Tag Archives: Nature

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

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. 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 land, 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, borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

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).

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). 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).

Cenote Ik Kil

We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020). Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).

Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá. Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).

Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).

It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens. The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).

Ruler attended by court dwarf. A photograph of a colorful ceramic vessel; origin unknown; late classical period, 600-900 AD; private collection (Kerr 1453). Court dwarfs performed many functions at the ruler’s court. In the depiction, one of them is kneeling in front of the ruler, holding a mirror, while another one below checks the quality of the food in the vessels and jugs or examines if it is not poisoned (Prager 2013:278). Photo source: Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies.

Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).

More about dwarfs

The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).

After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).

Crunchy nachos and human bones

After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.

‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.

The Samulá Cenote in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo by dronepicr (2015). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).

Burials or human sacrifice?

There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).

Scuba diving in a cenote. Photo by Ggerdel – Buceador y camarógrafo: Gustavo Gerdel – BAB Buceo (2015). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to a related theory, human bodies were placed in cavities that were naturally hollowed in the walls of the well and emerged in periods of drought (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Dzikowska 2013:201). And droughts were actually the main reason for the human sacrifice to appease Chaak, the rain god (“Ik Kil” 2020). Such dry spells were the greatest in the ninth and tenth centuries AD., and when they finally passed away, the water flooded the bodies of the victims thus deposited (Dzikowska 2013:201).

In the Cenote Tankah, scattered bones belonging to one hundred and eighteen human skeletons were found (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Two hundred and fifty skeletons have been uncovered at Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá (Dzikowska 2013:201). ItzáIk Kil cenote was equally sacred to the Mayans who used it for various offerings, including human sacrifice to their rain god, Chaak (“Ik Kil” 2020). Consequently, apart from numerous pieces of jewellery, archaeologists and speleologists have found human bones also in the deep waters of this cenote (Ibid.).

Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario. Source: Oleg Och (2011). In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel.

‘Next time, we are going to snorkel in the sea’, decided my friend, devouring the last nachos. ‘And I hope not to find any human bones’.

Touching history by accident

I smiled to myself. It is difficult not to touch the past in such places as Mexico, where the present is continuously being filtered through the ancient heritage, whose remnants are so tangible at each step taken by a modern visitor, even if they are quite unconscious of such significant ancient influences.

Featured image: 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.

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

Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3rKBQvn>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

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Prager Ch. (2013) ”Nadworne karły – towarzysze władców i wysłannicy podziemnego świata.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). “Eccentric Caches of Buenavista del Cayo: Contextual Analysis and Cosmological Significance“. Thesis for: M.A. Advisor: Joseph W. Ball; Jennifer Taschek; Seth Mallios. SDSU Mopan-Macal Triangle Archaeological Project. In: ResearchGate. Available at <http://bit.ly/3o9Nde6>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

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].

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From ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

We were sitting on the train going across Pomeranian Voivodeship to the south of Poland, 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. Source: KolejFilmy (2016) ”Kolej na Hel – Pociągi z lotu ptaka”.

Let’s go to Hel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering history at each step

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

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

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

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

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

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

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

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

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

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

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

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

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

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

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

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

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

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

Threat of the black cross

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

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

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

Grunwald (1410)

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

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

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

Mischievous knights

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

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

Polish pyramids

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

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

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

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

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

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

From Zantir to Marienberg

The settlement in Malbork dates back to the Neolithic (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was only in the tenth century AD. that the region was more intensively settled (Ibid.). In the mid-twelfth century, some regions on the Nougat River were regained by Pomeranian dukes (Ibid.). Thanks to them, the wooden and earth stronghold of Zantir was created on the right bank of the Nougat (18 kilometres to the south of Malbork), which Sambor, one of the brothers of the Duke of Pomerania, offered to the Teutonic Order in 1250 (Ibid.).

Surroundings of the Malbork castle by the Nougat River. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However, in 1281, a Teutonic commander abandoned it in favour of a new castle being just constructed in modern Malbork (Bieszk 2010:105). The castle, together with the surrounding town, was named Marienburg, meaning the City of Saint Mary, the Patron Saint of the Order (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The village was granted city rights in 1286, and surrounded in the second half of the fourteenth century by walls with towers and gates adjoined the castle, forming one large fortified complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104).

Fortifications above the Nougat River

In order to build the castle, woods and other building materials had been collected. The first stage of construction began in 1280 (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights began to build on the top of a moraine hill above the Nougat River, preparing the site, building facilities, digging a moat and bringing water from Dąbrówka Lake, six kilometres south, through a specially dug canal (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The canal’s waters were fed to the town and castle moats, connected to the Nougat, which alone could not provide a constant water level due to its location (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At the same time, the waters of the canal, flowing through the moat, moved the mills and carried away waste into the river (Bieszk 2010:105). Finally, along the moats, the whole contemporary complex was surrounded by the perimeter wall (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the moats are dry, so one can take a closer look at how powerful and high walls protected the lives of the inhabitants (Ibid.).

Over the next twenty years, the perimeter wall, the northern wing and, partially, the west wing had been finally completed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). A defensive tower called Gdanisko was also erected (Ibid.). It was the observation tower, which also acted as the final defence point (Ibid.).

