The Normans! It is hard to imagine how much indescribable fear these sea peoples triggered in Europe throughout the entire ninth century (Rops 1969:495). When these terrible pirates appeared at the mouths of the rivers, the bells rang with alarm; all city gates were shut up, and its terrified defenders appeared on the ramparts (Ibid.:495-496). Whole groups of miserable people fled from farms and monasteries; they were to be met by a massacre rather than rescued (Ibid.:496). Surrounded by a mystery like by a thick fog, from which they emerged like ghosts, infamous Vikings haunted Europe as a living symbol of punishment for its transgressions (Ibid.:496).
The Church not only resisted the invaders, but in line with its conduct, it also carried out missionary activities against them (Rops 1969:501). After years of efforts undertaken by European missionaries, they finally succeeded in establishing two Christian centers in Viking lands, Birca (Birch Island) in present-day Sweden, and in Ribe, a today Danish town in south-west Jutland (Ibid.:501-502). The apparent result was modest, but it was of great importance to the future of the Catholic church (Ibid.:502). It was just a preview of the evangelization of Scandinavia that eventually took place around 1000 (Ibid.:502).
Today Scandinavia seems to be a peaceful land filled with love for the landscape and nature. The vast areas of Norway seem like an enchanted and silent country inhabited by good spirits of lakes and forests rather than by the bloodthirsty ninth-century Vikings. The Scandinavians of the twenty-first century are actually considered the most peaceful nations in Europe (Żylińska 1986:9).
Christianisation of the sea pirates
An exciting missionary adventure had taken place in Scandinavia, but it cannot be followed in detail as there are large gaps in the historic records; yet it is known that the history of the Christianisation of the North is full of very interesting episodes and interesting people (Rops 1969:626).
In three centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, the Scandinavian world passed from paganism shrouded in the fog of great dreams to the Christian faith (Rops 1969:626). Those corsairs who plundered Christian countries themselves were baptized, sometimes even in places where they had previously plundered, and their new faith made them later steal relics more willingly than treasures, which was then evidence of their great devotion (Ibid.:626). At the same time, missionaries set out to these savage lands, mainly under the influence of the Archbishops of Hamburg (Ibid.:626-627).
The history of the Christianization of Scandinavians, closely related to the military operations that led to the settlement of the people of the North, first in France and then in England, truly had the features of an epic (Rops 1969:627).
The very history of establishing Christianity in these areas bears names of great heroes, such as Saint Olav, king of Norway, this former sailor who, with the help of priests and monks brought from England, worked effectively to eradicate paganism from his territory (Rops 1969:627). The richest personality was undoubtedly Canute the Great (1016-1035), who around 1028 created a wonderful empire that encompassed the British Isles, Denmark and almost all of Scandinavia, and who worked bravely to transform his country into a Christian state (Ibid.:627). In the countries that emerged after the collapse of his kingdom, Magnus of Norway, a worthy son of Saint Olaf, and Emond Gamul of Sweden, remained faithful to his principles (Ibid.:627). Around 1050, northern national Christian communities were formed with their own hierarchy, dependent directly on Rome (Ibid.:627).
Today, Norway is home to a mixture of ancient traditions, artifacts and structures left by different eras, including Christian sacral architecture built by the Christianised Vikings to celebrate the birth and development of Christianity in Norway (Norwegian Reward 2019). Although the Christian art was created to express the values and truths of the new faith, it still had preserved its pagan face mainly in its decorations and ornaments. Artistic expressions of pagan ancestors are usually visible in wonderful decorations of wooden or metal objects (Białostocki 2008:69). This style of art was typical of all Germans, including the Vikings; their architecture was covered with intricate weaves of the floral and zoomorphic ornament (Ibid.:69).
In the Vikings’ art, this was usually a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil – the mighty ash tree whose roots were the foundation of the world, as it is seen on the eleventh century wooden portal of the stave church of Urnes in Norway (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:30).
