We were travelling in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, moving along the mountain range of Sierra Madre. The mountains climb there from 500 to 3 250 m above sea level, bringing low temperatures with frequent frost in their higher parts. For some, it does not even sound like Mexico … especially in February.
Shivering from the cold and … excitement
When the alarm rang it was 5 am. That morning was really chilly. I forcefully shivered when my feet touched the icy cold stone floor. The unpleasant feeling made me literary jumped into my shoes. Then I quickly switched on a small electric heater. The red diode came on together with a characteristic loud noise. Finally I felt a gentle blast of warm air. Still shivering I grabbed my clothes and went to the bathroom, of course, dragging the buzzing heater behind me.
With a cup of hot coffee warming up my hands, and wrapped up in my balmy cardigan, I felt much better when we finally arrived at Monte Alban. Outside it was still cold but just a thought alone about the site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery and I was ready to give up my warm seat in the car.
Like an eagle perched high-up
Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest; it is located around 1 940 m above sea level and 400 m above the altiplano of the Oaxaca Valley, which offered us breath-taking panoramic (360°) views of the horizon and so of the huge area surrounding the site (Wikipedia 2019; Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Precisely, Monte Alban occupies the meeting point of three arms of the Valley, known as the Etla, Tlocolula and the Valle Grand (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Before the fifth century BC, they were inhabited by various tribes, of which the most important was the community of San Jose Mogote in the Etla branch (Ibid.). That population is believed to have initiated the city of Monte Alban and effectively unified local tribes under their control, either by means of a peaceful alliance or by force (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
It is thought that Monte Alban had played a very important role in Mesoamerican history since its rapid development around the third century BC. Its importance ceased only in the eighth century AD, when the site was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Archaeologically, the history of the city is divided into several successive stages, such as “Monte Alban Early I”, “Monte Alban Late I”, “Monte Alban II”,“III” and “IV”, etc., which all correspond to certain periods of time, from the fifth century BC to the beginning of the fifteenth century AD (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Strom 2019). The first phases (the Zapotec dominance) correspond to the city’s cultural growth, where it had played the role of a religious centre till the eighth century AD, whereas during the last two phases the gradual fall of the city was followed by its final abandonment (Mixtec and other cultures) (Strom 2019). Only during the latter phases, the city became surrounded by fortifications (Strom 2019; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Origins shrouded in mystery
The matter of the city’s origins itself is strongly debated (Heyworth 2013). Apparently, the very first settlement appeared on the site already before the fifth century BC but with a limited population till the time when the Zapotecs grew in number and became more powerful mainly due to the mentioned centralization (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Generally, Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec empire, where approximately 20 000 people had lived at its heyday (Ibid.). Between the first century BC and the second century AD, Monte Alban developed to an influential political metropolis, being in lead within the Oaxaca region and possibly beyond it (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). We can even assume that the city owed its pivotal role not only to its central role in the Valley but also for that it was built at the crossroads of trade routes between the highlands of Teotihuacán to the west and the Mayan lowlands to the east (Ibid.).
Real architects of the city
Although it was the centralization process that eventually gave the beginning of the dominant Zapotec civilization, it does not mean that the people of San Jose Mogote were the real architects of the city (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In fact, none of the tribes in the Valley, including the initiators of the Zapotecs, had built anything that would be even slightly similar to the style of the sophisticated architecture found at Monte Alban (Ibid.). They had also been far from using such advanced engineering and building techniques as those employed in the city (Ibid.). What is even more thought-provoking is that among the construction phases of Monte Alban, the earliest ones are the most innovative (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
One of the most puzzling features of the city is the fact that it was actually built atop an artificially flattened hilltop (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Such a position could obviously provide a sense of security and make a city a fortified stronghold (Ibid.). But was it the case? In truth, a gradual development of a rather ceremonial space and the use of principles of sacred topography suggest that Monte Alban was built for quite different purposes than to play just a defensive function (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Strom 2019). Besides, as discussed above, “the city’s [fortifications] were added several hundred years after the city had risen to power” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).
Successive phases of construction
Officially, it is assumed that monumental architecture had appeared on the site since the third century BC, however, other theories say it may have happened even earlier (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Irrespective of the real time of its initiation, the city was built in successive phases (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Firstly, the hilltop must have been artificially levelled, primarily in the areas of the Main Plaza and the North Platform with the Sunken Patio (Ibid.). Then there emerged its first constructions, such as the System IV, Monticle M and J (the so-called Observatory) (Ibid.).
Monticle J aka the Observatory
Particularly the latter seizes viewers’ attention (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), especially while being observed from the bird’s eye view. Although the Monticle J was one of the first building constructed at the site, its peculiar shape (Ibid.) and “juxtaposition to the rest of the Main Plaza and its temples” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014) make it unfit to the overall plan of the city (Ibid.). The building’s “odd pentagonal shape points, literally, like an arrow to the south-west and it is believed it was deliberately designed to align with the star Capella on its heliacal rising” (Ibid.). It is supported by the fact that the Observatory’s shape itself reproduces on earth the position of five dominant stars of Auriga Constellation, in which Capella is the brightest one (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).
In turn, “the understanding of heliacal phenomena is important to the growing studies of archaeoastronomy and the history of science [in general]” (Schaefer 1987:S19) What is it all about?
Bradley E. Schaefer (1987:S19) explains that “celestial
bodies undergo periods of invisibility, when the Sun is nearby. These periods
of invisibility are bounded by the dates of the star’s heliacal rising and
setting. The star is first glimpsed during morning twilight on the date of
heliacal rising”, when it re-emerges at sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory”
2013). “The apparition […] of the star ends on the date of heliacal setting
when the Sun approaches too close to the object” (Schaefer 1987:S19), that is
to say, when the star rises after the sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).
Aveni (1978) claims that “the heliacal rise of Capella from Monte Alban
occurred on the day of the first solar zenith passagein
the year 275 B.C” (Schaefer 1987:S31), which is actually the theoretical date
of the construction of the Observatory (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). In
order to capture that event, the building was provided with the so-called zenith
tube (Ibid.) – a narrow horizontal passageway or shaft (Heyworth
“The Observatory” 2013; Strom 2019) “which only allows light to shine directly through
it on a specific day, when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky” (Heyworth
“The Observatory” 2013). That phenomenon takes place on 2nd May (Strom
 [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).
As much as the Building J proves the importance of astronomy to the inhabitants of Monte Alban, their real feat of high level engineering was achieved by the artificial flattening of the hill (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), or as we should rather say – by the cutting off the top of it in order to build the city. “The Main Plaza alone stretches for 300m from north to south and 200m from east to west” (Ibid.). Additionally, to the north of the Main Plaza, there is also the so-called Sunken Patio (Patio Hundido), which was hewed further down into the rock (Ibid.) and so “scientifically designed to reflect sound and amplify it” (Ibid.). Actually, a much easier way to achieve the same effect would be a construction of walls around the perimeter (Ibid.). Yet, for some reasons, the city architects had chosen a gargantuan task of “[digging] down into the hilltop to carve the space out” (Ibid.).
Actually, I am getting used to this ancient phenomenon of making things far more complicated than necessary. Here we can ask the question usually posed by alternative archaeologists: ‘Was it then a difficult task to them at all?’
To make the thing even more intriguing, “the Patio Hundido is replicated twice at Monte Alban with smaller scale versions known as System IV and [Monticle] M” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Furthermore, all these three patio groups are aligned in such a way to reflect not only celestial events but also to show their mutual geometric relations with other compounds of the city (Ibid.). That fact, in turn, makes the whole city “an observatory or [even a complex] celestial timepiece” (Ibid.).
Gathered evidence shows that the inhabitants of Monte Alban were able to understand and predict such celestial events “as the passing of comets, eclipses, helical risings, equinoxes and solstices” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In these terms, Monte Alban may not have been originally designed as a fortified stronghold whose function would be narrowed to controlling the region (Ibid.) “but rather [as] a sacred sanctuary dedicated to reading the celestial objects of the skies” (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, “the astronomy may have been the real reason for building on the craggy impractical hilltop – for Monte Alban is one of the few cities in the world that enjoys incredible 360° views of the horizon” (Ibid.).
Who were the Danzantes?
A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilisation (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from? Some clues are provided by other mysterious elements found at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Ibid.). These “are a series of  iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilisation of Mesoamerica, called the Proto-Mayans or the Olmecs (Ibid.).
The Olmecs and Monte Alban
Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands
of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco
states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC,
that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of
Is it just a coincidence?
Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation who later became credited with monumental architecture, used calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The anthropomorphic representation is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).
Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”
The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.
Slain captives or epidemic victims?
The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers
in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing
movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses, however, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (San Jose Magote also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).
Plague and Cloud People
If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).
Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial
obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The
Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed
above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly
influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud
People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and
hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial
Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.
Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!
On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan. On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even have been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).
Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000; Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).
One mystery leads to another
We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.
Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …
Nevertheless, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019).
One of the books I have come across while studying early Christian sculpture of Ireland, is the work written by Hilary Richardson. With the prominent High Crosses in the title, and with a depiction of a naive outlines of carved panels of the Cross of Moone on the front cover, this physically thin book, but of substantial content, is another position on a long list of academic publications dedicated to one of the most distinctive landmarks of Ireland – the so-called High Crosses. As indicated by the title of the book, An Introduction to Irish Crosses, (1990) it is just the very beginning of a long story, as if a threshold to the mystery of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Beside High Crosses figuring in the title, the book also describes a considerable number of stone slabs predating the mature sculpture of Ireland and bearing the first signs of the coming Christianity.
Just the Beginning of a Long Story
The work covers all the information in just a few pages of written text and gives basic information on the subject alongside with some interesting insights into assumed, yet controversial origins of High Crosses. Simultaneously, it can serve as a field guidebook to be with you while exploring High Crosses at first hand on various sites.
Also this is a highly illustrated book with a number of drawings and 199 black-and-white plates constituting the major part of its content, showing a variety and richness of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Interpreting a piece of art cannot be carried out without its proper image so it is essential that any description of art is accompanied by its complete illustration. Each picture from that section shows with details the same monument from various perspectives, which additionally allows a reader to see and examine particular features of sculpture on the crosses with a closer look. All photographs are also shown with a short caption. The major part of the pictures comes from the Photographic Collection of the Office of Public Works in Ireland.
