Category Archives: ASIA

The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery

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

Building archaeological recording underway in the southeast hollow (main excavation area) at Göbeklitepe (September 2018). The new permanent shelter provides visitors not only with unprecedented views of the excavated monumental buildings but also allows them to get close to the archaeologists working at the site. The membrane canopy was designed by kleyer.koblitz.letzel.freivogel Architekten (with structural engineering by EiSat GmbH), btw. (see Donna Sink (2020). In: Archinect News). Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI). In: Jens Notroff (2018) “Visitors back at the ruins again”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

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

From evolution to revolution

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

The location of Göbekli Tepe on the map, near the large nearby modern city of Şanlıurfa. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

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

From the theory to archaeological evidence

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

Hunter-gatherers. Photo cropped. Source: Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .In: Archaeology & Art.

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

Never-ending studies

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

The upper part of the ‘T’ – shaped pillar protruding out of the ground. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

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

Sites with similar ‘T’-shaped pillars from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN). Photo by Arekrishna (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe has been carried out since the early 1960s, only in 1994 the site emerged as the world’s first temple with an amazing discovery of  mysterious statues (Conrad 2012).

In 1994, on a nearby hill, a Kurdish shepherd had noticed a strange outline of a stone sticking out of the ground (Burns 2010). He turned out to be more interested in the find than his countrymen who discerned the protruding boulders before him, and began digging around the stone (Ibid.). Soon he discovered below a six-meter shaft (Ibid.). It had a regular structure and there was a relief showing an unknown animal (Ibid.) (see:). Thorough examinations confirmed that the stone was processed by a talented stonemason who used sophisticated tools (Ibid.). When the scholars found out about the accidental discovery, they were sure that the Shepherd had discovered one of the most important structures in the history of archaeology (Ibid.). In the same year, regular excavations began.

The team of archaeologists led by Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute started their regular work at Göbekli Tepe in 1995, in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum, and soon unearthed the first of the huge ‘T’-shaped pillars (Curry 2008; Noren 2020; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020). Schmidt writes that “as soon as [he] got there and saw the stones, [he] knew that if [he] didn’t walk away immediately [he] would be [tere] for the rest of [his] life” (Knox 2009), which eventually happened. Having found stone structures at Göbekli Tepe similar to those unearthed before at Nevalı Çori (Turkey), Schmidt recognized the possibility that the monuments are prehistoric and culturally related to other archaeological sites in the region (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020; see Noren 2020).

Photo (2016) of Klaus Schmidt (11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014); a German archaeologist who led the regular excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1995 to 2014. Photo source: Oliver Dietrich (2016) “Göbekli Tepe – The first 20 Years of Research”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

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

Hill of the Navel

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

Area of the Fertile Crescent, circa 7500 BCE, with main sites. Göbekli Tepe is one of the important sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. The area of Mesopotamia proper at this time was not yet settled by humans. Photo by GFDL (2019). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Four stone circles

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

Göbekli Tepe. The main excavation area in the southeastern area of the mound in an aerial photograph by Erhan Kucuk and a schematic map with pillar numbering. Courtesy of the German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:317). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

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

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

Enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

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

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

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

Göbekli Tepe. Main excavation area with monumental Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A enclosures. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

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

What was the site used for?

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

Göbekli Tepe site during excaviations. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Shrinking temple

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

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

Following the star

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

Cygnus constellation with the brightest star Deneb. Photo by Star Walk (2017).“A Gorgeous Quarter Moon meets Saturn, and the Swan’s Wings bear its Best Features!”. In: Medium.

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

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

The downfall of the temple

Some scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, put forward a controversial thesis explaining why Göbekli Tepe eventually ceased to exist. Namely, the Stone Age site is believed to have been destroyed by the Great Flood, recorded not only by the Bible but also dozens of other ancient sources coming from different corners of the world (Burns 2014-2015). Robert Schoch, PhD. (Burns 2014-2015) believes that there is enough evidence supporting the thesis that a great disaster had taken place at the end of the period that marked the end of the Ice Age; as a result, the great pillars of Göbekli Tepe were overthrown and the damage to the temple must have been large and extensive. Attempts surely were made to rebuild it, but people eventually gave up and buried the whole place (Ibid.). Perhaps they wanted to return there one day or leave it for posterity (Ibid.). Or else the temple was naturally covered with earth yet during the Flood, the waters of which had carried huge amounts of soil and organic materials into and over the temple complex.

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

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

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

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

Many myths and legends claim that sophisticated cultures already existed at the very beginning of human civilization (Burns 2010). Robert Schoch, PhD. claims that there are various signs from all over the world that advanced societies had developed much earlier than previously thought (Ibid.). The discovery of Göbekli Tepe is hence completely contradictory to the current view of the slow evolution of civilization (Ibid.). Interestingly, since the archaeological digs started on site, neither a single tool for stone processing nor human remains have been found (Burns 2010; 2017). The former lack contradicts the sophisticated carving created on site, whereas the latter excludes Professor Schmid’s theory of Göbekli Tepe as a burial complex (Burns 2017). It was not either a domestic settlement (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., claims that when something in archaeology is incomprehensible, given finds are usually assigned ritual significance but these are pure speculations (Ibid.). Taking into account such facts, will the discovery of Göbekli Tepe radically change the world view of the beginning of human civilization? (Ibid.) Is the find of Göbekli Tepe the missing evidence that mankind’s strangest myths about lost civilizations can be based on facts? (Ibid.)

Featured image: “Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa”. Photo by Teomancimit (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. (Image cropped). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). 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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‘The Way of Rama’ Between India and Sri Lanka

In May 2012, a NASA satellite passed over shallow waters of the Indian Ocean (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). It sent back images of a chain of largely submerged objects running between Sri Lanka and India (Ibid.). The NASA image analyst, Marc D’Antonio, describes it as “a string of pearls between two islands” (Ibid.). Similarly, the archaeologist, Chelsea Rose compares it to “a rocky jetty but pretty bigger” (Ibid.). On closer analysis of the satellite image investigators calculate the line of rocks is over thirty kilometres long (Ibid.). What makes the image especially intriguing is that the displayed rocks are located in the area of sea, mentioned in an ancient Indian Sanskrit epic, which also refers to a mythical bridge (Ibid.).

The location of Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka on Google’s Map. Photo source: Dr. Rita Louise (2013). “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins.

The Way of Rama

The Indian Sanskrit epic is known as Ramayana. It literally means the ‘Way of Rama’ and constitutes one of the great epics of India, of which the other is known as Mahabharata (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). Both epics had originated from folk tales and belong to the so-called Smriti scriptures (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2020). Such writings encompass Hindu stories originally passed down by oral tradition (Ibid.). Ramayana is generally believed to have been written by the sage-poet Valmiki, between the fifth century BC and first century AD (Basu 2016).

According to the Sanskrit, Valmiki tells the story of Ramayana to Rama’s sons, the twins Lava and Kush (Ibid.). Nevertheless, the Ramayana date is not certain as much as the authorship of the epic (Van Nooted 2000:xv). The poet, Valmiki, himself is a half-legendary character (Ibid.:xv). Therefore, although Ramayana is very important of the Hindu tradition, it is usually said to have nothing to do with an exact historical chronology (Ibid.). As it speaks of the events recorded orally for centuries, the story itself may be much older that the written version (Ibid.:xv). However, to make their assumptions safe, scholars usually say “that Valmiki (if he really was the composer) drew upon a number of popular Rama folk tales for his epic, which he wove together into a great frame story, together with numerous exotic and fabulous incidents” (Ibid.:xv).

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Author: Tej Kumar Book Depo. Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2018).

Chronological discrepancies

As a matter of fact, there are a few alternative chronologies concerning the events described by Ramayana, as much as it occurs in other archaeological areas, such as the Egyptology, where there is a difference of around one hundred years between the so called ‘high’ (the older) and ‘low’ (the younger) chronologies of the ancient Egypt. In case of the time frames for Ramayana, however, such a gap is incomparably larger.

According to the Hindu tradition, the events described by Ramayana took place during the Treta Yuga, which is the second of the four Yugas and the so-called Silver Age (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3). All of the periods are cosmic cycles as the starting point of each of them was formed by the conjunction of planets (Ibid.:3). Additionally, each successive age is shorter than the previous one (Ibid.:3). Some Hindu sources say that the Treta Yuga had lasted for 1 296 000 years (Ibid.:3). When did it start? According to such calculations, it was a period of time that began from over two millions years BC and ended around eight hundred thousand BC (!!!) (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3; Louise 2013), which sounds absurd (Louise 2013). This is probably why some scholars have re-calculated the time to make it “more” plausible. After their assumptions, the same epoch started in 5 500 BC and ended in 4 250 BC (Mittal 2006:xxiv). Such a time frame would be possible providing that twenty years is an average reign of each of sixty-three kings who were historically recorded (Ibid.:xxiv). Whereas according to the Hindu tradition, the average age of man in the Treta Yuga was three hundred years (Jagadisa Ayyar 1996:3), which is actually similar to the age ascribed to great biblical patriarchs in Genesis.

