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The Pages of the Book of Kells Inspired by Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Angel Perching on Abraham’s Chair Carved on the Cross

After a visit at the Trinity College with its glamorous Book of Kells, filled with the Gospel message written and illuminated on its folios in the Golden Age, we headed to County Kildare, in search of further lessons on Christian Irish lore carved at the time of Ceile-De, the monastic movement from before the beginning of the second millenium, which by means of its reforms wanted to come back to the Hiberno-Irish ideals of the ascetic life from the sixth century Ireland. No other day than the Good Saturday would not have been more perfect for such a journey than that transitional moment between the death and rebirth.

The Golden Age and its echos in the Tall Cross of Moone

The history of the monastery at Moone in County Kildare apparently dates back to the fifth century, when it was established by Saint Palladius (AD 408–431). The latter came from a noble Gaulish family and is known as the first bishop of Ireland who preceded Saint Patrick in his mission to Ireland. The Pope of Rome, Celestine I, sent him to the Island to the Scotti Christians as then Ireland was referred to as Scotland. In the sixth century, yet, the monastic site of Moone was dedicated to Saint Columba or Colmcille, who was one of the so-called Twelve Apostles of Ireland who took a leading part in the Hiberno-Scottish mission, known as peregrinatio pro-Christo amore – the pilgrimage for the love of Christ. Together with his disciples, he is credited with spreading Christianity in Caledonia, the land that is today known as Scotland. In the sixth century, the focus of Christianity in Ireland interestingly switched from the episcopal structure to the monastic one.

The Tall Cross of Moone and its restoration

The County Kildare, which is situated in the south of Dublin, is characterised by granite monumental crosses, whose stone type makes them stand out from other biblical high crosses on the Island. The old graveyard of Moone now features one reconstructed and so complete high cross and the remains of the two other incomplete crosses, with two cross bases present in the graveyard to the north and south of the church. The tall cross of a slender shaft, which is  the second tallest high cross in Ireland, just after the West Cross of Monasterboice, has been re-erected and is now standing inside the ruins of the medieval church, surrounded by the remnants of the other two crosses, displayed in fragments. The boards with images on site show what part of the cross those fragments may have belonged to. The High Cross itself was cleaned and protective roofing panels were erected on the old church. It is the result of the restoration work, which was carried out at the site around 2010. It is also worth mentioning that high Irish crosses were originally covered in polychromy.

Unique among its counterparts

The shape and style of the so-called Tall Cross, reaching 7.04 metres in height, are quite unique of Irish high crosses. It consists of three parts, a base, a shaft and a head, which were re-assembled in 1893, when the remining missing part of the cross, namely the middle section of the shaft was re-discovered; the upper part and the base had been found in the graveyard of the abbey yet in 1835. It is possible that the cross is still missing its cap-stone as there is a tenon for it at the top of the cross’ head. The range of its dating spreads from the eighth to the tenth centuries; some scholars indicate that it must have been carved earlier due to its graphic which is rather primitive and naïve in its style, which is one of a few characteristics making the cross unique. This charming and flat style of carvings is typical of all representations except for the panel representing Adam and Eve’s scene, whose figures are represented in more modelled and rendered in more rounded relief. Apart from peculiar conventionalized sculpture, the cross is distinguished by its slender and tall shaft, squashing in section and the fact that most of the figural depictions are positioned on the four sides of its large base, carved in the shape of two truncated pyramids. All four sides of the shaft are decorated with more or less unidentified anthropomorphic characters, together with quadruped or bird carvings that continuously merge in interlace with multiple ornaments; either animal elements uncoil from the bosses, or they are contorting within the panels. At the centre of the head on the so-called west face of the cross is an ancient spiral symbol of the sun, looking like the eye of the cyclone or a swastika. Anther pre-Christian symbol of the sun is the lozenge positioned below the head on the same face. That symbol is also ubiquitous in the Book of Kells.

Which cross face should be to the West?

It is believed that the sides and faces of the cross should be read in a clockwise direction by means of its successive scenes, and they should be followed from the bottom up, in order to keep their chronological order. However, I have some doubts about the cross’ proper re-assemblage in the nineteenth century, as the east face shows now the Crucifixion on its head, though some scholars suggest it is the resurrected Christ depicted. Still, presuming it is the Crucifixion, this essential scene should be by tradition positioned on the west face of the cross. It is because while the East symbolises the rebirth, the West stands for the death and sacrifice. Moreover, on the base of the cross, also on the so called east face, there is a representation of the Fall of Man (Adam and Eve scene), which is placed back-to-back with the Crucifixion on the west face of the cross. That fact, in turn, disrupts the chronology of the events; assuming that the west face of the cross is to show events followed by those exposed on the east one, such a location of the scenes would be wrong. For it was the Crucifixion that was the consequence of the original sin, represented by the scene of Adam and Eve.

All is about the help coming from Heavens

The theme of the Tall Cross is undoubtedly the help of God, which speaks by means of Old and New Testament representations, alongside with hagiographic, legendary and apocryphal events, with some scent of paganism. It is also important to note that Old Testament scenes were to prefigure the Gospel message itself. Such scenes, as Daniel in the Lions’ Den, The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace or the Sacrifice of Isaac had already been used in the Paleo-Christian art of the catacombs and Christian necropolises to express the New Testament stories, when their pictorial expressions were not yet well established in a human imagination.

