When Gods Turned against the Minoans

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

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

Idyllic Island

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

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

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

Everlasting myths

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

One of the most charming and visited cities on Santorini, Oia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

The Minoans

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

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

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

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

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

Knossos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire

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

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

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

Merchants, not warriors

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

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

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

Reconstructed Minoan Fresco from Tell El-Dab’a, in Egypt. The archaeological site is also known as Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, which was developed in the Nile delta region of Egypt. However, the fresco itself is dated back to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents a bull-leaping, which is a recurring theme in Minoan art. Source: “Minoan Frescoes from Tell el-Daba” (2017). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

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

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

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

Restless island

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

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

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

Famous Minoan Spring Fresco in the West Wall Swallows Scene, Akrotiri, Santorini. Subjects undertaken in art by the Minoans on Thera mostly showed the beauty and serenity of nature, with its different colours emanating during the day. Source: Sheppard Baird (2007-2019).

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

Island cursed by gods

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

Unearthing the Spring Fresco. In: ”Prehistoric Thera” by Christos Doumas, published by the John S. Latsis public benefit foundation. In 1974, Marinatos passed away and the following year Doumas himself took over running the excavation, bringing to light an amazing wealth of finds and information. Unlike in Knossos, Minoan frescoes of Akrotiri are better preserved due to having been covered by the layers of volcanic ash and pumice stones. Source: Eptakili (2017).

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


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

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

Fresco of a fisherman with Coryphaena hippurus from Akrotiri, Thera. Probably an offering to gods. Source: “Fresco of a fisherman” (2015) Wikimedia Commons.

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

Earth-shaker is getting furious

In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011).

Stone Staircase destroyed by a devastating earthquake in ancient city of Akrotiri, Thera. It was also one of the warnings, announcing the final explosion of the volcano. Source: Morgan A. V. (2020).

The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Mitchell 2011). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).

Heralds of the coming disaster

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

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

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

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

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

Stages of eruption

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

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

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

Ruthless gods

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

A number of the fragments of frescoes found at Knossos have been restored to give the sense of what the original image might have looked like. [The] ‘Cup-bearer’ from the South Propylaeum shows a young man carrying a large silver rhyton. This is the only life-size figure in a Minoan fresco whose head and torso are preserved. Today exposed at Heraklion Museum, Crete. Source: Bloomsbury (2020).

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

From the earthquake to Plinian eruption

Plinian eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Donald A. Swanson. Source: Volcano Discovery (2020).

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

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

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

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

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

Deadly ashes

Probably one of the first stages of an initiation for Minoan women: a young girl gathering saffron. Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains

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

The archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini island. The ancient houses were strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs to avoid their destruction during often on Thera earthquakes. Source: Print & Web Guides Ltd. (2020)

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

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

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

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

Far-reaching disaster

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

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

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Jones (2011).

Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans as well on Crete? (Lilley 2006).

Town under the ashes

Experts are only now learning the true scale of this disaster, which deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of Thera (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Jensen (2018).

Excavations on the island itself, reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Lilley (2006).

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire came archaeologists, such as Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Source: Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Swindale (2020) “Malia”.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

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

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea fast around […] There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death and destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011).

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon, CC0). Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011).

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the same civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr German (2020).

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Blakolmer (2012), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Bhumgara S. (2004).

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

A major controversy

Dating the Thera’s eruption has become one of the major controversies in academic world.

The Lillies fresco from Akrotiri, Santorini. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015).

“For more than two centuries archaeologists have refined the Bronze Age Mediterranean historical framework by observing the relative order of superimposed levels on a series of sites. Next, they established inter-site relationships based on common cultural characteristics – primarily in ceramics, art and architecture” (MacGillivray 2007:150). “Based on archaeological correlations between the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, the eruption of Santorini was believed to have occurred around 1500 BC., after the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt, [that is to say in the sixteenth century BC.]” (Ehrlich, Regev, Boaretto 2018). “The traditional date around 1500 BC. was first proposed in  the 1930s by Marinatos. It has […] been challenged by a controversial new date of around 1600 BC., dividing prehistorians into two camps and generating heated debate” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Turning for help to ancient Egyptians

In 1980s, two scientists first disputed the archaeological dating (History Channel 1980s). These were the German geologists, H. Pichler and W. L. Friedrich who radiocarbon-dated the charcoal found in the volcanic rocks (Ibid.). According to the results they obtained, the eruption of the volcano took place around 1650 BC. (Ibid.). It would mean that Thera’s explosion was over one hundred years earlier than it was primarily thought (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Accordingly, “the Minoans in [their] mature stages [would have been] contemporaries of the ‘Foreign Princes’ of Egypt’s Hyksos period, a century earlier than Hatshepsut’s reign in the historical chronology” (MacGillivray 2007:150).