Statue of Rama in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India (published in 2012). Photo by Ashish3724 (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

There have also been other surveys carried out in order to prove the historicity of Ramayana. By using modern scientific tools, such as archaeoastronomy, some Hindu researches have studied if any exact dates in the western calendar can be attributed to Rama’s lifetime (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Ramayana, as much as Mahabharata, are regarded as traditional historical and religious texts of India and as such they are believed to contain real astronomical information also supported by observations recorded by the Hindu chronicles (Ibid.). Subsequently, the researches applied the ancient knowledge of configurations of celestial bodies to calculate the time when Rama’s birth may have happened (Ibid.). As a result, they have obtained the precise date of 10th January, 5 114 BC and then, using the same key, they have received further dates of successive events appearing in Ramayana, among which the construction of Ram Setu falls between the 14th and 20th September, 5076 BC (Ibid.). Accordingly, the research results are closer to the so called ‘low’ chronology of Treta Yunga, and consequently of Ramayana, if we can apply such a definition also to the ancient times of India and Sri Lanka.

Is the story a historical record or a myth?

The theory that the events of Ramayana should be dated back to thousands or even millions years ago is considered highly unscientific to western researches. But while it is not acceptable for real historical events, after the same scholars, it fits well in the sphere of myths, which is believed to have been actually presented in the epic. For many mainstream historians who have analysed the text, such a theory is supported by the fact that Ramayana tells a story filled with fairy like characters and describes unrealistic events typical of fiction: divine beings fly on aircrafts between masses of lands, giants, hybrids and demons walk the earth, ape-men construct an engineering feat, and all that is observed by powerful gods who decide about the course of earthly events. In this case, however, what means fiction for western scholars is a religious truth for the Hindus.

Ravana’s sister Suparnakha attempts to seduce Rama. He refuses and spurns her.
Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie, D. (1913). Public domain. Uploaded in 2015. Photo source: “Rama” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Rama of Ayodhya is the protagonist of the story (Van Nooted 2000:xiii). He is born as a prince but he is forced to abdicate his claim to the throne in favour of his half-brother (Ibid.:xiii). As a result, “Rama himself withdraws into the forest for thirteen years accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and a his devoted half-brother, Lakshmana” (Ibid.:xiii-xiv).

The action of the story is rising when they all get into conflict with “the legions of the dark, the Rakshasas or demons” (Ibid.:xiv). The struggle culminates when two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, humiliate Shurpanakha who is the demon king’s sister. As a result, her powerful brother, ten-headed Ravana takes revenge for his sister’s disgrace by abducting Sita (Ibid.:xiv). The demon takes Rama’s wife on board of his aircraft, vimana, and they fly together to Ravana’s kingdom on the island Lanka, today associated with Sri Lanka” (Ibid.:xiv). The demon’s capital, in turn, is usually localized at the famous Rock of Sigiriya, which is rising just in the middle of the island (see In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Movie Still From The Film Raavan (2010), directed by Mani Ratnam; starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai. In the photo:  Abhishek Bachchan. Photo Source: “Raavan” (2016). In: Bollywood Hungama. Bollywood Entertainment at its Best.

In search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana ally with the Vanara – an army of ape men and bears under the generalship of the mighty ape-man Hanuman (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Finally, they discover the place where Sita is kept captive (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). To reach the island, Rama is advised by the sea god to construct a bridge between the mainland to Lanka and move his army of ape-men on the enemy’s territory (Van Nooted 2000:xiv; Louise 2013). Once the bridge is ready, they all cross it from India to Lanka and a great battle between Rama’s army and Ravana’s demons ensues (Van Nooted 2000:xiv). Eventually, the good wins and at the moment of victory, Rama discovers his divine origins (Ibid.:xiv-xv): “[he] is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu who has come on earth to save mankind from oppression by demonic forces” (Ibid.:xiv-xv). Having killed Ravana, Rama wins Sita back and they come back to India by air using Ravana’s vimana (Ibid.:xv).

Ravana’s Celestial Chariot carrying Rama and Sita back to India, ca. 1650. Among the earliest Ramayana paintings of the manuscript, Panjab Hills. Uploaded by Yann (2015). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2020).

After coming back to Ayodhya, Rama is crowned king (Ibid.:xv). Yet the story does not end well. Rama suspects his wife of having been unfaithful to him during her stay on Lanka and he banishes her back to the forest (Ibid.:xv). There, Sita gives the birth to Rama’s twins (Ibid.:xv). At this point, Valmiki appears in the narrative (Ibid.:xv). He takes care of Rama’s sons and teaches them the story of Rama’s great exploits, which is actually the Ramayana itself (Ibid.:xv).

Floating stones of Ram Setu

The causeway or bridge between India and Lanka described by the Ramayana is usually referred to as Ram setu (Rama’s Bridge) but it is also known as Nala’s bridge, as it is the name of the ape-man engineer who has designed the whole construction (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).

The text of Ramayana gives the records of the building project in detail including all the techniques used (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). The bridge has been built over a natural sea ridge (Ibid.). First the Vanara used various wood to construct a pile foundation, and then on top of it larger stones were piled on, rising up to the flat finished level (Ibid.).

The Vanara Army is constructing the Bridge. The name ‘Rama’ is written down on the stones to make them float. Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery.

As the epic says, there were special stones employed; namely, they could float on the water surface after the name Rama was written on them (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). Actually floating stones can be still found on the coast of Rameshwaram, where the bridge starts in India (Ibid.). Some scientists claim it is pumice, which is the volcanic rock that can initially float on the water due to its smaller density (Ibid.). The theory of pumice stones, however, has been strongly contested (Ibid.). First of all, there is no volcano in the areas of Rameswaram, nor any evidence of its existence there in the past (Tiwari 2018). So how did pumice stones appear there, if they are volcanic rocks? (Ibid.). Moreover, an analysis of the stones “has revealed that floating stones in Rameswaram are not lightweight as pumice stones” (Ibid.). Hindu scholars claim that although rocks found near the bridge are similar to corals or pumice in appearance, at closer examination it is found that they are not (Das 2017).

After all, the concept of floating stones found in Rameshwaram and potentially used in Ramayana has not been explained yet (Das 2017; Tiwari 2018). For scholars who try to resolve that matter, the problem occurs together with the following question: could the ancient builders of the bridge know the technology to make stones float on water? (Das 2017:27).

Natural or planned construction?

The bridge was built in a proper linear alignment, which is visible even today in aerial images (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). So it was not just random throwing of stones here or there or a usually irregular natural formation (Ibid.). “’It is the context which tells the story,’ said [the marine archaeologist, Alok] Tripathi, who became the first head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s underwater archaeology wing in 2001. ‘In nature, stones would lie haphazardly,’ he said. ‘If you find them aligned or you find layers of stone and sand, from the manner of their arrangement you know there has been human intervention’” (Roy Chowdhury 2017).

Scientific and literary data linkage

The measurements of the causeway, namely 35 kilometres long and 3,5 kilometres wide, are also analogous to the measurements of the bridge given by the epic, which is 100 leagues in length and 10 in width (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). This gives the ratio of 1 (width) : 10 (length) (Ibid.). As Ramayana goes, the whole project lasted for just five days (Ibid.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. Source: Tiwari (2018) and Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017). Photo source: Soma Tiwari (2018). “Here’s the Real Story of Ram Setu Bridge”. In: Scientific Mystery and Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017) “Adam’s Bridge – The Mythical Bridge Over the Ocean” In: Sri Lanka. Wonder of Asia.

“On the first day, fourteen yojans of bridge was constructed by the monkeys speedily, thrilled with delight as they were, resembling elephants. In the same manner, on the second day twenty yojans of bridge was constructed speedily by the monkeys of terrific bodies and of mighty strength. Thus, on the third day twenty-one yojans of the bridge was constructed in the ocean speedily by the monkeys with their colossal bodies. On the fourth day, a further of twenty-two yojans was constructed by the dashing monkeys with a great speed. In that manner, on the fifth day, the monkeys working quickly constructed twenty-three yojans of the bridge up to the other seashore.”

The translated version of the excerpt taken from Ramayana, describing the construction of Ram Setu. In: Tiwari (2018).

What could an archaeologist uncover?