In its tangled limbs, woven into nine mythical lands, various animals lived (Ibid.:30). Like in other examples of German art, these are usually the motifs of animal bodies, claws, beaks, tails, paws shattered in an impenetrable tangle of lines describing zigzags, knots, forming a braid (Białostocki 2008:69). Sometimes there is a more geometric ornament (Ibid.:69). At other times, also human figures are entangled in this extraordinary world of fantastic imagination (Ibid.:69). But even when Germanic art took up the figural theme, it was many a time captured in a geometric way that bordered on abstraction (Ibid.:69). This world was not only to decorate Christian truths, but also to express its own legends and symbols in their new entourage, within Catholic medieval churches.
The Hopperstad Stave Church “is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord. […] In the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord [there] are [actually] two medieval churches, Hopperstad Stave Church and Hove stone church. Few other places in Norway can boast having two such treasures” (Havran 2014:38).
It was a hot July, which does not often happen in Norway. We left behind the hills covered with patches of snow and headed for the edge of the fjord. Then we took a ferry from Dragsvik to Vangsnes and afterwards travelled farther south to Vik, along the Sognefjord, which is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. Wonderful views accompanied us throughout the whole journey, and their beauty was just breathtaking; the blue of the sky and the depth of the fjord intertwined with lush greenery and the colors of small, low houses scattered around in the valleys.
Less than an hour later I saw the steep roofs of the church, with its sloping silhouette against the juicy colors of nature. In order to enter the church, we had to climb up a green hill with a graveyard, atop which it is standing. It looks just as a medieval stave church should: “with a clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons on the ridges of the roofs” (Havran 2014:19). The church only lacks more typically protruding dormers, definitely featured by another stave church, Borgund, which actually “served as a model for the construction of Hopperstad and Gol stave churches” (Ibid.:46).
Historians usually claim that the mythical animals carved on the church, such dragons, represent the evil banished by Jesus Christ out of the holy place (Białostocki 2008:69). So they meekly crouched on the church’s roof as much as grotesque gargoyles encrusted Gothic cathedrals (see Barron 2000:87-93). “And from the edge of the roof jut menacing serpent-like beasts who appear ready at any moment to pounce on some unfortunate passerby” (Barron 2000:88). In the Vikings’ world, serpents or dragons could fly and speak human voice (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:85). They also breathed fire or suffocating fumes and guarded countless treasures (Ibid.:85). But were they evil as it is taught by the Christian Church? Dragons certainly embodied powerful forces and natural element, like Jörmungandr, the sea monster wrapping his gigantic body around the earth and grasping his own tail (Ibid.:85).
The Hopperstad Stave Church was built in the mid-1100s but “was in a ruinous state by the 1800s and was scheduled to be pulled down when the new Vik Church was completed in 1877. Fortunately it was purchased at the last minute by the Society for the Preservation of Monuments in Bergen, led by architect Peter Blix. During the 1880s he personally restored the stave church to its present appearance” (Havran 2014:38).
“In terms of construction, Hopperstad Stave Church is related to Urnes and Kaupanger stave churches. It is of the type having a raised centre room, with preserved structural components from the Middle Ages. [Its] massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. […] The nave is dominated by a stunning side altar and Blix’s gravesite beneath the floor. […] The stave church has three portals, the large western portal and two smaller but rare portals. […] The upper portion [of the western portal], however, was reconstructed in conjunction with a restoration during the 1880s” (Havran 2014:38,41-42).
“The main altar is from 1621. The chancel screen is not original, but dates from the Middle Ages and is the only one preserved in any stave church. It has Gothic-shaped openings and probably dates back to a reconstruction during the 1200s” (Havran 2014:38).
“The medieval inventory item deserving a closer look is first and foremost the altar baldachin [or canopy] above one of the side altars. [it is dated back to 1300s]. The baldachin is a simple stave construction with rich carvings, the underside of the vault painted with scenes from the life of Mary [and Jesus’ childhood]” (Havran 2014:38,40). One of the wooden carvings represents a head of a queen (Ibid.:38).