The theme of the Tall Cross is undoubtedly the help of God, which speaks by means of Old and New Testament representations, alongside with hagiographic, legendary and apocryphal events, with some scent of paganism. It is also important to note that Old Testament scenes were to prefigure the Gospel message itself. Such scenes, as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace or the Sacrifice of Isaac had already been used in the Paleo-Christian art of the catacombs and Christian necropolises to express the New Testament stories, when their pictorial expressions were not yet well established in a human imagination. Such themes ceased in the Latin tradition around the fourth century, yet they unexpectedly reappeared in the Culdees Ireland, on the so-called Biblical Crosses, precisely between  the eighth and tenth centuries. All of the panels of the cross show how Christ God came to assist Christians while they were in need or even suffering prosecutions. Also the New Testament scenes on the cross glorify God’s assistance by the scenes of the Flight into Egypt or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes; while the former shows the Holy Family rescued from the hands of the king Herod, the latter tells a story of Christ’s miracle by means of which the multitude did not suffer from hunger.

Why did the Irish carve the saints from Egypt?

Thematically similar is a hagiographic scene on north side, showing two important Coptic saints, Saint Paul and Saint Anthony, who are fed in the Egyptian Desert by a raven bringing them the whole loaf of bread. This scene repeats on many high Irish crosses, not only in Ireland but also in Scotland, though it sometimes features various iconographic details. It supports the theory that Egyptian monasticism greatly influenced early-medieval Ireland, changing the stricture of the Celtic Church which had been strongly anchored in ascetic monasticism of the Oriental tradition.  Except for depictions of the Egyptian Fathers of the monasticism, such Coptic-Irish relations are also visible in the scene of the Flight into Egypt – the essential event bringing Christianity to Egypt, and in the iconology hidden behind a few other Hiberno-Irish scenes, displayed both, in Insular illuminated manuscripts and in stone on high crosses. One of them is undoubtedly the scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, featuring its angelic protagonist in a peculiar attitude and meaning. All in all, God’s help is most often manifested by means of His Angel who is the messenger, helper and saviour on behalf of God.

Our first trip to high Irish crosses in County Kildare. Let’s learn more on Moone Cross. Film by Felipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Miracles happened by angels

The figure of an angel joins the panels of the cross on the east and south faces of the base, where it is first Isaac, usually understood as the prefiguration of Christ, and then Christ Child Himself, who are saved by the manifestation of the Lord’s Angel. A traditional figure of a winged angel can be seen on the cross only in two cases; in the scene of the mentioned scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, and on the west face of the head, where two “unidentified” anthropomorphic figures are possibly flanking the symbol of the resurrected Christ in his solar power, and as such they are shown on the terminals of the cross’ horizontal arms. Yet, as early Irish legends teach, angels may assume different forms, including birds, and as such they may have been depicted in the scene of SS Anthony and Paul in the Desert, and in the scene of the Sacrifice of Isaac, where a small bird, usually taken for a merge decoration, is preaching at the high back chair, screaming to Abraham’s ears. Although some other scenes do not show angels explicitly, their narratives refer to their actions and successful results, such as in the Flight into Egypt or Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

Angels were in early-medieval Ireland very important and ubiquitous figures. They were invoked by name in the Hiberno-Scottish tradition, which traces lead to seven guardian archangels. They seemed to live close to people to help them in their everyday earthly existence, as much as it is still experienced by Christians following and celebrating the remote Oriental tradition.

Featured image: Behind the scenes of our documentary, in front of the Tall Cross of Moone, Co. Kildare. Photography: Jarosław Karon, Felipe Almeida. 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Dempsey, J., date unknown. ‘Irish High Crosses. Moone’, in Megalithic Ireland.(https://bit.ly/3GJHVRS; accessed 15th April, 2023).

Harbison, P., 1992, The High Crosses of Ireland. An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, vols 1-3. Bonn: Dr Rudolf Habelt GMBH.

Harbison, P., 1994, Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained. Drogheda: the Boyne Valley Honey Company.

Harbison, P., 2007, ‘Irish High Crosses’ (lecture recorded during the opening of the exhibition: ‘Irish High Crosses Exhibition’), in The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, in McParland, S., Youtube Channel. (https://bit.ly/3KATsSE; 2007; accessed 2nd May, 2022).

Richardson, H., Sarry, J., 1990. An Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Dublin: The Mercier Press.

Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

The Normans! It is hard to imagine how much indescribable fear these sea peoples triggered in Europe throughout the entire ninth century (Rops 1969:495). When these terrible pirates appeared at the mouths of the rivers, the bells rang with alarm; all city gates were shut up, and its terrified defenders appeared on the ramparts (Ibid.:495-496). Whole groups of miserable people fled from farms and monasteries; they were to be met by a massacre rather than rescued (Ibid.:496). Surrounded by a mystery like by a thick fog, from which they emerged like ghosts, infamous Vikings haunted Europe as a living symbol of punishment for its transgressions (Ibid.:496).

The Church not only resisted the invaders, but in line with its conduct, it also carried out missionary activities against them (Rops 1969:501). After years of efforts undertaken by European missionaries, they finally succeeded in establishing two Christian centers in Viking lands, Birca (Birch Island) in present-day Sweden, and in Ribe, a today Danish town in south-west Jutland (Ibid.:501-502). The apparent result was modest, but it was of great importance to the future of the Catholic church (Ibid.:502). It was just a preview of the evangelization of Scandinavia that eventually took place around 1000 (Ibid.:502).

