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The Pages of the Book of Kells Inspired by Angels

…before the morning on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood before him in a dream and showing him a picture drawn on a tablet which he had in his hand,[and] said to him, “Do you think that you can draw this picture on the first page which you propose to copy?” The scribe, who doubted his skill in such exquisite art, in which he was uninstructed and had no practice, replied that he could not. Upon this the angel said, “…[e]intreat your Lady to offer prayers for you to the Lord…and give you spiritual vision…”

The scribe having done as he was commanded…All these, aided by divine grace, the scribe made himself master of, and faithfully committing them to his memory, exactly copied in his book in their proper places. In this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing the designs, St. Brigit praying, and the scribe copying. 

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 39: How the Book was Composed

Angels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College, Dublin. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Book of Kells is one of great heirlooms of the Celtic, Hiberno Scottish world. It has been on a permanent display at Trinity College Dublin since the seneteenth century, where it was brought from Kells sometimes after 1661. At that stage, the monastery in Kells was falling into ruins and was additionally threatened by the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Thus the Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones (circa 1605 – 1681) thought to be safer to bring the Book of Kells to Dublin, where it has been preserved at Trinity College Library for over three hundred years until now, classified as TCD MS 58. In the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, the Book has been admired by millions who have made a pilgrimage to see it from all the world and to have been dazzled by the beauty and its intricacy of its craftsmanship. Yet, what exactly does the Book of Kells mean? What is the nature of the historical and artistic context that gave rise to it? Where was it made and by whom? What has been its fate across the centuries, from the time of its origins until the present?

The Book of Kells is handwritten and hand-decorated book that now contains 340 parchment leaves, which gives a total of 680 pages (folios). At Trinity, the Book remains open with two of its pages visible to visitors. Only one of its pages is turned over every day, so in order to look through the whole manuscript, one would have to allocate at least one year of daily visits. The pages measure about 13 inches (33.02 cm) by 8 inches (20.32 cm). Originally, it had more leaves than that and had a form of the one single book, while it is now in four seperate volumes, one for each Gospel, which was the result of its successive rebounding in 1953 by a bookbinder Roger Powell to preserve its rare pages in a better condition. It contains the text of the four Gospels according to SS Matthews, Mark, Luke and John in the Latin translation that Saint Jerome had made in Rome during the 380s AD. It is an example of a particular type of book that modern scholars call the Insular Gospel Book, that is to say, a copy of the four Gospels that were made in the British Isles between the middle of the seventh century and the early ninth century. Hence the term Insular has been coined. Like other manuscripts of the same kind, the Book of kells was intended as a large liturgical Gospel Codex, which was possibly displayed as a relic on an altar and may have been carried in processions during Christian festivals to be shown to laypeople.

During the hundred and fifty years or so, during which the Insular Gospels were made, the genre underwent significant development. The earliest member of this genre, the Book of Durrow, made either in Ireland or Northern England, around the year 650 AD., contains a relatively simple repertory of artwork. The Book of Kells was among the very last Insular Gospel Codices to be made, and it surpasses all others in the amount and quality of its artistic decoration. One of the Insular books, which is closest to the Book of Kells in its intricacy and grandeur is the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels, now preserved in the British Library, in London. It was made a several decades, possibly a century, before the Book of Kells appeared. The Lindisfarne Gospel Book represents a very sophisticated exemplum of the genre and only the Book of Kells surpasses it.

The basic structure of the Book is the same as the Lindisfarne Gospels and other manuscripts but the Book of Kells adds further decorative pages over and above this basic structure. It literally abounds, as no other Insular illuminated manuscript, in decorations on almost each folio, including famous full-page illuminations and exceptionally lavish Hiberno-Scottish incipits (the first few words of the text), which many a time turn into elaborate frontispieces. Yet, although the Book of Kells goes far beyond any other representative of this genre of Insular Gospel book, there is known nothing for sure, which is the major difference between it and the Lindisfarne Gospels, including the fact there are no notes in the artwork about its authorship. Stylistically, the Book of Kells can be dated around the year 800 but possibly it was not fully compeleted exactly in this particular year. Given its magnificence, it is likely that it was made at the great monastery on the Island of Iona.

Iona itself is a very small island, of only about 3,5 miles (around 56 km) from N-S and 1,5 miles (24 km) E-W. It is located off the southwestern tip of the much larger Island of Mull, which itself stands off the western coast of Scotland. It was here on Iona that in the early 560, Saint Columba founded the monastery which became the headquarters of the Columban Church, which extended across a considerable portion of western Scotland, and it was from Iona that Saint Aidan was sent to Northumbria in around 635 AD., to found the monastery of Lindisfarne. The Celtic monks had a particular taste for remote locations, such as Skellig Michael, one of the first Saint Michael’s sanctuaries on Apollo/Michael Axis. They were all set apart from the hurly-burly of the world, where the monks can give themselves over fully to the life of the spirit. Having left Ireland in self-imposed exile for the purpose of seeking God, the great Columbkille, known as Saint Columba in the Latin form of his name, also chose a distant and remote island for his new home and monastery. This was a man of vurnerable life and of blessed memory, the father and founder of monasteries, who was given the same name as the Old Testament Prophet Jonah. What is pronounced Iona in Hebrew and is translated as Columba in Latin means a dove. So great a name coud not have been given to a man of God but by divine providence. For it is shown in the Gospel that the Holy Spirit descended upon the only begotten Son of God in the form of that little white bird.

Saint Columba was born in County Donegal around 520 AD. into a culture of the written world. To the Earliest Irish Church the written word was the Word of God. From the Hand of God came Scripture. God was the author of the book and that book was Scripture. So the best art and hand-craft were used in Hiberno-Scottish literal tradition to write and explain Scripture. For the Irish the skill of writing and the miraculous were very close together, and so Insular books were miracles in themselves, as if they had been only created by divine or mystical assistance of heavenly beings.

if you apply yourself to a more closer examination, and are able to penetrate the secrets of the art displayed in these pictures, you will find them so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn, and the work of interlacing so elaborate, while the colours with which they are illuminated are so blended, and still do fresh, that you will be ready to assert that all this is the work of angelic, and not human, skill…

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written

Such beliefs are not surprising. All in all, there are so many miracles reported in Hiberno-Irish hagiographies about saints and their encounters with angels, about their books created with their miraculous skills of writing. And as such, the Book of Kells had remined enigmatic for a very long time.

Early Christian communities’ life in the Dark Ages, like the one of the monks from Iona was not simple as they lived in a tangible threat of Viking raids. On the other side, independent on the Roman Church, they were free to use christianised Celtic traditions of pagan origins, yet deeply combined with Oriental Christian iconology, mostly coming from the Desert of Egypt, to eventually create the greatest work of art ever to come on the British Isles. The first reference to the Book of Kells appeared only in the twelfth century, where it was found in Kells, Co. Meath. That’s why it has got its modern name. Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells has had an eventful history over the centuries. At Kells it was treated with great reverence. Even though Saint Columba had alrady died circa 597 AD., during the eleventh century it was believed to have been written by his own hand and thus was known as the “Great Gospel of Colmcille, the chief relic of the Western world”. The Book had remained at Kells until the monastery was abolished in 1539. At that moment in history, it passed through the hands of Gerald Plunket, plausibly a relative to the last Abbot of Kells, who inscribed notes onto the pages of the Book’s marginalia; at the very beginning, he added a note observing that this manuscript surpasses the cunning of all men. He struggled the text on several of the major decorated pages, entering his transcriptions at the bottom of this pages. By 1621, the Book of Kells had come into the hands of a prominent Anglican clergyman and scholar, the Archibishop  of Armagh, James Ussher, who calculated that the World had been created on October 23rd, in 4004 BC. Having been displayed at Trinity College, in 1849, the Book of Kells was proudly presented to the Queen Victoria, who signed her name on the front …

If it was originally made on Iona, it reached Kells when the monks of Iona fled the island in the eraly ninth century, under the pressure of Viking attacks. The whole monastery would have been involved in making over the Book, and there were around several hundred men working in the monastery. It is indeed the work of very fine artists, painters and calligraphers. Its uniqueness lies in its decoration, the scale of it and in the intensity of it. Apart from figural representations, Hiberno-Scottish artists went back to very early Celtic art, which loves the assymetry of curves. They were also insipred by contemporaneous masterpieces of matalwork. Both, book illuminators and craftsmen used such devices as compass, rulers and templates, so they all started from initial drwaings to create a final artwork either in metal, sculpture or painting.

