Category Archives: AFRICA

Mount Sinai Trekking in Search of the God at Sunrise

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

Awe Inspiring Feeling

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

Egypt or Saudi Arabia

Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai. With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Catherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.

Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.

Before going on a spiritual journey

It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.

I admit I was not so well prepared at that time as I would do, planning my trekking anew, but for those who would like to climb up there, if it’s possible in the future (I mean here the political situation in Egypt), it is good to know such essentials. Additionally, you should definitely take good trekking shoes and warm clothes if you climb up in winter.

Fourth Wise Man

At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Some people mounted camels led by Bedouins, others decided to go on foot. We chose the latter way of transport … and we survived! Moreover, anytime you feel tired walking, you can also hire one of these useful desert  animals to carry you up.

Under starry sky, among muffled sounds of mixed languages and the clamor of grumbling camels walking between us, I felt as if I was back in time, going to welcome the newly born Christ.

South Korean Sweets on the Egyptian Desert

Halfway, the path was getting narrower, with rocky stairs up and down and partially icy. Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock.

Finally, just one hour before the expected sunrise, we got to the last stop to be fully ready to take our final climb to the summit. I was chilled to the bone. My friend as well, and as she was much more tired than me, she refused to go any further before she took some rest. I quickly agreed to do so. We entered one of numerous tents put up for pilgrims, just at the foot of the summit. A warm stream of air hit me from the inside. Only a loud gurgle of boiling water and a Bedouin’s voice recommending a variety of refreshments could be heard over the hubbub of the crowded people, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. And all of them squeezed together on wooden benches were trying to win as much of a heavy blanket so they could to cover their frozen legs under.

‘There is enough space for you to sit down with us!, said eastern-looking man smiling so widely his eyes turned into two horizontal lines.

‘Thank you a lot’, I replied.

‘Welcome, welcome!’, he uttered, still smiling.

We sat together one by one and I reached for a piece of the desirable blanket.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like it much’, I apologized  my friend. I kept yet in mind she refused to use it several times on the way as they did not look clean enough to her … and they smelled strongly with camels.

‘It doesn’t matter’, she said hiding her legs under the smelly blanket. ‘Well …  I’m going to stink, but at least I would feel warmer … and I’ll take a shower first when we finally get back to the hotel!’

I smiled to her. I really like her gentle irony and sarcastic sense of humour. She is so honest in it. I’m sure that if it was somebody else sitting by my side, such remarks would make me crazy but Gosia behaves in such a sweet way I’ve just got addicted to her. Since our first journey together to the Middle East, we have already travelled many times, and I hope we will keep travelling together in the future.

‘Some soup?’, asked me the same smiling man moving a vaporous bowl full of noodles toward my nose.

‘Oh no!’, Gosia strongly refused. ‘It’s too risky. I don’t trust them. They may not have boiled the water enough. I’m not going to stay in the middle of nowhere suffering from an Egyptian diarrhea.’

Of course she said it in Polish and luckily the eastern-looking man did not understand a word. Instead he made a big gulp of his noodle soup not caring much if the water had been prepared appropriately.

‘No, thank you. We are fine’, I replied. ‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after a while.

‘From South Korea. I’m here together with my friends to see the sunrise’, he replied waving to a group of smiling young people from the opposite bench. ‘And you?’

‘We are from Poland, and we are here just for the same reason as you are, I suppose …

My new friend smiled and nodded to my guessing.

Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Their passion for travelling is an answer itself.

‘Are you single?’, the man asked out of the blue.

‘Well …’, I felt disconcert. ‘… Why are you asking?’.

‘If you are single, my friend is single too’, he said to me and then added something in Korean, surely to his single friend. The latter approached me with a piece of Korean sweet and encouraged me to try it: ‘It will give you power to reach the summit’, he promised while I was unwrapping up something that looked like orange jelly. I tried it carefully. It tasted like jelly.

‘Do you want some?’, I asked my Gosia.

‘No, thank you. I don’t feel like having a Korean diarrhea either …’, she said outright. ‘Enjoy!’

Sunrise

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

“Wow!” I sighed.

The sunrise had just started. When the very first rays reached the rusty rocks of the summit, the Sinai Mount shone up reflecting the sunlight. Beneath, the curtains of darkness opened and blazing red landscape appeared to people gathered together at the top. Some were sitting side by side covered in blankets; others were standing up like enchanted columns of rock. Flashes of cameras brightened time after time. While the sun was rising higher and higher, the Sinai mountains uncovered their rugged outlines to the coming day, casting their dark shadows against a rocky desert.