Hot potato in medieval Europe

Initially, Malbork was a commander’s castle, that is to say, it was of lesser importance. However, its status was going to rise due to a political situation in Europe, or rather, the imperial threat the Teutonic Order imposed in western Europe (PWN 1997-2020; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Towards the end of the thirteenth century, the atmosphere of European rulers’ hostility towards the Order was growing (PWN 1997-2020). It was caused by their conquest of Christian lands instead of those occupied by pagans (Ibid.). As there were concerns about open military actions against the Teutonic Knights, in 1309, it was decided to move the seat of the Grand Master of the Order from Venice to Malbork, closer to the lands still ruled by pagan rulers (Ibid.). By these means, the problem in Europe was dropped like a hot potato, and made decision was actually to the disadvantage of Poland.

Heralds of the Teutonic Grand Master are bringing two naked swords just before the Battle of Grunwald. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

When the city of Malbork became the capital of the Order, a huge number of Teutonic brothers came with the Grand Master, and that also required a reconstruction or rather further enlargement of the complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104). The castle became the main house of the Teutonic Order, the seat of the Grand Master, of the General Chapter, and the administrative and management centre of the monastic state, with rising influence in Europe (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). Seventeen great masters were in office in Malbork for the period of 148 years (Bieszk 2010:104). The last of them, Ludwik von Erlichshausen, was forced to leave the castle in 1457, in favour of the Polish king, Casmir IV Jagiellonian (Ibid.:104).

From the commander’s castle to the seat of grand masters

As a result of further re-construction, the complex was modified from the two-part commander’s castle (the Upper and Low Castles) to the three-part seat of the Grand Master (Bieszk 2010:106). Accordingly, it was composed of the Upper Castle, Middle Castle and Low Castle, also known as the Outer Bailey (Ibid.:106). Its huge spaces were not only heated by fireplaces and furnaces, but also by the central heating system (hypocaustum); the heated air from the fired stones of the furnace entered the hall, such as the chapter house, through special channels and holes in the floor with covers (Ibid.:107).

The Palace of Grand Masters (Middle Castle). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Upper Castle and its treasury

In the west wing of the Upper Castle, living quarters for Teutonic dignitaries were expanded (Bieszk 2010:107). There was also a central treasury (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The treasury was closely guarded and locked with two doors, and the last one, made of metal, required three keys to be open (Ibid.). They were held each by the Grand Master, Grand Commander and Grand Treasurer (Ibid.). Therefore, the treasure door was only opened in the presence of these three dignitaries (Ibid.). Interestingly, in addition to gold and valuables, the treasury also contained … sweets (Ibid.). Those were gold-coated candies uniquely tasted by the Grand Master (Ibid.). This is the reason why they were guarded so carefully and the treasurer himself personally escorted them, when they were going to be served to the Grand Master (Ibid.).

Marienburg 1900. View of the Upper Castle from the east in 1901 in the neo-Gothic form. The outside wall of presbytery (the eastern part of the church) is adorned with the statue of the Virgin with the Child, slightly visible in the image. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Despite all these elaborate safeguards the vault had once been robbed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was done by bakers who worked in a bakery right under the treasury (Ibid.). Somehow they found out that there was great treasure above them, which supposedly was piled on the floor (Ibid.). So they made a hole in the ceiling in the kitchen, and the gold fell right on their heads (Ibid.). They quickly left Malbork, but the Teutonic Knights unfortunately caught them (Ibid.). They were judged and sentenced to death by hanging (Ibid.). Despite the recovery of the valuables, the treasury soon began to glow empty, because fifty years later the expedition to Grunwald forced the payment of the army of many thousands and the Order never returned to its financial splendour (Ibid.).

Eight-meter high Protector Saint

In the northern wing of the Upper Castle, in turn, the former convent chapel was rebuilt into the largest conventual castle church in the Teutonic state (Bieszk 2010:107). Its tall and long body from the side of the chancel reached twenty meters beyond the perimeter of the castle walls, which consequently distorted the regular, four-sided outline of the Upper Castle (Ibid.:107). Additionally, in 1340, on the eastern facade of the church, a huge, eight-meter-high Gothic figure of the Virgin Mary with the Child was made of artificial colourful stone (Bieszk 2010:107-108; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

Unfortunately, the figure was destroyed in 1945 along with the eastern part of the church (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). In September 2014, its reconstruction began, and its ceremonial unveiling took place in 2016 (Ibid.). 350,000 coloured cubes made of Venetian glass were used to create the mosaic (Ibid.). Among them, there was also glass in which gold flakes were embedded (Ibid.).

Apart from the Gothic statue, the whole church, along with the Chapel, greatly suffered in the last War, and mostly during the successive plunders of the Red Army (Jaśmin 2017).

Chapel of Saint Anne

The church was two-story construction, and under the presbytery there was the Chapel of St. Anne, where eleven great masters were buried (Bieszk 2010:107). In order to enter the church, one actually needs to go through the chapel of Saint Anna (Jaśmin 2017). At its door, just above one’s head there is a beautifully carved Gothic portal (Ibid.). There are also various dark stories and legends associated with this place that visitors eagerly listen to (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

In 1330, the Grand Master, Werner Von Olsern, was deceitfully murdered inside the castle (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is commonly believed that this happened while he was leaving St. Anne’s Chapel, as it was the only place he visited without guards (Ibid.). He was killed by his monastic brother, Jan von Endorf, who the Teutonic Knights claimed insane (Ibid.). However, it is likely that it was a planned assassination (Ibid.). Werner had peaceful intentions towards the Kingdom of Poland and wanted to thoroughly reform the Order, which must have upset the corrupted knights, striving for power and further plunderers (Ibid.).

… and its ghosts

Another story says the Chapel is haunted by ghosts of Teutonic grand masters who were buried there (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

The interior of the castle church in Malbork (reconstructed). Photo by Tomasz Walecki (2019) Free images at Pixabay.

