Tag Archives: Architecture

Mudejar in Spain, “the Style Allowed to Remain”

Decorative style in Spanish architecture and art that evolved from a fusion of Islamic and Christian (Romanesque and Gothic) elements. It was created either by Muslims working for Christians, or of Christians imitating Islamic forms (Lucie-Smith 2003:143). The term Mudejars (mudéjares) also “refers to the group of [Moors] who remained in Iberia in the late medieval period despite the Christian reconquest” (‘Mudéjar’ 2022); they were permitted to stay as much as their style of art. Those were mainly skillful craftsmen who greatly contributed to the creation of the new style ‘(Mudéjar’, 2021).

The Mudejar style appeared in the twelfth century and lasted until the seventeenth century (‘Mudéjar’, 2021). Its greatest heyday took place in the Gothic period of Spain, especially between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Ibid.). Among its characteristic features are the richness of ornamental decorations made of stucco, wood and brick, with which the surfaces of palaces and churches/cathedrals were covered so that their walls still resemble embroidered or woven draperies (Ibid.). Yet, like in the Islamic art, depictions of human or animal figures were avoided (Ibid.). Arches typical of Moorish architecture were used, like horseshoe, polylobed and lambrequin (muqarnas) arches (Ibid.). The rooms were covered with coffered ceilings and stalactite vaults (Ibid.). Azulejos were also widely applied. For more information see: Shapes of the Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus.

Featured image: Royal Alcázar of Seville: a beautifully ornamented head pillar and the ceiling with a wooden mosaic. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


‘Mudéjar’, 2021, in Wikipedia. Wolna Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qLrWub>. [Accessed 18th September, 2022].

‘Mudéjar’ (2022), in Google Arts & Culture (Wikipedia). Available at <https://bit.ly/3BOLF2w>. [Accessed 18th September, 2022].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003). The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 143.

In the Underground Cave Church of Aya Tekla in Silifke

This field-trip to Turkey turned out to be extremely difficult. Last January, parts of the country, including Istanbul, were covered with thick layers of snow and ice. This prevented me from organizing the first two flights with a change in Istanbul, although for Turkey itself this amount of water turned out to be a blessing with the onset of hot summer weather. In any case, according to the famous saying “third time lucky”, the third flight finally took place and I eventually landed in Turkey. The winter time of visiting this country turned out to be extraordinary, as I could see Turkey in a greener and more luscious landscape than in summer. Although the snow slowly disappeared from the coastal area, and the orange of fresh fruit dominated the colours of sunny streets, the monuments located in the higher parts of the mountains were still covered in thick white folds, the amount of which increased in proportion to the car’s climbing up a winding road. Fortunately, the place where I was going had already escaped winter and turned out to be easily accessible, especially since our little group was the only one who decided to visit this place.


The sanctuary and pilgrimage site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık is situated in south-central Turkey, in a picturesque province of Mersin, within an ancient and geo-cultural region of Cilicia, and very near the Mediterranean coast (Kristensen 2016:229; Edwards 2016:151). More precisely, the site is located one and half kilometres south of Seleukeia (modern-day Silifke), on the river Kalykadnus (the modern river Göksu) (Kristensen 2016:229-330; Edwards 2016:151), in which waters the Emperor Barbarossa drowned during the Third Crusade, in 1190, yet before his army reached the Holy Land (Portal Editor 2021).

The district of Silifke itself is very ancient, being dated back to the times before the Bronze Age (Portal Editor 2021); its name has originated from the name of one of Alexander the Great’s diadochs, namely, Seleucus I Nicator, whose Empire also included the ancient Cilicia before 63 BC. (Ibid.) Saint Thekla is believed to have lived in her cave, in the proximity of Silifke, over a century later.

Aya Tekla and her history

Saint Thecla was born as a member of a pagan and wealthy family in the Greek city of Iconium (modern Konya), in the first century AD., yet before the death and resurrection of the Saviour (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49). When Saint Paul of nearby Tarsus came to her city (45–48 AD.) to preach, the young virgin not only converted to Christianity but also became a zealous disciple and follower of Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). In order to escape from her first persecutors, including her own parents and a Roman fiancé, Thecla disguised as a man and wandered through Anatolia together with Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). During her lifetime, the girl was often exposed to persecutions and close to martyrdom; yet she was often miraculously saved; already in Iconium, she had been condemned to be burned at the stake, and elsewhere, she was thrown to the lions (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-53; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).