Statue of the famous Egyptian queen
Hatshepsut who belonged to the Eighteenth
Dynasty. Today on display at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York. Source:
Hatshepsut” (2020). In : Wikipedia. The
Free Encyclopedia.

In this case, some scholars turn for help to Egyptian texts, which “may give a clue to the absolute date [of Thera’s eruption” (MacGillivray 2007:159). And they find there interesting records, which may actually refer to the volcanic explosion and its devastating results. At the turning of the fifteenth century BC., “one of Hatshepsut’s best known dedications was the rock-cut temple to the lioness-goddess Pakhet, near Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. […] Here, Hatshepsut carved a very revealing account of herself and her deeds in that region over the architrave” (Ibid.:159). Some scholars interpret the text “as Hatshepsut sending braziers to her subjects driven by raging storms and total darkness into the temples” (Ibid.:159). One of her deeds “was to care for refugees who swarmed into Middle Egypt from the Nile delta because of the incursion of the sea there” (Ibid.:160). There is also another text from much later Ptolemaic period (third or second centuries BC.), but referring to the events having happened during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Ibid.:160). Namely, the words of an Egyptian scribe recall biblical descriptions of darkness covering the earth (Ibid.:160). “[He writes:] ‘there was no exit from the palace by the space of nine days. Now these days were in violence and tempest: none, whether god or man, could see the face of his fellow’. This nine-day period reads suspiciously like an Egyptian multiple of three, which meant ‘a long time’, and so refers to a lengthy period of storms and darkness” (Ibid.:160).

The Tempest Stela of Ahmose. Reconstruction of the face (R) and back (L). (Malcolm H. Wiener and James P. Allen, 1998). Source: University of Chicago (2014).

Additionally, there is also a very interesting writing on the fragmented stele, ascribed by some scholars to Ahmose, the pharaoh and founder of the Eighteen Dynasty in the middle of the sixteenth century (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006). ‘It records some tremendous catastrophe that happened to Egypt’, says Prof. Donald Redford, the archaeologist (Ibid.). ‘We aren’t quite clear what it was but it involved rain and thunder and lightening, such a storm that rarely happens in northeastern Africa. I mean that’s a dry area’ (Ibid.). For this reasons, the stele has been known as the Tempest or Storm Stele (“Tempest Stele” (2020). Apart from ravaging storms, it also confirms that Egypt was enveloped in darkness and that statues of its gods were toppled to the ground, which may have happened due to a sequence of severe earthquakes (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Wall painting representing foreigners’ procession scene in the tomb of Hatshepsut’s chief architect, Senenmut, (TT 71). The gift-bearers looking like Minoans are probably paying a diplomatic tribute to the Queen of Egypt. Depicted objects with such features as bull’s heads are also analogous to those produced in the Aegean region by Minoans. Such imagery would point out to the Egyptian-Minoan peaceful trade relations (dated by an archaeologist, R. W. Hutchinson, to the Late Minoan IA; 1600 – 1500 BC.). Dates are, however, debated. MacGillivray (2007). Facsimile, after Davies 1936: Pl. XIV. Source: Matić U. (2014); fig. 3, p. 238.

Such ancient records are usually pinpointed to the Eighteenth Dynasty, between the second part of the sixteenth and first part of the fifteenth century BC. But are these records dated correctly? If the stele had been really created by Ahmose and it talks about the Thera eruption, that would place it during the reign of the pharaoh, which is believed to have happened between 1550/49 and 1524 BC, or even twenty years earlier (MacGillivray 2007; “Ahmose I” 2020), which in turn, corresponds to the Late Minoan IA period (1600-1500 BC.). On the other side, Hatshepsut’s exact time of reigning is similarly unclear but usually estimated for the first half of the fifteenth century, sometimes between 1504-1483 or 1478-1458 BC. (MacGillivray 2007; “Hatshepsut” 2020), which mostly fell in the Late Minoan IB period (1500-1450 BC). If there are such discrepancies in dating the ruling of particular Egyptian kings, it is also highly probable some ancient texts are either wrongly ascribed (Ahmose’s stela refers just to a pharaoh, not Ahmose himself) or their date estimated incorrectly (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Fresco from the tomb of Khnumhotep III in Beni Hassan shows a group of Semitic people, possibly Canaanite merchants, arriving in Egypt. They are thought to be related culturally to the dynasty that called itself the Hyksos. De Agostini Picture Library/G. Sioen/ Bridgeman Images. Source: Curry (2018).