In 795, Iona was subjected to a ferocious Viking raid, one of the earliest Vikings’ attacks on Western Europe. Iona continued to suffer at the hands of the Vikings in the ensuing years until in 807 most of the monks led by their abbot migrated to Ireland and built a new monastery for themselves at the inland location in Kells of County Meath. So was the Book of Kells written on Iona before the Viking raids or was it written in Kells after the community migrated there? Or could it perhaps have even began on Iona and completed in Kells? These are questions never to be answered for sure. Neither names can be put to the makers of the Book of Kells, unlike in the case of the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels. Yet, it is based on detectable differences in style both in the handwriting and in the artwork, the manuscript seems to be the work of  a team of three or four scribal artists. The art historian and archaeologist, Francoise Henry, called the artist of the Book of Kells’ Chri Rho page the goldsmith, not only for the use of yellow but also for fine details of his work, which was reminiscent of metalwork. The so-called ‘goldsmith’ was also responsible for the eight circle cross page or carpet page. The ‘illustrator’ is the name she gave to the artist who executed the Temptation page and page normally identified as the Arrest of Christ. Additionally, there is a ‘portrait painter’ – as she called him, who was responsible for the depiction of the Virgin and Child. In contrast to the personalities that Francoise Henry gave the artists, she simply termed the scribes A, B and C, “to which I’m inclined to add the fourth scribe D. Th e scribe A was a sovereign conservative who concentrated entirely on script. On the other hand, the scribe B was a unbind personality who clearly enjoyed using different coloured inks. The scribe C integrated his script closely into the decoration. The scribe D, I regard as the most accomplished of all. In some places, I have the impression that he was responsible for both, decoration as well as script”.

Folio 285 r of the Book of Kells is a fully decorated page corresponding to the moment of the Passion (Luke 24:1), “Una autem sabbati valde”, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, just before the time, when the women approach the empty sepulchre and find two shiny men instead of the buried Christ. Angels and archangels are very present throughout the whole Book of Kells, where they play a very significant part in the manuscript, both as messengers and protectors. Judeo-Christian radition teaches that there have always been angels to call upon. In fol. 285 r, they guard the sepulchre where Jesus lies. These are possibly the four archangels of presence, SS Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, though the latter’s cult was forbidden by the Roman Church in the eighth century. It is one of the two fully decorated text pages, yet they miss the miniatures, which usually illustrate the content. They are possibly lost to us today. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, it is believed that the Book of Kells has a few layers of understanding. The basic one generates from the scale of the work itself to be admired as the work of angels. As such, it was venerated by both, educated and illiterate believers who were dazzled by its colours. It was a mircale itself for laypeople to see the divine rainbow enclosed in the Book. There were various types of inks used in writing manuscripts. The most common ink was made using inkberry holly but there were also used various plant and mineral extracts. Some of the pigments were produced locally, like those received from oak galls or lamp black. Others were very exotic, such as lapis lazuli brought from the far East. What that does tell us about the contemporaneous trade links is the fast that these remote Insular religious centres, like Iona, were plugged into the international exchange of goods. In the Book of Kells, the range of colours used is much wider than previously, its illuminators went even a stage further; they overpainted with colour wahes, they engaged a little bit with a sort of pointilist optical mistic by having different little decorative motifs overlying the base colours. Yet, another level of the insight the Book of Kells has offered is not a visual and not for the illiterate at all, as it contains an extremely encoded text for the initiated. Letters on many of its pages can be only put into phrases and read when a reader exactly knows what he is looking for. The words in the Book of Kells are even more hidden and difficult to be discerned in between their curves and shapes than in any other codices, including the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Book of Kells has not survived the centuries intact. Near 1006 or 1007, it was stolen from the sacristy of the Church of Columba in Kells. It was not for the Book of Kells itsel, as its thief was most possibly illiterate, but for the Book’s wonderful binding and the casket, in which it was held, that had kept the attention of the thief, who stripped off the binding and threw the Book in the bog, from where it was happily recovered three months later. It is very difficult to imagine the richness of such a book cover for the Gospel Codex of a similar caliber but we can get some idications from the surviving book shrines. The closest complete example that has survived is the cover of the Soiscél Molaisse, which was once a used as an Irish cumdach for a more pocket Gospel Book. It originated from an eighth-century wooden core embellished in the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. The cover shows the ringed cross, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists and these representations, of course, find their parallels on a few pages from the Book of Kells. At one time or another, the latter has lost about 30 leaves, including about 10 leaves at the beginning, about 12 at the end and 8 or 9 leaves at various points within the Book. Some of the lost leaves would have included the major decorations. After it was sent to Dublin, the worst came; the Book of Kells was savagely trimmed by a binder at some point in its history, when the manuscript was rebound but it is not known exactly when. It is specifically visible on Folio 291v, with the Portrait of Saint John, where the Evangelist is enbraced by a larger figure with his head partly chopped off. Rebounding was to make the Book look tidy, with its edges fitting perfectly its new binding, which turned out to be extremely harmful to the Book itself.

The Book Of Kells was created at the turn of the ninth century and shows today how the monks of the monastery of Iona, founded by Saint Columba, combined the influences of the east with Celtic and Pictish craft traditions in metal working and stone carving, to create a work so astonishing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The beginning of each Gospel in all Insular Gospel Codices is the following: The Evangelist portrayed, carpet page, opening words of the Gospel. In the Book of Kells the sequence is similar but not quite the same. The first page of the sequence is a page showing all four of the Evangelists’ symbols: angel, lion, ox and eagle. This is on a left-hand page. The facing page is left blank. The next left-hand page has a picture of the Evangelist but only two of the original four Evangelists’ portraits had survived , those showing Matthews and John. The picture of Matthew faces the opening words of his Gospel, which is, as mentioned above, much more difficult to read in the Book of Kells than in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In the Book of Kells there is also a sequence of not one but of three decorated pages at the point of Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1, Verse 18). First comes a picture of Christ Himself, holding the Book of Life in His hand. This image of Christ occupies a left-hand page. It faces a Carpet Page, which incorporates a double-cross design. After turning that page over, there are the opening words of Matthew Chapter 1, verse 18, with the letters X P I, abbreviating Christ’s name in Greek. The Book of Kells has lost its first pages but they may have contained Saint Jerome’s letter to his comissioner, Pope Damasus, but it does still have a set of Canon Tables. Instead of having the columns headed by the names of the Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospels, there are their symbols. What more distinguishes the Book of Kells from other Insular Gospel codices is that it goes far beyond them, both, in the amount and elaborateness of decoration, and in the number of miniatures; it includes all three pictures depicting key moments in Christ’s life on earth. It is worth emphasising that these three scenes are the only narrative representations of events in Christ’s life to be found in any Insular Gospel works. At the front of the Book, following the Canon Tables, comes the deception of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child group surrounded by four archangels, alluding to Christ’s birth on earth. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel appears the picture depicting the Arrest of Christ after Judas had betrayed Him. And within Saint Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the section of text describing baptism comes the image representing Christ’s Temptation. Regarding pages with regular text, the style of the handwriting is the same as for the Lindisfarne Gospels, yet there are touches of colour and decoration scattered across the pages. Each verse of the text begins with a collet and decorated initial so that even on pages of regular text the decoration of Kells goes beyond that of Lindisfarne. Also some text pages are afforded special treatment, e.g. the page that contains the beginning of Saint Luke’s listing of the ancestors of Jesus. The page with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,3-48) is also given a special treatment, so it is once again more colourful and more elaborate. Pages of text that describes events at the end of Jesus’ life are treated even more decoratively, like the page that begins the account of the Crucifixion in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

It has been long recognised that the Book of Kells is a consummate masterpiece of early medieval design. The pioneer scholar of the study of the medieval manuscripts, John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893) wrote, commenting on both, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells: “I have examined with the magnifying glass the pages of the Gospel of Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells for hours together, without ever detecting of false line or an irregular interlacement. And when it is considered that many of these details consist of spiral lines and are so minute, as it is impossible to have been executed without a pair of compasses, it really seems an enigma not only with what eyes but also with what instruments they could have been drawn”.