“Hopperstad Stave Church is still the property of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments […] and is a museum church” (Havran 2014:38).
Made of upright staves
Stave churches (stavekirke) “were found across the northern parts of the European continent, including in Scandinavia. [Today] it is virtually only in the rugged landscape of Norway that these unique buildings have survived, from the Middle Ages and up to the present” (Stavechurch.com 2019).
The stave churches’ structures are made entirely from wood (Norwegian Reward 2019), with their walls constructed of upright planks or staves (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “The staves, or columns, are bearing elements that give stave churches their name, but there are many other structural elements that are unique in these churches. True enough, the portals served no structural function, but they are also unique [in their artistic expressions]” (Havran 2014:17). “A stave church with a raised centre room can comprise as many as 2000 different parts, and most of these were shaped beforehand. All of the structural components are perfectly joined and adapted to one another, using no nails” (Ibid.:19). The type with the raised roof predominates today among the remaining stave churches (Ibid.:14). “The reason why [such churches] survived is that they were the largest, finest and most decorated” (Ibid.:14).
“Craftsmen during the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of the building with quality materials. They almost exclusively used pine core from pristine forests that grew untouched for several hundreds of years. In addition, the trees were left to dry on the root for several summers before they were felled. Core pine contains a high concentration of resin, which is a natural impregnating agent. When the stave churches in Numedal were examined some years ago it was found that the wood on the loft that had been unexposed to light was as solid as newly felled timber” (Havran 2014:17-18).
“In terms of construction, the stave churches are wonders of engineering art. Over the centuries they have surely weathered many a storm, and they have not been toppled. Documentation does exist, however, that one stave church was blown down in a windstorm” (Havran 2014:17).
Additionally “[ground] work has contributed to the longevity of stave churches over the centuries” (Havran 2014:18). “[The] corner posts (staves) and wall planks were set on beams or sills of stone above the ground. Their structure of columns, planks, and supports were joined by dovetailing, pegs, and wedges, never by glue or nails. They were therefore completely flexible and could easily expand and contract depending on the weather” (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “Stability problems were solved in a highly refined and indigenously constructive manner. A complex system of knee brackets and braces ensures that the church stands firmly” (Havran 2014:19).
How were the stave churches built? It is “not known whether the carpenters used drawings [beforehand]; perhaps they scratched designs onto wood or slabs of slate” (Havran 2014:19). According to the description given by the authors of Norway’s Stave Churches (2000), Eva Valebrokk and Thomas Thiis-Evensen, the churches’ construction resembled arranging the wooden puzzles in a very imaginative way (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020).
“The raft beams were first placed on the foundation of stones. They intersect one another at the corners and continue outward to support any adjacent galleries or transepts. The tall staves which framed the nave were inserted into the mortised raft beams and joined on top by a new square section of beams. This supported the sharply pitched triangular roof trusses. These again supported the roof and the bell tower which straddled the ridge of the roof. At this point the structure still needed added support to prevent it from collapsing in the wind. First, a continuous ‘belt’ of cross braces followed the periphery of the room. Also, there were arches inserted between the staves in the form of curved wooden brackets. Lastly, the low aisle section resting on the raft beams protruding from the nave was also very critical to the structural support of the church” (Valebrokk, Thiis-Evensen 2000).
As stave churches have never rested on the ground itself, but on a foundation, they have been therefore exposed to the open air (Havran 2014:18). “Lessons were obviously learned from the problems with the earlier churches, where the supporting posts had been embedded in the ground, [where the wooden construction rapidly rotted]. The post churches did not last long, perhaps no longer than 100 years” (Ibid.:18).
Medieval master carpenters
“It is probable that there were teams of carpenters who would raise several churches. In Topo Stave Church runic inscriptions were found, including ‘Torolf made this church …’, along with seven other names, who must have been his journeymen” (Havran 2014:18).