Moving back to the seventeenth century BC., before Egypt’s consolidation by the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was the Egypt’s dark period (Wengler 2009). The kingdom of Egypt was split in two (Ibid.). The northern region (the Nile delta) was ruled by Hyksos, foreign invaders from Asia Minor (Ibid.). The time that followed brought economic decline and serious unrest (Ibid.) The rule of the Hyksos kings for long had reminded a trauma in the Egyptian minds (Ibid.). Did that period overlap with the volcano eruption on Thera?

Geologists make their way

For years now, doubts have been growing among scientists about the exact date of the eruption (Wengler 2009). On Santorini, colossal rocks were hurled through the air by the last great eruption of the Bronze Age (Ibid.).

The reconstructed South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Between these rocks, a geologist and student of Prof. Friedrich’s, Tom Pfeiffer, found in 2003 – as both geologists say – a critical evidence buried beneath the layers of lava (Wengler 2009; Volcano Discovery 2020). It was an olive branch of a tree smashed by Thera’s eruption (Wengler 2009). Around it, there were remains of olive leaves, twigs and olive stones, which signifies the tree was alive at the time of eruption (Ibid.). As it was an organic material, the remnants were carbon-dated (Ibid.). The moment, the olive branch died would mean the exact date of the volcanic eruption (Ibid.). Since the time of previous results, Prof. Friedrich obtained in 1980s, he has been convinced that the once accepted date of 1500 BC. for the eruption should be officially pushed back a hundred years (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). He was sure that if the previous results had been confirmed by the results obtained by a recently found branch, the new timing would have been unchallengeable (Wengler 2009). Having conducted comparative tests, the geologists have received results confirming that the eruption took place in the seventeenth century BC. and not in the sixteenth century BC. or later (Ibid.). Accordingly, Santorini exploded somewhere between 1620 and 1600 BC (Ibid.). As Prof. Friedrich claims the confirmed date of the tree should have huge consequences for future research and for the understanding of ancient history in general (Ibid.).

Pumice deposit on Santorini, Greece, showing the holes in the pumice where remnants of an olive tree were recovered in 2003. They were found by Tom Pfeiffer, a student of Prof. Friedrich’s in Geology. This organic material allowed another radiocarbon dating of the volcano eruption back to the seventeenth century BC. The results, however, have again been debated. Source: Volcano Discovery (2020).

Similar date has also been obtained by the soil specialist, Prof. Hendrik Bruins, who has studied Palaikastro’s deposits, which were accumulated by the tsunamis that had smashed the northern coast of Crete (Lilley 2006). He has radiocarbon-dated the cattle bone found on the beach in the deposit (Ibid.). According to the received results, the cattle bone comes from around 1600 BC. (Ibid.) For Prof. Bruins, who has been convinced that the Thera’s eruption took place around 1600 BC., it proves that the chaotic deposit is the result of the tsunami generated by the outbreak of the volcano (Ibid.). Thera’s eruption also produced “enormous volumes of ash and sulphuric acid aerosols which [usually] reduce atmospheric temperatures and may be detected in tree rings as years of slow growth” (Castleden 1998-2001:191). Forensic science and ancient records are also based on these dense clouds of ash across the Middle East and around the world (Westbrook 1995).

Steep volcanic cliffs coming down to the Aegean Sea, Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And they also pinpoint the years between 1628-1626 BC. to Thera’s eruption (Westbrook 1995). Although there is a difference of around thirty years between several independent studies, it is still the seventeenth century BC. they identify (Westbrook 1995; Castleden 1998-2001:191). Thera’s ash has also been found on the Nile, which is traced back to the same time period, like a fingerprint (Westbrook 1995). “An independent study of Irish bog oaks [has] revealed that 1628-1626 BC were very poor growth years. […] A search for acidity peaks in ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet failed to produce anything perceptible for 1500 BC., but revealed acidity peak for 1645 BC., which some eagerly identified as evidence of an early date for the Thera eruption” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Who is closer to the truth?

