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A Storm of Controversy on the Dating the Eruption of Thera

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

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

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

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

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

A major controversy between archaeology and geology

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

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

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

Turning for help to ancient Egyptians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geologists make their way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is closer to the truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it a compromise?

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

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

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

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

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

If standard methods fail, scientists count on legends

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

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

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

So do I …

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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Castleden R. (1998-2001). Atlantis Destroyed. New York: Routledge.

Curry A. (2018). “The Rulers of Foreign Lands”. In: Archaeology. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7dL4Y>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

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Ehrlich Y., Regev L., Boaretto E. (2018). “Radiocarbon Analysis of Modern Olive Wood Raises Doubts Concerning a Crucial Piece of Evidence in Dating the Santorini Eruption” In: Scientific Reports, Vol. 8, Article number: 11841. Available at <https://go.nature.com/3epMel5>. [Accessed on 22nd May, 2020].

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Masjum M. (2006). Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Matić U. (2014). “Out of the Word and Out of the Picture? Keftiu and Materializations of ‘Minoans’”. In: Ägypten und Levante / Egypt and the Levant, vol. 24 (2014), pp. 275-292 (18 pages). Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Mitchell T. (2011). Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Starr M. (2018). “The Date of The Legendary Volcano Explosion of Thera Has Finally Been Traced”. In: Science Alert. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XG0Vtp>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

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On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar

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

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

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

Tiled alcove in Tangier

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

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

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

Blue-washed Chefchaouen and colourful Asilah

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

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

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

Towards Cap Spartel

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

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

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

Africa in the Grottes d’Hercule

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

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

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

Past and modern guests to the caves

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

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

Stepping into ancient myths

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

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

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

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

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

Pillars of Hercules

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

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

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

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

Giants in the way of the hero

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

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

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

The Titan and the King

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

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

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

Antaeus contra Hercules

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

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

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

Was Hercules a giant?

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

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

Ex pede Herculem

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

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

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

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

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

Correct or incorrect scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman conquest of the town of Tingis

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

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

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

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

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

City in honour of the widow of the giant

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

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

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

Who were the Phoenicians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Land of Canaan westwards

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

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

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

Problematic columns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates

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

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

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

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

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Niesiołowski-Spanó Ł., Burdajewicz M. (2007). Mitologie świata: Fenicjanie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

Odyssey Traveller (2020). “Caves of Hercules, Morocco”. In: Odyssey Traveller. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ubfIf1>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

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Peters L. (2019) Moon Morocco. EBOOK / ISBN-13: 9781640491342.

Plutarch, Langhorne, W. and J. (1826). Plutarch’s Lives: Translated from the Original Greek, with Notes Historical and Critical, and a Life of Plutarch, Volume 4. Fourth Edition. London: C. Baldwin Printer, New Bridge-street.

Quayle S., Alberino T. (2017). True Legends – Episode 3: Holocaust of Giants. GenSix Productions.

Stannard D., Keohane A. et al. (2009). Przewodnik ilustrowany: Maroko [Insight Guide Morocco]. Śmietana B., Usakiewicz W. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Berlitz.

Wood Bryant G. (2005). “Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Conquest,” Bible and Spade 18, no. 4.

Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

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


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

Let’s go to Hel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering history at each step

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

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

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

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

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

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

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

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

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

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

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

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

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

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

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

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

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

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

Threat of the black cross

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

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

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

Grunwald (1410)

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

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

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

Mischievous knights

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

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

Polish pyramids

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

”Krzyżacy (1960)” (2020). In: Tele Magzayn. Galeria zdjęć. Available at <https://bit.ly/37E8HJl>. [Accessed on 6th December, 2020].

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Białczyński C. (2017). “Tagen TV: ‘Nieznane dzieje Polski’ – Dr. Franc Zalewski; 2. Łukasz Kulak – ‘Zaawansowana cywilizacja z Krakowa’ oraz ‘Kto budował zamki w Polsce’; 3. Dziwne zdjęcie – trójkątne wiertło i runy? In: Oficjalna strona Białczyńskiego. Available at <https://bit.ly/3opS4aT>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Bieszk J. (2010). Zamki Państwa Krzyżackiego w Polsce. Warszawa: Bellona.

