As an archaeologist, currently conducting PhD research on early Christianity, I have embarked on an expedition, or rather a pilgrimage, that takes me in most of its complexity with the Seven Archangels, and the seven sanctuaries-mounts dedicated to Saint Michael. They were built along the ley line, stretching southwards from northern Europe, with the Skellig Michael jutting from the Atlantic Ocean, to Mount Carmel In Israel, as its final point. But is it just a point or a cluster of sites around this holy place, important to both, Jews and Christians? (see: Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis)
Till October, 2022, I had visited the three sanctuaries in the north of Europe. Yet, when I started my exciting journey in 2006, I barely associated the sites with the Archangel; at that time, I was not aware of the fact they are all placed on the imaginative line running 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north or that they are actually seven in number, all aligned southwards on the extension of the axis. In 2008, during my short visit in Cornwall, I learnt there is much more to the story I had known so far. For some, saying that a book can change your life is a cliché … Maybe … But in my life I have read at least two books that turned out to be the bestsellers of my life, giving me proper guidelines on how to live with passion. Having encountered one of them in a small bookshop in a town of Tintagel, my perception of legendary places, shaped by the faith of pagans and Christians alike, has greatly grown; it has triggered my imagination and challenged me to follow a Christian pilgrimage path that was firstly marked by Saint Michael’s steps.
Together with my travel companions, in October, 2022, I am heading off to two other Archangel’s sanctuaries in Italy. First, I will climb up the Mount Pirchiriano, beautifully situated in Piedmont of north-western Italy, where the silhouette of Sacra di San Michele is shouting in between the peaks of the Alpes. And then I will travel southwards to not less prepossessing Monte Sant’Angelo on Gargano Peninsula, surrounded by the navy-blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Thought-provoking is a binding connection between those two sites and Mont Saint Michel in France, of which Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Gargano is the only one not consecrated with a human hand.
Visual reports online from my expeditions will be available on my website. Later on, they will be richly supplemented with exhaustive written descriptions. Meantime, I invite you on a pilgrimage along Saint Michael’s Axis.
January, 15th, 2023: More than two months have passed since my last trip to the Sanctuaries of Saint Michael. In October, I managed to visit the fourth of them, Sacra di San Michele (see :The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region), and in November, the fifth one, which is the famous Monte Sant’Angelo on the Gargano peninsula. The time turned out to be extremely intense, because apart from going to Italy and studying along St. Michael’s Line, I also visited Christian sacral places in Lebanon and Egypt. Many of them are also related to angels’ activities, not only to Saint Michael, but also to his other six archangel companions. In Lebanon, I had the opportunity to travel through the sacred Valley of Quadisha, where Saint Michael is celebrated as much as Saint Elijah. I also tried sweet wine, made from grapes grown on Mount Hermon – the same one that was to witness the descent of fallen angels to earth… In Egypt, I visited the meeting place of Saints Paul and Anthony. It reminded me of the scene from the Irish High Crosses, showing two Saints with a raven flying with bread over their heads. I climbed up more than 1,000 steps to the cave of Saint Anthony, and after entering the sanctuary of the monastery, I got lost in thinking about the scenes of saints, angels and Majestas Domini.
All the thoughts come together in one piece that adds new chapters to the work on Saint Michael’s legendary Sword, (and to my PhD).
While Saint Michael is still chasing and hunting for demons, along the Line from north to south, I am coming back to my studies … I hope you will enjoy new articles that will soon appear on the website.
Featured image:Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). Source: Catholic Herald (2017).
Photo: Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). In: Catholic Herald (2017). Available at <https://bit.ly/2jhwxSd>. [Accessed 15th April, 2018].
‘It is said that whoever has not seen Granada has seen nothing’, said our guide breathing in the air coming from the river. It was filled with the magic of spices and the scent of flowers.
Granada is one of the most popular cities in the Andalusia region. It stretches along the Genil River, right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This picturesquely situated town is famous for its unique architecture from the One Thousand and One Nights and well-preserved monuments that simply took my breath away.
We left the river behind and slipped through the narrow streets of the souk among the stalls with pyramids of spices and colorful fabrics. It was already our second week we were spending among the treasures of southern Spain with its strong oriental character singing in one voice with the Christian spirit and the bells of Catholic churches and cathedrals; Seville, Cordoba and finally Granada have shared with me their secrets.
In January, 1492, the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain surrendered in Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. To commemorate the great triumph of Reconquest, a silver Cross and a pennant of Saint James were erected at the top of one of the towers of the fortified palace of Alhambra. Catholic kings placed a pomegranate in their coat of arms, probably without expecting its seeds would sprout and give wonderful fruits of art over time.