“In spite of the strenuous lobbying of a seventeenth-century BC. date, the evidence in its favour is inconclusive. To begin with, the eruptions are not the only cause of narrow tree rings: weather patterns vary for a great many reasons. […] From Thera itself comes a different kind of evidence. […] Some radiocarbon dates for the destruction level of Thera are too old for the […] eruption date. Charcoal from a Minoan hearth in the Athinios quarry in 1979 was dated to 1800 BC.; fava beans found in  jug in Building 4 produced a date of 1700 BC. It has been claimed that [these] increasing numbers of radiocarbon dates favour the older date […] In fact, the average of over twenty radiocarbon dates from Akrotiri is 3200 BP, which rather calibrates to 1500 BC. (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Charlotte Pearson analyzed annual tree rings from bristlecone pines and Irish oak to more accurately estimate the date of the Thera eruption. Photo by Bob Demers/UA News. Source: Jensen (2018).

It is also worth to note that there can be some inaccuracies in standard carbon dating, leading to further mistakes in estimating an exact date for archaeological finds (Gorey 2018). “Research conducted by Cornell University [in 2018] could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that [due to] a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards, […] many of […] established historical timelines are thrown into question, potentially needing a re-write of the history books” (Ibid.).

In 2018, further attempts of dating have been conducted using tree rings.

The rings in trees that were alive at the time of the eruption may be a dating source able to settle the debate from conflicting archaeological and radiocarbon analyses. Photo by Garry Knight (2018) “Age In Double Figures?” Wikimedia Commons. Source: Starr (2018).

According to University of Arizona-led research, “[new] analyses that [have used] tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when the volcano Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the eruption, according to new research. […]  ‘It’s about tying together a timeline of ancient Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean at this critical point in the ancient world – that’s what dating Thera can do’, said lead author Charlotte Pearson, an assistant professor of dendrochronology at the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. ‘What we can say now is that the radiocarbon evidence is compatible with the archaeological evidence for an eruption of Thera in the 16th century BC’, Pearson said” (Jensen 2018).

Is it a compromise?

The date of Thera volcanic eruption is regarded as crucial as it “has far reaching consequences in the archaeology of the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, and the understanding of their interconnections” (Jensen 2018). This is why the fierce debate between the two camps, mainly between archaeologists and geologists has still been going on. Nevertheless, the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring results have offered a provisional compromise.

Analyses that use tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the volcano eruption, according to new University of Arizona-led research
(Jensen 2018). Material source: Demers (2018).

“Archaeologists have estimated the eruption as occurring sometime between 1570 and 1500 BC by using human artifacts such as written records from Egypt and pottery retrieved from digs. Other researchers estimated the date of the eruption to about [1600-1650] BC. using measurements of radiocarbon, sometimes called carbon-14, from bits of trees, grains and legumes found just below the layer of volcanic ash. […] By using radiocarbon measurements from the annual rings of trees that lived at the time of the eruption, the UA-led team dates the eruption to someplace between 1600 and 1525” (Jensen 2018).

Clay model from Palaikastro, Crete, representing three female figures dancing with their arms stretched, in a circle, to the accompaniment of a lyre held by a woman in the middle. Preserved by the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the results are more in favour of later dates for the eruption, as an estimated “time period overlaps with the 1570-1500 date range from the archaeological evidence” (Ibid.), the highest point of the same results points to the date of 1600 BC, also proposed by geologists.

If standard methods fail, scientists count on legends

With just few written records as their guide, scholars usually have no choice but to use legends as launching pads for their studies (Masjum 2006). ‘When volcanologists are trying to reconstruct an ancient eruption, [they] use everything [they] can, all the available data and certainly, there are a lot of collaboration between volcanologists, historians and archaeologists’, says Dr Rosaly Lopes Gaultier (Ibid.). ‘In Santorini, for example, it turned out to be a great collaboration because archaeologists can tell the things helping to date the eruption, while other scientists studying the volcano can tell more about the effects and sequence of events. So it ends up tying it all together. And you even look at legends and stories’ (Ibid.).