It does not matter if Moses had ever been here. In such moments like that, you can definitely meet God and talk to Him …

Saint Catherine and Her Monastery

And then there left just trekking down. It was much funnier as it was already taken in the warm, Egyptian sun. In front of our eyes desert colours were dancing happily; even usually unmoved camels were pleased with the daylight and surely with the fact they could throw heavy loads away from their backs.

At the end of the way down, we came to the high walls of Saint Catherine Monastery. Built in the sixth century, the monastery is one of the oldest working Ortodox Christian monasteries in the world. It is very famous for its unique collection of Byzantine pre-iconoclastic panel icons that miraculously survived the hard time of religious turmoil on the lands of Byzantium. By the same tradition which leads Moses’ track to the Sinai Peninsula, the Burning Bush from the Bible grows just in here, within the walls of the monastery. According to the narrative, Moses heard the Voice of God who had taken the form of the burning bush not consumed by the flames. At that time Moses was ordered to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

Before we stared visiting that religious pearl in the desert, we opened our lunch boxes and enjoyed the silence of monastic atmosphere.

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

Egyptian Uprising

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

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

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“The Real Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia”. In: Revealing God’s Treasure. In: Providence’s Youtube Channel. Accessed on 29th Jun. 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wPg8Jh>.

Amer (2018) “Catching Sunrise at Mount Sinai, Egypt – Breathtaking to say the least”. In: “Mount Sinai Trekking”. In:  Where it all begins. Accessed on 29th June, 2018, link unknown.

Vetratoria.com (2018). “The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery”. In: The Holy Monastery of the Mount Sinai. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8zMYQ>.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery” (2015). In: Wkipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QeBPle>.

The Gesture of Saint Anne of Faras and its Mysteries

Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).

Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia

Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).

Styles of Faras wall paintings

“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).

From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).

Construction phases of the Faras cathedral

Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Female programme in the Nubian art

In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).

At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).

Ancestors of God

Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).

Mother of Theotokos

Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Saint Anne of Faras

The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.

Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once  the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).

Portrayal with no analogies

Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).

Timeless image of silence

The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).

There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to  a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).

“Most perfect of all prayers”

The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).

In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.

Worth being remembered

Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.

Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubia”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1800-1801. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubian Church Art.” In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1811-1812. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Archeparchy of Pittsburgh (2019) ”The Immaculate Conception: the Conception of St. Anne, ‘When She Conceived the Holy Mother of God’ According to the Ruthenian Tradition”. In: The Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. Available at <https://bit.ly/33LyQ5f>. [Accessed on 19th October, 2019].

Cartwright, M. (2019) “Faras Cathedral”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BEh9sx>. [Accessed on 20th October, 2019].

Dingemanse, M. (2005). ‘Christian Nubia’ in Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Available at <https://bit.ly/3OYpY5b>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2022].

Dobrzeniecki, T. (1988) ”Święta Anna z Faras w Muzeum Narodowym w Warszawie. Symbolika gestu milczenia”. [“Saint Anne of Faras in the National Museum of Warsaw. Symbolism of the Gesture of Silence”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, ann. 32. Warsaw: National Museum. pp. 95-214.

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Legends of the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

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

Wagner Minca 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).

Berbers

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

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

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

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

Turning point in history

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

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.).

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

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

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.

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

Life-giving katara system

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

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

Across the Atlas Mountains

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

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

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

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

Road of a Thousand Kasbahs

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

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

Tales of kasbahs

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

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

Native Berber architecture

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

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

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

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

Doors to the glorious past

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

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

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

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

Most prominent of all

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehabilitation of kasbahs

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

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

Mud-red fortress

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

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

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

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

Time to cross the mountains

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

With each rhythmic strike of a tambourine and magical sounds of Moroccan strings, we stepped back further in fabulous times. The Moroccan journey had led us far to the corners of this semi-abandoned but vibrant spectacle of the past.

“Marrakesh, [and other imperial cities], teeming with seductive life and sunshine, [were always] ahead” (Barriault 2013:37) but we were still lingering between the desert and the mountains, embraced by the arms of red mud-bricked walls.

Featured Image: The Ksar Ait Bin Haddou and the Route of a Thousand Kasbahs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Berber Flag” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xODfKs>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

“Sijilmasa” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2YMVAm5>. [Accessed 9th May, 2020].