Today Scandinavia seems to be a peaceful land filled with love for the landscape and nature. The vast areas of Norway seem like an enchanted and silent country inhabited by good spirits of lakes and forests rather than by the bloodthirsty ninth-century Vikings. The Scandinavians of the twenty-first century are actually considered the most peaceful nations in Europe (Żylińska 1986:9).

Christianisation of the sea pirates

An exciting missionary adventure had taken place in Scandinavia, but it cannot be followed in detail as there are large gaps in the historic records; yet it is known that the history of the Christianisation of the North is full of very interesting episodes and interesting people (Rops 1969:626).

In three centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, the Scandinavian world passed from paganism shrouded in the fog of great dreams to the Christian faith (Rops 1969:626). Those corsairs who plundered Christian countries themselves were baptized, sometimes even in places where they had previously plundered, and their new faith made them later steal relics more willingly than treasures, which was then evidence of their great devotion (Ibid.:626). At the same time, missionaries set out to these savage lands, mainly under the influence of the Archbishops of Hamburg (Ibid.:626-627).

The history of the Christianization of Scandinavians, closely related to the military operations that led to the settlement of the people of the North, first in France and then in England, truly had the features of an epic (Rops 1969:627).

In front of Nidaros Cathedral, situated in the city of Trondheim. It is built over the burial site of King Olav II (c. 995-1030, reigned 1015-1028), who became the patron saint of the nation, and is the traditional location for the consecration of new kings of Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The very history of establishing Christianity in these areas bears names of great heroes, such as Saint Olav, king of Norway, this former sailor who, with the help of priests and monks brought from England, worked effectively to eradicate paganism from his territory (Rops 1969:627). The richest personality was undoubtedly Canute the Great (1016-1035), who around 1028 created a wonderful empire that encompassed the British Isles, Denmark and almost all of Scandinavia, and who worked bravely to transform his country into a Christian state (Ibid.:627). In the countries that emerged after the collapse of his kingdom, Magnus of Norway, a worthy son of Saint Olaf, and Emond Gamul of Sweden, remained faithful to his principles (Ibid.:627). Around 1050, northern national Christian communities were formed with their own hierarchy, dependent directly on Rome (Ibid.:627).

Sacral architecture

Today, Norway is home to a mixture of ancient traditions, artifacts and structures left by different eras, including Christian sacral architecture built by the Christianised Vikings to celebrate the birth and development of Christianity in Norway (Norwegian Reward 2019). Although the Christian art was created to express the values and truths of the new faith, it still had preserved its pagan face mainly in its decorations and ornaments. Artistic expressions of pagan ancestors are usually visible in wonderful decorations of wooden or metal objects (Białostocki 2008:69). This style of art was typical of all Germans, including the Vikings; their architecture was covered with intricate weaves of the  floral and zoomorphic ornament (Ibid.:69).

In the Vikings’ art, this was usually a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil – the mighty ash tree whose roots were the foundation of the world, as it is seen on the eleventh century wooden portal of the stave church of Urnes in Norway (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:30).

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar and other carved heads of baldachin in Stave Church of Hopperstad. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Creative Commons CC0 License. Photo source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In its tangled limbs, woven into nine mythical lands, various animals lived (Ibid.:30). Like in other examples of German art, these are usually the motifs of animal bodies, claws, beaks, tails, paws shattered in an impenetrable tangle of lines describing zigzags, knots, forming a braid (Białostocki 2008:69). Sometimes there is a more geometric ornament (Ibid.:69). At other times, also human figures are entangled in this extraordinary world of fantastic imagination (Ibid.:69). But even when Germanic art took up the figural theme, it was many a time captured in a geometric way that bordered on abstraction (Ibid.:69). This world was not only to decorate Christian truths, but also to express its own legends and symbols in their new entourage,  within Catholic medieval churches.

Hopperstad Stavekirke

The Hopperstad Stave Church “is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord. […] In the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord [there] are [actually] two medieval churches, Hopperstad Stave Church and Hove stone church. Few other places in Norway can boast having two such treasures” (Havran 2014:38).

It was a hot July, which does not often happen in Norway. We left behind the hills covered with patches of snow and headed for the edge of the fjord. Then we took a ferry from Dragsvik to Vangsnes and afterwards travelled farther south to Vik, along the Sognefjord, which is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. Wonderful views accompanied us throughout the whole journey, and their beauty was just breathtaking; the blue of the sky and the depth of the fjord intertwined with lush greenery and the colors of small, low houses scattered around in the valleys.

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Less than an hour later I saw the steep roofs of the church, with its sloping silhouette against the juicy colors of nature. In order to enter the church, we had to climb up a green hill with a graveyard, atop which it is standing. It looks just as a medieval stave church should: “with a clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons on the ridges of the roofs” (Havran 2014:19). The church only lacks more typically protruding dormers, definitely featured by another stave church, Borgund, which actually “served as a model for the construction of Hopperstad and Gol stave churches” (Ibid.:46).

