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Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

Well-documented beliefs of ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica say that the Earth is a mass of land surrounded by waters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). But the Mayan world was not simply limited to that land but also included a deep dark underworld beneath it and the blue vault of heavens above it (Ibid.:200). For this reason, the earthly world, where they lived, could itself be perceived as the Middle-World or Middle-Earth (Ibid.:200). Similarly, it was called by the peoples of the Dark Ages, in contemporary North-West Europe in the first millennium AD. (Bates 2002:13). A famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien likewise writes about this mythical world in his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (Ibid.:13). Similar cosmological concepts found in the Maya culture also appear in other ancient cultures, like the Egyptian; the Heliopolitan creation myth goes that the landmass enclosed by waters was actually a mound that arose from the primordial waters of the god Nu, and was called the Benben stone, which was also related to the  Egyptian pyramidion and obelisk (“Benben” 2021).

‘You read too much and too quick’, I thought, smiling to myself. Such mythological concept-frequency comparisons I was making between different ancient cultures may seem far-reaching speculations. Nevertheless, I could not help finding ensuing similarities between civilisations that are said to have developed independently, in different time and in distant regions. I felt as if I had just crossed a forbidden line. Yet, I could not stop my thoughts from wandering.

Architecture of mystical dimensions

Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). The Mayan urban architecture is usually characterized by a group of buildings, concentrated around a courtyard, which recreate the palace complex on a monumental scale (Ibid.:200). Such an arrangement is also visible in Palenque (Ibid.:200).

The two inner pillars covered in stucco reliefs, from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to scholars, the structures placed in this way resemble a natural environment of Mesoamerica, with mountains towering over green plains (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Such an interpretation is also confirmed by the hieroglyphic description of a tall building, defined as witz – a mountain, whose peaks may refer to stepped pyramids (Ibid.:200). In architecture, Mayan plazas and courtyards border each other in a different way, but the buildings, despite their frequent reconstructions, always remain in an architectural and astronomical relation to each other (Ibid.:200). Moreover, many of them are placed in a mythical landscape and so seem to be planned according to the points where the celestial bodies rise and set on specific days of the astronomical year (Ibid.:200; see: Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya). Accordingly, topography and solar orientations were essential for natural cycles and rituals in the net of Mayan city temples (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The so-called Temple of the Inscriptions is not an exception from the rule of specific architectural alignments in Palenque (see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque). It is located in the southwestern corner of the aforementioned Palace, right next to lonely buildings on tall terraced bases, which were later explored and consequently labelled as the Temples XIII and XII (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:178). The Temple’s wide body rises against a hill that archaeologists consider a natural tectonic formation (Von Däniken 1991:178). Erch von Däniken (1991:178) is yet of a different opinion; after him, the hill was artificially elevated and clearly divided into four terraces. Moreover, a temple and small clusters of ruins were discovered on its top (Ibid.:178). Their location indicates they may have been related to the Temple of the Inscriptions itself (Ibid.:178). It can be equally assumed that this inconspicuous mound contains even more archaeological puzzles than have been discovered so far (Ibid.:178).

Templo de las Inscripciones is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by petrs (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all (Von Däniken 1991:178). Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top (Von Däniken 1991:178; Greene Robertson 2021). Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died (Greene Robertson 2021). Is there any connection between these historical and architectural facts? The entire structure of the Temple is twenty-five meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). There are five entrances leading inside it, each flanked by two pillars with rich stucco ornamentation (Von Däniken 1991:178-179; Greene Robertson 2021). Inside the whole Temple, there are relief plates with six hundred and seventeen inscriptions (Ibid.:179). Hence the name of the Temple (Ibid.:178).

Shaft leading down

The Temple of the Inscriptions became famous for yet another reason, which also became the greatest archaeological mystery of Mesoamerica in the twentieth century (Von Däniken 1991:179). Namely, it contains a richly decorated burial chamber and the sarcophagus of King Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). A similar discovery shows that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica also used the pyramids for burial purposes, as it was during the Old and Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, and in ancient China. The discoverer and explorer of the tomb chamber was Dr. Albert Ruz Lhuillier (1906 – 1979), director of the Palenque excavation, appointed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). In 1949, the archaeologist found a shaft at the temple level with stairs leading down into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179).

The Temple of the Inscriptions, towering from the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The shaft had been hidden below huge stone slabs provided with holes used for their lifting (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). The vaulted staircase turned out to be completely covered with dirt and rubbles so it took the archaeological team three years to clean it and descend deeper into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). Eventually, in 1952, the archaeologist reached the tomb crypt containing a megalithic sarcophagus (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:180-181; Burns 2012). It is still the largest crypt found so far in the land of the Maya; it has dimensions of 4×10 metres, and its vault is 7 metres high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Before the archaeologist entered it, he had to descend flights of stairs, pass through one wall bonded with mortar, then a four-meter stone wall, and finally a triangular stone slab, which already gave a direct access to the proper burial chamber (Von Däniken 1991:180-181). On the way to the tomb, valuable jewellery, clay tablets and the remains of six dead, including one woman, were found (Ibid.:180-181).

Emergency exit for the soul

The burial chamber itself lies on the north-south axis (Von Däniken 1991:181). It is located at the end of the vaulted staircase, inside the terraced substructure and below the level of the Main Plaza in front of the temple, with its foundations reaching two meters below the base of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Von Däniken 1991:181).

Today, it is still accessed by the same spiral stairs from the back room of the temple, which were unburied by the archaeologists in the 50s of the twenty century (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Eberl 2013:311). A cross-section plan of the temple clearly shows huge dimensions of the burial chamber, especially when it is compared with the temple building itself, erected at the top of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The floor of the crypt is covered with one-stone slab weighing approximately nine tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). Stucco reliefs on its walls, show a procession of solemnly decorated priests passing along (Ibid.:182). Graham Hancock (2016:158) calls them the Lords of the Night, referring in this way to the ‘Ennead’, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities, particularly worshiped at Heliopolis (see: “Ennead” 2021).

There are sixty-nine narrow and steep steps leading to the top of the pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions. Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died. Does it confirm the identity of the buried man? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sarcophagus was found under the mentioned stone slab and weighs twenty tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). It was carved from a single stone and was sealed with a five-ton stone lid (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). The sarcophagus contained a skeleton of a very tall male, wearing a jade death mask, composed of two hundred fragments (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:158). A similar green funeral mask but made of malachite pieces was also found attached to the front of the Red Queen’s skull in the Temple XIII, situated just on the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Yet, the Queen’s mask was additionally provided with a diadem made of flat circular jade beads (Ibid.). Like in the case of the Red Queen, next to the dead from the Temple of the Inscriptions, there were found, among others, pieces of jewellery, such as jade bracelets, rings and earrings with hieroglyphs engraved on them, a pearl and jade bead necklace and a jade statuette (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:159). For Graham Hancock (2016:159), the found figurine looked like a more ancient object than other tomb offerings and was similar to artifacts associated with a “multicultural” environment of the Olmecs from La Venta; namely, it represented an old Asian man with a goatee and a long flowing robe.

Additionally, from the sarcophagus a clay pipe was carried outside the crypt; it is known as the psychoduct, which is unique to Pakal’s tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; “Palenque” 2021; Eberl 2013:311). As archaeologists say, it allowed the soul of the deceased to separate from the body and fly out of the tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; Eberl 2013:311). Moreover, it was believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead had to overcome many different obstacles (Eberl 2013:315). Even modern-day Mayas are still afraid of the ok-pixan, or soul thieves who, like Christian demons, can capture the human soul during its ascent to the afterlife (Ibid.:315). Therefore, in the past, living family members of the dead tried to make the journey of the soul easier (Ibid.:315). For this reason, special openings in the houses’ roofs were designed to serve as a hiding place or a soul’s escaping route. In the Tempel of the Inscriptions, it was probably the role of the mentioned psychoduct (Ibid.:315), “which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone, covering the entrance to the burial” (“Palenque” 2021).

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

Most researchers believe that the sarcophagus contains the remains of Pakal, one of the most famous Mayan kings known today, who died in 683 AD. (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Eberl 2013:315). After Palenque had been attacked and looted by the ruler of Calakmul, at the end of the Preclassical period, Pakal took over the power at a young age and rebuilt the city, restoring it to its glory in the so-called Classic Period (Burns 2012). During the almost seventy years of Pakal’s reign, the most significant inscriptions and monuments of the Mayan civilization were also created (Ibid.). Surely, such an outstanding ruler deserved a famous sarcophagus. According to archaeologists, the king designed his own tomb, which was completed together with the Temple of the Inscriptions around 690 AD., already during the reign of his son, Kan Balam the Second (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204).

One thing is certain: the tomb and the crypt were built first, and only then the successive steps of the pyramid were erected over it (Von Däniken 1991:190-191). Only as the final result of the construction was the temple overbuilt on top of the pyramid, which is actually a distinctive architectural design in all Mesoamerica. (Von Däniken 1991:190-191; Greene Robertson 2021). The stairs leading to the interior of the temple were being additionally raised and lengthened several times during the second phase of the building process (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). This part of the whole structure also remained inextricably linked to the tomb by means of the flies of stairs going deep down, which were finally covered up (Von Däniken 1991:179-181; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). It is not known, however, when and why they were buried; was it a result of an unknown ritual, already at the time of the construction of the pyramid, or it was done much later, for generally unknown reasons?

