Tag Archives: Archaeoastronomy

Passageway through the Stargate

A soaring, pyramidal stone gateway was rising just in front of me. It was covered with terraces of carvings, shaped by mythological world of ancient Khmers and their beliefs. The gate was one of five identical monumental portals built as a part of a defensive, twelve-metres long wall surrounding a squared area of Angkor Thom – the Great City (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Walled City

Each of the four of the wall’s sides measures three kilometres (Renown Travel 2010-2020). The fortifications were “built […] at [nearly eight metres] high, […] and [with] moats that are [one hundred kilometres] wide. [Their construction is] of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top [but without battlements]. As the [city’s central temple, Bayon], itself has no wall or moat of its own, those of the city are interpreted by archaeologists as representing the mountains and oceans surrounding the Bayon’s Mount Meru” (Teo 2014).

South gate of Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the ‘Beng Thom’ – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall” (Glaize 1944).

Portals to the stars

There are four gates at each of the cardinal points, namely the North, the South, the East and the West Gates, built in the middle of the four sides of the wall. While the West Gate is said to be best preserved of all (Glaize 1944), “the mysterious East Gate […] is left in ruins. [It] once served a different purpose and is also known as the Death Gate. Legend has it that it was through East Gate that convicts were sent to be executed” (Teo 2014). From the gates roads lead to the very heart of the City (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The additional fifth gate, called the Victory Gate, is today well preserved and placed on the axis of the Royal Palace to the East Baray and was apparently dedicated to processions of the victorious king (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate

I was just admiring the South Gate. Today it is the main entrance for tourists coming to this famous and gigantesque archaeological site (Teo 2014). Like always during peak seasons, that entrance to Angkor Thom was extremely crowded with a traffic jam of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, small cars and even elephants carrying tourists (Ibid.). All around there were heard voices of people shouting over each other in different languages, the terrifying screech of vehicles and the sound of horns.

Another reason why the place attracts loads of people is the fact that the South Gate is situated “on the path between the two great Angkor complexes” (Teo 2014). Adjacent to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom additionally constituted the successive capital of the Khmer Empire, which was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and since then it has been constantly crowded, maybe except the time of the Red Khmers regime (Ibid.).

Three Towers

Each of the gateways, although some overgrown with sprouting roots, made a truly hypnotic impressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are composed of a group of three aligned towers (Glaize 1944); the central tower of the portal is flanked by two smaller towers (Teo 2014).

Three towers at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Between them, there are the sculpted statues of three-headed “elephants Airavan, whose trunks are pulling lotus flowers” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:136). The animals are mounted by the Hindu god Indra with his two wives (Teo 2014). Behind, there are possibly the remains of the Naga’s snake heads, as it is visible in the nineteenth century’s engraving (see Pałkiewicz 2007:136, photo). Between the side towers there is the entrance with the arched vaulting (Ibid.:136). “The opening of the gates are [seven] meters high by [three and half] meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night” (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The entrance is crowned with the major sculpture of the gates: four megalithic faces beautifully enlivened by the play of light and shadow (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are placed at the height of twenty-three metres above the ground, looking down on those who dare to enter their kingdom (Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The Gate is known in architecture as gopura. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called ‘face towers’ are similar to those erected at the Bayon (Renown Travel 2010-2020); they “contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions” (Ibid.). They are apparently crowned with a headdress resembling a closed flower of lotus. “[The sculpted heads] are believed to represent [Avalokiteshvara] or Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains [two] faces looking in opposite directions; [every] of the smaller towers have [one] face, each looking in one of the remaining two directions” (Ibid.). According to “the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297, […] there was [also] a fifth head on the [very] top at the time, of which nothing, [however], remains today” (Ibid.).

Also known as a gopura

By its intricate carvings, the whole construction of the five gateways looks as if it was shaped by a cascading waterfall. In Indian architecture, also typical of South-East Asia, such a stone gate in the shape of a multi-storey stepped tower, narrowing towards the top and richly decorated with carvings, was referred to as a gopura (PWN 2007:135). Like in the Khmer Empire, since the Middle Ages, gopuras had been usually placed from the four corners of the world, in the wall surrounding temples in southern India (Ibid.:135).

Five causeways

The five gopuras are all preceded by the causeways thrown over the moats, which are, like the gateways, identical in their construction and decorations (Theo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate; a row of Devas pulling the body of Naga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before I passed through the South Gate and entered the Great City, I stopped for longer on the causeway to enjoy my eyes with a view that I deeply remembered (Pałkiewicz 2007:131). Behind a hundred-meter wide moat was the citadel, Angkor Thom, the capital of the late medieval monarchy, where the administrative, religious and commercial life of the kingdom was concentrated (Ibid.:131).

Together with Asuras at the South Gate to Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Małgorzata Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It was [undoubtedly] the world’s largest city during that time, [ruled] by the famous and great king Jayavarman VII. [He] took over […] the Khmer Empire at a difficult moment, [just] after the invasion of a Cham fleet [that] had destroyed the [previous] capital […], and had taken away the greater part of the country’s properties. […] Angkor Thom covers an area of [nearly] 10 km² [and 900 hectares) within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors” (Teo 2014; see Glaize 1944); apart from a large complex of Bayon, the City also includes four small temples at the corners, known as the Prasat Chrung, Jayavarman VII’s Palace and densely decorated terraces (Glaize 1944; Renown Travel 2010-2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:165-177).

Asuras and Devas

The entrance to the city is guarded by 108 statues of colossal size, holding, or rather pulling, a giant Naga serpent in their hands (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998). The length of the snake body is estimated to around 75 metres (Baskin 2012). On the right side, there are 54 Asuras (demons) with grimace faces, announcing misfortune, and opposite them on the other side of the causeway, there is the same number of demigods (Devas) with distinctively  good-natured expressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998).

Some of the heads of the statues along the causeways are badly restored, damaged or even missing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Lining either side of the causeway are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent [seven]-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping.”

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

The other four city causeways are similarly decorated; however, Maurice Glaize (1944), a French architect, archaeologist and Conservator of Angkor (1937-1945), notices that at “the north gate […] the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.”

North Gate leading to Angkor Thom. The statues are deprived of heads, possibly sold on the black market. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, many of the statues’ heads are now gone, which is especially visible on the northern causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Lessik 2015; see Pałkiewicz 2007:131, photo); they were mostly cut off during the time when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979 (Lessik 2015). “While [their] ideology might have been part of the decapitations, apparently the main reason was that the […] heads were worth money. Hundreds if not thousands of heads and sometimes whole statues and other antiquities were stolen and sold to buy arms” (Ibid.). Today the statues are more or less preserved but, according to the journalist Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:131), they bear the hallmarks of carelessly conducted restoration works, because their bodies and heads were not well matched to each other.

Samudra manthan

However, regardless of their modern scars, made by time and men, the statues still express a clear message transmitted from the past (Copestake, Hancock 1998).

A row of Asuras (demons) between the moat and causeway of the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They are actually a three dimensional version of the Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk (Samudra manthan) (Ibid.). The sculpture complex is nearly analogical in its interpretation to one of ten bas-relief scenes carved on the inside walls of Angkor Wat (Ibid.). Both, the sculpture of Angkor Thom and the bas-relief of Angkor Wat represent the same mythological event, though with some differences (Ibid.). The story is the most famous Hindu parable, frequent in Cambodian culture, and it dates back to the times when Devas (semi-gods) and Asuras (demons) fought with each other for domination over the world (Rafał 2018). Although the Khmer Empire of the king Jayavarman VII was primarily devoted to Buddhism, the Khmer architecture and art had preserved many symbolical elements of the Hindu beliefs, which were intertwined with the major rituals, dedicated to Buddha.

Pulling the Naga

As the legend says, long eras ago, the Devas weakened with time and the Asuras grew stronger (Rafał 2018). The depressed Devas finally went to the god Vishnu for help (Ibid.). He ordered them to get Amrit, the nectar of Immortality, which, lost during the Great Flood, lay at the bottom of the endless ocean (Ibid.). However, the Devas were not able to do it themselves, so as strange as it sounds, they made peace with the Asuras and ask them for help (Ibid.).