Barriault, A. B. (2013) Moroccan Musings. USA: Xlibris Corporation.

Brooke J. (2020) “The Scent of Rose And Its Fragrant Resurgence In Perfumes.” In: Flower Power Daily.com Available at <https://bit.ly/2YIZRqC>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Casely-Hayford, G. (2010-1012) Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 2, Episode 4: “The Berber Kingdom of Morocco”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.

Chijioke Njoku R. (2006) Culture and Customs of Morocco. Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press.

Crocker, P. (2005) Tastes of the Kasbah. Canada: Riversong Studios

Dictionary University (2020) “Meaning Hazar Baf”. In: Dictionary University. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fySJ66>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Ilahiane H. (2006) Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen). Historical Dictionaries of Peoples and Cultures, No. 5. Maryland – Toronto – Oxford: The Scarecrow Press.

Jackson, N. (2020) “Todra Gorge.” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bhsUo2>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Marcus, B., Smith, A. (2016) “Kasbah Taourirt: Conserving Earthen Heritage in Morocco”. In The Getty Conservation Institute. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvNvIv>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Medina F, Juilleret J. (2016) “What evidence of Nordic origin of the Blond Berbers in North Africa?” In: Researchgate. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bk6JNL>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Mimó, R. (2020) “The Route of Thousand Kasbahs”. In: Hotel Tomboctou. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvqt4l>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Minca C., Wagner L. (2016) Moroccan Dreams: Oriental Myth, Colonial Legacy. London – New York: I. B. Tauris.

New World Encyclopedia writers and editors (2020) “Berber.” New World Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bcLkpP>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Oum (2013) “Taragalte” (Soul Of Morocco) Official Video. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dwsGe4>. [Accessed 9th May, 2020].

Rough Guides (2020) “Ksour and kasbahs”. In: Rough Guides. Available at <https://bit.ly/3beiS71>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Salloum H. (2020) “From Erfoud to Ouarzazate – It’s Kasbahs Everywhere”. In: Arab America. Available at <https://bit.ly/35MPzHM>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Toa (Correspondent) (2017) “A Stroll through Morocco”. In: TOA. Spotlight Country. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SMEYHr>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Woronof J. (2006) “Editor’s Foreword” In: Ilahiane H. (2006) Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen). Historical Dictionaries of Peoples and Cultures, No. 5. Maryland – Toronto – Oxford: The Scarecrow Press.

Your Dictionary (2010) “Abdullah ibn Yasin Facts”. In: Encyclopedia of World Biography. The Gale Group. Available at <https://bit.ly/2yDZaEy>. [Accessed 8th May, 2020].

Aksumite Megaliths of Commemoration in the Continuous Tradition of Ethiopia

My destination was one of the busiest and significant cities in Eastern Africa, which is today known as Aksum or Axum (Casely-Hayford 2010). Once, it was a huge and thriving city and it was ranked among Rome, Persia and China, as one of the four greatest powers (Ibid.). It had a considerable claim to fame (Ibid.). According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was actually Axum, where the King’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik literally brought the Arch of the Convent in the first millennium BC. (Ibid.). Accordingly, within the city walls of Aksum are the solid foundations of the Judaic-Christian traditions (Ibid.). The first Christian church was built by the king Ezana in the fourth century AD. (Ibid.). And so it was the first Ethiopian emperor to have converted to Christianity (Ibid.). The coins from that period bear both, the Christian and pagan signs, such as the cross and the crescent moon and the sun, the latter equally visible on incense burners, being stored in Ethiopian churches alongside with other liturgical objects; hence there was a continuity of the ruler, and the Judaic tradition alike, before and after the Christianity came (Ibid.).

After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum. While we were approaching the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.

Aksumite Empire

Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD. (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabaean period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, whose capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous Queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).

The might of the first Christian Emperor Ezana is confirmed by his slab stone carved in a multilingual inscriptions; it includes the local Geʿez language, still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are also inscriptions in an international language of ancient Greeks, alongside the language called Sabaean, which was spoken just in that part of Africa, apart from southern Arabia (modern day Yemen) (Casely-Hayford 2010). It is so an evidence that the Queen of Sheba’s language was present in the heart of Ethiopia; it also frequently appears on stone elements, revealing pagan symbols, scattered around Aksum (Ibid.). Historians think the language died out in the eighth century but it first occurred around one thousand BC., and so it had originated in the kingdom of Sheba and was brought later to Ethiopia (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it points deeper in the past, to the kingdom of Aksum’s origins (Ibid.).