Since the bridge was built, the layers of sand have accumulated over the structure making sandbars and shoals (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). Some scholars, like Alok Tripathi, believe that archaeological examination of the site would uncover the successive layers of the ancient bridge, at the bottom of which, there should be the solidified wood, which would have become carbonaceous material over thousands of years (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Roy Chowdhury 2017). Consequently, Tripathi has submitted research proposal to investigate the structure (Roy Chowdhury 2017). He argues that the “belief that Rama’s army built that bridge is well-established. [The Vanara may have] filled the gaps between the islets with stones and logs [and] archaeological investigation may reveal material evidence, if any” (Ibid.).

The marine archaeologist, Alok Tripathi, working at the sunken legendary city of Dwarka, India, in 2007. Photo by Alok Tripathi. Photo source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In:

Historical records of fiction

According to historical records, such a land connection between India and Sri Lanka, as described by Ramayana, really existed and it was first mentioned in the ninth century AD in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, who refers to it as Set Bandhhai, which means Bridge of the Sea (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). By all accounts, the causeway interconnected Rameswaram Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu (Palk Strait), in India, and Mannar Island (Gulf of Mannar), off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka (Ibid.) and “was reportedly passable on foot up to the fifteenth century until storms deepened the channel. The Rameshwaram temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in […] 1480” (Ibid.).

Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon and Ram Setu reaching to India. Claudius Ptolemaeus (fl. AD 127-145, Alexandria). Photo by Map source Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne

Nevertheless, the structure was still marked on the nineteenth century’s maps. In 1804, a British cartographer describes the same structure as Adam’s bridge “in reference to an Abrahamic myth, in which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain, which the British identified with Adam’s Peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for one thousand years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint” (Ibid.). Yet, according to the Hindu tradition, the footprint has been actually left by the god Shiva.

Aerial photos

The Rama’ bridge was brought again into attention by aerial images sent by NASA in 2012. The stones in the satellite image are sitting on something that the oceanographers call a shoal or sandbar (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, geological evidence suggests that the ‘bridge’ was “made with chain of limestone shoals surrounded by a shallow sea of one to ten meters depth” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Some geologists, as Dr Erin Argyilan, admit that “the structure occurs in an area where there is shallow waters and sand could accumulate between two land masses [over the time]” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). As a result, a long and narrow strip of land was composed (Ibid.).

Natural or manmade

There is no doubt such a structure exists but the key matter is now answering the question whether the construction is natural or manmade. Provided evidence could either reject or at least partially confirm the events described by Ramayana.  

Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480, when it may have been yet passable. Map found via reddit from Brilliant Maps (2015).

In the past, some scholars claimed it to “[have been] formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it had been [shaped] by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). However, the fact that the remains of the structure are situated in the place indicated by the epic is itself quite intriguing. In case it is a natural formation, as some researchers believe, it would mean that the author of Ramayana or earlier oral folks must have based a description of the “fictional” Ram Setu on the appearance of the actual causeway joining India with Sri Lanka. On the other side, there is evidence supporting the claim that this strip of land is the same one described in Hindu literature (Louise 2013).

NASA and geology

Although Ram Setu was once believed to be a natural deposition of sand, silt and small pebbles, the NASA images definitely show it looks more like a broken bridge under the ocean’s surface than a creation of nature (Louise 2013; Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Dr. Badrinarayanan, the former director of the Geological Survey of India thoroughly studied the causeway and went to conclusions in favour of the theory saying it is an artificial construction (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Also other interdisciplinary scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, claim that “although the sandbar may be natural, what is sitting above it is not” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Marc D’Antonio, the NASA Image Analyst agrees that it is not just a simple sandbar (Ibid.). He says: “there are larger objects within it that have not been eroded away” (Ibid.). Dr Alan Lester, the geologist identifies “these objects as stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of the sandbar island chain” (Ibid.). Dr Badrinarayanan justifies the same by the presence of coral reef above loose sands layer for the entire stretch of the causeway (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). As he explains “corals normally form above rocks and not over sand layers” (Ibid.).

Aerial image of Rama’s Bridge. CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia. Photo source: Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In:

Traditional research methods also supported the NASA results by a deeper analysis of the causeway layers . A team of Indian archaeologists and geologists had embarked on the underwater expedition to physically explore the mysterious structure (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). “Dr Badrinarayanan and his team drilled [ten] bore holes along the alignment of [Ram Setu]. What [they] discovered was startling. About [six] meters below the surface they found a consistent layer of calcareous sand stone, corals and boulder like materials” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017).  Next, some four to five meters further down, the team discovered layers of loose sand, and then again hard rock formations below the sand (Ibid.). But how the stones got above the sand layer is a mystery (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

Today some sections are still only between 1 and 10 meters (3 and 30 feet deep) as can be seen in this photo from NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite. Photo and caption from Brilliant Maps (2015).

According to further analysis of the boulders, the team of divers claims “they were not composed of a typical marine formation [but] they were identified as having come from either side of the causeway” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Dr Badrinarayanan’s team also indicates that stone boulders may have been quarried from either shore to be finally placed upon the sandy bottom and form the causeway (Ibid.). Could they be the so-called floating stones found in the coastal area of Rameshwaram?

Time for dating

Providing the above scientific results, it is strongly indicated that the structure in the satellite image is not natural but created artificially. And when a team of geologists dates the stones the mystery deepens … (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017).

In 2003, “a team from the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University, […] led by Professor S.M. Ramasamy […] claimed that the “Rama’s bridge could only be 3,500 years old, [which is hardly 1 500 BC and] as the carbon dating of the beaches roughly matches the dates of Ramayana, its link to the epic needs to be explored” (Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office 2017). Professor S.M. Ramasamy did not mention, however that the carbon dating in 2013 had been conducted ultimately on corals grown on the causeway itself and so it represents only the age of the corals, not the stones (Ibid.). Meantime, the rocks underneath the corals have been dated back to thousands of years earlier (Ibid.).

Video Material. Source: Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” (fragment) In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI) Youtube Channel.

The archaeologist, Chelsea Rose also notices that “the rocks on top of the sand actually predate the sand so there’s more to the story” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). Accordingly, scientific analysis of the stones reveals they are around seven thousands years old but are sitting on top of sand that is only four thousand years old (Ibid.).

Further dating

Such dating has been also supported by another method, which is apparently against the theory of the floating stones.

Today the causeway is around two metres below the present day sea-level, which can be explained by the fact that such floating stones as pumice would have eventually sunk (Hari, Hema Hari 2015; Das 2017:26). Whereas the alternative theory says that the boulders were supported by the wooded scaffolding and when the bridge was completed they must have been at least one metre above the water level (Hari, Hema Hari 2015). In this case, the sea must have risen around three metres since the construction of the bridge took place (Ibid.). As oceanography reports say, in the course of seven thousand years, three metres rise of the sea level has occurred in the ocean due to climatic changes, such as global warming (Ibid.). Consequently, using such a dating tool, the bridge can be dated again to around 5 000 BC (Ibid.).

In spite of significant differences in dating the events of Ramayana, It can be definitely concluded that the causeway itself must be an artificial construction. Moreover, due to the overwhelming evidence, it can be convincingly dated back to around 5 000 BC, unless there is another strong evidence against such dating. At this point, it is not risky to suggest that the material remains of the bridge between India and Sri Lanka are equivalent to the structure described in Ramayana, and by these means, the bridge itself can become a basis for the chronology of the epic.

If the bridge exists, who built it?

What about Ramayana’s characters? Did they really exist? On the Indian subcontinent, such ancient texts as Ramayana or Mahabharata are taken literally so there is a strong conviction they tell the truth. And although such protagonists as Rama or Ravana are historical for Hindus, most western scholars reject the epic as a historical record and treat it as a legend or even a fairy tale.

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Photo source: Wikiwand (2020).

According to the sacred texts of the Ramayana, the bridge was built by the Vanara, the demigod ape-men (Louise 2013). Dr Rita Louise (2013) suggests that it may be a real story if we assume the ‘high’ time frames for the Treta Yuga are correct. If so, by introducing the Vanara ape-men, Ramayana may actually refer to the representatives of Homo erectus (upright man) who appeared in Eurasia by around 2 million years ago (Louise 2013).

Nevertheless, researchers are more likely to believe these were humans who constructed the bridge themselves, without any supernatural powers. Marc D’Antonio suggests that although it must have been a gargantuan task, “ancient people transported stones in to cover areas to make them higher and so make it more passable to keep the bridge” (Woolford-Gibbon, Durkin 2017). If the ancient text of Ramayana refers to a time of 5 000 BC, at this point in mankind history, building such a long bridge would have been a superhuman achievement (Ibid.). Still Dr Patrick Hunt, the archaeologist, claims that humans surely were capable to build the Ram Setu, as much as they were able to design and erect such megastructure as the Pyramids of Giza (Ibid.).