Various scenes from the samudra manthan episode. Source: “Samudra manthan” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

To extract the Nectar of Immortality, the spirits used Mount Mandara as a whisk and wrapped it in the bulk of the multi-headed serpent Wasuk (the snake king of Naga) (Rafał 2018). Devas grabbed the serpent’s tail, and Asuras held its heads (Ibid.). Pulling it alternately, the serpent spun the mountain that churn the Ocean (Ibid.). The mountain, however, began to collapse into the depths of the water, to which Vishnu came in the form of the Kurma turtle and supported it on his shell (Ibid.).


The churning took thousands of years; first, the terrible kalakuta poison appeared, which was a by-product of churning and threatened all existence on earth (Rafał 2018).

One of the four faces adorning the South Gate.

In order to save the world, Shiva drank the poison, but did not manage to swallow it because his wife Parvati held his throat to stop the poisoning of her husband’s body (Rafał 2018). From then on, Shiva’s neck was blue in colour (Ibid.). During the churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk, jewels began to emerge from the water, including: Moon, Ayravata – an elephant with four tusks, Kamadhenu – a cow of abundance which is an eternal source of milk, goddess of alcoholic beverages, Kalpawryksza – a wonderful tree that fulfils all wishes, a white horse Uććhajśravas, Sankha – the conch of victory, the miraculous bow, the heavenly Apsaras, and finally Lakshmi – the goddess of happiness, wealth and beauty (Ibid.). After all this, Dhanwantari (the doctor of the gods) came out of the ocean holding a pot with Amrit (Ibid.). The gods and demons rushed on the vessel, whereupon Vishnu transformed into a beautiful Mohini and took Amrit (Rafał 2018). The demons, enchanted by her beauty, fell down before her, asking her to decide who deserved the Nectar of Immortality (Ibid.). Mohini gave the Amrit to the Devas who drank it quickly (Ibid.). Only one of the demons – Rahu, managed to enter the ranks of the gods under disguise and taste the drink (Ibid.).

One of the restored heads at the South Gate representing a demon with a grimace face. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Sun and Moon, however, recognised Rahu’s disguise and reported it to Vishnu (Rafał 2018). The enraged god cut off the demon’s head when he had not yet swallowed his drink (Ibid.). The separated head of Rahu remained immortal thanks to Nectar and ascended to heaven as a planet, and his dead body (Ketu) fell to the ground (Ibid.). Rahu, wanting to take revenge on the Sun and Moon, tries to swallow them every time he comes close to them, but since it has no body, the Sun and Moon are safe (Ibid.). Hence, according to Hindu theology, the cyclical eclipses of both celestial bodies take place (Ibid.).

Bas-relief and full sculpture

The rejuvenated Devas defeated the Asuras, but the age-old struggle between them every now and then is reborn again (Rafał 2018). Nevertheless, thanks to the Nectar of Immortality, the Devas always win with the Asuras and still have control over the universe (Ibid.). The bas-relief in Angkor Wat adds to the story of the Churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk some characters of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Ibid.). This is why there is Ravana among the demons, and Hanuman along with demi-gods (Ibid.; see In the Realm of Demon Ravana; Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). On the whole, there are 92 demons on the left, and on the other side, 88 gods are pulling the Naga’s tail in the opposite direction (Ibid.).

South Gate moat. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the causeways of Angkor Thom, The Ocean of Milk seems to be represented by deep waters of the moats, which flow under the causeway and stretch around the city (Copestake, Hancock 1998). Yet the numbers of Asuras and Devas differ from what is illustrated in Angkor Thom; while approaching the City’s gates, on the right there are 54 demons and, on the left, 54 demi-gods, depicted while pulling the bulk of the serpent (Ibid.). Moreover, unlike in the story, the Naga’s heads are not only wielded by Asuras but also by Devas. It is probably the matter of symmetry and representation of the guards as the open cobra fans in front of the gateway.


Some scholars ascribe a mythological-religious meaning to the sculpture represented on the causeway (Glaize 1944).

“[This] double railing in the form of a [Naga] was perhaps ‘one way of symbolising a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition (and not only), is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialised here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country.’”

Mr Cœdes and Paul Mus (Glaize 1944).
Airavata, the three-headed elephant, is the mount of Indra, who is the king of the Devas. Photo by Michael Gunther (2014); modified. CC BY 4.0.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Glaize (1944) seems to share such an idea; it is supported by “the presence of [a guardian deity, Indra], at the extremity of the access causeway” (Ibid.). That would confirm the hypothesis suggested above that the Naga imitates the rainbow as, according to the Hindu mythology, the bow belonging to Indra is in fact the rainbow as well (Glaize 1944).

Another message

According to the author, Graham Hancock (1988; 2016:265-266), the complex of Angkor Tom is a monumental, metaphorical representation of precession.

Intricate carvings of the gateways looking like cascading waters of stone. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depicted there numbers bear out this theory: 54 figures in a row on each side of the causeway, so 108 statues per bridge (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). There are five causeways leading to the city and surrounding the whole complex, so it gives 540 statues on the whole (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). As the author claims, these are all the Precession numbers (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). The bridge leads to a gateway (gopura) so the gateway itself and what lies beyond are possibly connected to the mystery of precession (Copestake, Hancock 1998). As such Angkor Tom appears as a vast, sacred enclosure, with its meaningful measurements and a sacral complex in its centre, known as Bayon, the very heart of the City (Ibid.).


But what does the precession actually stand for? One would assume it sounds like the subject of astronomy. And indeed, it is so. But the process of precession gains more importance in terms of its presence in ancient myths (literature) and architecture (art), assuming it is the case. Then the precession becomes the study of archaeoastronomy. That fact becomes even more intriguing when its duration is taken into account. In order to understand entirely the astronomical mechanism of precession, mankind must once have observed its whole and complete process.

South gate of Angkor Thom along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons. Two rows of figures each carry the body of seven-headed Naga. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The problem is that it takes nearly 26 000 years. Accordingly, its mystery must have been studied by long generations. An archaeoastronomer and Egyptologist, Jane B. Sellers, points out that astronomy, especially precession, is an indispensable tool for studying ancient Egypt and its religion (Hancock 2016:261). According to her, ‘the vast majority of archaeologists do not understand the phenomenon of precession, which affects their interpretations of ancient myths, gods and the correlation of ancient temples’ (Ibid.:261). ‘For astronomers, precession is a well-known fact and it is the responsibility of ancient scholars to learn about this phenomenon’, she claims (Ibid.:261).

Astronomical phenomenon

It is worth starting here from the very beginning. The planet Earth spins around its axis in a rotary motion, and it goes around the sun in a circular motion (Kosmiczne … 2020). Hence, as a result of the first movement, day follows night (24 hours), and of the second, there are seasons (365 days).

But some astronomical phenomena, such as the position of the constellations of stars in relation to the Earth, are due to another phenomenon, which is called precession (Kosmiczne … 2020). The earth axis moves along the side of the cone surface with its vertex in the center of the earth (Ibid.). In other words, the Earth’s axis draws a circle against the sky (Ibid.). This phenomenon can be compared to a spinning bittern toy (Ibid.). When the axis of such an object is not vertical, the gravitation tries to overturn the toy (Ibid.). Still it cannot be overturn, but characteristically staggers, which is a reflection of the phenomenon of precession (Ibid.). The Earth rotates around its axis, which is not perpendicular to the orbit encircling the Sun, but is invariably deviated from the perpendicular direction, at approximately 23.5 degrees (Ibid.).

Steven Sanders (2013). “Precession of the Earth”. This movie was created with Blender and is used in the Spitz Fulldome Curriculum for the SciDome planetariums around the world. In: RBITA. The Absolute Magnitude.