As far as the composition of the book is concerned, Hilary Richardson – the author of the text, was responsible for drawings and diagrams, whereas John Scarry compiled the section with photographs. As a photographer, Scarry had been already familiar with different types of Irish monuments with High Crosses in the lead. He believed that such important monuments, as they have always been, deserved much more public attention than they had received so far. Chiefly for this reason, he engaged himself in the project together with the main author of the book, Hilary Richardson. Mostly remembered as an author of An Introduction to Irish Crosses, Hilary Richardson studied at University College Dublin together with another great specialist in early Irish art, Françoise Henry (1902–1982), whose hypotheses on the origins of High Crosses possibly influenced Hilary’s research. Hilary Richardson graduated in archaeology, anthropology and history of art, and became an academic in the Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin. She gave lectures on Irish High crosses internationally and published numerous papers on her research. She was invited at conferences in Austria and Italy, but mainly carried out her research in Armenia and Georgia.
Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars
Alongside very richly illuminated manuscripts, carved in stone Irish High Crosses are one of the finest fruits of early medieval art of Ireland, and like round towers they are the most unique free-standing monastic monuments that are dated back to the legendary Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. Apart from Ireland, they were also built on the British Islands, especially in the regions of Celtic Fringe, namely in Wales, Cornwall, Northumbria and Scotland. High Crosses largely contribute to early Christian art in Western Europe and are of international importance. They are distinguished by the diversity of sculpture and designed as paupers’ Bible by means of elaborate pictures coming from the Old and New Testament, apocryphal texts and hagiographic legends of saints, and hermits who lived in Egypt. There is also a significant number of crosses, either with just a few figurative scenes depicted in panels or with solely geometrical or floral decorations, or none of those. Christian symbols appeared first on slab stones around the early sixth century and since then they had been developed into High Crosses or the so-called Crosses of Scriptures in the tenth and eleven century, to finally give the place to the styles coming from the Continent in the twelfth century. The very shape of the ringed cross, widely known as the Celtic cross has been always strongly associated with Ireland.
Elaborated free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages
At the beginning of the book, a very basic map is provided with monument sites showing a general location of the crosses marked with numbers from 1 to 55 listed. In addition, there are County Boundaries marked with the first letter of a name for each county within the boundary, so it is easier to localise a given monument on the map. The map depiction is followed by “Preface” with a fragment taken from Pilgrimage Home by Padraic Colum (1985:78-80), giving a poetic description of an encounter with “a stone cross with a circle” and of emotions accompanying this meaningful and deep experience. In “Introduction”, the author describes the aim of this work as a comprehensive illustration given on individual features of the major Irish crosses and strongly highlights the artistic value of High Crosses in European history, as the only elaborate free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages. Hilary points to their uniqueness belonging to the Irish tradition but at the same time she reminds of their strong links with the monastery of Iona in Scotland and the Celtic monasticism in general.
As it is only a practical survey, a complete catalogue of sculpture is not intended here. Nevertheless, the material gathered by the authors is impressive and gives an idea about an abundance of stone sculpture in early medieval Ireland. By a thoughtful observation of a carving style of some sculpted panels, Hilary assumes the presence of individual schools and even the same hand of a master sculptor. As she correctly notices, in various studies on the crosses some of elements of the sculpture are outlined, whereas others rather neglected. Peter Harbison, a great scholar and specialist on Irish High Crosses is also an author of the guidebook known as Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, which is a sort of abbreviated version of the book entitled The High Crosses of Ireland published in three volumes. Likewise Richardson’s survey, a short guide by Harbison confines itself only to a group of crosses, namely those which bear figure sculpture. However, the sculpture excluded from his review has been listed by name in Appendix, at the end of the book. Richardson’s book lacks such appendix, which is a pity. On the other hand, the authors of An Introduction to Irish Crosses pay a greater attention to the detail of the panels appearing on the north side of the crosses or slab stones in the photographs, whereas in most works on High Crosses, including Harbison’s, that aspect of High Crosses seems to be neglected, apparently due to a poor lighting of that side of the monuments.
In the next part of the book, Hilary Richardson returns to the matter of an in-depth interpretation of the crosses and the symbolism expressed by their form and sculpture. The author focuses first on an a
ppearance of a typical ringed Irish cross and gives a short graphical description of its general form, breaking it into several basic parts: a stepped base, shaft, ring, and a cap stone with its different types. More detailed characterization of the particular components of High Crosses and their supposed origins are given in the following parts of the written survey, entitled “Structure” and “Interpretation of the Cross”. Yet before that Hilary explains the general meaning of the Christian cross and Crucifixion and defines their iconographical representations in the Irish sculpture from the sixth to the twelfth century. She also underlines a particular role of the Emperor Constantine in shaping such an iconography, by changing the meaning of the cross from the symbol of execution and shame into the sign of triumph and symbol of Christian faith. Constantine was also the first who introduced the use of the Chi-Rho monogram, often enclosed in a circle of a laurel’s wreath, which may be the origins of the ring encircling the arms of High Crosses, as suggested by the author.
Next part of the book is entirely dedicated to stone carving in Ireland, where the author suggests pagan origins of the free standing monuments dedicated to Christianity. The latter undeniably developed from stone pillars erected in prehistoric times. First Christian forms, like a Latin cross with wedge shaped terminals, or a Greek cross inscribed in a circle with floral characteristics predate more complex and three dimensional monuments, fully carved in the form of the cross with a free circle around its arms. The oldest examples of free-standing crosses were usually depicted among interlaced decorations in low relief and supposedly appeared first in the far-west of the country. Hilary emphasizes the fact that we are missing an absolute chronology in case of many of these stone carvings around Ireland. In her opinion, slab stones with various forms of crosses incised usually indicate the times of early monasteries, others bear engraved inscriptions in the form of short prayers, many a time including the names of deceased, which is very helpful in their dating. As far as the function of High Crosses in concerned, the author reminds that their role cannot be confined to funerary memorials only, even if some contain such indications. The question of various inscriptions and their function on different crosses are more discussed later, under the title “Inscriptions”.
Orientation and grouping
Quite significant part of the survey says on the general rule for the orientation of crosses within the plan of an early Christin monastery, as it is presented in the diagram of the eighth century Book of Mulling. That aspect is usually omitted or hardly mentioned in most studies on High Crosses. Like other scholars, Hilary Richardson also makes an attempt to categorize the crosses into several groups according to their location and style. Peter Harbison divides High Crosses into two major groups: the crosses with biblical themes, created in the midlands and in the north, from ninth to the eleventh century, and those with less emphasis on the scriptural content and with bigger figures in high relief, erected mainly in the twelfth century. Hilary Richardson’s division is more detailed. According to the author, the crosses fall into four successive groups: the Athenny and Osory Group; Transitional Crosses, Scripture Crosses, and finally Late Crosses. Her classification ranges chronologically, like in Harbison’s case, from the ninth century and the earliest ringed carvings with more abstract decorations, through the introduction of biblical scenes to the representation of large single figures, usually of Christ, a saint or a bishop, in the twelfth century.
Mysterious Eastern origins
In the section entitled “Interpretation of the Crosses”, a reader can find thought-provoking assumptions on the origins of the very distinctive characteristics of Irish High Crosses, namely the stepped base, capstone, but first of all, the ring. Hilary suggests that they all developed from artistic forms established already in the fourth century, that is to say in the times of the Emperor Constantine. The author also claims very strong links of early Irish art with Jerusalem, Georgia and Armenia, where very similar features and stone carvings appeared. Such a theory strongly distinguishes Hilary’s survey from other works. Richardson’s proposal that Celtic crosses have their close parallels in the East Christian world, especially in the Caucasus, may have been influenced by the hypothesis proposed by another specialist in the subject, Françoise Henry. The latter theorised on cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and Coptic Egypt. That controversial idea had already been argued by Arthur Kingsley Porter in the first part of the twentieth century.
Major studies in the field
In the last section of the written part of the book, Hilary Richardson gives a list of the major studies on the Irish Crosses up to the time of her own research underlying an invaluable role they played in the development of the studies. In her list of authorities, there appeared the names of such famous scholars as Henry O’Neill, Margaret Stokes, Henry S. Crawford, Arthur Kingsley Porter, Françoise Henry, and Helen M. Roe. Since An Introduction to Irish Crosses was published, however, many other scholars have become involved in the further studies on Irish High Crosses, without whom such a list will not be complete. Among them there are Peter Harbison, Elinor D.U. Powell, Ryszarda Bulas and Oliver Crilly.
From general information to the details
In the “Catalogue of Crosses and Illustrations” which follows the written part, the crosses are enumerated alphabetically, according to their location. After a short description of a monastic site containing certain High Crosses, each of them is described with the sequence : north side, south side, east face and finally west face. Successive panels are listed from the bottom upwards. Small diagrams of the crosses are also provided to assist in the identification and location of particular features or scenes. Each description of the sequential panels contains an abbreviation which stands for the initials of an author of a given interpretation. The height of the crosses is given including the base, shaft and the head. There is also a range of plates referring to every cross with their numbers given in the brackets. As the author remarks, new discoveries are constantly changing a direction of the studies. A short bibliography at the end of the book is proposed to encourage a deeper interest in the subject and its development in time.
An Introduction to Irish Crosses itself is a very important survey listing and illustrating significant stone carvings among those erected in Ireland. It is a very essential introduction, and simultaneously, a guide which should be taken for reference in studies of the monuments.
After about two hours and 120 km drive from Siem Reap, we were slowly reaching Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site with Cambodia’s second largest temple complex plunged in the jungle (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015).
King’s un/reasonable decision
In 924, for unknown
reasons, King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker
from Angkor, located around 60 km away (Lawrence 2020).
The Empire of Khmers with its capital in Angkor was once a dominant power in South East Asia, from 802 AD to 1431 AD (Quijada Plubins 2013). “At its peak, [it] covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam” (Ibid.). First, mainly Hinduism, then Buddhism were dominant religions in the region. (Ibid.). The Khmer were great architects and engineers. They mastered designing and building huge monumental temples with intricate carvings and sculpture – the landmarks of contemporary landscape (Ibid.). They also constructed huge reservoirs, known as baray, canals and an extensive road network with bridges (Ibid.).
Off the beaten track
The 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
‘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’.
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.
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). Their walls were literary being devoured by offensive branches of trees and undermined by their roots. Then, the alley was leading through the successive compounds of the complex (Ibid.). The first Eastern Gopuram opens to Prasat Kraham (also Krahom) Gate Tower (Sopheak 2020; Ciccone 1998-2020). The latter is the second Eastern Gopuram but may have once been a temple on its own (Sopheak 2020). As it is built of red brick it is usually referred to as the “Red Temple” (Ibid.). Prasat Kraham is the actual entrance to the successive enclosures of the complex (Ibid.) but it is itself “located outside the temple moat of Prasat Thom” (Ibid.). Prasat Thom, in turn, “[remains the only] temple on the artificial island surrounded by the moat, [within the third (inner) enclosure]” (ibid.). In other words, it is the kernel of the concentric enclosure (Ibid.).
