) says: “Gen.6:1-4 is a difficult text. And as we attempt to interpret it, we should be humble because there are different interpretations that have been taken of this text.” Scholars explain the fragment: “in those days and also afterward” differently. Some suggest that the Nephilim had already lived in the earth “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans” and also existed after that time, so they have nothing to do with the story of the fallen angels (Gentry 2019). Others suggest that “afterward” stands for the times after the flood as the giants also appears in the Bible later on. Still the Nephilim came into existence in those days, that is to say “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them.” (Alberino, Quayle 2016). On the other side, when taking into account the testimony of Apocrypha, “in those days and also afterward” may refer to the times of Jared, that is to say, when the fallen angels descended (Skiba 2016).

Universal myths

In almost all the ancient cultures, there are three recurring myths telling about ancient gods that once descended from heavens to take for themselves human women, about giants that were the offspring of the sexual relationship between the gods and earthly daughters, and about a great cataclysm – in many cases – the flood that destroyed the empire of the gods and their children (Alberino, Quayle 2016). Ancient traditions alongside with biblical texts also give references to the way the sons of god were punished for their misdeeds (Ibid.; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Book of Jude 6 says:

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day”.

The same notion is supported by the New Testament (2nd Peter, 2:4, KJV) :

“God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness”.

It is noteworthy that “the word translated as hell in this verse is actually the Greek Tartarus, referencing the deepest underworld of Greek mythology—the prison of the Titans” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Not only ancient legends support the biblical texts but also record that the gods’ offspring, the giants, shared the fate of their fathers. Most famous of all, the mythology of ancient Greeks actually repeats the same universal stories of the older Eastern traditions (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Greek Titans may stand for both: the Nephilim and Anunnaki. They all were, as the Greek myth says, the offspring of Gaia – an earth goddess (human women?) and Uranus – a sky deity who stands for heavenly beings – gods (Ibid.).

Who were the Nephilim?

“[T]he Septuagint translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים [Nephilim] and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים [gibborim – mighty men or men of renown] in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες [gigantes – giants]” (Garris 2019). “Some scholars, [like Michael Heiser (2015:107)], also think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant”(Ibid.). Biblical giants are also referred to as Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). What is the difference between those? “In spite of the flood, giants eventually made a comeback” (Ibid.). In this context, Nephilim were mostly antediluvian giants, whereas their descendants were already recorded after the flood as generations of Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). Although Genesis 6:4 does not describe the Nephilim as beings of great stature, Numbers 13:32-33 already gives such a narrative (Ibid.). After leaving Egypt, Israelites are approaching the Promised Land (Canaan) (Ibid.). However, Moses first sends there 12 scouts who come back after 40 days with a report about the land (Numbers 13:32-33) (Ibid.)

“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them“.

The Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Louvre. Photo by (Flynn 2014)

Was then Gilgamesh a giant?

Intriguingly, there are ancient sources suggesting that Gilgamesh was actually of gigantic stature (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ugarit (lines 34-36) reveals the hero’s size (Ibid.): “Eleven cubits was his height, four cubits the width of his chest. A triple cubit was his foot and a reed-length his legs”. Accordingly, Gilgamesh would have been over five metres tall as his statue in the Louvre (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). At this point, we should also take a closer look at Gilgamesh relief representing him while grasping a lion. Usually, an adult lion measures around three metres, while in Gilgamesh’s embrace, he looks more like a kitty. Assuming that Gilgamesh was over five metres tall, the depicted size of a lion seems more accurate (Zalewski 2017). Also the fragmentary Book of Giants found among apocrypha scrolls in Qumran enumerates Gilgamesh as one of giants (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh’s divine origins were taken either after his mother – a goddess Ninsun, or his father. Although Lugalbanda (the third king of Uruk) is believed to have been the father of Gilgamesh, according to Sumerian Kings List, his true father was a spiritual being (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As stated by the Book of Enoch, after the flood a number of dead giants was doomed to eternal exile on earth as spiritual beings. Those wandering entities have desired for revenge on God and His creations for the destruction of their world (Skiba 2016). Hence it happened they possessed human beings. Some of those may have brought Gilgamesh to life, as much as other creatures of their kind (Ibid.).