The same inscription was found in the demolished Al Stave Church, although with the names of other assistant workers. The Torolf in question was probably a master builder who travelled around and raised several churches” (Havran 2014:18-19).
“Stave churches were built over a period of 200 years […], from the first half of the twelfth century until the Black Death devastated Norway in 1349” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[The] oldest and most precious member of the stave church family [is Urnes Stave Church, which] was included on UNESCO’s list of the world’s foremost cultural and natural heritage sites. […] Perhaps more than 1000 [medieval] stave churches were built in Norway” (Havran 2014:12). Consequently, “more than a thousand villages, maybe even more, had [such a wooden church]” (Stavechurch.com 2019).
“After the Black Death in 1349, there were no longer enough people and resources to maintain […] all [these wooden constructions]. By the time the population had recovered, two hundred years later, they were building log churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Few documented stave churches were constructed after the Black Plague” (Havran 2014:12). “Only 240 of the original thousand or so stave churches were still standing in 1650. Another two hundred years later, there were only sixty left” (Stavechurch.com 2019).
“Almost miraculously, they narrowly avoided total obliteration at the end of the 1800s” (Havran 2014:12); “the Church Act of 1851, which made stipulations about the size of the church in relation to the number of people in the parish, virtually [had given] the go-ahead for demolition” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Only “[thanks] to painters Johannes Flintoe and I.C. Dahl, as well as the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Antiquities (today called the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) and a handful of other enthusiasts, Norway has managed to preserve portions of this cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:12).
Decreasing number of the wooden treasure
“The majority [of stave churches] were likely lost due to the drastic decrease in population, which fell by two-thirds during the Black Plague. It was not until the 1600s that the population again reached the same level as before the Black Plague. One needs only imagine what 200 years of neglected maintenance can do to a wooden church. Church constructions did revive, although no longer using the stave technique, but rather notching” (Havran 2014:12-14).
“In 1650 the number of stave churches had fallen to 270, and by the turn of the [nineteenth] century there were only about 70 left. […] Most of the 70 churches that survived up until 1800 were probably among the most valued buildings. [It is documented that about] 40 stave churches, [most of the finest specimens], were also pulled down during the 1800s, the last of these during the early 1880s. […] When needed, however, they were expanded rather than [demolished]” (Havran 2014:14-15).
“About half of the stave churches [today] are in use as regular parish churches, while others serve more as museums and are used only on special occasions, such as weddings and christenings. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments owns and administers eight of the stave churches, while three are in open-air museums” (Havran 2014:16).
Types of stave churches
In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the type with a raised centre room, but some have mid-masts and are of the so-called More type. However, there is reason to believe that the simplest and smallest type, with a somewhat larger nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave church during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20).
Taking into account their geographical placement, “the stave churches were distributed widely throughout the entire country. Unfortunately none are documented from the northmost countries; it is likely that they disappeared more quickly there because of the harsh climate. Many of the remaining stave churches are located on the Sognefjord […], in Valdres […] and in Numedal […], that is in areas with the milder and drier climate. The distance between Valdres and Sogn is insignificant, as well, and the stave churches there share many common characteristics. It is for this reason that they are jointly considered as belonging to the Sogn-Valdres type. In the lowlands of Eastern Norway, in Trondelag and in Rogaland, stone churches were more prevalent. Of the nearly 300 stone churches built in the Middle Ages, about 150 are still standing today” (Havran 2014:20).
Unfortunately, “[there] is no documentation showing how the interiors of stave churches appeared in the Middle Ages (Havran 2014:20). “Borgund stave church is the stave church that has weathered the centuries best, without major changes” (Stavechurch.com 2019). But even it is the most authentic of all the stave churches, it “was altered several times during the 1800s. Today this church is practically empty” (Havran 2014:20-21).