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.
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.
“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Ibid.). The pyramid grew in front of us like a mountain’s peak, just at the end of the procession avenue crossing Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020).
Southeast Asian pyramid built by Mesoamerican design
What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Ibid.).
Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).
Secondly, even if the
concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the
Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at
some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear
enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).
Next, “the pyramid has seven [well-proportioned] terraces of regular height, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples [of] Bakong in Roluos and [of] Bakheng in Angkor” (Sopheak 2020).
Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.
Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.
These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).
Another megalithic site
“The artificial temple mountain [has got seven terraces. It is] dressed in sandstone is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). AfterDr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) estimates the weight of stones from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.
The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld
Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol), which would possibly make the pyramid reach the height of 64 metres (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Although, the linga had already gone, inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020). Accordingly, “the linga was dedicated prior to the construction of the rest of the temple” (Ibid.; see Sopheak 2020). Due to the lack of that element, however, the pyramidal outline of Prang is more emphasized (Sopheak 2020). Linga made of precious metal may have simply been looted (Ibid.), leaving behind a hole in the middle of the terrace, surrounded by a platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). The latter is symbolically supported by high-relief statues of life-size lions in the posture of atlantes (Ibid.). The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).
To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it.
I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe moving the capital of the Empire to the remote Koh Ker had been caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the function of the complex as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is said above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid is. And I was wondering where his inspiration came from.
The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).
Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …
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The Louvre Museum is without doubt one of the most famous and largest museums in the world. Its Department of Near Eastern Antiquities display, inter alia, 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered in 1840s by Paul-Emile Botta at the site of Khorsabad (ancient site of Dur-Sharrukin) (Joshua 2014; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). The city itself was built between 717 and 707 as the Assyrian capital in the time of Sargon II (Ibid.). The same site was harshly destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. After almost five years, it is still impossible to find words to describe the magnitude of the loss for the world’s cultural heritage …
Two sculptures brought to France from Dur-Sharrukin palace represent the so-called hero, aka Gilgamesh, choking a lion (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). His figure constitutes a part of a monumental complex of the outside façade of the throne chamber: passageways guarded by colossal lamassu and a pair of genies (Ibid.). In the central passageway, between each pair of lamassu stood Gilgamesh (Ibid.). I remember yet its white and black depiction from my elementary book. At that time I interpreted the statue through the lens of school education. So who was Gilgamesh to an eight-year-old girl? Was he a “good” king-hero who fought against “evil” creepy-crawly monsters? All his heroic deeds were known to me from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I do not remember if we thoroughly studied it at all, but even for an adult it is quite difficult stuff to follow. Instead, I mostly paid attention to Gilgamesh’s appearance: alien and sinister. His up-right, muscular, frontal figure was overwhelming with physical strength and hieratic attitude. Wild looking, wide open eyes were set in a round face covered with plaited beard, and were piercing me through. I was just sorry for the lion stuck in his iron grip. The animal’s pulled claws and his silent roar made no impression on the hunter. At that time, Gilgamesh looked to me more like a motionless robot than a “good” hero.
Years later I saw the sculpture myself in the Museum of Louvre. At that time, I studied in Paris so as a student of art history I was allowed to enter the museum after its closure, that is to say, after 9 p.m. I think it is still practiced and students under 26 are allowed to enter the museum for free when all the hordes of tourists are already gone. When I entered the courtyard to the Palace of Sargon II in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, I felt intimidated by gigantic Assyrian wall reliefs and orthostats. Here I stood alone, face to face with mythical creatures, divine heroes and winged Anunnaki. Facing one of the colossi of Gilgamesh, smarter or not, I got a very similar impression as in the time of my childhood, additionally intensified by the dimension of the image. Gilgamesh’s eyes, once brightly coloured were mesmerising with a magical impact (Olivier 2011). The hero was an incarnation of divine and royal power, and his supernatural strength was believed to have protected the palace and the royalty (Ibid.) from the evil spirits, as much as the image of Medusa’s head in ancient Greece.
As mentioned above, there are two Gilgamesh’s sculptures in the museum (Flynn 2014). Each is larger than life as they measure over five meters high. Both are represented in high relief (Olivier 2011). Unlike other characters from the orthostats, the hero is standing in a frontal position, with upper body and head facing the viewers, and with his legs in profile (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). Such a frontal representation is rare in Assyrian art and only reserved to illustrate magical beings (Ibid.). In his right hand he holds a ceremonial, royal weapon with a curved blade (harpe) (Ibid.). In one representation, he is wearing a short tunic with a large fringed shawl over it, hiding one leg and revealing the other, while in the second one two legs are visible (Olivier 2011; Flynn 2014). In the former, the lion is lifting its head and baring its teeth (Ibid.), the latter shows it biting Gilgamesh’s arm. In both cases, the lion is grasped by the left arm around which the hero is wearing a bracelet with a rosette in the centre (Olivier 2011), looking like a modern watch.
Hero or Tyrant
My feeling at the sight of the sculptures faithfully corresponded to a mythical story I learned about the Sumerian hero: Gilgamesh was a wandering god-king, tragic hero but tyrant. In his destructive desire to become equal to gods (God?), he failed the final battle for immortality and, despite his heroic deeds, he was doomed to death as all human beings.
They came from nowhere
Among numerous artefacts uncovered at the site of Dur-Sharrukin, one of the most-valuable finds was the Assyrian King List (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016). Whereas Assyria came to power in Mesopotamia only about 1900 BC, the king lists enumerate much earlier rulers of Sumer, located once in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia since at least 4500 BC. That region is commonly described as the cradle of civilization due to Sumerians’ outstanding achievements (Cartwright 2018). They appeared in Mesopotamia from “nowhere” and are believed to have invented as the first in human history writing, wheel, agriculture (irrigation), ceramic, bronze, advanced astronomy, astrology, calendar, mathematics, legal code, monumental architecture (ziggurats) and the idea of city-states (Bright, J. 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019).
The Sumerian King List
Sumerians also documented on their clay tablets the antediluvian list of demi-divine kings, identifying ten kings who lived for tens of thousands of years before the Flood (Bright, J. 2018). Similar record of extreme longevity is also found in the Bible (Noah lived for 950 years) (Ibid.). No need to say that this particular part of Sumerian “history” was automatically classified as a myth (and its biblical version was re-interpreted) (Ibid.). Nevertheless, scholars acknowledge the King List at the moment it starts with the House of Uruk – the first royal dynasty of Sumer who reigned just after the Great Flood (McLoud 2019; Kosmiczne … 2020). For ancient Sumerians, these were the greatest of all demi-divine king-heroes (c. 3800-2850 BC) (Ibid.). Assuming the List gives a right order, Gilgamesh appears there as the fifth king of Uruk who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2600 BC (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; Kosmiczne … 2020).
The fifth King: 𒀭𒉈𒂵𒈩
Evidently, there are not more “historical” records about the fifth king of Uruk than it is given by the Epic of Gilgamesh. This literary history begins with five independent Sumerian poems going back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). The Old Babylonian version (eighteenth century BC) is the first surviving version of the Epic, whereas the standard one is much later (thirteenth – tenth centuries BC). Longer, twelve clay tablet version was discovered in the Library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (seventh century BC) (Epic … 2020).
After the Epic, Gilgamesh was in two-thirds god and in one-thirds human (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As such he was distinguished to obtain lost knowledge from the antediluvian world (Epic of Gilgamesh, lines 5-9) (Ibid.). To do so he journeyed to Mount Hermon (the legendary mount between Syria and Lebanon, in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range) (Ibid.). According to the apocrypha Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) Mount Hermon was the place where a group of fallen angels – the Watchers – descended to earth, whereas in the Mesopotamian tradition it is known as the dwelling place of Anunnaki – “those of royal blood” – or in other words – sons of god (Hines 1989:73; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Are those the same?
Who were Anunnaki?
“[T]he true identity of the Anunnaki [or Annunaki] is to be found in the Eastern tradition of [demi-gods], spawned by cross-breeding between divine beings and mortal females at Mount Hermon. […] These beings are often associated with knowledge from the world before a great deluge and were later assigned roles in the underworld. This would suggest [they should properly be compared to the Nephilim and the fallen ‘sons of God’ brought up in Genesis Chapter 6]” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017; see Hines 1989).
Sons of God
In the Hebrew Bible the expression: “sons of God” appears four times and always refers to angelic beings (in Hebrew: singualr מַלְאָךְ mal’akh, plural: מלאכים mal’akhim)(Gentry 2019). Only with the coming of Christianity, the title of the Son of God has been ascribed to Jesus. The Bible says (Gen. 6:2,4):
“the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. […] The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”
As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr. Peter Gentry (2019), says: “Gen.6:1-4 is a difficult text. And as we attempt to interpret it, we should be humble because there are different interpretations that have been taken of this text.” Scholars explain the fragment: “in those days and also afterward” differently. Gentry (2019) suggests that the Nephilim had already lived on the earth “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans” and also existed after that time, so they have nothing to do with the story of the fallen angels. Others suggest that “afterward” stands for the times after the flood as the giants also appears in the Bible later on (Gentry 2019). Still the Nephilim came into existence in those days, that is to say “when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them.” (Alberino, Quayle 2016). On the other side, when taking into account the testimony of Apocrypha, “in those days and also afterward” may refer to the times of Jared, that is to say, when the fallen angels descended (Skiba 2016).
In almost all the ancient cultures, there are three recurring myths telling about ancient gods that once descended from heavens to take for themselves human women, about giants that were the offspring of the sexual relationship between the gods and earthly daughters, and about a great cataclysm – in many cases – the flood that destroyed the empire of the gods and their children (Alberino, Quayle 2016).
Ancient traditions alongside with biblical texts also give references to the way the sons of god were punished for their misdeeds (Ibid.; Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Book of Jude 6 says:
“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day”.
The same notion is supported by the New Testament (2nd Peter, 2:4, KJV) :
“God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness”.
It is noteworthy that “the word translated as hell in this verse is actually the Greek Tartarus, referencing the deepest underworld of Greek mythology—the prison of the Titans” (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Not only ancient legends support the biblical texts but also record that the gods’ offspring, the giants, shared the fate of their fathers. Most famous of all, the mythology of ancient Greeks actually repeats the same universal stories of the older Eastern traditions (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Greek Titans may stand for both: the Nephilim and Anunnaki. They all were, as the Greek myth says, the offspring of Gaia – an earth goddess (human women?) and Uranus – a sky deity who stands for heavenly beings – gods (Ibid.).
Who were the Nephilim?