Gilgamesh, the Giant (Photo from Itadmin, 2020).

Through the Flood

According to the apocrypha Book of Giants, not only giants were the offspring of fallen angels but also animal-angelic hybrids. There was also a crossbreeding between animals themselves. Such beast-like creatures were giants’ inferior comrades (Alberino 2014). Gilgamesh himself makes friends with Enkidu – a wild man (animal-human hybrid) who apparently looked like a Minotaur.

Some entities of the antediluvian world made through the flood along with the corrupted genome. How? There are several contingencies (Alberino 2018):

  1. The second incursion: spirit beings again got into a sexual intercourse with women and more giants were born (Alberino 2014; Garris 2019);
  2. “Nephilim genes were passed down through Noah’s daughters-in-law. These wives of Ham, Shem, and Japheth were not descended from Noah and thus potentially had Nephilim genes in them” (Garris 2019; see Skiba 2016; Alberino 2018).
  3. Necromancy: a genetic transmutation through the sorcery (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2016).
  4. “The Exile of Atlantis” a theory proposed by Timothy Alberino (2018): some forbidden entities escaped the deluge by different means.

As the Epic says, Gilgamesh himself meets Utnapishtim – a survivor of the great flood whom the god Enlil saved from the waters and made immortal (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh desires the immortality for himself but eventually he fails in his quest. Even if he has got divine origins, defeats Humbaba (Huwawa) – the guardian of the Cedar Forest, and slays the Heavenly Bull, he is unable to become immortal like Utnapishtim. In this context, he can be seen as acting against the postdiluvian order (Wayne 2019).

One of Tower Babel paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Gilgamesh aka Nimrod?

Similar attitude is expressed by another Mesopotamian king, known from the Bible (Genesis 10) as Nimrod whom other traditions also ascribe the construction of the Tower of Babel (Skiba 2016). Although the Bible calls him Nimrod, it may have been actually a nickname meaning as much as a Hebrew word to rebel or we shall rebel (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2019). Hence Nimrod is believed to have rebelled against Yahweh by building a tower (Gen:10:8-10).

“And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”.

Although he apparently came from the second generation after the flood, scholars’ attempts to associate Nimrod with historical rulers have failed (Kosmiczne … 2020). Some scholars, like Rob Skiba (2016), claim that Nimrod and Gilgamesh are actually the same, whereas scholars, like David Rohl (2015), notice parallels between Enmerkar (the second ruler from the List of Sumerian Kings) and Nimrod, as both characters seem to share several characteristics. Also Gilgamesh and Nimrod have one feature in common: they were both described as mighty ones, hunters, warriors (Wayne, Magalashvili 2016). “[All these titles derive] from Hebrew gibbor/Gibborim […] meaning [a] powerful warrior, tyrant; champion […] and can include or be a giant/Nephilim (as in Gen 6)” (Ibid.). According to the Scriptures and apocrypha tradition, however, Nimrod was not a giant originally but “[he began] to be a mighty one in the earth. In this application of Hebrew chalal means to profane and to break your word when Nimrod for some reason became a mighty one. So something mysterious happened to make Nimrod like a mighty one.” (Ibid.). A sorcery?

Between the Lamassu

Post-flood resurrection

Irrespective of a true identity of Nimrod or Gilgamesh, it can be concluded that the ancient world just after the Great Flood may have been ruled by demi-divine gigantic beings – Gibborim who originated from the Nephilim – the extremely intelligent but wicked angelic offspring. The latter built up the antediluvian empire with the help of their heavenly fathers. After Merriam Webster Dictionary, there are a few notions of the adjective antediluvian :

  1. of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible;
  2. made, evolved, or developed a long time ago;
  3. extremely primitive or outmoded.