Ravana abducting Sita. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). Public domain. Photo source: “Vanara” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also in India and Sri Lanka there are incredible ancient structures including mysterious religious monuments (Ibid.). “For this reason” says Hunt’, “we should never underestimate people of the past. If archaeological investigation actually finds that these chains of islands was indeed man made, it really could change our understanding of ancient people’s times and technologies” (Ibid.). Likewise, Marc D’Antonio admits that “the people who designed and built the bridge must have actually been very clever engineers and they certainly would have found a way to maintain this connection using stones and bring them in to actually make some type of a bridge between Sri Lanka and India” (Ibid.).

Other questions without an answer

There are, however, other questions one should answer. Generally, if scholars agree that men were skilled enough to build such megastructures as Ram Setu thousands of years ago, it must be also admitted that even in their times they were highly advanced in terms of technology and engineering. Meantime, archaeological finds in Egypt expose a number of primitive tools, which are claimed to have been used in the third millennium BC by the builders of the Giza Pyramids.

Tools, which were apparently used by the builders of the Egyptian pyramids. Documentary shot from Grimault, Pooyard (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids.

‘If they built pyramids with such tools’ one would say. ‘They had been able to build the bridge across the ocean as well’.

Yet, according to the theory of evolution, human technology should have been even less developed at the time of Ram Setu, which is believed to be an earlier construction than the Egyptian pyramids, not to mention the megalithic constructions of Göbekli Tepe, which are dated back even to 10 000 BC. In this case, how is it possible to explain that after all contemporary people were able to make it? Could it be sure that it was possible to construct the bridge only by means of primitive tools, said to be available at that stage of technological development? (Grimault, Pooyard 2012)

A ceremonial textile hanging with the depiction of the Combat of Rama and Ravana; late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA. Photo source: The Metropolitan Museum (2020) “The Combat of Rama and Ravana, late 18th century, India, Coromandel Coast; Asian Art (36,427)”. In: The MET150.

One would say ‘yes’ as the tangible proof exists (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). So all the ancient constructions were made by simple means because they are there, and they were built at the time when men only used simple means so the fact that such constructions exist proves that it was possible to do it with simple means (Ibid.). But are such dead-end conclusions correct? After the engineer, Robert Bauval, the given ‘context [of the ancient architecture simply] does not fit the evidence’ (Burns 2010).

Endless debate

Although the science has approved that the causeway between India and Sri Lanka is artificial, there are still fierce debates on the matter of the bridge’s connections with Ramayana’s legendary events (Tiwari 2018). People in India strongly believe in the supreme powers that have helped in the construction of the causeway, yet it is hard, especially for western scholars, to acknowledge the explanation of the bridge’s appearance through a mythological perspective (Ibid.). However, irrespective of the means used for its construction, Rama’s Bridge should be undoubtedly considered as an engineering masterpiece (Das 2017:27).

Featured image: Aerial image of Rama Setu. Akshatha Vinayak (2018). “10 Mysterious Things About Ram Setu”. In: Native Planet. Explore your World.

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.


“Ravana abducting Sita”. Chitra Ramayana by Ramachandra Madhwa Mahishi, Illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi, (1916). In: “Vanara” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

“The Celestial Chariot” (2020) In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Aerial image of Rama Setu in: Vinayak, A. (2018) “10 Mysterious Things About Ram Setu”. In: Native Planet. Explore your World. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Valmiki training Lava Kusha (sons of Rama & Sita) in the art of archery. Tej Kumar Book Depo. In: Wikimedia Commons (2018). Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Basu, A. (2016) “Ramayana Definition”. In: Ancient History. Available at <>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

Burns, K. (2010) “The Evidence”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 1, Episode 1. USA: Prometheus Entertainment.

Das V. M., Dr (2017) “Adam’s Bridge Formation (Floating of Stones) By Virtue of Prayer Done By Lord Ram Rather than Any Miracle Claimed By Hindu Believers . it Was Lawlessness That Triggered By Unconditioned Thought Expression By First order Of Universe (AGE By Quantum Entanglement)”. In: IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education (IOSR-JRME), Vol. 7, Issue 6 Ver. VII, pp. 25-56.

Documentary shot from Grimault, J., Pooyard P. (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids. Ekwanim Production &Wild Bunch.

General of the Vanara Army, Hanuman. Source: Wikiwand (2020). Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Grimault, J., Pooyard P. (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids. Ekwanim Production &Wild Bunch.

Hari D. K., Hema Hari D.K. (2015) “Rama Setu – An Engineering Marvel of 5076 BCE”. In: Bharath Gyan. Available at <>. [Accessed 30th April, 2020].

Image: Movie Still From The Film Raavan (2010)directed by Mani Ratnam; starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai. In the photo Abhishek Bachchan. Photo Source: “Raavan” (2016). In: Bollywood Hungama. Bollywood Entertainment at its Best. Available at <>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

Internet Archive Book Images (2015) Image from page 534 of “Indian myth and legend” by Mackencie D. (1913). In: “Rama” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Jagadisa Ayyar, P. V. (1996) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delphi-Madras: Asian Educational Services

Louise R., Dr (2013) “Rama’s Bridge: Where Modern Science And Ancient Myths Collide”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Map found via reddit (published in 2015) “Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480”. In: Brilliant Maps. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Mittal, J.P. (2006) History Of Ancient India (a New Version) : From 7300 BC To 4250 BC. Vol. 1. New Delphi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors.

NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite (published in 2015) “Adam’s Bridge Between India and Sri Lanka Before 1480”. In: Brilliant Maps. Available at <>. [Accessed 2nd May, 2020].

Ptolomey’s Map. In: Admin (2013) “Most Ramy, budowla z prehistorii łącząca Indie z Cejlonem”. In: Inne Medium. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

Roy Chowdhury S.  (2017) “‘I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains’: Researcher who aims to study Ram Setu to Lanka”. In: Available at <>. [Accessed 1st May, 2020].

Sri Lanka Tourism Head Office (2017) “Adam’s Bridge – The Mythical Bridge Over the Ocean” In: Sri Lanka. Wonder of Asia. Available at <>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

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Woolford-Gibbon, J., Durkin, M. (2017) “Ramasetu” In: What on Earth. WAG TV for Science Channel (SCI). Available at <>. [Accessed 27th April, 2020].

The Holy Land Translated into a Mosaic of the Church

It was the end of January when my group was travelling north from Petra through the King’s Highway, in Jordan. It was the very moment when the Egyptian revolution of 2011 had started and we learnt about it a few days earlier, while crossing the Israelite-Jordan border (see Mount Sinai Trekking). But we did not stop our study trip and continued to discover Jordan’s archaeological treasure till the time we had to come back to Sinai, in Egypt.

Travelling around Jordan. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Madaba in Jordan

After having stopped at one of large Crusader castles – the Kerak, we headed off to Madaba, the city situated  half an hour south of the capital. “It is a relatively small [urban area] that is nowadays home to around 60,000 people” (Esparza 2017). Throughout history, the site has been populated by “the Moabites, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine, the Rashidun and the Umayyad” (Ibid.). It “is now home to the biggest Christian community in all of Jordan, proportionally speaking: both Catholics and Greek Orthodox make up around [ten percent] of the total population of Madaba (Ibid.) and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ (Mack 2018). “Archaeologists affirm Madaba has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age” (Esparza 2017). The Bible itself mentions Madaba twice (Numbers 21:30; Joshua 13:9) (Ibid.). “The city then stood in the very borders of the Moabite empire [but] during Roman (and consequently, Byzantine) rule, it belonged to the broader Arabian Province, founded by Trajan to substitute the Nabatean Kingdom. It was during those centuries, from the [second to the seventh], when the Christian community of the city established itself” (Ibid.).

The nineteenth century Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint George. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What did the Middle East and, precisely, the Holy Land look like in the early days of Christianity (till around 614 AD)? Today,  those days are brought to life by a legendary, ancient mosaic forming a map on the floor of Saint George’s Church in Madaba, in Jordan (Stakelbeck 2018).

Early Christian mosaic map within a modern church

MOSAIC a design made by cementing small pieces (tesserae) of hard, coloured substances (e.g. marble, glass, ceramic or semi-prcious stones) to a base.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:141)
Dr. Merav Mack showing the patches of the mosaic under the carpet; in the shot from the documentary: “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” Source: Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land”. In: Stakelbeck, E. (2018) The Watchman with Erick Stakelbeck.

