Tag Archives: Legends&Myths

On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar

Yesterday we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Algeciras in Andalucía (South of Spain) to the port of Tanger-Med, in Alcazarseguir (Morocco), fifty kilometres away from Tangier. The crossing took us one hour and a half by ferry. As soon as I put my foot on Moroccan land, I felt the difference between European and African way of welcoming.

In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Together with my suitcase I was thrown into a chaotic whirlwind of events, full of noise, hustle and bustle, and calls of touts, offering their baggage and transport services, of course for an appropriate fee. Were it not for my determination and calm, my suitcase would inevitably be grabbed by one of them and carried with me to a pre-arranged taxi. My thoughts calmed down only in a hotel in Tangier, where I stayed with my younger sister, Agnieszka and my cousin, Alicja.

Tiled alcove in Tangier

Later on the same day, we all headed off to the city’s old town, Medina. First, we came across Grand Socco, surrounded by shops and small restaurants, where women were selling circle loaves of delicious bread, and hooded men were meeting in an irregular square (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:117). From there, we walked through the keyhole gate to Medina and ended up in a world of 1000 and 1 nights (Ibid.:117). Intensive colours of the facades of the old towns’ houses and the Moroccan vegetation were already beautifully rendered by the painter Matisse, who stayed in Morocco and admired Tangier in 1912 (Ibid.:116). The high walls and the stepped streets of the Kasbah sparkled with colours of the facades and wall paintings of a diverse and refined character, both decorative and narrative (Ibid.:117).

An intricately tiled and carved alcove (a recess in the wall) at Kasbah in Tangier. Today, its refined art is a famous landmark of the city. In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was especially delighted with an intricately made alcove at Kasbah, which was tiled with ornate mixture of blue, green, yellow and orange tiles, and decorated with stone carvings.

Blue-washed Chefchaouen and colourful Asilah

We experienced such an intense sensations of colours and shapes only in Andalusia, we had just come from, and in two other cities in the north of Morocco. It was when I walked along the narrow lanes of Chefchaouen, with its washed colours of walls and houses, covered in multiple layers of white plaster and bright blue paint, and its roofs with red tiles, outstanding vividly against the background of cold shades (Lonely Planet 2021). On the other side, Asilah, a town south of Tangier, is one of typical Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, which attracts various artists like a magnet (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:130-131,146). Fragrant citrus trees grow along its streets, fish taverns put small wooden tables outside, and the walled Medina shines with the white facades of numerous houses, which are additionally enlivened by colorful murals (Ibid.:145-146). Some building are painted in various shades of colours so that the narrow streets and passages create a real rainbow.

Chefchaouen,is a city in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco, which is famous for its picturesque, blue-washed buildings of the old town, Medina. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it soon turned out, this part of the world is not only welcoming to artists and tourists with its colourful atmosphere but also to visitors, who are eager to step in an archaeological mystery and listen to ancient legends and myths.

Towards Cap Spartel

The following day, we travelled westwards, along the Atlantic coast. The beautiful Cap Spartel, situated fifteen minutes west of Tangier, offers great long sandy beaches on the most north-western point in Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019:no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). When the wind blows from the east, it gives holidaymakers better protection from its unpleasant gusts (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019).

Relaxing moments at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This “extraordinary cape […] wraps around the north-western edge of Africa. From [there, it is] possible to see [how] different waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean mingle” (Peters 2019: no page provided). The most interesting road to the headland is Mountain Road, leading next to exclusive properties belonging to the Moroccan royal family and the residence of the ruler of Saudi Arabia (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122). The hill itself is, in the words of Joe Orton (1933-1967), “a replica of the Surrey countryside […] with its winding lanes, foxgloves, huge pink climbing roses, tennis courts and gardens irrigated by sprinkles” (Ibid.:122). Then the road bends near the headland, passing a trail that leads to the Cap Spartel lighthouse, built by foreign diplomats between 1861 and 1864 (the lighthouse marks the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar), and to several bays with sandy beaches and deep turquoise blue sea, each with its own restaurant (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Africa in the Grottes d’Hercule

We took the direction of the stunning caves of Hercules (Grottes d’Hercule). They are located just south of the Cap Spartel (Peters 2019: no page provided). The caverns have got two entries or rather openings; one facing the land is an actual entry for coming visitors, created by the local Berbers, who cut stones from the rock (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

One of the openings of the Grottes of Hercules is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, featuring even the island of Madagascar. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The second opening is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, while being observed from outside (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Peters 2019: no page provided). Inside the cave, one can see Africa’s mirror image, with its island of Madagascar on the wrong side. Scholars claim it was geologically carved by waves of the sea, whereas others suggest the opening was created by Phoenicians who established their colonies along north-western Africa, in the regions of ancient Maghreb, namely Mauretania and Numidia (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) along with the city of Carthage (Tunisia), developed later in the Carthaginian Empire that existed between the seventh and second centuries BC., when the so-called Punic Wars took place (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Past and modern guests to the caves

Nonetheless, the caves had been already inhabited since prehistoric times (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123). Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer (the first half of the first century AD) living on the Bay of Gibraltar, wrote of the caves as of great antiquity already in his time (Du Pouget 1892:33). Undeniably,  the caves have revealed numerous traces of human activity in Stone Age; researchers have found there a great amount of worked flints, such as knives and arrow-heads (Ibid.:33). As a popular story goes, the caves constitutes the one end of a twenty-four kilometres subterranean tunnel between Morocco and Spain; it is so believed that the renowned macaque monkeys at the rock of Gibraltar came to Europe from Africa just this way (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020).

Although there has never been any trace of the monkeys inside the caves, once the cavities were surely used to organize receptions; it was there that an English photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton, threw a party, during which his guests were served hashish and sea-chilled champagne (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123).

Stepping into ancient myths

When we were approaching the entry of the caverns, we first encountered typical stalls offering souvenirs to tourists on the terrace (Peters 2019:no page provided). Then I noticed a comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs.

A comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Once in the cave, it is important “to look up to see where locals have carved out round stones from the cave walls, used for milling grain, for generations” (Peters 2019:no page provided). But what I like most about the place is that the cave complex is surrounded by ancient myths and legends. (bctermeulen et al. 2021). It is rumoured that the site was the resting place of Hercules (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). According to some versions, the hero took a nap there either before or just after he completed his eleventh of the twelfth labours, given to him by King Eurystheus of Tiryns (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020). The task in question was to retrieve the golden apples from the garden of Hesperides, who were Atlas’s daughters, assigned to look after the tree and protect their apples (Odyssey Traveller 2020). The fruits were not valuable just because they were of gold but because their flesh could bestow eternal youth on humans who ate them (Ibid.). After ancient writers, the garden with the golden apples may have existed in nearby Roman city of Lixus, which is the modern day city of Larache at the Atlantic coast (88,5 kilometres south of Tangier) (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

Inside the caverns, there are visible oval or round cut shapes, protruding from the walls; accounts say it is the effect of the rock being carved out by locals, who have used it for milling grain. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city had been founded by the Phoenicians, around 1100 BC., as one of the first of their colonies and trade centres in Northwest Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:147). Apart from a few megalithic stones built into the citadel, only sparse remnants of the pre-Roman period have survived, and apart from the Roman mosaic representing Oceanus, most of the finds were transferred to the museum in Tetouan (Ibid.:148).

Pillars of Hercules

The former BBC North Africa correspondent and author, Richard Hamilton describes the route that the hero took to accomplish this impossible task; accordingly, “[he] travelled [first] to the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains to find the garden and tricked Atlas himself […] into giving him the apples” (Odyssey Traveller 2020). A Roman version adds that while Hercules (or rather Heracles) “was on his way to the garden, he found he had to cross a mountain, [which, however, blocked [his way. Thus], using his superhuman strength, Hercules smashed through the mountain, splitting its rocky face in half and separating Europe and Africa. This was how the Strait of Gibraltar was born and the reminders of this act can be found in the Rock of Gibraltar and the Jebel Musa, east of Tangier” (Ibid.).

Yet, according to a Greek version of the myth, the Strait of Gibraltar should be rather ascribed to the tenth labour of Hercules, which was to steal the cattle of the three-bodied and three-headed giant, Geryon (Perseus digital library 2021). The giant is believed to have lived on an island Erythia, which was located in the proximity of the border line between Europe and Libya (Ibid.). Geryon kept there a herd of red cattle guarded by a two-headed hound, called Orthus (Cerberus’s brother) and another giant, the herdsman Eurytion (Ibid.). When Hercules finally reached the island, possibly to mark the track of his long journey, he erected there two enormous mountains, the first one in Europe and the second in Libya (Ibid.).