“[T]he Septuagint translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים [Nephilim] and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים [gibborim – mighty men or men of renown] in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες [gigantes – giants]” (Garris 2019). “Some scholars, [like Michael Heiser (2015:107)], also think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant”(Ibid.). Biblical giants are also referred to as Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). What is the difference between those? “In spite of the flood, giants eventually made a comeback” (Ibid.). In this context, Nephilim were mostly antediluvian giants, whereas their descendants were already recorded after the flood as generations of Anakim and Rephaim (Ibid.). Although Genesis 6:4 does not describe the Nephilim as beings of great stature, Numbers 13:32-33 already gives such a narrative (Ibid.). After leaving Egypt, Israelites are approaching the Promised Land (Canaan) (Ibid.). However, Moses first sends there 12 scouts who come back after 40 days with a report about the land (Numbers 13:32-33) (Ibid.)
“The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them“.
Was then Gilgamesh a giant?
Intriguingly, there are ancient sources suggesting that Gilgamesh was actually of gigantic stature (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ugarit (lines 34-36) reveals the hero’s size (Ibid.): “Eleven cubits was his height, four cubits the width of his chest. A triple cubit was his foot and a reed-length his legs”. Accordingly, Gilgamesh would have been over five metres tall as his statue in the Louvre (Farmer, Jarrell 2017).
At this point, we should also take a closer look at Gilgamesh relief representing him while grasping a lion. Usually, an adult lion measures around three metres, while in Gilgamesh’s embrace, he looks more like a kitty. Assuming that Gilgamesh was over five metres tall, the depicted size of a lion seems more accurate (Zalewski 2017). Also the fragmentary Book of Giants found among apocrypha scrolls in Qumran enumerates Gilgamesh as one of giants (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh’s divine origins were taken either after his mother – a goddess Ninsun, or his father, or both. Although Lugalbanda (the third king of Uruk) is believed to have been the father of Gilgamesh, according to Sumerian Kings List, his true father was a spiritual being (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). As stated by the Book of Enoch, after the flood a number of dead giants was doomed to eternal exile on earth as spiritual beings. Those wandering entities have desired for revenge on God and His creations for the destruction of their world (Skiba 2016). Hence it happened they possessed human beings. Some of those may have brought Gilgamesh to life, as much as other creatures of their kind (Ibid.).
Through the Flood
According to the apocrypha Book of Giants, not only giants were the offspring of fallen angels but also animal-angelic hybrids. There was also a crossbreeding between animals themselves. Such beast-like creatures were giants’ inferior comrades (Alberino 2014). Gilgamesh himself makes friends with Enkidu – a wild man (animal-human hybrid) who apparently looked like a Minotaur.
Some entities of the antediluvian world made
through the flood along with the corrupted genome. How? There are several contingencies
The second incursion: spirit beings again got into a sexual intercourse with women and more giants were born (Alberino 2014; Garris 2019);
“Nephilim genes were passed down through Noah’s daughters-in-law. These wives of Ham, Shem, and Japheth were not descended from Noah and thus potentially had Nephilim genes in them” (Garris 2019; see Skiba 2016; Alberino 2018).
Necromancy: a genetic transmutation through the sorcery (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2016).
“The Exile of Atlantis” a theory proposed by Timothy Alberino (2018): some forbidden entities escaped the deluge by different means.
As the Epic says, Gilgamesh himself meets Utnapishtim – a survivor of the great flood whom the god Enlil saved from the waters and made immortal (Farmer, Jarrell 2017). Gilgamesh desires the immortality for himself but eventually he fails in his quest. Even if he has got divine origins, defeats Humbaba (Huwawa) – the guardian of the Cedar Forest, and slays the Heavenly Bull, he is unable to become immortal like Utnapishtim. In this context, he can be seen as acting against the postdiluvian order (Wayne 2019).
Gilgamesh aka Nimrod?
Similar attitude is expressed by another Mesopotamian king, known from the Bible (Genesis 10) as Nimrod whom other traditions also ascribe the construction of the Tower of Babel (Skiba 2016). Although the Bible calls him Nimrod, it may have been actually a nickname meaning as much as a Hebrew word to rebel or we shall rebel (Alberino 2018; Skiba 2019). Hence Nimrod is believed to have rebelled against Yahweh by building a tower (Gen:10:8-10).
“And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”.
Although he apparently came from the second generation after the flood, scholars’ attempts to associate Nimrod with historical rulers have failed (Kosmiczne … 2020). Some scholars, like Rob Skiba (2016), claim that Nimrod and Gilgamesh are actually the same, whereas scholars, like David Rohl (2015), notice parallels between Enmerkar (the second ruler from the List of Sumerian Kings) and Nimrod, as both characters seem to share several characteristics. Also Gilgamesh and Nimrod have one feature in common: they were both described as mighty ones, hunters, warriors (Wayne, Magalashvili 2016). “[All these titles derive] from Hebrew gibbor/Gibborim […] meaning [a] powerful warrior, tyrant; champion […] and can include or be a giant/Nephilim (as in Gen 6)” (Ibid.). According to the Scriptures and apocrypha tradition, however, Nimrod was not a giant originally but “[he began] to be a mighty one in the earth. In this application of Hebrew chalal means to profane and to break your word when Nimrod for some reason became a mighty one. So something mysterious happened to make Nimrod like a mighty one.” (Ibid.). A sorcery?
Irrespective of a true identity of Nimrod or Gilgamesh, it can be concluded that the ancient world just after the Great Flood may have been ruled by demi-divine gigantic beings – Gibborim who originated from the Nephilim – the extremely intelligent but wicked angelic offspring. The latter built up the antediluvian empire with the help of their heavenly fathers. After Merriam Webster Dictionary, there are a few notions of the adjective antediluvian :
Of or relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible;
Made, evolved, or developed a long time ago;
Extremely primitive or outmoded.
Due to a pejorative meaning of the last definition, people usually tend to imagine the antediluvian world as the one inhabited by primitive, wearing animal skins people who lived in the the time of general ignorance, with a very low level of technology, knowledge or progress (Alberino, Quayle 2016). Yet nothing could be more further from the truth than these stereotypes (Ibid.). Strange as it seems it was a much more advanced world than we know today (Ibid.). Although this antediluvian empire was destroyed by God and the evil was chained in the darkness, the vestiges of the forbidden knowledge introduced by the Watchers have remained in the earth together with their architecture, technology and angelic gens (Ibid.). Post-flood Gibborim, like Gilgamesh, longed for the lost antediluvian realm and so they were constantly trying to take revenge on God for its final destruction by water. They wished to regain power by means of resurrection: they would rebel against the universal order, just as their antediluvian ancestors did. The Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of the Tower of Babel teach, however, that as mighty as they were, they could not win with the Supreme.
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While working as a teacher I always used my summer holidays for study trips, and when my colleagues brought their families by the seaside or up to the mountains to relax after the whole school year, I usually went digging, measuring a church or cataloging its inventory. Always non-profit. Anyway, it was my choice and the only chance I could entirely dedicate my time to my passion.
One Trip After Another
After one week trip to Tri-City (Pomerania, Poland) in July, organised by Wrocław University, some of my school mates prolonged their stay on Hel Peninsula to enjoy its long sandy beaches. Contrary to others, I decided to grasp another opportunity for getting closer to archaeology and I left for … Turkey. After travelling across the whole Poland, I finally reached my hometown, where I repacked my stuff from my backpack in a suitcase, and two days later I was already at the airport.
Land Full of Archaeological Treasures
Turkey is famous for its archaeological treasures. I joined there my friends who had chosen Anatolia for their holidays. After visiting together Istanbul and Ankara, “we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock … like the ruins of some great and ancient city” (W.F. Ainsworth in Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). We had just reached Cappadocia …
Abstract Art of Cappadocia
Lying southeast of Ankara, it is one of the most remarkable area in Turkey and most frequently visited places in the whole world. Since the early eighteen century, its magical moonscape landscapes have astonished travellers and writers – so unusual are its rock patterns (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Cappadocia looks like “a phantasmagorical world where rocks shaped like stepped ziggurats, towers, spires, minarets and cones jut upward into the blue sky” (Ibid:58). Some of these formations grow out of the ground individually or in a few and are characterized by more erosion-resistant basalt caps in the upper part, which gives them the shape of cones imposed on slender like chimneys trunks of soft tufa. Some even compare the latter to penis heads (Pyrgies 2015:31). Clustered together, the rocks sometimes look like an army of crouching dwarfs wearing pointed hats, others – hill-like formations – resemble more “sandcastles melted by an incoming tide” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Such a diversity of shapes became an inspiration for Bronze Age discs – an excellent exemplum of abstract forms of a human body in art (Pyrgies 2015:31; see Noble 2003:40-42).
Grotesquery of the Region
Geologically, Cappadocia is millions years old. It was formed as a result of eruptions of the volcanoes: Hasan Dağı and Erciyes Dağı. Their lava mixed with thick layers of ash changed with time into soft rock, called tufa (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Then an artist came and sculpted a grotesquery of the region. Its name was natural erosion. A painter – natural light – added the pink flush of dawn or dusk and magnified natural colours of stone valleys, vibrating under its subtle touch (Ibid:58). Then people appeared in the valleys, especially in the area of today towns of Göreme, Ürgüp, Nevşehir, Zelve and Avanos. They gauged and “hollowed out the tufa [formations] into honeycombs of rooms for everyday living […]” (Ibid:58), and with the fourth century, hermitages and monasteries for worship (Ibid:58).
Place for Religious Retreat
Greek Christians who chose Cappadocia for their retreat followed the monastic idea promoted by Basil, the Great, a hermit and the bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Considered the father of monasticism of the Byzantine Church, Saint Basil (Ibid:58), likewise the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, believed that a monk’s life should be filled with work and contemplation. Nevertheless, Cappadocian monasticism was based primarily on coenobitic life (community life), which Saint Basil considered the only proper monastic way, unlike the Egyptian anchoritism (recluse) (Telepneff 2001:24-26, 36; Rops 1968:606-607; Zarzeczny 2013:39-40).
Rock-Cut Christian Churches
With Christian communities’ grow in the Middle Ages, rock-cut Cappadocian churches developed out of early monastic dwellings and there had been over 300 of them by the end of the thirteenth century (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60). The internal architecture of freestanding churches was copied by carving out all the features out of soft rock: “domes, apses, barrel-vault ceilings, and columns, arches and even tables and benches” (Ibid:60). Supporting functions of such elements as columns seem so realistic that it is still surprising to see a stalactite-like column hanging from the ceiling since its base “has been worn out completely away” (Ibid:60). The churches, especially their interiors, are also richly adorned with Byzantine wall paintings representing Christian symbols: from early russet-coloured various patterns drawn directly on the rock to more elaborated and colourful biblical depictions and portraits of saints (Ibid:60). The latter had appeared in Cappadocia since the tenth century onward and were made already on dry plaster (secco) (Ibid:60).