Martrydom of Saint Thecla; the Saint thrown to the lions. Limestone relief, possibly Coptic in origin, Brooklyn Museum. Wessel (1965), Pl. 52, p. 59.

At that time, many Christians were looking for a protection against Romans in underground cavities (Portal Editor 2021). One of them, near Silifke, became the last refuge of Thekla (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Yet before she died and was buried there, she continuously preached, healed, and performed miracles (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). As a legend goes, she escaped from her last oppressors by disappearing underground, leaving behind only her coat that eventually turned into stone (Iza 2017).

The cave first became a secret meeting point of local Christians and served as their place of worship, and finally became an important Christian pilgrimage site and Saint Thecla’s martyrium (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Thecla had been recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church but has been particularly venerated by the Coptic Church (Iza 2017). Her hagiography is told in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, from the late second century, written in Asia Minor (Ibid.). According to a Greek appendix to the apocrypha, Thekla was possibly murdered on site by her persecutors (Edwards 2016:151), and so she is titled “the first martyr among women” (Ibid.:151).

The Cave of Silifke and its pilgrims

The site of Saint Thecla Church and its growing monastic enclosure was one of the most significant early Christian pilgrimage destinations of the Byzantine period in Asia Minor, especially over the period of the fourth century (Kristensen 2016:229-230). Apart from the site in Silifke, there are also alternative memorial shrines, aspiring to the title of the last resting place of the Saint, such as Saint Thecla’s grave in Maalula, in Syria (Iza 2017).

Till today, the site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık has usually been referred to as Sancta Tecla or Aya Tekla Church (in Turkish: Aya Tekla Kilisesi,; in Greek: Hagia Thékla) (‘Aya Tekla Church’ 2021). The hill containing now the shrine of Saint Thecla is also called in Turkish Merymelik, which invokes the place of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.). Yet, “the site was intimately tied to the life of Thekla and her post mortem miracles” (Kristensen 2016:330).

In the second century, the first small Christian church was built just above the cave, which was itself enlarged and turned into an underground church (Iza 2017). Further monastic buildings were erected with time, gradually changing the area into a monastic enclosure (Ibid.). Works at a much larger scale started on site only in the fifth century, by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno the Isaurian, who owed his military triumph over his rival to Saint Thekla, as she had appeared in front of the Emperor and assured him of his future victory (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017). As a result, a huge basilica was founded on top of the hill, above the cave (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021), and a “new temenos” (Edwards 2016:151) was erected around the site in 476 (Ibid.:151). Till the early sixth century, the site had been furthermore architecturally enriched due to a growing number of pilgrims; there were possibly built two additional basilicas and many supplementary buildings (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).


Textual context

The written sources on the site mostly comes from before the fifth century (Kristensen 2016:232). The earliest accounts of the site, attesting its importance in Christian topography, are dated back to the year 374 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). They say that the sanctuary attracted many famous pilgrims, such as Gregory of Nazianzus – a Cappadocian Father, who later became the Patriarch of Constantinople (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). He was on site in the 370s and described the monastic sanctuary in his writing as parthenona (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). Egeria, possibly a Western nun and the author of accounts of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visited the shrine in May 384 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). She testifies the existence of a monastic community “beyond measure” on site, and describes a massive wall, sheltering the area from invaders (Edwards 2016:151).


Initial archaeological excavations on the site started in 1907, yet they left behind many unsolved issues and questions (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). In the 1940s, the site suffered much damage due to treasure hunting activities and poor quality digs, without proper recording a stratigraphic sequence or leaving the movable finds discarded, some of which keep crumbling around the site or are freely deposed without a context (Edwards 2016:151).

Consequently, it is now problematic to determine a correct chronology for the development of the monastic complex, including the building phases of the three basilicas and the underground church (Kristensen 2016:232; Edwards 2016:151). Nowadays, excavations take place on site but with longer intervals, when the site is left for tourists, while a huge area of the site has never been excavated (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). “Therefore, our knowledge about the [complex], its architecture, and the cave itself is incomplete [to this day]” (Iza 2017). On the other side, there are up-to-date substantial works on the site, which are provided by numerous Turkish and international scholars, who offer a more analytical approach to the research.