“The stave churches were built in the Catholic Age” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Following the Reformation, all inventory was to be renewed” (Havran 2014:21), and “major changes were made in church interiors” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “The division between nave and chancel no longer considered important, and much of the décor of the Catholic era – the Madonna and figures of saints, crucifixes and other items [such as side altars] – were removed from the churches” (Havran 2014:21; see Stavechurch.com 2019). “A few examples were fortunately preserved and are found today in the churches or museums” (Havran 2014:21). “Pulpits and pews were installed, and, with time, windows as well. Many of the stave churches were in a state of decline” (Stavechurch.com 2019).
Remains of the glorious past
Critically looking “at the remaining stave churches today, [it must be admitted] that several of them are not stave churches at all, in the strict sense of the word” (Havran 2014:16).
“Most of them have been altered or extended, and many no longer look like stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[Some] have retained only a few of their original [medieval] building components” (Havran 2014:16). “The churches that have survived are often located in small communities that could not afford to build new ones” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “In addition to the [preserved] 28 churches in Norway, one other Norwegian stave church is located in Poland. When Vang Stave Church was to be pulled down in 1841, it was purchased by the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, disassembled, stored for a period of time outside Berlin and later erected on his territory at the time, now [belonging again to Poland, the same territory is known as Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains]” (Havran 2014:16). Frankly speaking, it is a shame I have never visited the Vang Stave Church, which is in my own country. I promised myself to do it in the future.
Additionally, “it has been recently documented that Grip Stave Church was not built until the 1600s” (Havran 2014:16).
“In addition to the 29 remaining stave churches today, there are some 50 more that are well documented and from which a few building components have been preserved. Among the preserved components, portals and other carved elements are well represented. Throughout history, the stave churches have been subjected to many [alterations], expansions, additions and replacement of inventory, so today they stand as evidence of changing stylistic periods. During the 1900s several of the stave churches were returned to their ‘original’ appearance. Judged from the perspective of restoration concepts and knowledge in our modern era, the type of restoration practised at the time was equivalent to ‘free interpretation’ on the part of the architect. Nevertheless, in line with restoration philosophy today, it is preferred to preserve the churches as they are, because they are regarded as documentation of a period and taste at the time of restoration, even though they may not be totally ‘historically correct’ in appearance” (Havran 2014:15-16).
Throughout years, however, there was “a dramatic decrease in the number of stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Some have been set on fire and burnt to the ground, already after their modern reconstruction (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).
The greatest threat to the wooden construction has been always fire (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).). There is one stave church lost as recently as 1992 (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). It was Fantoft Stave Church just outside Bergen, originally known as the Fortun Stave Church from the innermost reaches of Sognwas, which was deliberately set on fire (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). “Almost all the burnings [of the churches in Norway were deliberate and] have been attributed to a small but zealous group of Satanist-nationalists and their followers” (Stavechurch.com 2019). The very similar problem concerns nowadays Europe and its medieval sacral architecture, which greatly suffers from the hands of various harmful extremists.
Modern fame and restoration
“Even though [stave churches] have been subjected to many [threats and] changes, they represent a cultural treasure paralleled by very few other cultural monuments in Norway. They are visited and admired by tourists from all over the world, by architects, engineers and art historians, but also by the general public. Visitors come to see the magnificent constructions, the shapes, designs and ecclesial art, and not least of all to sense the special atmosphere evoked by a medieval sanctuary” (Havran 2014:21-22).
Hopefully, “the stave churches will [not] be lost in the foreseeable future. As a rule, they are very well maintained. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s ‘Stave church programme’ ensures that all of the stave churches will be restored so that they will remain in good structural condition, the décor and inventory will be conserved, and the churches will be well documented” (Havran 2014:22). “As of , conservation measures have been completed in  stave churches” (Ibid.:22).
The significance and future of the stave churches
“The unrivalled [medieval] stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Several of these unique structures have withstood the teeth of time for nearly 900 years, and they are admired by architects and engineers from all over the world” (Havran 2014:12).