Yet before the fourth century and the first Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Aksum had a complex social hierarchy [:] an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).

Central Stelae Park

Aksum is famous for grave markers or stelae made of solid granite; they are thought to be ones of the largest pieces of stone ever to come out of a quarry; usually, they are dated back to pre-Christina times of the first or second centuries (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, there is more to the matter of dating …

The tallest monuments of this type reaches at over 300 meters and weigh hundreds of tons (Casely-Hayford 2010). Equally, they are examples of most impressive monuments ever built in the ancient world (Ibid.). We must also remember that those large Aksumite stelae are single pieces of rock (Ibid.), as much as Egyptian obelisks. The features of the stelae, which are marking ancient burial places of Ethiopian emperors have been continuously echoing down the past of the region (Ibid.). That continuous tradition is taking the story of the Ethiopian kingdom back to the very beginnings of Christianity but the kingdom went back much further in time, even before the times of Solomon and Sheba.

The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165).  Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down (Ibid.). “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).   

Afterlife Palace of the Kings

As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” This architecture traces back to the ways of building of the Aksumite people, which has been also continued in sacral buildings of Christianity, as monasteries and churches (Casely-Hayford 2010). They equally inspired famous churches of Lalibela. At top of some complete stelae there is the pagan symbol of the Rising Sun, being also repeated in later Christian architecture (Ibid.). By these means, it is a continuous historical narrative of the history of Ethiopia (Ibid.). The stelae number one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Ibid.:168).  Carvings that cover the stelae accordingly depict building elements, such as the endings of the wooden beams and windows, composing multi-story houses that would be inhabited by Aksumite emperors in the afterlife (Casely-Hayford 2010); they are thus “like the skyscrapers to the immortality” (Ibid.). As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).

“Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).

From the left: the Obelisk of Axum and the King Ezana’s Stela. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:165). “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).

“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).

Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).

With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled, and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced  (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).

How …?

The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites  have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …

Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the necropolis, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece only as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.

Stelae and stelae …

More primitive stelae in Aksum. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation  between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diversely decorated, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (e.g. Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field) (Foerster 2016; Finneran 2007:172-173). There are also groups of stelae unique to the south of Ethiopia, with a similar funeral function but strikingly different features and iconography. They mostly appear in the region of Soddo and are referred to as the stones of Gragn (see: Language of the Megalithic Tiya).

‘Is it possible that the royal and more elaborated obelisks from Aksum are far older than presumed?’, wonders Foerster (2016). He suggests that ‘some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]’. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs on site with a strikingly similar megalithic masonry.

When did the tradition start?

On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural  reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe it happened the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).

Giant’s playground

I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut. This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multi-ton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.

In Ethiopia, any efforts of separating legends from facts is difficult: fragmented stones preserved within churches covered in Sabaean characters, striking connections to the world of the Old Testament, and outstanding faith in the legend of Menelik bringing the Arch of the Convent to Aksum, are all closely tied to the unique traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, is there in this already complex riddle any convenient place for an alternative archaeology of the Aksumite megalithic culture?

Featured image: Stelae at Aksum, Ethiopia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aLucZt>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Casely-Hayford, G. (2010). Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 1, Episode 2: “Ethiopia”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.

Connah, C. (2016) African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Foerster, B. (2016) “The Amazing Megalithic Obelisks Of Axum In Ethiopia” In: Inca Hidden Tours. . Available at <https://bit.ly/36s5iKQ>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Sullivan, K. (2019) “The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2O2Er1w>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].

Finneran, N. (2007) The Archaeology of Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.

Looking in the Eye of Horus

According to the previous article, Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert, the geographic description of Atlantis corresponds to that of Richat, in Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019). However, there is still missing solid archaeological evidence of the advanced civilization described by Plato in the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). Artifacts and remnants of structures created once with the hands of the Atlanteans are absent (Ibid.). Yet, such an argument should not be regarded against the proposed theory. Archaeological remains, if any exist buried on site, cannot dig themselves out. They need archaeologists’ systematic work and study. Unfortunately, if the subject is not treated seriously by mainstream Academia, there will not be any excavations in the region. Moreover, Mauritania is not a safe country, and the Eye of the Sahara itself is vast; it takes a multi-day trip to get to Richat from the coast of Mauritania (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:33). As the region does not attract tourists at all, the organisation of transport there may be problematic and expensive (Ettington 2018:33). So far, no official institution has been interested in undertaking long-term thorough excavations of the structure with specialistic equipment (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Even if such a project appears, its realization will be costly.