Historians usually claim that the mythical animals carved on the church, such dragons, represent the evil banished by Jesus Christ out of the holy place (Białostocki 2008:69). So they meekly crouched on the church’s roof as much as grotesque gargoyles encrusted Gothic cathedrals (see Barron 2000:87-93). “And from the edge of the roof jut menacing serpent-like beasts who appear ready at any moment to pounce on some unfortunate passerby” (Barron 2000:88). In the Vikings’ world, serpents or dragons could fly and speak human voice (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:85). They also breathed fire or suffocating fumes and guarded countless treasures (Ibid.:85). But were they evil as it is taught by the Christian Church? Dragons certainly embodied powerful forces and natural element, like Jörmungandr, the sea monster wrapping his gigantic body around the earth and grasping his own tail (Ibid.:85).

The Hopperstad Stave Church was built in  the mid-1100s but “was in a ruinous state by the 1800s and was scheduled to be pulled down when the new Vik Church was completed in 1877. Fortunately it was purchased at the last minute by the Society for the Preservation of Monuments in Bergen, led by architect Peter Blix. During the 1880s he personally restored the stave church to its present appearance” (Havran 2014:38).

“In terms of construction, Hopperstad Stave Church is related to Urnes and Kaupanger stave churches. It is of the [Type B], having a raised centre room [and a raised roof], with preserved structural components from the Middle Ages. [Its] massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. […] The nave is dominated by a stunning side altar and Blix’s gravesite beneath the floor. […] The stave church has three portals, the large western portal and two smaller but rare portals. […] The upper portion [of the western portal], however, was reconstructed in conjunction with a restoration during the 1880s” (Havran 2014:38,41-42).

“The main altar is from 1621. The chancel screen is not original, but dates from the Middle Ages and is the only one preserved in any stave church. It has Gothic-shaped openings and probably dates back to a reconstruction during the 1200s” (Havran 2014:38).

“The medieval inventory item deserving a closer look is first and foremost the altar baldachin [or canopy] above one of the side altars. [it is dated back to 1300s]. The baldachin is a simple stave construction with rich carvings, the underside of the vault painted with scenes from the life of Mary [and Jesus’ childhood]” (Havran 2014:38,40). One of the wooden carvings represents a head of a queen (Ibid.:38).

“Hopperstad Stave Church is still the property of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments […] and is a museum church” (Havran 2014:38).

Made of upright staves

Stave churches (stavekirke) “were found across the northern parts of the European continent, including in Scandinavia. [Today] it is virtually only in the rugged landscape of Norway that these unique buildings have survived, from the Middle Ages and up to the present” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

The stave churches’ structures are made entirely from wood (Norwegian Reward 2019), with their walls constructed of upright planks or staves (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “The staves, or columns, are bearing elements that give stave churches their name, but there are many other structural elements that are unique in these churches. True enough, the portals served no structural function, but they are also unique [in their artistic expressions]” (Havran 2014:17). “A stave church with an elevated centre room [and so a raised roof] can comprise as many as 2000 different parts, and most of these were shaped beforehand. All of the structural components are perfectly joined and adapted to one another, using no nails” (Ibid.:19). The type with the raised roof predominates today among the remaining stave churches (Ibid.:14). “The reason why [such churches] survived is that they were the largest, finest and most decorated” (Ibid.:14).

“Craftsmen during the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of the building with quality materials. They almost exclusively used pine core from pristine forests that grew untouched for several hundreds of years. In addition, the trees were left to dry on the root for several summers before they were felled. Core pine contains a high concentration of resin, which is a natural impregnating agent. When the stave churches in Numedal were examined some years ago it was found that the wood on the loft that had been unexposed to light was as solid as newly felled timber” (Havran 2014:17-18).

Construction

“In terms of construction, the stave churches are wonders of engineering art. Over the centuries they have surely weathered many a storm, and they have not been toppled. Documentation does exist, however, that one stave church was blown down in a windstorm” (Havran 2014:17).

Additionally “[ground] work has contributed to the longevity of stave churches over the centuries” (Havran 2014:18). “[The] corner posts (staves) and wall planks were set on beams or sills of stone above the ground. Their structure of columns, planks, and supports were joined by dovetailing, pegs, and wedges, never by glue or nails. They were therefore completely flexible and could easily expand and contract depending on the weather” (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “Stability problems were solved in a highly refined and indigenously constructive manner. A complex system of knee brackets and braces ensures that the church stands firmly” (Havran 2014:19).

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000).“Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace.

How were the stave churches built? It is “not known whether the carpenters used drawings [beforehand]; perhaps they scratched designs onto wood or slabs of slate” (Havran 2014:19). According to the description given by the authors of Norway’s Stave Churches (2000), Eva Valebrokk and Thomas Thiis-Evensen, the churches’ construction resembled arranging the wooden puzzles in a very imaginative way (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020).

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The raft beams were first placed on the foundation of stones. They intersect one another at the corners and continue outward to support any adjacent galleries or transepts. The tall staves which framed the nave were inserted into the mortised raft beams and joined on top by a new square section of beams. This supported the sharply pitched triangular roof trusses. These again supported the roof and the bell tower which straddled the ridge of the roof. At this point the structure still needed added support to prevent it from collapsing in the wind. First, a continuous ‘belt’ of cross braces followed the periphery of the room. Also, there were arches inserted between the staves in the form of curved wooden brackets. Lastly, the low aisle section resting on the raft beams protruding from the nave was also very critical to the structural support of the church” (Valebrokk, Thiis-Evensen 2000).