Despite its overhelming grandeur, the Book of Kells rarely appears in known medieval accounts of annals, and if it does, authors dedicate to it just short passages. The exception comes from twelfth-century chronicler, Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis’ (1146-1223), who travelled across Ireland in 1180s gives a long and elaborate medieval description of The Book of Kells in a really literal and descriptive manner, as if it was a fairy tale. Topographia Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis shows how much the author was amazed by the beauty of the Book’s illuminations when he traveled to Ireland. He describes it as “so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn”. Having applied the whole range of iconographical, iconological, technical and stylistic elements, the Book of Kells reached the highest level in its genre. It is so fascinating to discover there ancient Celtic motifs and techniques, interlaced with Oriental iconological religious ideas and iconography, with some additions of the European Meditteranean stylistic touches. All these aspects make the Book of Kells a real masterpiece and a glorious refection of knowledge speard in one of the enlightened enclaves in the contemporaneous world. For its intricacy, the Book of Kells was authentically believed to have been created with divine or mystical assistance. In Giraldus’ account, the scribe working on the Book was inspired by an angel and one of the major Patron Saints of Ireland, Saint Brigit. Yet invoking such a heveanly assistance of angels was not an uncommon phenomenon, frequently described as real events, especially in Insular chronicles or hagiographies, and was also practiced by means of adapted orthopraxy, by means of various rituals, which were not always in accordance with the canonical orthodoxy assumed in Rome. It is finally not surprising that in the eyes of medieval public, the Book of Kells was regarded as the “work of not men but of angels”. Those seems appropriate words to be applied to this most beautiful book …

Among all the miracles in Kildare, none appears to me more wonderful than that marvelous book which they say was written in the ti[m]e of the Virgin at the dictation of an angel. It contains the Four Gospels according to St. Jerom[e], and almost every page is illustrated by drawings illuminated with a variety of brilliant colours. In one page you see the countenance of the Divine Majesty supernaturally pictured; in another, the mystic forms of the evangelists, with either six, four or two wings; here are depicted the eagle, there the calf; here the face of a man, there of a lion; with other figures in almost endless variety…

— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written.

Featured image: In front of the representation of the page with Angels or Archangels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College. 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.


Beckett, W. 1996. ‘The Mists of Time’, in Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, S.1, E.1. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Giraldus Cambrensis, The Topography of Ireland, accessed March 21, 2018, Thomas Wright, trans. (Cambridge, Ontario 2000), pp. 55-6.

Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales] (c. 1146-1223) in Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), in Medieval Hollywood. (https://bit.ly/42T43Sv; accessed 14th May, 2023).

Grahams, T. 2009. ‘The Book of Kells: A Celtic Treasure’, in UNM Youtube Channel. The University of New Mexico. (https://bit.ly/3O8qMWw, 2009; accessed 14th May, 2023).

Grigor, M., Lenton, L. 2009. The Book of Kells – The Works of Angels? Crescendo Concepts LTD.

Lewis, S. 1980. Sacred Calligraphy: the Chi-Rho Pagein the Book of Kells. Traditio , 1980, Vol. 36, pp. 139-159. Cambridge University Press.

Different Roads of the Ancient World Guided by Different Writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other Wonders of the Ancient World than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8; see: Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Fragment from Herodotus’ Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. (2010). Public domain. Caption source: Mingren W. (DHWTY) (2017). “Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?”. In: Ancient Origins. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2021). Public domain.

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Detail of a relief of Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris, France. Photo by Jastrow (2008). CC BY 3.0. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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


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Klein G. (1998). ”Siedem Cudów Świata”. In: Sfinks. Tajemnice Historii, vol. 3., [Sphinx. Geheimnisse der Geschichte. Von Ramsez II bis zum Ersten Kaiser von China], pp. 134-178. Zimmerer K. trans., Huf H-C. ed. Warszawa: Świat Książki.

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Zamarovsky V. (1990). Tropami Siedmiu Cudów Świata, [Za siedmi divmi svĕta]. Godlewski P. trans. Katowice: Wydawnictwo „Śląsk”.

Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Just after the Hypogeum in Malta was discovered by accident in 1902, it was kept secret so as not to disturb the building schedule on the site and therefore continued work caused irretrievable damage to a large megalithic circle that once stood directly above the subterranean part, giving access to its abyss (Magli 2009:56; Haughton 2009:162). It is hence believed that more such underground complexes may exist beneath other overground temples (Alberino, Quayle 2016). As a matter of fact, in the eighteenth century in Gozo, another hypogeum carved down in the rock was brought into light (Magli 2009:57).

Aquarelle painting of the Xagħra Stone Circle by Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1825). This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The complex was once depicted in a painting with the famous Ggantija temple in the background (Magli 200:57). The site is known as Xaghra and was excavated in 1990 by Anthony Bonnano and his group of archaeologists (Ibid.:57). One of their most famous findings is, also like in the case of Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, a figurine. That one, however, represents two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated.

After Giulio Magli (2009:57) the placement of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to the nearby free-standing Tarxien temple. Indeed, the pairing cannot be coincidental as it also happens in other megalithic free standing temples of the archipelago (Ibid.:57).

Interesting but disturbing article in National Geographic …

I was still in the deep chasm of the earth’s belly, when I realized I found myself in one of the entrance to a huge underground labyrinth (see: Maltese History in the Negative). For it is well known that the Hypogeum constitutes just a part of an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands (Alberino, Quayle 2016). During World War II, the island of Malta suffered the most terrible bombing attacks, and people used this underground world as a shelter, storage for ammunition and other vital supplies (Ibid.).

“National Geographic August 1940, Back Issue”. In: National Geographic Back Issues. Accessed on 12th of August, 2018.

Many legends and folk stories tell about eerie creatures who have inhibited the subterranean world, especially the Hypogeum complex (Alberino, Quayle 2016). In August, 1940, National Geographic Magazine featured an article entitled Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (Roma 2017). In his article from the wartime, the author describes the underground corridors in Malta used once as part of the island’s fortifications and defense system (Haughton 2009:165). Furthermore, Richard Walter detailed the underground world  that honeycomb the bedrock of the archipelago, and stated that the British government blew up ancient tunnels to shut them off permanently after the school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth of the Hypogeum and they had never returned (Funnell  2014; Haughton 2009:165). Additionally, it was also said that yet many weeks after the incident, the parents of these children had claimed to hear their children’s crying and voices coming from under the ground in various parts of the island (Haughton 2009:165168; Tajemnice historii 2016).

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) actually reports this misfortune twice, on the following pages, 267 and 272. (Roma 2017):

Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defence system (page 258). Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas serve as homes for the poor. Prehistoric man built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned (page 272).