All being well, “the family of stave churches will remain intact in the years to come and […] the future generations will continue to be able to enjoy this unique cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:22).
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Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches. Guide to the 29 remaining stave churches. Challman T. trans. Oslo: ARFO.
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‘It is said that whoever has not seen Granada has seen nothing’, said our guide breathing in the air coming from the river. It was filled with the magic of spices and the scent of flowers.
Granada is one of the most popular cities in the Andalusia region. It stretches along the Genil River, right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This picturesquely situated town is famous for its unique architecture from the One Thousand and One Nights and well-preserved monuments that simply took my breath away.
We left the river behind and slipped through the narrow streets of the souk among the stalls with pyramids of spices and colorful fabrics. It was already our second week we were spending among the treasures of southern Spain with its strong oriental character singing in one voice with the Christian spirit and the bells of Catholic churches and cathedrals; Seville, Cordoba and finally Granada have shared with me their secrets.
In January, 1492, the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain surrendered in Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. To commemorate the great triumph of Reconquest, a silver Cross and a pennant of Saint James were erected at the top of one of the towers of the fortified palace of Alhambra. Catholic kings placed a pomegranate in their coat of arms, probably without expecting its seeds would sprout and give wonderful fruits of art over time.
Mudejar Style and its Creators
One of the artistic expressions was the mudejar style. It had grown out of the roots of Moorish art but gained a unique character from combining the latter with the Christian tradition. Despite the victory of the Reconquest, this unique style did not disappear from the art of Spain converted back to Christianity, but it was further continued by more or less Christianized Moorish artists and craftsmen who remained in the lands of Spain to serve Catholic rulers. They were called mudajjan, or people who were allowed to stay, and hence the Spanish term mudejar, which refers to the products of art and their creators.
According to the terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts, mudejar is a style in the architecture and decoration of Spain, developing from the eighth to the seventeenth century AD. Its development is noted especially in the end of the Moorish reign, that is from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. The style was definitely closer to the Gothic than to the Italian Renaissance, with which it quarreled.
Still the style of mudejar itself and contemporary European style influenced the character of the Spanish Renaissance and then Baroque. The dominant feature of mudejar is the astonishingly rich decoration made in stucco, especially visible in vaults carved in wood and covered with polychrome, horseshoe arches, azulejos and muqarnas (mocárabe) – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults. A particularly important feature of the mudejar style is a colorful or gilded ornament of oriental origin – arabesque or moresque, Arabic inscriptions, and stylized figurative and animalistic motifs, characterized by a much greater freedom of composition in comparison with the art of Islam developing outside the Iberian Peninsula. The projecting of mudejar-style sacral buildings usually is of the western type, while the secular architecture is dominated by rather oriental patterns. In addition to architecture, the style was also mastered by craftsmanship, which played a leading role in the development of the Moorish art. In the mudejar style, for example, the rich Alcazar decoration in Seville was made.
Due to the strongly established influence of Islam in Andalusia, the Moorish art has found its place and expression in many products of architecture and the craft of Christian Spain. It was also present in literature and music, and what is more, it became one of the most important stages of the development of art on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Moors retreated, they left behind silent witnesses of their domination in Spain, and the splendour of Islamic culture and art. Those were remains of secular and sacral Moorish architecture – castles, palaces and mosques.
A large number of architectural works of this style have grown into a Christian structure imposed on the older. More often, however, architectural works were dismantled to become a source of valuable building material for new creations of the Christian architecture; Moorish columns, capitals and precious marble have become elements of a new, alien to them constructions. Islamic defensive castles were taken over by Catholic kings. In the process they were gradually destroyed, changing into ruins but preserving their picturesque remains for the landscape of today’s Andalusia.