Despite the lack of proper archaeological digs, many artifacts have already been found on the surface of the structure, such as tools, jewellery, interesting spheres with precise shapes, and a mysterious oval stone artefact weighing about fort kilograms that locals call ‘a surfboard of the gods’ (see: Alexander, Rosen, “Archaeology. Visiting Atlantis” 2018; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Independently, some people have also found within the structure various geometric structures on Google Maps; they resemble the foundations of buildings covered with soil (Ibid.). However, one has to wait for specific archaeological works (if they miraculously happen) (Ibid.).

Elephants live in Africa

Another interesting argument for the Eye of the Sahara as real Atlantis relates to the following description of Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019):

” Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all”.

Plato, Critias

Virtually every proposed location of Atlantis contradicted the passage saying that there were, among other animals, elephants in Atlantis (Ettington 2018:38; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Indeed, elephants lived in Mauritania, unfortunately they have recently died out, though (Kosmiczne […] 2019). In addition, many elephant skeletons and petroglyphs depicting these animals on rocks have been found in the region (Ibid.).

Disasters came in the past

As mentioned above, a very convincing argument for the theory that Atlantis really existed is Plato’s timeframe for the destruction of the city  (Ettington 2018:37-38).

“Many great deluges have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking”.

Plato, Critias

 “Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe”.

Plato, Critias

According to the records, Solon heard the story of Atlantis in ancient Sais in 600 BC. (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The priest told him that the city had been destroyed 9,000 years ago (Ibid.). Consequently, the destruction of Atlantis must have occurred around 9,600 BC. (Ibid.)

Reconstruction of the Oikoumene (inhabited world), an ancient map based on Herodotus’ description of the world, circa 450 BC. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol (2006), based on the GIF by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering from www.livius.org. Public domain. Photo source: “Atlantis” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This date 9,600 BC. is extremely interesting; in the period between 10,900 and 9,500 B.C. the sudden cold period of the last Ice Age, the so-called Younger Dryas, took place (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Reasons behind it have not been yet fully understood, however, there is the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, namely the cooling event happened after the Earth was hit with meteorites or there was an explosion of a swarm of comets in the Earth’s atmosphere (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). According to this hypothesis, the sequence of such events eventually caused a sudden change in climate and a global cooling (Ettington 2018:39-40; Kosmiczne […] 2019). At that time, the so-called Clovis culture had disappeared, ocean currents altered, and much of North America’s megafauna had gone extinct (Ettington 2018:40; Kosmiczne […] 2019).  

But it did not finish there.

“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island”.

Plato, Timaeus

Plato writes that “the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea”, and “violent earthquakes and floods” could have been a successive result of the Younger Dryas impact, which is called by geologists Meltwater Pulse 1B (Hancock 2020). The latter was triggered by “the rapid release of meltwater into the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets” (“Meltwater pulse 1B” 2020). At the end or just after the Younger Drays, it was a period of either rapid or just accelerated post-glacial sea level rise (it is hypothesised to have occurred between 11,500 and 11,200 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene) (Ibid.), and could be the reasons for gigantic tsunamis, which were able to flood the whole landmass (Kosmiczne […] 2019); Hancock 2020). Was it the time of the Biblical Flood?

The so-called influence of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, however, still remains unproven in academic circles (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Island in the desert

While the formation of the Eye of the Sahara is promising as a potential location of Atlantis, its main problem is that, it is not an island and is now situated as much as 500 kilometres north-east of the Atlantic Ocean (Kosmiczne […] 2019). The authors of Visiting Atlantis (2011) say that approximately 12 000 years ago, some of the lands of Africa were beyond sea level, which made its coastline different from the contemporary one. Moreover, proponents of the geographic location of Atlantis in the Eye of Africa, however, refer to the hypothesis of a Younger Dryas impact on the destruction of Atlantis (Ettington 2018:45; 39-44; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Sea thiasos depicting the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite (female prsonification of the sea) from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in the Field of Mars, bas-relief, Roman Republic, 2nd century BC. According to Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea and the founder of the city of Atlantis, sometimes depicted as half-fish, half-human. Some authors compare such sea creatures to the Dogon’s ancestral spirits, Nommos. Photo uploaded by the user Bibi Saint-Pol (2007). Public domain. Photo source: “Poseidon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In their opinion, photos of the structure in the Sahara desert show that the place looks as if it was once flooded by powerful waves of the ocean, similar to giant tsunamis (Kosmiczne […] 2019). As George S. Alexander (2011) says, the place is harshly eroded and washed out, which is unusual for one of the driest places on Earth.