The photo I bought from one of the souvenir sellers, offering such to tourists in front of the Caverns of Hercules. The photo represents the African outlines of the opening facing the Atlantic Ocean with a Moroccan man standing on the cliff, in the background, and wearing a traditional djellaba with a baggy hood called a qob. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another story, parallel to the Roman version above, says that Hercules encountered a massive mountain in his way and so he split it into two (Perseus digital library 2021). Either way, these two peaks or the parts of the previous mountain became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules and the strait between Spain and Morocco became the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, referred to by numerous ancient writes as the feat of Hercules (Ibid.). Moreover, according to ancient accounts, the mythological landscape of the Mediterranean may have differed at the time of Hercules from what is observed nowadays and so there was a mountainous landmass between modern day Spain and Morocco in the time of the events described by myths.

Giants in the way of the hero

It is also worth mentioning that Atlas himself was one of the leading titans, which stand for giants in the Greek mythology. He was actually the son of the titans, Clymene (or Asia) and Iapetus (“Titanomachy” 2021). After the Titanomachy (the war of gods) Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the sky on his back and herby he is usually represented in art (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). The Greek poet Hesiod writes (between 750 and 650 BC) that Atlas stood at the edge of the world in extreme west, which immediately brings to mind the northwest Africa (modern Morocco) (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, Atlas had become associated with this particular region over time; he is a reputed father of the nymphs, Hesperides, who guarded the golden apples beyond seawaters in the extreme west of the world (Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BC) (Ibid.). Therefore, Atlas also appears in the myth of the eleventh labour of Hercules, while the hero travels around the region of northwest Africa in search of Hesperides’ Garden (Ibid.).

The north-western coast of Morocco with Cape Spartel; from there one can observe how waters of various shades of blue mingle between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The extreme west of the world was also a dwelling place of the Gorgons who lived in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea, which may, in turn, correspond to the islands of Cape Verde due to Phoenician exploration (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). After killing one of the Gorgones named Medusa, another demigod, Perseus flew over the region and used the chopped head to turn Atlas into a mountain range (Ibid.). Accordingly, “Atlas’ head [became] the peak, his shoulders ridges and his hair woods” (Ibid.). Additionally, the blood of Medusa’s head dropping down the ground during Perseus’ flight over the region gave rise to venomous Libyan snakes (Ibid.). Consequently, Atlas became commonly identified with the range of mountains in northwest Africa and by the time of the Roman Empire, associating the Titan’s’ seat with the range of Atlas Mountains, which were near ancient Mauretania and Numidia, was strongly established (Ibid.).

The Titan and the King

In Plato’s Timaeus-Critias (the fifth century BC.) Atlas is described as the firstborn son of the god Poseidon (the titan Atlas’ cousin) and the mortal woman, Cleito, who inherited the crown of Atlantis (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). Additionally, Atlas described by Plato was possibly the same individual as the recorded first legendary king of Mauretania (Ibid.), which supports the thesis the real island of Atlantis may have been located in the Eye of Africa (Richat structure), beyond the Pillars of Hercules and in modern-day Mauritania (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

The mixture of various colours on the walls of the city of Asilah. The very same concept also appears in the old town of Tangier. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hence, it seems there were more than one character bearing the same name: Atlas the Titan and Atlas, the demigod and king. Although both were relatives (Atlas the Titan was Poseidon’s cousin), it seems that the heroes named ‘Atlas’ have often been confused, even in ancient times. For example, the works of Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) and Eusebius Pamphili (the fourth century AD.) give an Atlantean account of Atlas, where his parents are titans, Uranus and Gaia (Poseidon and Atlas’ grandfathers) (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021).

Antaeus contra Hercules

Another son of Poseidon that Hercules met in his way to a successful accomplishment of his eleventh task was Antaeus, who also existed among the ranks of mythical giants living in northwest Africa and became especially associated with Tangier (Greek Mythology.com 1997-2020). Some sources add that Antaeus was Atlas’s son-in-law, married to his daughter Tinjis.

Painting: Hercules fighting with Anteus by “Spanish Caravaggio”, Francisco de Zurbarán (the seventeenth century). Public domain. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But the most important relative of the giant was actually his divine mother, Gaia (earth), from whom he drew his enormous strength, namely, nobody could defeat him while he was touching the ground (Greek Mythology.com 1997-2020). Antaeus is said to have dwelled in Libya, where he challenged humans who were passing by his lands to wrestling competitions, which he naturally always won (Ibid.). Having killed his unfortunate opponents, Antaeus used their skulls for a construction of a temple dedicated to his father, Poseidon (Ibid.). The giant equally challenged Hercules, who was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides for the golden apples (Ibid.). After understanding the mystery of Antaeus’ strength, the hero grabbed the giant in a bearhug, lifted him above the ground and consequently strangled in his fatal embrace (Ibid.).

Was Hercules a giant?

The scene of the fight between Antaeus and Hercules often appears in modern art, where the height of Hercules usually matches the height of the giant. Is it just an artistic interpretation or was Hercules a giant as well? Or maybe by these means, artists would like to metaphorically equalize Hercules’ strength with that possessed by giants or suggest that giants actually were of the size of humans, even such supernatural as Hercules? According to the myth, Hercules was the son of a mortal woman, Alcmene, and the god Zeus (Poseidon’s brother) (Grieco 2019).

Therefore, he was a hyperbion – a demigod superior to other men in his supernatural physical strength and courage, as much as other half-gods were, like Perseus, Theseus, or Achilles, who although was born of a mortal father, had a divine mother who was a sea nymph, Thetis (Grieco 2019). Yet, none of them is described as a giant, that is to say, belonging to any recorded race of giants, contrary to some offspring being a result of an intercourse between gods and divine females or goddesses (Ibid.). The Titans’ (Atlas, Antaeus and Geryon’s) fathers were gods and their mothers were not mortal women but goddesses, giantesses or nymphs (naiads), namely, Clymene (or Asia), Gaia and Callirrhoe.

Ex pede Herculem

On the other side, if the term ‘giant’ is considered in the context of a physical size, precisely, the height, it can be concluded that Hercules, along with other demigods, can be regarded as a giant, as he is described much taller than average humans. Unfortunately, no ancient writers give a precise height of mythological heroes, though some took an attempt to estimate it by means of various calculations. One of such experiments is attributed to Pythagoras and concerns Hercules’ height (“Ex pede Herculem” 2019). It is known under a maxim of proportionality: ex pede Herculem, which means ‘from his foot, [we can measure] Hercules’ (Ibid.) Accordingly,

The Artist Moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments, chalk and sepia drawing by Henry Fuseli, 1778-79. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“[the] philosopher Pythagoras reasoned sagaciously and acutely in determining and measuring the hero’s superiority in size and stature. For since it was generally agreed that Hercules paced off the racecourse of the stadium at Pisae, near the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made it six hundred feet long, and since other courses in the land of Greece, constructed later by other men, were indeed six hundred feet in length, but yet were somewhat shorter than that at Olympia, he readily concluded by a process of comparison that the measured length of Hercules’ foot was greater than that of other men in the same proportion as the course at Olympia was longer than the other stadia. Then, having ascertained the size of Hercules’ foot, he made a calculation of the bodily height suited to that measure, based upon the natural proportion of all parts of the body, and thus arrived at the logical conclusion that Hercules was as much taller than other men as the race course at Olympia exceeded the others that had been constructed with the same number of feet.”

Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae (the second century A.D.), translated by John C. Rolfe of the University of Pennsylvania for the Loeb Classical Library, 1927. In: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019).

Pythagoras does not provide a calculated Hercules’ height. He just concludes the hero was much taller than other men. Still it is possible to estimate it basing the mathematician’s calculations on the fact that “the Olympic stadium was about 600 of the demigods shoe lengths, [that is to say, around] 192 meters long [in comparison to the 186 m of the classical stadium]. That gave him approximately a 32 cm foot” (Georgiades 2020). By making further necessary calculations, it can be assumed that Hercules must have been almost 3 metres tall (Ibid.). The same calculations can be successfully applied to other demigods, such as Perseus or Theseus.

Correct or incorrect scale

The size of Hercules can be also judged by his scale in relation to the Nemean Lion that he killed as the first of his twelve labours. The moment of the fight between the hero and the beast is frequently represented by antiques, where Hercules is equal to his opponent, while the animal is standing at its hind legs (Magus 2014). Providing that the lion was twice as the size of a regular lion or a tiger, which is around two metres, Hercules possibly measured up to four metres in height, that is to say, as much as the standing African lion (Ibid.). Similar relation can be observed in the sculpted representation of Gilgamesh holding a lion; by scaling off the lion, which is assumed to be of a normal size, it can be calculated that Gilgamesh was up to five metres tall (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Unless he grasps an African lion, like Hercules does.