In 1650 the Jesuits erected their monastery between the castle church and the south-eastern wing of the Middle Castle (JS 2011). As a result, the western part of the chapel was separated by a wall reaching from its floor to the ceiling (Ibid.). This partition covered almost a quarter or a fifth of the entire chapel and joined two opposite windows (Ibid.). In order to obtain a convenient road to the city, a wooden bridge was made on cross-beams (Ibid.). The ends of the beams rest on the sills of both windows (Ibid.). Window openings, which in the Jesuit times were additionally secured with closed shutters, devoid of window frames, now served as doors (Ibid.).

The bridge covered the entire space between the western side wall of the chapel and the wall erected on the eastern side (JS 2011). People’s steps on the wooden bridge made a dull reverberation in the dark and formidable room of the necropolis (Ibid.). The reverberation resembled the thunder of horse horseshoes. For this reason, the bridge was named the Thunder Bridge (Ibid.). In the upper part of the wall separating the chapel of St. Anna, both on the west and east sides, the masons left two small gaps (Ibid.).. Through one of them you could look into the castle cellar, through the other – to the chapel of St. Anna (Ibid.). The openings were opposite each other and were the size of an ordinary brick (Ibid.).

Chapel of Saint Anne in the castle of Malbork. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One day, while carrying out other bricklaying works, one of the workers was ordered to brick up two mysterious holes (JS 2011). He fulfilled the task but on the morning of the next day, both bricks were found to be gone (Ibid.). Another mason completed the same work in less than five minutes (Ibid.). And this time the next morning, the same mysterious openings still existed in the wall (Ibid.). Also, further efforts to brick the holes in the wall did not bring any results (Ibid.). These fruitless works were finally abandoned (Ibid.). Sometime later, one of the Jesuits returned to his cell late. It was already dark, but he noticed some movement right next to the unfortunate holes (Radio Malbork 90,4 2020). Curious as he was, he walked closer (Ibid.). Then he saw the ghostly figures of the grand masters emerge from the crypt and like misty clouds heading towards the castle hall (Ibid.). Therefore, it was believed that the souls of the deceased grand masters of the Teutonic order buried in the tombs of the Chapel of St. Anna passed by these openings at night inside castle for ghostly gatherings (Ibid.).

Today, it is believed that to this day, the ghosts leave the basement of the chapel at midnight and go to one of the castle rooms, where they conduct scholarly discussions until dawn (Ibid.).

Trapdoor of Gdanisko

The already mentioned tower Gdanisko was also rebuilt after 1309; it was connected to the Upper Castle with a covered porch built on the arcades and was additionally provided with a drawbridge (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku 2020). In addition to being a tower of the final defence, it was also a toilet with a sanitary function (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Instead of today’s toilet paper, in the toilet cabbage leaves were used, which could also be replaced with hay (Ibid.). It was then possible to hide there not only from the invasion but also use it for a personal and intimate retreat (Ibid.).

Marienburg (1890-1900). General view of the castle from the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle, the bastion of Gdanisko is visible. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It happened, however, it was the very last place seen by some misfortune knights before their death (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The moat near Gdanisko claimed many victims; the inconvenient knights were usually made drunk, and when they went to the toilet to Gdanisko, the trapdoor suddenly opened and they disappeared into the moat (Ibid.).

Middle Castle

The Middle Castle served as the capital of the new monastic state (Bieszk 2010:108). Here were the court residences of the Grand Master and his commander, representative and banquet rooms decorated in a sophisticated way, state offices, a chancellery, archives and central treasury, as well as hotel facilities for guests and the main hospital (Ibid.:108).

Entering the knights’ bedrooms, it can be observed that their beds appear to be quite short (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights, although not tall, slept in a reclining position (Ibid.). They believed that if they were to lie completely on the bed, they would bring death upon themselves, because it was believed that the death only took those who were lying completely in their beds (Ibid.).

Eating and drinking at will

The western wing of the Middle Castle housed the Grand Refectory, the largest knightly banquet hall in the country that could seat up to four hundred knights at the tables (Bieszk 2010:109). It still amazes with its size and brightness (Ibid.:109). The Refectory had a refined palm ceiling supported in the middle on only three main, slender, granite pillars (Ibid.:109). In addition, it had tall stained glass windows and the aforementioned heating system (hypocaustum) (Ibid.:109). Next to it was a kitchen with a huge stove, from which food was delivered (Ibid.:109). Further there was a pantry and food stores (Ibid.:109).

Malbork Castle, High Castle (A) and Middle Castle (B), ground floor plan. Brockhaus, 1892. Uploaded by the User: Topory (2004). Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sebald Tharsen summons up the devil

The Teutonic knight, Sebald Tharsen, had no moderation in eating and drinking, and he cursed on every occasion (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). One night, returning to his room after a lavishly drunk supper, he called for a man to take off his shoes (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The servant was asleep, so Sebald began to curse and summoned the devil himself, who appeared immediately, grabbed his boots and pulled them off his legs together with the skin (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The resulting wounds began to suppurate (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The unfortunate man lived in terrible torment for almost half a year (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). His death became a warning to the other knights (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). But Sebald’s story apparently did not teach them enough …

Summer Refectory

On the first floor of the Middle Castle there were two most representative halls of the grand masters, where court life took place and official receptions and ceremonial meetings with guests of the Knights took place (Bieszk 2010:110).