Mudejar Style and its Creators
One of the artistic expressions was the mudejar style. It had grown out of the roots of Moorish art but gained a unique character from combining the latter with the Christian tradition. Despite the victory of the Reconquest, this unique style did not disappear from the art of Spain converted back to Christianity, but it was further continued by more or less Christianized Moorish artists and craftsmen who remained in the lands of Spain to serve Catholic rulers. They were called mudajjan, or people who were allowed to stay, and hence the Spanish term mudejar, which refers to the products of art and their creators.
According to the terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts, mudejar is a style in the architecture and decoration of Spain, developing from the eighth to the seventeenth century AD. Its development is noted especially in the end of the Moorish reign, that is from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. The style was definitely closer to the Gothic than to the Italian Renaissance, with which it quarreled.
Still the style of mudejar itself and contemporary European style influenced the character of the Spanish Renaissance and then Baroque. The dominant feature of mudejar is the astonishingly rich decoration made in stucco, especially visible in vaults carved in wood and covered with polychrome, horseshoe arches, azulejos and muqarnas (mocárabe) – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults. A particularly important feature of the mudejar style is a colorful or gilded ornament of oriental origin – arabesque or moresque, Arabic inscriptions, and stylized figurative and animalistic motifs, characterized by a much greater freedom of composition in comparison with the art of Islam developing outside the Iberian Peninsula. The projecting of mudejar-style sacral buildings usually is of the western type, while the secular architecture is dominated by rather oriental patterns. In addition to architecture, the style was also mastered by craftsmanship, which played a leading role in the development of the Moorish art. In the mudejar style, for example, the rich Alcazar decoration in Seville was made.
Due to the strongly established influence of Islam in Andalusia, the Moorish art has found its place and expression in many products of architecture and the craft of Christian Spain. It was also present in literature and music, and what is more, it became one of the most important stages of the development of art on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Moors retreated, they left behind silent witnesses of their domination in Spain, and the splendour of Islamic culture and art. Those were remains of secular and sacral Moorish architecture – castles, palaces and mosques.
A large number of architectural works of this style have grown into a Christian structure imposed on the older. More often, however, architectural works were dismantled to become a source of valuable building material for new creations of the Christian architecture; Moorish columns, capitals and precious marble have become elements of a new, alien to them constructions. Islamic defensive castles were taken over by Catholic kings. In the process they were gradually destroyed, changing into ruins but preserving their picturesque remains for the landscape of today’s Andalusia.
Among the secular architecture left by the Moors the most beautiful is the Alhambra, a palace rising from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century on a hilltop, overlooking the majestic city of Granada, and challenging the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is today the most exquisite example of the genius of secular architecture and artistry created by the Moors. The latter were Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century. Under the pressure of the Muslim invaders, Visigothic Spain had failed and surrendered. The green banner fluttered in Spain over the following centuries until the Reconquista. Without a doubt, it was a period when one of the most outstanding chapters of art was written in the background of world art. The uniqueness of the Moorish art in Andalusia – the Arabic Al-Andalus – became possible because of the relative integration of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that sought to live side by side in peace and symbiosis, complementing each other to some extent.
Similar conditions ensured rapid development of human spiritual needs: literature, music, crafts, and architecture. On the other hand, the closeness of monotheistic religions, their values and artistic achievements, as well as the background of the culture of the Visigoths, was not without significance for the shape of art sprouting in the areas of Andalusia at that time.
More oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient
The Alhambra Palace is a kind of labyrinth of shady courtyards, halls, magnificent arcades, marble columns, fountains and ponds.
The walls of the majestic building are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles. The palace’s beauty is also glorified by poets, lyricists and singers, such as Loreena McKennitt.
I’d long intended to make a pilgrimage to Spain and to visit the palace called Alhambra. [And] I finally travelled there. I discovered the Moorish towers built by a thirteenth century Muslim sultan, interior courtyards with pools of water, elegant pillars and intricate tracery. All designed to duplicate famous descriptions of paradise within Islamic poetry. For centuries it served as an oasis for nomads and travellers, a meeting place for cultures and traditions, a crossroads for religions, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted in harmony. It’s a place where darkness gives a way to life, every stone has heard a 1001 secrets and where distance feels so near. It’s a place of infinite beauty, a Mystic’s dream, Alhambra.
Loreena McKennitt, Nights from the Alhambra.
After J. Pijaon the Alhambra is today a more oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient. An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art and the palace’s decoration in Granada are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.