Heracles and Antaeus, red-figured krater by Euphronios, 515–510 BC, Louvre (G 103). Hercules (on the left) is visibly smaller in scale than the giant, the difference does not seem significant, though. In scale it is possibly 4 metres to 8, providing that Hercules was around 4 metres .At the same, Plutarch records that Antaeus was 27 metres, so the difference the giant must have been nearly seven times taller than Hercules. Uploaded in 2007. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These are, however, pure speculations as artistic interpretations may not be consistent with the reality. The same concerns the scene of the wresting between Hercules and the giant, Antaeus. Contrary to modern paintings or sculpture, ancient Greek artists represented Antaeus exceeding Hercules in height, yet by hardly a few cubits (cf. Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). That, in turn, does not match the height of Antaeus, given by an ancient historian, Plutarch (the turn of the second century AD.), according to whom, the giant was sixty cubits tall (over twenty-seven metres) (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). However, a Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 – 87 BC.) reveals that the historian simply copied the information concerning Antaeus’ stature from the tale of another Roman general, Aulus Gabinius (101-47 BC.), which, in turn, does not add any credibility to the story (Ibid.:13).

Coming back to the question: “who were the Nephilim?

If Greek gods had truly been fallen angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many alternative scholars suggest, the above conclusions would rather suggest that Genesis Chapter 6:1-4 actually means that “when the sons of God (Greek gods) went to the daughters of humans”, the giants had already dwelled on the earth, before and after the fallen angels appeared down there (Gentry 2019). As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr Peter Gentry (2019) underlines, the mighty ones (the biblical giants) may have had nothing to do with the fallen angels’ sexual relations with mortal women (“daughters of men”), who gave birth to demigods of supernatural powers, such as Hercules or Perseus, but their offspring may not have been giants but humans of supernatural powers (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre).

What is more, the verse Genesis 6:4 demythologizes the Nephilim by reading “[these] were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gentry 2019). Simultaneously, the text does not explain who they exactly were and where they came from (Ibid.). Why? After Dr Gentry (2019) the Nephilim were well known to the first readers of the text and there was no need for further explanations. It is a pity, however, the same knowledge was not passed down and preserved to our days. Simultaneously, Dr Gentry (2019) also points out to the fact that one should be very humble while interpreting the verses of Genesis 6:1-4, as they are extremely difficult to be explained straightforward.

Roman conquest of the town of Tingis

In addition to myths, the evidence for the existence of giants in Northwest Africa is also brought up by the mentioned above second-hand account, given by the Greek historian Plutarch. Although it may be not reliable, it relates the actual conquest of the town of Tingi (Tingis) in north-western Africa by the Roman general Quintus Sertorius during the Punic Wars, in the first century BC. (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The town was also referred to as Tenga, Tinga or Titga in Greek and Roman records but today is known as Tangier in Morocco (“Tangier” 2021).

Are these fingerprints of the divine heroes, left behind on the walls of Asilah? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As one story goes, at that time, the town was a pilgrimage site of the tomb of the giant Antaeus, the same who had been killed by Hercules (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). It was also a tourist attraction for ancient visitors as much as or even more attracting than the Caves of Hercules are today (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). As Plutarch writes, Quintus broke open the tomb of the venerated giant and found there its gigantic skeleton (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The historian also describes the general’s reaction at the sight of the peculiar remains inside the tomb; at that time, the bloodlines of the giants had gradually diminished over the centuries and giants were not simply met in the street (Ibid.).

But how great was his surprise when, […] he beheld a body sixty cubits long [over twenty-seven metres]. He immediately offered sacrifices, and closed up the tomb; thus adding considerably to the respect and reputation which it had previously possessed.

Plutarch, Langhorne (1826), pp. 12-13.

City in honour of the widow of the giant

The Greeks knew ancient Tangier as Tingis, “which may have originated from the mythological name of Tinjis, [a] daughter of Atlas and widow of Antaeus, the giant” (“Tangier” 2021).

Exploring the famous Asilah murals. Colourful paintings naturally add to the city a more chilled out ambiance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is also believed that after killing Antaeus, Hercules made the widow his consort (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). As a result, Tinjis gave birth to Hercules’ son, called Syphax, who reigned over the region Plutarch, (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). After Tinjis’ death, her son also established the port and named it Tinjis in her honour (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). Actually, the city of Tangier was founded by Phoenicians at the beginning of the first millennium BC., as one of their African colonies, and as such it preserved for long its Phoenician traditions, and the gigantic skeleton was also called Phoenician (“Tangier” 2021; Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Who were the Phoenicians?

The first Phoenician city-states had emerged in the late Bronze Age, that is to say, at the end of the thirteenth century BC., in what is now southern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-9). But one of the main features of the Phoenician civilization is the phenomenon of colonization (Ibid.:23); they were unrivalled seafarers of the ancient ages, who mastered the navigation through the seas and oceans, even beyond the contemporary world (Quayle, Alberino 2017). Already around 1110 BC., the Phoenicians founded the city of Cadiz (Gades or Gadir) on the Iberian Peninsula (Ibid.:10,23), the site Plato mentions as the border between Greek and Atlantean influences (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

Warship with two rows of oars, in a relief from Nineveh (c. 700 BC). It could represent one of Phoenician vessels. Photo created in 2005. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The most colonized areas by the Phoenicians were the islands of Cyprus (around tenth century BC.), Sardinia (around ninth century BC.) and Malta (around 800 BC.) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:11-13,23). Also the whole Northwest Africa became an important area colonized by the Phoenicians (Ibid.:23). The founding of the city of Utica (modern-day Tunisia) probably took place in 1101BC, of Lixus in 1110 BC. (Morocco) but the most important city founded in this area by the Phoenicians was actually Carthage (around 814/813 BC) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:10,12,23; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

The city of Tangier in Morocco was also established in the period, between the tenth and the eighth centuries BC. (“Tangier” 2021). Such a port town, located on the western point of the strait of Gibraltar, must have provided the Phoenicians an undisputed access to the wider Atlantic (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Major Phoenician trade networks and colonies (c. 1200–800 BC.). Drawing by User: Rodrigo (es), User: Reedside (en) (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After Phoenicians, the Carthaginians continued to develop the Tingis, making it an important port of their empire by the fifth century BC. (“Tangier” 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:149). Nevertheless, they were not such excellent seafarers as their ancestors, the Phoenicians.

From the Land of Canaan westwards

The history of Phoenicia itself is unknown (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-11). One of the most widely accepted views is that the origins of the Phoenicians should be looked for in the dramatic events in the Mediterranean Basin (turn of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC.) (Ibid.:10-11). The cultural changes and migration of people were intense, peaceful or armed and rapacious (Ibid.:11). This process is known as the invasions of the Sea Peoples (see: Following the Phaistos Spiral of Mystery) (Ibid.:11). The geographic area where the Phoenician culture originally developed constituted an integral part of the land known as Canaan (Ibid.:9). According to the Book of Numbers, the thirteenth century was also the time when, after the death of Moses, one of his spies, Joshua, led the Israelite tribes in the conquest of Canaan (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

The First African Map (Prima Affrice Tabula), depicting Mauretania Tingitana (northern Morocco) and Mauretania Caesariensis (western and central Algeria), from the Ulm Ptolemy. Ptolemy, translated into Latin by Jacobus Angelus – Rare Maps. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Tangier” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to Numbers 13:32-33, races of giants dwelled in that region. Yet with the help of the God, Israelites defeated them (Ibid.). Alternative researchers, Steve Quayle and Timothy Alberino (2017), claim that giants also existed among the Phoenicians, who were partially forced by Israelites to flee from the land of Canaan; they likely regrouped on the island of Sardinia and from there migrated further across the contemporary world. The Jesuit scholar, Antonio Graziani (1620-1684) widely studied the origins of the Nuraghe culture in Sardinia and concluded that its connections to the Canaanites, who settled down there by the ninth century BC., are prominent (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The Greeks referred to these Canaanites as Phoenicians (Ibid.).

Problematic columns

Scholars interpret Phoenicians’ migrations westwards by the fact, they were in need of numerous ports scattered around the contemporary world to develop their oversea trade network. On the other hand, there are early medieval records supporting the thesis that the Phoenicians were pushed to exile from Canaan by the the migrating eastwards peoples of the God, the Israelites (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Beautiful view of a street in Asilah, with typical Arabic architecture. Different colours of the doors, like green and blue, seem very typical of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the sixth century AD., when Numidia was under the Christian emperor Justinian, a Greek historian, Procopius of Caesarea, claimed that the Canaanites who had built a fortress at Tigisis in Numidia, had also erected there two columns emblazoned with the Punic (the Canaanite, also Phoenician language) inscription (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017), saying:

We are they who fled from before the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Nun.