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.

East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja” (photos: 1, 2, 3, 7). In: Film Interia.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/36KPfuU>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Karwan K. (2016). Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gmHi2f>. [Accessed on 5th 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.

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Ancient Lycia in the Middle of Anatolian Traditions

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

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

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

Location of Lycia

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

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

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

People of Lycia

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

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

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

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

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

At the crossroads of different cultures

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

Origins shrouded in mystery

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

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

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

Written tradition

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

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

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

More evidence provided

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

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

Greek name for a foreign country

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

Back to legends

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

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

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

More Greek deities

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

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

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

Rebellious nation who loved independence

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

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

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

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

Still feeling free, though under occupation

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

Alexander the Great in Lycia

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

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

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

From hands to hands

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

The growth of the Lycian League

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

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

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

Santa Clause in Lycia

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

And the ancient glory came to an end

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque

Campeche is a city in the Mexican Gulf, founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors as San Francisco de Campeche. Additionally, it was located on the site of the former Mayan city called Canpech or Kimpech (“Campeche” 2021).

The two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the Plaza del Zócalo of the city of Campeche, Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This old town used to have thousands of different buildings, of which, as a result of its turbulent history, unfortunately not many traces have remained to this day (“Campeche” 2021)

Even though our minibus arrived at Campeche in the evening, we still managed to see many colourful colonial houses and massive fortifications that had once defended the city from pirates, albeit not always with success (“Campeche” 2021). At the end of our trip, we were seen off by the two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the central square of the city, known locally as the Zócalo. The next morning, however, we left this charming place behind and moved south, towards the Mexican state of Chiapas, going back in time to the times of the Maya and their stepped pyramids and temples.

Towards the heart of the Maya territory

So far we had seen Mayan sites in the north of Yucatan, including Mayan-Toltec cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Nevertheless, those city-states had developed mostly in the Late Classical Period and were therefore much later than Mayan sites in the south of the country. This is why, we could say that we were heading off to the very heart of the Mayan land. Paolo Sutter, a Swiss guide in Palenque, who also accompanied Enrich von Däniken in his journey through the ruins, claims that this Mayan heart once beat in Tikal (Guatemala) (Von Däniken 1991:184). After him, Tikal was once located just in the centre of the Mayan culture, which becomes especially visible if one inserts a compass needle into a city point on the map and draws circles of the correct radius around it; these will include the Mayan settlements even at the edge of their world, in the farthest corners of the north, south, west and east (Ibid.:184). ‘It was from Tikal’, the guide says, ‘that the Mayan empire began to expand in all directions’ (Ibid.:184).

Accordingly to the proposed thesis, the Mayan territory was not in fact limited to the country of Mexico itself but stretched southwards, far beyond its political borders. Precisely, “[the] Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Consequently, Mayan city-states were scattered in the area of Mexican state of Chiapas, including Sierra Madre de Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain, and then they also expanded in the regions of the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, from where we started our study trip throughout Mexico (Ibid.).

The Maya and their development

Ancient Maya peoples, although today they exist as a separate cultural group, had probably never felt “a sense of common identity or political unity” (“Maya civilization” 2021; see “Majowie” 2021). Nevertheless, they dominated Mesoamerica for thousands years (Grube 2013:14-16). To our knowledge, they did not use metal tools, a wheel, and did not have pack animals (Burns 2012).

In front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the most intriguing and significant buildings of the city, situated in the center. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite their lack of the humanity’s basic inventions, such as iron and the wheel, scientists today consider the Maya as one of the most advanced civilizations in Pre-Columbian America (Burns 2012). This is because the Maya had many achievements in the fields of agriculture, engineering, and astronomy: they developed hieroglyphics and the vigilant number system, made astronomical observations, and used precise timing systems (ibid.). They also had a complex mythology, language and religious rites (Ibid.). The Maya are equally known for their civilization achievements in the field of architecture and so their cities are characterized by high architectural precision, especially in terms of astronomical phenomena (“Majowie” 2021).  They built monumental spatial complexes, consisting of temples on high stepped pyramids, palaces, terraces, courtyards and stone fields for ball games (“Majowie” 2021; Burns 2012). In the field of art, they created stucco ornaments, vibrant wall paintings, sculptures and bas-reliefs of stucco, stone, wood and bone, polychrome ceramics and refined objects of goldsmithery (“Majowie” 2021).