This art was introduced by Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century, and after the Moors were driven out of Spain it was still cultivated by Christian artists; in the seventeenth century, mainly in Seville, but also in neighboring Portugal, from where it reached the New World, and they have decorated the facades of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia. At the beginning of its history, azulejos, the term from Arabic az-zulayj, which means a small stone, were monochromatic, mainly blue. Hence it is not without significance that azul means blue in both Spanish and Portuguese. Over time, however, the tiles began to adorn strongly geometric, multi-colored floral motifs, but also depictions of military or humorous scenes.
Apart from azulejos, the most captivating in the Islamic art are the decorations in the form of stalactites forming the shell of the Alhambra palace’s vaults, which seem to explode like gigantic starfish. The effect of vibrating stalactite forms is present especially in the decoration of the dome in the Abencerrag Hall and the dome in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra. Made of stucco elements and embedded in wooden frames, the vaults resemble a diagonally cut honeycomb. As in many other examples of Arab art, the motif of stalactite brings to mind the creations of nature and their glorification in art. The Arabs were once a nomadic people, dependent on nature and sensitive to its beauty and life, which flourished in oases in a barren desert. Organic elements, like water and greenery, are also an inseparable element of the architecture of bands such as Alkazar and Alhambra.
After the Reconquest, the mosque, the so-called mezquita in Spain, was most often turned into a church. The place of mihrab – a niche in one of the walls of the books, which went towards Mecca, the holy city of Muslims, was replaced with a Christian altar. According to the principles of Christian art, the altar was to be orientated towards the east. In Spain, the mezquita wall with the mihrab were mostly oriented southeastwards. Hence the unique orientation of Christian altars in the churches of Andalusia, adapted to the location of earlier Moorish constructions and their purposes. A similar procedure was used in the case of a minaret – a slender tower from which the faithful were called to pray. From then on it served as a belfry, as it was applied, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville.
Sacral Hybrid of Styles
The most important and undoubtedly the most famous example of the Moorish church building is the Mezquita – the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
After Spain was overtaken from the Morish hands, the Mezquita was clasped within the Catholic Cathedral. The whole structure is a sacral hybrid of styles arising from the needs of two religions, which, however, have not succumbed to any of them. Thanks to this, the building is so unique in its form. On the one hand, the elements of Muslim and Christian structures seem to quarrel and push away each other, on the other, the duality of styles argues that there are artistic currents prevailing in both sacred arts, stemming from the values of both religions.
The choir of the Christian cathedral with figural representations of angels and saints, made in the Spanish Renaissance style – plateresco, known as the goldsmith style, is in conflict with the interiors of the Mezquita. Sometimes the contrast between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the sacred is difficult to withstand, and even shocking. In the Christian temple the mihrab has been preserved and so it creates the sacred space together with the Christian altar, to which the main nave of the temple created by the Christians leads. Despite its importance, the building of the Gothic cathedral of Crdoba is visible only from the bird’s eye view, somewhat embedded in the center of the whole massive structure of the Mezquita, with the tower of the minaret-belfry rising in the north.
To raise the place of prayers in Cordoba, the Muslim invaders used half of the Visigothic church of St. Wincenty, built on the site of the pagan temple dedicated to Janus. The basic element of the Mezquita became the ancient and Visigothic columns, acquired on the spot or imported. Jan Białostocki compares the layout of a large number of columns forming nineteen aisles to “an unbounded stone forest, as if the people living in the desert shaped their world into a shady oasis.” Because of the original purpose of the building, the columns do not set the direction towards the current sanctuary, as it is intended in Christian basilicas. The lack of a central axis, also visible in the façade of the temple, actually evokes the impression that one has just entered the interior of the dense forest of columns that are diverging in various directions. Among the low trunks of columns deprived of bases there is a twilight.
During the Moorish times, there were small lights flickering around, now one entering from the outside is suddenly plunged into the darkness of the temple dedicated to the God being called the Light. The columns combine double, two-colored bows and the more one approaches the mihrab, the more their forms seem intricate. The spaces defined by the strips of running columns hide vaults in the form of domes in the shape of an eight-leaf rosette or a half-cut orange.
The dominant element of the Mezquita in Cordoba is the horseshoe arch. This is the main element of the local mihrab. Probably this shape of the arch already existed in the territory of Spain during the Visigothic times. The Arabs took over many elements from the art of conquered cultures of Asia and Africa. In the case of Spain, it was the artistic style created by the Visigoths, assimilated and in time adapted to the needs of the invaders. While the first Arabian buildings in Egypt are characterized mainly by the form of a pointed or ogival arch, in Spain dominates the horseshoe arch, with a clearly rounded shape. This bow decorates the Mezquita in Cordoba. It was only from Andalusia that a similar form of the arch spread further in North Africa and was commonly used in Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian buildings.