The largest of them was the Summer Refectory, considered a wonder of building craftsmanship in the state (Bieszk 2010:110). It had a beautiful, high and extensive palm tree ceiling supported by only one granite column, and two walls filled with large windows with colourful stained glass, giving refined lighting to the room (Ibid.:110). It is worth noting a fragment of a cannonball is stuck in the wall above the fireplace in the Refectory (Ibid.:110). It once belonged to an eighty-kilogram ball from the cannon fired by Polish artillerymen during the siege of Malbork in 1410 (Ibid.:110). There is an interesting story connected with it.

Cannonball above the fireplace

The first information about the unexpected defeat of the Order at Grunwald reached Malbork the day after the battle, on July 16th, 1410 (Bieszk 2010:113). The news of the loss sparked an atmosphere of fear and panic in the castle, where only a small operational crew was stationed (Ibid.:113). The entire elders of the Order had died at Grunwald or fled (Ibid.:113). However, those who survived took control of the situation and the crew of the castle was finally strengthened (Ibid.:113-114). At the end of July, Malbork was besieged by King Władysław Jagiełło along with the Polish-Lithuanian army (Ibid.:113-114).

Chroniclers describe that during the eight-week siege, a traitor was supposed to hang a red flag outside the Summer Refectory’s window, when the survived important representatives of the Order gathered there (Bieszk 2010:114; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At that moment, the traitor gave a signal to those besieging the castle to shoot (Ibid.). The cannonball was supposed to fly into the room and hit the only pillar supporting the entire structure to crash onto the heads of the gathered (Ibid.). The cannonball, however, missed the pillar by six centimetres and hit the wall behind it (Ibid.).

The Gothic silhouette of the castle in Malbork by the River Nougat. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Buried tunnel

Another story came also from the time the castle was besieged. It tells about a pilgriming knight from Jerusalem who was staying in Malbork (Radio Malbork 90,4 (2020). Terrified by the sound of cannon shots, he decided to take a desperate act and ran into the underground corridor against which he had been warned by the knights (Ibid.). The legendary tunnel was supposed to be several meters underground and lead to the town of Nowy Staw, situated eleven kilometres away (Ibid.). For the pilgrim, the tunnel was the only way of escape (Ibid.). However, as soon as he entered the tunnel, it was suddenly blocked by a procession of headless dread knights and other ghosts (Ibid.). Facing the ghosts, the terrified knight finally chose a fight with a living enemy and screamed out of the tunnel (Ibid.). When news of his terrible adventure spread among the Teutonic knights, the tunnel was filled up immediately and now nobody knows where its entrance was (Ibid.).

The castle is a tangible symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order in medieval Europe. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Palace of the Grand Masters

The multi-storey Palace of the Grand Masters was built in the second half of the fourteenth century by adding it to the south-west part of the Upper Castle wing, from the river side (Bieszk 2010:110). At that time, the monastic state was at the height of its economic and military power, and the Grand Master was equal to the European rulers (Ibid.:110). Thus the architecture, silhouette and interior design of the palace corresponded to the contemporary requirements of royal residences (Ibid.:110).

Low Castle and barbican

Built in the first half of the fourteenth century, the Low Castle lies behind the moat of the Middle Castle (Bieszk 2010:111). It was the largest part of the rectangular castle and played the role of economic, production and commercial centre of the state (Ibid.:111).

Asinus. Source: Stary Malbork.pl (2007) “Plan of the Malbork castle” with the barbican on the other side of the River Nougat. In: Skyscraper.

Also in the first half of the fourteenth century, on the other side of the Nougat, at the bridge, a barbican was built (Bieszk 2010:113). It was an octagonal fortified complex made of brick but on stone foundations, and adapted to firearms (Ibid.:113). The walls were surrounded by a moat fed with river water (Ibid.:113). The entrance to the bridge led through the middle of the barbican (Ibid.:113).

Malbork in the hands of the Polish Crown

After the victory of the Battle of Grunwald, but the unsuccessful siege of Malbork by the Polish army in 1410, the castle finally was sold by mercenary troops to the Polish Crown in 1457, during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellonian, and belonged to Poland until the partition in 1772 (Bieszk 2010:115). In this way, the castle became a Polish royal residence by the Baltic Sea, a great arsenal of the commonwealth in this region and a storage of food. Its strategic importance was difficult to overestimate (Ibid.:115).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen being defeated and killed in the Battle of Grunwald (1410). Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

Ghost Castle Night Tour

We had just walked kilometres to visit the castle. Before saying ‘goodbye’, our English speaking guide invited us for a Ghost Castle Night Tour that usually happens regularly in summer. I had heard it was worth taking part in. Firstly, night time with pale lights illuminating the castle builds up an eerie atmosphere around it. Then, we could get familiar with most haunted spots in the complex, and finally, there are additional attractions in the form of disguised actors who play wandering ghosts of Teutonic knights. Their sudden appearance on the visitors’ way must be a really creepy experience …

Taking a break by the Malbork Castle. Its edifice is huge! Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Haunted castle

One of the largest fortresses of medieval Europe, Malbork, holds a great haunting potential (Paulina 2017). There is enough space in the castle for the ghosts of several Teutonic masters to wail at the same time without getting in each other’s way (Ibid.). It is common, for example, to see two knights with their heads under their armpits guarding the entrance to the secret room (WP Turystyka 2018). They apparently had lost the heads in the battle (Ibid.). As ghosts, they must guard the hidden Teutonic treasures (Ibid.). Apparently they were once accompanied by a headless horse (Ibid.). It is said that once a year, on New Year’s Eve, it runs out of the underground tunnel and gallops around the castle three times, finally returning to the depths of a secret chamber for the next twelve months (Ibid.). Mostly haunted are underground dungeons (Ibid.). There is also a secret corridor that dogs are afraid to walk through (Ibid.).