Due to a pejorative meaning of the last definition, people usually tend to imagine the antediluvian world as the one inhabited by primitive, wearing animal skins people who lived in the the time of general ignorance, with a very low level of technology, knowledge or progress (Alberino, Quayle 2016). Yet nothing could be more further from the truth than these stereotypes (Ibid.). Strange as it seems it was a much more advanced world than we know today (Ibid.). Although this antediluvian empire was destroyed by God and the evil was chained in the darkness, the vestiges of the forbidden knowledge introduced by the Watchers have remained in the earth together with their architecture, technology and angelic gens (Ibid.). Post-flood Gibborim, like Gilgamesh, longed for the lost antediluvian realm and so they were constantly trying to take revenge on God for its final destruction by water. They wished to regain power by means of resurrection: they would rebel against the universal order, just as their antediluvian ancestors did. The Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of the Tower of Babel teach, however, that as mighty as they were, they could not win with the Supreme.


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Alberino, T., Quayle, S. (2016) True Legends: Technology of the Fallen/ The Unholy See: The Vatican Knows All The Secrets. GenSix Productions. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Bright, J. (2018) “The Ancient Sumerians & Lost Ancient Human Civilizations.” In: Bright Insights. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Cartwright, M., (2018) “Fertile Crescent – Cradle of Civilization.” In: Ancient History. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Dr. Gentry, P. (2019) “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?” In: Southern Seminary. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Farmer, S., Jarrell, J. (2017) “Anunnaki Revealed: Finding the Nephilim in Myth, Giants Among Men– Part II”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Flynn, R. (2014) “Hero Overpowering a Lion.” In: Impressions Travelogue. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Garris, Z. (2019) “Giants in the Land: a Biblical Theology of the Nephilim, Anakim, Rephaim (and Goliath).” In: Knowing Scripture. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Heiser, M. (2015) The Unseen Realm. Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Lexham Press.

Hines, C. (1989) Gateway of the Gods: An Investigation of Fallen Angels, the Nephilim, Alchemy, Climate Change, and the Secret Destiny of the Human Race. Murrysville: Numina.

Itadmin (2020) “20 Facts about Gilgamesh—Ancient Sumeria’s Demigod.” In: Ancient Code. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Joshua J. M., (2014) “Dur-Sharrukin”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Joshua J. M., (2018) “Gilgamesh”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

McLoud, W. (2019) “The House of Uruk, Greatest of Sumerian Heroes.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

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Skiba, R. (2016) Moses said the post-Flood Nephilim came from other Nephilim. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Skiba, R. (2016) Moses tells us exactly how the Nephilim returned after the Flood. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Skiba, R. (2019) Archon Invasion and the Origin of the Nephilim. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016) “Dur Sharrukin. Ancient City, Iraq.” In: Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at <>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

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Land of Fairy Chimneys

While working as a teacher I always used my summer holidays for study trips, and when my colleagues brought their families by the seaside or up to the mountains to relax after the whole school year, I usually went digging, measuring a church or cataloging its inventory. Always non-profit. Anyway, it was my choice and the only chance I could entirely dedicate my time to my passion.

One Trip After Another

After one week trip to Tri-City (Pomerania, Poland) in July, organised by Wrocław University, some of my school mates prolonged their stay on Hel Peninsula to enjoy its long sandy beaches. Contrary to others, I decided to grasp another opportunity for getting closer to archaeology and I left for … Turkey. After travelling across the whole Poland, I finally reached my hometown, where I repacked my stuff from my backpack in a suitcase, and two days later I was already at the airport.

… ruins of some great and ancient city …

Land Full of Archaeological Treasures

Turkey is famous for its archaeological treasures. I joined there my friends who had chosen Anatolia for their holidays. After visiting together Istanbul and Ankara, “we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock … like the ruins of some great and ancient city” (W.F. Ainsworth in Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). We had just reached Cappadocia …

A grotesquerie of pinnacles

Abstract Art of Cappadocia

Caves and corridors …

Lying southeast of Ankara, it is one of the most remarkable area in Turkey and most frequently visited places in the whole world. Since the early eighteen century, its magical moonscape landscapes have astonished travellers and writers – so unusual are its rock patterns (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Cappadocia looks like “a phantasmagorical world where rocks shaped like stepped ziggurats, towers, spires, minarets and cones jut upward into the blue sky” (Ibid:58). Some of these formations grow out of the ground individually or in a few and are characterized by more erosion-resistant basalt caps in the upper part, which gives them the shape of cones imposed on slender like chimneys trunks of soft tufa. Some even compare the latter to penis heads (Pyrgies 2015:31). Clustered together, the rocks sometimes look like an army of crouching dwarfs wearing pointed hats, others – hill-like formations – resemble more “sandcastles melted by an incoming tide” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Such a diversity of shapes became an inspiration for Bronze Age discs – an excellent exemplum of abstract forms of a human body in art (Pyrgies 2015:31; see Noble 2003:40-42).