Procopius of Caesarea, History of the Wars of Justinian 4.10.21-22. In: Graves (2014).

Apart from Procopius, the mysterious inscription cut in the columns is also mentioned by Moses of Khoren, an earlier Armenian historian (the fifth century AD), and by an anonymous Greek historian (ca. 630 AD.) in the Chronicon Paschale (Graves 2014):

The inhabitants of these [islands in the Mediterranean] were Canaanites fleeing from the face of Joshua the son of Nun.

Anonymous Greek historian, Chronicon Paschale. In: Graves (2014).

If the columns or pillars had ever existed, they had already vanished together with their mysterious inscriptions. After Procopius of Caesarea, the columns were standing in Tigisis, in Numidia. Scholars claim that the name of the place can either refer to the ancient town of Tigisis in Numidia (near what is now Aïn el-Bordj, Algeria or to Tingis (Tangier in Morocco) (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). The former was the seat of a bishopric during the Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine eras, which is when Procopius lived under the rule of Justinian, who made the town fortified (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). There was also another Tigisis in Northwest Africa (today between present-day Dellys and Taourga in Algeria) and it was within the boundaries of Mauretania Caesariensis (“Tigisis in Mauretania” 2018). All of the three potential locations of the columns are anyway located in the region, where Phoenicians were present. What is more, the earliest known source of the inscription comes from the Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, and it is possible he borrowed it from more ancient records.

Nevertheless, most academics agree the passage of the columns are almost certainly hokum, which may have been invented by late antique writes or relied on a local guide’s information, or be a simple compilation of some earlier Jewish tradition (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). Bryant G. Wood (2005:98) points out that “It is highly unlikely that the Phoenicians of North Africa would have invented such a demeaning tradition to explain how they came to be in North Africa” (Graves 2014).

Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates

We were drowning in soft poufs in one of the charming cafes of Asilah, hidden in the narrow corridors of the city. Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates, iced coffee, and mint tea had been just served on our round and tiled table. I was so ready to plunge in their sweet and refreshing smell and taste. Yet, in my thoughts a host of sinister giants still marched, claiming their place in history. But there is no history, only the myth remained.

Wandering with a camera in the streets of the Medina in Asilah. I constantly kept taking photos of charming spots in the city I encountered with each taken step. The same atmosphere was also very tangible in Tangier and Chefchaouen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: As the story goes Africa has been represented in the Grottes d’Hercule either by nature or ancient people (the Phoenicians). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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Eagle’s Wings Spread over the Round Face of the Earth

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many ancient peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Cyclic time

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Photo: “Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus”. Source: David Stuart (2016). In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone of the the Aztecs represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings, were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms responsible for the final destruction of the following eras but the most significant is the very central part of the Calendar Stone, as it stands for the current world and possible circumstances of its end (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh (see: Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs) the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is, however, hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger: “Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli”. Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Photo: “Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graeber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Painting by an unknown author – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Public domain. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

“The image above reproduces the Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020). “Coyolxauhqui”. In: Windows to the Universe.

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo” by Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Painting: “A drawing of Itzpapalotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgio”. By an Unknown author. Public domain. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. Source: Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008) In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian.

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Fragment from Apocalypto (2006): Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest (see: Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge. Source: vsprlnd25 (2012). In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens”. Source: George Grant MacCurdy, An Aztec “Calendar Stone” in Yale University Museum, American Anthropologist, (Oct. – Dec., 1910), pp. 481-496.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. Its size is impressive while observed beside the Museum visitors. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc
conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif
in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the
personified town. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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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Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/36XtF6T>. [Accessed on 8th December, 2020].

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Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

We were sitting on the train going across Pomeranian Voivodeship southwards, in the direction of Malbork. It was really hot. Nothing surprising as it was the beginning of August but in Poland the weather is changeable, and you cannot predict it even in summer. One week ago, when I and my sister met with our Austrian friends by the Baltic Sea, it was rather cloudy and then it kept raining for the first two days of our stay. In such an inconvenient outlook, we dedicated our time to short city breaks in Tri-city, which is a metropolitan area in northern Poland (Pomerania) and it includes three major cities, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, as well as minor towns in the area. We got there and back either by train or by a ferry across the Bay of Puck from the very tip of Hel Peninsula.

The Hel Peninsula from the bird’s eye view. Video source: KolejFilmy (2016) ”Kolej na Hel – Pociągi z lotu ptaka”.

Let’s go to Hel

Once, when I had spent vacations with Kathi and Wolfgang in the Alps, I expressed my idea of going together to ‘Hel’ for summer. For a while they kept looking at me with no hidden surprise, and then probably started analyzing my health condition. When they kept silent, blinking at me, astonished, I realized how my words were misunderstood and I quickly explained. ‘Oh no, not this “Hell”. Another one … You know … It’s one of the best holiday spots in Poland.” When they still did not react. I grabbed my smartphone and googled ‘Hel Peninsula’.

It is a good idea to visit Hel on a bicycle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Wonderful and relaxing time on long, sandy beaches of Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hel (pronounced as the English word “hell”) is actually a town at the ultimate end of Hel Peninsula, a 35-km-long sand bar, covered with thick woods and splashed by deep blue waters of the sea on its both sides (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The Hel Peninsula is one of the most interesting regions of the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020).

In fact, the peninsula should be professionally called the Hel Spit as it is a narrow spit of land that shelters the bay (PoznajKrajTV 2020). Still, it is commonly referred to as a peninsula (Ibid.). The entire Hel Peninsula is unique in its landscape and belongs to the Coastal Landscape Park (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The narrowest is at its base, in the area of the town, Władysławowo, it is only about one hundred meters, while its width at the end, near the town of Hel, where we stayed, is just about three kilometres (Ibid.). So when we look at the map of Poland, it looks like a ‘cow’s tail’ (Ibid.).

As impossible as it sounds we have visited Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In some narrow places, the spit is sometimes flooded by storm waves, which  causes stunting of oak trees in these areas (PoznajKrajTV 2020). A railway line and a comfortable road with a bicycle path run through the entire Hel Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Tourists staying there can enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded beaches by the open sea or the beaches located by the Bay of Puck (Ibid.). There are many campsites by the Bay that specialize in servicing windsurfers and kite surfers because there are very good conditions for practicing this sport (Ibid.). Along its Baltic coast, there are some interesting seaside resorts; starting from the mainland, it is Władysławowo, Chałupy, Kuźnica, Jastarnia, Jurata (mostly for the elite), and finally Hel (Ibid.).

Encountering history at each step

Hel is an old Kashubian port town, and a summer resort located at the end of the Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020). The port of Hel is not only an excellent base for water sports but mostly for modern history enthusiasts (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The tip of Peninsula is just scattered with defensive fortifications, such as shotting bunkers or air raid shelters, which had been built especially during the last World War until the 1950s. (PoznajKrajTV 2020).

‘The Hel Peninsula is [also] a cemetery of various types of wrecks from different periods of history’, says Władysław Szarski, director of the Museum of Coastal Defense, located in the town of Hel (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020; see PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Photographer Grzegorz Elmiś has lately found a fragment of a wooden ship with various elements, possibly from the nineteenth century (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020). An undoubted attraction of Hel is additionally the lighthouse, open to the public; climbing to the top will reward its visitors with a picturesque view of the sea and the Hel Peninsula from its summit (PółwysepHel.pl 2020).

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

It is difficult to imagine that around four hundred years ago, the Hel Peninsula did not exist at all (PoznajKrajTV 2020). At that time, there were only two islands with fishing villages in the Bay (Ibid.). So how did this wonderful place come about? On the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, there is a coastal sea current that flows from the west towards the east, which keeps accumulating sand in some places, and over the course of hundreds of years had built a large headland, today up to a hundred meters thick, below which there is a chalk rock (Ibid.). There are no freshwater streams in Hel, but there is still much humidity caused by local microclimate (Ibid.).

High concentration of iodine in the air by the Baltic Sea, especially in autumn, and fresh air from oak forests on Hel bring health and relaxation to all the visitors. Depending on the weather in summertime, everybody can enjoy either the sun and endless sandy beaches or a thrilling hunt for amber along the Baltic coast, just after a sudden storm.

For its distinctive climate and long, sandy beaches my friends started to call the place the Polish Caribbean with freshly cold water for swimming. And only Wolfgang was ambitious enough to stay in the water for more than five minutes. Mostly, we spent our time either walking in the forest or cycling along the northern coast, reaching Jurata and Jastarnia. When it was sunny and warm, we bought several types of smoked fish, good Polish bread, and stayed on the empty beach for the whole day. And so we enjoy coastline views, silence and our own company, while building the Giza plateau out of the sand. Sand castles were too ordinary for us …

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

When our train left the railway station of Hel behind, we promised to come back there in the future. At that time, however, we were going back in time to visit another unique site in Pomerania – the medieval castle of Malbork. Its huge perimeter walls and brick towers can be seen yet from the train which is passing by the city of Malbork, by heading to the north or south of Poland.