The exuberance, elegance and decorative culture brought by Arabs in Spain testify to the high level of their contemporary intellectual and artistic life. As such the Moorish Andalusia was an enclave of light and a real phenomenon in the history of European art. For the defeated Moors, it became a symbol of the lost Paradise.
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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That night was simply full of magic and mysticism. When we reached our starting point to head off the Mount Sinai, the world had already laid down in darkness, yet disfigured with a thousand spots of light coming from clusters of bonfires and torches. Black silhouettes of Bedouins and camels were standing out sharply against their orange flames, casting their elongated shadows on the rocky ground, like the finest dancing lacework. Above us, the navy-blue dome of the sky was spread out, sprinkled with shiny stars.
Awe Inspiring Feeling
I felt at once happy, excited … and cold. It was January. By the Red Sea, about three hours away, the weather was much warmer, letting me swim and sunbath all day long, but here the temperature was far lower, and suddenly I felt a freezing blast of air all over my body. I trembled from cold and quickly started to follow an example of my friend putting on herself subsequent layers of a pullover, waterproof jacket, scarf, winter hat and gloves.It’s difficult to imagine I was wearing my bikini yet in the afternoon …
Egypt or Saudi Arabia
Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai. With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Catherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.
Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.
Before going on a spiritual journey
It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.
I admit I was not so well prepared at that time as I would do, planning my trekking anew, but for those who would like to climb up there, if it’s possible in the future (I mean here the political situation in Egypt), it is good to know such essentials. Additionally, you should definitely take good trekking shoes and warm clothes if you climb up in winter.
Fourth Wise Man
At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Some people mounted camels led by Bedouins, others decided to go on foot. We chose the latter way of transport … and we survived! Moreover, anytime you feel tired walking, you can also hire one of these useful desert animals to carry you up.
Under starry sky, among muffled sounds of mixed languages and the clamor of grumbling camels walking between us, I felt as if I was back in time, going to welcome the newly born Christ.
South Korean Sweets on the Egyptian Desert
Halfway, the path was getting narrower, with rocky stairs up and down and partially icy. Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock.
Finally, just one hour before the expected sunrise, we got to the last stop to be fully ready to take our final climb to the summit. I was chilled to the bone. My friend as well, and as she was much more tired than me, she refused to go any further before she took some rest. I quickly agreed to do so. We entered one of numerous tents put up for pilgrims, just at the foot of the summit. A warm stream of air hit me from the inside. Only a loud gurgle of boiling water and a Bedouin’s voice recommending a variety of refreshments could be heard over the hubbub of the crowded people, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. And all of them squeezed together on wooden benches were trying to win as much of a heavy blanket so they could to cover their frozen legs under.
‘There is enough space for you to sit down with us!, said eastern-looking man smiling so widely his eyes turned into two horizontal lines.
‘Thank you a lot’, I replied.
‘Welcome, welcome!’, he uttered, still smiling.
We sat together one by one and I reached for a piece of the desirable blanket.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like it much’, I apologized my friend. I kept yet in mind she refused to use it several times on the way as they did not look clean enough to her … and they smelled strongly with camels.
‘It doesn’t matter’, she said hiding her legs under the smelly blanket. ‘Well … I’m going to stink, but at least I would feel warmer … and I’ll take a shower first when we finally get back to the hotel!’
I smiled to her. I really like her gentle irony and sarcastic sense of humour. She is so honest in it. I’m sure that if it was somebody else sitting by my side, such remarks would make me crazy but Gosia behaves in such a sweet way I’ve just got addicted to her. Since our first journey together to the Middle East, we have already travelled many times, and I hope we will keep travelling together in the future.
‘Some soup?’, asked me the same smiling man moving a vaporous bowl full of noodles toward my nose.
‘Oh no!’, Gosia strongly refused. ‘It’s too risky. I don’t trust them. They may not have boiled the water enough. I’m not going to stay in the middle of nowhere suffering from an Egyptian diarrhea.’
Of course she said it in Polish and luckily the eastern-looking man did not understand a word. Instead he made a big gulp of his noodle soup not caring much if the water had been prepared appropriately.
‘No, thank you. We are fine’, I replied. ‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after a while.
‘From South Korea. I’m here together with my friends to see the sunrise’, he replied waving to a group of smiling young people from the opposite bench. ‘And you?’