Open Air Museum
Most famous churches are still visible in Göreme, known for this reason as an “open air museum” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Most famous are the Elmalı Kilise (Church of the Apple), the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church – because of the looking like a snake, dragon being killed by Saint George), and the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) (Ibid:60).
In the course of the fourteenth century, when Cappadocia was already under Turks, the range of Christianity began to shrink and eventually, in 1922, the Greek were expelled from the country (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Nevertheless, Cappadocian “houses” have continued to be used by local communities (Ibid:60).
Apart from Christian dwellings, archaeologists encountered other earlier constructions but deep underground (Kosmiczne opowieści 2019). In total there are 36 known subterranean cities in central Anatolia but only four of them are open to the public, like Kaymakli and Derinkuyu (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). The most extensive and intriguing of all is definitely Derinkuyu, which means in Turkish a deep well (Dunning, Ogun 2018).
Likewise the Hypogeum in Malta, it was uncovered by accident in 1963, at the occasion of refurbishing one of local houses. A demolition of one wall opened the entrance to the tunnel going deep down to the underground, and branching into multiple corridors and chambers (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). After wide excavations, it turned out it was just a part of a huge honeycomb city located on more than eight successive levels and reaching underground up to sixty metres down. Underground cities could once have been connected as one of the tunnels inside Derinkuyu (nine km long and extremely narrow) is said to lead to another underground complex (Dunning, Ogun 2018).
Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock. They seemed to lead a typical life but underground. In their mysterious city, there were spaces of different everyday conveniences: dining rooms, wine presses, cellars, warehouses, animal enclosures, schools and places of worship (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). For lighting, in some parts people are believed to have used olive lamps, which could have been placed in special niches (Kosmiczne … 2019). Still such niches are missing elsewhere, and on deeper levels torches or lamps would not work due to limited air sources and so the question of the lighting system inside the city has not been entirely answered. It Is obvious, however, that without any artificial light the underground would be just pitch-dark (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The access to fresh water was provided by the well built under the lowest level and taking water from the river flowing under the surface of the city. In order to prevent the water being poisoned, the river’s flow was checked at the level of the lower floors and in the event of danger, the access of water to the upper floors was cut off (Kosmiczne … 2019). Moreover, the city was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to force people to leave it either by means of fire or water (ibid). There were three main entrances to the underground, which in case of danger could be closed only from the inside with round basalt boulders (one meter in diameter, up to 500 kg in weight). Such megalithic doors were placed on rollers and also led to subsequent levels, thanks to which each of them could be closed separately (Ibid). City residents could also communicate with each other at a distance, using miniature shafts with a section of 10 cm (Ibid). The entire ventilation system consisted of thousands of long vertical shafts (52 known in total) that supplied air to the deepest and most distant rooms (Ibid). What is quite interesting, the shaft chimneys sticking out on the ground resemble the shape of bull’s horns (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The builders (whoever they were) also took care of the air conditioning: in the summer, there was about 15 °C in the inside, and in the winter the temperature did not fall below 7 °C (Kosmiczne … 2019).
Nobody knows who built this intricate subterranean complex, why and how.
WHO and WHEN?
This matter is still very controversial and there are many hypotheses about who was the author of Derinkuyu (Kosmiczne … 2019). As other stone structures, Derinkuyu cannot be dated, which is why archaeologists usually attribute similar structures to cultures having inhabited a given area (Ibid). Academics generally claim the construction of Derinkuyu was built either by the Phrygians (the twelfth – seventh century BC) or by an earlier culture – the Hittites (1600 BC – the twelfth century) (Ibid). Although the Phrygians are mostly considered as the authors of the city, and the construction itself dated back to the eighth century, the finds of Hittite artefacts (the thirteenth – twelfth century) in the city’s tunnels leave this question still open (Ibid).
Moreover, there are also much older Palaeolith tools excavated that date back to around 10 000-12 000 (History 2018). Irrespective of these finds, some scholars suggest that some part of the complex was just started by one of these ancient cultures but then widely expanded only by Christians who were forced to protect themselves underground in great numbers (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such an explanation is, however, less possible as the whole complex is architecturally consistent. And even if Christians had found there their long time refuge and adapted it to their use by creating (or just modifying) rock-cut spaces, such as the so-called “cathedral”, they could not expand the city to such a degree as it is known today (Ibid). The oldest identified account of underground cities in Cappadocia comes from 370 BC and was written by a Greek historian from Athens, Xenophon (Kosmiczne … 2019). His account comes from the work of Anabaza, where the author mentions people living in large, underground houses, along with their livestock (Ibid). After historians, the city was already used during the Roman Empire, and then by Christians as a place of refuge during invasions of Mongols and Arabs (Ibid). According to an alternative theory, the builders of Derinkuyu were representatives of a lost, highly developed civilization, which was destroyed about 12,000 years ago by a huge cataclysm (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019; see Hancock 2016).
Derinkuyu, like other similar constructions in Cappadocia, is believed to have been built as a war shelter for thousands of people looking for a shelter from Arab invaders (Kosmiczne … 2019; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). However, these are only speculations, not facts.
The primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, Avasta (in the Wendidad part), mentions the first king of mankind who was warned by the god Ahura Mazda of the coming catastrophe of long-time and evil winters (Kosmiczne … 2019; see Hancock 2016). Thus, the god recommends building a great Vara (in Persian mythology an underground shelter) and let in a pair of seeds from each animal and plant on earth, as well as a number of carefully selected people who would re-populate the land when winter passes away (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). With some exceptions, the story is remarkably similar to the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, and other myths about a great cataclysm and a god saving the earthly life (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). Supporters of the theory of the lost ancient civilization relate the description of harsh winters to the last Ice Age (younger dryas lasting from around 10 850 B.C. to around 9700 B.C.) and associate Derinkuyu with the ancient Vara (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). For these reasons Persians claim such multi-stored subterranean cities were built by their ancient ancestors (Dunning, Ogun 2018).
First of all, Derinkuyu construction amazes with its craftsmanship and highly functional, architectural elements. Like other structures in Cappadocia, the city was made of soft volcanic rock – tuff (Kosmiczne … 2019). Therefore, builders had to be very careful while building the underground chambers and had to make sure they would carve out strong and well-balanced columns to maintain the pressure of the upper floors (Ibid). One structural engineering mistake would be enough to cause a collapse of the entire city (Ibid). Secondly, it is noticed that to construct such functional elements as wells and ventilation shafts, the builders would need a special machinery or tooling to drill deeply and precisely in the rock (by the way, no tools have been there found there so far) (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Next, It is estimated that over million and half square metres of rock was removed to construct the whole complex (History 2018). However, there is no trace of the extracted material in the area (Ibid). Finally, in Turkey there are multiple fault lines (a line on a rock surface or the ground that traces a geological fault) generating earthquakes, except for one region, which is in central Anatolia, especially around Cappadocia (Dunning, Ogun 2018). It is not surprising then that such elaborate and deep subterranean complexes were carved out just in the area that has not posed a threat of earthquakes which can easily destroy the underground warrens of tunnels and chambers. The most important question is how their builders knew about that phenomenon (Ibid).
One of the creepiest places
Without doubt, Derinkuyu belongs to most fascinating but also creepiest sites I have ever been. The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. It’s an amazing place to get in but it is not proper for asthmatics, people with heart deceases and claustrophobic issues or those with limited mobility (Dunning, Ogun 2018). While walking down to deeper levels, it is more difficult to breathe and passages getting more and more narrower (Ibid). The tunnels of the city measure approximately 160 cm high (Kosmiczne … 2019) and if you are taller you need to constantly bend over to pass through from one chamber to the other (Dunning, Ogun 2018). So far archaeologists have excavated the city reaching down to its eight floor but there are possibly even eighteen in total (Ibid). However, no archaeologist has explored it yet directly or indirectly by means of robotic probes (Ibid).
Here comes a fairy tale …
Now goes the part I like most: an oral tradition. Local people usually describe the region of Cappadocia as the land of fairy chimneys (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58; Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such a name may refer to “fairy” natural formations of Cappadocia – according to tour books (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58) or, as villagers believe, to the underground constructions, which were actually built by fairies (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The latter are usually describe as very tiny people resembling Tolkien’s hobbits but with fiery red eyes (Ibid). Some local villagers claim they caught a glimpse of such a creature underground (Ibid). Still such beings could only work by night as they suffered from the daylight (Ibid). This is why, the fairies once lived (or still live) in the deepest and narrowest levels of the subterranean cities (Ibid). According to the same source, the complexes were actually built from the bottom upwards, first by the fairies from the Inner Earth and then, at the higher levels, by people who consecutively adapted them to their use and widely enlarged (Ibid).
The Dead End
Is it a fairy tale? Most people in answer would shrug or call it an old wives’ tale. A more scientific theory than that states Derinkuyu was built from the top to bottom (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The case is, however, the same theory goes to the dead end while archaeologists are trying to localise the “bottom” (Ibid). We know the deeper the city goes down, the narrower its chambers and tunnels become but nobody yet has reached their final end, still hidden deep down …
It was already late when we all were sitting in one of numerous pubs filled with typical of Cappadocia atmosphere of small villages lost among tufa rocks and their multiple shapes. At that time I was not sure anymore if all of these stories I heard were just made-up or maybe I had drunk too much beer … Still I trusted Lord Richard Croft’s words: “Well, all myths have foundation in reality” (Tomb Raider 2018).
The Anatolian night was flickering to me with its stars. Tomorrow was going to bring another mystery.
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After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum (also known as Axum). While we were approaching to the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.
Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabeans period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, which capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).
Yet before the fourth century and the first
Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Axum had a complex social hierarchy [:]
an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as
wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as
small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that
the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments
known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).
Central Stelae Park
The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165). Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down. “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).
Afterlife Palace of the Kings
As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” Nos one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Finneran 2007:168). As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).
“Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).
The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one
weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to
have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from
the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon
Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never
successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:1650. “The Great Stele was carved on all
four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).
“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).
Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).
With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).
The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …
Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the cemetery, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.
Stelae and stelae …
Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diversely decorated, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field) (Foerster 2016; Finneran 2007:172-173). There are also groups of stelae unique to the south of Ethiopia, with a similar funeral function but strikingly different features and iconography. They mostly appear in the region of Soddo and are referred to as the stones of Gragn (see: Language of the Megalithic Tiya).
‘Is it possible that the royal and more elaborated obelisks from Aksum are far older than presumed?’, wonders Foerster (2016). He suggests that ‘some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]’. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs themselves.
When did the tradition start?
On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).
I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut. This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multiton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.
Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite
Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology
& Ethnology. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aLucZt>. [Accessed on 26th
Connah, C. (2016) African Civilizations: An
Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Foerster, B. (2016) “The Amazing Megalithic
Obelisks Of Axum In Ethiopia” In: Inca Hidden Tours. . Available at <https://bit.ly/36s5iKQ>. [Accessed on 26th
Sullivan, K. (2019) “The Kingdom of Axum: Facts
and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse.” In: Ancient Origins. Available
at <https://bit.ly/2O2Er1w>. [Accessed on 26th
Finneran, N. (2007) The Archaeology of
Ethiopia. New York and London: Routledge.
 The title of the article refers to the idea of Giulio Magli (2009:56-57; Chapter 3.3 “A Temple in the Negative) that the Hypogeum mirrors a Maltese temple in the negative, as it is underground.
When you would like to tell a story, you usually start from the very beginning. Still I am not quite sure where that “beginning” is. Anyway, for me it starts with a study trip on the island of Malta. It is a relatively small archipelago located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, and it is composed of three islands of a different size: the largest Malta, medium Gozo and the smallest Comino. Above all, it is a popular holiday destination stormed by hordes of tourists every year. Most of them finish their adventure on the crowded, many a time rocky beaches, enjoying warm sea and daylong sunbathing. More curious visitors overcome the summer heat and abandon the coast to plunge in Maltese stories from the past. In my case, the latter choice was glaringly obvious. Before I landed on the island, first I took a flight from Ireland to Poland to spend at least one week with my family. It is not so reasonable to choose the month of August for exploring the island but it was because of the summer break at my university and the only available time to take my annual leave.
Welcome to the Island of Giants
When my friend and I landed after two hours on Malta International Airport in the town of Luqa, I felt a very pleasant sensation of butterflies thrilling in my stomach. I had done some research on Maltese history beforehand and I just could not wait to verify all this information in practice, which turned out to be not as simple as I thought. Because of an unpredictable delay (still very typical of the island) and fierce heat of the sun, we reached our air-conditioned hotel in La Valletta completely exhausted and sweaty like after a workout. I dumped the luggage on my bed and walked out on our tiny balcony overlooking the port bathed in navy-blue waters and the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, looming majestically large on Valletta’s skyline. I was just enchanted with the orange colours of the city, strengthened by the light of the afternoon sunlight.
Our tour itinerary around the archipelago was stuffed to the gills and we got just a few days to realize it. The history of Malta is a long and compelling story dating back as it seems to the dawn of civilization but nobody knows when it actually started. Like in the case of other Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus, archaeologists enumerate several stages of its timeline: first, there was the Paleolithic, then Neolithic period (traditionally called the New Stone Age) with the remains of mysterious megalithic temples, then the Phoenician, the Carthaginian, the Roman and the Byzantine (Visit Malta 2018). Christianity was brought to Malta in 60 AD by St. Paul himself who was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome (Ibid.). The Moors conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and had ruled over it until 1530 A.D., when Malta got into the hands of Sicily (Ibid.). The Emperor, Charles V handed down the island to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem, after they were forced to abandon their previous seat on the island of Rhodes, overtaken by the Turks (Ibid.).
The Joannites or Hospitallers, since then also called the Maltese Templars, governed Malta from 1530 to 1798 (Visit Malta 2018). The Knights made it a cultural and artistic hub of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ Europe, and it was marked with the presence of such artists as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray, commissioned by the Knights to embellish their Baroque churches and palaces (Ibid.). Nowadays, Malta is usually known for its bastioned fortifications of Birgu and Valletta, consisting of towers, batteries, redoubts and entrenchments, which are also characteristic of the Knights’ medieval defences on the Island of Rhodes (Ibid.). In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt (Ibid.). The French presence on the islands was short, as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800 (Ibid.). British rule in Malta lasted until 1964, when Malta became independent (Ibid.). Still the Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education, legislation and left-hand driving with a steering wheel on the right-hand side … (Ibid.). Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004 (Ibid.).
So much official history. Let’s go beyond it and investigate what hides in the legends.
My study focused on the Neolithic Malta and its enigmatic megaliths scattered around the islands of Malta and Gozo that I wanted to explore during my short stay.
Next day, we caught a taxi to Paola, a town in the South Eastern Region of Malta, around seven kilometres away from La Valetta. We were to get there at 10 AM sharp. I had registered online for two entries to one of the most mysterious monuments in Europe, or even in the world. Access to the site is highly regulated (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Magli 2009:56). You are not allowed to take anything with you on a tour, such as bags, mobiles or cameras (Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). Before it starts, you need to leave all your stuff in the locker. Instead, you are provided with an audio-lingual guide with headphones. You are not allowed to either take pictures, film anything or even speak, and all the time you are accompanied by a silent guide leading the group (Magli 2009:56; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016).
Visits are limited to six times per day for 10 people at once. For those who turn up on site without a pre-booked ticket, it will be impossible to enter, unless somebody else cancels the tour, which is quite unlikely. The site had been closed since June, 2016 and reopened on May 15, 2017 with tickets available online from Heritage Malta’s website and from Fort St Elmo or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. As it was advised, we got there 15 minutes in advance. We stood in front of a inconspicuous semi-detached house with walls painted yellow and white, a door, small window and a garage. The only thing informing us it was the right address was the writing above the entry, saying: HYPOGEUM (Ibid.).
Positive and Negative of the Temple
In 1902, an intriguing discovery was made. Workers building the foundations of an apartment block accidentally broke through the stone layer and unearthed the underworld construction, which according to some experts should be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Haughton 2009:161-169; Pace 2004:3-9). It displays similar features as other megalithic temples in Malta but in the negative, mirroring the overground architecture of megalithic temples (Magli 2009:56-57).
The subterranean version has been carved down in the living rock and its shape has been obtained by removing over two thousand of limestone out (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Pace 2004:14; Magli 2009:56). The whole complex is composed of three successive levels (Pace 2004:23-45; Tajemnice Historii 2016). One of the authors studying the construction has imagined it as three Stonehenge complexes set on the successive levels, one above the other, and underground (Tajemnice Historii 2016). The subterranean temple is called Hypogeum Hal-Saflieni, where the name hypogeum relates to an underground burial chamber (Magli 2009:57). According to archaeologists, it dates back to the period around 3300 – 3000 BC, or slightly earlier, which was called after the site, the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory (Pace 2004:10-20; “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” 2018).
The refurbished visitors’ centre will help bust these myths.
Before we descended to the underground, we did a very entertaining virtual tour of the underground cemetery with a video scenes sliding over the walls of the exhibition area, presenting an alleged history of the site’s construction.
At the same time, the authors of the film try to persuade the visitors that a group of stone age farmers, armed only with primitive tools were able to accomplish such an architectural feat (Alberino, Quayle 2016). What is more, there are also some posters on the walls recalling major mysteries on Hypogeum just to deny them entirely and replace them with the mainstream history.
Inside the Giant Bell
When we finally descended underground I was immediately struck by a gloomy atmosphere (Ancient Code Team 2018; Cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016). It was not only the fault of natural darkness but some kind of irrational anxiety (Ibid.). Architecture critic, Richard Storm says that this strange sensation is because “you [feel] something coming from somewhere else you [cannot] identify, [and so] you are transfixed” (Ancient Code Team 2018). It was like being inside a giant bell with multiple opening leading deeper down in the unknown abyss (Ibid.). According to such researchers as Timothy Alberino and Steve Quayle (2016), it is more like a crypt than a temple. “Inside, […] there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes on when the guide enters the area and goes off when [they leave it] so the whole group must follow close behind” (Magli 2009:56). Any self-guided tours are forbidden so you cannot explore the site on your own and only two upper levels are accessible for the groups. The lowest part of the Hypogeum mustn’t be visited.
Within the bell like gorge, archaeologists have uncovered tombs and a few rooms of different size and unknown function (Magli 2009:49). The Upper Level is believed to be the oldest; it is placed three metres below the street level (Pace 2004:24-26). Standing at the highest point of a walkway, I could get a bird’s eye view of it (Ibid.:47). “A [large] monumental trilithon still stands to the north of the main passage” (Ibid.:25-26), as a part of a larger structure that had already disappeared (Ibid.:25-26,47). There are also three roughly cut tomb chambers with low headroom and a group of similar cavities that lead to the so-called cistern reaching a depth of almost eight metres (Ibid.:24,26,47). One of the chambers still contains a deposit of earth and human remains (Ibid.:47). Around one can also discern some cists, a regular circle and tethering holes cut in the rock, like in the temples on the surface (Ibid.:47).
The Middle Level reaches eight metres below the street and features magnificent skills in stonework (Pace 2004:24,26-44,47-48). It is divided into three successive zones (Ibid.:24,26-44,46). There are several important rooms, such as the Main Room or Chamber, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room or Chamber (Ibid.:24,26-44,46-48). Zone A contains the Main Chamber, which is roughly circular with a number of trilithon entrances, some of which are blind, and others leading to another chamber (Ibid.:27,29-48). The entire space is decorated with an arrangement of vertical and horizontal curves and most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre (Ibid.:21,30,36-37,48). The walls’ curves altogether create a visual play on a viewer that can be compared to the effect of “fish eye” camera lens (Ibid.:30,48). From the Upper Level, the Chamber can be seen through the mentioned already circular opening above (Ibid.:48).
Zone B is characterized by a large elliptical chamber with two cavities or pits of an unidentified purpose (Pace 2004:48). One of them is sometimes referred to as the Snake-Pit and reaches two metres down (Pace 2004:37-39,48; Haughton 2009:163; Bradshaw Foundation 2017). Inside the pit a mysterious statuette of the Sleeping Lady was possibly found (Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta) (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163). As Giulio Magli (2009:47) writes “she sleeps, serene, pleased by her own exaggerated sensuality, exaggerated by our aesthetic canons, of course to the extent that many call her by the rather disrespectful name of the ‘Fat Lady'”.
Alongside the same pit, there is a shaft leading to the lowest (known) part of the Hypogeum, carved down over ten metres below the street level (Pace 2004:24,44-45,48; Haughton 2009:164). The ceiling of the Chamber in Zone B is elaborately decorated with a series of spirals, polygons and a plant-like paintings made with red ochre (Ibid.:48). This is why that area is usually referred as the Holy of Holies (Ibid.:48). The space comprises a finely carved replica of a temple façade, featuring a partially corbelled ceiling (Ibid.:48). “Opposite the Holiest of Holies lie a monumental entrance and seven steps leading to the Lower Level” (Ibid.:48). The passage, however is closed for the Hypogeum’s visitors (Carabott 2017).