“For the fact is that a single night of excessive rain washed away the earth and laid bare the rock; at the same time there were earthquakes, and then occurred the extraordinary inundation […]”

Plato, Critias

“[…] when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, [Atlantis] became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean.

Plato, Critias

The fragments above are intended to indicate that Atlantis was flooded with waves, which resulted in mud covering of the entire area (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Then the water was withdrawn and the ocean was cut off from the south, so that the ships could no longer get there (Ibid.). It is worth remembering about the huge amount of wells producing just salt water as well as thousands of shells discovered around the Sahara on the way to Richat (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Kosmiczne […] 2019). Additionally, the Bright Insight channel (2018) has shown pictures of the remains of a whale in Mauritania (Ibid.). The inhabitants of this country have equally encountered skeletons of fish and marine mammals in the area (Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Welcome to Atlantis

The researchers’ journey in contemporary Mauritania, from its seaside to a small town of Atar, led them through the desert (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Guelb er Richât, Mauritania. Photo by Clemens Schmillen (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the time of Atlantis, that place must have been under the ocean, yet on the threshold to its main island; today the Adrar Highlands would border its western steep and mountainous edges, as Plato also describes the Atlantis island’s landform (Alexander, Rosen 2011). And to the east of the range of mountains, there lies a large plain with the Eye of Africa, which may have been once the capital of Atlantis (Ibid.). The terrain is now covered in tricoloured stone; it is white, black and red, as Plato portrays the natural material the Atlanteans used to construct their dwellings (Ibid.). According to the Philosopher, the stone was quarried from the centre of the island (Ibid.). Surprisingly, by a careful examination of satellite images of Richat, one could see in its centre a formation that resembles a quarry or a mine, just as Plato indicates (Ibid.).

Theory of land elevation

The geological origin of Richat assumes that this place has been geologically elevated since Atlantis’ destruction (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Currently, the Eye of the Sahara is about 485 metres above sea level. For the increase in elevation are responsible terrestrial processes, such as volcanism or earthquakes (Ettington 2018:45). The author of the Bright Insight channel has demonstrated computer simulations according to which, at a lower position, the Eye of the Sahara would have been an island surrounded by the ocean’s waters (Kosmiczne […] 2019). This would confirm the description of Plato, according to which Atlantis was an island behind the Gibraltar Strait, and it would have had access to water in the south (Ibid.). Of course, such a theory is based on a number of assumptions and cannot be any evidence (Ibid.). This is why the theory of the Eye’s elevation requires more geological studies in the matter to determine if the area was indeed naturally raised up above sea level (Ettington 2018:45).

Cycles of wet and dry periods disrupted

The combination of land uplift, climate and water-level changes, and the impact in the Younger Dryas may have greatly influenced the geographic shape of the Eye of the Sahara (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Before its destruction, around 11,600 years ago, it may have been a paradise island connected to the ocean from the south, as much as Atlantis was, according to Plato (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:47-48). The visible river channels in the mountains of Richat are linked to the fact that the Sahara then was much wetter than it is today (Kosmiczne […] 2019; Ettington 2018:35,47-48).

Richat Structure in Mauritania. This image was acquired by Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper plus (ETM+) sensor on January 11, 2001. This is a false-color composite image made using shortwave infrared, infrared, and green wavelengths. The image has also been sharpened using the sensor’s panchromatic band. Image provided by the USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch. This image is part of the ongoing Landsat Earth as Art series. Photo source: “Richat structure in Mauritania” (2001). In: NASA Earth Observatory.

After Sahara pump theory, the Sahara region has kept changing for thousands of years from a desert in arid periods to a savanna grassland during pluvial periods (Ettington 2018:35,47-48). When the cooling of the climate was subsiding, there must have been then huge rivers and lakes all over the area, which was fertile and characterized with moderate climate (Ibid.:35,47-48). The whole region of Richat was then green, not a desert, as it is today (Ibid.:47). The Younger Dryas, however, disrupted the whole cycle and ended not only with heavy rains but also with a disaster, bringing the fall of antediluvian civilizations, such as Atlantis (if they had ever existed).