Red brick walls of the Gothic Malbork Castle have always made a great impression on visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

Malbork is a bricked castle, erected on stone foundations (Bieszk 2010:104). It is the largest medieval complex in Europe in terms of the area it occupies, which is over twenty hectares (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is also one of the finest examples of Gothic defensive and residential architecture in Europe (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the huge complex rises in the northern part of the modern city of Malbork, on the elevated right bank of the Nougat River and is jokingly called “the largest pile of bricks in Europe” because it is estimated that the Teutonic Knights used about three and a half million hand-made and fired bricks to build it (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174).

Malbork castle from the bird’s eye view. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

In the Middle Ages, it was called Castrum Sanctae Marienburch, which means the Castle of Saint Mary’s City, and was the most important of over one hundred bricked castles built by the Teutonic Knights in their monastic state within the present borders of Poland (Bieszk 2010:7-8;104; see Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It included the areas of Chełmno, Kuyavian, Dobrzyń, Prussia proper and New Marchia (Bieszk 2010:7). As Janusz Bieszk (2010:7) writes, the so-called Teutonic castles fascinate and attract. Their original architectural shape and unique beauty of the bricked edifice, beautifully blended into the Slavic landscape of towns and villages, make a great impression on visitors even today (Bieszk 2010:7).

Such a range of large castles was a defence system functioning in the Middle Ages in northern Poland, the borders of which were determined by: in the west and south by the castle in Kostrzyn, in the north by the castle in Puck, in the south of central Poland by the castle in Bobrowniki and finally in the east by the castle of Metenburg (Bieszk 2010:7).

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

The castles were to show off the power and influence of the Order and their state in Europe (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). The basis of the economic and political strength of the Teutonic knighthood was an excellent economic organization, which in the mid-fourteenth century led the Knights to their prominent position in the basin of the Baltic Sea (PWN 1997-2020). Constant fights with Lithuania brought the Teutonic Knights international fame and attracted European knights to expeditions, but finally led to the loss of the order’s religious character (Ibid.).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: Tele Magzayn. Galeria zdjęć (2020).

Teutonic Knights were popularly called in Polish Krzyżacy, which simply means Knights of the Cross. It was because they wore a large black cross on their white clothes and coats. The official name was much longer, that is to say, the Order of the Hospital of the Holy Virgin Mary of the German House in Jerusalem (Lat.: Ordo fratrum hospitalis sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum) (PWN 1997-2020). Like their more famous counterparts, Templar Knights or Johannites, Teutonic Knights formed a knightly order founded during the crusades to the Holy Land, and so their main task was to take care of pilgrims and the sick and to fight the infidels (Ibid.).

Threat of the black cross

The order was founded in 1190 in Palestine and converted into a knighthood in 1198; it was headed by the Grand Master and  Chapter (PWN 1997-2020). With the beginning of the thirteenth century, Christian forces were slowly retreating from the Holy Land under the Muslims’ pressure, and the Order moved to Europe (Ibid.). After being expelled from Hungary in 1224-1225 for their imperial ambitions, Teutonic Knights came to the Chełmno Land (northern Poland) in 1226, summoned by Konrad I of Mazowiecki to fight pagan Prussia (Ibid.).

In medieval Europe, the black cross caused common terror among people. Today you can dress up as a Teutonic knight when visiting their castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They conquered it (as it was the Order’s original task) but with time they followed the same aggressively expansive policy as in Hungary, which was not actually difficult to be foreseen (PWN 1997-2020). As a result, they established their own monastic state in the occupied lands, constantly striving to expand their borders at the expense of their neighbours, like the Kingdom of Poland (Ibid.). With each conquered or stolen piece of land, they built a castle to mark there their presence. For this reason, the Teutonic black cross became the symbol of threat and fear instead of Christian service and mercifulness, the Order was originally established for.

Grunwald (1410)

The Teutonic Knights were definitely infamous in medieval Poland for their mischievous deeds, and constantly fought against by Polish kings. In 1308–1309 they occupied Gdańsk in Pomerania, which started the period of long Polish-Teutonic wars; their first stage ended in 1343 with the Kalisz Peace, at the time of Casimir III the Great, who reigned as the King of Poland from 1333 to 1370 (PWN 1997-2020). The threat by the Teutonic Knights of Lithuania became one of the causes of the Polish-Lithuanian union in 1385. In 1409, the Teutonic Knights started the so-called Great War with one of the greatest battle of the Middle Ages (Ibid.).

Two naked swords given to the Polish King Władysław II Jagiello and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas by the heralds of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The handing over of the swords was a symbolic excuse to start the Battle of Grunwald, 1410. In: “Miecze grunwaldzkie”. (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Emil Karewicz as the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018).“’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

The final fight was at Grunwald (Poland) in 1410, where the Teutonic Knights were strongly defeated by the united Polish-Lithuanian forces led by the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło (PWN 1997-2020). Like later Azincourt in 1415, Grunwald was one of the greatest battles and turning points in the European history. Since then, the political and economic power of the Order had collapsed (Ibid.). Further wars with Poland in the fifteenth century led to the impoverishment of the population of the Teutonic state and its final secularization in the sixteenth century (Ibid.).

Mischievous knights

In one of his historic novels, Knights of the Teutonic Order (1900) (Krzyżacy) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author describes the Teutonic-Polish tense relations just one decade before Grunwald (1410).

Against the background of significant historical events, Sienkiewicz tells a story of colourful and expressive characters; the tragic love of the heroes is a melodramatic theme, and the fight against the treacherous Teutonic Knights was to raise the spirit of Poles under the partitions (”Krzyżacy (powieść)” 2020). The plot of the novel also takes place at the Malbork castle.

Polish pyramids

The history of Teutonic knights, however, is not the only interesting aspect of the site.

As some Polish researchers state, Poles do not have to leave their country to look for traces of ancient civilizations (Białczyński 2017). There are places in Poland that are not less interesting as Egyptian pyramids or cyclopean constructions in Peru, and there are yet many mysteries in the Polish history waiting to be explained (Ibid.). Some of them concern medieval castles, such as the royal Wawel castle in Kraków or Malbork (Ibid.). Archaeologists presume that the greatest number of medieval constructions was built in our lands from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, of which there are mostly castles founded by Casimir III the Great, another group by the Teutonic Knights, others by minor local princes or families, and also those more legendary, apparently built either by angels or demons (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998).

The Malbork castle’s massive turrets by the Nougat. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Historians agree that castles of stone (mostly in the south-west of Poland) and of brick (in the north-east of the country) had been built since around the end of the tenth century (Christianisation of Poland) (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998). The choice of building material used may be related to its access, as well as the possibility of its transport to the construction site, but may also be related to the level of building technology in a given period (Białczyński 2017).

According to the official history, contemporary inhabitants of the country had a sufficiently good technique to build such a big number of huge buildings in that period (Białczyński 2017). However, some alternative thesis says some of these constructions were re-built on much older stone foundations, that is to say, stone foundations had already been there in the period that is commonly associated with wooden constructions in Poland (Ibid.). Moreover, when looking closely at the Polish strongholds, some of their stone elements should not exist at all according to the official history, as their processing is characterised by a highly advanced technology (Ibid.). Many authors claim that some features of the stones bear similarity to those observed in Egypt or Peru … This theory in a first place concerns medieval castles ascribed to Casimir III the Great, but there are also Teutonic castles known of that phenomenon (Białczyński 2017; Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018).

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

Famous propagators of such alternative and controversial theories are, among all, an independent historian and author, Janusz Bieszk, and a geologist, Dr. Franc Zalewski. The latter traces down extraordinary aspects of medieval constructions, such as unusual tool marks left on some stone slabs (see Zalewski 2018).

Red silhouette of the castle is full of mysteries. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Whereas some of them are exposed in a commonly accessed areas, the major part of such features is hidden in castles’ basements (Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018). In one of his interviews, Janusz Bieszk admits that during his work on Teutonic castles, he was not allowed to go down to the basements to carry on his studies (Tagen TV 2018). Simultaneously, he admits that the Teutonic knights could not have been able to build such a large number of fortifications from the scratch just during a century (Ibid.). He says that the Malbork castle itself, has got peculiar stones incorporated into the bricked walls, which show marks of mechanical tools (Ibid.). At the same time, he admits it is difficult to say without further examination of the site who made them and when (Ibid.). ‘The fact is that most Teutonic castles are set on the ancient foundations’, he assures (Ibid.). ‘When the knights came, they must have built over the ancient remains, using accessible materials such as bricks or stone’ (Ibid.) Similar assumptions are made by Dr. Franc Zalewski regarding Casimir’s castles and the royal Wawel castle with its surroundings (Zalewski 2018).