Dr. Merav Mack (2018), a research associate from German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Amman, calls the mosaic one of the oldest maps in history of the Holy Land. “Originally, the map measured 21×7 meters, and was made with more than two million ‘tesserae’ (mosaic stones)” (Esparza 2017). Nowadays, its patches cover of the floor space in the apse of the active and rather modest nineteenth century Greek Orthodox church, yet adorned with some of the most beautiful icons in the region (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018; Raezer 2020). The modern church was built on the site of the sixth century Byzantine temple (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018). There, the mosaic map was originally designed on the floor of the apse. While a service is going on in the church, carpets are rolled down all over to protect the remains of the mosaic, and when the service is over, the carpets are rolled up again for visitors coming inside the church to expose the mosaic map (Mack 2018).

Intriguing characteristics

“Interestingly, the map is not oriented northwards, like modern maps are” (Esparza 2017) but to the East, towards the altar of the church (Esparza 2017; Mack 2018). In its center, there is an elliptical layout of the Holy City – Jerusalem (Sani 2014; Mack 2018). And although the map also features other famous and significant cities of the region, such as Jericho, Ascalon and Gaza (Mack 2018), it especially constitutes a unique guide to the Old City of Jerusalem, represented with all its major characteristics (Rogoff 2013). And irrespective of some minor errors in its layout (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995), the Madaba map remains one of the most important and revealing representation of the sixth century Christian Middle East (Esparza 2017). It is features more than one hundred and fifty cities, towns, and villages (Ibid.), “including some exceptionally intriguing symbols that, according to some archaeologists, represent pilgrimage places” (Ibid.).

One of the boats floating on the Dead Sea. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the top of the map, there is a representation of the Dead Sea with the blue horizontal stripes symbolising waves, on which two boats are floating (Mack 2018). Inside them, there are sitting human figures (Ibid.). They are now defaced, which is apparently the result of the Muslim rule in the area (Ibid.). In the sixth century, when the map was created, the whole depicted land was under the Eastern Christianized Roman Empire: there were monasteries scattered densely around, especially in the desert, housing around five thousands monks (Rogoff 2013; Mack 2018).

The River Jordan with two fishes facing each other. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The map also shows the part of land where the mosaic is preserved today, which is in the hills, on the eastern side of the River Jordan (Mack 2018). The latter is shown as a ribbon of water with depictions of fishes (Ibid.). Actually, in one section, there are “two fishes facing each other. One of them seems to be swimming back from the Dead Sea, while the other swims towards it, in the Jordan River. But it is well known that fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea […] Therefore, most historians and archaeologists interpret this to symbolize a meeting point for Christians” (Ibid.), for one of their early symbols was fish. Additionally, the River Jordan is important as the site of Jesus’ Baptism (Mack 2018). The city of Madaba, itself should be located somewhere in the hills, at the point where the map is unfortunately cut off and ruined (Ibid.). Generally, “much of the map’s tiles have been chipped away or been destroyed but a large contiguous piece of the map still exists illustrating both locations and names ranging from geographic features to cities” (Liza B 2020).

Η ΑΓΙΑ ΠΟΛΙϹ ΊΈΡΟΥϹΑ[ΛΗΜ] (Greek: The Holy City of Jerusalem)

The Holy City of Jerusalem in the sixth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Generally, “the mosaic covers lands from Egypt to Lebanon, including sites such as Bethlehem and Gethsemane, but [as it is underlined above], the gem of the mosaic is the detailed representation of the city of Jerusalem” (Liza B 2020). The picture of Jerusalem is additionally highly ideological (Mack 2018). The city “was considered the navel of the earth, [as the place] of God’s salvation history” (Sani 2014), and so physically and metaphorically situated at the very heart of the contemporary Christian world (Mack 2018). And although it was depicted “completely out of proportion to the scale of the map, [it was] entirely in proportion to its historical and spiritual significance. [Accordingly], the detail of the Holy City is remarkable, down to the level of identifiable structures” (Rogoff 2013). Jerusalem of the sixth century “was an expansion of the Aelia Capitolina, as it was rebuilt and renamed by pagan Rome 400 years earlier” (Ibid.).

From a general layout to details

The Madaba map reflects Jerusalem’s contemporary landmarks: the Holy City is surrounded around by thick walls, protected by nineteen towers (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). “The map assumes an oblique perspective, as if the viewer were standing atop a very high mountain and looking eastward (north is on the left)” (Raezer 2020). Actually, “a viewer in Jordan would look westward for a view of Jerusalem (north is on the right). The eastward vantage suggests that the artist was likely creating the mosaic based on a map prototype that was designed in the West, likely in Constantinople” (Ibid.). According to the perspective applied in the Madaba map, “the western part of the city-wall is shown from outside, the eastern part from inside” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995).  

Starting from left, that is to say, the north part of the city, there is the largest gate of Jerusalem consistent with Damascus Gate (1), and called Saint Stephen’s Gate in the sixth century (Rogoff 2013; Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). The gate is flanked by two towers and leads to an oval square with the tall column topped probably with the statue of the emperor Hadrian (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). The Arabic name of the gate, Bab el-Amud, which means the Gate of the Column, indicates that it existed yet after the Arabs’ invasion in the seventh century (Rogoff 2013). From the east, the city is opened by the so-called Gate of the Sheep Pool (2) (today’s Saint Stephen’s Gate) (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). To the south of it, there is the Gate Beautiful (3), aka Golden Gate, leading to the temple area, and farther, there is Dung Gate (4), seen from a different perspective than the previous three (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem on the Madaba Map. Photo by Unknown author (2005). Public domain. Photo source: “Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the south of the city, there is Sion Gate (5), from which the main street goes across the city to Damascus Gate (1) (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). In the west, there is Jaffa Gate (6), called Gate of the Tower in the sixth century, which is depicted here from the front. (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

From north to south

The Cardo Maximus (the main street in Ancient Roman cities) is running across the city, from north to south, that is to say, from Damascus Gate (1) to Sion Gate (5) (Mack 2018; Liza B 2020). It is lined with a row of columns on each side and covered with a roof (Ibid.). “Its western colonnade is interrupted by the staircase of the Anastasis-Church (7), known as the Church of Holy Sepulchre [whereas] the eastern one ends in front of the Nea Theotokos-Church (12)” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apparently, the mosaicist’s aim was to point out to the fact that the Cardo leads from both sides to the middle of the city, which is actually marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Mack 2018). In reality, the Church has never been centrally placed in the city (Ibid.). However, by placing it in the center of the map, the very idea of Christianity was expressed, namely the picture of heavenly Jerusalem with the holiest sites of Christian faith, where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he finally resurrected (Ibid.). Authors of the mosaic also represented the Church’s details, such as four steps leading to its three gates, and at its top – the golden dome, which is hovering above the tomb of Christ (Ibid.; also see the illustration: “Jerusalem with its landmarks in Madaba Map”. In: David, Jennifer Raezer (2020). “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides).

Jerusalem with the main street (Cardo Maximus) across the city; from northern Damascus Gate to the southern Sion Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The surprising fact is that “the street network of Byzantine Jerusalem remains essentially unchanged today, even in the modern Jewish quarter in the southern part of the Old City” (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Apart from the Cardo, there are four other streets depicted: the “second street begins on the east side of the oval square under an arch and runs to the south until the Dung Gate (4). It is colonnaded as well, but only the eastern colonnade is visible. […] The third street, starting from [the Gate of the Sheep Pool (St. Stephen’s Gate)] (2), is the beginning of the Christian ‘Via Dolorosa.’ [The] fourth street without columns — the Decumanus of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem – starts from Jaffa Gate (6) and runs to the east. It seems to end at the main street (Cardo Maximus). The fifth street, finally, branches off the Decumanus to the south: this is, probably, the Armenian Street” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Single buildings and constructions

Apart from centrally positioned Church of Holy Sepulchre, other main churches of Byzantine Jerusalem are also represented by the mosaicist (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). Baptistery of the Church of the Anastasis (8) “stands west of a light-brown trapezoidal space, probably the market-place(Forum) of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995). However, “its identification with the baptistery of the Holy Sepulchre [remains] uncertain. [Then, there is the] Church of the Sheep Pool (Probatica) (10), built in the first half of the [fifth] century over [the site] where Jesus healed a paralyzed man, [but it] was destroyed by the Persians in 614” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Jerusalem shown “upside down” with the golden dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (visible above it). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another church is the already mentioned “New Church of the Mother of God (Nea Theotokos) (12), built by the emperor Justinian and consecrated on November 20, 542, [which is] a fact important for dating the Madaba [map. Next, there are the] Basilica on Mount Sion (14), one of the most important churches in Jerusalem, second only to that of the Holy Sepulchre, [and] Diaconicon of the Basilica on Mount Sion (15), attached to the basilica in the south, for a time used as the Martyrium of St. Stephen. [Finally, there are also depicted the] Church of the House of Caiphas (16), [then the] Church of St. Sophia (17) [possibly standing] on the ruins of Pilate’s Praetorium, [and], the Church of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus (18)” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Old photograph from the “American Colony Photo Department”. Title: Madaba map mosaic, Jordan Abstract/medium: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection Physical description: 1 negative. Photo by Matson Collection Library of Congress Catalog. Created: between 1898 and 1946. Public domain. Photo source: “Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are also two other buildings identifiable in the Madaba map (Sani 2014; see Donner 1992-1995). In the eastern part of the map, there is “Temple Esplanade (22), indicated by a black line of cubes only [and the] Citadel (al-Qalca) (19), [situated in the west] on the right side of the Jaffa Gate (6). The Citadel of Jerusalem had been improved by Herod the Great. The Herodian Citadel was protected by three strong towers. […] Two of them are represented on the Madaba map, the bigger one identical with what is still called the ‘Tower of David” (Ibid.; see Donner 1992-1995).