The Earth is not exactly a ball because the spinning flattened it slightly at the poles and bulged at the equator (Kosmiczne … 2020). The forces of gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun to the Earth’s equatorial bulge tend to position the deviated axis of the Planet perpendicularly to its orbit (Ibid.). The Earth, however, spins too fast to yield to these forces, which in turn generates a compromise: the processional movement of the Earth’s axis along the surface of the cone and the axis perpendicular to the Earth’s orbit (Ibid.). In this way, the Earth’s axis cannot be straightened while maintaining a constant inclination to the orbit plane (Ibid.). Yet the axis cannot maintain a fixed position in space and draws an entire cone in about 26,000 years, a period called the Platonic year, the Great Year or the Great Return (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). Every Platonic year the points of equinoxes are at the same point on the sky (Kosmiczne … 2020). The Sun returns to the starting point and the new Great Year begins anew (Ibid.). Precession very slowly affects the appearance of the Earth’s sky (Ibid.). The reflection of the Earth’s orbit on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic, and of the Earth’s equator is the Celestial Equator (Ibid.). Due to precession, the Celestial Equator traverses the ecliptic at 1 degree every 72 years, and the Celestial Pole traces a circle around the Ecliptic Pole with a radius of 23.5 degrees  (Ibid.).

Hence the position of the stars in the sky is not constant and changes gradually over a very long precession cycle (Ibid.). As a result of the precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars in the sky changes, including the polar star (Ibid.). Currently, due to precession, the polar star is Polaris (Ibid.).


The phenomenon of precession is predominantly related to the zodiac. The zodiac is a belt on the celestial sphere that consists of 12 parts, about 30 degrees each (Kosmiczne … 2020). The sky changes at a rate of 1 degree every 72 years Ibid.). The Sun, therefore, spends about 2,160 years in each of the 12 houses of the zodiac constellations (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). The constellation where the Sun is at a given moment very slowly moves along the horizon, until finally another constellation takes its place (Kosmiczne … 2020). The boundaries of the zodiacal constellations are arbitrary, hence there are minor differences in the exact determination of the zodiac era (Ibid.).

Who was first?

The slow pace of changes in the sky caused by the precession of the equinoxes is very difficult to be observed in the lifetime of a single human being (Kosmiczne … 2020).

Animation of the cycle of precession of Earth’s axis, depicting the orientation of the axis in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (2012). By Tfr000. CC by-SA 3.0. Source: “Precesja” (2020) Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Who and when then discovered it? In 1687, Isaac Newton argued that the precession phenomenon was caused by the forces of gravitation (Ibid.). In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus characterized the precession as the third movement of the Earth (Ibid.). However, people must have known about the precession thousands of years earlier (Ibid.). Already in the second century BC, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus (Hipparch), wrote about the phenomenon of precession and is credited with its discovery (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:246-247).

North Gate Bridhe with Devas. Photo by Colin W. (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By comparing his own measurements during sky observations with those of his predecessors in ancient Babylon and Alexandria, Hipparch noticed that the positions of the stars in the sky were different (Hancock 2016:246-247). To explain the inconsistencies, he presented the precession hypothesis and assigned a value of 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, now the value is more precisely calculated and so is recognised as 50, 274 arcseconds (Ibid.:247). The arcsecond is the smallest unit of the angle (Ibid.:247). There are 60 seconds per arcminute and 60 arcminutes is 1 angular degree; 360 degrees is a complete turn of the Earth around the Sun (Ibid.:247). The annual change is 50, 274 arcseconds (less than an arcminute) (Ibid.:247). And it only takes 72 years (precisely 71,6) for the spring sunrise to shift one degree. By these means it shows how slow the whole process is (Ibid.:247).

Approach to the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Astronomy hidden in myths

In 1969, a historian of science, Prof. Giorgio de Santillana proposed that the phenomenon of precession was already known thousands of years before the discovery of the Greek astronomer (Kosmiczne … 2020). Santillana pointed out that ancient civilizations knew about the mechanism of precession and referred to it in their myths, many of which have survived to our day (Ibid.). Despite criticism from scientists, some experts over time expressed the belief that the phenomenon of precession was indeed known much earlier than it was initially assumed (Ibid.). But then how did the ancient reveal their knowledge of precession? Like in many cases, it was possible only by means of a universal language of mathematics and astronomy. It is a pity I was not very dedicated to science at school …

Numbers and numbers

Ancient myths tell stories, such as one cited above, most of which seem to be just a fruit of human imagination. As such the myths are many a time treated entirely as fictional fairy tales. For some experts, however, their certain details seem rather meaningful, especially because they constantly have been repeated throughout ages (Hancock 2016:263). Among them, there are interesting numbers associated by some scholars with important astronomical events (Ibid.:262).

The South Gate: all the gates are “lined with 54 gods and 54 demons.  Both teams are holding a Naga (a snake-like creature with multiple snake heads) that is 75 meters long” (Baskin 2012). Photo by Michael Lai (2013). Source: Retiree Diary. The Diary of a Retiree.

Accordingly, 12 – number of zodiacal constellations; 30 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic assigned to each constellation; 72 – number of years during which the sunrise point on the equinox moves one angular degree; 360 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic plane; 2160 (72×30 ) – the number of years during which the Sun moves on the ecliptic plane by 30 degrees, that is, it passes through one of the 12 zodiacal constellations; 25920 (2160×12) – the length in years of the full precession cycle, i.e. the so-called Great Year, also called the Great Return; 36 – the period in which the sunrise on the equinox day moves by half a degree; 4320 – the period when the sunrise on the day of the equinox moves 60 degrees, which are two constellations of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:262-263).

Language of ancient architecture

Jane B. Sellers is convinced that these numbers form a code of precession, which appears not only in ancient mythology but also in sacred architecture (Hancock 2016:263,265). Examples include the Egyptian temples in Dendera and Karnak, Baalbek in Lebanon, some Hindu temples, in Indonesia the temple of Borobudur, and in Cambodia, the city of Angkor Thom described above (Hancock 2016:265-269; Kosmiczne … 2020). Such knowledge may have been present even at the time of architects of Göbekli Tepe (Kosmiczne … 2020). A fairly rich set of numbers was also included in the so-called long count of the Mayan calendar (Hancock 2016:265).

The South Gate: Naga snake’s heads are also held be Devas as well (not only by Asuras visible on the other side); such an arrangement, contrary to the narratives, is possibly the architectural result of preserving the symmetry. Photo by Steve Baskin (2012). Source: Camp Champions Blog.

Moreover, among the major numbers of precessions, there are present their various possible combinations; the precession code allows to freely shift the decimal places, thanks to which almost any sum, permutation, quotient or fraction of basic numbers related to the precession rate of the equinoxes can be achieved (Hancock 2016:263). For example, if one add 36 to 72, they get 108, the number of the statues on one causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Ibid.:263,265). 108 can be multiplied by 2, which gives the number of demons on one side and the number of demigods on the other (Ibid.:263,265). In turn, 54 can be multiplied by 10, which gives 540 statues on all the five causeways, or 108 can be multiplied by the number of causeways (108×5), which gives the same value: 540, the number of all the statues (Ibid.:263,265). What is more, the number 54 is quite frequent in ancient architecture; in Baalbek, for example, there are 54 monumental columns surrounding the temple (Ibid.:267).

Scientific message of fairy tales

It is also worth to mention the fact that the given set of ancient precession numbers are more precise than Hipparch’s calculations made in the fifth century BC (Hancock 2016:264). His calculations show that the precession rate is 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, which shows that the Sun moves one degree on the ecliptic surface in 80 or 78.26 years (Ibid.:264). As calculated today, the true number is 71.6 years (Ibid.:264). Thus, the number 72 given by ancient myths is much more accurate than the later calculations of the Greek mathematician (Ibid.:264).