‘We are from Poland, and we are here just for the same reason as you are, I suppose …
My new friend smiled and nodded to my guessing.
Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Their passion for travelling is an answer itself.
‘Are you single?’, the man asked out of the blue.
‘Well …’, I felt disconcert. ‘… Why are you asking?’.
‘If you are single, my friend is single too’, he said to me and then added something in Korean, surely to his single friend. The latter approached me with a piece of Korean sweet and encouraged me to try it: ‘It will give you power to reach the summit’, he promised while I was unwrapping up something that looked like orange jelly. I tried it carefully. It tasted like jelly.
‘Do you want some?’, I asked my Gosia.
‘No, thank you. I don’t feel like having a Korean diarrhea either …’, she said outright. ‘Enjoy!’
The very last length of the track turned out to be the most challenging of all. The stairs carved out along the path were filled with sharp stones covered in ice, and the slope itself was dangerously steep. Our Egyptian guide was doing his best trying to help us to move forward even if he kept sliding down the rocky steps. When eventually we reached the summit I forgot I was tired, frozen and out of my breath. The view itself was breathtaking …
“Wow!” I sighed.
The sunrise had just started. When the very first rays reached the rusty rocks of the summit, the Sinai Mount shone up reflecting the sunlight. Beneath, the curtains of darkness opened and blazing red landscape appeared to people gathered together at the top. Some were sitting side by side covered in blankets; others were standing up like enchanted columns of rock. Flashes of cameras brightened time after time. While the sun was rising higher and higher, the Sinai mountains uncovered their rugged outlines to the coming day, casting their dark shadows against a rocky desert.
It does not matter if Moses had ever been here. In such moments like that, you can definitely meet God and talk to Him …
Saint Catherine and Her Monastery
And then there left just trekking down. It was much funnier as it was already taken in the warm, Egyptian sun. In front of our eyes desert colours were dancing happily; even usually unmoved camels were pleased with the daylight and surely with the fact they could throw heavy loads away from their backs.
At the end of the way down, we came to the high walls of Saint Catherine Monastery. Built in the sixth century, the monastery is one of the oldest working Ortodox Christian monasteries in the world. It is very famous for its unique collection of Byzantine pre-iconoclastic panel icons that miraculously survived the hard time of religious turmoil on the lands of Byzantium. By the same tradition which leads Moses’ track to the Sinai Peninsula, the Burning Bush from the Bible grows just in here, within the walls of the monastery. According to the narrative, Moses heard the Voice of God who had taken the form of the burning bush not consumed by the flames. At that time Moses was ordered to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
Before we stared visiting that religious pearl in the desert, we opened our lunch boxes and enjoyed the silence of monastic atmosphere.
Unexpectedly, Gosia interrupted it thinking aloud: “I feel sorry for Moses” she said seriously “Poor man … he must have been exhausted just walking up and down…”
Few days before our trekking to the Sinai Mount, at the end of January, 2011, we landed on the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh. On the coach to the hotel I noticed numerous armed soldiers spread out all over the way. Suddenly our coach was ordered to stop by a military. From the perpendicular road a long black limousine went across in front of our coach. Then I found out that inside there was Sajjid Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was coming back from an emergency summit meeting organized in the face of the situation in Tunisia. A week later while we were crossing Israelite-Jordan border in Eilat, we learned about the Egyptian Revolution that had forcefully burst out in Cairo.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
“The Real Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia”. In: Revealing God’s Treasure. In: Providence’s Youtube Channel. Accessed on 29th Jun. 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wPg8Jh>.
Amer (2018) “Catching Sunrise at Mount Sinai, Egypt – Breathtaking to say the least”. In: “Mount Sinai Trekking”. In: Where it all begins. Accessed on 29th June, 2018, link unknown.
Vetratoria.com (2018). “The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery”. In: The Holy Monastery of the Mount Sinai. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8zMYQ>.
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Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).
Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia
Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).
After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).
Styles of Faras wall paintings
“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).
From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).
Construction phases of the Faras cathedral
Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Female programme in the Nubian art
In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).
At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).
Ancestors of God
Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).
Mother of Theotokos
Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).
Saint Anne of Faras
The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.
Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).
Portrayal with no analogies
Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).
Timeless image of silence
The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).
There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).
“Most perfect of all prayers”
The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa,Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).
In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.