Madaba map’s dating

Preserved patches of the precious mosaic on the floor of the apse. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The mosaic map was uncovered in Madaba in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1897 (Donner 1992-1995:13; Esparza 2017). It is dated back to the second half of the sixth century, which is also ascribed to its general style and special contents (Ibid.:13). By all accounts, the map tiles may have been composed into the floor mosaic probably during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian (527-565), and before 614, when Palestine was devastated by the Islamic Persians (Ibid.:14). Some observations on the map are also very useful in its dating (Ibid.:14). As mentioned above, in the depiction of Jerusalem, there is already the New Basilica of the Mother of God (Nea-Theotokos), which was consecrated in 542 (Ibid.:14). It is hence clear that the map itself was made later (Ibid.:14). Moreover, there are four churches on the map, which had been first mentioned in circa 570, namely the churches of Galgala, of the Egyptian Martyrs near Ascalon, of Saint Victor near Gaza, and the church of Zacharias (Ibid.:14).

Maps of the Mediterranean

Today, the map is one of the most significant archaeological “sources for the character and topography of Byzantine Palestine both west and east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, as well as of Lower Egypt” (Donner 1992-1995:13). Consequently, it is the oldest known geographic map of Palestine in existence, except for “a small section of the so-called Peutinger Plates” (Donner 1992-1995:13). The latter comes from the fourth century A.D. and constitutes a road map of the Roman Empire, now preserved in Vienna, in Austria, as a medieval parchment copy of a possible Roman original record (Ibid.:13).

One side of the Jordan River. The Madaba map gives astonishingly many details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such mosaic pavements as the Madaba map were widely common in the Christian Byzantine Empire, especially in the Mediterranean region and among them, there are also analogous mosaic representations of cities or even villages, for example the sixth century mosaics from Antioch or Jerash (Donner 1992-1995:13). However, the way in which they are represented substantially differs from the map depicted in the mosaic of Madaba (Ibid.:13). Mostly, the former give a more pictorial view of cities mainly depicted from the front (Ibid.:13). This manner of representation is also observed on the Madaba map but to a smaller degree (Ibid.:13). Yet more significant elements of the map under study, such as large cities, are usually depicted from above, which is a manner typical of a modern cartography (Ibid.:13). Additionally, all illustrated landmarks are accompanied by the Greek inscriptions for a better understanding of the picture. The writings are in different style (Ibid.:18): “black on a bright background, white on a dark background, red for texts of special importance. Some belong to cities or villages, others recall Biblical events or quote Biblical texts” (Ibid.:18).

Inferior and superior purposes of the Madaba map

The Holy Land seen in a bird’s eye view for the very first time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Even if the sixth century examples are similar in style to the Madaba map, contemporary exact parallels depicted in a bird’s eye view are not known (Donner 1992-1995:13). As far as the Madaba map’ contents are concerned, it could have been made for different purposes (Ibid.:14). One of them, although interior, “was surely the intention to offer  information for Christian pilgrims” (Ibid.:30). Herbert Donner (1992-1995:14) claims that the Madaba map itself “looks like a cartographic illustration of two pilgrims’ reports from the sixth century: the first one written by the archdeacon Theodosius, […] the other one by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, [the so-called Anonymous of Piacenza]. We may add the so-called Breviarius de Hierosolyma (Short Description of Jerusalem), […] containing only a description of the Holy City. Naturally, not everything that these reports describe can be found on the Madaba map” (Ibid.:14). Apart from being just a guide for contemporary pilgrims, one of the superior purposes of the map was “the realisation of the exceptional idea, totally unknown before the [sixth] century, to illustrate God’s salvation history in a map. On the mosaic map both Testaments […] are represented and the holy sites are [fully] displayed to the spectator’s eyes. Further purposes can be considered, for example, a clear liturgical [and symbolical] function” (Ibid.:30).

An original illustration of God’s salvation history in a map. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nonetheless, it can be concluded that the Madaba map was not just a metaphorical collections of Biblical illustrations with inscriptions but a real geographical and topographical map of the Holy Land (Ibid.:18). Accordingly, “it is not only the oldest but also the most exact map” (Ibid.:18) of the region before the appearance of modern cartography in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:18).

Madaba in the past and today

Madaba deliberately surrendered to the Muslims in 614. Consequently, the city was not destroyed and so the temple of Madaba, which was also dedicated to Saint George, may have been still used as an active church (Donner 1992-1995:14). Unfortunately, the eighth century brought an earthquake [and the fire] destroyed the temple. The city had subsequently been abandoned until the nineteenth century (Esparza 2017). “In the year 1884, when the new church of [Saint] George was being built in the place in which the old basilica stood, the mosaic was [uncovered], and incorporated in the new building across from the church’s magnificent iconostasis” (Ibid.). And even if it was made for the purposes of the early Christian Church, it is still valued in the eyes of modern pilgrims coming to the Holy Land, and visiting Madaba itself.

Christians made ten percent of the total population of Madaba and their origins reach the times of Jesus Christ. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having left Saint George’s church, we also studied another sixth century mosaic work, namely the so-called Hippolytus Hall mosaic in Madaba’s Archaeological Park. This time, however, the intricate floor mosaic was not designed for the church but for a Byzantine private villa, and represents not a Christian story, but an ancient myth. Such a melange is in abundance in Jordan and everywhere in the Middle East, where various aspects of different cultures, traditions and religions have collided or intertwined for centuries.

Featured image: Madaba Mosaics in the early Byzantine church of Saint George in Madaba, Jordan. 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.


“Madaba Map” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Donner, H. (1992-1995) The Mosaic Map of Madaba: An Introductory Guide. Palestina Aniqua 7. The Netherlands, Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Esparza, D. (2017) “The ‘Madaba Map’ is the oldest surviving original cartographic description of the Holy Land.” In: Aleteia. Available at <>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Liza B (2020) ”Madaba Mosaic Map” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

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

Mack, M. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land”. In: Stakelbeck, E. (2018) The Watchman with Erick Stakelbeck. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Raezer D., J. (2020) “Madaba Map: Mosaic of Jerusalem” In: Approach Guides. Available at <>. [Accessed 16th April, 2020].

Rogoff, M. (2013) “A Mosaic of Jerusalem on the Ancient Madaba Map” In: Haaretz. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Sani, E. (2014) “Madaba Map: The Holy City of Jerusalem” In: Flickr. Available at <>. [Accessed 15th April, 2020].

Stakelbeck, E. (2018) “The Legendary Madaba Map: World’s Oldest Map of the Holy Land” In: The Watchman. Available at <>. [Accessed 14th April, 2020].

Debate on the Paintings of Damsels Flying on the Clouds

Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.

But let’s start from the beginning

When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:

AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.

(Lucie-Smith 2003:96)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12 and ‘Last Judgement’ 1536-41 (fresco). True Fresco is a skill that dates back to Classical Antiquity but reached its peak as an art form during the Italian Renaissance. Photo source: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide.

And …

AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.

Lucie-Smith (2003:195).
Cupola decoration Inv. No. 7118 Tempera; Bawit, Monastery of St. Apollo, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Cairo, tempera). Photo source: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art.from Web Gallery of Art (1996-2020).

Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance

AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508 -1512 (fresco) The most iconic image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, also referred to as ‘The Creation of Adam’. Public domain. Photo source: “Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

“The technique [actually] involves the most durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).

Young Girl Gathering Saffron Crocus Flowers, detail of wall painting, Room 3 of House Xeste, Akrotiri, Thera. Second Palace period, c. 1700-1450 BC., Thera. Public domain. Source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]” (Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]” (Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake 2007:113).

“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).