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 267. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze

While we cycled homeward, our friends told us that the island was honeycombed with a network of underground passages, many of them catacombs. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other, but all entrances were closed by the Government because of a tragedy. On a sight-seeing trip, comparable to a nature-study tour in our own schools, a number of elementary school children and their teachers descended into the tunneled maze and did not return. For weeks mothers declared that they had heard wailing and screaming from underground. But numerous excavations and searching parties brought no trace of the lost souls. After three weeks they were finally given up for dead. Sections of this underground network have been used to protect military and naval supplies. Indeed, many of the fortifications themselves are merely caps atop a maze of tunnels (page 267) . Thus is Malta fortified. Her thrifty, religious, and intelligent people love peace. Yet, with war in Europe, they now are in the center of Mediterranean strife.

Walter, Richard (1940) “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272. The text source: Roma (2017) “Shades of Malta. Folklore on the Fringe”. In: Investigating Malta.

The rat-catcher from Hamelin

Sceptics believe, however, that the story of the lost children is not based on facts, but actually echoes some legends appearing in various areas in Europe (Haughton 2009:168). One of them is a medieval folk tale of the Flutist from Hamelin (Germany), which was written down, among others, by the Brothers Grimm (Haughton 2009:168; “Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Then it was translated into thirty languages of the world, telling about the events that were to happen on June 26, 1284 in the German city of Hamelin (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020).

Flutist (Rat-Catcher) from Hamelin, a copy of the stained glass window from the Marktkirche church in Hamelin (according to Reisechronik Augustin von Moersperg from 1592) – watercolor. Public domain: Photo source: “Flecista z Hameln” (2020). Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

According to the legend, in 1284, the Lower Saxony city of Hamelin in Germany was hit by a plague of rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). The rat-catcher hired by the inhabitants lured the rats out of the city with the help of music produced by a miraculous flute (Ibid.). As a consequence, the animals lured out by the magical instrument drowned in the Weser River (Ibid.). After the work was done, the rat-catcher was, however, refused the promised payment for getting rid of the rodents (Ibid.). Out of revenge, the deceived musician similarly led all the children from Hamelin into the unknown, in some versions, to the underground (Ibid.).

Among the rational explanations for the origin of the legend is the hypothesis related to the plague epidemic, a disease spread by rats (“Flecista z Hameln” 2020). Such an assumption has been made because a mass grave from the mid-fourteenth century was discovered near Hamelin, containing several hundred skeletons of children (Ibid.).

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and the lost children in the Hypogeum

Many scholars also claim the story provided by the article is just a local folk tale, possibly invented to keep children away from the dangerous tunnels (Haughton 2009:168). It also brings to mind the mysterious disappearance of Australian schoolgirls described in the novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay (Ibid.:168). As the story goes, it was a clear summer day in 1900, when a group of schoolgirls from Mrs. Appleyard’s elite girls’ school, along with a few teachers, went on a picnic near a place called the Hanging Rock (Lubimyczytać.pl 2021). After lunch, a few of the older students went for a walk around the neighborhood but only one girl returned, terrified and hysterical (Ibid.). One of the teachers was also missing … (Ibid.)

The novel begins with the author’s brief foreword, which reads (“Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” 2021):

Whether “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

Joan Lindsay’s Foreword to the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (2021). In: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
At the Hanging Rock by William Ford (1875) was the basis of the novel’s title; in addition to her writing, Lindsay was also a professional painter and influenced by visual art (1875). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Picnic at Hanging Rock (novel)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

This short excerpt by the author perfectly illustrates and characterizes the tone of the entire book; until the very end of the story it is not even clear what really happened to the missing girls and their teacher or if the story itself is based on facts at all (Sudnik 2018). Joan Lindsay does not say that the events described in her book are just a part of an invented story (Ibid.) On the contrary, the writer suggests that they could have actually happened (Ibid.). Consequently, there is still a persisting belief that it was a real event, as much as in the case of the children lost before World War II in the Maltese Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Is there anything more to the Maltese story?

Archaeologist Brian Haughton (2009:168) believes that in the National Geographic (1940) article you can actually find the source of many modern fascinating stories, mostly being published on the Internet. They are all about mysterious disappearing into secret tunnels below the Hypogeum (Ibid.168). After him, the problem is that the National Geographic (1940) article lacks any reference to the actual sources it has been based on, and more modern reliable descriptions of that alleged tragedy have never been discovered (Ibid.:168). Moreover, although the Hypogeum is mentioned in the article, it is not clearly described as an actual place where the children actually got lost (Ibid.:168). The author only describes the misfortune happened in the network of the underground tunnels on Malta, of which the Hypogeum is an integral part (Ibid.:168). Consequently, it cannot be certain that the said incident occurred just there (Ibid.:168).

The only thing that can be reliably assumed is that the story itself was in the public sphere (Roma 2017). It could have happened but it could also be just an urban myth. If the latter is the case, why did the British government shut off ancient tunnels permanently? (Roma 2017; Funnell 2014).

National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Source: Peter (2018-2020).
National Geographic August 1940, p. 272. Photo source: Kelly Peter (2018-2020). In: “This Amazing Reality”. In: Pinterest. Cf. Walter, Richard (1940) “Tragedy in Malta’s Tunneled Maze“. In: “Wanderers Awheel in Malta”, p. 272. The National Geographic Magazine, Aug 1940, pp. 253-272.

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X and his continuation of the story

The article Wanderers Awheel in Malta by Richard Walter (1940) is the primary source for the lost children story (Roma 2017). Yet there is also another record from the sixties of the twentieth century, entitled The Reality of the Cavern World, written by Riley Crabb, akin Commander X, who was a former Director of the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (Haughton 2009:169; Funnell 2014). It is actually a publication of his own lecture in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen, published in 1966 (Haughton 2009:169). The Crabb’s reprinted article not only summarizes the story known from the National Geographic (1940) about the missing children but also mentions another important person of the story, Lois Jessup, and the fact there are tunnels beneath Malta that may reach as far as the catacombs beneath the hill of the Vatican (Funnell 2014; Haughton 2009:168-169). It also refers to the Lower Level of the Hypogeum as an actual place where the dramatic event took place (Ibid.). Accordingly, the so-called Lower Level is not the dead end of the underground temple (or a storage! as some scholars suggest) but in fact the entrance to the maze of the underground network.

Hypogeum of Xaghra on Gozo Island, Malta. This media is about Maltese cultural property with inventory number 26. Photo by Hamelin de Guettelet (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Xagħra Stone Circle”(2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Tradition holds that before the British government sealed up several tunnels, one could walk from one end of Malta to the other underground. One of the labyrinths, discovered by excavators, is the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini, in which excavators discovered the bones of over 33,000 people who had been sacrificed by an ancient pagan neolithic cult. National Geographic, Aug. 1940 issue, told of several school children who had disappeared without a trace in the Hypogeum. British embassy worker Miss Lois Jessup convinced a guide to allow her to explore a 3-ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level of the catacombs. He reluctantly agreed and she crawled through the passage until emerging on a cavern ledge overlooking a deep chasm. In total shock she saw a procession of TALL humanoids with white hair covering their bodies walking along another ledge about 50 feet down on the opposite wall of the chasm. Sensing her they collectively lifted their palms in her direction at which a strong “wind” began to blow through the cavern and something big, “slippery and wet” moved past her before she left in terror to the lower room, where the guide gave her a “knowing” look. Later she returned after the 30 school children and their teacher[s] had disappeared in the same passage that she had explored, only to find a new guide who denied any knowledge of the former guides’ employment there. She heard reports however that after the last child had passed through the “burial chamber” and out onto the ledge, a “cave-in” collapsed the burial chamber and the rope connecting them to the lower chamber was later found to be “cut clean”. Grieving Mothers of several of the children swore that for a week or more following the disappearance they could hear their children crying and screaming “as if from underground”. Other sources state that an underground connection exists or did exist between Malta and reaches hundreds of miles and intersects the catacombs below the hill Vaticanus in Rome. 