Among the secular architecture left by the Moors the most beautiful is the Alhambra, a palace rising from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century on a hilltop, overlooking the majestic city of Granada, and challenging the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is today the most exquisite example of the genius of secular architecture and artistry created by the Moors. The latter were Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century. Under the pressure of the Muslim invaders, Visigothic Spain had failed and surrendered. The green banner fluttered in Spain over the following centuries until the Reconquista. Without a doubt, it was a period when one of the most outstanding chapters of art was written in the background of world art. The uniqueness of the Moorish art in Andalusia – the Arabic Al-Andalus – became possible because of the relative integration of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that sought to live side by side in peace and symbiosis, complementing each other to some extent.
Similar conditions ensured rapid development of human spiritual needs: literature, music, crafts, and architecture. On the other hand, the closeness of monotheistic religions, their values and artistic achievements, as well as the background of the culture of the Visigoths, was not without significance for the shape of art sprouting in the areas of Andalusia at that time.
More oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient
The Alhambra Palace is a kind of labyrinth of shady courtyards, halls, magnificent arcades, marble columns, fountains and ponds.
The walls of the majestic building are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles. The palace’s beauty is also glorified by poets, lyricists and singers, such as Loreena McKennitt.
I’d long intended to make a pilgrimage to Spain and to visit the palace called Alhambra. [And] I finally travelled there. I discovered the Moorish towers built by a thirteenth century Muslim sultan, interior courtyards with pools of water, elegant pillars and intricate tracery.All designed to duplicate famous descriptions of paradise within Islamic poetry. For centuries it served as an oasis for nomads and travellers, a meeting place for cultures and traditions, a crossroads for religions, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted in harmony. It’s a place where darkness gives a way to life, every stone has heard a 1001 secrets and where distance feels so near. It’s a place of infinite beauty, a Mystic’s dream, Alhambra.
Loreena McKennitt, Nights from the Alhambra.
After J. Pijaon the Alhambra is today a more oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient. An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art and the palace’s decoration in Granada are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.
This art was introduced by Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century, and after the Moors were driven out of Spain it was still cultivated by Christian artists; in the seventeenth century, mainly in Seville, but also in neighboring Portugal, from where it reached the New World, and they have decorated the facades of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia. At the beginning of its history, azulejos, the term from Arabic az-zulayj, which means a small stone, were monochromatic, mainly blue. Hence it is not without significance that azul means blue in both Spanish and Portuguese. Over time, however, the tiles began to adorn strongly geometric, multi-colored floral motifs, but also depictions of military or humorous scenes.
Apart from azulejos, the most captivating in the Islamic art are the decorations in the form of stalactites forming the shell of the Alhambra palace’s vaults, which seem to explode like gigantic starfish. The effect of vibrating stalactite forms is present especially in the decoration of the dome in the Abencerrag Hall and the dome in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra. Made of stucco elements and embedded in wooden frames, the vaults resemble a diagonally cut honeycomb. As in many other examples of Arab art, the motif of stalactite brings to mind the creations of nature and their glorification in art. The Arabs were once a nomadic people, dependent on nature and sensitive to its beauty and life, which flourished in oases in a barren desert. Organic elements, like water and greenery, are also an inseparable element of the architecture of bands such as Alkazar and Alhambra.
After the Reconquest, the mosque, the so-called mezquita in Spain, was most often turned into a church. The place of mihrab – a niche in one of the walls of the books, which went towards Mecca, the holy city of Muslims, was replaced with a Christian altar. According to the principles of Christian art, the altar was to be orientated towards the east. In Spain, the mezquita wall with the mihrab were mostly oriented southeastwards. Hence the unique orientation of Christian altars in the churches of Andalusia, adapted to the location of earlier Moorish constructions and their purposes. A similar procedure was used in the case of a minaret – a slender tower from which the faithful were called to pray. From then on it served as a belfry, as it was applied, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville.