The courtyard of the castle in Malbork. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is easy to guess, we were not allowed to descend in the undergrounds of the castle as we were just common tourists visiting the complex. I even doubt I would have obtained a permit if I had applied for it as an independent researcher. Maybe such an option would be considered if I worked as a part of an archaeological team on site … Hopefully, such an opportunity will arise in the future. I am also planning to have a tour along the trail of the Eagle’s Nests, where the southwestern stone castles and medieval ruins are located. For the need of the present and rather short visit, we had to rely on an official version of history (see: Red-Bricked Castle of Marienburg on the River Nougat).

Featured image: Almost deserted, long and sandy beaches with predominant silence and cooling breeze are typical of Hel Peninsula, in Poland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


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War and Peace in the Standard of Ur

From the reconstructed Standard of Ur (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur), it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.).

“For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).

War and Peace

Dr. Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).

Royal entourage

The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. The ruler as a larger figure among his entourage. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. War captives led by soldiers to the ruler. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).

King’s mounts

Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).

In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.

Battle wagons

On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.

The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2 550 BC. War panel, detail. The illustration of the battle wagons in the bottom register are showing the movement speeding up from left to right. The British Museum; Room 56. Image cropped. Public domain. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).

Pictures in motion

There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons trampling the enemies. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).

Rhythm and hierarchy

The so-called Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects and is probably symbolic of Sumer. the British Museum; Room 56. Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).

Religious banquet?

The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).

This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2250 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail. Photo by Michel Wal (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).

Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).

The bounty of land

Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).

“Peace”, detail showing a lyrist and possibly a singer. Original uploader was Ex0pos at en.wikipedia (2005). Public domain. Photo source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).

The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).

The same language

The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).

Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).

Historic events?

Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2550 BC. Peace panel; the bottom register, detail. Gifts carried to the ruler shown at the top. The British Museum; Room 56. Public domain (image cropped). Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).

Two sides of the kingship

The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top and middle registers. The royal wagon, soldiers and infantry below. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).

The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).

Still a mystery

The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur); the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).

Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, ca. 2600 B.C., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur. ©Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).

Fanciful scenes

Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).

End panels on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Shukur (2018). In Sumerian Shakespeare.

Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.

Heralds of failure or victory?

The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).

One of the triangular end panels show fanciful scenes, found damaged. Object of uncertain original function. Asset number 811995001. ©The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: the British Museum (2021).

In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).

On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.

From war to peaceful bounties of life

The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum, Room 56. Photo by Denis Bourez from France – British Museum, London. Uploaded by SunOfErat. CC BY 2.0. (image cropped). Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.

The Standard’s story

But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).

Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).

Featured image: War side of the Standard of Ur, wide layout. Hollow box, possibly part of a musical instrument; decorated on all four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One of the long sides shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with chariots and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before the king, who is accompanied by guards and has his own chariot waiting behind him. Asset number 12550001. ©The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo and caption source: the British Museum (2021).

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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Ancient Lycia in the Middle of Anatolian Traditions

When I now look back over ten years of my archaeological exploration of the world, I distinctly remember my summer travel to Lycian Turkey and its ancient rock-cut tombs encrusting high and steep cliffs. Such monuments of sepulchral architecture are scattered around the whole region of Lycia and partially the neighbouring Caria. They both are located on the south-western coast of Turkey, by the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and their mountainous scenery looking out the blue waters is truly breathtaking.

Beautiful view of Marina in Fethiye, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, Lycia belongs to the Turkish province of Antalya, and the most frequently visited seaside resorts of the region are definitely tourist Kemer, turquoise Ölüdeniz and peaceful Fethiye, where I stayed in 2008 for over two weeks to explore the region (Miszczak 2009).

Location of Lycia

The area of Lycia occupies the major part of the Teke Peninsula; namely, it is located south of the imagined horizontal line drawn from the town of Köyceğiz to the city of Antalya, where the former is a district of Muğla Province in the Aegean region of Turkey, and the latter – a gateway to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean region (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). The terrain of Lycia is mountainous to the north, and towards the south, it gradually descends and becomes flat in places along the coast (Miszczak 2009). Much of the area is densely forested (Ibid.). The region of Lycia is geographically featured by two vast masses belonging to Akdağ Mountains; the ancient mountain range of Massicytus expanded to the west and the ancient Solyma, (modern Bey Daği) to the east (Bean 1989:19). Accordingly, Lycia’s borders have been delineated from the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and from the east, north and west by three mountain ranges (Miszczak 2009). Two of them are known today as Boncuk Dağları and Baba Daği – the part of the Taurus Mountains, and the third are the Bey Dağları Mountains (Ibid.). The latter reach even three thousand meters above sea level, and caps of snow lie on their highest peaks until the beginning of summer (Ibid.). The most famous peak of this range is Mount Tahtalı (Ibid.). Owing to these mountain ranges, Lycia was practically cut off from the rest of Anatolia (Bean 1989:19-20; Miszczak 2009). As such, it had won its advantageous strategic location and uniqueness of its culture (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Ölüdeniz Beach in Fethiye District. Photo by Dan Taylor (2004). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Central Lycia consists of many tiny valleys separated by mountains, with the two largest; to the west of Akdağ Mountains, there is the valley of Xanthus, which is a real heart of Lycia, and to the east of Bey Daği is the valley of Alakır (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). Two major rivers flow through them: Xanthos and Limyrus, the former of which, longer and larger, was called Sibros or Sirbis in ancient times and was the main source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Lycia (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009).

People of Lycia

The region was itself unevenly populated due to its mountainous terrain and most people settled either in main cities along the coast, sometimes still interrupted by the mountains descending directly into the sea, or in the in the valley of Xanthos (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). In Antiquity, the whole population of the region has been estimated at no more than around two hundred thousand (Bean 1989:19).

Location of Lycia (in red) and Caria at its north-eastern border with the city of Caunus (Dalyan), which once belonged to Lycia. Anatolia/Asia Minor in the Greco-Roman period. The classical regions, including Lycia, and their main settlements. Image by Caliniuc (2018). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient Lycians had always been very distinctive in the background of other Anatolian peoples (Bean 1989:19). In ancient times, Lycia was adjacent to Caria region with its ancient city of Caunus to the west and northwest, Pamphylia to the east, and Pisidia to the northeast (Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, its geopolitical map had often changed throughout ages (Bean 1989:19-30; Miszczak 2009). Although the region is often studied as a whole, the ancient Lycia had never been a single state organism, but well-established federation of city-states (the Lycian League) that pursued a common foreign policy, dictated by their strong instinct for union (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). That, in turn, built up a sense of a Lycian nation, which differed with a nation understood by contemporary Greeks who saw it just as a unity within individual city-states, being constantly at enmity with each other (Bean 1989:20). Accordingly, locked in their mountainous country,

Lycia, from Travels in Lycia, Milyas, and the Cibyratis, in company with the late Rev. E. T. Daniell (1842). Showing the routes taken by T.A.B. Spratt, the naturalist Professor Edward Forbes and the Reverend E.T. Daniell during their exploration of the region in 1842. By Lieutenant T. Spratt, R.N., uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Lycians diligently guarded their freedom independence, trying to resist an outside domination (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). The region was also the last in Asia Minor to have been incorporated into the Roman Empire, and even then it retained a partial independence in the form of the Lycian League (Miszczak 2009). As such, Lycians had their own language with its peculiar characters, though related to the Hittite and Luwian languages, their own culture, customs and an outstanding style of sepulchral architecture, for which Lycia is interesting today, especially to archaeologists, and tourists making breaks from pleasures offered them by the resorts (Bean 1989:20, 22-23; Miszczak 2009).

At the crossroads of different cultures

By a continuous development of its seaside settlements, ancient Lycia became a major naval power in the region and so it also fully benefited from marine trade (Miszczak 2009). Its coast for centuries had been of great strategic importance for the successive empires ruling over Anatolia, as an important section of the sea route leading from the Aegean Sea eastwards, to the Levant and Egypt (Ibid.). In addition to its military importance, this sea route also greatly contributed to the development of trade and the transmission of civilization achievements (Ibid.). It is worth mentioning that Saint Paul himself came from Greece to Lycia on a merchant ship to spread Christianity in the region (Ibid.). But the history of the Lycian country is much more ancient than the times of Christian apostles, and the land itself is soaked with various legends.