Worth being remembered
Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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My destination was one of the busiest and significant cities in Eastern Africa, which is today known as Aksum or Axum (Casely-Hayford 2010). Once, it was a huge and thriving city and it was ranked among Rome, Persia and China, as one of the four greatest powers (Ibid.). It had a considerable claim to fame (Ibid.). According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was actually Axum, where the King’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik literally brought the Arch of the Convent in the first millennium BC. (Ibid.). Accordingly, within the city walls of Aksum are the solid foundations of the Judaic-Christian traditions (Ibid.). The first Christian church was built by the king Ezana in the fourth century AD. (Ibid.). And so it was the first Ethiopian emperor to have converted to Christianity (Ibid.). The coins from that period bear both, the Christian and pagan signs, such as the cross and the crescent moon and the sun, the latter equally visible on incense burners, being stored in Ethiopian churches alongside with other liturgical objects; hence there was a continuity of the ruler, and the Judaic tradition alike, before and after the Christianity came (Ibid.).
After leaving the site of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, we headed off to the Central Stelae Park in Aksum. While we were approaching the hill of the royal commemoration, two slender grey granite towers started growing before us on the blue horizon.
Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient kingdom of Aksum (the Aksumite Empire is not just Aksum alone but the region known as Tigray), became an international empire in the first millennium AD. (Finneran 2007:146; Sullivan 2019), having “contacts with the eastern Mediterranean world, the Nile Valley, Arabia and even further across the Indian Ocean to India and China. Aksum also forged [in the early fourth century (c. 324)] its own distinctive Christian identity [that lasts till nowadays embodied by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church]” (Finneran 2007:146). The Aksum region had been populated and expanded by Agaw people since the fourth century BC (Sullivan 2019) but it had grown out from the Proto-Aksumite Culture (Finneran 2007). The latter reaches back to the first millennium BC and so the Ethio-Sabaean period with its long traditions related to the empire of the Queen of Sheba, whose capital was possibly located in Marib (today Yemen) but with its boundaries stretching over both South Arabia and Ethiopia (Finneran 2007; Sullivan 2019). Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings proving their right to the crown, claimed descent from Menelik, a legendary son of the famous Queen and King Solomon of Israel (Sullivan 2019).
The might of the first Christian Emperor Ezana is confirmed by his slab stone carved in a multilingual inscriptions; it includes the local Geʿez language, still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, there are also inscriptions in an international language of ancient Greeks, alongside the language called Sabaean, which was spoken just in that part of Africa, apart from southern Arabia (modern day Yemen) (Casely-Hayford 2010). It is so an evidence that the Queen of Sheba’s language was present in the heart of Ethiopia; it also frequently appears on stone elements, revealing pagan symbols, scattered around Aksum (Ibid.). Historians think the language died out in the eighth century but it first occurred around one thousand BC., and so it had originated in the kingdom of Sheba and was brought later to Ethiopia (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it points deeper in the past, to the kingdom of Aksum’s origins (Ibid.).
Yet before the fourth century and the first Christian king of Ezana, “the Kingdom of Aksum had a complex social hierarchy [:] an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. [Aksumite elaborated tombs] suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae” (Sullivan 2019).
Central Stelae Park
Aksum is famous for grave markers or stelae made of solid granite; they are thought to be ones of the largest pieces of stone ever to come out of a quarry; usually, they are dated back to pre-Christina times of the first or second centuries (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, there is more to the matter of dating …
The tallest monuments of this type reaches at over 300 meters and weigh hundreds of tons (Casely-Hayford 2010). Equally, they are examples of most impressive monuments ever built in the ancient world (Ibid.). We must also remember that those large Aksumite stelae are single pieces of rock (Ibid.), as much as Egyptian obelisks. The features of the stelae, which are marking ancient burial places of Ethiopian emperors have been continuously echoing down the past of the region (Ibid.). That continuous tradition is taking the story of the Ethiopian kingdom back to the very beginnings of Christianity but the kingdom went back much further in time, even before the times of Solomon and Sheba.
The largest and well carved stelae are present at the Central Stelae Park with the multi-storied carved features: two of them are now standing: looking from the south, there is stela two (the Obelisk of Axum) in the centre, stela three (King Ezana’s Stela) on the right (eastern) side, and on the left – “stela one, [the Great Stela] lies recumbent at the western edge of the group. [Stela] two was toppled in antiquity and was removed to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s from where it was returned [in 2007]” (Finneran 2007:165). Stela three, in turn, is standing now supported by a system of lifts with blocks and ropes preventing it from falling down (Ibid.). “Three other, smaller multi-storied stelae, [fourth, fifth and sixth], stand to the east of the main group.” (Finneran 2007:165). The obelisks are believed to be “manifestations of secular and ideological power” (Finneran 2007:165) of the Aksumite rulers and had once a funerary function (Finneran 2007:165). While “stela one is associated with the complex of the Mausoleum and East Tomb, [stelae two and three are related to] a warren of catacombs beneath the stela park” (Finneran 2007:165).