Wooden staircase to the morgue

Nevertheless, the most hunted is a modest, wooden spiral staircase in this entire bricked jungle (Paulina 2017). Unfortunately, it cannot be accessed by “ordinary” tourists (Ibid.). Noisy sounds like of a falling man’s body was clearly heard several times on the stairs (Ibid.). Even when the alley with the steps was illuminated, the ghosts did not stop making noise and materializing in this place (Ibid.). After examination of the place, it turned out that in the times of the Teutonic Knights, fatal stairs led to the morgue (Ibid.). The corpses of knights carried along the steps could have been accidentally dropped, not to mention some parts of their metal and heavy armour (Ibid.). Hence the loud, ghostly noises (Ibid.).

There are many legends about the Malbork castle. It is to explore it as well at night … with ghosts. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Ghost by the Golden Gate

In the Malbork castle there is one more haunted place but silent for a change (Paulina 2017). An aggressive ghost lurks near the Golden Gate, through which one enters the castle church (Ibid.). The mysterious figure jumps out of the shadows, catches a passing man from behind and clenches his bony hands around his neck (Ibid.). It disappears before the defending victim has time to break free and examine what actually has happened; there is nobody around but red fingerprints on the victim’s body (Ibid.).

Castle by the Nougat

In spite of the fact, the night tour was highly tempting to us, we were just exhausted. After one week of chilling out on the Hel Peninsula, the sightseeing day in Malkbork seemed particularly intensive. Moreover, the summer heat was much more felt here than by the Baltic Sea, where we were exposed to a pleasant cooling breeze rippling through the body. As much as we were tired, we were also starving. This is why, we left the walls of the castle and passed over the bridge to the opposite side of the Nougat, where the barbican stood in the past. To our joy and relief, we found there a very special restaurant with a stunning view of the castle and river. It was actually a boat transformed into a quite original, though expensive restaurant. ‘Once a time, we can afford it’, I thought. Anyway, we were too hungry to look for something different further from the complex. Moreover, the view from the boat fully rewarded us a high bill.

The Courtyard of the Malbork Castle astonishes with its size and majesty. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Before our dinner was served, we were enjoying the sight of the red massive towers and walls gracefully reflected in the river; their wrinkled images intertwined with the colours of sunset. After the last World War, many years of reconstruction works were undertaken, preserving the historical shape of the castle (Bieszk 2010:116). The renovation of the entire medieval complex was carefully carried out with the participation of outstanding specialists in many fields, and the works are only now coming slowly to an end (Ibid.:116). In 1997, the complex of Malbork was entered on the UNESCO list (Ibid.:117).

Exemplifying the Middle Ages of Poland

The imposing silhouette of the castle became a symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). In its heyday, hardly a few contemporary strongholds could match its artistry and majesty. This was also appreciated by filmmakers, who made many productions at the castle (Ibid.:174). In the complex, it is also worth visiting the halls displaying collections of amber from the Baltic Sea, armour, weapons and rich archaeological finds (Ibid.:174).

The castle of Malbork brings the spirit of the Middle Ages back in time to its international visitors and gives them an invaluable insight into a rather complex history of Poland in the time of its continuous military struggles, the change of ruling dynasty, and also the country’s mighty and victorious achievements, including architecture and art.

Sienkiewicz’s character, Fulko de Lorche, a Lorraine knight who comes to Poland with the intention of fighting pagans beside the Teutonic knights, accurately concludes the contemporary situation: ‘Your life in Poland is more difficult and entangled than I thought in Lorraine’.[1]

Malbork Castle welcomes visitors from the whole world. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

[1] The phrase has been translated from Polish and comes from the script of the Polish film, Knights of the Teutonic Order (Krzyżacy) (1960), directed by Aleksander Ford, based on the novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Featured image: The fortifications of the Malbork Castle seen from the Nougat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

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Jaśmin (2017) ”Kościół N.M.P i kaplica Św. Anny w malborskim zamku”. In: Świat piękny i bardzo różny. Available at <https://bit.ly/3n5Sa7z>. [Accessed on 7th December, 2020].

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MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 (2020) “Poszedł pobiegać po plaży, znalazł wrak statku odsłonięty po sztormie. ‘Wygląda na XIX-wieczną jednostkę’”. In: TVN24. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IdpXw6>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Matusik, J, Miszalski, J. (1998) Zamki w Polsce. Polska mapa zamków. Warszawa: Państwowego Przedsiębiorstwa Wydawnictw Kartograficznych.

Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku (2020) ”Wystawy i wnętrza/Gdanisko”. In: Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku.  Available at <https://bit.ly/33KEkjh>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

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Imagery of the Desert

In the late afternoon, we found ourselves on the threshold of Wadi Rum. Known also as the Valley of the Moon (“Wadi Rum” 2020), this magic land is located in the southern part of Jordan, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, and about forty kilometres east of Aqaba (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265).

Across the desert … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Lawrence from Arabia

Today, Wadi Rum is a home to Jordan Bedouins, who are Arab semi-nomadic people inviting visitors to their fairy-tale kingdom. One of the most famous guests to Wadi Rum was undoubtedly T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935), also known as Lawrence from Arabia (Biography 2014-2015). He was a British military officer and archaeologist greatly involved in Middle Eastern affairs and in the Great Arab Revolt (Ibid.). In the years 1917-1918, Lawrence travelled through Wadi Rum several times describing his enchantment at the entrance into the Valley as follows (“Wadi Rum” 2020):

The portrait of T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935), in Wadi Rum. Also known as Lawrence from Arabia advocated for Arabs’ independence. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles. The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than then body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination.”