Elements of the complex

The architectural complex of Silifke, approximately measuring 700×350 metres, lies on northwest-southwest axis and is located on a rising rock shelf of limestone (Edwards 2016:151). Apart from the underground church, central to the site, the complex is composed of multiple buildings of a different purpose (Edwards 2016:151; Iza 2017).; there are “at least nine huge cisterns, a western-oriented aqueduct with attached conduits [from the fifth century], a bathhouse, a small church, graves, house tombs, […] numerous natural caves” (Edwards 2016:151), and the three basilicas from the fifth and early sixth centuries, the North, Central and the South, all considerably damaged but still featuring a set of key architectural elements (Ibid.:151).

The South Basilica

The South Basilica was built above the cave in the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). It was one of the largest three-nave basilicas ever built in Anatolia (79×38 meters) (Ibid.:151). The church used to have two rows of fifteen columns, and a narrow narthex and a stepped platform (crepidoma) at the west (Ibid.:151). At the east, there was a rounded apse, opened once by two windows; its remains with three buttresses on the exterior are still proudly protruding high above the ground, as a single architectural element still well visible on the slope (Ibid.:151).

“[The] enormous cavern of the basilica above […] stood in stark contrast to [the underground church], [which must have] offered to visitors an evocative experience that alternated between the darkness of the enclosed space and the [brighter spaces of the basilica]” (Kristensen 2016:258).

The Underground Church

An entrance to the underground shrine of Saint Thecla was located under the south aisle of the South Basilica (Edwards 2016:151). The exact date of its construction is not known but it can be estimated for around the fourth century and it had surely been continuously elaborated at least since that time (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:258; Kristensen 2016:258,260). As mentioned before, there was initially a smaller church at the entrance to the grotto before the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). In preparation for constructing a larger edifice above it, the cave must have been reduced in size but its walls were instead beautifully decorated in gilded mosaics, which gave an additional brightness to the darkened space (Kristensen 2016:258).

After the South Basilica was built by Zeno, the cave was possibly accessed “via two descending shafts from a narrow hall flanking the south aisle; light entered by a third shaft” (Edwards 2016:151). Now the opening to the cave, located slightly south-east, is accessible from the outside; having descended a few steps, we entered an underground space through a rounded arch. Then another flight of stairs led us deeper, under a barrelled vault, inside the church of a rectangular plan, typical of a basilica layout (18×12 meters) (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151), with a central nave (10 metres long), defined by two rows of three Doric columns, which were reused from earlier architectural structures (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151). Hence, the columns can be described as spolia (Edwards 2016:151), “repurposed building stone for new construction or decorative sculpture reused in new monuments” (‘Spolia’ 2022).

Although the church had been designed in the form of a basilica, it is still visible it was adjusted to a natural shape of the limestone grotto, tangibly evoking the presence of Saint Thecla (Kristensen 2016:258). Whereas the south-east side aisle is asymmetrical (Edwards 2016:151), “the colonnade at the [north-west] almost abuts a later [ashlar] masonry wall that separates the church from a maze of ancient rock tombs” (Ibid.:151). The central nave is limited with a round arch leading further to a somewhat scarped, semi-circular apse, facing north-east (Ibid.:151). Possibly, there were no pastophories, flanking it in the past (Ibid.:151). Today there is an altar featuring an icon of Saint Thecla, protected by a glass and surrounded by flowers and candles. I lit a few of them, which filled the space with a flickering light against the artificial one that allows visitors to explore the shrine.

At the north-west side of the church, there is a narthex with a barrel-vault, leading to the funerary part of the church, possibly with Saint Thecla’s tomb (Edwards 2016:151). Along the mentioned masonry wall, separating the funerary part from the north aisle, there are a few architectural elements deposited, which are mostly remains of capitals with Christian symbols, like the Chi-Rho with the Alpha and Omega and the Latin Cross.