Western face of the East Gate, also known as the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Myths also give 2160 for the amount of years, during which the Sun goes through one sign of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:264). Today, this value is said to be 2148 years, and the value proposed by Hipparch is 2400 and 2347.8, respectively (Ibid.:264). Finally, the complete precession cycle according to myths is 25920 years, when the Sun completes its journey through all 12 zodiac signs (Ibid.:264). The Greek’s calculations show that it is 28,800 or 28173.6, whereas today it is known that this number is 25,776 years (Ibid.:264). So Hipparchus’ error is 3000 years, and the one visible in the myths is only 144 years, and probably only because the narrative context forced the authors to round the number 71.6 to 72 (Ibid.:264). In architecture, too, it was necessary; In Borobudur, in Java, 72 statues of Buddha are imagined (Ibid.:266). So to follow the exact values, sculptors must have created only 71 whole statues, with one completed just in 0.6 parts.

Through the Gateway

I stared at the carvings of the causeway for a long while, as series of numbers spilled out of my head. I tried to find astronomical solution in every number imagined in the sculpture: the number of mythical serpent’s heads, of elephants’ fangs and trunks, of the faces illustrated on the South Gate. Then I multiplied, divided and subtracted the collective results. In the end, I lost my strength. I don’t have such a head for mathematics as the ancients did …

South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Pixabay (2016).

Finally, tired with my own thoughts, I decided to enter the gateway. Standing in front of the huge gopura, I looked up at the carved faces; they had their still and narrow eyes gazing in the four cardinal points. Suddenly, a scene from my childhood movie came to my mind. In Never Ending Story, the main character, Atreyu, walks through the Sphinx Gate, and when he is losing his confidence, the eyes of the stone colossi get alive and are slowly opening to strike him with their deadly rays. Although I did not feel confident at that time either, I gathered all my courage and walked through the gateway. Bodhisattvas’ eyes remained focused and unblinking.

Three towers of one of the gopuras in Angkor Thom. Photo by Stacy Rushton (2020). Source: Freeimages.

After a while I found myself in the citadel covered with a damp equatorial forest (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). I had the impression that everything came alive there; sounds of birds were heard in the air, heavy drops of rain fell on the undergrowth and trickles of water flowed from the branches of trees here and there (Ibid.:136). It was the result of heavy rains that rolled through Angkor at dawn. In November, the end of the rainy season still made itself felt. But it was a warm, refreshing rain. The late morning slowly gave way to a sunny day making Angkor Tom’s fragrances and colours more intensive (Ibid.:136). I had entered the kingdom of myths and art but also of astronomy and mathematics.

Featured image: South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Free photo at Pixabay (2016).


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The Oldest Temple in the World and its Menagerie

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

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

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

From evolution to revolution

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

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

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

From the theory to archaeological evidence

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

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

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

Never-ending studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hill of the Navel

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

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

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

Four stone circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

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

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

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

What was the site used for?

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

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

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

The oldest temple in the world

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

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

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

T-shaped pillars and their flock

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

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

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

One of the most enigmatic symbology shown on the ‘T’-shaped pillar 43 with vultures flying above the scorpion. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:25).The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27.

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

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

What was first: religion or civilisation?

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

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

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

The hardest challenge that archaeologists have to face

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

Most of the ‘T’-shaped pillars at the site show wild animals, such as lions/leopards. Source: Sandra Scham (2008:22). The World’s First Temple. Archaeology, v. 61, no. 6, New York: Archaeological Institute of America, pp. 22-27

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

Further attempts of interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Age menagerie in motion

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

The use of ‘split action’ in the depiction of possible bird figures. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

‘T’ – shaped pillars of the site. Photo by German Archaeological Institute (DAI). Source : Jens Notroff (2016). “Could we really called it a temple?” In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

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

Internal subdivision of T-shaped pillars Photo by Irmgard Wagner, German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (modified). Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:322). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

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

Göbekli Tepe and a panoramic view of the southern excavation field. Photo by Rolfcosar (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Pillar 2 from Enclosure A with low reliefs of possibly a bull, fox and a crane. Photo by Teomancimit  (2011).CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Shrinking temple

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

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

Following the star

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

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

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

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

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

The downfall of the temple

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

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

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

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

Featured image: “Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa”. Photo by Teomancimit (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. (Image cropped). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Miracle of the Sun

The waters of the River Nile are “a symbol of rebirth and eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. [It] has for untold centuries been the lifeblood of their country. The river and its banks appear from the air to be one long green ribbon of fertility snaking through the arid desert. This ribbon is Egypt: the Nile’s bounty created it, and made possible the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. […] The Greek historian, Herodotus neatly summed up the relationship between country and river: ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile.’ […] The prosperity created by the Nile, [in turn,] enabled the Egyptians to raise magnificent monuments along its course – temples and memorials to the ancient gods and kings” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42,49).

The River Nile in the south of Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ancient Egypt seen from the Nile

Nubian girl sitting by the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“For centuries, the Nile has been the life-giving artery of Egypt. From the land nourished by its waters arose the great civilization of ancient Egypt, with its golden temples and pyramids. Today visitors can cruise between its palm-lined banks on voyages into the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42). Together with my little sister and a group of archaeology students we embarked on one of the luxurious and authentic boutique ships at the port of Luxor to explore the ancient civilization from the River. While our stay on the ship, we were accommodated in  private spacious cabins with a view on the River. Overnight, the ship was anchored in successive ports and at dawn, it restarted its engines to continue the journey up the Nile. On our way southwards, we stopped at Edfu and Kom Ombo temples, both constructed mainly during the Ptolemaic dynasty circa between 237–47 BC. When we were not visiting the temples spread out along the banks of the Nile, we could enjoy the extensive sun deck areas around the swimming pool while tasting gourmet cuisine and taking in the scenery (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). And all that was possible in February, when Poland was covered in snow and cold.

Macbeth on the Nile

One day, after a delicious afternoon tea, my sister laid out on a sun lounger, by the pool. She closed her eyes. Right next to her lay an abandoned book that she had brought from Poland. On the cover, there was the title and author: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare.

“Macbeth” in Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘Why did you even take this book if you don’t read it and only carry it with you?’, I asked my sister coming out of the pool and settling beside her.

Agnieszka didn’t even look at me. She just murmured. ‘Because this is my compulsory reading and if I do not read it until the end of winter holidays, I will get F.’

‘Well read it then’ – I advised.

This time my sister sat down and looked at me behind her sunglasses. ‘Look around and say … Does it look like Scotland at all?’

‘Well no, it does not’, I admitted. ‘But unfortunately I haven’t got the “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie.’

‘Death will come on my Polish class after my return’, Agnieszka replied, but she did not open the book.

Anchoring at Aswan

Feluccas by on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the fifth day of our cruise, we were slowly reaching Aswan. The city is situated in the far south of Egypt and constitutes the gateway to Nubia – an important region of ancient and medieval Africa situated along the Nile encompassing the area between the southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. The city of Aswan is also “called the ‘Jewel of the Nile’. Pink and grey granite thrusts upward through the Nubian sandstone, forming mountains, cliffs and jagged outcrops. The Nile runs clear and cold here, and endless waves of golden sand swirl against its banks” (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). Our ship was welcomed there by the elegant, white triangular sails of feluccas – a traditional wooden sailing boats widely used in the eastern Mediterranean (Harpur, Westwood 1997:44). David Roberts, the nineteenth century British artist, usually painted them and wrote in his diary: “Nothing to the painter can exceed  in beauty these craft skimming along the river with their white sails spread and shivering in the wind” (Ibid:44).

The elegant, white triangular sails of boats. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Convoy composed of a single car

One of the greatest jewels of ancient Egyptian architecture built in the southern Egypt is undoubtedly the temple complex of Abu Simbel, situated in Nubia, at the second cataract of the Nile. It lies on the western bank of the River, by the Lake Nasser and near the border with modern day Sudan. At the same time, It is located around 290 km southwest of Aswan and it takes three to four hours to get there from the port (Serwicka 2010). The road there leads through an isolated area of the desert, thus due to safety reasons, a special convoy is organised (Ibid.). It sets off every day at 4 AM (Ibid.). Coaches, busses and other vehicles must come to one place (Ibid.). The police count them and then they can start their journey (Ibid.). From that moment on, our car was ahead speeding along the asphalt road across the sands of Sahara desert (Ibid.). After a while, the whole convoy fell apart; we lost the sight of the police and other vehicles in the darkness of the dawn (Ibid.). I thought that such a convoy made no sense as everyone was lost in the desert on their own (Ibid.). Eventually, we safely reached Abu Simbel as the first of all. It was just after 7 AM and the rising sun had already broken through the darkness and reflected four sitting colossal statues of the temple, situated by one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

Two Temples by the Lake

Temple’s front façade. Source: Jess Lee (2020). “Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor’s Guide.” In: Planet Ware.