Where did they come from?

Scientists claim that the Mayan ancestors came from Asia to the American continent via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age (Grube 2013:14). Like many, Paolo Sutter takes a different view (Von Däniken 1991:183-184). After him, people never voluntarily put themselves in danger, especially if they do not have a clearly defined aim of taking a risk (Ibid.:183). And the people of that time certainly did not know what awaited them after crossing the frozen Bering Strait, if such a feat was possible for them at all, with frosts as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (Ibid.:183).

The row of temples along the southern edge of the Main Plaza in the western part of the city: the Temple of the Inscriptions on the left, then on the right, the Temple XIII (of the Red Queen), and the Temple XII. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, opponents of the Bering Strait theory usually propose a different solution instead; namely, they believe that the people of Asia did indeed reach Mesoamerica, but by crossing the waters of the Pacific Ocean, travelling on ships (Ibid.:183). Enrich von Däniken (1991:184), however, doubts if they came from Asia at all; the newcomers from Asia would have known the wheel and would certainly have used it widely also in Mesoamerica. Even if the Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Olmecs and the Mayans, knew the wheel, as evidenced by some artifacts, they did not use it in their everyday life, like other ancient cultures did elsewhere.

There are also some legends ascribed to the Mayan culture, containing a story of how the ancient Mayans came to Mesoamerica from an unidentifiable eastern land that had been destroyed, possibly by an unknown cataclysm (Hart 2017:150). As a writer, Will Hart (2017:150) admits, these types of accounts may sound like romantic myths and be just a result of a vivid imagination, but when one walks around an ancient archaeological site of Palenque, amidst its extensive ruins, they start to wonder if such myths of lost continents may contain a grain of truth.

From the Archaic Period to the Late Preclassic

Regardless of where the Mayans came from and how they did it, visiting hunters and collectors first settled in mainly three regions of Mesoamerica: the Pacific coast, the mountains, and the lowlands (Grube 2013:14).

Inside one of the corridors of the Palace in the central part of Palenque. Photo by Leon Petrosyan (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Little information is known about the Archaic period of Mayan culture, but it is dated back to the second millennium BC., when settlements in villages had already developed (Grube 2013:14). Although this slow process was uneven in the inhabited area, it is the time when agriculture and maize cultivation began (Ibid.:14). Pottery, which is attributed to the Mayan culture, could also have originated in this period (Ibid.:14).

The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace. Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A conventional period from 2000 BC. until 300 BC. is called by archaeologists the Preclassic Period, including the Early (2000-900 BC), Middle (900-300 BC) and Late (300 BC-250 AD) periods within it (Grube 2013:14). While the first agricultural settlements were built at the earliest stage, the social hierarchy was formed in the following phases, and the cities were formed along with them, along with examples of Mayan monumental architecture, including ornamental tombs and stone monuments with images of dignitaries, but yet without inscriptions (Ibid.:14). Similar achievements show that the Mayan culture developed in parallel with the so-called Olmec culture from the Gulf of Mexico (Ibid.:14). Therefore, it is not truly correct to describe the Olmecs as a proto-Mayan culture (Ibid.:14). The Olmecs had probably just influenced it as much as the culture of Teotihuacan did.

Self-supporting and false vaults

In the Late Preclassic Period, social differences in the Mayan culture deepened and a privileged group strongly emerged, including the royal families and priests (Grube 2013:14). Monumental buildings decorated with huge stucco masks of gods were still erected; these were mainly temples in the form of stepped pyramids with temples on top and the so-called royal palaces (Ibid.:14). Stone self-supporting original vaults with a keystone (a capstone) are also dated to this period! (Ibid.:14). It is supported by the discovery of such a vault in the city of Calakmul. At the same time, it is quite surprising that in the Classic Period cantilever vaults, known more often as the corbelled or false vaults, were commonly used by the Mayans (Ibid.:14). Such constructional element as corbel vaults and arches are actually typical features of the pre-Columbian architecture, both monumental and urban (Ibid.:14).