Sacral Hybrid of Styles
The most important and undoubtedly the most famous example of the Moorish church building is the Mezquita – the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
After Spain was overtaken from the Morish hands, the Mezquita was clasped within the Catholic Cathedral. The whole structure is a sacral hybrid of styles arising from the needs of two religions, which, however, have not succumbed to any of them. Thanks to this, the building is so unique in its form. On the one hand, the elements of Muslim and Christian structures seem to quarrel and push away each other, on the other, the duality of styles argues that there are artistic currents prevailing in both sacred arts, stemming from the values of both religions.
The choir of the Christian cathedral with figural representations of angels and saints, made in the Spanish Renaissance style – plateresco, known as the goldsmith style, is in conflict with the interiors of the Mezquita. Sometimes the contrast between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the sacred is difficult to withstand, and even shocking. In the Christian temple the mihrab has been preserved and so it creates the sacred space together with the Christian altar, to which the main nave of the temple created by the Christians leads. Despite its importance, the building of the Gothic cathedral of Crdoba is visible only from the bird’s eye view, somewhat embedded in the center of the whole massive structure of the Mezquita, with the tower of the minaret-belfry rising in the north.
To raise the place of prayers in Cordoba, the Muslim invaders used half of the Visigothic church of St. Wincenty, built on the site of the pagan temple dedicated to Janus. The basic element of the Mezquita became the ancient and Visigothic columns, acquired on the spot or imported. Jan Białostocki compares the layout of a large number of columns forming nineteen aisles to “an unbounded stone forest, as if the people living in the desert shaped their world into a shady oasis.” Because of the original purpose of the building, the columns do not set the direction towards the current sanctuary, as it is intended in Christian basilicas. The lack of a central axis, also visible in the façade of the temple, actually evokes the impression that one has just entered the interior of the dense forest of columns that are diverging in various directions. Among the low trunks of columns deprived of bases there is a twilight.
During the Moorish times, there were small lights flickering around, now one entering from the outside is suddenly plunged into the darkness of the temple dedicated to the God being called the Light. The columns combine double, two-colored bows and the more one approaches the mihrab, the more their forms seem intricate. The spaces defined by the strips of running columns hide vaults in the form of domes in the shape of an eight-leaf rosette or a half-cut orange.
The dominant element of the Mezquita in Cordoba is the horseshoe arch. This is the main element of the local mihrab. Probably this shape of the arch already existed in the territory of Spain during the Visigothic times. The Arabs took over many elements from the art of conquered cultures of Asia and Africa. In the case of Spain, it was the artistic style created by the Visigoths, assimilated and in time adapted to the needs of the invaders. While the first Arabian buildings in Egypt are characterized mainly by the form of a pointed or ogival arch, in Spain dominates the horseshoe arch, with a clearly rounded shape. This bow decorates the Mezquita in Cordoba. It was only from Andalusia that a similar form of the arch spread further in North Africa and was commonly used in Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian buildings.
The exuberance, elegance and decorative culture brought by Arabs in Spain testify to the high level of their contemporary intellectual and artistic life. As such the Moorish Andalusia was an enclave of light and a real phenomenon in the history of European art. For the defeated Moors, it became a symbol of the lost Paradise.
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Osińska B. (2004) Sztuka i czas, Od prehistorii do rokoka. Warszawa: WSiP.
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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.).
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.).
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.)
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.)
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).
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).
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.).
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.).
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).
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.).
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 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.).
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.
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).
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.).
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).
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).
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.).
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.).
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).
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).
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).
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.).
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).
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).
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 vapoursemerged and spread (Wengler 2009).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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
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.).
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.)
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.).
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.).
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).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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).
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).
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 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.).
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.).
‘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.).
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).
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 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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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).
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.).
‘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.).
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.
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.
“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).
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).
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).
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).
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.).
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.).
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).
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).
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.
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.
“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).
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.).
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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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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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).
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 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.
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.
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.).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
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.
“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).
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
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.).
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).
“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).
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.).
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).
The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).
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“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).
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.
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)
“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).
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).
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.)
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).
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.)
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).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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?
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.