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. It rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by k_tzito (2016). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The assumed chronology of the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions proves another fact (Von Däniken 1991:190). Since the pyramid with its temple were astronomically oriented, the very first step to such an arrangement must have been started by a proper placement of the twenty-ton sarcophagus and the five-ton stone lid of the tomb, long before the pyramid itself was erected (Ibid.:190). For this reason, the sarcophagus had always been to remain in the place chosen for it underworld; nobody was able to move it outside, climbing again up the steep and narrow stairs (Ibid.:190). As such, it was simultaneously the beginning and the centre of the astronomical mystery of the Temple of the Inscriptions, towering at the top of its stepped pyramid (Ibid.:190).

Or perhaps, the crypt itself had existed hundreds of years before the pyramid was built over it and so the tomb did not belong to the king Pakal … (Ibid.:182;190). Who was then buried in the crypt?

Inconvenient dates

With nearly two hundred hieroglyphic inscriptions, Palenque is one of the most important inscription sites throughout the Mayan territory (Prager, Grube 2013:447). Calendar inscriptions read at Palenque refer, among other things, to the rulers of the Classic period (Von Däniken 1991:182). Pakal was born in 603 AD. and reportedly he was twelve when he ascended the throne and had ruled until his death for nearly seventy years, that is, until 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). So he was about eighty at the time of his death, which after Erich von Däniken (1991:182) seems quite odd considering the average Mayan lifetime in ancient times was only thirty-five.

Beside the Palace with the Temple of the Inscription in the foreground. Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the basis of the Mayan hieroglyphic cycles in Palenque, not only the dates of Pakal’s reign (603-683 AD.) were read, but also the date of the fall of the city (Von Däniken 1991:177,182). The last hieroglyph points to the year of 780 AD. (Ibid.:177). It has also been assumed that the oldest known date for the beginning of the Mayan chronology is 3114 BC. (Ibid.:177). However, the world-renowned archaeologist and historian of art, Herbert J. Spinden (1879–1967) found among the Mayan inscriptions a date going even further back in the past, namely to 3373 BC., whereas in the described before Temple of the Cross at Palenque, he discovered a date going as far back as to 3379 BC. (Ibid.:177; see😊 The problem is that at the time defined by such dates the ancient Maya had not existed yet . (Ibid.:177). Besides, there are so many various dates scattered around the city of Palenque that specialists sometimes get confused while deciphering the hieroglyphs to ascribe them to a proper time in the Mayan history (Ibid.:177). Among them the oldest dates, over which archaeologists usually spread their hands helplessly, are particularly intriguing (Ibid.:177-178,182).

Despite all this inconsistency, the puzzling set of dates in Mayan cities covering the millennia cannot give any foundations for the hypothesis of fictitious dating by the Maya, of which experts often accuse them (Von Däniken 1991:178). In addition, relatively little progress has been made in deciphering other hieroglyphs since the Mayan dates were decoded (Hancock 2016:156). Moreover, although astronomical cycles of dates have been deciphered at Palenque, these are often cycles so long that they probably have little to do with human history (Von Däniken 1991:178). As Erich von Däniken (1996:) writes, dates of thousands and millions of years should be ultimately reserved for gods.

At the back wall of the Temple of the Inscriptions there are carved in rows tangled anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (Hancock 2016:156). They are a mixture of puzzling hieroglyphs and phonetic symbols that have not been read so far (Ibid.:157). Graham Hancock (2016:157) writes that it is only known that their number, which is six hundred and twenty, refers to the thousands of years of past epochs and their content may stand for a history of gods and people who played a role in those events.

Epitaph fifty years before death

Calendar inscriptions are also depicted on the Palenque sarcophagus (Von Däniken 1991:182,186). They run along its stone-lid and on its side edges (Ibid.:186). So far, only some hieroglyphs standing for dates and astronomical signs, such as of the Venus, Sun, North Star and the Moon have been successfully deciphered (Ibid.:182,186). After Dr. Ruz, among the inscriptions on the tomb, there is ultimately information about the cycles of dates, and the last date on the sarcophagus is 633 AD., that is to say, fifty years before the conventional date of Pakal’s death, which is 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). Probably due to this unmatching date on the sarcophagus, some scholars have suggested that the image on the lid is not really an image of the famous king, but symbolically represents mankind or the Mayan god of corn, Yum Kox (Ibid.:182).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

And where can one turn to for advice? Apparently, any interpretation of the main character of the show depends on an interpreter and their independent but subjective approach to the subject.

Asking geologists

Another question, which is related to the identity of the skeletal remains and to the inconsistency of the most recent date on the sarcophagus, is when the crypt under the Temple of the Inscriptions was actually sealed. The only witnesses who could have revealed the secret were stalactites and stalagmites growing in the crypt (Von Däniken 1991:181). Unfortunately, whereas some may have been accidentally knocked down by the researchers while they were opening the stone slab leading to the tomb, others were probably destroyed during their further archaeological works in situ (Ibid.:181).

Dr. Ruz mentions the geological formations while describing the crypt as:

“[…] an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planned in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.”

(Hancock 2001:163).

As the archaeologist refers to them as “thick” and looking “like the dripping of a candle”, they must have already been quite long and large at the moment of uncovering the crypt, in 1952.

Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave / Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral formation that hangs from the ceiling and their equivalent formations growing up from the floor are known as stalagmites (PWN 2021). They are formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals from water dripping from rock fractures and their maximum increment per year is from approximately 0.25 mm to 3 mm (Ibid.). Still, such formations can grow faster in an area rich in limestone, which is actually characteristic of the building substance of Mayan pyramids, including the stepped pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:181).

According to the provided dates for Pakal’s death, the tomb stayed sealed for 1 300 years till it was discovered (My Gen 2021), whereas according to the latest date found in Palenque, it had been neglected for around 1 172 years (Von Däniken 1991:177,181). Since the Maya abandoned Palenque at the turn of the ninth century AD., the water of heavy rains must have penetrated deep into the building of the Temple and greatly influenced the growing process of the geological formations inside it (Ibid.:181). The dry months that followed the rains brought in turn severe heat, which, like humidity, also had an impact on the growth rate of the stalactites inside the crypt (Ibid.:181).

How much could they grow in such conditions? If at least one of them had been preserved, it would be possible for geologists to calculate how many years had passed since the crypt was sealed (Von Däniken 1991:181). After Erich von Däniken (1991:181) it could be a starting point for understanding all the puzzling dates in the Mayan chronology.

Another intact sarcophagus

Just before our descent into the deep belly of the Temple of the Inscriptions, we first directed our steps to another tomb, which was found much later in the adjacent Temple XIII, in the spring of 1994 (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). The discovery was accidently made by a young Mexican archaeologist, Fanny López Jiménez (Ibid.).

Like a team of archaeologists twenty years ago, we climbed into a narrow passageway, leading inside the pyramid with three chambers vaulted by stone ceilings, one of which contained a tomb of the so-called Red Queen, once accompanied by human remains belonging to a young man and an older woman (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a nickname of the female skeleton found inside the sarcophagus was chosen due to the fact that her skeletal remains with the funeral collection of various objects were covered in a red powder, made of grounded cinnabar (the ore of mercury), which was once used as a pigment (Ibid.). The sarcophagus was dated back to the times of Pakal, between 600 and 700 AD. and the age of the buried woman was estimated at around sixty years old (Ibid.). The archaeologists first thought it was Pakal’s mother but then they eventually decided it was rather Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, the king Pakal’s wife (Ibid.). Nevertheless, her identity has never been surely confirmed (Ibid.).

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

Scientifics have greatly progressed in studies over the remains of the Red Queen and her possible identity by means of precise results of a series of the skeleton’s analyses, which primarily included radiocarbon and DNA tests, supported by facial reconstructions studies (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a state of facts, however, poses many questions about Pakal’s skeletal analyses. Even though the Red Queen had presumably lived in the times of Pakal’s rule and her remains were also buried in Palnque, thus in the exactly same conditions as in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains, and both tombs were sealed and intact till they were discovered, the comparative analyses of both cases have significantly differed.

The Pyramid of the Inscriptions is on the left of the smaller Temple XIII, situated just next to it to the right. There is a characteristic entrance to the inside of the pyramid leading to the burial chamber of the Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Whereas in the case of the Red Queen, there was a successfully extracted sample of DNA (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021), such an examination was claimed to be impossible in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains (Wordtrade.com 2021). Moreover, in the analyses of the latter, there are no known results of any radiocarbon tests … (Ibid.; see:).

Why such scientific methods, as radiocarbon dating or DNA examinations, were not conducted to determine the identity of the said Pakal’s skeletal remains?

Featured image: The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 50s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Namely, inside the stepped pyramid of the Temple, the first tomb of Palenque was found in 1952, where a famous sarcophagus was revealed by a group of archaeologists. It is commonly said to contain the king Pakal’s skeletal remains. Besides that, the Temple is one of the crucial architectural elements in a mystical alignment of the city of Palenque. It is located in the southwestern corner of the Palace, from where the picture is taken. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Bates B. (2002). Magia, Mity i Tajemnice Średniowiecza. [The Real Middle-Earth. Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages]. Prokopiuk J. trans. Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Bellona.

Blankenbehler B. (2015). “Palenque: Ritual Architecture Of Ancient Mayans”. In: Architecture Revived. Available at <https://bit.ly/3577hWZ>. [Accessed on 6th June, 2021].

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Eberl M. (2013). ”Śmierć i koncepcje duszy”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

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Nymphaeum and its Forms in Ancient Greek Landscape

Greek: nymphaion; Latin: nimphaeum.

In ancient Greece, the term Nympaheum (plural: Nymphaea or Nymphaeums) initially described natural cavities, grottoes or groves with natural springs where nymphs and water deities were believed to have resided and as such they were worshiped. “Subsequently, artificial grottoes took the place of natural ones”; these were special well structures or pavilions, located at the water springs.

Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit. Photo source: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” “Nymphaeum auf dem Monte Smith”. In: mapio.net.

Featured image: Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs, Manchester Art Gallery 1896.15. By John William Waterhouse – Manchester Art Gallery (1896). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Nymph” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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“Nymph” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3b7Tz9r>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

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Photo: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” (2020). In: mapio.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/2CqbU3a>. [Accessed on 6th May, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 279. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Apollo at the Top of the Acropolis of Rhodes

Although the Google Map showed an estimated time of reaching the hill of Acropolis in thirty minutes, my uncle and I did not take into account the heat, generously sent by Helios, and the fact that we should first climb the path leading up to the hill (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of the Gods). At some point, we had to slow down our walk as the hillside grew steeper and so we were both out of breath (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). And even if we kept moving up, the site seemed still far in the distance. Why is it always so hard to see the summit while you are climbing up?

On the way up the hill

Located on the western edge of the city of Rhodes, the hill with the Acropolis on its eastern slope is called Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte San Stephano by the Italians (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020). But there is also its third name, Monte Smith, after the name of the British Admiral, Sir Sidney Smith who built there in 1802 (Ibid.) “an observation post to monitor the movements of Napoleon’s fleet during the Egyptian campaign” (Via Gallica 2020). “[The] Acropolis of Rhodes and its imposing Temple of Apollo, dominates the views” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Acropolis of Rhodes on Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte Smith. Video source: Tourism Rhodes (2015) “Acropolis of Rhodes”. In: Tourism Rhodes Youtube Channel.

From the site, which is situated at altitude of 111 metres, it is possible to see a small valley surrounding the city and the western coast with precipitous cliffs overlooking blue waters of the Ixia Bay (Rice 1995:384; Via Gallica 2020; Themis 2020). Especially at sunset, the site “offers breathtaking [and panoramic] views [reaching as far as] the island of Symi and […] the Turkish coast, about [twenty] kilometres away” (Via Gallica 2020).

Two acropolises instead of one

As recent excavations have revealed, the ancient city of Rhodes had in fact two acropolises; the other one with the Temples of Aphrodite and Dionysus was situated on the site now occupied by the Palace of the Knights and Collachium (the northernmost part of the Medieval City) (Via Gallica 2020; Medieval Town “Collchium” 2019).

The remains of Panagia tou Bourg (Our Lady of the Burgh), the fourteenth century Catholic church built by the Knights of Saint John who operated a hospital on Rhodes for the Crusaders, in the Medieval Town of Rhodes . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city of the Classical Greece was therefore much larger; “it stretched from the northern tip of the island at the site of the current” (Via Gallica 2020) Medieval Town and went south-westwards to where today are the remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes (Ibid.). The latter “was a large elevated plateau […], lying just inside the main fortification wall, running [east-west], along the southern boundary of the [ancient] city” (Rice 1995:384). Unlike most ancient acropolis, that one was not fortified (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020); so “it is not a towering citadel which dominates the lower city, but it does present a distinct elevated profile when Rhodes is seen from the sea – the means of approach in antiquity. [Ancient] streets running [westwards and southwards] from the main inhabited areas in the [east] and [north] gave access to the [Acropolis] from the [city], and it could also be reached from outside […], through the city gate situated near the southern end of modern Odos Sophouli (ancient north-south street P)” (Rice 1995:384).

Many tourists spend their time shopping at Ippokratous Square in the medieval walled city of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, it is possible to get there from the Medieval Town either by bus or on foot, leaving through the western side of the city walls (Via Gallica 2020).

Lecture on Greek architecture

The Acropolis finally opened to us, revealing its treasures. “Far from the urban liveliness, [we were] standing on the top of Monte Smith hill” (Themis 2020), accompanied just by striking musical performances of Greek cicadas. I felt utterly tired but deeply satisfied we made it. My uncle even speeded up while we are approaching a row of reconstructed columns towering ahead as if the city’s guardian (Tourist Guide 2020). They are the part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, “which are visible today from the commercial harbour even above the intervening modern building” (Rice 1995:384). they. ‘Amazing’, my uncle admitted, still panting. ‘Now I can give you a lecture if you want’, he exclaimed enthusiastically, gasping for breath.

It must be emphasized that many areas [of the site] are now overgrown or filled in since they were last investigated many decades ago, which makes any observations based only on what is visible to the naked eye today superficial and in need of refinement” (Rice 1995:387). But in its glorious past, the site must have looked impressing; “it consisted of a monumental zone with [sanctuaries], large temples, public buildings and places of worship, [including underground cult places] (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019]. Significant buildings] were mainly built on terraces reinforced by powerful walls” (Via Gallica 2020).

My uncle and university professor of Fine Arts, giving a lecture in front of the Temple of Apollo Pythos on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Different constructions vary in their dating but most buildings were erected during the Hellenistic times (323-31 BC) (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). “These public structures would have been a visual highlight above the busy harbours, drawing the eyes above and away from the bustling dock areas” (Rice 1995:348). Apart from the Temple of Apollo (C), on the Acropolis stood the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies (B) (Ibid.:384). There was also “the stadium (D) with an adjacent [Odeion] (E), very probably a nearby gymnasium (F) and possibly the theatre (G)” (Ibid.:384). The lecturer in classical archaeology, E. E. Rice (1995:384) says that “it […] appears likely that the main civic sanctuary of Helios […] was located on the eastern [side] of the [Acropolis of Rhodes]”.

In the third century BC., it may have housed one of the legendary Wonders of the Ancient World and Greece, the bronze statue of the Colossus of Rhodes, (Ibid.:384). From that point, the mounting representation of the patron Sun god, Helios, would be visible to those approaching the island from the sea.

A composite photo in a modern setting at Rhodes, showing how the Colossus (a random image selected for illustration purposes, which, while reflecting the statue‘s actual height, is not meant to be an accurate representation of its stance or configuration) would have dominated the city and harbours below– if, as proposed here, it was once located atop Monte Smith (Fig.1; p. 86). Photo source: Kebric, R. B. (2019) “The Colossus of Rhodes: Some Observations about Its Location”. In: Athens Journal of History, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 83-114.

On the Rhodian Acropolis, there were possibly also landscaping features, characteristic of ancient sanctuaries, such as trees and sacred groves surrounding the buildings (Ibid.:386). Such a theory is attested by the observation made by the orator Aelius Aristides, from the second century AD, (Ibid.:386) “that ‘the Acropolis is full of fields and groves’. […] The open spaces of the Rhodian [Acropolis were probably] due to the fact it was a virgin site when the city of Rhodes was founded and designed at the end of the fifth century BC. […] The new structures which were built upon the [Acropolis] were therefore inserted into the natural landscape which already predominated; [these were] fields, groves, natural rock hollows [and] cliff faces […]” (Ibid.:386).

Stadium and Odeion

In an olive grove to the east of the Acropolis, there are the partly restored Temple of Apollo, the stadium and the Odeion (Via Gallica 2020). The so-called stadium of Diagoras was built around second century BC. (Themis 2020; Via Gallica 2020).

Acropolis of Rhodes: the ancient stadium. Photo by Tango7174 (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It is located southeast of the hill and oriented north-south (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). It measured according to the Greek standards, over one hundred and eighty metres in length and around thirty-five in width (Via Gallica 2020). This was one of the very first sites that were excavated in 1912 and, like the Odeion, it is was largely restored (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). Hence their perfect condition known at present (Ibid.). The stadium could contain over ten thousand spectators, attending various exhibitions and athletic games (Stefanu 2017). There “athletic competitions were staged as part of the Haleion Games, an important celebration held by the ancient Rhodians in honour of the god Helios” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

However, taking into account that the uppermost part of the monument has not been excavated yet, its size and so the capacity of the stadium may have been much larger (Stefanu 2017). Among the stadium’s authentic parts, there are sphendone (a semi-circular part at the end of an ancient Greek stadium), the proedries (seats of honour, dedicated to the officials), (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019), “and some of the lower seats in the auditorium. Also preserved is the starting mechanism for the athletes” (Ibid.). The stadium was made from the local limestone, with rectangular blocks but of different sizes, which depended on their location (Stefanu 2017). Each element has got smooth surface and fits perfectly in the whole construction without the use of mortar (Ibid.). To the east of the stadium, there was additionally a gymnasium, which was partially uncovered (the western side along with its north-east corner) (Via Gallica 2020). It was a large square building (around two hundred metres wide), where many works of art were uncovered (Ibid.).

Odeion of the Acropolis of Rhodes. Photo by Tango (2011). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Acropolis of Rhodes” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Another important element of the ancient site lies northwest of the stadium (Via Gallica 2020). It is a white marble Odeion (theater) built in the second century BC (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). It was possibly used for attending musical performances or rhetoric lessons given by famous speakers, as its stage is too small to be a scene of a theater (Ibid.). One who was standing in the middle of it could be well heard around, at each point of the construction (Stefanu 2017). There were probably eight hundred spectators who could watch performances (Via Gallica 2020). Although the Odeion looks impressive today, it has been entirely rebuilt by the Italian archaeologists, and only its bottom shelf is authentic (Ibid.).