The Minoans decorated their temple (known as palaces) complexes and homes with the so-called true fresco painting (buon fresco). Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed), c. 1400 BC, fresco. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jebulon, CC0. Public domain. Photo and caption source: Dr. Santa German, (2020). “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy (2020).

The technique of Al Secco and Tempera

Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).

Decorated prayer niche. Inv. No. 7987. Tempera Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah, cell 1725, 6th / 7th century (Coptic Museum, Coptic Cairo). Photo source: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum (2020).

TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.

Lucie-Smith (2003:213).

In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).

It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.

Wall painting flourished in Faras in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The finest monumental composition is the Nativity, once in the northern aisle … Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.
…. and the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace in the narthex. The paintings were executed in the tempera technique on dry mud plaster, using natural pigments found on the desert fringes of the Nile Valley. Photo source: the shot from the documentary by Jurkow W., Manowski R. (2014). FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube.

Major difference between the techniques

Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).

Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia

Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.

Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya

One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).

There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).

Women in the Clouds in Sigiriya: true freso or tempera? Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).

One of the most iconic Sigiriya’s murals ; the so-called Apsara or a court lady. Photo by Agnieszka Szkarłat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).

Ground for the murals

Ajanta painting. Photo source: Josh Hortman (2020). “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest.

In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.). A separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over fifty meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013). It is also worth mentioning that no trace of rock-cut stairs have ever been found in the proximity of the painted granite wall, hence ancient viewers could only observe the paintings from the ground (Ibid.). This, however, would not have been possible to do without using some type of binoculars (Ibid.). Today, on the third level of the Rock of Sigiriya, which is fenced by the Mirror Wall, there is a spiral metal staircase for modern-day visitors, so they are able to climb deeper twenty metres up to see the paintings in detail (Ibid.). But how were they reached to be admired fifteen hundred years ago?

Additionally, although there are today just few left examples of such paintings in Sigiriya, originally, it is said to have been about five hundred of similar scenes, apparently surrounding the rock like a colourful belt (Kovalsky, V. 2013).

The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya was more prepared for the technique of true fresco. Photo by Artur Maltsau (2015). Free images at Pixabay.

Pigments used

Dhanapala observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.

Ajanta caves Mural paintings- Flying Apsara (Left), Queen Sivali begin tended to by her maids (Right) . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020) . “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).

Sigiriya woman with two hands

Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67).

Mural showing the woman with the outline of the original hand and the altered one below. The artist must have changed his mind … (Image modified from the original – the size reduced). Photo source: Jenny Rainbow (2020). In: Fineartamerica.

Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.

Compromise ?

In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).

Notable Mural painting in Ajanta caves called Black Princess . Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

“No known process …”

Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).

“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”

Havel (1905). In: Dhanapala:66.
“Gallery of Art” at Sigiriya. Photo source: Dustbowl_Debutante (aka Jeanne), Joseph Cator (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery.

We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana), also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unsolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented, and the purpose they were made for at all.

Featured image: Dancer with her attendants and musicians around her, mural painting in Ajanta caves. Photo and caption source: Baani Sekhon (2020). “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point.

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.


Image: “Cupola decoration” (6th century; mural painting in Coptic Museum, Cairo) (1996-2020). In: Emil Krén and Daniel Marx © Web Gallery of Art. Available at <>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Image: “Decorated prayer niche” (Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah) (2020) In: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum. Available at <>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

“Fresco” (2020) In: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Image: Get Your Guide (2008-2020). “Private Early Morning Sistine Chapel Tour.” In: Get Your Guide. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Dalrymple, W. (2014) “The Ajanta cave murals: ‘nothing less than the birth of Indian art’.” In: The Guardian. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

De Silva, R. (2019) “The Sigiriya Ladies: Who were they, why were they painted?” Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Debutante D. (aka Jeanne), Cator J. (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery. Available at <>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Dhanapala, D.B. (Date is not provided) A Short Note on the Technique of the Sigiriya Pictures. University of Ceylon Review, pp. 64-68.

Free photo of “Sigiriya fresco” by Maltsau, A. (2015). Free images at Pixabay. Available at <>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

German S. (Dr) (2020) “Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Hortman, J. “Ajanta Paintings”. In: Pinterest. Available at < >. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Jaspal, N. (2007) “Frescoes vs Tempera”. In: Heritage Preservation Atelier. Virtus and Labor. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].

Kovalsky, V. (2013) “Chapter 2 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, in Sri Lanka: Thoughts and Impressions of My Visit”. In: Vladimir KovalSky. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

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

MacTaggart, J. (2020) “Italian Renaissance Art – Fresco Painting”. In: Artfactory. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Rainbow. J. (2020) “Apsara With Flowers. Sigiriya Cave Painting Art Print”. In: Fineartamerica. Available at <>. [Accessed on 26th February, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Sekhon, B. (2020) “Shades of Indian Women in the Art World”. In: Baani’s Art Point. Available at <>. [Accessed on 27th February, 2020].

Somathilake, M. (2007) Further Analysis on Fresco and Tempera: An Analysis of the Technique of Murals in South Asia. In: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 53, pp. 109-132.

On the Way to the Heart of Koh Ker

Increased trade contacts between Rome, India, China and Southeast Asia in the last centuries BC. resulted in international cultural exchange, including the idea of kingship (Fagan 1996-2004). Mon-Khmers groups started to absorb the idea of Buddhism or worship Hindu gods (bid.). That provoked building stone temples (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:19-20).

First Hindu shrines normally contained lingams (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). In Hinduism, the term lingam stands for the phallic symbol of the deity Shiva (“Lingam” 2021; PWN 2007:230; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48) and represents “[the idea] of ‘divine royalty’” (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48).

Map of Cambodia indicating the location of Koh Ker in relation to Angkor, near modern-day Siem Reap. Data obtained from Open Street Map. 04.04.2022.  (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2). Koh Ker is located in modern Preah Vihear province (Miura 2016:28). “More than 180 sanctuaries were found in a protected area of 81 square kilometers” (”Koh Ker” 2021).

Moats and reservoirs were constructed not only to supply water but also to represent the seat of the Hindu gods, Mount Meru, ruled by the god Indra (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47). Its earthly reflection became Angkor, the state city established in 802 AD. by the king Jayavarman II after he moved his centre from the Mekong Valley to the lands between Kulen Hills and north-western part of the Lake Tonlé Sap (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7). By then the process of unification of competing Khmer chiefdoms into the Angkorean Empire had started (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7).

In the jungle

After about two hours and 120 km drive from Siem Reap, we were slowly reaching Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site with Cambodia’s second largest temple complex plunged in the jungle (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015).

Koh Ker is situated around eighty kilometres northeast of Angkor is (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). It is an archaeological site, located in northern Cambodia, known for the ancient Khmers’ second largest temple complex and their second capital in the period from 928 to 944 AD., after when it was moved back to Angkor (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015; Fagan 1996-2004).

First discoveries in Cambodia

In the second part of the nineteenth century, two French researchers, Étienne Aymonier (1844 – 1929) and Lunet de Lajonquière (1861-1933) studied the complex of Prasat Thom and a stepped pyramid of Prang (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021). Their research was continued in the twentieth century by Georges Coedès (1886 – 1969) who claimed Koh Ker a capital of the Khmer empire (928 – 944 AD), basing on inscriptions found on site (“Koh Ker” 2021). In the 1930s, monuments in the area were documented in a number of drawings and photographs by Henri Parmentier (1870-1949) (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Henri Parmentier à Sambor Prei Kuk in 1908, Angkor, Cambodia (Archives EFEO). Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient. In: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Such fine discoveries were followed by expeditions of a more looting character, which especially intensified in the 1960s and 1970s. (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). Many stolen artifacts are now preserved by the Musée Guimet in Paris or in private collections and museums in USA (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). The problem of looting monuments in Cambodia has always been a serious problem, but was especially intensified during the civil war (1975 and 1979) (“Koh Ker” 2021; see: Miura 2016:28-31). Afterwards the field campaign at Koh Ker was continued by APSARA National Authority, along with French, Japanese and Australian researchers (“Koh Ker” 2021).

Latest discoveries

In the twenty-first century, the research was extended to 184 monuments having been studied in situ for five years since 2004 (“Koh Ker” 2021). One of the most intriguing facts about Koh Ker is a great number of temples supposedly built in the area just for two decades of the tenth century (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Yet, excavations continued between 2004 and 2015 by Cambodian and international teams confirmed by radiocarbon data and LiDAR surveys the site had been inhabited in the prehistoric and pre-Angkor periods (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2), and there was also “post-10th century development occurring at the site” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2).

King’s un/reasonable decision

In 924, for unknown reasons, King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker from Angkor, located around 60 km away (Lawrence 2020).