Lawrence, T.E. 1935:351

Iram of the pillars

We climbed onto one of the three off-road cars and started our journey through sandy and rocky oranges of the desert. The sun was still hanging high but the night falls there in the nick of time. It automatically brings a sudden cold that replaces the daytime sun heat. In such conditions warm clothes are a must.

In its fascinating past, Wadi Rum must have been inhabited by many various cultures whose distinctive traces are still visible today (“Wadi Rum” 2020).

Piles of stones may hold various meanings. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is likely that it receives its name from Iram of the pillars, which is usually described as a lost city, region or tribe mentioned in the Quran (Ibid.). Cut into the sandstone and granite rock, it includes an area of ​​approximately seventy-four thousand hectares of amazing landscape, distinguished by extraordinary natural and cultural value (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; “Wadi Rum” 2020). The natural environment consists mainly of the typical though stunning desert landscape with a varied topography (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). There are sandy plains, cliffs, gorges and even caves and rocky landslides (Ibid.:265). An interesting diversification of that landscape are natural rock formations in the form of arches, bridges and arcades (Ibid.:265).

Petroglyphs

Within this area, groups of pre-historic petroglyphs have been found at several sites (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). The rock drawings most likely come from twelve thousand years ago and prove the existence of settlement in this desert area since prehistoric times (Ibid.:265). Due to cultural landscape and its natural values, in 2011 the protected area of ​​Wadi Rum was entered on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List (Ibid.:265).

Unidentified animal-like creature on the reddish rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Among the rock carvings that were found in Wadi Rum, there are twenty-five thousand figurative representations and twenty thousand characteristic signs looking like inscriptions that could constitute the first attempts to create a writing (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015). The former usually represent people and animals, whereas the latter show North-Arabian scripts: Nabatean, Islamic (Kufic), Arabic and mostly the so-called Thamudic inscriptions (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015; “Wadi Rum” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020).

The Thamud

The Thamud belonged to ancient Arabian tribes occupying the north-western Arabian peninsula between the late eighth century BC and the fourth century AD (“Thamud” 2020). “They are mentioned in contemporary Mesopotamian, Classical, and Arabian sources” (Ibid.). It does not mean, however, all the petroglyphs from Wadi Rum were made by that tribe (“Thamud” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020). Actually, the name Thamudic was invented by nineteenth-century scholars for major part of inscriptions covering a huge area from Syria to Yemen (“Thamudic” 2020). “[Such inscriptions belong to a large group of] Ancient North Arabian (ANA) alphabets which have not yet been properly studied” (Ibid.).

The Nabatean

Many petroglyphs from Wadi Rum, however, are ascribed to Nabateans, an ancient nomadic Arab people who emerged between the fourth and second century BC and held their independence till the annexation of their territory to the Roman Empire in 106 AD (“Nabataeans” 2020). Nabateans are also said to be creators of Petra and although they surely inhabited the site, there is much doubt regarding the original builders of the city. It is, however, another story …

In tranquil and shaded Ain Shalaaleh, on the south side of Wadi Rum, there is the head of a Nabatean rock-cut aqueduct, which is close to Rum village and the remains of the Nabatean temple (Mohammad, “Confusion (….)” 2015).

Typical images of Wadi Rum: animals, humans, enigmatic symbols and inscriptions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Lawrence wrote that “[on] the rock-bulge above were clear-cut Nabathaean inscriptions, and a sunk panel incised with a monogram or symbol. Around and about were Arab scratches, including tribe-marks, some of which were witnesses of forgotten migrations: but my attention was only for the splashing of water in a crevice under the shadow of the overhanging rock. I looked in to see the spout, a little thinner than my wrist, jetting out firmly from a fissure in the roof, and falling with that clean sound into a shallow, frothing pool, behind the step which served as an entrance. Thick ferns and grasses of the finest green made it a paradise just five feet square.” (Lawrence 1935, p.355).

Images for communication

“Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock’s surface by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading with something like a stone chisel. Inscriptions are characters [created just] in the same way as petroglyphs. Most petroglyphs [in Wadi Rum] were made on cliff faces, [large] rocks, and boulders” (Mohammad 2015).

In the process of deciphering … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The content of the petroglyphs and other artifacts found in the area are a source of knowledge about the social change and lifestyle of prehistoric desert tribes in the Arabian Peninsula (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). “The illustrations of people show human figures holding bows and arrows” (Mohammad 2015). By their side, there is a large number of drawings representing animals, such as camels, ibexes, and horses (Ibid.). “[Alongside] all these figures are [enigmatic] symbols like lines and circles. Experts [assume] that they are instructions and messages left by [prehistoric] people [to communicate]. Some of them [may be] about giving directions to find hidden springs, [whereas others] about updating each other on things like who visited the area last. Altogether, these engravings [are believed] to provide an insight into the development of human thought [as] a pattern of pastoral, agricultural, and urban human activity” (Ibid.).

Scorpions were already asleep

We got off the car and approached one of the multiplied rocks. Its reddish surface was carved with intriguing images.