Afterlife Palace of the Kings
As Finneran (2007:165) notes “the stelas are more than mere tomb markers. [They] embody a great deal of symbolic and social meaning.” This architecture traces back to the ways of building of the Aksumite people, which has been also continued in sacral buildings of Christianity, as monasteries and churches (Casely-Hayford 2010). They equally inspired famous churches of Lalibela. At top of some complete stelae there is the pagan symbol of the Rising Sun, being also repeated in later Christian architecture (Ibid.). By these means, it is a continuous historical narrative of the history of Ethiopia (Ibid.). The stelae number one, two and three “were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows” (Sullivan 2019). After some scholars “the tomb [is] a palace for the dead king [in the afterlife]” (Finneran 2007:167) and the door may suggest access to this sphere (Ibid.:168). Carvings that cover the stelae accordingly depict building elements, such as the endings of the wooden beams and windows, composing multi-story houses that would be inhabited by Aksumite emperors in the afterlife (Casely-Hayford 2010); they are thus “like the skyscrapers to the immortality” (Ibid.). As it is widely accepted the monuments were carved, brought to the site and erected in the pre-Christian Aksumite period, that is to say around 200-300 AD by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum (Finneran 2007:165-173).
“Chronologically it is obvious that the stelae should be associated with the pre-Christian burial rituals of the […] kingly elite, possibly commemorating not an individual, rather a dynasty. […] The development of a royal mausoleum […] during the third century is evidence of a rupture with the earlier capital zone on the summit of Beta Giyorgis and the creation of a new type of kingship, removed from the proto-Aksumite intermediate-level society towards a semidivine kingship and dynastic system” (Finneran 2007:169). The royal obelisks “face southwards […] at the foot of Beta Giyorgis, [and] the approaching traveller […] would have passed along a line of throne bases, […] which may have been the bases of large statues, possibly of [Aksumite] kings” (Finneran 2007:167). This means “the area was a dedicated royal necropolis”, (Finneran 2007:168) designed to project a royal power beyond life (Ibid). This is why more elaborated and massive stelae had been erected at the site. Still the one question stays unanswered – HOW? (Foerster 2016).
The Great Stela or the fallen stela number one weighs 520 tons and is 33 metres high and as such stays the largest monolith to have been raised once by humans (not to mention lying megalithic blocks from the Baalbek site, weighing over 800 to 1000 tons) (Finneran 2007:168; Simon Fraser; SFU 2020) “[Yet] the indications are that [the stela] was never successfully erected.” (Finneran 2007:165). “The Great Stele was carved on all four sides and represents a thirteen-storey building” (SFU 2020).
“Stela two – the Obelisk of Axum – is a smaller version of stela one. […] In total the monolith was 24,6 metres long and weighed [approximately 200 (SFU 2020)] tons; it was intentionally destabilised during antiquity and broke into five pieces” (Finneran 2007:168). According to an archaeological survey in 1997, “the structure was undermined from the front [the south side] and was pushed forwards from the back [the north side] with the result that the baseplate was displaced southwards and the stela itself cracked as it impacted upon the ground” (Finneran 2007:168).
Stela three or King Ezana’s Stela – is around 21 m high and weighs approximately 160-170 tons. “it is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. […] Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008” (SFU 2020).
With the coming of Christianity, pagan rituals and stelae constructions ceased (Finneran 2007:168). This is probably why the stela two was toppled, and the door handle of the stela one was deliberately defaced (Ibid). Yet, it seems “strange that [King Ezana’s Stela] was spared” (Finneran 2007:168). On the whole, we may assume that “bar the toppling of [the Obelisk of Axum], the transition to Christianity was marked by a general acceptance of pre-existing sacred spaces and respect for monuments” (Finneran 2007:168).