Grotesquery of the Region

Tufa trunks erosion-resistant basalt caps in the upper part

Geologically, Cappadocia is millions years old. It was formed as a result of eruptions of the volcanoes: Hasan Dağı and Erciyes Dağı. Their lava mixed with thick layers of ash changed with time into soft rock, called tufa (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Then an artist came and sculpted a grotesquery of the region. Its name was natural erosion. A painter – natural light – added the pink flush of dawn or dusk and magnified natural colours of stone valleys, vibrating under its subtle touch (Ibid:58). Then people appeared in the valleys, especially in the area of today towns of Göreme, Ürgüp, Nevşehir, Zelve and Avanos. They gauged and “hollowed out the tufa [formations] into honeycombs of rooms for everyday living […]” (Ibid:58), and with the fourth century, hermitages and monasteries for worship (Ibid:58).

Place for Religious Retreat

Russet-coloured Christian symbols

Greek Christians who chose Cappadocia for their retreat followed the monastic idea promoted by Basil, the Great, a hermit and the bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Considered the father of monasticism of the Byzantine Church, Saint Basil (Ibid:58), likewise the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, believed that a monk’s life should be filled with work and contemplation. Nevertheless, Cappadocian monasticism was based primarily on coenobitic life (community life), which Saint Basil considered the only proper monastic way, unlike the Egyptian anchoritism (recluse) (Telepneff 2001:24-26, 36; Rops 1968:606-607; Zarzeczny 2013:39-40).

Rock-Cut Christian Churches

The so-called Dark Church as very little light reaches its interior

With Christian communities’ grow in the Middle Ages, rock-cut Cappadocian churches developed out of early monastic dwellings and there had been over 300 of them by the end of the thirteenth century (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60). The internal architecture of freestanding churches was copied by carving out all the features out of soft rock: “domes, apses, barrel-vault ceilings, and columns, arches and even tables and benches” (Ibid:60). Supporting functions of such elements as columns seem so realistic that it is still surprising to see a stalactite-like column hanging from the ceiling since its base “has been worn out completely away” (Ibid:60). The churches, especially their interiors, are also richly adorned with Byzantine wall paintings representing Christian symbols: from early russet-coloured various patterns drawn directly on the rock to more elaborated and colourful biblical depictions and portraits of saints (Ibid:60). The latter had appeared in Cappadocia since the tenth century onward and were made already on dry plaster (secco) (Ibid:60).

Open Air Museum

Early Christianity with its monastic expressions in art

Most famous churches are still visible in Göreme, known for this reason as an “open air museum” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Most famous are the Elmalı Kilise (Church of the Apple), the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church – because of the looking like a snake, dragon being killed by Saint George), and the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) (Ibid:60).

In the course of the fourteenth century, when Cappadocia was already under Turks, the range of Christianity began to shrink and eventually, in 1922, the Greek were expelled from the country (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Nevertheless, Cappadocian “houses” have continued to be used by local communities (Ibid:60).

Going underground

Apart from Christian dwellings, archaeologists encountered other earlier constructions but deep underground (Kosmiczne opowieści 2019). In total there are 36 known subterranean cities in central Anatolia but only four of them are open to the public. The most extensive and intriguing is definitely Derinkuyu, which means in Turkish a deep well (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel.