Zone C features the most mysterious of all, the Oracle Room – unevenly rectangular, long chamber with a ceiling decorated with spirals in red ochre with circular objects looking like discs (Pace 2004:39-41,48). One of the smallest side chambers has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from only a male vocalization made inside it (Pace 2004:40,48; Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Namely, any sound made by male voice (it is said that there is no such an effect in case of a female voice) is carried around the entire complex and even through the walls (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Its vibrations can be felt anywhere in the whole complex with the same strength as in the Oracle Chamber (Tajemnice Historii 2016; Alberino, Quayle 2016). Apparently, the Hypogeum’s creators were specialized in acoustics, which amazes mainstream scholars who still call the hollow a primitive amplifier and believe it was once used by an oracle (Alberino, Quayle 2016).
The mystery also involves the Lower Level that could also be once explored by visitors but now it is not allowed for the public. It is estimated that the lowest part of the Hypogeum consists of a maze of chambers, which were filled with water at the time of their discovery in the early twentieth century (Haughton 2009:164). According to mainstream academia it contained no bones or offerings, only water (Haughton 2009:164-165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). The accumulation of water has been thus considered a legitimate function of this level in the time of the Temple Period, as it was the case in Knossos, Crete, between 2150-2000 BC. (Haughton 2009:165). Archaeologists also strongly suggest storage, possibly of grain (Haughton 2009:164-165; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Water and storage of grain?! Quite unusual …
The Lower Level is said to date back to the period between 3150 and 2000 BC. (Haughton 2009:164), so it would be the latest of all the levels, as according to archaeologists, the Hypogeum was started to be carved from up down to the Lower Level, where it ends (Pace 2004:23-27). But what if the Hypogeum does not end there but its corridors lead further underground, as some records tell? As a matter of fact, some alternative scholars suggest rather the opposite direction of cutting the structure out of the rock, starting from a natural cave or subterranean tunnels existing beneath the island. That in turn would involve a wide exploitation of the natural cavities by the temples’ builders who would have mastered a very high level of engineering to carry out such works deep underground. Scholars agree yet that the entrance to the Hypogeum may have originally led through a temple on the surface, that would have once existed above the Hypogeum, and would have been similar to those still existing on the island (Ibid.:23-27). Such a structure would be then either a threshold to or a final destination on the way up through the underground labyrinth.
Anyway, not without a surprise, the lowest level of the Hypogeum played the key-role in various stories I will come back to later.
“Long-Skulled” … ?
The purpose of the Hypogeum is unknown: it may have originally been a temple, where some kind of ceremony took place, maybe the cult of ancestors (Haughton 2009:165). This theory can be supported by features of the Oracle Chamber or figurines found in situ (Pace 2004:22,40). Surely, at some point, the complex started to play a role of a huge necropolis and a collective burial chamber (Haughton 2009:165). Many rooms discovered to be filled with bones of thousands of people (Ibid.:165). The leading archaeologist working on the site, Sir Zammit, estimated there were over seven thousand skeletons in the Hypogeum, major number of which was placed just at the original entrance to the underground (Magli 2009:57; Peregin 2017; Tajemnice historii 2016). It is believed the corpses were left there to undergo the state of decomposition (Tajemnice historii 2016; Magli 2009:57). Only then, the bones were placed in the niches (Pace 2004). In this case, the necropolis stage of the Hypogeum must have followed that of a temple (Haughton 2009:165; Cf. Magli 2009:57). At some stage of archaeological works, the skeletons must have been removed to the Museum’s storage (Alberino, Quayle 2016).
Furthermore, among the found skeletons, some show definite anomalies, unlike any ancestor on the evolutionary scale (Steve 2016; cf. Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014). Namely there were at least six skulls looking strangely abnormal (Burns 2014; Alberino, Quayle 2016). The fact is also reported by an article by Griffith, Malta, Halting Place of Nations, published in a National Geographic magazine from May, 1920 (Roma 2017). In the article, the author describes the ancient inhabitants of Malta as a race of “long-skulled” beings (Ibid.):
From an examination of the skeletons of the polished-stone age, it appears that the early inhabitants of Malta were a race of long-skulled people of lower medium height, akin to the first people of Egypt, who spread westward along the north coast of Africa, whence some went to Malta and Sicily and others to Sardinia and Spain.
Apart from National Geographic magazine, there were also other publications on the subject as it seemed to be a worldwide known phenomenon. In the process of archaeological preservation starting in 1903, the bones were removed from the Hypogeum and placed in the storage, whereas the elongated skulls were put on a public display in the Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Burns 2014; Ancient Code Team 2018). From there they suddenly disappeared sometime after 1985 (Alberino, Quayle 2016; Ancient Code Team 2018).
Apparently, the same had happened to the seven thousand skeletons which have not been seen again since the World War II finished (Burns 2014; Carabott 2017; Roma 2017; Ancient Code Team 2018). After their disappearance from the public view, mainstream academia has done its best to erase their existence from the records, simultaneously undermining excavation results made by one of the greatest researchers in Malta, Sir Themistocles Zammit (died in 1939), who has been revered as the father of Maltese archaeology (Pace 2004:8-9). Actually he took over the research in the Hypogeum after Manuel Magri (Ancient Code Team 2018). The latter was a pioneer of Archaeology and Jesuit priest (Pace 2004:7). Magri had been in charge of the excavations since 1903 till his death under suspicious circumstances, just before the publication of his excavation report in 1907, which has never been found (Ancient Code Team 2018). As a result of on-going covers-up, “many people remain skeptical about elongated skulls, and every time such remains are found people tend to categorize them as a hoax or result of head binding. Still the elongated skulls in Malta are anything but ordinary” (Ancient Code Team 2018). The skulls were first examined in 1912 by archaeologists and it was recorded they have significantly differed from normal human skulls (Ibid.). In fact, their existence and anomalous characteristics became well documented before they disappeared (Ibid.). There are texts and images of the skulls made by Dr Anton Mifsud, and his colleague Dr Charles Savona Ventura, before their removal from the Museum (Ibid.). They detail the skulls’ “numerous, strange characteristics, such as elongations, drilled and swollen occiputs and strangely developed temporal partitions, which are unlike any known human race on the planet” (Ibid.). Recently, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture “has downplayed the mystery [of the skulls, saying that they] are not even elongated and are frequently made available to researchers” (Peregin 2017).
“Yes a lot of requests have been made in the past 10 years. Most people request to look at them. Since they are not on display, Heritage Malta gets them out of storage and officials from the Agency accompany the visitors during the whole stage. As a rule, permissions are only granted to researchers” – the spokesperson said (Peregin 2017). “Once [researchers] realize that the skulls are not, in fact, elongated, most people subsequently drop their request” (Ibid.)
Do they, indeed? Well, in answer to one of such a scientific request, an independent researcher, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, has been privileged to see the skulls and he has not left the Museum disappointed (Burns 2014). He was invited by Vanessa Ciantar, the curator at National Museum of Archaeology in Malta, who turned out to be very helpful in explaining all the details connected with the mysterious bones (Ibid.). There have been five skulls on the whole presented to the researcher, at least one of which was definitely elongated and lacking the Fossa media – the join that runs along the top of the skull in case of regular human skulls (Ibid.). Accordingly, it cannot have been artificially elongated but only natural (Ibid.). The Curator, herself, pointed to the fact that the middle suture is completely fused and cannot be seen even when the skull is observed from the inside (Ibid.). Moreover, the eye sockets of some skulls have seemed exceptionally large (Ibid.). So which is the true version then? And why are the skulls not on display? (Ibid.).
‘They are not on display yet’, the curator said (Burns 2014). ‘Because they haven’t been studied yet … The DNA tests have been handled many times but without any result. At some stage the skulls were filled with plaster and it made the bones highly contaminated so the results cannot be reliable’, she explained (Ibid.).
Still they do exist. So why do some authorities deny their existence?
Just after the Hypogeum was discovered, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought to light (Magli 2009:57). The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Ibid.:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Hal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two parts of the Ggantija temple are situated. After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to nearby Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).
National Geographic Once Again …
On the other hand, it is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies (Ibid.).
Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). The author detailed the underground world that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned (Funnell 2014). This article is one of two primary sources for the lost children story (Roma 2017). It reports this misfortune twice (Ibid.):
Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned(page 272).
While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife.
The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).
There is also another record entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, that not only summarizes the same story from the National Geographic about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican (Funnell 2014). It also refers to the lowest floor of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage!) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground tunnels.
Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Sal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome.
I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s experience she has got on the Hypogeum’s deepest level (Cf. Funnell 2014). On the way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knows anything of the children who got lost in the there before the war. He replied that he has never heard about it but actually it is good I have mentioned that as he would never let his daughter go there …
Hairy Giants …?
Is the story true? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. “Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).
“There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds” (Funnell 2014). As she underlines “the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about! ” (Ibid.). “The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication” (Ibid.). Mrs Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.). One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue of Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr Allen (Ibid.). Here is the story told in her own words:
I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.
Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.
One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.
The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.
We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.
Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.
“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.
I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.
“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.
“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”
“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.
“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”
I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.
Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.
There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.
“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.
My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!
“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”
In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!
“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.
“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”
“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.
I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.
Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.
“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.
I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.
“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”
The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!
“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.
“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.
“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”
“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”
Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”
So where is the beginning of the whole story after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. Between 5200 and 4000 BC nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming (Magli 2009:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones (Ibid.:48). Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started (Ibid.:48). The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Ibid.:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things. It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).
Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase Cyclopean architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, come actually from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup (Magli:2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term Cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). However, Prof John Evans claimed some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a 3 metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no evidence for such a discovery … (Ibid.).
Up Back in the Sun!
A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world Cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.
I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and overground, beautiful world. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is worth recommending. When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the megalithic temples.
I left behind one of the most famous museums in Europe, the Prado, together with my colleague intensely studying in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and I headed off to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. I caught the bus and after twenty minutes I entered the air-conditioned edifice full of ancient artefacts of Egypt, Nubia, the Middle East, Greece, and obviously, Iberian Peninsula of different periods.
Before the Romans Came
Particularly, the pre-Roman epoch was of my special interest. It covers the cultures that developed between the beginnings of the Iron Age and the process of Romanization, that is to say, the First Millennium BC. It was marked by several Mediterranean cultures, namely Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, semi-legendary Tartessian, and finally Carthaginian. Many objects in this collection come from archaeological excavations and finds carried out in the Peninsula and its islands since the nineteenth century and even before. The set of Iberian statues are exceptional for their quality and quantity; these are the so-called Ladies of Elche, Baza and Cerro de los Santos. Among them, the most famous is definitely the graceful yet mysterious Lady of Elche – one of Spain’s most famous icons. The statues are usually said to be sculpture made in limestone. However, Adrien Nash (2021) has lately paid my attention to the fact that the Lady of Elche should be actually a hollow casting, and not a sculpture. Such a claim is based on the photos of the head, showing it empty as much as the part in her back (Ibid.).