The all monuments were made of local stone (Finneran 2007:168). “The number of quarry sites have been surveyed on the slopes of Gobdera Hills” (Finneran 2007:168) – 4 kilometres west of Aksum (Finneran 2007:168; Connah 2016:129), from where “came the granite used for the dressed stones of local Aksumite buildings and some of the stelae” (Graham Conna 2016”129). After Finneran (2007:169) “the stone was then moved across the southern flanks of Beta Giyorgis into the town. […] It is hypothesized that the motive power could have been provided by elephants”. Some other scholars suggest it was achieved by means of wooden rollers …
Irrespective of any hypothesis, some facts must be considered : namely, the distance between the quarries and the necropolis, the mountainous topography of the Gobdera Hills, Beta Giyorgis and Aksum itself, and possibilities of an elephant or a group of these animals dragging one piece of multi tons megalith through often a narrow and steep area. And it must have been one piece only as the stelae were carved out of one single piece of rock. Assuming the fact they were carved on site, the block dragged must have been larger and heavier before it was reshaped and erected.
Stelae and stelae …
Erection of stelae in Axum has got a long ancient tradition. Although “the Aksumite stelae owe little to the Semitic idea of the Nephesh, or memorial stone, […] it must be assumed that the use of stelae came to prominence as part of the strong process of acculturation between the northern Tigray highlands and the steppic Sudanic lowlands to the west, [yet in the pre-Aksumite period]. Stelae are also very diversely decorated, embracing a wide range of motifs, such as [the South-Arabian inspired crescent disc symbolism, a carved Egyptian ankh symbol, lances, house-like structure]” (Finneran 2007:172-173). Major part of such monoliths, however, is much more primitive and roughly carved in the comparison to the royal obelisks (e.g. Beta Giyorgis, Matara, Hinzat, Sidamo, Munro-Hay, the Gudit Stelae Field) (Foerster 2016; Finneran 2007:172-173). There are also groups of stelae unique to the south of Ethiopia, with a similar funeral function but strikingly different features and iconography. They mostly appear in the region of Soddo and are referred to as the stones of Gragn (see: Language of the Megalithic Tiya).
‘Is it possible that the royal and more elaborated obelisks from Aksum are far older than presumed?’, wonders Foerster (2016). He suggests that ‘some of these granite stelae could in fact be more ancient, and were inherited by the Kingdom of Axum and were re-erected by them. The major damage to the [stela one] may be evidence of a massive catastrophe that severely impacted the first builders, perhaps 12,000 years ago, [possibly by earthquakes]’. Similar devastation of the megalithic constructions is also visible while looking closer at the tombs on site with a strikingly similar megalithic masonry.
When did the tradition start?
On the other side, “the royal stela is carved as a skeuomorphic representation of a multi-storied building constructed from wood and stone. The door and window frames […] are also reflected in the church building at the monastery of Debre Damo (sixth century), inter alia, and are suggested by architectural reconstructions of Aksumite palace building” (Finneran 2007:165,167). Very characteristic of the royal stelae is also “the distinctive curved [top] of the multi-stored construction, which resembles the symbol of the moon deity [from the time of the pre-Aksumite empire]. The presence of small holes here may imply that a metallic plaque had been fixed upon the tops of the megaliths” (Finneran 2007:1767-168). Is it then a continuation of the long-term Ethiopian tradition from the more ancient symbols of the crescent moon and wooden architecture to the repetition of the same patterns in the stone stelae dressing? Or maybe it happened the other way round, assuming the stelae had been already present there and adapted as much as some of the tombs structures? And finally, how did the Aksumite subjects shape blocks of granite rock and on that scale? (Foerster 2016).
I stood by the fallen stela number one and I could not help feeling the enormity of the structure at which I felt like shrinking. “The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut. This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces” (SFU 2020). This is why the play of light on the stela carvings were giving a distinctive visual impression (Finneran 2007:167) that it is no longer a stone but a giant busk of a living being moving along in the sun. Then, I looked around the Park. Everywhere, there were some multi-ton megalithic pieces scattered around as if by a storm, and left among the trunks of still standing stelae: some were partially protruding from the ground, sometimes with precise patterns carved on them, others assuming more regular shapes being probably once a part of a bigger construction. All of those elements looked like abandoned toys in the playground of a giant who had forgotten to collect them.
In Ethiopia, any efforts of separating legends from facts is difficult: fragmented stones preserved within churches covered in Sabaean characters, striking connections to the world of the Old Testament, and outstanding faith in the legend of Menelik bringing the Arch of the Convent to Aksum, are all closely tied to the unique traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Casely-Hayford 2010). Yet, is there in this already complex riddle any convenient place for an alternative archaeology of the Aksumite megalithic culture?
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.
Simon Frazer University (SMU) (2020) “Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship.” In: Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aLucZt>. [Accessed on 26th January, 2020].
Casely-Hayford, G. (2010). Lost Kingdoms of Africa Series 1, Episode 2: “Ethiopia”. Howitt S., Lilley I., Bates M. IWC Media for BBC.
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