Likewise the Hypogeum in Malta, it was uncovered by accident in 1963, at the occasion of refurbishing one of local houses. A demolition of one wall opened the entrance to the tunnel going deep down to the underground, and branching into multiple corridors and chambers (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). After wide excavations, it turned out it was just a part of a huge honeycomb city located on more than eight successive levels and reaching underground up to sixty metres down. Underground cities could once have been connected as one of the tunnels inside Derinkuyu (nine km long and extremely narrow) is said to lead to another underground complex (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock. They seemed to lead a typical life but underground. In their mysterious city, there were spaces of different everyday conveniences: dining rooms, wine presses, cellars, warehouses, animal enclosures, schools and places of worship (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). For lighting, in some parts people are believed to have used olive lamps, which could have been placed in special niches (Kosmiczne … 2019). Still such niches are missing elsewhere, and on deeper levels torches or lamps would not work due to limited air sources and so the question of the lighting system inside the city has not been entirely answered. It Is obvious, however, that without any artificial light the underground would be just pitch-dark (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The access to fresh water was provided by the well built under the lowest level and taking water from the river flowing under the surface of the city. In order to prevent the water being poisoned, the river’s flow was checked at the level of the lower floors and in the event of danger, the access of water to the upper floors was cut off (Kosmiczne … 2019). Moreover, the city was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to force people to leave it either by means of fire or water (ibid). There were three main entrances to the underground, which in case of danger could be closed only from the inside with round basalt boulders (one meter in diameter, up to 500 kg in weight). Such megalithic doors were placed on rollers and also led to subsequent levels, thanks to which each of them could be closed separately (Ibid). City residents could also communicate with each other at a distance, using miniature shafts with a section of 10 cm (Ibid). The entire ventilation system consisted of thousands of long vertical shafts (52 known in total) that supplied air to the deepest and most distant rooms (Ibid). What is quite interesting, the shaft chimneys sticking out on the ground resemble the shape of bull’s horns (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The builders (whoever they were) also took care of the air conditioning: in the summer, there was about 15 °C in the inside, and in the winter the temperature did not fall below 7 °C (Kosmiczne … 2019).

Nobody knows who built this intricate subterranean complex, why and how.


Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock (Photo posted by Jackson Groves, 2019)

This matter is still very controversial and there are many hypotheses about who was the author of Derinkuyu (Kosmiczne … 2019). As other stone structures, Derinkuyu cannot be dated, which is why archaeologists usually attribute similar structures to cultures having inhabited a given area (Ibid). Academics generally claim the construction of Derinkuyu was built either by the Phrygians (the twelfth – seventh century BC) or by an earlier culture – the Hittites (1600 BC – the twelfth century) (Ibid). Although the Phrygians are mostly considered as the authors of the city, and the construction itself dated back to the eighth century, the finds of Hittite artefacts (the thirteenth – twelfth century) in the city’s tunnels leave this question still open (Ibid). Moreover, there are also excavated much older palaeolith tools dating back to around 10 000-12 000 (History 2018). Irrespective of these finds, some scholars suggest that some part of the complex was just started by one of these ancient cultures but then widely expanded only by Christians who were forced to protect themselves underground in great numbers (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such an explanation is, however, less possible as the whole complex is architecturally consistent. And even if Christians had found there their long time refuge and adapted it to their use by creating (or just modifying) rock-cut spaces, such as the so-called “cathedral”, they could not expand the city to such a degree as it is known today (Ibid). The oldest identified account of underground cities in Cappadocia comes from 370 BC and was written by a Greek historian from Athens, Xenophon (Kosmiczne … 2019). His account comes from the work of Anabaza, where the author mentions people living in large, underground houses, along with their livestock (Ibid). After historians, the city was already used during the Roman Empire, and then by Christians as a place of refuge during invasions of Mongols and Arabs (Ibid). According to an alternative theory, the builders of Derinkuyu were representatives of a lost, highly developed civilization, which was destroyed about 12,000 years ago by a huge cataclysm (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019; see Hancock 2016).

Honeycombs of chambers


Derinkuyu is believed to have been built as a war shelter (Kosmiczne … 2019). However, these are only speculations, not facts. The primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, Avasta (in the Wendidad part), mentions the first king of mankind who was warned by the god Ahura Mazda of the coming catastrophe of long-time and evil winters (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). Thus, the god recommends building a great Vara (in Persian mythology an underground shelter) and let in a pair of seeds from each animal and plant on earth, as well as a number of carefully selected people who would re-populate the land when winter passes away (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). With some exceptions, the story is remarkably similar to the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, and other myths about a great cataclysm and a god saving the earthly life (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). Supporters of the theory of the lost ancient civilization relate the description of harsh winters to the last Ice Age (younger dryas lasting from around 10 850 B.C. to around 9700 B.C.) and associate Derinkuyu with the ancient Vara  (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). For these reasons Persians claim such multi-stored subterranean cities were built by their ancient ancestors (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