The ancient complex at Abu Simbel consists of two temples. They are both sculpted from a mountainside in Nubia (Leona 2015), and they were erected to demonstrate the strength, power and eternal superiority of Egypt on the southern border of the state (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018). The builder of the complex was Ramesses II the Great (1290-1224 BC). He was the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty of the Ramesside (Ibid.). “During his long reign, [the Pharaoh] created nearly half of Egypt’s surviving temples [of the New Kingdom], many of them erected to celebrate his deeds in winning back and protecting Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). As one of the greatest and most famous pharaohs of Egypt, Ramesses II also “became the model for Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” (Richardson 2020).

The Statues of the so-called Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Temple

Detail of the façade of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Most remarkable and known to tourists is the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, built to venerate the gods, mainly Amon-Ra, Ptah, Ra-Horakhti and the deified Ramesses II himself (Mark 2018). Beside it, there is also the so-called Small Temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Ramesses’ favourite wife (Ibid.). Both monuments were carved in solid rock and believed to have been created during around twenty years at the time of the reign of Ramesses II, in the thirteenth century BC (Ibid.).

The View of the Great Temple from one side. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The Great Temple stands [30 metres] high and [35 metres] long with four seated colossi, [each one 20 metres tall], flanking the entrance” (Mark 2018). Two gigantic statues carved to each side represent Ramesses II on his throne (Ibid.). One of them lost his head during an earthquake in the first century BC (Serwicka 2010). Beneath them, there are smaller figures depicting the pharaoh’s defeated enemies: the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites (Mark 2018). There are also statues depicting Ramesses’s family members and their protecting gods (Ibid.).

The Sun Rise at the Lake Nasser. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Layout of an Egyptian temple

Fragment of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The building generally repeats the layout of an Egyptian temple characteristic of the New Kingdom, serving the worship of the ruler and gods. Usually, such a ground plan is linear and longitudinal; typically, it contains major successive elements arranged along the axis starting from its entrance: an avenue of sphinxes, pylons (gateway [Lucie-Smith 2003:178]), the colonnaded courtyard, hypostyle hall, Barque shrine, and finally, the sanctuary (the holly of hollies) (Kubik 2020:5). Moreover, the further chambers are getting the lower and darker (Ibid.). Like in a general plan, “the interior of the Great Temple in Abu Simbel is organised along a series of halls aligned with one another” (Magli 2016). Although, the rock temple does not have an avenue of sphinxes or the colonnaded courtyard, it includes other major parts of the Egyptian temple. Stairway to the temple plateau (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16) goes to the pylons – tall tapered towers (Lucie-Smith 2003:178). In Abu Simbel, the gateway is shaped out of the rock, flanking the entrance with colossi on each side (Mark 2018). Passing between the two pairs of gigantic figures representing Ramesses II, the central entrance leads to the vast rectangular hypostyle hall with eight massive 10 metres tall pillars, arranged in two rows and representing the mummies of Osiris, with some features of Ramesses (Leona2015; LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Mark 2018). Inside “a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place” (Leona 2015). It is followed by the second hall with four square pillars (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16). Both interiors are decorated with reliefs showing the heroic life of the king and depicting religious scenes, mainly the royal pair paying homage to the gods (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Kubik 2020:5). Finally, the vestibule leads to the very end of the temple – the sanctuary with four figures of seated gods (Ibid.). As it is the most intimate and secret part of the temple, according to the Egyptian model of a temple (Kubik 2020:5), it is a room of a small size measuring four meters by seven (Leona 2015). It also stands for the heart of the temple, where the so-called  ‘miracle of the sun’ happens twice a year (Ibid.). 

At the sides of the main axis of the temple, there are also storerooms and two chapels. Such rooms also appear in other Egyptian temples (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Kubik 2020:5).

The Abu Simbel temples sit on the west bank of the Nile River. (Image credit: WitR Shutterstock). Source: Owen Jarus (2018).

The Temple for the Beloved Wife

Beloved Ramesses’ wife and queen Nefertari . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The Small Temple stands nearby at a height of [12 metres] and [is 28 metres] long. This temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari” (Mark 2018). There are “four statues of the king and two of the queen at a height of [10 metres]. The prestige of the queen is apparent in that, usually, a female is represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh while, at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is rendered the same size as Ramesses. The Small Temple is also notable in that it is the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a ruler dedicated a temple to his wife” (Ibid.). The first was the Pharaoh Akhenaton (Ibid.). In the fourteenth century BC, he built a temple dedicated to the famous queen Nefertiti, his beloved wife (Ibid.).

The View of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel

The walls of the Small Temple illustrate Ramesses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods, especially to the goddess Hathor (Mark 2018). Actually, the location of the site was dedicated to Hathor long before the temples were constructed by Ramesses. For this reason, it is believed that the choice of this site was not accidental (Ibid.).

The temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari (matiplanas/Adobe Stock) . Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

Original name of the site

The Great Temple of Ramesses II (left) and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari (right). Photo by Holger Weinandt (2004); cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples.” (2020). In: Simple English Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia..

Surprisingly, the temple complex was not originally named as ‘Abu Simbel’ (Mark 2018) but it was apparently referred to in the past as the ‘Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun’” (DHWTY 2019). Actually, “the Swiss explorer [Johann Ludwig] Burckhardt was led to the site by a boy named Abu Simbel in 1813 and the site was then named after him. Burckhardt, however, was unable to uncover the site, which was buried in sand up to the necks of the grand colossi” (Ibid.). Another version says, the boy called Abu Simbel was actually a guide for Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus performer and collector of Egyptian antiquities (Ibid.). Eventually, it was him, who first uncovered Abu Simbel in 1817 (Ibid.). After arriving at Abu Simbel, he tried to uncover it “from thousands of tons of sand but every bucket he removed was replaced by yet more sand sliding down the dune. Just at the point of giving up, he discovered a very simple solution to the problem; wetting the sand held it in place and after years of struggling, he finally found the entrance to the Great Temple and became the first man for centuries to walk inside it” (Hawas 2008). His main aim, however, was not archaeological research but most probably looting. When he did not find any treasure inside, he abandoned further exploration of the temple and finally left the site (Mark 2018; Serwicka 2010).

Epitome of king’s ego and godhood

Two of the four Colossi at the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Abu Simbel is said to be the most impressive, largest and significant temple complex of Pharaoh Ramses II the Great – the most prominent king of the nineteenth dynasty (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). It was hence the monument of the Egypt’s greater builder, warrior and ruler who reigned over sixty seven years and turned the land of Egypt into a display of his achievements (Brand 2008). A thorough analysis of the temples’ walls, art and statues also reveal a dual role of the Pharaoh (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Two Colossi viewed from the way to the Entrance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ramses’ first function was a defender of the nation: a warrior, champion and a hero fighting against enemies and defending Egypt from their hands (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). On the other side, his second role involves religion; he is not only a mediator between men and gods but a divine figure himself equal to other gods in the Egyptian pantheon (Ibid.). After Peter Brand, PhD. (2008) “the king has one foot in a divine world and one foot in a human world.” In both temples of Abu Simbel, “Ramesses is recognized as a god among other gods and his choice of an already sacred locale [for the temple (it was Hathor’s domain)] would have strengthened this impression among the people” (Mark 2018).