Riley Crabb, akin Commander X (1940). “The Reality of the Cavern World”. Reprinted in: Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (1966). Text source: Lyn Funnell  (2014) “Malta’s Catacombs, Aliens & The Disappearing Children; True or Urban Myth?” In: B-C-ing-U.

One of numerous cavities on Malta; the Cave of Għar Dalam, Triq Għar Dalam in Birżebbuġa. Photo by Frank Vincentz (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Għar Dalam” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I was really grabbed by these two stories (Cf. Funnell 2014). Even more mysterious is Lois Jessup’s own experience she had on the Hypogeum’s Lower Level (Cf. Funnell 2014; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Yet on my way to the Hypogeum I asked a driver if he knew anything of the children who had got lost in there before the war. He replied that he had never heard about it but actually it was good I mentioned that as he would have never let his daughter go there …

Anyway, as far as I know one is not allowed to enter the Hypogeum with a child younger than six years old.

Deliberate disinformation or accidental lack of sources?

Mainly due to such publications from the 1960s, as the article by Riley Crabb, the story of the missing children and other mysteries of the Hypogeum were endlessly repeated on the Internet, yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century (Haughton 2009:168). According to these stories, which unfortunately lack actual sources one could follow and verify, thirty children disappeared along with their teachers during a school trip to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Before they came down deeper, they had been secured with a long rope that was attached at the entrance to the corridor (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Nevertheless, the same rope that was supposed to ensure their safe return was found cut clean (Haughton 2009:168; Tajemnice Historii 2016). Moreover, the entrance to the tunnel in which the children disappeared was said to have eventually been boarded up (Jessup 1958-1960).

There are also mentioned new archaeological elements that were not provided either by the author of the National Geographic (1940) article or by earlier archaeological reports from the conducted field works (see: Maltese History in the Negative); accordingly, instead of the 7,000 excavated skeletons, there is a note of the bodies of over 33,000 buried people who had been probably sacrificed to a chthonic deity from the Hypogeum (Haughton 2009:168).

Also the novel by Joan Lindsey (1969) was published at the time when the story about the lost children in Malta kept circulating in various publications. Was it then the author herself inspired by the mysterious tale of the Hypogeum and its innocent victims?

In search for the truth

Is the story about the lost children true then? Such a horrific happening must have been passed down through the generations (Funnell 2014). Many people have done research on the lost children to find out more but nobody’s heard anything about it (Ibid.). Lyn Funnell (2014) writes that if this accident happened it was a year or two before World War II broke out. “Malta was heavily bombed day after day. Houses were reduced to piles of rubble and there were hundreds of casualties. Many of the families who apparently lost their children would have been killed” (Ibid.).

It is well known that there is an intricate maze of tunnels, caverns and chambers buried deep in the limestone bedrock beneath the islands. Here are the steps leading to the underground beneath the Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“There was a desperate shortage of food. Day-to-day survival was the main thing on the Maltese minds” (Funnell 2014). As Lyn Funnell (2014) underlines “the facts and the dates seem so clear. And the article’s written about the children as though it assumes that everyone knows what it’s on about!” “The National Geographic Magazine is a very reputable publication” (Ibid.). Mrs. Constance Lois Jessup, also spelled Jessop, is believed to have been a real person who lived in New York City, in the 1950s and 60s (Ibid.). She might actually have worked for the British government and not for the British embassy as it is suggested in some sources, as the latter had not been yet established in Malta before 1964. Her experience in the Hypogeum probably made her join the New York Saucer Investigation Bureau, known as the NYSIB, or she had been already a member of the Institution when she went down there… (Ibid.). Her friend, Riley Crabb, known as the Commander X, wrote the article cited above about her strange experience (Ibid.).

Lois Jessop’s tour and hairy giants in her way …

One article written by Miss Lois Jessop herself, entitled Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World also appeared in an old issue by Riley Crabb’s Borderland Science Magazine, published by the Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (B.S.R.F.) and was also later reprinted in full in the book Enigma Fantastique by Dr. W. Gordon Allen (Funnell 2014). Here is the story by Lois Jessop told in her own words:

I visited some friends on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s. One afternoon six of us decided to hire a car and visit some of the many historical tourist attractions on the island. One of our party suggested that, since the weather was very hot, our best bet was to visit some of the caves and underground temples. At least there we could keep cool for a few hours.

Figurines found in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some few miles out of Valetta, the capitol of Malta, is the little town of Paula. It has only one main street, Hal Saflini, and on this is the entrance to an underground temple known as the Hypogeum of Hal Saflini. We stopped here and sought out the guide for a tour of the cave or catacombs of the Hypogeum. There was a fairly large cave entrance with ancient mural decorations of whirls and wavy lines, diamond patches here and there, also oval patterns seemingly painted with red ochre. The entrance itself smelt damp and mouldy, but inside the cave there was not a trace of mustiness. Joe, the guide, told us there were three floors of underground rooms and gave each of us a lighted candle.

One by one we bent down low to walk through a narrow passage which led to a step or two, and again we were able to stand up in a fair sized room which had been built out of the Malta sandstone aeons ago in the Stone-Age. Joe told of a powerful oracle (or wishing well) deep down, and how it had worked wonders in the old days for the initiated who knew the correct sound to use. I think the oracle still works today unless it was damaged. Malta was heavily bombarded during World War II.

The oracle was supposed to work only if a male voice called to it but as the guide was saying this I slipped down a small step and gave a yell that was picked up by something and magnified throughout the whole cave.

We followed the guide through some more narrow passages which led down, down, down, then straightened our backs again when we came into another room. In this large opening was a circular stone table or altar in the center of the room. Cut out of the rock walls around were layers of stone beds or resting places of some kind, with hollows scooped out for head, body, and narrowing to the feet. I guess these were places for adults about four feet tall, with smaller scooped out beds. It looked like mother, father and child either slept or were buried here, although we saw no bodies here.

Down, down, down again, stooping and crawling through a narrow passage into another large room, with slits or narrow openings in the stone wall.

“They buried their dead in here,” said the guide.

I peered through a slit and saw skeletons another. Through another slit I peered into a cave where, the guide said, they kept their prisoners. A three foot thick stone door, about four feet high and four feet wide, guarded the entrance.

“What kind of people, and how strong were these pigmies, to be able to carve out these rooms to a definite pattern and to move doors this thick and heavy?” I thought.

“This is the end of the tour,” Joe, the guide, said. “We must now turn and retrace our steps.”

“What’s down there?” I asked him; for on turning I noticed another opening off one of the walls.

“Go there at your own risk,” he replied, “and you won’t go far.”

I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.

You are not allowed to take pictures in the Hypogeum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.

There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. Terror rooted me to the spot.

“Go on, we’re all getting stuck in the passage!” My friend jerked at my sash. “What’s the matter?”

“Well, there’s nothing much to see,” I stammered, taking another step forward.

My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn’t on cold rock but on something soft and wet. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!

“Go back,” I yelled to the others, “go back and guide me back by my sash. My candle has gone out and I cannot see!”

In utter panic I backed into the narrow little passageway and forced the others back, too, until we had backed into the large room where Joe and my friends were waiting. What a relief that was!

“Well, did you see anything?” asked one of them.

“No,” I quickly replied, “There was a draft in there that blew my candle out.”

“Let’s go,” said Joe, the guide.

I looked up at him. Our eyes met. I knew that at one time he had seen what I had seen. There was an expression of caution in his eyes, adding to my reluctance to tell anyone. I decided not to.

Out in the open again and in the hot Malta sunshine we thanked the guide, and as we tipped him he looked at me.