The view from the Acropolis of Rhodes on the Odeion and the partly visible stadium on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today tourists usually enjoy the sunset sitting on the stairs of the stadium or of the nearby Odeion, which regularly hosts musical and theatrical performances (Themis 2020). At the time of our visit, however, there were just a few tourists walking around the reconstructed columns; it was definitely too hot to enjoy the Acropolis by staying for longer in the sun. Our sightseeing unfortunately fell at full noon, but we had no choice due to limited time on Rhodes. If we had stayed on the island a few days, we would have certainly taken the evening walk to the Acropolis with the family, of course, just for volunteers …

Agora and necropolis

The both constructions, the stadium and Odeion, were once situated just in the centre of the ancient agora (known as the forum in the Roman times) (Stefanu 2017). It was a very central site, where all the political and cultural events took place (Ibid.). Piles of ancient stones placed together there consist of finds from the archaeological excavations; they all come from the ancient agora and contain precious parts of various buildings, sometimes covered in Greek writings (Ibid.). It is a pity, they are not exposed in the museum as objects of further studies (Ibid.).

Piles of ancient stones placed together on the place of the ancient agora of the Acropolis of Rhodes. It consists of finds from the archaeological excavations, now in the shadow of trees. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

South of the ancient city, there is also a Hellenistic necropolis of Saint John (Agiou Ioannou) (Tourist Guide 2020; Via Gallica 2020). “The most important of these are the large corner funerary complex with tombs featuring vaulted masonry tombs, the cluster of yet more tombs of vaulted stonework crowned by a monument with triglyphs and metopes and the tomb carved into the rock that includes a monumental gateway. Of greatest interest is the underground quarry where burial chambers were dug into the sides of the tunnels”(Tourist Guide 2020).

Stairs leading to the temples

Nonetheless, the most significant part of Monte Smith is the Acropolis (Stefanu 2017). From the place of the previous agora, there are stairs leading up to the Greek temples of Acropolis of Rhodes, which were, like other ancient sanctuaries, built upon an area of elevated ground (Stefanu 2017; “Acropolis” 2020). Hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city (“Acropolis” 2020). Today, on the site, there are mostly huge pieces of stones, such as blocks of local limestone and marble, possibly from Naxos or from Pharos, scattered everywhere around the place (Stefanu 2017). Some original building material had already disappeared; they were mostly reused for the construction of post-Hellenistic buildings (Ibid.).

The restored part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“[Once] situated on the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies was orientated east-west and was a poros Doric peripteral temple (having a columned portico on all four sides). Four oversize column drums and parts of a capital and architrave still [can] be seen on the site. This was where the Rhodians kept the texts of their treaties with other states.

The temple stood in a larger temenos bounded by a stoa on the east” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). The only reconstructed structures, however, belong to the Temple of Apollo, which was also built in the Doric style (Via Gallica 2020). The temple stood “on the southern part of the hill, on the west side of a large rectangular terrace. It [was] orientated [east-west, and like the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies it was also a poros peripteral temple, but smaller […]. Part of [its north-eastern] side [has been restored” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019): rising from the incomplete stylobate, there are just four columns and a small section of the entablature as the remains of the temple colonnade. It is also evident that its entrance must have once led through a wide staircase (Via Gallica 2020). Although the temple does not exist anymore, the preserved remains are still able to witness to its monumental character (Ibid.).

Nymphaea

Nothing was left from the once impressive façade of the stoa (a covered walkway or portico for public use); only its foundation has been preserved to our times (Via Gallica 2020; “Stoa” 2020). Southeast of the stoa wall, there starts “the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut chambers [carved in] the slopes beneath the [Acropolis] summit; other similar [underground] systems are [cut] into the ridge that curves to the [south and west], towards the main buildings on the summit, and to the [north] where it meets the [western] edge of the [Acropolis]. These structures, partly open to the sky but beneath ground level, have traditionally been described as nymphaea” (Rice 1995:387-388) or the Temple of Nymphaea (Via Gallica 2020).

Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (2020) with all artificial caves and stairs carved in the rock of the Acropolis of Rhodes, leading directly to the temples on the summit. Photo source: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” [“Nymphaeum auf dem Monte Smith“] (2020). In: mapio.net.

“The word nymphaeum originally meant a shrine of the nymphs, but since nymphs were traditionally associated with caves, and caves with water, the term came to be [later] applied to an ornamental fountain” (Ibid.:388). Archaeological study shows that the Temple of Nymphaea on the Acropolis of Rhodes “consists of four subterranean cave-like constructions cut into the rock with entrance steps, communicating passages and a large opening in the central part of the roof. […] Water cisterns and lush vegetation complete the picture” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019) “Despite the undoubted fact that shade, water and attractive decoration would have made these places pleasant enough to visit and linger in during an ascent to the [Acropolis], they nonetheless led directly to the summit where the main religious buildings were located. The alignment with the grid plan and direct connections with streets and stoas make this evident” (Rice 1995:403).

Why were such underground structures built? What function might they have had? It is believed “they were places for recreation and worship” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). “Cults of the nymphs were [highly] popular [in the Hellenistic] period; they and Pan were also worshiped in Rhodes. [A late] fragmentary inscription found on the Rhodian [Acropolis], dated to the third or fourth century AD, […] mentions a shrine of Pan (a ‘Paneion’) near of sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, [the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister]” (Rice 1995:402). Nothing else is known about the Paneion but there are the remains of other places of worship, which may have once been the Artemision (a temple attributed to the cult of Artemis) (Rice 1995:402; Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).

The Apollo’s restored temple behind the trees on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The cult ‘Thermia’ of the goddess Artemis presumably had associations with thermal waters. It can be hence speculated that ‘some grottoes indeed had passages which connected into the underground aqueduct system” (Rice 1995:402-403). If so, the artificial caves would have “played an important role, since water supply was vital to the survival of the city, and they might have functioned as shrines to deities directly associated with water, [which is manifested by] recesses in the interior walls for statuettes” (Ibid.:403). “[The] evidence of the votive dedications [in the caves] shows that these areas clearly had a primarily […] religious function. The extensive systems of grottoes covered a significant part of the Rhodian [Acropolis, including] the separate system of [south] of the [Temple] of Apollo precinct” (Ibid.:403), and so it may have once been linked to the temples themselves. It is hoped that future archaeological excavations by modern methods may go some way [further] in revealing its mystery (Ibid.:402).  

Successive ways of destructions

All the ancient acropolises on Rhodes and elsewhere are located on the mounts, as much as the sites falling on the axis dedicated to both, Apollo and Saint Michael (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). The following conquerors of Rhodes also reached there but did not respect the ancient sites and they left their signs on them as the remnants of war, having scratched the beauty of the temples (FM Records 2014). Who and why destroyed them?

The park around the Old Town of Rhodes with footpath and cannon balls in the grass. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, there were three periods that had greatly contributed to the destruction of the site (Stefanu 2017). The first devastation was, however, caused by nature and happened already in 226 BC, when a huge earthquake hit the island of Rhodes and toppled down most of the buildings on the site, including the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). The temples of the Rhodian Acropolis were rebuilt but in 42 BC they were again destroyed (Ibid.). This time it was because of the Roman senator, Casius, and his army (Ibid.). Yet, the most modern warfare turned out to be the most destructive to the Acropolis (Ibid.). In 1944, the Germans installed their artillery on the hill, which was consequently bombarded by the British (Ibid.). That it turn affected the temples, which suffered considerable damage (Ibid.).

Time for excavations

Successive excavations and restoration work carried out on Rhodes in the twentieth century allowed to uncover the sites and reconstruct some of the ancient buildings. However, historically diverse, multiply layers of uninterrupted constructions makes such sites difficult to excavate and interpret archaeologically (“Lindos 2020”).

The Temple of Pythian Apollo, on the southern part of the hill, was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and part of the architrave.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The [Acropolis] of Rhodes offers different archaeological problems from those posed by the rest of the ancient city. Unlike the lower town, the hill has not been much built over, but neither has it been much excavated except for the Temple of Apollo Pythios and the stadium-Odeion area, which [had mainly been] investigated and reconstructed” (Rice 1995:387)  by the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens from 1912 to 1945 (Via Gallica 2020). Other areas have been partially studied both by the Italians and by the Greek Archaeological Service after the World War II (Rice 1995:387).

“From 1946 onwards Greek Archaeologists [have conducted] a series of excavations, bringing into light important findings regarding the site’s history and topography. During the 60’s and 70’s more reconstruction work was carried out to the west foundation of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. In 1996 further reconstruction was added on the Temple and the [Nymphaeum]. There is still an ongoing excavation in the Acropolis archaeological park, a protected area that covers an area of 12,500 m². As the archaeologists say, the current findings represent only a fragment of the glorious past of the ancient city of Rhodes” Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019).

Back to the port

Suddenly, my uncle awoke from thoughts on the ruined temples and quickly looked at his watch. He looked terrified. ‘She’s going to kill us’, he said. I knew who he meant.

Tourist Port lies outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. It is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port. A perfect point to take a swim while waiting for a ferry. Photo by I. Sailko (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Rhodes (city)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Around thirty minutes later, we were back at the port of Rhodes. We had made our way back much faster as, according to the basics of the physics and fear, we were walking down, additionally being pushed by the vision of my furious aunt. Meantime, we got a message that the whole company was waiting for us in a cove with a small beach, just outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. The place is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port, so we could wait in the proximity for our ferry to go back to Asia (Rhodes Oldtown 2020).

Our catamaran waiting in the port of Rhodes to come back to Turkey in the evening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When we got there, again breathless, everybody was either enjoying sun or swimming in the warm sea. My aunt did not even notice at first we came back. She just waved to us from water. After a while, I reminded myself that I was still wearing my bikini underneath, and soon I also dived into blue sea. It was a great refreshment after the archaeological adventure full of sun and effort.

The island’s ambiance took me centuries back (FM Records 2014). It seemed as if the Sun god had shed beauty to his land; on Rhodes, visitors got the impression of living in a fairy tale as they are carried away by the blue sea, warm beaches, locals’ welcoming smiles, picturesque ports, churches, and soaring ancient temples (Ibid.).