Basalt caps on top of tufa cones


Beauty of central Anatolia

First of all, Derinkuyu construction amazes with its craftsmanship and highly functional, architectural elements. Like other structures in Cappadocia, the city was made of soft volcanic rock – tuff (Kosmiczne … 2019). Therefore, builders had to be very careful while building the underground chambers and had to make sure they would carve out strong and well-balanced columns to maintain the pressure of the upper floors (Ibid). One structural engineering mistake would be enough to cause a collapse of the entire city (Ibid). Secondly, it is noticed that to construct such functional elements as wells and ventilation shafts, the builders would need a special machinery or tooling to drill deeply and precisely in the rock (by the way, no tools have been there found there so far) (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Next, It is estimated that over million and half square metres of rock was removed to construct the whole complex (History 2018). However, there is no trace of the extracted material in the area (Ibid). Finally, in Turkey there are multiple fault lines (a line on a rock surface or the ground that traces a geological fault) generating earthquakes, except for one region, which is in central Anatolia, especially around Cappadocia (Dunning, Ogun 2018). It is not surprising then that such elaborate and deep subterranean complexes were carved out just in the area that has not posed a threat of earthquakes which can easily destroy the underground warrens of tunnels and chambers. The most important question is how their builders knew about that phenomenon (Ibid).

One of the creepiest places

Without doubt, Derinkuyu belongs to most fascinating but also creepiest sites I have ever been. The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. It’s an amazing place to get in but it is not proper for asthmatics, people with heart deceases and claustrophobic issues or those with limited mobility (Dunning, Ogun 2018). While walking down to deeper levels, it is more difficult to breathe and passages getting more and more narrower (Ibid). The tunnels of the city measure approximately 160 cm high (Kosmiczne … 2019) and if you are taller you need to constantly bend over to pass through from one chamber to the other (Dunning, Ogun 2018). So far archaeologists have excavated the city reaching down to its eight floor but there are possibly even eighteen in total (Ibid). However, no archaeologist has explored it yet directly or indirectly by means of robotic probes (Ibid).

Homes, Christian dwellings and ancient underground complexes

Here comes a fairy tale …

All around there are fairy like shapes of nature

Now goes the part I like most: an oral tradition. Local people usually describe the region of Cappadocia as the land of fairy chimneys (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58; Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such a name may refer to “fairy” natural formations of Cappadocia – according to tour books (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58) or, as villagers believe, to the underground constructions, which were actually built by fairies (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The latter are usually describe as very tiny people resembling Tolkien’s hobbits but with fiery red eyes (Ibid). Some local villagers claim they caught a glimpse of such a creature underground (Ibid). Still such beings could only work by night as they suffered from the daylight (Ibid). This is why, the fairies once lived (or still live) in the deepest and narrowest levels of the subterranean cities (Ibid). According to the same source, the complexes were actually built from the bottom upwards, first by the fairies from the Inner Earth and then, at the higher levels, by people who consecutively adapted them to their use and widely enlarged (Ibid).

The Dead End

Lost in an ancient world of pinnacles and cones

Is it a fairy tale? Most people in answer would shrug or call it an old wives’ tale. A more scientific theory than that states Derinkuyu was built from the top to bottom (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The case is, however, the same theory goes to the dead end while archaeologists are trying to localise the “bottom” (Ibid). We know the deeper the city goes down, the narrower its chambers and tunnels become but nobody yet has reached their final end, still hidden deep down …

Anatolian night

It was already late when we all were sitting in one of numerous pubs filled with typical of Cappadocia atmosphere of small villages lost among tufa rocks and their multiple shapes. At that time I was not sure anymore if all of these stories I heard were just made-up or maybe I had drunk too much beer … Still I trusted Lord Richard Croft’s words: “Well, all myths have foundation in reality” (Tomb Raider 2018).

The Anatolian night was flickering to me with its stars. Tomorrow was going to bring another mystery.


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