Another view of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


Agnieszka between the two statues of the royal couple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Pharaoh’s authority and power actually depended on fulfilling these two functions (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). Reliefs within the temples illustrate the Pharaoh’ dilemma between his earthly and god-like natures (Ibid.). His story represented there starts with the battle of Kadesh (Ibid.). “Ramesses’ great victory at Kadesh is […] depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. It is certain, based upon the extensive artwork throughout the interior of the Great Temple, that the structures were created, at least in part, to celebrate Ramesses’ victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC” (Mark 2018) The Hittites Empire was the great enemy of Egypt, whose lands were stretching  from ancient Anatolia to Syria (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II’s military engagement in one of the most famous battles in ancient history (Ibid.). According to the scenes represented in reliefs, It was a brutal clash between two contemporary superpowers with the use of their whole armies and modern weapons, such as chariots (Ibid.). The final result of the battle is unknown to historians, however, the same records within the temple prove the undisputed victory of Ramses II over his enemies (Ibid.). The fact is that Ramses eventually made a peace deal with the Empire of Hittites but Ramses’ role as a king-warrior had not been completed yet (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). Although, Abu Simbel mainly shows the evidence of the battle of Kadesh, “the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to other scholars” (Mark 2018) that the temple complex was possibly begun after the Nubian Campaigns, undertaken by Ramesses II after the battle of Kadesh, in 1244 BC (Ibid.). Hence it can be concluded that it was built as a symbol of Egypt’s power at the border with another enemy – the Nubians (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018).

Behind my sister, the representation of the slaves/defeated enemies – probably the Nubians. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Godlike Pharaoh

Apart from his representations as a king-warrior, Ramesses was also portrayed as a living god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). By means of Abu Simbel complex, he declared his divinity, and so the temples were not only built to the gods but also to Ramses himself as a god (Ibid.). This dedication is well expressed in the heart of the Great Temple – the holly of hollies, where the seated statue of Ramses II is placed between the three other statues of the same size, representing major gods of Egypt (Ibid.). Such a representation signifies that the Pharaoh is equalised with the divine beings by becoming one of them (Ibid.).

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II as a god and warrior-king. Photo by Gosia & Marek.. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, Abu Simbel reveals the two important notions defining a pharaoh: a defender of Egypt and a god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Key-role of the Sun and Egyptian Calendar

The alignment of sacred ancient structures with the rising or setting Sun or with the position of celestial bodies in the sky at various astronomical events appears throughout the whole world (Mark 2018). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, aligned with the east, is another example of uncanny ancient architecture and its orientation to the rising sun. Furthermore, it also reveals a special relation to the Egyptian calendar (Magli 2016; Mark 2018).  

Ancient Calendar

Great Pillared Hall, Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Source: chemistkane/Adobe Stock. Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

The ancient Egyptian calendar was composed of three seasons linked to the three cyclic events of the River Nile and so the rhythm of human life on its banks (Murphy 2002; Authors of Wikipedia 2013; Magli 2016). Each season contained 120 days (four months of thirty days) (Magli 2016):

AKHET (inundation) 120 days

PERET (growth) 120 days

SHEMU (harvest) 120 days (Ibid.).

Akhet started the new Egyptian year “in mid-July with the sightseeing of the star Sopdet in the early morning sky and the beginning of the floods” (Murphy 2002). It was then the season “when the Nile flooded, leaving a several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding  in agricultural growth” (Authors of Wikipedia 2013). Peret was the time of growing, which had happened by November and Shemu was the harvest season without rains, having started by March (Ibid.). To the total of 360 days, ancient Egyptians “added 5 days, which gave 365 days, without any corrections such as leap years” (Magli 2016). Those “last five days of the year were given over to the celebrations of various gods’ and goddesses’ birthdays and were considered unlucky” (Murphy 2002).

The View of the Nasser Lake. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet ancient Egyptians realised “that their calendar was too short to take into account the length of the tropical year” [ that is to say, 365 days and ¼ of the day] (Magli 2016). “A tropical year is the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth; for example, the time from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, or from summer solstice to summer solstice” (Tropical Year 2020). For this reason, “the Egyptian calendar drifted of one solar day each four years, making a complete turnaround in 4 x 365 = 1 460 years” (Magli 2016).

Magical Journey of the Sun

As described above, the chapel (the sanctuary or the holly of hollies), located at the end of the Great Temple, includes four seated figures of gods (Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Leona 2015). From the left, there are Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses the Great, and Ra-Horakhti (Magli 2016). Their tiny chapel is covered in darkness for most of the year (Fawzy 2018). Nonetheless, “on 20th February and on 22nd October every year, and for a few days just before and after those dates, the Sun rises in alignment with the axis of the temple” (Magli 2016) and illuminates its interior in a very particular way.

Caption from the lecture by Giulio Magli (2016), showing the enlightenment of the key statues in the temple of Abu Simbel on 20th February and on 22nd October of every year. Lecture: “Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Egyptian calendar.” In: Polimi Open Knowledge. Politecnico Milano (published on Youtube).

In a magical journey of the Sun, the light beam moves 65 meters from the entrance along the axis of the temple and reach the inner chapel at the end of the building. (Magli 2016; Hafner, Karolewski & ETI 2020). Whereas the sunlight carefully omits Ptah, who is a chthonic god related to the underworld suspended in perpetual darkness, it  successively illuminates the statues of Amun-Ra, then Ramesses and finally Ra-Horakhti, who is a personification of the solar disc (Leona 2015; Magli 2016; Mark 2018).

“The Sanctuary: House of the Gods” CC Ben Snooks. Photo modified. Source: Jess Lee, (2020) “Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor’s Guide.” In: Planet Ware.

We came there only at the beginning of February so we could not celebrate ‘the miracle of the sun’ coming into sight just a few weeks later. It was a pity. It must be a great experience to observe “the rising sun [penetrating] the heart of the mountain and [gradually flooding  the statues] in light. It takes about twenty minutes for the light to pass. According to the ancient Egyptians, the sun rays would thus recharged of energy the figure of [the Pharaoh]” (Leona 2015).

Reaching the Solar Year

Visitors taking part in the Sun Festival in the Abu Simple temple in south Aswan for 20 minutes in a rare phenomenon that takes place twice a year – Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today by Mena.

“This spectacular hierophany implies an architectural constraint that conditioned the entire planning of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel right from the onset” (Magli 2016). Like in other famous temples in Egypt (e.g. Karnak) the origins of the temple layout is associated with the Egyptian calendar (Ibid.). The two key dates in the Great Temple’s alignment marked the beginnings of the two seasons: Peret (around 22nd October) and Shemu (around 20th February) (Ibid.). In fact, the same dates are also believed to correspond to Ramesses’ birthday in February and coronation in October (Mark 2018; Fawzy 2018). The Calendar is said to have been devised in 2 700 BC (Magli 2016). Consequently, when Ramesses II “accessed to the throne of Egypt in the thirteenth century BC, 1 460 years were elapsed” (Ibid.). For this reason, “he could celebrate himself as the Pharaoh who started reigning at the time the Egyptian calendar re-aligned with the solar year” (Ibid.). The answer to this special event was the astronomical alignment of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel.

Short film advertising the Sun Festival at Abu Simbel on 22nd October in 2018.
“It’s almost here, coming to Egypt on October 22nd! If you won’t be there, don’t worry, we’ve got you.”
“Live the history live in Aswan, Abu Simbel Sun Festival” by  Memphis Tours (2018). Published on Youtube (2020).

The Aswan High Dam

The process of the illumination had happened very precisely for over four thousand years. “Inevitably, the demands of modern progress have conflicted with the need to preserve the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49).