Fairy-like colours of the island of Santorini. On the horizon the tiny island, Nea Kameni, situated within the flooded caldera. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006). Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilisation is too heavy for their relaxing vacation. Soon they abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. Yet, endowed with natural grandeur, the Aegean islands fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

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Back in Time between Peatlands and Cliffs

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

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

Again in Belderrig

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

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

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

Rewarding experience

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

Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. In the photo, students with their professors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

6,000-year-old site

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

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

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

Fieldwork in Belderrig… Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Archaeological evidence from the coast

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

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

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

The Belderrig coasts.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Megalith on the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Céide Fields

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

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

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

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

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

Another megalithic tomb

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

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

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

Our professors standing on top of Behy Court Tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Broken Fort

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacular cliffs at Downpatrick. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Private tour

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

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

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

Doonfeeny standing stone

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

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

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

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

Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).

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

What was its original function?

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

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

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

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

On the verge of Christianity

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

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

Two forts and a killed swine

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

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

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

Saint Patrick again

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

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

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

Legend-encrusted blow-holes

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

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

Legendary Ireland

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

Picturesque cliffs between Belderrig and Ballycastle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

“Céide Fields” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/366l6o6>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

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

“Menhir” (2020) In: Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WFCLQv>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

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

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

Earth is Mysterious (2019-2020) “Megaliths: Stone Age Architecture”. In: Earth is mysterious. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bEOB1t>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oldest Temple in the World and its Menagerie

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

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

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

From evolution to revolution

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

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

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

From the theory to archaeological evidence

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

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Hunter-gatherers by Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .

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

Never-ending studies

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

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

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

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

Although archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe has been carried out since the early 1960s, only in 1994 the site emerged as the world’s first temple with an amazing discovery of  mysterious statues (Conrad 2012). The excavation team led by Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute started their regular work at Göbekli Tepe in 1995, in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum, and soon unearthed the first of the huge ‘T’-shaped pillars (Curry 2008; Noren 2020; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020). Schmidt writes that “as soon as [he] got there and saw the stones, [he] knew that if [he] didn’t walk away immediately [he] would be [tere] for the rest of [his] life” (Knox 2009), which eventually happened. Having found stone structures at Göbekli Tepe similar to those unearthed before at Nevalı Çori (Turkey), Schmidt recognized the possibility that the monuments are prehistoric and culturally related to other archaeological sites in the region (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020; see Noren 2020).

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Photo (2016) of Klaus Schmidt (11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014); a German archaeologist who led the regular excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1995 to 2014. Source: Noren (2020).

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

Hill of the Navel

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

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

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

Four stone circles

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

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Göbekli Tepe. The main excavation area in the southeastern area of the mound in an aerial
photograph (by Erhan Kucuk) and a schematic map with pillar numbering. (Courtesy of the German Archaeological Institute). Source: Busacca (2017:317).

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

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

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

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

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

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

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

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

What was the site used for?

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

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

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

The oldest temple in the world

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

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

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

T-shaped pillars and their flock

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was first: religion or civilisation?

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

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

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

The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face

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

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

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

Further attempts of interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Age menagerie in motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrinking temple

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

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

Following the star

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

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

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

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

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

The downfall of the temple

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

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

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

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

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Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

“It is difficult to give an idea of the impression made on the voyager […] by the sight of a ravishing oasis, forming a dazzling band of green, above which rise the crenellated towers, massive bastions, richly crowned with ornamental architecture and fortress walls. If one has a chance to penetrate such a charming place at sunset, it is a veritable fairyland reminiscent of [an oriental] décor. It is a different world opening before us, a curious and strange, made of truly original traditions that make us forget the colourlessness of modern life” (Minca, Wagner 2016:174).

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

On the way southwards

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

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

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

Travellers to Kasbah

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Berbers

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

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

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

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

Turning point in history

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

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

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

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

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

Gate to the Sahara Desert. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

From Sijilmasa to Awdaghust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gate to Sahara Desert

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

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

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

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

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

Life-giving katara system

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

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

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

Across the Atlas Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

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

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

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

Tales of kasbahs

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

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

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

Native Berber architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doors to the glorious past

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

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

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

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

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

Most prominent of all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehabilitation of kasbahs

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

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

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

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

Mud-red fortress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to cross the mountains

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