“If you really are interested in exploring further it would be wise to join a group. There is a schoolteacher who is going to take a party exploring soon,” he said.

I left my address with him and asked him to have the schoolteacher get in touch with me, but I never heard any more about it, until one of my friends called me to read an item from the Valetta paper.

“I say, Lois, remember that tunnel you wanted to explore? It says here in the paper that a schoolmaster and thirty students went exploring, and apparently got as far as we did. They were roped together and the end of the rope was tied to the opening of the cave. As the last student turned the corner where your candle blew out the rope was clean cut, and none of the party was found because the walls caved in.”

The shock of this information didn’t change my determination not to say anything about my experience in the Hypogaeum, but several months later my sister visited Malta and insisted on making a tour of the underground temple on Hal Saflini. Reluctantly, I went along, retracing the same route; but there was a different guide this time. When we got down to the lowest level, to the room where I had taken off to explore the tunnel entrance was boarded up!

“Wasn’t it here that the schoolmaster and the thirty students got trapped?” I asked the guide.

“Perhaps,” he replied, with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders, and refused to say anything more. You cannot get a thing out of the Maltese when they don’t want to talk.

“You are new here, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Where’s Joe, the guide who was here a couple of months ago?”

“I don’t know any Joe.” He shook his head. “I alone have been showing people around this catacomb for years.”

Who was this guide? And why did Joe disappear after we left Hal Saflini that first time? And why is it impossible to get any facts on the disappearing schoolchildren story? In the Summer of 1960, Louise Becker, N.Y.S.I.B.’s treasurer visited Malta during her European trip. She searched old newspaper files and the Museum, trying to get some facts to substantiate my story, but in vain. The Maltese are tight-lipped about the secrets of their island.”

By C. Lois Jessop, Secretary, New York Saucer Information Bureau (1958-1960) “Malta, Entrance to the Cavern World”. Source of the text: Borderland Sciences Research Foundation. Journal of Borderland Research. Vol. 17. No. 02.

A clay figurine found in the Hypogeum of Xaghra, Gozo, representing two “fat ladies” sitting side by side, probably mirroring the way two nearby temples of the Ggantija complex are situated. Ggantija Museum. Photo by Elżbieta Pierzga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The underworld and human psyche

All the mentioned stories that refer to the mysterious world of the Hypogeum, whether real, imaginary or legendary, are certainly also inspired by human curiosity of the unknown, which is always hidden deep in the depths of the earth, to which both natural caves and man-made passages are the gateways. The latter, like the Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni, built either as a temple or necropolis, particularly lures human imagination by its abyss that both, terrifies and delights. It is because it offers an alternative and inexplicable world of mystery. The journey of the school children and that of Lois Jessup ends at the last permitted threshold of the Lower Level. Beside it, the unknown realms, and it explanation fades with the candlelight. Likewise, the mystery of the darkness leads to the unknown of Hanging Rock from the novel by Joan Lindsey. Still it cannot be revealed to the outside world. It disappears together with those whom it devours. In any case, the darkness attracts and absorbs the children’s innocence. Trustful as they are by nature, they follow its path without knowing that they would never return to the sun. What they left behind is just an enigma.

“Primitive” inhabitants of Malta.

So where is the beginning of the whole story of the Hypogeum after all? Prehistory of Malta begins (if we stick with the established dates) quite late, namely around 5200 BC. (Magli 2009:48). Between 5200 and 4000 BC. nothing extraordinary happened: like the cultures of Sicily, with which Malta’s inhabitants had a contact, people of the archipelago made pottery and developed economy based on fishing, hunting and farming (Ibid.:48). They built their houses in brick and small stones and led a very ordinary Neolithic life (Ibid.:48). Then, out of the blue, as if “primitive” inhabitants of Malta had awakened from a long dream, a great explosion of building activity with the use of giant megaliths had started (Ibid.:48).

The so-called Temple Period lasted for over one millennium, from around 3800 to 2500 BC. (Magli 2009:47). What is even more interesting, the builders of the temples vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared on the scene (Ibid.:48-49). Prof John Evans (1925 – 2011), a leading Maltese temple researcher admitted himself, there has been no explanation for such a fact (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). After the sudden end of the megalithic culture, the island was apparently not inhabited for a long time but finally everything came back to the “primitive” state of things (Magli 2009:48-49; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). It actually does not make any sense … (Magli 2009:48-49).

More stories about giants

Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Some independent researchers claim that the Maltase cyclopean  architecture, including the Hypogeum and other structures, such as enigmatic cart ruts, actually come from the Prediluvian times and were constructed and inhabited by long – headed hybrids, and giants, maybe similar to those encountered and described by Lois Jessup (Magli 2009:64-65; Burns 2014; Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Successive inhabitants of the archipelago also assigned the construction of the megalithic structures to giants, especially to Cyclops (hence the term cyclopean architecture coming from the Greek) (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017; Burns 2014). Similar stories were repeated by the Minoan and Mycenae cultures whose members regarded Malta as the island once inhabited by strange and powerful beings (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). According to a legend, in the beginning, the island was ruled by the offspring of the Giantess who had emerged from the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.). Similar stories are also known in other parts of the world (Ibid.). Figures representing gigantic and fluffy women have been excavated in great numbers on Malta (Ibid.). Prof. John Evans claimed, however, that some of them look rather asexual (Ibid.). Who were those giants then? As the legend goes they were the teachers passing on knowledge to people (Ibid.). Dr. Anton Mifsud claims that his friend living on Gozo island has dug up a three metres long skeleton but he hid it from the authorities (Ibid.).. Still, there is no other evidence of such a discovery … (Ibid.).

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Hypogeum was closed for several years, namely in the years 1992-1996, although it was reportedly not related to the mysterious events happening inside the monument (Haughton 2009:169). It was because more serious restoration work had to be carried out due to the progressive destruction of the limestone rock caused by the action of carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists in the limited space (Ibid.:169). In order to protect this valuable archaeological site from further damage, the number of visitors has now been limited to eighty a day, which requires prior reservation of a visit (Ibid.:169). In addition, a micro-climate was created above the underground chambers, artificially regulating temperature and humidity (Ibid.:169). In 1980, the fascinating Hypogeum Ħal Saflieni was eventually declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (Ibid.:169). It has truly deserved it!

Up Back in the Sun!

A modern day Malta is a collective blend of ethnic and cultural heritages but the identity of the earliest inhabitants of the archipelago is shrouded in mystery. Today it is difficult to separate the myth from the truth but material evidence left behind cannot be ignored. Like other megalithic builders around the world cyclopean architects from Malta, whoever they were, vanished almost overnight, without a trace.

The facade of the museum after restoration in 2017. Photo by Continentaleurope (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I felt strangely liberated when I eventually emerged from the darkness of the Hypogeum and found myself again in the sunshine, under the azure sky of the Mediterranean. The underground world attracts to its mystery but it must have been invented to appreciate more the daylight and outside world, still existing on the surface of its creepy stories. For many reasons, it was a strange and profound experience that is yet worth recommending.

When my friend joined me, we headed off to other great monuments of Malta – the free standing megalithic temples built “in the positive”, on the surface.

Featured image: Photograph of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni made before 1910. Photo by Richard Ellis. Uploaded in 2008. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Continue reading Inhabitants of the Subterranean Passageways of Malta

Xylography in Asian Wood Engravings and Medieval Block Books

The definition of xylography means the oldest known form of woodcut and engraving in wood, invented in China in the first century AD. Although it originated in China, “the practice of woodcut has spread across the world from Europe to other parts of Asia, and to Latin America. [In woodcut technique], the block is cut along the wood grain, [whereas in the case of wood engraving], the block is cut in the [end-grain].” (“Woodcut” 2021).