Leaving behind the remains of the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes. Rhodes island offers visitors a history that goes back in time thousands of years, to the ages of mythology. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Acropolis of Rhodes on Monte Smith; like in other ancient acropolises, its sanctuaries were built on an elevated ground; hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city. 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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Lawrence C. (2005). The Roman Mysteries: Book 9: Colossus of Rhodes. Orion Children Books.

Medieval Town (2019). “Collchium”. In: Medieval Town Map. Discover Every Secret Corner. Available at <https://bit.ly/30VSvRS>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2020].

Photo: “Nymphaeum of Monte Smith (picture 40936781)” (2020). In: mapio.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/2CqbU3a>. [Accessed on 20th June, 2020].

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Story of The Rock-Cut Tombs of Ancient Telmessus

Lycian Turkey is just one of numerous parts of the world, where monumental tombs were carved out of the rock to satisfy religious needs of contemporaries, who by all means wished their dead kings, rulers and relatives to find the right way to the afterlife. As it seems, the more large and intricate a tomb was, the more privileged the dead was and the more direct and straight was their journey to the next world.

Worldwide phenomenon

The idea of making rock-cut tombs is a very ancient one (Ching et al. 2010:173). The oldest known examples come from Egyptian Thebes as they date back to the sixteenth or fifteenth century BC. (the Middle Kingdom) (Ibid.:173). There are also Hittite rock-hewn sanctuaries, which were made in 1250 BC. (Ibid.:173). Examples of such sepulchral architecture can be also found in Italy and they belong to the so called Etruscan culture (from the eight to the third centuries BC.) (Ibid.:173). A huge necropolis of rock-cut tombs is also present near the town of Paphos, in Cyprus, where several tombs are designed in the form of an impluvium (Ibid.:173). The roc-cut tombs in Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey date back to the end of the fifth century BC. (Ibid.:173).

Nowadays, some of the tombs are largely damaged. In the time of their construction, there was a financial fine for any violation of the tombs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The custom of cutting the tombs out of the rock was brought further eastwards by Darius the First (522-486 BC.), whose own tomb was carved out of the cliffs (Ching et al. 2010:173:173). It is actually one of the four rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid kings at the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis, in modern-day Iran (“Tomb of Darius the Great” 2020). “They are all at a considerable height above the ground” (Ibid.), as much as the tombs in Lycia. One of the most impressive site with rock-hewn tombs of strikingly similar character are located in the lost city of the Nabateans, which is Petra, in Jordan (Ching et al. 2010:173; see: Markoe ed. 2003). They are said to have been built between 300 BC. and 200 AD. (Ching et al. 2010:173).  

Common but outstanding

Although rock-cut tombs were often made in imitation of traditional buildings, their construction techniques are very different (Ching et al. 2010:173).

The “Harpy Tomb” of Kybernis, a solid sandstone pillar with the sarcophagus of Kybernis on top (c. 480 BC). One of the best preserved examples of a typical Lycian pillar-tomb. Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter (2010). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Masons building such sepulchral monuments must have started from the top of cliffs and continue downwards so that the discarded stones did fall down to destroy the new building elements (Ching et al. 2010:173). Working from the top down required a different type of planning and engineering (Ibid.:173). It is also significant to remember that such a technique was used not only for sepulchral architecture but also for temples (Ibid.:173). Buddhist chaityas or viharas in China and India, and Hindu caves (Ellora, Ajanta) probably go back to the third century BC. and were continued throughout the first millennium AD. (Ibid.:173). The same technique was equally applied for rock-carved churches in Cappadocia, Turkey (around 900 AD.), and in Lalibela, Ethiopia (around 1200 AD.) (Ibid.:173). What is unique is the fact that the same technique was also used in secular architecture, namely, in the case of urban buildings, like houses, carved out in solid rock at a mysterious ancient site of Tiermes, located on the edge of the Duero valley in modern-day Spain (Ibid.:173). The dating of the fortress, as it is referred to, is questionable (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Nevertheless, it is believed to have been carved either at the Celtiberian or Roman times, probably between the first century BC. and the first century AD. (Ibid.).

Tombs commemorating ancestors

Veneration, or even, worship for ancestors, was undoubtedly universal in the ancient world (Bean 1989:31).

One of the most impressive temple-tombs in Fethiye sepulchral complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All peoples inhabiting Anatolia before the Greek colonization built beautiful, monumental tombs in commemoration of their ancestors; the Lycians developed this art to perfection, which was undoubtedly easy for them thanks to the soft sandstones found in their land (Miszczak 2009). Although early Lycian buildings were mostly overbuilt, as elsewhere in Asia Minor, first by Hellenistic and then Roman constructions, Lycia remains one of the best places in Anatolia, where the native culture of the region is still visible and can be admired at each step (Bean 1989:30). Although various foreign influences are visible in the Lycian monuments, they have yet retained its unique character (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Transporter of the souls

Many examples of the sepulchral art shows a high quality of still well-preserved mason work and are covered in tell-tale sculptures adorning the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Reliefs depict, among others, mythological scenes, funeral feasts, battles and animals (Miszczak 2009).

Persian influence on the tombs is evident in the way scenes of feasts, battles and hunts are depicted, for example in the tombs of Xanthos, while he Greek influence is most clearly manifested in mythological scenes, for example, in the original Lycian representations of lions, the favourite royal symbol in this land (Ibid.). On the other side, the distinctive feature that distinguishes the Lycian tombs from the classical Greece and Rome is their location (Ibid.). While in the Greek and Roman cultures, the burial places of the dead were customarily located outside residential areas, often along the roads leading to cities, the Lycians made the tombs an integral part of the urban landscape, which is evidence of their relationship with contemporary cultures of the East (Ibid.). A good example is Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly presented along the port (Ibid.).

House-tombs in Fethiye. As their name indicate, they were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the Lycians interacted with the ghosts of their past by inviting them to their everyday life (Miszczak 2009). The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures (Ibid.). Round altars decorated with inscriptions or ornaments were often placed near the tombs (Ibid.). They were used to make offerings to the deceased (Ibid.). The offerings to the ancestors varied greatly, as can be seen from the finds from the tombs (Ibid.). Often these were terracotta statues and jewellery (Ibid.). After the Greek custom, the Lycian also put a coin in the mouths of the deceased, as a fee for Charon – the carrier (Ibid.). Sometimes it is even possible to determine the social status and profession of the dead, by means of a character of objects buried along them (Ibid.).

Cult of the dead and its legal protection

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great (before 334-333 BC.) (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Rock-hewn tombs and those of masonry are typical of the whole Asia Minor but they do not appear in such an abundance as in Lycia (Bean 1989:31). According to the latest research, there have remained one thousand eighty-five tombs carved in the rock in the land of Lycia, and partially also at its western border with Caria (Miszczak 2009).

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An opportunity to see them all in our times should be at least partially ascribed to the fact that already in the times of ancient Lycians, the tombs had been carefully preserved from any damage of profanation, sometimes by a special committee, called the mindis (Bean 1989:31). Also epitaphs inscribed on Lycian tombs often end with a warning of uttering a curse or imposing  financial fine for any violation of the tombs (Ibid.:31). Later, the responsibility for the protection of the Lycian tombs was taken over by the city (Ibid.:31). Such efforts visibly show how important for the ancient was the cult of the dead and the places of their final rest (Ibid.:31).

The tombs of Lycia

The tombs of Lycia are usually divided into four separate categories, according to their distinctive features, namely pillar-tombs, temple-tombs, house-tombs and sarcophagi (Bean 1989:30).

The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most typical of Lycia are the pillar-tombs, which are also believed the earliest preserved of all (Ibid.:30). They mostly appear in the western part of the region and feature a huge rectangular pillar situated on the stone base, whereas at the top of it, there is a grave-chamber, additionally crowned with a massive cap-stone (Ibid.:30). Their sculptured surfaces are limited to the top sides of the grave-chamber, if such carved decoration appears at all (Ibid.:30-31). Temple-tombs present on their front temple facades in miniature, which is the Hellenistic influence having appeared since the fourth century BC. and therefore they are not exactly in Lycian artistic character, though they definitely used to express Lycian beliefs of the afterlife, as much as the previous category of the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Temple-tombs are also typical of Caria (Caunus) and other parts of Anatolia (Bean 1989:30; see Bean, v.3 1989:139-151). However, those from Lycia slightly vary from the former; the façade of a temple is adorned with two columns in antis (two columns between antae) which are usually in Ionic order (Bean 1989:30). Such a façade also has an epistyle and a pediment (frontispiece) (Ibid.:30). A grave-chamber, which is a plain room with stone benches for the corpses, can be reached through the door from the porch (Ibid.:30). Similar interiors are characteristic of the third category, though its exteriors differ (Ibid.:30). House-tombs, as their name indicate, were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia, namely one, two or three-storeys wooden houses, including the projecting square or round beam-ends above the door opening, which later developed into a dentil frieze (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Numerous examples of different tomb types are encrusted together in the cliff-face in Fethiye; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type. The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Sometimes, their façades feature a pediment that can be in the form of a pointed arch, similar to the one in the Gothic style (Bean 1989:30). The walls of this type of Lycian tombs usually are carved in relief, which also appear in the pediment, and occasionally on the adjacent rocks (Ibid.:30-31). When it comes to the last category, it was very common in the contemporary world, however, the early Lycian sarcophagi vary from typical forms of generally known tombs (Ibid.:30). Firstly, the Lycian version is much higher and is composed of the three successive parts: a base, which played the role of hyposorion (a second grave-chamber for the owner’s dependants), an actual grave-chamber, and a crested, ‘Gothic’-like massive lid, which are both frequently in reliefs (Ibid.:30-31). In the Roman times, the Lycian sarcophagi diminished in size and intricacy, and the corner of their lids, yet still with the crest, became rounded (Ibid.:31). Apart from those four major categories of the Lycian tombs, there also exist their different variations (Ibid.:31).

