Tag Archives: Nature

Back in Time between Peatlands and Cliffs

Over fifty years ago, “a team of archaeologists from UCD, [in Ireland], led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. [The] link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists [keep returning] to the village to progress the work [that was started by the] local man, Professor Caulfield” (McNulty 2008).

Professor Seamus Caulfield at fieldwork in the wetlands of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Again in Belderrig

Our team of students reached Belderrig in the very late evening. It was a part of a residential fieldtrip to Mayo, organized by the School of Archaeology, between the 6th and 8th October, 2017. Our destination, Belderrig or rather “Béal Deirg […] is a Gaeltacht village and townland in County Mayo (“Belderrig” 2019), in the north-western Ireland. The journey started at our University in Dublin and took nearly five hours. Factually, “coming to Belderrig is travelling back 1000 million years and more. [As] a rural area located in a region rich in historical and archaeological heritage, […] it is a [gift] to the geologist, archaeologist and the botanist” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

Archaeologists and students at pet bogs in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having reached our destination, we were first directed to the local pub to warm up and have dinner. Oh yes, those hearty Irish foods with dark beer are so good, especially on rainy and windy days of autumn, like that one. When we finally finished, the night had already fallen down, and it was completely dark when we finally went to bed in one of the cottages accommodating students.

Rewarding experience

Next morning, I got up earlier and went out for a short walk. The smell of salt air was overwhelming. Outside, there was waiting “the largely undisturbed openness of the countryside and the closeness of the wild Atlantic that stands in contrast with small cosy [whitewashed] cottages with their fireplaces. […] Once in Belderrig you forget traffic, haste, stress, depression” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

After our self-made and quick breakfast, Professor Caulfield guided us to the open fields of the area to examine the site trench with an excavated section of a bog and the lay-out of the ancient walls. It was creepy cold and windy out there. And foggy damp, which is actually typical of wetland, especially in autumn. Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. The only way to excavate was cutting through the topsoil with a sort of sharp shovel, driven into the ground with enough force to cut through the entire layer. Our experienced teachers showed us how to do it and it was fun for all of us. Still the conditions of archaeological work in Ireland are quite hard: bog water is extremely cold and with the mixture of strong wind the weather gives you an unpleasant feeling of coldness in your body. Waterproof clothes and wellingtons do not mean bog-proof so one can get completely soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, the sites are so beautiful in Mayo, you can easily forget about your wet clothes and just enjoy the field trip.

The site trench with an excavated section of a bog in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Archaeological digging is a quite complicated process but it is also a rewarding experience. Also each time it is different as it depends on where you do particular research: in the bogs or in bone dry sand. One time you plunge in water, the other you catch sunburn. Every time, however, it’s very exciting to feel and touch the history. This is one of the reasons I love archaeology.

6,000-year-old site

“When the Celts arrived in Ireland, the island had been inhabited for over 7 000 years. These pre-Celts have left no written records: they were literary pre-historic. But they have left extensive archaeological evidence, of which Newgrange is the most celebrated example”

Laurence Flanagan (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts.
Wetlands in the are of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In July, 2008, an archaeological team “recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. […] Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated” (McNulty 2008).

Fieldwork in Belderrig…

A significant part of the archaeological survey in Belderrig is the study of the ancient stone-walled field systems. “The lack of good agricultural land in the […] region is one of the main reasons why the structures stayed relatively intact under the bog for [the millennia]. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how [they] were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape” (McNulty 2008).

For years, the site has consequently become a subject of one of the most important archaeological “study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region [in around 4 000 BC]. The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields” (McNulty 2008).

Archaeological evidence from the coast

We walked slowly along the rough seashore being followed by the sound of the “Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier” (McNulty 2008).

Open spaces between the bogs and the coastline in Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is truly “a beautiful sprawling coastal area, scenically located adjacent to the […] Ocean between Ballycastle and Belmullet. [It] offers a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. […] From [there we had] fine views as far as Porturlin and Portacloy to the north west, [with] the Stags of Broadhaven [rising] majestically in the distance. On a clear day one can see the Sligo coastline and the cliffs of Killybegs and Teelin, [in County Donegal].

The Belderrig coasts.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Belderrig Cliffs also contain some of the most spectacular coastal geology [and archaeology] in Ireland” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020): “[the erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools” (McNulty 2008).

Megalith on the way

Walking across the prehistoric mountainous landscape, we came across a megalithic structure, whose stone elements were protruding out from the ground.

The region between Ballycastle and Belmullet offering a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In prehistoric architecture, a MEGALITH is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BC.

Toppr (2019); see Lucie-Smith (2003), p. 136.
Buried wedge tomb in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This one found in the filed, however, was rather small in size. Accordingly, it was a lesser-type of megalithic graves, known as wedge tombs, commonly found in Ireland. Wedge tombs look like stone boxes of different size with a sloping roof slab (Byrne 2020). “They are somewhat similar in appearance to some portal dolmens. Like the other kinds of monuments, they would have originally been covered with a cairn of stones” (Ibid.).