Treasure Found Without a Map
The enigmatic sculpture was unearthed by chance in 1897. It is believed that a young farm worker found it while he was clearing an area for planting on a private estate at l’Alcúdia in Elche (part of the Spanish province of Alicante, Valencia). Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. To his surprise, he noticed the woman’s head, neck and shoulders, extending down to her chest.
The place of discovery is now an archaeological site, and the Lady of Elche herself has initiated a popular interest in pre-Roman Iberian culture. Shortly after the discovery, the land owner of the sold it to a French archaeological connoisseur, Pierre Paris, and the artifact became a part of the Louvre collection, where it had remained until the beginning of the 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. Initially the artefact was displayed in the Prado Museum, and in 1971, it was relocated to National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where it has been preserved up to now. Without doubt, the Lady of Elche is one of the most valuable objects housed in this museum edifice. Its replica, in turn, was produced and exposed in the local Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche. The original bust was sent and displayed in Elche only once, in 2006.
Princess Leia from Iberia
The sculpture features a woman wearing an elaborate headdress, composed of two large coils known as rodetes positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and face. Once considered to be just huge spools of hair, they are actually a massive headgear of some sort, which is installed over the Lady’s head and neck.
A number of researchers interpreted it as a highly advanced technological device linking the sculpture with the civilization of Atlantis. It is also somehow reminiscent of the headdress worn by Princess Leia in Star Wars (makers of the movie may have been actually inspired by its design, while creating the character). Actually, the wheel-like carved adornments look like huge flattened snail shells, and some scholars think that their original model was once probably made of basketry or metal. After one theory, it may have been a ceremonial headdress of a priestess, or even a goddess. Accordingly, some scholars associate the statue’s representation with Tanit, the Punic-Iberian fertility deity of Carthage, while others have proposed the Lady reflects an Atlantean Goddess.
Refined Female Face
Furthermore, the headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassel-like long earrings hang in front of the ears down to the shoulders, and elaborate and heavy necklaces adorn the elegant chest. After Bernardo Graiver (1980), similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times. On the other side, the design of jewellry has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. Yet, after Bruno Nua (2021), in terms of the style of the statue, there may be a connection even with ancient Anatolia in Turkey.
The female delicate and refined face contains an expressionless gaze of royal dignity, also characteristic of another bust representing the famous Egyptian Queen – Nefertiti. For some the representation has the appearance of a portrait. Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features.
Mystery History (2017). “High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” In: YoutubeChannel.
Other Noble Ladies
According to some scholars, the bust of nearly 54 cm high (21 inches) may originally have been the part of a larger, full-body statue, depicted in a seated position (Lady of Baza) or a standing one (Gran Dama Oferente).
The Lady is carved from limestone with traces of red and blue polychrome, which means it was originally covered in vivid colours. The stone used suggests it was carved not very far from where it was found centuries later. The statue is generally believed to have been created within the Iberian culture, though the artisanship suggests strong Hellenistic influence. The sculpture is unique, however, there are some less known similar examples, dated back to around fourth century BC. One of them is indisputably the Lady of Guardamar, also known as The Lady of Cabezo Lucero.
As its name signifies itself, the statue represents a female bust as well, 50 cm high, discovered in fragments in the Phoenician archaeological site in Guardamar del Segura in Alicante province, in 1987. The Lady of Guardamar is adorned with similar, though not identical, jewellery and wheel-like rodetes. The latter seem smaller and of less intricate design without earrings but the resemblance between these two objects is striking. The Ladies’ necklaces with their pendants are also similar to those found on the Lady of Baza. Moreover, all the statues have been discovered in the south-eastern Spain, in Alicante region.
The most interesting feature of the statue, however, is her unusual anatomy, namely the remarkable protrusion of a large and significantly elongated skull, covered with a conical cap. It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile.
In the same museum, there are many examples of Iberian figures with elongated heads but hidden from view under their headdresses. Does this mean that some Iberian people were longheads? Or it was just a stylisation or a fashionable haute couture headgear. If so, why did they follow such a style in dressing up their heads at all? There is no answer … Still there is a hope this sculpture may create a new wave of speculation in where the other elongated head peoples originated.
An Elaborate Hoax … ?
The origin of the sculpture and its purpose is baffling and has sparked lively, sometimes heated, debate. There are scholars who argue that the statue is, in fact, a forgery. Art historian John F. Moffitt argues that the sculpture of the Lady of Elche is too elaborate to have been carved in pre-Christian Spain. This argument has been dismissed by dating the pigments left on the object back to the fifth century BC. Some independent scholars suggest the work comes from a much earlier period though. The bust might have been a funerary vessel as there is an aperture in the rear of the sculpture, which indicates it may have been used as an urn. On the other hand, the cavity in the Lady’s back could have contained something different from human remains, such as an unknown object or documents revealing her mystery. All at once, it could be a depiction of a goddess, or an Iberian princess. The Lady of Elche’s origin can never be known for sure, which leaves the debate open, especially in case of the correct creation date and its obscure origins. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be one of the most striking examples of sculpture work found on the planet.
Let Her Speak …
The disputes and theories regarding the Lady of Elche prove the importance of the sculpture itself. As an ancient icon of Spain, the artefact slightly unveils the ancient past, not only of Spain, but of the whole human civilisation. I hope the disputes and theories about the bust will continue in order to resolve its riddle. At the same time, I hope by all that the artefact will remain safely preserved as a culturally significant symbol of ancient and mysterious history.
One of the world’s greatest museums is situated in Turin, in the north of Italy. It is the only museum other than Cairo’s wholly dedicated to Egyptian art and archaeology. Among multiplied and various artifacts exposed there, I would like to pay your attention to one small and a very fragile object of the size of 20 x 15 cm. It’s a painting, or more precisely a drawing on a limestone ostracon representing an Egyptian young girl caught in an acrobatic position. An ostracon itself is a potsherd, usually used as a writing or painting surface. At that time it may have served as a scratchpad.
An Acrobatic Somersault
The object comes from the ancient Egyptian village, Deir el-Medina, dating back to the period of the New Kingdom (between 16th and the 11th century BC). For over four centuries, Deir el-Medina had been home to highly skilled architects, temples and tombs builders, artists and various craftsmen staying in the service of the pharaoh. Thy lived there with their families but usually spent the entire week at work in the Valley of the Kings and Queens. A village artists must have been an author of the drawing probably representing one of girls living in the same community. Village women also served to the pharaoh but as dancers and singers in local temples. Egyptian Dancers played an important role in ancient Egypt. Not only was dancing a form of entertainment but it was mainly associated with religious ceremonies.
The depicted girl is a dancer. She is naked, except for a short black kilt with a decorative patterns on it and circular earrings of gold. The girl is probably performing an acrobatic somersault of a ritual dance. The artist is believed to have drawn first the body and then the head by rotation of the ostracon to a position where the profile could be done in the usual way. After a historian of art, William H. Peck, this way of making the drawing is suggested by the placement of the earring in defiance of the laws of gravity, and a rather unnatural way in which the neck was joined with the shoulders, with strongly elongated arms and legs. Also the shape of the dancer’s breast seemed to be sketched as if the artist imagined a woman’s torso in a standing position.
Egyptian style of art
Creating all the elements of the entire scene separately was very characteristic of Egyptian style of art.
It is like in a case of a child drawing an object without a three-dimensional perspective, but in a way the object is perceived from their position of watching, with its major characteristics. Looking down on a puddle, they can see its shape and what is inside, but when they observe a tree, they see it in its vertical form, and not from the above (which is not possible without flying over the trees!). Now they put all these observed elements together, on one piece of paper and they receive a similar stylistically incoherent whole, created once by ancient Egyptians.
Crescent of the Goddess Nut
Representation of the Woman Dancer seems slightly naive, yet it is very subtle and graceful in its form, depicted with a great skill and imagination. The artistic quality of the design is exceptional and erotically charged. The bare-breasted female is bending nearly over reaching the floor with her stretched arms and despite the drawing’ simplicity, the young woman seems extremely flexible. You may have an impression she has been caught in a nimble and swift dance at the sound of vibrant music.
Her curly long hair touches the ground as her body is bending in a deep bow. As the author, Patrick Hunt has noticed, the Dancer’s pose looks like a reversal of the sky goddess Nut in her downward earth-nourishing bend. Nut connects the earth with the sky, and according to the Heliopolis beliefs, the goddess touches the ground only with the tips of her hands and fingers. Simultaneously, her body covered in stars takes the shape of a semi-circle, which immediately evokes a crescent and its associations with femininity.
Voices of Common Egyptians
Female dancers are usually depicted on tomb walls and temple walls. They are represented nearly naked with golden belts around their waits and collars around their necks. They are wearing jangling bracelets on arms, big earrings, and wings, unlike our Dancer from Deir el Medina who is represented with her natural hair. All of them are caught in various poses – in profile, in three-quarter profile and even en face, free from being frozen in a hieratic posture of the upper class. They seem simply comfortable and full of life.
I came across the Female Dancer drawing while studying for an exam in first year of studies of History of Art. It caught my eye from the very first moment, maybe because it was not created for formal purposes but probably for pleasure or training as a sketch. I don’t know why the artist chose to draw a dancing woman but its work tells a story of simple people who lived once in Egypt.
‘On the outskirts of Deir el-Medina, the villagers once had attempted to find a water source’, explains Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist. ‘They dug down and eventually they reached more than fifty meters. They wanted to become self-sufficient in water but sadly for them they never did, and what the pit did become was a community dump, and as such became a mine of information. And when this pit and its surroundings were excavated by archaeologists, they made some remarkable discoveries, and the ostracon with the drawing was one of the findings among thousands of these pieces of pottery and stone: some with painted pictures, many with words giving us the real history of the village. These are their notes, reminders, love songs, laundry list, the very voices of common Egyptians.’
Featured image: Dancer, Deir el Medina. Ancient Egyptian depiction of topless dancer with elaborate hairstyle and hoop earrings in gymnastic backbend, on ostrakon (potsherd). Created: 1292-1186 BC. Public Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Dance in “Ancient Egypt” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.
Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …
The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.
There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.
‘Place of the Rest’
Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The name Mitla itself comes from the word Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.
The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.
Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.
The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.
It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.
As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.
The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs
The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of another famous city, Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown), and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.
In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.
The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.
The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.
Missing stone anomaly
We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.
He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.
‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.
‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.
At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.
Who was there first … ?
I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.
I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster (2018), Mitla had been constructed first with megaliths, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).
In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.
Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.