The north-east section of this part of the church must deliberately have been blocked by the construction of an apse with two windows, allowing limited views into the innermost part of the cave (Kristensen 2016:258). It is said that there are some mosaic fragments in the corners of its ceiling but possibly they are so poorly preserved that it is now difficult to discern them in an artificial light (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151).

That deepest section of the cave behind the apse is believed to have been the holy of holies, where Thekla had lived, performed miracles and finally disappeared underground or was killed (Kristensen 2016:258). “While giving visitors peeks into [the memorial] part of the cave, the windows simultaneously restricted physical access to it; this is evidence of a careful staging of access to Thekla’s divine presence where pilgrims were kept at a distance to the most sacred part of the sanctuary” (Kristensen 2016:258).


Such a layout of the underground church is typical of an early Christian cemetery or memorial basilicas, erected around or above a martyr’s tomb and dedicated to their memory, as much as Saint Peter’s Basilica, founded by Constantine the Great in 324. The access to Saint Peter’s tomb had been both restricted and allowed for pilgrims, without disturbing sacred ceremonies in the church. Likewise, the narthex in Saint Thecla’s Church allowed to move directly to its memorial part, with no need for entering the central nave of the church.

The province of Mersin, in Turkey, offers a richness of ancient and early Christian sites, among which the complex of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık, together with a contemporary to it Alahan Monastery (Koja Kalessi), lead its prime in teaching Christian spirituality and early architecture to scholars and tourists alike.

Featured image: “Just south of the [South Basilica] and the cave, there is the best-preserved cistern (out of six identified so far) in this location. Water was supplied to it by the system of aqueducts. The cistern has a rectangular plan with sides 12.6 and 14.1 meters long. It is surrounded by the 1.7-meter-thick wall. The outer side of the wall is ashlar masonry, and the inside was built from bricks covered with two layers of plaster to provide [permeability]. The cistern is covered with three barrel vaults, supported on the walls and the columns” (Iza 2017). Own photo, taken in February, 2022. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


‘Aya Tekla Church’ (2021) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3t4GZQI. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).

Bocachete (2006) ‘Martyrium of Saint Thecla, at Silifke, Ayatekla (Turkey)’ (Photo in Public domain), in Wikipedia. Available at https://bit.ly/354FD0m. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).

Edwards, R. W. (2016). ‘Ayatekla’, in Finney, P. C. (ed.) The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 151–152.

Iza (2017). ‘Saint Thecla Church and Cave in Silifke’, in Turkish Archaeological News. Available at https://bit.ly/3Ie83TQ. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).

Kristensen, T. M. (Summer 2016). ‘Landscape, Space, and Presence in the Cult of Thekla at Meriamlik’, in Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 24, Number 2, Project Muse. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 229-263.

Portal Editor (2021). ‘Silifke’s Ayatekla – student of the Apostle Paul’, in ALATURKA. Culture and Travel Portal. Turkey. Available at https://bit.ly/3p4JEZu. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).

‘Spolia’ (2022) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3Id3f0W. (Accessed 24th February, 2022).

Tańska-Hoffmanowa, K. (1845). ‘Święta Tekla. Uczennica Świętego Pawła’, Święte niewiasty: obrazki pobożne, Volume 1. Lipsk: Nakładem Księgarni Zagranicznej (Librerie étranger), pp. 49-53.

Wessel, K. (1965). Coptic Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. Thames&Hudson Ltd. 59.

Zalewska, E. (2020). ‘Saint Thecla – the Iconographic Pattern of this Female Saint and Her Role in the History of Christianity’ [‘Święta Tekla – ikonografia i miejsce świętej w historii Kościoła’], in Nowak A. Z., Kuczyńska, M. (eds.), Latopisy Akademii Supraskiej 11. Dzieci w kulturze duchowej Prawosławia. Białystok, Kraków: Oikonomos. Akademia Supraska; Muzeum Ikon w Supraślu, pp. 223-239.

Cyclopean Masonry of the Ancient World

A type of masonry, also known as megalithic architecture, characteristic of unusually huge constructions created of gigantic more-or-less rough-edged boulders adjusted to each other frequently without using mortar, and the resulting minimal clearances between them are sometimes filled with clay and small stones (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68,205; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018). The cyclopean term can be also described as ‘polygonal (ashlar) masonry’ technique, if there are regularly-dressed boulders with fine joints in polygonal shapes, and precisely fitted together without the use of mortar and without visibly defined courses of stones (Bruschi, 2020; Lucie-Smith, 2003:206). The degree of precision may differ in polygonal masonry. The finest examples astonish even modern-day architects and builders.