Are there any other hidden petroglyphs? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight I could discern some animal figures, mostly camels. Yet some were rather difficult to guess. Whereas some camels were depicted in movement with funny forked tails, others were standing still and the one had an inscription inside its body. The biggest one with its long neck looked like a giraffe. Only its single visible hump indicated that it was a dromedary after all. There were also a few primitively drawn human figures with outspread arms and legs, who may stand for Neolithic members of a nomadic tribe. Those were quite similar to Neolithic human representations from northern Africa. Most intriguing, however, were strange symbols depicted around the recognized characters – one looked like a mountain peak – and inscriptions accompanying the whole scene. ‘I wish I could stay here longer and make drawings’, I thought while taking a thousand of pictures. Pushed by curiosity and in search of further images, I slipped under the rock ledge above the carvings. After a while I found there some traces of petroglyphs but mostly fragmented inscriptions. ‘You are a peeping type of a person’, said our Bedouin guide smiling. ‘It’s good that scorpions are already asleep’, he added.

It was pitch-dark when we finally reached back our camp. The electrical lamps illuminated a row of large tents waiting for tired visitors. We had just arrived to Jordan and Wadi Rum turned out to be our gate to its treasures.

Featured image: Wadi Run – petroglyphs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Nabataeans” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3nNAs8u>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Thamud” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lWe8cf>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Thamudic” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3950pfL>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Wadi Rum” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kS4OoI>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Biography (2014-2015) “T.E. Lawrence”. In: Biography.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kOf69e>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Chabińska-Ilchanka, E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015) Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

Lawrence, T.E. (1935) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

Mohammad, F. (2015) “Confusion about the Real Lawrence Spring Cleared”. In: Wadi Rum. Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J58ZA0>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Mohammad, F. (2015) “The Petroglyphs and Inscriptions of Wadi Rum”. In: Wadi Rum. Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/36VBEjz>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

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

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

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Christianisation of the sea pirates

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

By the fjord. July of 2014 was surprisingly hot and dry in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

Sacral architecture

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

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

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 39.

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Dragon at the roof’edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005) Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

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

Hopperstad Stave Church is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord, in the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

View of interior with the side altar and an empora (matroneum) with St Andrew’s crosses. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

Made of upright staves

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

Massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 43.

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

Sitting behind Hopperstad Stave Church, down the hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Sitting behind Hopperstad Stave Church, down the hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Construction

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

Western facade of the church with the main entrance; an external gallery and a beautifully carved portal. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000) “Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”.

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

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5.
Source: Wikipedia Commons (2020).

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

View of the church from the east; a wooden apse and cascading roof among the green hills. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Medieval master carpenters

Dragons breathing fire at the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

History

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

Hopperstad in 1885 before restoration work. Photo owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

View of the church during the restoration work. hoto owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

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

The Hopperstad Stave Church after the restoration. Photo by Axel Lindahl – Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer; created: between 1880 and 1890 date. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the type with a raised centre room, but some have mid-masts and are of the so-called More type. However, there is reason to believe that the simplest and smallest type, with a somewhat larger nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave church during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20).

View from the east on Hopperstad Stavekirke. Photo by Peter (2006). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Inventory

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

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

Remains of the glorious past

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

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

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

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

Modern alterations

A wooden pyramid of the church with all
its intricate architectural details.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Threats

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

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

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

Modern fame and restoration

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

In front of the main entrance to the church. I could spend there ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

The significance and future of the stave churches

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

Typical stave church of Norway: clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons, some breathing fire on the ridges of the roofs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Featured image: Sloping roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Dragons breathing fire at the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church (detail). Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus

‘It is said that whoever has not seen Granada has seen nothing’, said our guide breathing in the air coming from the river. It was filled with the magic of spices and the scent of flowers.

Granada is one of the most popular cities in the Andalusia region. It stretches along the Genil River, right at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This picturesquely situated town is famous for its unique architecture from the One Thousand and One Nights and well-preserved monuments that simply took my breath away.

Andalusia in Spain looks like a fairy-land from the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We left the river behind and slipped through the narrow streets of the souk among the stalls with pyramids of spices and colorful fabrics. It was already our second week we were spending among the treasures of southern Spain with its strong oriental character singing in one voice with the Christian spirit and the bells of Catholic churches and cathedrals; Seville, Cordoba and finally Granada have shared with me their secrets.

Reconquest

Royal Alcázar of Seville.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In January, 1492, the last of the Muslim rulers in Spain surrendered in Granada to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. To commemorate the great triumph of Reconquest, a silver Cross and a pennant of Saint James were erected at the top of one of the towers of the fortified palace of Alhambra. Catholic kings placed a pomegranate in their coat of arms, probably without expecting its seeds would sprout and give wonderful fruits of art over time.

Mudejar Style and its Creators

One of the artistic expressions was the mudejar style. It had grown out of the roots of Moorish art but gained a unique character from combining the latter with the Christian tradition. Despite the victory of the Reconquest, this unique style did not disappear from the art of Spain converted back to Christianity, but it was further continued by more or less Christianized Moorish artists and craftsmen who remained in the lands of Spain to serve Catholic rulers. They were called mudajjan, or people who were allowed to stay, and hence the Spanish term mudejar, which refers to the products of art and their creators.

An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to the terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts, mudejar is a style in the architecture and decoration of Spain, developing from the eighth to the seventeenth century AD. Its development is noted especially in the end of the Moorish reign, that is from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. The style was definitely closer to the Gothic than to the Italian Renaissance, with which it quarreled.