King Atlas and his heritage

“The eldest, who was the first king, [Poseidon] named Atlas, and after him the whole island and the ocean were called Atlantic”.

Plato, Critias

After Plato, the first king of the city of Atlantis was Poseidon’s son, Atlas (Kosmiczne […] 2019). It is also known that the north-western part of Africa was inhabited by ancient people known in antiquity as the Mauri (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). They were Berber speaking tribes and lived in Numidia and in neighbouring Mauretania (not to be confused with modern-day Mauritania), located in the ancient Maghreb region, being colonized by Phoenicians throughout the first millennium BC. (“Mauretania” 2020). Tribal Berber kingdoms established there between the third century BC. to 40/44 AD, when the region was incorporated into the Provinces of the Roman Empire with the capital in Volubillis. At the time of the Berber kingdoms, ancient Mauretania “stretched from central present-day Algeria westwards to the Atlantic, covering northern Morocco, and southward to the Atlas Mountains” (“Mauretania” 2020).

Interestingly, as it turns out, the first legendary king of Mauretania was called Atlas (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). He was an outstanding philosopher, mathematician and astronomer (Kosmiczne […] 2019; “Mauretania” 2020). Atlas is therefore not only the first king of the capital of Atlantis, but also of the ancient region of Mauretania, which was, however, located in the north of the Eye of the Sahara (modern-day Mauritania).

How did the Dogon find out?

During past thousand years the majority of the local population of Northwest Africa has converted to Islam (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Nevertheless, there are still African people in the region who are attached to their ancient religion and tradition (Ibid.). One of such cultures are the so-called Dogon, who largely live to the east of the Mauritania border, in Mali and Niger (Ibid.). Their beliefs and outstanding astronomical knowledge, especially about Sirius Star System, are the matter of debates among various scholars and researchers (Ibid.).

Twin demi-gods

The Dogon have particularly believed in the Nommo or Nummo – primordial ancestral spirits who passed on to them the astronomical understanding and wisdom (Alexander, Rosen 2011; “Nommo” 2020).

Dogon people in Mali. Photo by Devriese (2003). Originally uploaded to Flickr as Dogon #12. CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Dogon people” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Those spirits “are usually described as amphibious, hermaphroditic, fish-like creatures. Folk art depictions of Nommos show creatures with humanoid upper torsos […] and a fish-like lower torso and tail. Nommos are also referred to as ‘Masters of the Water’, ‘the Monitors’, and ‘the Teachers’” (“Nommo” 2020). As such, Nommos resemble half-human sea creatures dwelling in the realm of the god Poseidon, who was the founder of Atlantis city and the deity worshiped by the Atlanteans (Alexander, Rosen 2011). He was also the divine father of the five pairs of twins, who then ruled ten kings of Atlantis (Ibid.). As their mother was a mortal woman, they were only half-divine beings. What is more, according to Dogon’s beliefs, their half-divine ancestral spirits, Nommos, also transformed into twins (four pairs, though, not five as in the case of the kings of Atlantis), and the twin cult has always been very common in West Africa, finding its expressions equally in works of local art (Ibid.). May then the Dogon’s beliefs and knowledge have stemmed from the highly advanced civilization as Atlantis? (Ibid.).

Another ancient notice of Atlantis?

Ancient map made from a description by the famous historian Herodotus, around 450 BC. reveals another clue, specifically, the name of Atlantes in Northwest Africa (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Sometimes a question mark accompanies the name (Ibid.), which seems intriguing as if the author was not sure about his accuracy. The World according to Herodotus shows the known geography of the inhabited World, whose cartographic image is built up of various accounts and assumptions. This is why it is difficult to associate the name Atlantes precisely with an exact place in Africa. It may have been thought to appear beneath the Atlas Mountains, which are located in Morocco and Algeria, more than 1000 kilometres from the Eye of the Sahara (Ibid.). On the other side, Martin K. Ettington (2018:49-51,63) suggests Herodotus’ map rather represents the range of mountains north of the Eye of the Sahara, not of the Atlas Mountains, and so the author believes that the map is another ancient record of Atlantis, independent of Plato’s writings.

 The world map of Herodotus showing the name ‘Atlantes’ in the area of Northwest Africa. Photo source: Panorama of the World (2017). “Human Landscapes and Maps”. In: holylandmap.blogspot.com.