The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 90s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Complex writing system

The first stone monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the so-called steles, also appeared in the same period (Grube 2013:15). Oddly enough, these oldest texts reveal examples of writings so uniform and complex that the Maya writing system from the Late Preclassic Period must have developed earlier (Ibid.:15). For archaeologists, there are two possible explanations for this puzzle: either the older forms of writing have not survived due to the perishable material used, or they have not yet been discovered (Ibid.:15).

Classic Period of the Maya

The end of the Preclassic Period brought subsequent climate changes, natural disasters and migrations of people, often resulting in armed conflicts, which caused many cities of the period deserted (Grube 2013:15).

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

Recognition of the year 250 AD. as the ending moment of the Preclassic Period and the beginning of the Classic one is purely conventional (Grube 2013:15). This was a gradual process and did not occur simultaneously for the entire territory of Mesoamerica occupied by the Mayans (Ibid.:15). Moreover, it should also be understood that the Classic Period is just another stage in the long history of Mayan culture (Ibid.:15). Material inheritances from both the Preclassic and Classic Periods are also quite comparable (Ibid.:15), and sometimes even earlier monuments and artifacts are more advanced in terms of a technique used than those created in the classical period (e.g. a self-supporting vault).

The Palace as seen from the main courtyard (Main Plaza). Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Classic Period can be further broken down into two major blocks: the Early Classic Period (250-550 AD.) and the Late Classic Period (550-900 AD.) (Grube 2013:15). Additionally, one can also distinguish in the latter the s-called Declining Period, that is to say, the last hundred years of the Late Classic Period (800-900 AD.) (Ibid.:15). In the Classic Period, the lowlands were divided by growing influences of notably four struggling big city-states (Ibid.:15). Edwin Barnhart, PhD, the Archaeologist Director in Maya Exploration Center, says that many texts mention four Maya cities that were associated with four corners of the world (Edwin Barnhart, PhD. in: Burns 2012). Among them was Palenque, depicted as the capital of the Mayan world of the west, the capital of the south was Copan, in the east, there was Tikal, and in the capital of the north was Calakmul (Ibid.). Each was headed by a king who was descended from ancient gods, and so he was seen as an intermediary between the world of gods and people (Grube 2013:15).

A description of a presented expedition will mainly concern the Late Calssic Period of Palenque.

Relations with Teotihuacan and wars between the Mayan city-states

In addition to extravagant architecture and luxurious works of art, an element of the culture of the aristocracy of the Classic Period of the Maya was their hieroglyphic writing, densely covering stone steles, altars, relief panels, pottery and jewellery (Grube 2013:15). They all tell a tale about royal families, lavish feasts, wars and alliances (Ibid.:15). On the other hand, the Mayan hieroglyphs has allowed not only to recreate the political events of the Classic Period, but also have given a valuable insight into the Mayan intellectual culture, including their astronomy and myths (Ibid.:15).

By the side of the so-called Palace, located in the center of Palenque. Behind the Temple of the Inscriptions, situated at the top of the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By means of Mayan writing and artifacts, it is also known that the Early Classic Period was marked by contacts with the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, the largest city in the cultural area of ​​Mesoamerica, inhabited then by unidentifiable culture (Grube 2013:16). At the same time, conflicts developed between the urban powers of the Classic Period, mainly between Tikal and Calakmul, which, in turn, had sparked hostilities already on the verge of the Late Classic Period (Ibid.:16). The final collapse of the Mayan classic culture was intensified by environmental disasters and overpopulation (Ibid.:16). Consequently, at the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries AD., more Mayan cities emptied in the region (Ibid.:16).

Postclassic Period and the Spanish Conquest

Simultaneously, “[the] Postclassic period [of the Maya, which] saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north [of Yucatan]” (“Maya civilization” 2021), is usually regarded as a time of decadence, characterized by a gradual decline of the status of the elite and their monumental architecture (Grube 2013:16). This period is also broken down into successive stages, ending with the Spanish conquest and the fall of the last Mayan state of Itzá, with their capital Nojpetén, in 1697 (Ibid.:16).