As stave churches have never rested on the ground itself, but on a foundation, they have been therefore exposed to the open air (Havran 2014:18). “Lessons were obviously learned from the problems with the earlier churches, where the supporting posts had been embedded in the ground, [where the wooden construction rapidly rotted]. The post churches did not last long, perhaps no longer than 100 years” (Ibid.:18).

Medieval master carpenters

“It is probable that there were teams of carpenters who would raise several churches. In Topo Stave Church runic inscriptions were found, including ‘Torolf made this church …’, along with seven other names, who must have been his journeymen” (Havran 2014:18).

The same inscription was found in the demolished Al Stave Church, although with the names of other assistant workers. The Torolf in question was probably a master builder who travelled around and raised several churches” (Havran 2014:18-19).

History

“Stave churches were built over a period of 200 years […], from the first half of the twelfth century until the Black Death devastated Norway in 1349” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[The] oldest and most precious member of the stave church family [is Urnes Stave Church, which] was included on UNESCO’s list of the world’s foremost cultural and natural heritage sites. […] Perhaps more than 1000 [medieval] stave churches were built in Norway” (Havran 2014:12). Consequently, “more than a thousand villages, maybe even more, had [such a wooden church]” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

“After the Black Death in 1349, there were no longer enough people and resources to maintain […] all [these wooden constructions]. By the time the population had recovered, two hundred years later, they were building log churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Few documented stave churches were constructed after the Black Plague” (Havran 2014:12). “Only 240 of the original thousand or so stave churches were still standing in 1650. Another two hundred years later, there were only sixty left” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

“Almost miraculously, they narrowly avoided total obliteration at the end of the 1800s” (Havran 2014:12); “the Church Act of 1851, which made stipulations about the size of the church in relation to the number of people in the parish, virtually [had given] the go-ahead for demolition” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Only “[thanks] to painters Johannes Flintoe and I.C. Dahl, as well as the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Antiquities (today called the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) and a handful of other enthusiasts, Norway has managed to preserve portions of this cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:12).

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

“The majority [of stave churches] were likely lost  due to the drastic decrease in population, which fell by two-thirds during the Black Plague. It was not until the 1600s that the population again reached the same level as before the Black Plague. One needs only imagine what 200 years of neglected maintenance can do to a wooden church. Church constructions did revive, although no longer using the stave technique, but rather notching” (Havran 2014:12-14).

“In 1650 the number of stave churches had fallen to 270, and by the turn of the [nineteenth] century there were only about 70 left. […] Most of the 70 churches that survived up until 1800 were probably among the most valued buildings. [It is documented that about] 40 stave churches, [most of the finest specimens], were also pulled down during the 1800s, the last of these during the early 1880s. […] When needed, however, they were expanded rather than [demolished]” (Havran 2014:14-15).

“About half of the stave churches [today] are in use as regular parish churches, while others serve more as museums and are used only on special occasions, such as weddings and christenings. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments owns and administers eight of the stave churches, while three are in open-air museums” (Havran 2014:16).

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the [Type B] with a raised centre room [and a raised roof, whereas] some have mid-masts and are of the so-called Møre type. [There are also medieval stave churches of a unique architectural style in Europe, with galleries, a chancel and cross naves, which belong to the so-called Nummedals-type (“Nore Stave Church” 2020)]. However, there is a reason to believe that the simplest and smallest [Type A], with a somewhat larger but single nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave [churches] during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20; see: “Stave church” 2020).

Taking into account their geographical placement, “the stave churches were distributed widely throughout the entire country. Unfortunately none are documented from the northmost countries; it is likely that they disappeared more quickly there because of the harsh climate. Many of the remaining stave churches are located on the Sognefjord […], in Valdres […] and in Numedal […], that is in areas with the milder and drier climate. The distance between Valdres and Sogn is insignificant, as well, and the stave churches there share many common characteristics. It is for this reason that they are jointly considered as belonging to the Sogn-Valdres type. In the lowlands of Eastern Norway, in Trondelag and in Rogaland, stone churches were more prevalent. Of the nearly 300 stone churches built in the Middle Ages, about 150 are still standing today” (Havran 2014:20).

Inventory

Unfortunately, “[there] is no documentation showing how the interiors of stave churches appeared in the Middle Ages (Havran 2014:20). “Borgund stave church is the stave church that has weathered the centuries best, without major changes” (Stavechurch.com 2019). But even it is the most authentic of all the stave churches, it “was altered several times during the 1800s. Today this church is practically empty” (Havran 2014:20-21).

“The stave churches were built in the Catholic Age” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Following the Reformation, all inventory was to be renewed” (Havran 2014:21), and “major changes were made in church interiors” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “The division between nave and chancel no longer considered important, and much of the décor of the Catholic era – the Madonna and figures of saints, crucifixes and other items [such as side altars] – were removed from the churches” (Havran 2014:21; see Stavechurch.com 2019). “A few examples were fortunately preserved and are found today in the churches or museums” (Havran 2014:21). “Pulpits and pews were installed, and, with time, windows as well. Many of the stave churches were in a state of decline” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Remains of the glorious past

Critically looking “at the remaining stave churches today, [it must be admitted] that several of them are not stave churches at all, in the strict sense of the word” (Havran 2014:16).