Telmessus or Fethiye?

The finest specimens of the Lycian tombs are at the ancient site of Telmessus or Telmessos, located by the Aegean Sea, in Lycia (Bean 1989:40). The city’s name was only changed in the eighth century to Anastasioupolis, in order to commemorate Anastasios the Second, the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled from 713 to 715 (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021).

View of Fethiye Marina. The modern city of Fethiye was once known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

That name, however, had been forgotten till the tenth century, when the city was commonly known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). Finally, in the twentieth century, the city was renamed as Fethiye and it is called so in present (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). The town and its district, incorporating a long beach, Çaliş Plaji (Beach), with an extensive promenade along the coast, on which a row of hotels are based, remain today one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Turkish Riviera (“Fethiye” 2021). Fethiye is slipped away in the south corner of the gulf, and although it is quite hot in summer there, a fresh breeze coming from the sea makes the heat tolerable (Bean 1989:38), which is contrary to Alanya in the Mediterranean region, where the humidity reaches in summer 100%, and at around 40 degrees one feels boiling hot.

During our three-week stay in Fethiye, I visited the city a few times to enjoy its ancient remains and silent atmosphere of its streets. At that time I was spending my holidays with my little sister, Agnieszka, and my aunt’s large family (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods). As my uncle is a university lecturer of Fine Arts and a real devotee of antique art, he seizes any occasion to sightsee, even though his family prefers to spend their time in a slightly different manner. Once we all headed off to Fethiye for the best döner kebab in the area. Afterwards, we decided to wander around the town in search of its ancient remains, which are scattered within its modern boundaries.

Little known site with monumental architecture

Unfortunately, very little is known about the origins of the ancient site of Fethiye (Bean 1989:38). Although its monuments feature Lycian inscriptions, it does not appear as Lycian at first in history (Ibid.:38). After some records, in the fourth century BC., the Lycian dynast, Pericles, fought against the Telmessians and besieged their city (Ibid.:38). Since then, Telmessus had become a part of Lycia, as it is attested by a contemporary historian, known as Scylax (Ibid.:38).

Historic map of Fethiye by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Hayk using CommonsHelper (2006). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Naturally, it had also been a member of the Lycian League till the time Lycia stayed under the Roman Empire (Ibid.:38). The Telmessians held then a peaceful agreement with Alexander the Great (334-333 BC.), and at the time of by Ptolemy the Third, in 240 BC., the city was offered to Ptolemy, son of Lysimachus (Ibid.:38-39). After the battle of Magnesia, in 189 BC., it was handed over by the Romans to Eumenes of Pergamum and it stayed within the Pergamene kingdom till its end, in 133 BC. (Ibid.:39). Consequently, it was then included to the Roman province of Asia (Ibid.:39). Yet in the first century BC. the city possibly did not belong to Lycia anymore (Ibid.:38).

Treasure is either underground or high-up

First, we decided to take a closer look of the famous Lycian rock-hewn tombs; so far we had just had an occasion to catch a tantalising glimpse of their façades and mysterious openings in the hillsides, from the distance, while we were travelling by bus through the region. The major group of the tombs of Telmessus are located on the east, just outside the modern town (Bean 1989:40). Numerous examples of different types are encrusted together in the cliff-face; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type, in two or three storeys, and are much smaller than those of the previous group (Ibid.:40). The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes (Ibid.:40). They are all cut in the rock, encrusting the hillside, which looks out on to the east and west (Ibid.:40). Some of them may be reached by a stone staircase or by the strength of one’s own muscles, while climbing up the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, others are more or less inaccessible without special equipment (Ibid.:40).

Who was Amyntas?

The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors (Bean 1989:40).

An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster of the tomb, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Obviously, I was to climb the hill to see the details of the ancient grave. Together with my uncle, we quickly left behind other members of our family, who were walking lazily up towards the monument. From the foot of the hill, we were led up there by a modern stepped zig-zag path, which directs straight to the most famous and magnificent of all the tombs (Ibid.:40). It clearly manifests its temple façade, which is already very easily seen for those who look at it from below the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, only at closer look, this temple-tomb fully demonstrates its monumental size (Ibid.:40). At the foot of the tomb, there are yet four steps to reach the porch in the Ionic order, characterized by two columns in antis (Ibid.:40), of which the left-hand is broken at its base. Each pilaster features a row of three rosettes at their top (Ibid.:40). They are surmounted by a pediment (fronton) with three acroteria, mounted at its apex and its two corners; unfortunately, two of them bear the traces of large damage (Ibid.:40). Below the pediment, there is a dentil frieze, also known as a teethed cornice, which in this category of the tombs exchanged the wooden ornamental elements carrying the roofs in Lycian houses (Bean 1989:30, 40; Dosseman 2019).

Fethiye Rock graves Amyntas tomb. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These were in turn also imitated in stone by the Lycian house-tombs (Bean 1989:30; Dosseman 2019). An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019). Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb (Ibid.:40).

Robbers and vandals have already done their job

From the space of the porch (the narthex), I could see in detail the massive double doors to the grave chamber, which in Greek architecture, were hidden from the outside view by a portico; the door of the tomb is believed to be the most ancient and best preserved in Greek art, which greatly influenced this type of the Lycian tombs (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019).

Amyntas Tomb among Fethiye rock – cut tombs. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

My uncle had already stayed in front of it, analyzing its particular components. The imitated doorway opening of the grave-chamber is squared and framed by mouldings; additionally, above it, there is a protruding moulded cornice supported on console brackets in the form of volutes. The stone surface of the door is divided into four panels, which are additionally covered in decorations imitating iron studs (Bean 1989:40). It was possible to enter the chamber through the bottom right panel, initially sealed with a sliding stone slab (Ibid.:40). It the recent past, it has been damaged by grave robbers who broke into the chamber; as a result, the entrance now remains open (Ibid.:40). When we both came through the broken panel, we found ourselves inside a single chamber with a flat ceiling and three separate benches hewn in the rock along the sides of the walls, where the dead used to be deposited (Ibid.:40). Some modern ‘vandals’ had decided the grave chamber would have been the best place to confess their love, as the walls have been covered in graffiti inscriptions in black and red paint (Dosseman 2019).

When we finally decided to come back, we realised we were alone in front of the tomb, and our family had been lost somewhere on the way up. After a while, we clearly discerned colourful figures on descend the hill; they were sitting down or impatiently looking in our direction. Deeply engaged in studying the tomb, we only now understood they had never climbed up the hill with us.

Sarcophagus outside the city centre

Apart from the visited site, there are many more tombs of different types within and around Fethiye (Bean 1989:40). Possibly, the best preserved and the most excellent in all Lycia is the tomb of sarcophagus category, which now stands beside the municipal building of the town (Ibid.:40). Like the Tomb of Amyntas, the sarcophagus dates back to the fourth century BC. (“Telmessos” 2021).  Its façade imitates two-storey wooden building with protruding house-beams (Bean 1989:40). However, the most interesting is its ‘Gothic’ arched lid that, along with the surmounting crest, is richly covered in reliefs, representing warriors (Ibid.:40-41). The ends of the lid, likewise the ends of the main chamber, are divided into four squared panels (Ibid.:40-41).

My sister and cousins resting at the stones of the Theater, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Telmessos Theater

Our sightseeing of Fethiye finished just behind the city harbour, where there are remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia (Bean 1989:41; TripHobo 2021). The so-called Telmessos Theatre is actually dated back to the Late Hellenistic, which is supported by the sign on the site, and it was reused by the Romans who added the stage in the second century BC. (Fethiye 2021). What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. (TripHobo 2021; Fethiye 2021). We were resting there for a while, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements.

The remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia. What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the late afternoon, full of excitement after experiencing the Lycian past, I finally left the hot city of Fethiye, and with the rest of the tired group we went back to the sandy shores, washed by the refreshing sea waves.

Featured image: The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors. 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:

“Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bHABY4>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

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

“Telmessos” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cqsqOZ>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

“Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lbH68H>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

“Tomb of Darius the Great” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/38rzGJ6>. [Accessed on 10th March, 2021].

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

Bean G. E. (1989). Turkey Beyond the Meander. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 3. London: John Murray Publishers.

Ching F. D.K., Jarzombek M. M., Prakash V. (2010). A Global History of Architecture. USA: Wiley Publishing. The Second Edition.

Dosseman (2019). In: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wL1Au2>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

Kosmiczne opowieści (2017). ”Zagadka Tiermes – starożytna budowla która pozostaje tajemnicą”. In: Kosmiczne opowieści Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ccRpoQ>. [Accessed on 10th March, 2021].

Markoe G. ed. (2003). Petra Rediscovered. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

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

TripHobo (2021). “Roman Theatre, Fethiye”. In: TripHobo. Available at <https://bit.ly/3eCrzgO>. [Accessed on 13th March, 2021].

Yucatan ‘Mountains Filled with Water’ in the Maya’s Underground

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks all the time long. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the ground, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep and borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

Cenote at Bolonchén, Mexico, used as source of water. Lithography by Frederick Catherwood (1842). Published in “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” (1844). Via web copy at Cenote Xtacumbilxunan, at Bolonchen, Yucatan. Public domain. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).

Altépetl

The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a ‘depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

Drawing of the Maya hieroglyphic sign for ‘cenote.’ From Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting. Drawing by Marc Zender. Drawing source: James Doyle (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”, Fig. 2. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298).

Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Featured image: One of numerous cenotes on Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by MarcTran (2019). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2L9bXVb>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2MqX1mc>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hCDjzp>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pLHKuH>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

BeFree and Travel (2017). “8 Top Cenotes”. In: BeFree and Travel. Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KOe5BZ>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Brady J. E. (2013). ”Odkrywanie ciemnych sekretów – archeolodzy w jaskiniach Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Doyle J. (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET). Available at <http://bit.ly/38Wkvae>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Dzikowska E. (2013). Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.

Free photos at “Cenotes Pictures” (2020). In: Unsplash Photos for Everyone. Available at <http://bit.ly/3n5EYP1>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 30th June, 2021].

Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. (2013). ”Słowniczek.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Göttkonige im Regenwald]. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Spechler D. (2020). “Visit these breathtaking underwater caves in the Yucatán Peninsula. From Maya temples to a makeshift car wash, these four cenotes offer outdoor adventure, fascinating history, and traditional culture”. In: Travel. National Geographic. Available at <http://on.natgeo.com/3n4lqud>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Tuszyńska B. (2007). Mitologie świata: Majowie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

A Storm of Controversy on the Dating the Eruption of Thera

Ever since I became interested in the subject of Minoan culture, there has always been a problem of dating the volcanic eruption of Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans) and related to it speculations about the reasons why the Minoan culture on Crete collapsed at all (see: Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter).

For the periodization of the history of the Minoan world on Crete, the so-called palace system is usually used (“Kultura minojska” 2020). It is mainly based on archaeological stratographic research, which gives time frames for successive phases of the existence, growth and the fall of Minoan palaces on Crete (Ibid.). Following so the Minoan chronology given by archaeologists, the volcanic eruption occurred around 1500 BC. (Ibid.). It therefore ended the first phase of the Late Minoan period (LM IA) (1600-1500), when the Minoans were at their heyday, and started the second phase of the Late Minoan period (LMIB) (1500-1450) (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Minoan culture had survived the eruption and lasted until around 1100 BC., but it had never regained its former power, which eventually led to its collapse (Ibid.).

Nea Kameni: volcanic craters on Santorini Island (previously Thera), June 2001. Photo by Rolfsteinar – Own work (2001). CC BY 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Minoan eruption” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, however, there is another chronology obtained from Thera’s geological research, which takes the eruption back over a century! According to geologists, Thera erupted around 1620 BC. (Mitchell 2011), which is when the archaeological chronology suggests the end of the Middle Minoan period (MM), namely, around 2000 – 1600 (1700) BC. (“Kultura minojska” 2020). According to archaeological finds, it was also a period of natural disasters but they were mainly associated with earthquakes on Crete. Were they related to the eruption of Thera? It is possible … Yet, if the volcano erupted in the seventeenth century BC., badly affecting the Minoans of Crete, how could their culture flourish then in the sixteenth century BC.? What is more, such dating results would also change historic witnesses of the eruption, especially in such empires as Egypt. Is there then any notice of the natural disaster in their records or elsewhere? Such written evidence present outside the Minoan world could greatly support or deny one of the given chronologies.

Finally, how is it possible at all that the reliable study results of the both interdisciplinary but related sciences could be so different and hence confusing?

A major controversy between archaeology and geology

Dating the Thera’s eruption has become one of the major controversies in academic world.

The Lillies fresco from Akrotiri, Santorini. Photo source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015) “The Minoans: Frescoes”. In: The Stream of Time.

“For more than two centuries archaeologists have refined the Bronze Age Mediterranean historical framework by observing the relative order of superimposed levels on a series of sites (MacGillivray 2007:150). Next, they established inter-site relationships based on common cultural characteristics – primarily in ceramics, art and architecture” (Ibid:150). “Based on archaeological correlations between the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, the eruption of Santorini was believed to have occurred around 1500 BC., after the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt, [that is to say in the sixteenth century BC., when the Queen Hatsheput mainly ruled (see: Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings)]” (Ehrlich, Regev, Boaretto 2018). “The traditional date around 1500 BC. was first proposed in  the 1930s by Marinatos. It has […] been, [however], challenged by a controversial new date of around 1600 BC., dividing prehistorians into two camps and generating heated debate” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Turning for help to ancient Egyptians

In 1980s, two scientists first disputed the archaeological dating (History Channel 1980s). These were the German geologists, H. Pichler and W. L. Friedrich who radiocarbon-dated the charcoal found in the volcanic rocks (Ibid.). According to the results they obtained, the eruption of the volcano took place around 1650 BC. (Ibid.). It would mean that Thera’s explosion was over one hundred years earlier than it was primarily thought (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Accordingly, “the Minoans in [their] mature stages [would have been] contemporaries of the ‘Foreign Princes’ of Egypt’s Hyksos period, a century earlier than Hatshepsut’s reign in the historical chronology” (MacGillivray 2007:150).

Statue of the famous Egyptian queen Hatshepsut who belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty. Today on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MET, New York. Created: circa 1479 BC. CC0. Photo source: “Hatshepsut” (2020). In : Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this case, some scholars turn for help to Egyptian texts, which “may give a clue to the absolute date [of Thera’s eruption” (MacGillivray 2007:159). And they find there interesting records, which may actually refer to the volcanic explosion and its devastating results. At the turning of the fifteenth century BC., “one of Hatshepsut’s best known dedications was the rock-cut temple to the lioness-goddess Pakhet, near Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. […] Here, Hatshepsut carved a very revealing account of herself and her deeds in that region over the architrave” (Ibid.:159). Some scholars interpret the text “as Hatshepsut sending braziers to her subjects driven by raging storms and total darkness into the temples” (Ibid.:159). One of her deeds “was to care for refugees who swarmed into Middle Egypt from the Nile delta because of the incursion of the sea there” (Ibid.:160). There is also another text from much later Ptolemaic period (third or second centuries BC.), but referring to the events having happened during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Ibid.:160). Namely, the words of an Egyptian scribe recall biblical descriptions of darkness covering the earth (Ibid.:160). “[He writes:] ‘there was no exit from the palace by the space of nine days. Now these days were in violence and tempest: none, whether god or man, could see the face of his fellow’. This nine-day period reads suspiciously like an Egyptian multiple of three, which meant ‘a long time’, and so refers to a lengthy period of storms and darkness” (Ibid.:160).

The Tempest Stela of Ahmose. Reconstruction of the face (R) and back (L). (Malcolm H. Wiener and James P. Allen, 1998). Source: University of Chicago (2014). “Tempest Stela: World’s Oldest Weather Report Could Revise Bronze Age Chronology”. In: The Epoch Times.

Additionally, there is also a very interesting writing on the fragmented stele, ascribed by some scholars to Ahmose, the pharaoh and founder of the Eighteen Dynasty in the middle of the sixteenth century (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006). ‘It records some tremendous catastrophe that happened to Egypt’, says Prof. Donald Redford, the archaeologist (Ibid.). ‘We aren’t quite clear what it was but it involved rain and thunder and lightening, such a storm that rarely happens in northeastern Africa. I mean that’s a dry area’ (Ibid.). For this reasons, the stele has been known as the Tempest or Storm Stele (“Tempest Stele” 2020). Apart from ravaging storms, it also confirms that Egypt was enveloped in darkness and that statues of its gods were toppled to the ground, which may have happened due to a sequence of severe earthquakes (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Wall painting representing foreigners’ procession scene in the tomb of Hatshepsut’s chief architect, Senenmut, (TT 71). The gift-bearers looking like Minoans are probably paying a diplomatic tribute to the Queen of Egypt. Depicted objects with such features as bull’s heads are also analogous to those produced in the Aegean region by Minoans. Such imagery would point out to the Egyptian-Minoan peaceful trade relations (dated by an archaeologist, R. W. Hutchinson, to the Late Minoan IA; 1600 – 1500 BC.). Dates are, however, debated. MacGillivray (2007). Facsimile, after Davies 1936: Pl. XIV. Source: U. Matić (2014); fig. 3, p. 238.

Such ancient records are usually pinpointed to the Eighteenth Dynasty, between the second part of the sixteenth and first part of the fifteenth century BC. But are these records dated correctly? If the stele had been really created by Ahmose and it talks about the Thera eruption, that would place it during the reign of the pharaoh, which is believed to have happened between 1550/49 and 1524 BC, or even twenty years earlier (MacGillivray 2007; “Ahmose I” 2020), which in turn, corresponds to the Late Minoan IA period (1600-1500 BC.). On the other side, Hatshepsut’s exact time of reigning is similarly unclear but usually estimated for the first half of the fifteenth century, sometimes between 1504-1483 or 1478-1458 BC. (MacGillivray 2007; “Hatshepsut” 2020), which mostly fell in the Late Minoan IB period (1500-1450 BC). If there are such discrepancies in dating the ruling of particular Egyptian kings, it is also highly probable some ancient texts are either wrongly ascribed (Ahmose’s stela refers just to a pharaoh, not Ahmose himself) or their date was estimated incorrectly (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).

Fresco from the tomb of Khnumhotep III in Beni Hassan shows a group of Semitic people, possibly Canaanite merchants, arriving in Egypt. They are thought to be related culturally to the dynasty that called itself the Hyksos. De Agostini Picture Library/G. Sioen/ Bridgeman Images. Source: Andrew Curry (2018). “The Rulers of Foreign Lands”. In: Archaeology.