Modern Mayans of Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by I, Henrique Matos (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Majowie” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

After the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan civilization completely collapsed (Grube 2013:16). The Mayans, however, have survived to modern times, thankfully retaining much of their culture (Ibid.:16). During the colonial period, as well as after Mexico and other countries in America gained their autonomy in the early nineteenth century, the Maya also made many local armed efforts to regain political independence (Grube 2013:16; “Maya civilization” 2021). “Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over [six] million individuals, speak more than twenty-eight surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors ” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Although for centuries they were usually treated as second-class residents on their own lands, today they are still actively fighting for their political and cultural rights (Grube 2013:16).

Gateway to Palenque

The stepped pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo taken from the side of the Temple XIII, where the second famous burial of Palenque was discovered. It belongs to the so-called Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As we were approaching Palenque archaeological site after around five hours spent in the bus, I suddenly noticed a huge carved head rising up just in the middle of the roundabout (see: Von Däniken 1991:183). It belongs to perhaps the most famous Mayan king, Kʼinich Janaab Pakal the First, who reigned in Palenque in the Late Classic Period and who, more than one thousand three hundred years after his death, triggered much interest and even confusion in the modern world of archaeology. It was mainly because of his multi-ton sarcophagus hidden in one of the temples in Palenque. In this way, the king has probably deserved that his image carved in the stone is now welcoming visitors on the way to his wonderful but lost kingdom.

How did the Mayans call their city?

The Mayan ruins of Palenque are located around ten kilometres away from a small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque, where you can also stay at one of its hotels of a various standard if you wish to stay and study the ruins longer (Von Däniken 1991:176,183). This settlement close to the ancient city was founded by a Spanish missionary, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, the first European who saw Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). In 1567, he founded a village, first called Santo Domingo, and it was not until around twenty years later that it was named Santo Domingo de Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021).

An intricate complex of El Palacio with its outstanding tower, located in the center of the ancient city of Palenque. Photo taken from the Temple of the Cross in the south-east of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is believed that Palenque was “also anciently known as Lakamha (literally: ‘Big Water’) (“Palenque” 2021). Yet, there are other hypothesis about the modern name of the city. In Spanish, the word ‘palenque’ means ‘fence’, ‘tournament square’ or ‘palisade site’. Of course, the sixteenth-century village of Santo Domingo had nothing to do with ‘tournament square’ (Von Däniken 1991:176). One of the local Mayans claims that his ancestors from the sixteenth century still remembered that the nearby jungle ruins were actually called Palatquapi by ancient Mayans; according to their accounts, it was the place where Mayan gods, known as the Kachina, once lived (Ibid.:176).

Mysterious tower, possibly used as an astronomical observatory, belonging to the complex, called El Palacio. Photo by Anna_Travel_Guru (Anna Che) (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The sixteenth century Mayans may have provided the Spanish settlers with the original name of the city, which was, however, misspelled by the Spanish and consequently changed into the known today name ‘Palenque’, and then Santo Domingo was successively named itself after the ruins (Ibid.:176). As a matter of fact, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada studied the ruined city and then published its first description, in which he also named it ‘Palenque’ (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). The Mayan city was thus named almost two hundred years before its ruins started to be more explored since the eighteenth century (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Prager, Grube 2013:447).

From ‘casas de piedra’ to their regular exploration

Of all the Mayan sites of the Classic Period, Palenque enjoyed considerable interest, but it was difficult to spark it at first among contemporary explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:408-411; Von Däniken 1991:163-171; Dzikowska 2013:239-241). From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the inhabitants of Tumbula, the largest city closest to the ruins, knew of the so-called casas de piedra (stone houses), near the settlement of Santo Domingo (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163).

Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they described the ruined buildings engulfed by the steamy jungle of Chiapas, which was once inhabited by their Mayan ancestors (Eggebrecht 2013:408). In the 1870s, information about these stone houses spread quickly; it reached the ears of a priest in Ciudad Real, Ramona Ordonez, whose account finally reached the Royal Commission of Audiencia in Guatemala (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Only a decade later, on the recommendation of the representative of the Spanish crown, Jose Estacheri, the first excavations in the area of ​​Palenque finally began (Eggebrecht 2013:408). They were led by the royal architect Antonio Bernasconi, whose drawings and reports reached Spain many years later (Ibid.:408). As early as in 1786, Jose Estacheri received further instructions to retrieve the artifacts from Palenque and undertake further excavations on site (Ibid.:408).