Under the guard of the wooden dragons looking down from the roof. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Most of them have been altered or extended, and many no longer look like stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[Some] have retained only a few of their original [medieval] building components” (Havran 2014:16). “The churches that have survived are often located in small communities that could not afford to build new ones” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “In addition to the [preserved] 28 churches in Norway, one other Norwegian stave church is located in Poland. When Vang Stave Church was to be pulled down in 1841, it was purchased by the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, disassembled, stored for a period of time outside Berlin and later erected on his territory at the time, now [belonging again to Poland, the same territory is known as Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains]” (Havran 2014:16). Frankly speaking, it is a shame I have never visited the Vang Stave Church, which is in my own country. I promised myself to do it in the future.

Additionally, “it has been recently documented that Grip Stave Church was not built until the 1600s” (Havran 2014:16).  

Modern alterations

“In addition to the 29 remaining stave churches today, there are some 50 more that are well documented and from which a few building components have been preserved. Among the preserved components, portals and other carved elements are well represented. Throughout history, the stave churches have been subjected to many [alterations], expansions, additions and replacement of inventory, so today they stand as evidence of changing stylistic periods. During the 1900s several of the stave churches were returned to their ‘original’ appearance. Judged from the perspective of restoration concepts and knowledge in our modern era, the type of restoration practised at the time was equivalent  to ‘free interpretation’ on the part of the architect. Nevertheless, in line with restoration philosophy today, it is preferred to preserve the churches as they are, because they are regarded as documentation of a period and taste at the time of restoration, even though they may not be totally ‘historically correct’ in appearance” (Havran 2014:15-16).

Threats

Throughout years, however, there was “a dramatic decrease in the number of stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Some have been set on fire and burnt to the ground, already after their modern reconstruction (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).

Nowadays, there are only 29 out of over 1000 stave churches, built once in Norway. Hopperstad Stave Church is one of the remaining medieval architectural masterpieces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The greatest threat to the wooden construction has been always fire (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).). There is one stave church lost as recently as 1992 (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). It was Fantoft Stave Church just outside Bergen, originally known as the Fortun Stave Church from the innermost reaches of Sognwas, which was deliberately set on fire (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). “Almost all the burnings [of the churches in Norway were deliberate and] have been attributed to a small but zealous group of Satanist-nationalists and their followers” (Stavechurch.com 2019). The very similar problem concerns nowadays Europe and its medieval sacral architecture, which greatly suffers from the hands of various harmful extremists.

Modern fame and restoration

“Even though [stave churches] have been subjected to many [threats and] changes, they represent a cultural treasure paralleled by very few other cultural monuments in Norway. They are visited and admired by tourists from all over the world, by architects, engineers and art historians, but also by the general public. Visitors come to see the magnificent constructions, the shapes, designs and ecclesial art, and not least of all to sense the special atmosphere evoked by a medieval sanctuary” (Havran 2014:21-22).

Hopefully, “the stave churches will [not] be lost in the foreseeable future. As a rule, they are very well maintained. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s ‘Stave church programme’ ensures that all of the stave churches will be restored so that they will remain in good structural condition, the décor and inventory will be conserved, and the churches will be well documented” (Havran 2014:22). “As of [2015], conservation measures have been completed in [28] stave churches” (Ibid.:22).

The significance and future of the stave churches

“The unrivalled [medieval] stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Several of these unique structures have withstood the teeth of time for nearly 900 years, and they are admired by architects and engineers from all over the world” (Havran 2014:12).

All being well, “the family of stave churches will remain intact in the years to come and […] the future generations will continue to be able to enjoy this unique cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:22).

Featured image: Dragon at the roof‘edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2PUwRH2>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2020].

“Nore Stave Church” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3w5IPk0>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2020].

“Stave church” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RceeTf>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2020].

Aldin Thune N. (2005) “Dragon at the Hopperstad Stave Church”. In: Wikipedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/30SK7Ce>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2020].

Barron R. (2000) Heaven in Stone and Glass. Experiencing the Spirituality of the Gothic Cathedrals. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Białostocki J. (2008) Sztuka cenniejsza niż złoto. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches. Guide to the 29 remaining stave churches. Challman T. trans. Oslo: ARFO.

Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fU5O99>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Norwegian Reward (2019) “7 stunning Norwegian stave churches”. In: Norwegian Reward. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fVi49B>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Rops D. (1969) Kościół wczesnego średniowiecza. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX.

Stavechurch.com (2019) “From 1,000 to 28 stave churches”. In: Stavechurch.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ClH4ZM>. [Accessed on 12th August, 2020].

Turowska-Rawicz M, Sypek R. (2007) “Ludy skandynawskie”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita. Warszawa: New Media Concept.

Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000) “Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fU5O99>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Żylińska J. (1986) Spotkania po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom

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

Walled City

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

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

Portals to the stars

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

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

South Gate

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

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

Three Towers

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

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

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

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

Also known as a gopura

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

Five causeways

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

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

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

Asuras and Devas

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

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

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

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

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

Samudra manthan

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

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

Pulling the Naga

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

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

Amrit

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

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

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

Bas-relief and full sculpture

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

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

Message

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

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

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

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

Another message

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

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

Precession

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

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

Astronomical phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

Zodiac

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

Who was first?