Origins shrouded in mystery

After a Greek tradition recorded by Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), Lycians as a people originated in Crete, where there was a quarrel or fight over the power between two noble brothers, Minos and Sarpedon (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). Finally, defeated Sarpedon was forced to leave his homeland and together with his supporters, he crossed the sea to Asia Minor and settled down in Lycia, at the time called Milyas, being occupied by Solymians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

SVG Map of ancient Lycia in Turkey. The map of Lycia showing significant ancient cities and some major mountains and rivers. Red dots are mountain peaks, white dots are ancient cities. Prepared by Erp at English Wikipedia (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The name Lycia itself, as Herodotus claims, comes from Lycus, son of Pandion the Second, the mythological king of Athens, after whose death, Lycus was driven from his domain by his own brother, Aegeus (the famous Theseus’ father) and eventually found the refuge by joining Sarpedon in Asia Minor, where people took from him the name and became called the Lycians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). According to Greek myths, it was the time of the mysterious labyrinth at Knossos, its monstrous inhabitant, Minotaur devouring children, and a conflict of Athens with Crete.

Written tradition

More precise, though unreliable dates of these events are provided by the so-called Parian Chronicle (or Parian Marble), a Greek chronology table covering the years from 1582 to 299 BC., inscribed on a stele found on the island of Paros (the Cyclades) (Bean 1989:20). According to the Greek inscription, it was the early thirteenth century BC., when Lycus reached Asia Minor, whereas the fight between Minos and Sarpedon happened in the latter half of the fifteenth century (Ibid.:20). The given chronology is still confused by the fact there was another Minos at the time of Lycus and Aegeus, and another Sarpedon in the time of the Trojan War, that is to say, in the thirteenth century BC. (Ibid.:20). Yet, the dating from Paros cannot be simply rejected as the names could repeat in history. Moreover, ‘Minos’ may have actually stood not for a name but for a title, as much as ‘pharaoh’ in ancient Egypt (see: Castleden 2000).

Lycia coin, c. 520–470 BC. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, the Hittite records also mention a nation of the Lukka, which is their own name for Lycia (Ibid.:20). They say that Lukka became subject to the Hittite ruler, Suppiluliumas, in the mid-fourteenth century BC. but the lands were continuously rebellious against his domination (Ibid.:20). Nevertheless, it did not discourage Lycian forces to fight later on the side of the Hittites against Egypt in the Battle of Kadesh (1295 BC.) (Miszczak 2009). According to George E. Bean (1989:21), the Hittite records about ‘Lukka’ must have concerned the lands to the west or south-west of the Hittite capital of Hattusa. Also contemporary tablets found in Tell el-Amarna (the mid fourteenth century BC.) records some ‘Lukki’ among the sea riders plundering Cypriot settlements, which would locate them in the region of Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). As far as Greek literature is concerned, Homer (the eight century BC.) often mentions the Lycians in the Iliad as allies of Troy (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). According to the author, the Lycian military contingent was commanded by two famous Lycian warriors and heroes, Sarpedon and Glaucus, whose role in the famous war was not undistinguished. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). And it is commonly accepted the Trojan war took place in the thirteenth century BC. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24).

More evidence provided

In the Hittite accounts, there also appear the names of the cities conquered by the king Suppiluliumas in Lukka in the fourteenth century, namely Dalawa and Hinduwa (Bean 1989:21). Whereas the latter may be identical with Lycian Candyba or Kandyba (district of Kaş), Dalawa may be the same as the Lycian Tlawa (Tlos), located in the valley of Xanthus (Ibid.:21). If such assumptions are correct, then it can be accepted that Lycia had already been established in the fourteenth century, which also acknowledges the information given by the stele of Paros that the Cretans under Sarpedon reached Asia Minor around 1400 BC. (Ibid.:20-21).

The Greek historian Ephorus of Cyme (the furth century BC.) adds that Sarpedon came first to Caria, the region to the west of actual Lycia, and founded the city of Miletus, renamed after a place in Crete (Bean 1989:21). Alternative sources assert that the first city of the future Lycians was actually Idrias (later Stratoniceia), still situated in Caria but further south-eastwards, towards the Peninsula of Tepe (Ibid.:21). If the provided records are reliable, such a settlement would mark the way of Sarpedon southward, from the Aegean Coast to the lands of Lycia (Ibid.:21).

Greek name for a foreign country

Speaking of the name itself, the terms ‘Lycia’ or ‘Lycians’ were used only by Greeks, as much as the Hittite described the same peoples the Lukka, and ancient Egyptians, the Lukki (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). The inhabitants of Lycia, however, called themselves Termilae or Trmmili, and their land, Trmmisa, which is confirmed by their native inscriptions (Bean 1989:22; Miszczak 2009). For this reason, Herodotus’ account that Lycia adopted the name of the Athenian Lycus should be debunked (Bean 1989:22). Possibly, the historian tried to explain the etymology of the name used by the Greeks to describe their neighbours, which was yet adopted, though, slightly modified, by other contemporary civilization. The Greeks had never used their proper name, which actually often has happened throughout history (Ibid.:22). It is enough to provide an example of the people commonly known as Minoans who had created a civilization on Crete; their name was, however, taken by Sir Arthur Evans from the Greek myth mentioning the king of Minos, and has nothing to do with their proper name. Yet, there exist ancient sources describing the same people as Keftiu (Egypt) or Caphtorites (the Hebrew Bible).

Back to legends

The origin of the word Lycia can be rather found in Greek myths, namely in the story of Leto, the goddess from the generation of giants (Titans), who also was the guardian of the entire Lycian people, their homes and tombs (Miszczak 2009).

Lycian dignitary in Achaemenid style, at the Karaburun tomb near Elmalı, Lycia, c. 475 BC. Unknown author (2018). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the legend, the Greek god Zeus fell in love with her but his jealous wife, Hera, chased her husband’s mistress to Asia Minor, exactly to Patara, where the goddess gave birth to the divine twins, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). According to alternative story, however, the twins were born later on the island of Delos or Ortygia (near ancient Ephesus in ancient Turkey) (Cartwright 2019). However, yet before giving birth, the persecuted Leto was accompanied on her way through the country by wolves, who guided her across the Xanthos River (Miszczak 2009). To commemorate their help, the goddess called the whole region Lycia, because lycos stands for a wolf in Greek (Ibid.).

More Greek deities

The main deities worshiped in Lycia were therefore Leto and her children, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). The most important religious sanctuary of Lycia, dedicated to Leto was located in the Xanthos valley (Ibid.). Some historians believe that the cult of Leto was one of the manifestations of the mother-goddess worship widespread throughout Anatolia, while others believe that the two cults developed in parallel and only later did Leton and the mother-goddess, known in Lycia as Eni Mahanahi, mingled into one divinity (Ibid.).

Dynasts of Lycia: Perikles. Circa 380-360 BC. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apollo and Artemis were also widely worshiped throughout the region; the ancient Carian Telmessus (another Telmessus was in Lycia, at modern Fethiye) was known in antiquity for soothsayers who referred to Apollo in their divinations (Miszczak 2009). On the other side, the main centre of the cult of Artemis was Myra, where the daughter of Leto was considered the next incarnation of the mother goddess (Ibid). In addition, the Lycians also worshiped other figures in the Greek pantheon, including Athena, Zeus, Hephaestus, and Ares (Ibid.). An interesting fact, however, are the traces of the cult of Mithras, a deity most likely from Persia, who was worshiped in Olympus by local pirates (Ibid.). Apparently, the Romans inherited the cult of Mithras just from them (Ibid.).

Rebellious nation who loved independence

The history of Lycia is to a large extent the history, mainly of struggles for maintaining independence, fought for with a fluctuating success (Miszczak 2009).

By the sixth century BC, almost the whole western Asia Minor had fallen under the rule of the kings of Lydia, except for the Cilicians and Lycians (Bean 1989:24). Yet in 546 BC., the kingdom of Lydia passed to Persia (Ibid.:24). The Persian invasion under the command of Harpagus, one of the generals of Cyrus the Great, is considered the first attempt at the conquest of Lycia (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). About 540 BC., the Persians attacked Xanthos, the inhabitants of which made a heroic attempt to resist (Miszczak 2009). Eventually, they committed mass suicide, setting their city on fire, including women and children gathered in the acropolis (Ibid.) Lycian men, on the other hand, fought to the last fighter (Ibid.). Archaeological excavations confirm this tragic story, as a thick layer of ash from this period of history has been unearthed in the city (Ibid.).