It is probable that Herodotus could just refer to a group of people living in the Atlas Mountains (Kosmiczne […] 2019). On the other side, it is a real coincidence the name associated with Atlas (and Atlantis) appears again in relation to Northwest Africa. Moreover, Herodotus as a historian travelled to Egypt and had an access to its ancient libraries (Ettington 2018: 51). His information about the history of Pharaonic Egypt and magnificent monuments, especially those which no longer exist, is invaluable to contemporary Egyptologists and historians. Though-provoking, for example, is his account of the Egyptian Labyrinth that “surpasses the Pyramids” (Herodotus, the fifth century BC.). Was he then aware of any Egyptian records of Atlantis and its inhabitants? Are they depicted in his map?

Good-luck bringing charm

Discussing still the issue of Atlantic-Egyptian relations, Plato indicates that Egypt was within the Atlantean influence (Alexander, Rosen 2011). Although any preserved ancient records in Egypt do not mention such connections, it is worth investigating ancient Egyptian art, its symbolism and mythology in quest for any clues. One of the most recurring images in Dynastic Egypt is unquestionably the symbol of the Eye of Horus, known as wadjet, wedjat or udjat (“Eye of Horus” 2020).

Horus, the god of Egypt was usually depicted as a falcon, or a man with a falcon’s head; as such he was the god of the heavens and the forerunner of the pharaohs (Rachet 1994:135). Horus was also the son of divine siblings, Isis and Osiris, and played a decisive role in his father’s struggle against his brother, Set (Ibid.:135). According to the Texts of Pyramids, Isis, as a vulture, sat on the body of the dead Osiris (murdered by Set) and hence conceived Horus (Ibid.:135). Having grown up, Horus provoked Set to a fight in which he lost an eye (Ibid.:135). He regained it, however, and defeated Set, depriving him of his manhood (Ibid.:135).

Nazars, charms used to ward off the evil eye. After George S. Alexander (2011), each looks like a miniature model of the capital city of Atlantis. Photo by FocalPoint (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Evil eye” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Eye of Horus was in an ancient Egypt a “symbol of protection, royal power, and good health. The Eye of Horus is similar to the Eye of Ra, which belongs to a different god […] but represents many of the same concepts” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Actually, in the Old Kingdom, the Eye of Ra symbolised the sun, whereas that of Horus, the moon (Rachet 1994:356). As one of the most popular warding off evil amulets, it was usually depicted in Egyptian tombs (Ibid.:357). Mediterranean sailors have “frequently [painted the same] symbol on the bows of their vessels to ensure safe sea travel” (“Eye of Horus” 2020). Even today, such an image as a protection against the evil eye is typical in this region, though in Muslim countries, it is usually called the Eye of the Prophet (Alexander, Rosen 2011).

Atlantean symbol or Egyptian amulet?

Udjat in ancient Egyptian art can be seen as a symbolic sign of a lined eye with an element characteristic of the falcon head (Horus), added later below (Rachet 1994:356).

The Eye of the Sahara resembles the Egyptian amulet known as the Eye of Horus with the upper part of ‘the eye’ well emphasized by the range of the steep mountains from the north. Photo received from a cropped satellite image on Google Maps (Google Earth). Imagery©2020 CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies; Map data ©2020.

Some researchers indicate, it is related to Atlantis, and indeed, its representation resembles the Eye of the Sahara, with regard to its centre and surroundings, where the range of mountains to the north of the pupil-like centre are similar to Horus’ lined eyebrow (Ettington 2018:58; Alexander, Rosen 2011). Was the amulet original to Atlantis, before it was adopted by the Egyptian symbology?

No other site more than this one

No other place in the world fits the description of Atlantis so closely as the Eye of the Sahara (Ettington 2018:35; Kosmiczne […] 2019). There is yet no conclusive archaeological evidence; therefore the issue remains unresolved (Kosmiczne […] 2019). Only if archaeologists engage in long-term and reliable work within the mysterious structure, the ancient mystery of Richat may be exposed, either as a natural structure or the lost city of Atlantis (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, if Atlantis really once existed, the Eye of the Sahara remains the most likely location for this legendary civilization (Alexander, Rosen 2011; Ettington 2018:31,35-38,51; Kosmiczne […] 2019).

Featured image: A topographic reconstruction (scaled 6:1 on the vertical axis) from satellite photos. False colouring as follows: • Brown: bedrock • Yellow/white: sand • Green: vegetation • Blue: salty sediments. Photo by NASA/JPL/NIMA (2004). Public domain. Photo source: “Richat structure” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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