The statue of Ramesses the Great at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is reassembled after having been moved in 1967 to save it from flooding. “Per-Olow” – Per-Olow Anderson (1921-1989) – sv:Forskning & Framsteg 1967 issue 3, p. 16. Public domain. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Luckily, “these two considerations were spectacularly reconciled with the building of the Aswan Dam, when the temples of Abu Simbel were saved from the raising waters” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In the 60’s of the twentieth century, the two temples were dismantled (Mark 2018) and, “in an astonishing feat of engineering completed in 1966, [they were] moved bodily 65 metres above their original site” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In order “to give the impression of the temples cut into the rock cliff, […] a man-made mountain was erected” (Mark 2018). Altogether, there were 2 200 blocks of stone (the heaviest weighing around 30 tons), moved upwards by heavy machinery (Pooyard 2012). The reconstruction of the temple took five years (Ibid.). The project was directed by UNESCO and led by a multi-national team of archaeologists, engineers and other specialists from around fifty different countries (Pooyard 2012; Leona 2015; Mark 2018; Cultural Heritage News 2018) “to rescue what was viewed, for the first time, as the shared heritage of humankind” (Cultural Heritage News 2018). In the same Nubian Rescue Campaign other monuments have been also saved and preserved, namely the Temple of Isis situated on one of the islands on the Nile and Christian wall paintings from the Cathedral of Faras (DHWTY 2019).

A scale model showing the original and current location of the temple (with respect to the water level). The site submerged under reservoir water since the 1970s, and the rescued and relocated temples’ new higher sites. The photo was taken of a display at the at the Nubian Museum, in Aswan. Photo by Zureks (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples.” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient technology vs. Technology of the 60s

“Great care was taken to orient both temples in exactly the same direction as before” (Mark 2018). Nevertheless, today it can be observed that it was not fully effective despite all undertaken efforts (Leona 2015; Serwicka 2010). Namely, on the two key-dates, the left arm of the statue of the god Ptah, positioned originally in the way preventing it to have been reached by the Sun, now is partially exposed to the sunlight. Simultaneously, the left side of the statue of the god Ra-Horakhti, seated on the far right, is not being illuminated anymore. Some sources also say that the culmination point of solar illuminations initially happened exactly on 21st February and 21st October (see Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015; Mark 2018) but today the dates of the performance are slightly shifted (Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015). Such a disorder of the ‘miracle of the sun’ is the result of the displacement of the Great Temple in the twentieth century (Ibid.). The project turned out to be very successful as it saved the Nubian monuments from being flooded. Thanks to the international work, determination and funds it was possible to preserve such ancient architectural treasure as Abu Simbel for future generations. Yet, even with the use of all modern equipment and machinery, it was not possible to reproduce the original precision designed by ancient architects in orienting the temple (Leons 2015).

The illumination shifted slightly rightwards – the result of the temple’s displacement in the 60s. Source: Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today by Mena.

Just after the Pyramids of Giza

Nowadays, the ancient site of Abu Simbel is the most visited place in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza (Mark 2018). It has even got “its own airport to support the thousands of tourists who arrive at the site each year” (Ibid.). Yet we were coming back to Aswan and our luxurious ship by car. Sleepy and tired with the heat, I was trying to keep myself awake to admire the landscape behind the window. For a while I was looking at the sandy and harsh desert, and the horizon blurred in the sun. Finally I closed my eyes and fall asleep next to my sleeping sister.

Great moments on the luxurious cruise on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was our last night on the ship. The following evening we were going to Cairo by train. The light breeze and the proximity of the river nicely neutralized the heat of the night. My sister was resting in the cabin. Immediately after arriving from Abu Simbel, she felt sick. A doctor from Aswan was called. He gave her an injection and promised that she would feel much better the next day. As it turned out, he was right. I had been hoping for that. There was a long way yet to travel.

The Great Temple of Rameses II in Abu Simbel from above, Egypt. (rayints/Adobe Stock). Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

Featured image: “The Entrance to the Great Temple.” Source: Travel to Egypt (2020).


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

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Murphy, M. (2002) Exploring Ancient Civilisations: Egypt (Enhanced eBook). Carthage: Teaching&Learning Compony. p. 22. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WQqf16>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Photo: “The Entrance to the Great Temple.” Travel to Egypt. Available at <https://bit.ly/33PSzSH>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

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

Richardson, E. (2020) “The Temple of Abu Simbel.” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WRmW9M>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

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Astronomical Sanctuary Atop the Hill

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.

The constructions of Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

The city offered us breath-taking panoramic views of the horizon. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

The site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Who was the real architect 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).

Artificial flattening of the hill with the Sunken Patio on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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, known also as the Observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

View of Monte Alban and its mountainous surrounding. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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?

The building’s “odd pentagonal shape “.

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 passage[1]in 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 2019).

[1] [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).

Engineering feat

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.).

Astronomical Observatory

Scattered blocks of stone among mysterious constructions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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?

Depiction of a woman whose new born child may have just died or maybe she miscarried when she was pregnant. Was it due to epidemics? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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 [300] 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 Mesoamerican history.

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?”

(Childress 2007:14)

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

I sat on one of the blocks of stone crumbling
in the center of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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 appearances (Ibid.).

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.).

Course of steps of one of pyramidal structures … you can climb up and down for hours … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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 …

One mystery leads to another … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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).

Featured image: Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


“Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VdZB13>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Barnhart, E., Powell, C. (2010-11) The Importance of Zenith Passage at Angkor, Cambodia, pp. 1-23. University of Texas at Austin Chautauqua Program courses to the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia.

Childress, H. D. (2007) The Mystery of the Olmecs. Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press. 74

Delsol, C. (2010) “Olmecs to Toltecs: Great ancient civilizations of Mexico” In: SFGate. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TbWPHj>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2013) “Monte Alban – Ancient Observatory.” In: Uncovered History. Available at < https://bit.ly/32hyvYw>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2013) “Monte Alban.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <https://bit.ly/37UwvGF>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Are the Danzantes Evidence for an Epidemic?” In: Uncovered History. Available at <https://bit.ly/37S1vHA>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Brief History.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2vW9pSS>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – The Encrypted City.” In: Uncovered History. Available at < https://bit.ly/2VdzQ11>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Ortega, M., Miguel, M. J., Camacho, A. (2005) “Microstructural study of the treasure of tomb #7 of Monte Alban, Oaxaca.” In: Microscopy and Microanalysis. pp. 19-24.

Owen, B. (2000) “Mesoamerica: Olmecs and Teotihuacan.” In: World Prehistory: Class 17. Available at <https://bit.ly/2w0YreJ>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Schaefer, B. E. (1987) “Heliacal Rise Phenomena.” In: Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, vol. 18, pp. S19-S33.

Strom, C. (2019) “The Zapotecs of Monte Alban – The First Civilization in Western Mexico?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2HKlo8S>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Archaeoastronomy in Prehistoric Malta and Ireland

Astronomic Devices in Prehistoric Malta

The megalithic temples of Malta are one of the most recognized UNESCO’s World Heritage sites ranking amongst the earliest free-standing Neolithic constructions in the world. The so-called Maltese temples display unique developmental characteristics, and while comparing to other megalithic structures, they are of the distinctive nature and achievements of Maltese civilization.

Mnajdra Temple
Mnajdra Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other hand, similarly to other megaliths, they were undoubtedly designed to accurately detect and mark the winter and summer solstice together with autumn and spring equinoxes, and other celestial movements. Same as the Stonehenge circle in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland, Maltese temples fulfilled astronomical observation and calendric functions. Among their other possible functions, a connection between astronomy and the temples orientations has constantly been provoking an intense debate since the great publicity given in the second half of the twentieth century by Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge and the surveys by Alexander Thom on different megalithic structures in England and elsewhere. But it was an astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer who as early as in 1909 evidently stated that Newgrange is oriented to the winter solstice. Accepting that idea turned out to be difficult for archaeology as it was first presented in the form of folklore and legends in the seventeenth century. In spite of negative opinions of the foremost experts on megalithic structures, interdisciplinary research efforts on the subject have been carried out and quickly augmented, mainly in the study of archeoastronomy, cosmology and archaeology.

Maltese Temples and the Sky

Photo from Amazon: “Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra” Paperback – 2014.