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

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

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

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

Astronomy hidden in myths

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

Numbers and numbers

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

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

Language of ancient architecture

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

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

Scientific message of fairy tales

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

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

Through the Gateway

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

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

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

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

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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Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).

Aghmat

In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).

Expansion

After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Photo by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez with narrow streets and alleys. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almoravids buildings with their own (Ibid.). Legend has it that the architectural predecessors of the mosques built by Almohads in Marrakech were all pulled down as they had not been correctly aligned with Mecca (Ibid.). This was a big bold message to the people of Marrakech; the Almohads made it clear that their interpretation of Islam was the correct one (Ibid.). Today, the Almohads’ Kutubiyya Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Franus 2012:159). Its squared minaret tower is seventy meters high and is a great landmark for newcomers (Ibid.:159).

One of the greatest mosque, however, was going to be built in Rabat at the end of the twelve century (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). It had four hundred columns and pillars and it was big enough to hold the entire army (Ibid.). It would have been the largest mosque in Maghreb, if not in the entire Muslim world (Ibid.).

The unfinished architectural project of the mosque in Rabat, stopped after four years since it was started in 1995. Photo by Monika Ryglewicz. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The architectural project of the mosque was as ambitious as the great architecture of the North Africa or the buildings of Mecca (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Yet it has become just an unfulfilled dream (Ibid.). The reason why there is no top of the minaret or a lack of the roof over the prayer hall is that the third Almohad Muslim Calip, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died in 1199, just four years after the project started, and the mosque remained in an unfinished state (Ibid.). Its grand vision had been never completed (Ibid.). To this day, only the forty-meter-high Hassan tower has survived (Franus 2012:149). It was designed in the manner of Moroccan minarets (Ibid.:149).

Behind the gate, enchanted gardens of Rabat surrounded us; the air smelled wonderfully of roses, oleanders and belladonna, called deadly nightshade, a plant with magical properties (Franus 2012:149). Although it is poisonous, Roman women used it to dilate their pupils, which made them look more seductive (Ibid.:149). White ibises walked among the trees and storks nested there as well (Ibid.). We were accompanied by a pleasant breeze from the Atlantic (Ibid.:149).

Like a watered garden

Gardens in Rabat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All that the Almohads used to create were composed of all the traditional elements of Berber culture, also applied by their predecessors (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the scale of their intellectual achievements seems much higher (Ibid.). Some medieval poet compares their empire to the watered garden in a perfect balance of the monarch’s power and people’s prosperity (Ibid.). In such a favourable environment, there was a place for an artistic development (Ibid.).

Marrakech’s most impressive gate constructed in 1185 by the Almohads is Bab Agnaou (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It leads to the later built Kasbah within the already walled Medina (Jacobs 2019). The gate was originally just the main southern entrance into the city (Ibid.). Unlike the walls and the other gates, Bab Agnaou is not red, but green, made from a locally quarried stone (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019).

It is richly ornate which makes it different from rather simple and modest gates of Marrakech, designed at the time of the Almoravids (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012; Jacobs 2019). It is carved with embellished scallops and floral designs, which makes it very sumptuous with layers upon layers of decorations (Ibid.). They are, in turn, “surrounded by Koranic quotations written in an Arabic […] script called kufic” (Jacobs 2019). The gate’s “name means ‘Black people’s gate’, possibly because it was used by black slaves of African descent, or perhaps because it leads south, across the Sahara to West Africa” (Ibid.).

The glory days have gone

Almost all that the Almohads has built seems now more impressive than constructions left by their predecessors, and that also applies to their Berber kingdom (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). As for the Almoravids, the Almohads used Marrakech as their imperial base for a further expansion, which was even more successful and ambitious than previously (Ibid.). The Almohads not only took over the territory, which was run by their opponents but also seized the neighbouring lands of Africa, which stretched into what is now Libya, whereas in Andalucía, they made their second capital in Sevilla (Ibid.). Consequently, after the Almohads, the empire became even stronger force in the Mediterranean (Ibid.).

Intellectually and economically, the Almohads were in charge of an empire that ranked alongside the greatest of that time in the world (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). This was the high point of the Berber kingdom but controlling such a massive realm brought its own problems (Ibid.). The death of the last great leader, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, meant the beginning of the end of the Almohad dynasty (Ibid.). Squabbles over his succession allowed rival Berber tribes to divide the power over the empire (Ibid.). The Almohads were also humiliated by the Christians in a decisive battle in Spain, from which their army had never really recovered (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the authority of the Almohad rulers in Africa was lost as Arab tribes rebelled against (Ibid.). None of the Berber dynasties that succeeded the Almohad dynasty was powerful enough to control the North Africa (Ibid.). Any attempts to return to the glory days of the Almohads failed (Ibid.).

Last night in Marrakech

I made my way through the perpetually jammed street to reach the most famous square in Marrakesh and in all of Morocco, Jemaa el-Fnaa (Franus 2012:159).

A view from one of the gallery windows facing the courtyard of Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

My companion, Iwona, decided to buy a few mint seedlings to plant them in her garden upon arrival. The seller offered a thousand and one of their varieties, which were highly valued in Morocco and used to brew the famous Moroccan mint tea. We drank litres of it here (Franus 2012:159). Only for the sake of the tea serving ceremony, was it worth ordering this famous drink, which not only invigorates but also quenches thirst. I also decided to treat myself with a Moroccan souvenir – henna (Ibid.:159). After a while, my hand looked like a work of art woven into orange lace (Ibid.:159).