Cliffs of the Atlantic Way, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Céide Fields

Between Belderrig and Ballycastle, archaeologists discovered an extensive Neolithic field systems (Jackman 2018: site 68). Following the main Atlantic Way, we were travelling there on our last day of the field trip in County Mayo.

A pine tree 4000 years old from Belderrig. Photo taken in the visitor centre. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before we reached the site, we stopped on the cliffs, and like from a viewing platform, we were looking for a while at the rolling bog land of Céide Fields (High Fields) (Fagan, Durrani 2016:281). They were impressive. “During the Neolithic period the climate would have been both drier and warmer than now” (Jackman 2018: site 68). Millennia ago, the Céide Fields were covered in forests of pine, birch, hazel and oak (Ibid.: site 68). Once they were felled by Neolithic farmers, the landscape was used for agriculture (Ibid.: site 68). However, “[over] millennia the climate has changed, and become both colder and wetter, allowing for the development of the blanket bog that has sealed and preserved much of this fascinating ancient landscape” (Ibid.: site 68). It is precisely Neolithic and dated back as far as to around 3 500 BC (Lavin 2011:111; Kelly 2016:119; “Céide Fields” 2020). “Radiocarbon dating for a hearth beside the remains of a house confirms [such a dating of the site, namely], that humans lived [there] a few centuries before [the third millennium BC]” (Lavin 2011:111).

One of the walkways running parallel to the Neolithic field wall at the Céide Fields. Source: Jackman (2018: site 68).

Today, the Céide Fields cover remote coastal area and “[consist] of megalithic burial monuments, dwelling houses and enclosures within an integrated system of stone walls, all of which are spread over 12 square kilometres. […] Many of its features are preserved intact beneath blanket peat that is over 4 metres deep in places. The significance of the site lies in the fact that it is the most extensive Stone Age monument [in Ireland with the oldest known field systems] in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe” (Kelly 2016:119; see “Céide Fields” 2020). The Céide Fields also provide an actual image of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago, so it is better to understand how the Neolithic agriculture worked (Lavin 2011:111).

Another megalithic tomb

Strong gusts of wind coming from the Atlantic Ocean kept pushing us forward across the Fields. Apart from the remains of the prehistoric past scattered all over, we met a few clusters of sheep looking at us curiously, as if judging our rights of being present in their territory.

Behy Court Tomb in the middle of the Céide Fields. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are wooden walkways over the fields to make visitors feel more comfortable while walking and to avoid getting wet. No need to say, we deliberately gave up such facilities to reach real treasures of the site, walking directly through the bog, beyond the tourist track.

One of the most significant landmarks of the Fields was the megalithic monument, known as Behy Court Tomb. It is situated just in the middle of the Céide Fields, still partially buried in the bog peat. As explained by our professors, it was initially described as a passage tomb as it features an entrance passageway leading to the cruciform gallery inside it, which is an important characteristic of this group of Neolithic tombs (Earth is Mysterious 2019-2020).  Court tombs usually have neither an entrance passage or a cruciform gallery but an elongated rectangular burial chamber with the exedra or forecourt (Ibid.). As the latter element has been also found at Behy Tomb, it could be simply described as a hybrid variant of court and passage tombs. Still, it is usually defined as a court tomb in the professional literature on the subject.

Broken Fort

Before heading off back to Dublin, we were yet planning to visit the nearby site of Downpatrick Head, which is strongly associated with Saint Patrick and his mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.

The modern statue of Saint Patrick at the headland.

Saint Patrick is actually believed to have carried his ministry in the north of Ireland, particularly in County Mayo. As some local folklore stories go, one of the pre-Christian gods or pagan priests, Crom Cruach resided on the headland (modern Downpatrick Head) and kept holy fires burning continuously (Makem 1997). “He dominated the whole area and [people] feared him. […] Saint Patrick was travelling in the area and approached the point of the headland. Crom Cruach rose up against him. The saint picked up a rock, carved a cross on it, lifted it with both hands above his head and roaring out a prayer, hurled the rock with great force into the [holy] fire. There was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. When the smoke and confusion cleared, the point of the headland had split off and was sitting out in the water with Crom Cruach still on it. He was destined to remain there until he died, which [was not] too long afterwards. According to the story, he suffered horribly, being eaten to death by midges” (Ibid.).

Very similar stories about the beginning of Christianity in Ireland, especially saying of the holy fire being extinguished by Saint Patrick, also circulate in County Meath. Similarly, they also refer to Saint Patrick’s fight with ancient priests and pagan gods on the Hill of Slane.