Initially, such a definition was used to describe constructions ascribed to the Aegean and Mycenaean cultures (circa 1425 – 1190 B.C.), who built their fortifications and citadels of huge blocks of stone arranged horizontally (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007). Their creation was attributed to the mythological Cyclops, and “[the] term [itself] was coined by Greeks in the Classical Age, reflecting the belief that only the Cyclops, gigantic, one-eyed creatures of myth, could have been strong enough to manipulate stones so immense” (Kashdan, 2007). Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79 A.D.) in his Natural History gives an account of such a belief, which apparently traces back to Aristotle, who was supposed to claim that the Cyclopes were skillful architects and builders (“Cyclopean masonry” 2022).

One of the weathered and ruined, but significant cyclopean walls in Europe. The base, though corroded represents polygonal masonry of huge blocks, whereas on top there is typical cyclopean example of stonework of smaller boulders. The Ġgantija complex, Gozo Island, Malta. Photo by Elżbieta Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from ancient the Mediterranean region, where the the Mycenaean citadel, then Nuraghe towers or megalithic temples of Malta are most typical examples, such stonework is found in all parts of the ancient world (Lucie-Smith, 2003:68; Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022; “Mur cyklopowy” 2018; Kashdan, 2007); in Egypt, the cyclopean masonry is present in the valley temple of Giza and in Abydos; in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there are numerous megalithic constructions, ascribed to the culture of Incas (Bruschi, 2020). A good examples of such masonry are also visible in the South-East Asia and even on Easter Island (Bruschi, 2020; “Cyclopean masonry” 2022). “But there are quite a few others” (Bruschi, 2020).

View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street. Many of the colonial constructions used the city’s Inca constructions as a base. A typical example of megalithic (cyclopean) polygonal masonry with a very high precision. Photo by David Stanley (2012). CC BY 2.0, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: Homolle, Théophile (1902). A polygonal wall, excavated at Delphi, showing very characteristic polygonal masonry with a high degree of precision in contrast to stonework on the other side, in “Ecole française d’Athènes”, in “Cyclopean masonry”. Public domain, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022).


“Mur cyklopowy”, in Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia (2018). Available at <https://bit.ly/3F5pDsA>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

“Cyclopean masonry”, in Wikipedia. the Free Encyclopedia (2022). Available at <https://bit.ly/3LqCEz7>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Bruschi, R. (2020). “The Cyclopean Walls: Construction Skills and Mystery”, in The Mystery Box. Available at <https://bit.ly/3y2tFjE>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Kashdan, H. (2007). “Archaeologies of the Greek Past”, in JIAAW Workplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vwezBB>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

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

Stanley, D. (2012). “View of Hatun Rumiyuq Street, Cuzco”, in “Cusco” (2022). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3xYCP0K>. [Accessed 30th April, 2022].

Prasat and its Meaning in Khmer and Thai Architecture

The term has derived from the Sanskrit prāsāda or more accurately, kudakhan or rueanyotand. It usually stands for a Khmer and Thai word meaning a ‘castle’, ‘palace’ or a ‘temple’. Accordingly, in Khmer architecture, prasat means a tapered tower (or towers) rising at the centre of a temple or a temple complex (e.g, Prasat Thom), which is often compared to a pyramid-like structure or even a temple-mountain. Many a time, prasat is surmounted by prang (a usually tall and richly carved spire). Whereas in Thai architecture, it involves a royal or religious building form. “It is a building featuring an ornate roof structure, usually multi-tiered, with one or more spires. The form symbolizes the centre of the universe, which is traditionally associated with the monarch or the Buddha” (“Prasat (Thai architecture)” 2021).

Prasat Neang Khmau – the Black Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured imge: The Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace is a prominent example of the prasat formin Thai architecture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


“Prasat” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3h9oPsF>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

“Prasat (Thai architecture)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2R99WM6>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

“Khmer architecture” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bdNIQ3>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang in the Khmer Empire

What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire of ancient Khmers (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020).

Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Secondly, it is visibly a stepped pyramid and only two such pyramids exist in Cambodia (Mohan 6th April, 2020). One of them is Prang and the other is called Baksei Chamkrong Temple from the same period (Ibid.). Some scholars also compare these two pyramids to a similar construction in Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; Lapkura 2021; Manatunga 2009:204) (see Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History).

Thirdly, “the pyramid has [well-proportioned] terraces of regular hight, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples” (Sopheak 2020).

Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.

Next, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).

Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.

These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).

Another megalithic site

On a direct way to Prang, there is a huge compound wall erected around the pyramid, which was not typical of other similar constructions in Cambodia (Mohan 10th April, 2020). It may suggest the area had a strictly limited access (Ibid.).

The pyramid of Prang is a six-stepped pyramid but the pedestal of lingam on top forms its seventh level (Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85; see: Sopheak 2015). It means it is half higher than a typical royal temple ever built by ancient Khmers (Sopheak 2020; Osmanagich 2017). The pyramid is dressed in sandstone and its stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85). Additionally, on some stone blocks there are protrusions, described as knobs, widely applied in other examples of megalithic constructions (Mohan 19th March, 2020). They are present, for example, in Peru, Egypt, Turkey and India (Ibid.)

The form of a stepped pyramid appears together with the cult of devaraja, “god-king”, and the king as an incarnation of Shiva, represented by lingam, which is confirmed by Sanskrit inscriptions in Prasat Thom (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). Such Khmer concepts can be enclosed in the name of Tribhuvaneśvara – the god worshiped in Koh Ker (Coedès in: Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:48), whose name is in Sanskrit an epithet of Indra or Śiva (Wisdom Library 2021).

“The artificial temple mountain […] is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). After Dr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). “On the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Sopheak 2020). As Dr. Osmanagich (2017) points out the weight of stones differs from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol) (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). The Lingam is said to have measured over 9 metres in height and been made of transparent crystal (Mohan 14th March, 2020). Additionally, the city of Koh Ker is still referred to by locals as Lingapura (city of lingams) and the pyramid as the Sahasralinga Temple, which means thousands of lingams (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mohan 28th March, 2020). The city was also called Chok Gargyar (the grove of Hopea odorata) (Zéphir 2015, “Koh Ker” 2021), “translated as city of glance, […] or as iron tree forest” (Koh Ker 2021). The current names, such as Koh Ker and Prasat Prang are modern (Mohan 28th March, 2020).

The lingam from Prang had already gone but inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020; Mohan 6th April, 2020). The date is puzzling as the King Jayavarman the Fourth, who is believed to have constructed the Pyramid, came to this area only a few days before the given date (Mohan 6th April, 2020). Accordingly, the lingam must have been consecrated prior to the construction of the pyramid (see: Mohan 6th April, 2020; Sopheak 2020) or the pyramid is more ancient.

The linga may have simply been looted (Sopheak 2020), leaving behind a deep hole in the middle of the platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020; Mohan 10th April, 2020), which  is symbolically supported by telamon life-size lions statues (Cunin 2019; Mohan 10th April, 2020). These are Yali, lion-like figures, usually found in South India temples, shown as holding up a structure of a temple (Mohan 10th April, 2020).

The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).

White Elephant

To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it. In Hinduism, the White Elephant is also a symbol of the god Indra who is represented on the white elephant while holding the Vajra, a mythical device, by means of which, as locals claim, he built Prasat Prang (Mohan 14th March, 2020; 6th April, 2020).

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe, the King Jayavarman’s decision about moving the capital to Koh Ker was caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Undoubtedly significant was its geographical location; it was “along the royal road network that connected Angkor to many of its various peripheral settlements” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). Most important was an ancient highway between Koh Ker and Wat Phu in modern day southern Laos, which was first discovered by Lajonquière and confirmed in twenty-first century by another researcher, Damian Evans, as the most important strategic road of the Khmer empire (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the complex function as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is described above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid. And I was wondering where the inspiration came from …

Genius Loci

The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).

Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …

Featured image: Mysterious seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) at Koh Ker, Cambodia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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