A single-sheet of woodcut of the famous Four Horsemen c. 1496–1498 by Albrecht Dürer, depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Albrecht Dürer – National Gallery of Art. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The technique of “[woodcut] is a relief printing […] in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink, while characters or images at surface level carry the ink to produce the print. […] The surface is covered with ink, [also in multiple colours], by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas” (“Woodcut” 2021).

The art of carving the woodcut is generally referred to as xylography. Although the latter term is rarely used in Europe for woodcut single images, it is mostly related to the so-called block books, “which are small books containing text and images in the same block” (“Woodcut” 2021). Such block books are also called xylographica; they were uniquely printed in Europe and became popular in the second half of the fifteenth century. They are short books of up to fifty leaves and of nearly always religious content. At the same time, a single-sheet of woodcut is rather called simply a woodcut, which is presented as a single image or print, as opposed to a book illustration included in  xylographica.

Featured image: Fragment of the woodcut page from the Apocalypse. It is a block book printed in Europe between 1450 & 1500. The image come from a late fifteenth century compilation blockbook [Cod Pal. Germ 34] of which the ‘Apokalypse’ (4th ed.) forms one section. The printed text is in Latin but handwritten German translation sheets were inserted between the blockbook pages. The book is hosted by the University of Heidelberg. Public domain. Image modified. Photo and caption source: “Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


Bernard T. (2013). “Xylography. Art Terms — X”Trylit”. In: Teresa Bernard Oil Paintings. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fvYwvq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Woodcut” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/34rVLoq>. [Accessed 27th May, 2021].

“Block book” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3i1FAX3>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors

The ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ is the collective concept and canon of knowledge, widely known to the ancient European (Klein 1998:136). The entry into the canon was determined not only by the majesty and uniqueness of a given building, but also by its historical significance and, above all, the myth related to these wonders (Ibid.:136). The latter has always revived ancient monuments and their creators in wandering human minds trying to fully embrace their mystery with a triggered imagination. Such feelings must have accompanied ancient travellers while they were setting off in the unknown to visit the outstanding monuments, many of which had already been said archaic in those times. Even today, when one is faced with the fate of the seven ancient wonders, they unconsciously study the history of the real world from those ages, where such monuments were a real symbol of human striving for perfection and beauty, and of a growing desire to discover and travel far, beyond one’s limits and knowledge (Ibid.:136). But visitors of the ancient wonders had already been guided.

Eternal ancient wonder in Egypt

I was in Egypt on the Plateau of Giza, surrounded by over two millions of squared multi-ton blocks of stone, piling up into three massive pyramids. While standing at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu, I was looking up at its cone shining in the background of the clouded sky. After a while, I decided to follow some visitors in their way up along the pyramid’s northern wall.

While walking with my sister along the base of the Great Pyramid, I am pointing to the white rows of stones, imitating a fragment of the casing of the Pyramid of Khufu. It was not placed there originally due to its wrong trajectory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When I approached its base at the north side, the pyramid’s stones enormously grew in my eyes, which is quite logical when one observes something from close but at the same it was still surprising how large they really turned out to be, especially for someone who had just looked at illustrations of the pyramids depicted from the distance. Simultaneously, I noticed at the bottom of the pyramid a fragment of a flat and white row of stones which were said to be the remains of the outer casing of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). It was not, however, placed there originally, as if its trajectories are stretched up it would hit the opposite blocks just above it (Ibid.). 

Presumably, the fragment of the imitated casing was there just to show how it may have looked like in the past, yet it does not give any valuable insight into an actual construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). When I got used to my first impressions, I started climbing up the pyramid, stretching my arms forwards and lifting my legs up to reach the edge of another block above, using each like a successive step of the stairs on my way  up the building. Every block reaches at least to my hips, and some even up to my arms, so climbing up the pyramid definitely involves some physical fitness and strength. Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”

The Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid (Grimault, Pooyard 2012). As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery (Ibid.). Actually, it was already so in the times of Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), who, together with other contemporary and later authors unanimously identified it and the two other pyramids of Giza as one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world (see: Zamarovsky 1990:13-64; Klein 1998:141-146).

Soon my sister joined me and we were both found ourselves just under the original entrance to the pyramid, flanked by angled stones forming a pointed arch above it. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It may have been either due to their massiveness, majesty, age or mystery, or all these aspects together were taken into account, deciding about their high status throughout human history (Zamarovsky 1990:13). The pyramids are also the only wonder of the ancient world that has ever survived and is still enjoyed by the modern world. As such these three pyramids in Egypt  seem to be eternal, which is highlighted by the old and broadly known Arab proverb “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.”

As many wonders as their lists

Since the discovery of the pyramids in Egypt by the Hellenized world, much progress had already been made in history by construction of brand-new in comparison to the pyramids but spectacular buildings that arouse such admiration among people to which only natural wonders inspire (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). There were many authors of the lists of wonders, enumerating these human achievements, and their selection was measured, as it seems, by certain criteria (Ibid.:2).

At some point in history, there were huge discrepancies in various records of the Seven Wonders, which were prepared by independent ancient authors. And although the enumerated wonders were always compiled in the number of seven, each list slightly differed depending on its author. After an archaeologist from the University of Trier (Germany), Michael Pfrommer, If one would sum them all up, they could find ten, if not eleven, or even a dozen ancient wonders described by all the ancients writing on the subject (Klein 1998:137). On the other side, the fact that the successive wonders are listed by various authors in a different order is quite irrelevant as they are all treated on the same scale; It is not a ranking (Zamarovsky 1990:8).

Modern list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The modern canon of the ancient wonders, known today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is provided by numerous contemporary lexicons and the Internet (Zamarovsky 1990:7). It includes works which, due to their technical or artistic qualities, were admired by the ancients (Ibid.:7). These are: the Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods), and the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Ibid.:7).

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (from left to right, top to bottom): Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A collage of The Seven Wonders of the (ancient) world, depicted by sixteenth-century Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck. The original uploader was Mark22 at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although at first the Seven Wonders of the World, including the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon, were considered must-see attractions on ancient travel routes, they were later considered the greatest structures ever built by man (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1). What was so special about them that they were clearly distinguished by the ancients? Philo of Byzantium answers that question:

For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World”. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

Though tarnished by time, the Pyramids of Giza have fortunately survived to our times. But what about those wonders that have already gone? Michael Pfrommer says that ancient travellers describing the wonders were surely convinced of the durability of these places and monuments (Klein 1998:137). Often, however, of the architectural wonders people consider to be eternal, there is absolutely nothing left behind after all (Ibid.:137). Or at least very little. The garden on the terraces of Babylon and two statues, one of Zeus made of chryselephantine and the other of Helios made of bronze, have disappeared forever. Of the burial site of Mausolus of Caria, the mighty temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Lighthouse of Pharos, there are left only few remains, of which some are scattered in museums around the world.

The real authorship of the list

Little is known today about an ancient Greek poet, named Antipater of Sidon, who lived in the second half of the second century BC. (Klein 1998:147).  His character unfortunately disappears now in the fog of history (Ibid.:147). Still it is believed that it was him who compiled the first completely preserved list of wonders of the ancient world in the second century BC. and perhaps he had seen them all himself during his long and distant journeys (Ibid.:147). It was a list of architectural wonders that would surely have been labelled today as ‘must see monuments’, and therefore his work can be regarded as the first travel guidebook for contemporary adventurers and travellers.

Assyrian wall relief showing Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh. Photo by Noah Wiener (2015). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Initially, the creation of the list was mistakenly attributed to a certain Philo of Byzantium, a mathematician who probably lived in the second century BC. and was wrongly said to have been the author of a treatise titled On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7). Such information was first disseminated by the first modern translator of the book by Philo of Byzantium, a French D.S. Boessius, who in 1640 discovered the Greek original in the Vatican Library and translated it into Latin as De septem mundi miraculis (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Such mistakes once in writing are often copied in the literature, and the wrong information about the authorship had been then unintentionally replicated and so circulated from one work to another (Ibid.:7-8).