Rock-cut tomb at Telmessus (modern Fethiye). Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 – Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 380. Uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Persian occupation of Lycia turned out to be quite mild and was reduced to the collection of tribute, leaving the management of the land to the Lycian hands (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). The period of relative calm was conducive to economic growth, as it is supported by the large number of Lycian coins minted at that time (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). It was also the time of the creation of the first monumental sepulchral art and the heyday of literature (Miszczak 2009).

Still feeling free, though under occupation

After the Persian wars (480-479 BC.), in which the Lycians contributed on the side of the defeated Persians, the Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy (the maritime league), together with the cities on the western coast of Asia Minor; about 468 BC., the Athenian general Cimon, with a fleet of three hundred ships, drove the Persians out of Lycia and Caria, who were, in turn, to join the Delian Confederacy and pay the tribute to the Athenian league (Bean 1989:24-25; Miszczak 2009). When the Lycians refused, their lands were plundered and the tribute possibly imposed (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, when the Athenians became defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (404 BC.), the Delian Confederacy ended and Lycia again found itself under the Persian domination (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Yet, the Lycians did not stop to issue their own coinage or fight for their freedom. Finally, in the early fourth century, they found themselves under the rule of a famous Persian satrap of Caria, Mausolus. Although Lycia resisted under its native dynast Pericles, it became an area under occupation, and military garrisons were located on its territory at strategic points (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the rulers of Caria began to suppress the indigenous Lycian culture and impose in its place the Hellenic-Carian culture (Miszczak 2009).

Alexander the Great in Lycia

Any pretentions to Lycia made by Mausolus’s successors eventually was put to an end by the appearance of Alexander the Great in Asia Minor, who arrived there between 334 and 333 BC. (Bean 1989:25-26; Miszczak 2009). The Lycians had been already tired with the Carian domination and friendly welcomed the Macedonians, even including brave and rebellious Xanthus (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After the death of Alexander the Great, in 309 BC., one of his generals and the Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy, took control of Lycia (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). The Ptolemy dynasty that derived from him lasted in Lycia for over a hundred years (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009).

Silver Drachm of Trajan from Lycia, 98–99 AD, minted during Roman rule. Photo by Ancientcoincollector (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, it was the time when Lycia began to lose its linguistic and cultural identity, which was gradually replaced with the Greek one (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). Greek influences are also very evident in Lycian art from this period of history (Miszczak 2009). An example is the growing popularity of sarcophagi, which began to replace the typical Lycian tombs carved in the rocks (Ibid.). The Lycian League had its beginnings at that time as well (Ibid.).

From hands to hands

In 197 BC. Lycia was passed from the Ptolemies to Antiochus III the Great, a Greek Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After he was defeated by the Romans in 192 BC., at the battle of Magnesia, Lycia was handed over to the Rhodians, who were in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the Lycians, rebellious as always, spent the following years fighting for independence and writing petitions to the Roman Senate, which, exhausted by problems with Lycia, finally declared it and Caria free in 167 BC., after which they enjoyed a long time of freedom. Also the Lycian League became more prominent. In the second century BC., the Lycian League acted twice in defence of its independence against usurpers, first in the event of their attempt to gain control over the Xanthos, and then over Tlos (Bean 1989:26-27; Miszczak 2009). Facing such a fierce determination of the Lycians, the Roman Empire left the country untouched during the creation of its province of Asia (129 BC.) (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009).

The growth of the Lycian League

The first century BC. was the period of the greatest splendour and power of the Lycian League, which at that time included as many as thirty-six Lycian city-states on democratic principles (Bean 1989:27-28; Miszczak 2009). During the invasion of the Pontic ruler, Mithridates, on the western part of Asia Minor, in 88 BC., Lycia, unlike other lands that welcomed him as a liberator from Roman occupation, persisted in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009). Eventually, the Pontic king was defeated in 84 BC. by the Romans, who renewed the guarantees of independence for Lycia as a reward for its loyalty (Bean 1989:28-29; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, during the Roman civil war (the first century BC.), Lycia suffered again from the hands of Brutus’ troops till the time it was liberated by the Roman army under Octavian and Mark Antony (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The latter granted its independence in 42 BC. and Lycia was the only area of Asia Minor that was not included in the Roman Empire. It was again a time of prosperity and peace for the land (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009).

Saint Nicholas of Myra. Painting by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 – 1878). Uploaded by Galerie Art Praha (2016). Public domain. Photo source: “Saint Nicholas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The independence of the Lycian Federation ended in 43 AD. during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who joined it to neighbouring Pamphylia as a Roman province (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The Lycian freedom was granted back by Nero (54-68 AD.) and had lasted till the reign of Vespasian (69-79AD.) (Bean 1989:29). Moreover, even as a part of the Roman Empire, the Lycian League continued to exist, and the region itself was rich and prosperous (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). As the Greek geographer, Strabo (the first century AD.) notices, although Rome was still responsible for the matters of war or peace on the terrain of Lycia, its internal affairs were left in the hands of the League (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). Furthermore, when, in the early fourth century BC., the Emperor Diocletian divided the Lycia and Pamphylia province into two separate lands, the boundary of the former was extended north-westwards and so included Caunus in Caria (modern area of Daylan) and then also the Carian city of Calynda (Bean 1989:29-30; Miszczak 2009). During the Roman Empire, Lycia went through a far-reaching process of romanization, both in the area of its culture and art, and in everyday life (Miszczak 2009).

Santa Clause in Lycia

After two major earthquakes between the second and the third centuries AD, some Lycian cities were turned into ruins (Miszczak 2009). In the third century, Christianity came to the Lycian region and brought significant social and cultural changes (Ibid.). Until the fourth century AD., Christians were persecuted in Lycia, as much as in other parts of the Roman Empire; a few contemporary  Lycian martyrs have gone down into history, together with performed by them miracles (Ibid.). The most famous Christian figure from Lycia is undoubtedly the bishop of the city of Myra, called Nicholas (Ibid.). Yes! Santa Claus comes from Turkey! (Ibid.). He lived in the years 270 – 346 AD. and became well known as a miracle maker, a zealous preacher, converting to Christianity, and a patron of the local population (Ibid.).

And the ancient glory came to an end

The end of Lycian glory was the result of the Plague that blew out between 542 and 745 AD. and increasing acts of piracy in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea; flourishing cities and Lycian ports were abandoned or diminished to the size of villages, which were additionally surrounded by walls protecting them against continuous attacks (Miszczak 2009).

Abandoned Greek city of Kayaköy. Photo by the User Wmck (2011). CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The collapse of the region was also visible by the re-use of the stone from ancient tombs and columns to build city fortifications, as it can be observed in Tlos (Miszczak 2009). Lycia had remained almost uninhabited for several centuries, until the thirteenth century, when the Turks, led by the Teke dynasty, settled on its territory (Miszczak 2009). Hence the name of the Peninsula. The Turks yet stayed away from the coast, which was constantly tormented by pirates who had also established their own settlements there till the eighteenth century (Ibid.). In the early nineteenth century, the rulers of the Ottoman dynasty began to re-populate Lycia, settling in its area the Greek population of the Aegean islands (Ibid.). The few descendants of the ancient Lycians most likely mingled then with the Greek settlers by marriages. After all, they were connected with the Greeks by both, the religion, namely the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a common language, Greek. However, people of the Greek origins were displaced from Lycia again following the peace agreements following the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 (Ibid.). Together with the Greeks, the descendants of Lycia were thus relocated to Greece; just abandoned villages remain after that time on the Tepe Peninsula (Ibid.). The most famous of them is Kayaköy, the so-called Stone Village, which is now a tourist attraction for holidaymakers visiting the region of Fethiye (Ibid.).

When we finally arrived to our hotel from the airport in Antalya, it turned out to be a real heaven, beautifully located in a pine forest, near a narrow path leading to the beach. At last we could take a refuge from insistent rays of the sun and rest from its heat in the shade of wide trees. In the hotel’s open courtyard, a few guests were sitting languidly by the swimming pool, while the waiters were making tables for the upcoming dinner. I sat nearby in the greenery and closed my eyes. Despite my tiredness after the trip, I was looking forward to travelling around the region and discovering monuments of ancient Lycia.

Featured image: Marine of Fethiye, the town situated on the coast of ancient land of Lycian Turkey. Photo by fikret kabay (2017). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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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“Saint Nicholas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d7xc5G>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Cartwright M. (2019). “Artemis”. In: World History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kZVi4y>. [Accessed on 10th March, 2021].

Castleden R. (2000) The Knossos Labyrinth. A New View of the Palace of Minos’ at Knossos. London; New York: Routledge.

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u >. [Accessed on 24th June, 2021].

Miszczak I. (2009). ”Dzieje Licyjczyków”. In: Miszczak I., Miszczak J. Turcja w sandałach. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kVybIh>. [Accessed on 8th March, 2021].

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 Għ