Moving back to the seventeenth century BC., before Egypt’s consolidation by the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was the Egypt’s dark period (Wengler 2009). The kingdom of Egypt was split in two (Ibid.). The northern region (the Nile delta) was ruled by the Hyksos, foreign invaders from Asia Minor (Ibid.). The time that followed brought economic decline and serious unrest (Ibid.) The rule of the Hyksos kings for long had reminded a trauma in the Egyptian minds (Ibid.). Did that period overlap with the volcano eruption on Thera?

Geologists make their way

For years now, doubts have been growing among scientists about the exact date of the eruption (Wengler 2009).

The reconstructed South Propylaeum of the palace of Knossos, Crete. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On Santorini, colossal rocks were hurled through the air by the last great eruption of the Bronze Age (Wengler 2009). Between these rocks, a geologist and student of Prof. Friedrich’s, Tom Pfeiffer, found in 2003 – as both geologists say – a critical evidence buried beneath the layers of lava (Wengler 2009; Volcano Discovery 2020). It was an olive branch of a tree smashed by Thera’s eruption (Wengler 2009). Around it, there were remains of olive leaves, twigs and olive stones, which signifies the tree was alive at the time of eruption (Ibid.). As it was an organic material, the remnants were carbon-dated (Ibid.). The moment, the olive branch died would mean the exact date of the volcanic eruption (Ibid.). Since the time of previous results, Prof. Friedrich obtained in 1980s, he has been convinced that the once accepted date of 1500 BC. for the eruption should be officially pushed back a hundred years (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Moreover, if the previous results had been confirmed by the results obtained by a recently found branch, the new timing would have been unchallengeable (Wengler 2009). Having conducted comparative tests, the geologists have received results confirming that the eruption took place in the seventeenth century BC. and not in the sixteenth century BC. or later (Ibid.). Accordingly, Santorini exploded somewhere between 1620 and 1600 BC (Ibid.). As Prof. Friedrich claims the confirmed date of the tree should have huge consequences for future research and for the understanding of ancient history in general (Ibid.).

Pumice deposit on Santorini, Greece, showing the holes in the pumice where remnants of an olive tree were recovered in 2003. They were found by Tom Pfeiffer, a student of Prof. Friedrich’s in Geology. This organic material allowed another radiocarbon dating of the volcano eruption back to the seventeenth century BC. The results, however, have again been debated. Photo and caption source: Volcano Discovery (2020) “Illustrated Glossary: Plinian eruption. Volcanology”. In: Volcano Discovery. Source: USGS.

Similar date has also been obtained by the soil specialist, Prof. Hendrik Bruins, who has studied Palaikastro’s deposits, which were accumulated by the tsunamis that had smashed the northern coast of Crete (Lilley 2006). He has radiocarbon-dated the cattle bone found on the beach in the deposit (Ibid.). According to the received results, the cattle bone comes from around 1600 BC. (Ibid.) For Prof. Bruins, who has been convinced that the Thera’s eruption took place around 1600 BC., it proves that the chaotic deposit is the result of the tsunami generated by the outbreak of the volcano (Ibid.). Thera’s eruption also produced “enormous volumes of ash and sulphuric acid aerosols which [usually] reduce atmospheric temperatures and may be detected in tree rings as years of slow growth” (Castleden 1998-2001:191). Forensic science and ancient records are also based on these dense clouds of ash across the Middle East and around the world (Westbrook 1995).

Steep volcanic cliffs coming down to the Aegean Sea, Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

And they also pinpoint the years between 1628-1626 BC. to Thera’s eruption (Westbrook 1995). Although there is a difference of around thirty years between several independent studies, it is still the seventeenth century BC. that they identify (Westbrook 1995; Castleden 1998-2001:191). Thera’s ash has also been found on the Nile, which is traced back to the same time period, like a fingerprint (Westbrook 1995). “[Also] an independent study of Irish bog oaks [has] revealed that 1628-1626 BC. were very poor growth years. […] A search for acidity peaks in ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet failed to produce anything perceptible for 1500 BC., but revealed acidity peak for 1645 BC., which some eagerly identified as evidence of an early date for the Thera eruption” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Who is closer to the truth?

“In spite of the strenuous lobbying of a seventeenth-century BC. date, the evidence in its favour is inconclusive. To begin with, the eruptions are not the only cause of narrow tree rings: weather patterns vary for a great many reasons. […] From Thera itself comes a different kind of evidence. […] Some radiocarbon dates for the destruction level of Thera are too old for the […] eruption date. Charcoal from a Minoan hearth in the Athinios quarry in 1979 was dated to 1800 BC.; fava beans found in  jug in Building 4 produced a date of 1700 BC. It has been claimed that [these] increasing numbers of radiocarbon dates favour the older date […] In fact, the average of over twenty radiocarbon dates from Akrotiri is 3200 BP, which rather calibrates to 1500 BC. (Castleden 1998-2001:191).

Charlotte Pearson analyzed annual tree rings from bristlecone pines and Irish oak to more accurately estimate the date of the Thera eruption. Photo by Bob Demers/UA News. Photo source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018). “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science.

It is also worth to note that there can be some inaccuracies in standard carbon dating, leading to further mistakes in estimating an exact date for archaeological finds (Gorey 2018). “Research conducted by Cornell University [in 2018] could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that [due to] a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards, […] many of […] established historical timelines are thrown into question, potentially needing a re-write of the history books” (Ibid.).

In 2018, further attempts of dating Thera eruption have been conducted using tree rings.

The rings in trees that were alive at the time of the eruption may be a dating source able to settle the debate from conflicting archaeological and radiocarbon analyses. Photo by Garry Knight (2015).  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. “Age In Double Figures?” Wikimedia Commons. Michelle Starr (2018). “The Date of The Legendary Volcano Explosion of Thera Has Finally Been Traced”. In: Science Alert.

According to University of Arizona-led research, “[new] analyses that [have used] tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when the volcano Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the eruption, according to new research. […]  ‘It’s about tying together a timeline of ancient Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean at this critical point in the ancient world – that’s what dating Thera can do’, said lead author Charlotte Pearson, an assistant professor of dendrochronology at the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. ‘What we can say now is that the radiocarbon evidence is compatible with the archaeological evidence for an eruption of Thera in the 16th century BC’., Pearson said” (Jensen 2018).

Is it a compromise?

The date of Thera volcanic eruption is regarded as crucial as it “has far reaching consequences in the archaeology of the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, and the understanding of their interconnections” (Jensen 2018). This is why the fierce debate between the two camps, mainly between archaeologists and geologists has still been going on. Nevertheless, the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring results have offered a provisional compromise.

Analyses that use tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the volcano eruption, according to new University of Arizona-led research
(Jensen 2018). Material source: Bob Demers (2018). “Ancient sentinels and the secrets locked away in their tree-rings”. In: University of Arizona. UA News. Source: Youtube.

“Archaeologists have estimated the eruption as occurring sometime between 1570 and 1500 BC. by using human artifacts such as written records from Egypt and pottery retrieved from digs. Other researchers estimated the date of the eruption to about [1600-1650] BC. using measurements of radiocarbon, sometimes called carbon-14, from bits of trees, grains and legumes found just below the layer of volcanic ash. […] By using radiocarbon measurements from the annual rings of trees that lived at the time of the eruption, the UA-led team dates the eruption to someplace between 1600 and 1525” (Jensen 2018).

Clay model from Palaikastro, Crete, representing three female figures dancing with their arms stretched, in a circle, to the accompaniment of a lyre held by a woman in the middle. Preserved by the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the results are more in favour of later dates for the eruption, as an estimated “time period overlaps with the 1570-1500 date range from the archaeological evidence” (Ibid.), the highest point of the same results points to the date of 1600 BC., which has been, in turn, proposed by geologists.

If standard methods fail, scientists count on legends

In the matter of Thera eruption the scientific research still remains unclear. Although a century as the time difference range for the eruption of Thera does not seem significant for a geology, it rather counts in terms of history of the region. In this case, with just few written records as their guide, scholars usually have no choice but to use legends as launching pads for their studies (Masjum 2006).

Fairy-like colours of the island of Santorini. On the horizon the tiny island, Nea Kameni, situated within the flooded caldera. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘When volcanologists are trying to reconstruct an ancient eruption, [they] use everything [they] can, all the available data and certainly, there are a lot of collaboration between volcanologists, historians and archaeologists’, says Dr. Rosaly Lopes Gaultier (Masjum 2006). ‘In Santorini, for example, it turned out to be a great collaboration because archaeologists can tell the things helping to date the eruption, while other scientists studying the volcano can tell more about the effects and sequence of events. [Hence] it ends up tying it all together. And you even look at legends and stories’ (Ibid.).

So do I …

Featured image: After the volcanic eruption, the circular shape of the island of Thera had been shaped into a semi-circular crescent, which is clearly visible in the aerial photo taken from the plane. 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:

“Hatshepsut” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Agm19s>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Kultura minojska” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3g1XV3G>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Minoan eruption” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pnApCn>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

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On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar

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

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

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

Tiled alcove in Tangier

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

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

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

Blue-washed Chefchaouen and colourful Asilah

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

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

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

Towards Cap Spartel

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

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

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

Africa in the Grottes d’Hercule

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

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

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

Past and modern guests to the caves

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

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

Stepping into ancient myths

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

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

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

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

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

Pillars of Hercules

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

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

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

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

Giants in the way of the hero

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

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

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

The Titan and the King

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

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

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

Antaeus contra Hercules

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

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

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

Was Hercules a giant?

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

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

Ex pede Herculem

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

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

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

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

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

Correct or incorrect scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman conquest of the town of Tingis

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

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

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

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

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

City in honour of the widow of the giant

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

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

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

Who were the Phoenicians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Land of Canaan westwards

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

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

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

Problematic columns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates

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

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

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

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

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Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

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


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

Let’s go to Hel

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