It was the time of the very first steps of archaeology, though completely different from how it is understood today; it was more likely a hunt for lost treasures than systematic studies of ancient cultures (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164).

Detail of a relief at the Palace drawn by Ricardo Almendáriz during the Del Rio expedition in 1787. Ricardo Almendáriz – Library of Congress (1787). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Audiencia consequently instructed the officer, Antonio del Rio, and the cartoonist, Ricardo Almendariz, to go to the site and explore the ruins (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Unfortunately, contemporary “research methods” of pioneers in archaeology left much to be desired, not only in Mesoamerica but everywhere in the world; after breaking through the dense tangle of the forest, Antonio del Rio ripped away some of the city’s architectural sculptures and artifacts from, using axes, pickaxes, and hand-picked spikes (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164). In this way, thirty-two items, including the so-called Madrid Stela, were handed over to the Audiencia along with the drawings and accounts (Eggebrecht 2013:409; Von Däniken 1991:164). In Spain, however, no one took any interest in such acquired treasures and the results of the expedition were not even published (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). It was only in 1882 that an inexplicable copy of the original Antonio del Rio’s accounts was translated into English and published in the form of a small booklet in London (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). Although it did not arouse much interest at first, it was this position that much later attracted the ruins’ greatest American explorers, John Llyod Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165).

Successive amateurs of the ruins

In the meantime, further research continued at Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410). The site itself had attracted many fascinating characters, including travellers and explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

Johann Friedrich von Waldeck, Foto von Charles Reutlinger 1873. Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Johann Friedrich von Waldeck” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among them, there were Guillermo Dupaix (1746-1818), following the orders of the King of Spain, and cartoonist Jose Luciano Castagnada (Eggebrecht 2013:410). They came to Palenque in 1807, just before the riots that led to the independence of Mexico and other parts of Central America in 1820 (Ibid.:410). However, further studies conducted by the researchers had long been kept in a drawer in the Mexican capital before being published in Europe in the 1830s (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165). During this time, however, yet many travellers visited Palenque; those were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who came there in 1816, and Colonel Juan Galindo (1802-1840) (really John of Ireland), who was a governor of the Guatemalan province of Petan (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). In addition, the latter was a passionate adventurer, traveller and archaeologist, and the London Literary Gazette even described the Colonel in 1831 as an actual discoverer of Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:169).

A new dweller of casas de piedra

However, the decisive role in the history of the discoveries of the Maya city was primarily played by a brilliant character, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875), who was said to have been a French count, an antiquarian painter and draftsman (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). Considered mad in many circles, Von Waldeck was possibly associated with a self-proclaimed group of early Americanists who argued that Mesoamerican culture had stemmed from the ancient East, spanning from Egypt to India (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

The so-called Temple of the Count, located in the north of Palenque, beside the North Group of temples. The temple was called after Palenque’s explorer, Johann Friedrich von Waldeck (1766-1875), who was known as a French count. He worked and lived in Palenque for over a decade. The Temple had become his dwelling in the city. Photo by Bernard DUPONT (2020). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In 1821, the count met the English publisher of the above-mentioned Captain del Rio, who asked Waldeck to illustrate the book (Von Däniken 1991:164-165). The presented records completely captured Waldeck’s imagination, and in 1822 he went to Mexico, whose government gave him permission to conduct research in Palenque (Ibid.:165). Since the ancient Mayans left, he had probably been the first man, and certainly the first European, who inhabited one of the casas de piedra of Palenque (Ibid.:167). Today, his dwelling on site is jokingly called the ‘temple of the count’ (Ibid.:167). During his two-year stay among the ruins, Von Waldeck dedicated Palenque not only all his time, talent as a draftsman and researcher, but also his fortune and health (Ibid.:167-168). He was constantly fighting with the tropical climate, the stuffiness and the threat of malaria, including clouds of mosquitoes actually causing it (Ibid.:167-168). During this period, he defended his fortress against both looters and curious tourists (Ibid.:167-168).