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, as imagined, at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Photo by Jona Lendering – Livius.org Provided under CC0 1.0 Universal license (notice under the photograph in the description page of the photograph). Retouched by the uploader (2018). CC0. Photo and caption source: “Mausoleum at Halicarnassus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The matter was clarified only by a Swiss classical scholar, Johann Caspar von Orelli, who published Philo’s book in print for the first time in 1816 and it finally turned out that there were actually two different ‘Philos’, who had initially been confused (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The real author of the work is also Philo of Byzantium but he lived much later than his namesake, probably in the third or fourth century AD. (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). The records of him are fragmented almost as much as those of the ancient Philo (Ibid.:7). It is only known for certain that Philo from our era is an actual author of the book On the Seven Wonders of the World (Klein 1998:147; Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). Additionally, from this work one can also learn that he had not seen a single monument of the architectural wonders he described in his work (Zamarovsky 1990:7-8). So he depicted them just with the eyes of his imagination, inspired only by what he knew from second-hand accounts (Ibid.:7-8). To justify such practice, it can be added that many current authors, including myself, do the same today, when it Is not possible to take a trip and see a given site personally (Ibid.:8). Sometimes, it is an education that relieves some authors of the necessity of traveling, and things worthy of their attention they learn just from books without even leaving home (Ibid.:8).

The fame of the Temple of Artemis was known in the Renaissance, as demonstrated in this imagined portrayal of the temple in a sixteenth-century hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck. Photo by Philip Galle – From en:wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of Artemis” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In any case, Antipater of Sidon has regained his right to be named the first author of the list of the Seven Wonders of the World that he described in a poem written about 140 BC. (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3; Klein 1998:147-150; “Antipater of Sidon” 2021). Accordingly, his name is now placed just along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily, who were all involved in writing on the subject (“Antipater of Sidon” 2021).

Travel fever in ancient times

Today there is a common view that real travellers no longer exist and a noble phenomenon of traveling has already been replaced by the less noble term of mass tourism (Lachowicz 2015). As a result, white spots on the travel map of the world are slowly disappearing, being replaced by tourist folders to distant, so far inaccessible places on the planet (Ibid.). The epoch of pioneering unknown routes and travelling over hidden treasures has unfortunately ended with the last dare-devil explorers at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, I believe that a human desire for an adventure is still alive in the hearts of curious modern travellers and there is somewhere not a single wonder still waiting for its discoverer.

The Colossus as imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, part of his series of the Seven Wonders of the World. By Marten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). Uploaded in 2014. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Colossus of Rhodes”(2020) Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Simultaneously, I can imagine all these ancient visitors coming to see the seven wonders, directed just by guidelines of contemporary authors, who had visited the sites first. Surely, a journey along the track of the seven wonders must have taken many years or even a lifetime to be accomplished, providing that one was taking a journey with intention to see all the monuments on the list. Alternatively, ancient travellers could  have chosen their desired destinations at random, according to their own bucket list, as it is practised today. I can bet that many modern travellers, if they only had a chance to live in those times, would have travelled long distances to visit the wonders at their height. Nowadays, there are, after all, lots of people who are addicted to travelling and they are only fully alive on the way, even at their personal cost. On the other side, although such an ancient journey made one’s dreams come true, it must simultaneously have been a real challenge to contemporary travellers.

Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.

Philo of Byzantium, “On the Seven Wonders of the World“. A free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus, compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858. In: Rogers Pearse. Thoughts on Antiquity, Patristics, Information Access and More.

An outstanding ancient travel journalist, Antipater of Sidon must also have possessed quite a bit of courage and endurance to visit all the wonders he later described (Klein 1998:147). Certainly, in antiquity there were people such as the author, who were ready to endure the hardships of dangerous journeys, especially in the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the world known at that time expanded considerably in the fourth century BC., including the lands of Babylon, Persia and Egypt (Klein 1998:147; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:1).

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

Those ancient travellers took risks that modern tourists have not even dreamed of (Klein 1998:147). To imagine any struggles they may have encountered on their way, it is enough to read various descriptions of a number of journeys done by mythological heroes, such as Hercules, Theseus or Odysseus, who on their way met hosts of various monsters, robbers, giants, including cyclops, or mermaids, and their journey lasted for years, additionally experienced by the violent vagaries of nature and the whims of the gods deciding about travellers’ fate (Ibid.:147,149). All these stories testified to the dangers that the ancient traveller had to reckon with (Ibid.:147,149). How mysterious and dangerous but, at the same time, fascinating the world must have been for them (Ibid.:147,149). For some, travel meant fullness of life, but also death (Ibid.:147). Nevertheless, the ancient traveller, though exposed to many dangers, trusted in both, their lucky star and the smile of gods (Ibid.:147,149). They were also able to be delighted with what they had seen, as can be noticed in the verses recorded by Antipater of Sidon, returning from his expedition (Ibid.:147,149).

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.

Antipater, “Greek Anthology IX. 58“. In: “Antipater of Sidon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The walls of Babylon instead of the Lighthouse of Pharos

It is noteworthy that Antipater mentions the walls of Babylon in his work, an object that does not appear in later lists (Klein 1998:149). And he omits the Pharos Lighthouse (Ibid.:149). This may be a decisive clue saying that Antipater used a prototype for his own work as the Lighthouse had already been there when the author lived, that is to say in the second century BC. (Ibid.:149-150). Babylon’s walls made of fired bricks were on everyone’s lips in the fourth and third centuries BC, while the Pharos Lighthouse had not been built until around 280 BC. (Ibid.:149-150). On the other hand, the original list cannot be much older than the Alexandrian Tower, since the author mentions the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.:150). This statue was built less than twelve years before the Lighthouse was built (Ibid.:150). Thus, the date of the creation of the oldest list of wonders of the world can be placed between 292 and 280 BC. (Ibid.:150).  

A mosaic depicting the Pharos of Alexandria, (labeled “Ο ΦΑΡΟϹ”), from Olbia, Libya c. 4th century AD. Mosaic Lighthouse of Alexandria: was found in the Qasr Libya in Libya, which was known by several names including history and Olbia Theodorias, This is a painting that was left over to show the form of lighthouse after the quake, which destroyed the lighthouse. Uploaded by Qasr Libya Museum – Qasr Libya Museum (2010). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lighthouse of Alexandria” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, some scholars claim that in the third century BC., a Greek scholar of the Great Library of Alexandria, Callimachus of the Cyrene, Libya, was probably the first to have compiled the very first list of marvellous buildings (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Presumably, he placed on it the greatest achievements of contemporary Greece, taking into account their size, materials used, technical solutions and innovation of their creators (Ibid.:3). His list, however, has not survived to our times (Ibid.:3).

As it is seen, while searching for any historical traces of the first description of the ancient wonders, one comes across many complex issues, in which they move like in a maze of assumptions and questions (Klein 1998:150). Generally, taking into account the above, Antipater of Sidon, who was born a hundred years later than the estimated above dates, may have used an earlier source, treating it as a travel guidebook in his journey and at the same time the source of his own work (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Is it possible that Antipater had access to Callimachus’ work, and so compiled his list a century later? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). Or maybe his trip, which he described, took place only in his imagination …? (Klein 1998:150; Starożytne Cywilizacje). Or for the author, the walls of Babylon he had visited deserved more attention and privilege to be called one of the wonders than the Lighthouse itself; accordingly, the latter did not appear on his list, which was created in the second century BC.

Map of Europe according to Strabo. Photo by Fphilibert – Picture from polish Wikipedia (2005). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The truth, however, remains unknown.

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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