It was terribly hot (Franus 2012:159). After a while we ran away to the hotel and returned to the square around 7 in the evening (Ibid.:159). At that time, nothing was left there from the sleepy afternoon atmosphere (Ibid.). The crowd in the square thickened and it reached its peak one hour later (Ibid.:159). I felt like being at a festival of street performances, but here all the actors performed simultaneously (Ibid.:159).

The clamour, the smells of spiced dishes and music vibrated in the air and deafened (Franus 2012:159). In one of the streets leading from the square, I bought and dressed jellabiya (a traditional dress) to blend in more with Moroccan folklore (Ibid.:145,159). After a while we were sitting in a restaurant resembling a Moroccan palace: the stuccoes, mosaics and carpets were filled with the sounds of enchanted music and dancing of an orientally dressed dancer (Ibid.:158).

The heirs of Maghreb

In the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Morocco was revived but it was built by a different dynasty claiming the right to rule as true interpreters of Islam (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Although this dynasty has got the Arabic origins not Berber, they have declared themselves the heirs of the kingdom the Berbers had earlier created (Ibid.). One of the cities the Arabic monarchs developed is Meknes, known as the Versailles of the South (Franus 2012:149). It is surrounded by a twenty-five-kilometre-long wall that winds like a serpent through fertile fields, vineyards and fruit orchards (Ibid.:149). Today the city is a provincial centre, but in the seventeenth century it was the capital of Morocco (Ibid.:149).

It flourished during the reign of Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty, established by the Arabs (Franus 2012:149). Moulay Ismail Ben Sharif himself was one of the country’s greatest and bloodiest sultans (Ibid.:149). Therefore, it seems strange the fact that his tomb has become a destination for pilgrims from all over the world (Ibid.:152). Even at the beginning of his reign, the monarch cut down seven hundred slaves as a warning to his enemies, and decorated the walls of Fez with their heads (Ibid.:149,152). He had no mercy on anyone, not even his own children (Ibid.:152). He himself did not feel safe as he made Meknes an impregnable fortress, able to resist possible enemies for years, but at the same time it was supposed to be full of gardens, palaces and fountains (Ibid.:152). The city itself impresses with the colours of the Greek islands, where blue and white dominate. It reminded me a little my favourite city in the north of the country, Chefchaouene, which is called the Blue City due to deep blue colours of its walls (Ibid.:151).

Royal horses and the largest gate of Africa

In royal granaries, consisting of a series of rooms connected by corridors, grain and legumes were collected (Franus 2012:152). The supplies were to feed the population during the long siege. Only walls covered with wild vines and bushes remained of the equally impressive Royal Order Stables (Ibid.:152). There is not enough money for a restoration or thorough excavations. Some sources mention twelve thousand horses that were supposed to be kept there (Ibid.:152). However, the calculations show that there were no more than 1,200 of them, although it is still impressive (Ibid.:152).

The horses had royal conditions there (Franus 2012:152). They were even supplied with water via an underground system (Ibid.:152). The most famous decoration of the city, however, is the main gate of the Old Town of Meknes, Bab Mansour, known as Africa’s largest gate (Ibid.:152). It stands opposite a huge souk, where you can buy olives arranged in giant pyramids and supposedly the best sweets in Morocco (Ibid.:152). “The gate structure was completed in 1732 by Mulay Abdullah who was the son of Sultan Mulay Ismail. This gate marks the main entrance of the imperial palace built for Isla Mulay and the ancient city of Meknes. The door was designed by a Christian converted to Islam whose name was ‘Mansur’, hence [the gate’s] name. Adjacent to the gate within the walls are the Royal Order Stables, the Royal Prison and the Meknes City Museum” (“Mansour Gate” 2019). Bab Mansour itself looks like a gate to another world (Franus 2012:152). It is ten meters high (Ibid.:152) and “is decorated with green ceramics with paintings with Islamic motifs. [Its] white pillars are columns that [once] used to stand in the Roman city, Volubilis, which is about [thirty kilometres] north of the city” (“Mansour Gate” 2019).

The Alaouite dynasty is still in power today (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Nevertheless, the Berber story and their large achievements deserve their place among great histories of Africa (Ibid.).

Waterfall and the ocean

Just before heading off to Agadir, we stopped yet at Ouzoud Falls. The heat of the sun hid for a moment in the crowns of dense trees and in the splash of falling water. Macaques were popping out of the bushes, in hope for a delicious bite from the tourist’s hands. The heavenly smells of tagines, which were served in the open air, were hanging around, inviting for a Moroccan feast.

In the late afternoon, I was already standing on the wide beach near Essaouira, a charming port city and resort on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. I watched the ocean waves washing away the sun-heated sand (Franus 2012:137).

Everything seems extraordinary in this country. From the multi-colours of the mountains, the fairy-tale kasbahs, the green of palm groves rising up among the sands, the architecture of imperial cities, people who look like they have just been transferred from the past, to craftsmanship that captivates with its unique fantasy (Franus 2012:135).

Featured image: The Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, reflecting in the water. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. 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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