The Empire of Khmers with its capital in Angkor was once a dominant power in South East Asia, from 802 AD to 1431 AD (Quijada Plubins 2013). “At its peak, [it] covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam” (Ibid.). First, mainly Hinduism, then Buddhism were dominant religions in the region. (Ibid.). The Khmer were great architects and engineers. They mastered designing and building huge monumental temples with intricate carvings and sculpture – the landmarks of contemporary landscape (Ibid.). They also constructed huge reservoirs, known as baray, canals and an extensive road network with bridges (Ibid.).

Off the beaten track

The site of Koh Ker is off the beaten track for tourists (Lawrence 2020) visiting mostly the medieval capital of the Empire – Angkor. Yet Koh Ker stays one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Cambodia (Ibid.).

In the past, it was called either Lingapura (city of lingams) or Chok Gargyar (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019) – translated as a city of glance (hematite) (Jolyon, Chau 2013), or as an iron tree forest (Kàdas 2010:8-9; Sibson 2019). One of the most intriguing facts about it is a great number of temples (180 sanctuaries) built in the area just for two decades of the 10th century, especially when Koh Ker was the actual capital of the Empire (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). As the area has only been partially de-mined after the war, only a small percentage of local temples can be visited (around 25) (Ibid.)

Three small prasats in the jungle

Making its way through the heavily forested area, our bus was bumping along muddy potholed and narrow road. Every ten seconds we were jumping up on our seats. Finally, I felt sick.

‘I have eaten too much soup for breakfast this morning,’ I admitted. ‘My stomach is coming up to my throat… The bowl was too big.’

My friend, Gosia, looked at me eloquently. ‘Too big?, ’she replied. ‘You could do hand washing in it!’

I was just going to defend my gluttony when our driver suddenly slowed down and exclaimed, ‘Take a look!’. He pointed out of the window to a row of three small sanctuaries of Prasat Pram, with two structures nearby, known as libraries (Lawrence 2020). They all looked like playing hide and seek behind the green paravane of trees. Nature had already taken over the site by its green branches sprouting upwards from the temples and cascading in tangled rooting down and around the buildings.

A while after, the bus stopped and its single door opened with a squeak.

‘Here we are, ‘the guide said. ‘Half an hour for this small marvel’.

The entrance to Prasat Neang Khmau. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At once, everyone spilled out of the bus into the humid and hot air of the jungle. Anyway, after one week in Cambodia I had already got used to this tropical weather with drops of sweat running constantly down my back. It was November. The rainy season was coming to an end, still with some disturbing heavy showers from time to time. It was at once hot and cool but I preferred that over the air-conditioned temperature inside the bus.

We stood just in front of another temple, the solitary Prasat Neang Khmau. Its walls had blackened, possibly due to a fire in the forest that happened in the past (Lawrence 2020). “Despite being dedicated to Shiva, it faces west, while almost all other Shiva temples built by the Khmers face east” (Ibid.). Before we came back to the bus I climbed up the temple to look inside. The lingam altar table (yet with broken lingam) was standing there in the middle with incense sticks and flowers left there as gifts. “Furthermore, the lintel carving above the door featured a rare depiction of Brahma, though this can hardly be made out now due to erosion” (Ibid.).

On the further way to the main temple of Koh Ker, we also took a glimpse of Prasat Chen, where the masterpieces of Khmer sculpture were once discovered (Lawrence 2020), and then we stopped at Andong Peng – rectangular pond filled with water (Ibid.). The area around us was heavily forested; each element was harmoniously merging with the jungle (Ibid.).except for a narrow path boring through the green thicket. After leaving the bus behind, it became our principal guide on the way to the heart of Koh Ker.

To the heart of Koh Ker

The chief component of Koh Ker complex is made by Jayavarman IV’s state temple – Prasat Thom. However, some of its structures had already existed, when Koh Ker became the capital of the Empire in 928 (Sopheak 2020).

We were approaching it from the south-west. To the east of our path, there was the capital’s central reservoir, called Rahal Baray but we turned westwards to face a procession way going along the east-west axis (more precisely 15 degrees to the north-east), on which the main temple is arranged (Sopheak 2020). The whole complex is surrounded by the outer wall, divided further into two rectangular enclosures (Ibid.). The front one defines the limits of a moat, whereas the rear one encompasses the true highlight of the main temple – a stepped pyramid, referred to as Prasat Prang (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Generally, the main axis runs through the horizontally arranged, successive levels of the temple to finally reach seven ascending steps of the pyramid and climb up its peak – the holy of the holiest.

Central and linear

The whole complex of Koh Ker is outstanding in the background of a typical Khmer urban planning, where the concentric ground plan is dominant, that is to say, where outer courtyards completely surround the inner ones (Sopheak 2020). In Prasat Thom, however, it is more a combination of linear and concentric designs (Ibid.). Whereas the temple within the front enclosure holds a typical concentric layout, the overall plan of the complex is characterized by an axis linear plan, with its successive compounds appearing one after another, according to their growing importance on the way to the peak of the pyramid (Ibid.). It immediately brings to mind an arrangement of ancient Egyptian temples of Karnak or Luxor, where the most important sanctuary was located at the very end of the temple, and was preceded by a line of pylons, courts and passageways.

In the heart of Prasat Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The central sanctuary of the complex is known as Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020). It constitutes “an ensemble of nine Prasat towers surrounded by three enclosures. A ring of elongated buildings called libraries surrounds the core area between the first (inner) and second enclosure, [with] an impressive moat between the second and third (exterior) enclosure walls” (Ibid.).

From the outside to the inside

At the doorstep of the temple and east of the main pyramid, there are a few important constructions. Yet before entering the outer (first) enclosure, we saw the ruined but once large (first if counting from the outside) Eastern Gopuram (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020; Cunin 2019). It is a cruciform gateway tower with equilateral wings in the form of elongated buildings (palaces) on either side of the axis (Ibid.). The constructions were lighted by large windows with balusters (Sopheak 2020).

The causeway with partially fallen pillars between Prasat Kraham and the the first (outer) enclosure. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Their walls were literary being devoured by offensive branches of trees and undermined by their roots. Then, the alley was leading through the successive compounds of the complex (Sopheak 2020). The first Eastern Gopuram opens to Prasat Kraham (also Krahom) Gate Tower (Sopheak 2020; Ciccone 1998-2020). The latter is the second Eastern Gopuram but may have once been a temple on its own (Sopheak 2020). As it is built of red brick it is usually referred to as the “Red Temple” (Ibid.). Prasat Kraham is the actual entrance to the successive enclosures of the complex (Ibid.) but it is itself “located outside the temple moat of Prasat Thom” (Ibid.). Prasat Thom, in turn, “[remains the only] temple on the artificial island surrounded by the moat, [within the third (inner) enclosure]” (ibid.). In other words, it is the kernel of the concentric enclosure (Ibid.).

By Cunin (2019): 3D rconstruction of the temple complex in Koh Ker.

Accordingly, Prasat Kraham led us further. First we entered the causeway through the moat with a series of pillars along the way (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). One of its rows had already collapsed, looking like fallen dominoes. From the beneath of the bases of still standing pillars, tree roots were crawling down the path. Consequently, some of them were leaning inwards as if subjects beating nods to the passing ruler. At the end of the way, the Eastern Gopurams of the second and then the third enclosure were guiding us inwards (Cunin 2019). By these means, we found ourselves in the heart of the temple but at the same time only half-way to its sanctuary – the pyramid. And this is (apart from the Prang pyramid) what makes the plan of Koh Ker highly intriguing. Such a concentric – linear resolution in architecture must have been successful as its main concept was also later applied in a nearby temple of Banteay Srei (Sopheak 2020).

Quite complicated, isn’t it …? Hopefully, the ground plan of the complex will give you a better understanding of its layout.

By Sopheak (2020): The central-linear ground plan of the complex.

Chaotic order

In the front enclosure preceding the pyramid, there is a real variety of structures: “sanctuaries, galleries, libraries and gates. Some of them are still standing, but many have been reduced to rubble” (Lawrence 2020).

At each step we took, we encountered precious remains of sculpture, smashed into pieces, and huge blocks of stone scattered around like mismatched puzzles. Some carvings and sculpture elements of the complex have been looted (see: Miura 2016), others are fortunately preserved in museums.

When the massive ‘Prang’ finally came into view. Copyright©Archaeotravel

“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Lawrence 2020). The pyramid grew in front of us like a mountain’s peak, just at the end of the procession avenue crossing Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020).

Featured image: Sanctuaries of Prasat Pram along the access road to the heart of Koh Ker. Photo by Bluesy Pete – Own work (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Koh Ker” (2021). 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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