Maya ruins of Palenque, Chiapas, in 1840, by Frederick Catherwood. Palenque had always appealed to the imagination of adventurers. Catherwood’s lithographs, although they show architectural elements in a romantic perspective, yet they reflect the Mayan city with remarkable precision and accuracy. The Palace. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Catherwood Palenque Palace Courtyard” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Nevertheless, he himself was eventually accused by the Mexican government of stealing national treasures (Von Däniken 1991:168). Disappointed, the count left his beloved city and in 1838 published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province du Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836, as a result of his studies (Ibid.:168).

Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

Finally, among the next Palenque enthusiasts, there were other contemporary globetrotters, John Lloyd Stephens, and a cartoonist, Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:168-169). In 1839, they both set off on a journey to Mexico and its ruins, about which Dupaix, Galindo and Von Waldeck had so enthusiastically written so far (Von Däniken 1991:169). The researchers wanted to know what kind of culture could have been the author of similar ruins lost in the jungle (Ibid.:169). At first, they did not think that the monumental palaces were the product of ancient ancestors of the Indians living in Mesoamerica (Ibid.:169). Moreover, at a time when Stephens and Catherwood were researching this mysterious culture, neither its writing nor its calendar was known yet, and there was no idea of ​​its unique character, typical of the cultures of the studied region (Ibid.:171).

Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, Stephens recognized Palenque as an impressive legacy of people who without any outside contacts or without foreign teachers, allowed their culture to flourish in its uniqueness (Von Däniken 1991:171). During two long and adventurous journeys, the both researchers visited forty-four ruined cities, and their on-site drawings, including sixty pages on Palenque, were published between 1841 and 1843 and gained great popularity both among ordinary readers and in the world of science (Ibid.:170). Moreover, due to his four-volume publication, Incident of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), John Lloyd Stephens not only laid the foundations for a systematic study of the past, but also provided a picture of the Mayan life of mid-nineteenth century, which to this day remains unparalleled (Eggebrecht 2013:411).

Palenque then and now

What former travellers and explorers found in Palenque had long gone with them. Today, a tourist driving up to the restored ruins of the city by an air-conditioned coach or a taxi has no idea of terrible hardships and dangers that ancient explorers, like Stephens and Catherwood, had to face among the ruins centuries ago (Von Däniken 1991:170). The virgin dense forest was then full of moisture and was steaming; casas de piedra seemed completely lost in a thick and marshy jungle (Ibid.:170). With time, dense coils of vegetation had revealed a scrap of secrets of the city, and the ruins were gradually released from their envious embrace.

Currently, the center is restored and made available to visitors. Although it is still surrounded by a tropical forest, which all the time makes a great impression on tourists with its micro-climate flora, it is much thinned out and the wilderness has been visibly tamed with well-arranged paths and alleys for visitors, strolling around the site. The region itself has been dominated by a rather agricultural landscape; as a result, where there was once a dense jungle yet in the mid-twentieth century, now there are vast pastures and farmlands (Ibid.:183).

Wandering for clues

Beauties of the tropical forest can be still experienced along the way through Palenque archaeological site with its suburb ruins plunged into the foliage, and further on the path leading to a small museum nearby, called the Museo de Sitio de Palenque “Alberto Ruz Lhuillier”. The museum itself is worth seeing, as there are both replicas and genuine artifacts from the site, provided that many finds from the region have been taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Lonely Planet 2021; Monsieur Mictlan 2018).

It was already long after my tour of the Mayan city, where I could plunge into the shadow of the jungle to feel at least a bit of the atmosphere experienced once by the nineteenth century’s explorers.

It was also a good moment to analyse my “finds”, collect them and revise by their proper arrangement in my head. Referring in my thoughts to what I had heard and read about the site and the Maya themselves, it turned out to be a rather difficult task to put all the elements together in a coherent way. Suddenly, I got an uncomfortable feeling that a holistic view and logic were out of this game.

Featured image: View of the two smaller temples of the Mayan city of Palenque; the Temple of the Sun on the left and the fragments of the Temple XIV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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Catherwood F. (1840). “Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior”. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fSbtP5>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2021].

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Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).