The Alhambra gardens name is really
Generalife. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Still the style of mudejar itself and contemporary European style influenced the character of the Spanish Renaissance and then Baroque. The dominant feature of mudejar is the astonishingly rich decoration made in stucco, especially visible in vaults carved in wood and covered with polychrome, horseshoe arches, azulejos and muqarnas (mocárabe) – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults. A particularly important feature of the mudejar style is a colorful or gilded ornament of oriental origin – arabesque or moresque, Arabic inscriptions, and stylized figurative and animalistic motifs, characterized by a much greater freedom of composition in comparison with the art of Islam developing outside the Iberian Peninsula. The projecting of mudejar-style sacral buildings usually is of the western type, while the secular architecture is dominated by rather oriental patterns. In addition to architecture, the style was also mastered by craftsmanship, which played a leading role in the development of  the Moorish art. In the mudejar style, for example, the rich Alcazar decoration in Seville was made.

Muqarnas – a motif that adorns column heads, or the so-called stalactite vaults.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Due to the strongly established influence of Islam in Andalusia, the Moorish art has found its place and expression in many products of architecture and the craft of Christian Spain. It was also present in literature and music, and what is more, it became one of the most important stages of the development of art on the Iberian Peninsula. After the Moors retreated, they left behind silent witnesses of their domination in Spain, and the splendour of Islamic culture and art. Those were remains of secular and sacral Moorish architecture – castles, palaces and mosques.

The Court of the Myrtles; the Pool plays an
important part in the architectural and aesthetic
definition of the site. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A large number of architectural works of this style have grown into a Christian structure imposed on the older. More often, however, architectural works were dismantled to become a source of valuable building material for new creations of the Christian architecture; Moorish columns, capitals and precious marble have become elements of a new, alien to them constructions. Islamic defensive castles were taken over by Catholic kings. In the process they were gradually destroyed, changing into ruins but preserving their picturesque remains for the landscape of today’s Andalusia.

Gardens of Alhambra full of various flowers,
plants and fruits. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Among the secular architecture left by the Moors the most beautiful is the Alhambra, a palace rising from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century on a hilltop, overlooking the majestic city of Granada, and challenging the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Alhambra is today the most exquisite example of the genius of secular architecture and artistry created by the Moors. The latter were Muslims who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century. Under the pressure of the Muslim invaders, Visigothic Spain had failed and surrendered. The green banner fluttered in Spain over the following centuries until the Reconquista. Without a doubt, it was a period when one of the most outstanding chapters of art was written in the background of world art. The uniqueness of the Moorish art in Andalusia – the Arabic Al-Andalus – became possible because of the relative integration of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that sought to live side by side in peace and symbiosis, complementing each other to some extent.

Similar conditions ensured rapid development of human spiritual needs: literature, music, crafts, and architecture. On the other hand, the closeness of monotheistic religions, their values ​​and artistic achievements, as well as the background of the culture of the Visigoths, was not without significance for the shape of art sprouting in the areas of Andalusia at that time.

More oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient

The Alhambra Palace is a kind of labyrinth of shady courtyards, halls, magnificent arcades, marble columns, fountains and ponds.

Palace pf Alhambra. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The walls of the majestic building are covered with intricate patterns similar in lightness to intricate laces and shimmering in the colours of the rainbow with glass tiles. The palace’s beauty is also glorified by poets, lyricists and singers, such as Loreena McKennitt.

I’d long intended to make a pilgrimage to Spain and to visit the palace called Alhambra. [And] I finally travelled there. I discovered the Moorish towers built by a thirteenth century Muslim sultan, interior courtyards with pools of water, elegant pillars and intricate tracery.All designed to duplicate famous descriptions of paradise within Islamic poetry. For centuries it served as an oasis for nomads and travellers, a meeting place for cultures and traditions, a crossroads for religions, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted in harmony. It’s a place where darkness gives a way to life, every stone has heard a 1001 secrets and where distance feels so near. It’s a place of infinite beauty, a Mystic’s dream, Alhambra.

Loreena McKennitt, Nights from the Alhambra.

After J. Pijaon the Alhambra is today a more oriental palace than the buildings preserved in the very Orient. An extremely important decorative element of Moorish art and the palace’s decoration in Granada are the so-called azulejos, which are ceramic tiles covered with enamel used for lining the walls both inside and outside, decorating the exterior of the building.

The Palace of Charles V is a Renaissance building, located on the top of the hill of the Assabica, inside the Nasrid fortification of the Alhambra. Its architecture strongly contrast with a delicate beauty of the medieval Moorish Palace. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This art was introduced by Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the fourteenth century, and after the Moors were driven out of Spain it was still cultivated by Christian artists; in the seventeenth century, mainly in Seville, but also in neighboring Portugal, from where it reached the New World, and they have decorated the facades of the buildings in the capital of Brasilia. At the beginning of its history, azulejos, the term from Arabic az-zulayj, which means a small stone, were monochromatic, mainly blue. Hence it is not without significance that azul means blue in both Spanish and Portuguese. Over time, however, the tiles began to adorn strongly geometric, multi-colored floral motifs, but also depictions of military or humorous scenes.

Alhambra Granada Spain; Hall of the two Sisters or Sala de las dos Hermanas. The muquarnas cupola, which is a decorated vaulted stalactite ceiling. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Apart from azulejos, the most captivating in the Islamic art are the decorations in the form of stalactites forming the shell of the Alhambra palace’s vaults, which seem to explode like gigantic starfish. The effect of vibrating stalactite forms is present especially in the decoration of the dome in the Abencerrag Hall and the dome in the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra. Made of stucco elements and embedded in wooden frames, the vaults resemble a diagonally cut honeycomb. As in many other examples of Arab art, the motif of stalactite brings to mind the creations of nature and their glorification in art. The Arabs were once a nomadic people, dependent on nature and sensitive to its beauty and life, which flourished in oases in a barren desert. Organic elements, like water and greenery, are also an inseparable element of the architecture of bands such as Alkazar and Alhambra.