The book by Tore Lomsdalen, entitled Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra (2014) is the latest attempt to resolve the two-century controversy over the unusual connection between the Maltese temples and the sky. At the same time, it successfully elaborates on the first tentative surveys on temple orientations in Malta. This remarkable work charts the major points of debate on astronomical alignments of the prehistoric megaliths of Maltese archipelago with a special focus on the question of the intentionality of the significant orientation of the Mnajdra Lower or South Temple. The overall conclusions found at the end of the book are thoroughly investigated and supported with accurate factual information drawn from both, the previous interdisciplinary studies on the subject, and results of the wide-ranging and detailed fieldwork done by the author on the sites. Simultaneously, the book contributes to the international research done on the astral connections of megalithic constrictions in different parts of the world, underlying their similarities and uniqueness at the same time.

Tore Lomsdalen. Photo from Academia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2HEgMRm>.

The author of the book, Tore Lomsdalen is an astrologer working internationally. He was born in Norway and lived in Italy. He holds a MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a certificate from the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. While working on the mentioned work, he had already been engaged in a PhD research program with University of Malta on Cosmology in Prehistoric Malta. Through a combination of astronomical analyses and insightful interpretation of the enigmatic ancient monuments, he entirely dedicates himself to the studies on cosmological observations related to Maltese prehistoric sites. He understands the need for revisions in the context of interdisciplinary studies, where the discipline of archeoastronomy blends with the study of archaeology, and specifically prehistory. As he frequently points out in his book, archeoastronomy may contribute to archaeological examination, especially in the reconstructions of the building phases in case of the Mnajdra South.

Loughcrew Megalithic Cairns. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Similar attitude has been already underlined by Martin Brennan, an Irish-American author who, like Tore Lomsdalen, perceives megalithic monuments as sophisticated calendar devices having been designed by contemporary engineers in order to reflect the sky. Martin Brennan majored in visual communication at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied prehistoric art  in Mexico. As Lomsdalen,  he was engaged in a series of fieldwork where he gathered overwhelming evidence for his theory which was at that time quite controversial.

Newgrange. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Martin challenges conventional opinions on presumed purposes of megaliths as tombs and proves their high sophisticated orientation in relation to astronomy. In his book, The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, (1980s) Brennan interprets the real function of Newgrange by means of the unified languages of archaeology, archeoastronomy, architecture and art. That interdisciplinary unity of sciences can be deeply felt when the rising or setting sunlight is being caught by inner chambers of passage tombs at critical times of the year, illuminating only particular patterns among many other engraved on the stone. In such a way abstract symbols, which were thought to have appeared haphazardly, suddenly became the key to the enigmatic language of prehistory connecting with the stars.

Megalithic Art

“The Stones of Time” by Martin Brennan. Photo from Knowth.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2vIIkm3>.

Although Brennan underlines the importance of megalithic art as a crucial element in relations to astronomical calendar, for Lomsdalen it does not play a vital role. Likewise Brennan, he also points out to architectural areas of the temples illuminated by the sun, such as key thresholds of the side altars and the vertical slabs, yet without elaborated descriptions of artistic decorations of the temples. Lomsdalen realises the significance of the perceivable effect of dichotomy of light and dark created by sunrise illuminations. However, he mostly focuses on his archeoastronomical survey and ably presents the results of his fieldwork juggling with astronomical complex calculations, with particular attention to the alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Lomsdalen also places the Maltese structures in their archaeological context redefining their building sequence, still without clearly stating their purpose in prehistory, as Brennan does while relating to the passage tombs as megalithic observatories. In the matter of fact, Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices.

Dowth – art inside the so-called passage tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Undeniably, one of the aims of  Lomsdalen’s work is an investigation whether the Mnajdra Temple complex was built as a sacred site in relation to the cosmos, and as a device for celebrating the seasons, but none the less, that research question is a secondary in the conclusions of his book. His major concern is the intentionality behind the astronomical alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex, which is in turn, the precondition of the hypothesis of religious, sacral and ritual character of the so-called temples. The author’s argument for intentionality is strengthened by the fact that astronomical orientations appeared in the Mnajdra complex throughout successive stages of its construction. In this case, all the claims against his postulate lose substance. The idea of intentionality in prehistoric architecture is also strongly supported by Martin Brennan in case of passage tombs in Ireland. He argues that such precise positioning of stones in an astronomically important context cannot be just coincidental. Both researchers additionally employ similar methodology in their fieldwork. Besides surveying, astronomical observations, and photography, they implement principles of experimental archaeology, or rather archeoastronomy, which involves testing a hypothesis through experiment in order to find evidence of ancient astronomy, apparently practiced by temple builders. Phenomenology, that is to say walking and experiencing the landscape, is another approach to their research.

Mnajdra Temple
“perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology”. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Final results of Tore Lomsdalen’s report show new evidence about the architecture of Maltese temples and their link with the sky. Namely, the author confirms the hypothesis of a sky-based intentionality behind the construction of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Not only confirms he the known alignments at the Mnajdra South but also discovers new alignments at the Mnajdra Middle. Furthermore, there is a strong preference of the temples being directed between southeast and southwest, with one remarkable exception of the Mnajdra South or Lower facing east allowing the rising sun to cast a beam of light along its central axis at the equinoxes and cross-jamb illuminations at the solstices. The Temple’s sophisticated solar illuminations is explained by an increasing awareness by its creators of horizon-based astronomy and their better understanding of precise divisions of a solar year, including cross-quarter and the eighth days. The so-called oracle holes in the stones and postholes have also been investigated as supposed devises playing a significant role in aligning the temples to celestial bodies. Finally, the author proposes a redefined building sequence based on both archaeological finds and archaeoastronomical components. He strongly claims that the Mnajdra Temple complex was not built at once but in five successive stages: double apses and other architectural features had been added on for one and half millennia.

Mnajdra Temple Complex

Before moving directly to the matter of his studies, in the first chapter the author starts with a description of the temple culture within a sacred, cosmological, and astronomical context and uncovers “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology” in relation to the megalithic constructions on Malta. In Chapter 2 and 3 he introduces readers to the rich Maltese prehistory within the context of the Mediterranean, which is a very important background of the Neolithic temples. He also gives some speculative ideas about the origins of the temples and their mysterious creators. At this stage, he provides a detailed description of the Mnajdra Temple Complex. He stresses the importance of Maltese landscape and its influence on the carefully chosen location of the temple sites. Quite significant for the author is also their relations to land and sea, as in the case of the Mnajdra Temple East – the only one in Malta lacking an orientation towards sunrise, but oriented, and so apparently connected to Filfla islet. Next chapter moves smoothly to the core of the subject, from Maltese cosmology and astronomy in the context of the temple culture to methodology used in this work.

In Chapter 5 the author presents the results of his fieldwork in Malta, particularly at the Mnajdra site, and subsequently compare them to other researchers’ findings. After all the results being discussed, Lomsdalen finishes his study with a summary and conclusions of the major findings regarding his hypotheses brought by and cited before. Simultaneously, the author highlights the need for further studies to be conducted, especially in searching for archaeological evidence on the chronological phases of temple construction.

Language of Astronomy

The amount of data gathered, survey measurements and a frequent use of the language of astronomy is impressive from one side, but from the other, it may be confusing to average readers not trained in astronomy. Nevertheless, the author helps a reader to understand a more scientific content by providing an approachable description of some definitions, such as the key difference between “orientation” and “alignment”. Additionally, there is a number of technical drawings and diagrams in order to illustrate the issues being dealt by the author during his studies.

Loughcrew Cairn: Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What is more, at the end of the book readers can find a glossary and acronyms of temple orientations in Appendix IV, a detailed bibliography for reference, and very interesting discussions of the author with other researchers in Malta, Frank Ventura and Reuben Grima talking on different aspects of the megalithic temple culture. The book is also beautifully illustrated by series of photographs, including archival black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century and colourful pictures taken by the author himself. In general, it is a really comprehensive, consistent work and a very valuable complement to the study of both, archeoastronomy and archaeology. Additionally, Tore Lomsdalen’s innovative idea of dividing the construction of Mnajdra Temple complex into five sequences according to the temples’ alignments with the sun may be carried out at various megalithic sites scattered all over the world, where archeoastronomy together with archaeology can assist in determining successive phases of prehistoric constructions.

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