The beautiful legend told in County Mayo additionally offers an explanation for the origins of the sea stack of Dún Briste (Gaelic for Broken Fort) (Makem 1997). It is a single large rock at Downpatrick, protruding out of the ocean at the height of forty-five meters. Once joined to the mainland, now being lashed by foaming ocean, it is one of the most scenic landmarks of County Mayo and Wild Atlantic Way.

Spectacular cliffs at Downpatrick. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’, as it was known [there]), a lookout post was constructed [at Downpatrick] to keep watch for shipping or submarines that might stray into Ireland’s neutral waters and a large EIRE sign was created from white stones to warn aircraft away from crossing into Irish airspace” (Jackman 2018: site 70).

Private tour

Sitting over a cup of coffee inside the visitor centre at Céide Fields, I admitted to Professor Caulfield that I have been strongly interested in the studies on early Christianity in Ireland, once conducted by Françoise Henry (16 June 1902 – 10 February 1982), who was a scholar of early Irish art, archaeologist, and art historian at University College Dublin.

Doonfeeny standing stone with early
symbols of Christianity.

Henry was also a strong supporter of a thesis of Coptic influences on Pre-Romanesque art in Ireland. I knew Henry was studying early Christian symbols on prehistoric slab stones on the island of Inishkea North in County Mayo, where she kept returning between 1937 and 1950. Although the island was too far to get there, Professor Caulfield offered to guide me to another nearby site with cross-slabs, which was also on the way to our next scheduled destination. I enthusiastically agreed and drove to the site together with my guide, while the rest of the group was supposed to wait for us at Downpatrick.

Doonfeeny standing stone

Doonfeeny is a short five-minute drive from Céide Fields. We simply headed west on the road for a little over 2,5 kilometres and then turn right up a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of it (Jackman 2018: site 69). We followed this road for approximately 500 metres till we saw the tall stone pillar in the graveyard on one side and the ruins of a church on the other (Ibid.). We pulled in the car and started climbing up the hill to reach the slender trunk of stone soaring over the landscape.

Doonfeeny pillar in the graveyard. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

“The area around Doonfeeny is an important early medieval landscape, with a number of ringforts and archaeological monuments” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Probably the most outstanding is our object of interest, the square-sectioned, leaning pillar “that stands proudly on a green hill overlooking the Atlantic” (Ibid.). The stone is also called a Menhir or Cloch Fada, which means ‘Long Stone’ (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

MENHIR, from the Breton words ‘men’ stone, and ‘hir’ is a long, a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site.

Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).

Although Doonfeeny stone is upright and fixed to the ground on its own, it does not look like a huge boulder as its shape is elongated and slender. “Folklore has it that this stone is on alignments with clefts in neighbouring hills and solar positions” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

What was its original function?

“The Ordnance Survey letters (1838) describe the stone in the following manner: ‘A stone 18’ or 20’high and 9” thick, fixed in the ground and inkling to the East, on the N.W. side of which is cut the form of a cross about 2’ long, with a small cross 10” long and some ornamental incisions under it’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

Doonfeeny stone with the so-called Maltese cross, below the Latin cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Doonfeeny stone “was likely to have first been erected in the Bronze Age, perhaps to mark a territorial boundary, or possibly to mark the area as sacred” (Jackman 2018: site 69). The pillar is also called the Ogham stone as it boasts signs of ogham inscriptions. Ogham writing, apparently called after Ogmios, the Celtic God of writing, was the original “Irish alphabet used on monuments from 300 A.D. to 700 A.D.” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020) (see Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross). Unfortunately, the ogham inscription incised on the stone are today mostly time-worn and cannot be deciphered (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

“There once existed a tradition in parts of the west of Ireland that some of these standing stones were used as ‘Fertility [Objects]’ by women seeking to get pregnant, or alternatively, as a primitive form of contraception, and it is recounted that women were known to prostrate themselves before these stones all the while praying that ‘they might be delivered from the perils of childbirth’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020). “Although we may never know for certain the true intention of those who erected the stone, it still undeniably creates a powerful visual signpost in the landscape. it stands some [five metres] tall, making it [the second highest standing stone] in Ireland” (Jackman 2018: site 69; see Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

On the verge of Christianity

Doonfeeny cross with Latin cross (above) and Maltese or Greek cross (below).

As much as other prehistoric sites, Doonfeeny pillar “was appropriated in the early days of Christianity, and two crosses were carved into the stone, a single line Latin cross with forked ends and horizontal base placed over a double-line Maltese type cross with a curved ‘birds-head-design’ line [at its foot]” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Some interpret the symbol of ‘birds-head-design’ as the wheel and sun-burst that possibly would symbolise the Resurrection (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020). “The crosses may date to as early as the sixth century or seven century, or perhaps even earlier” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Two forts and a killed swine

The site’s information boards says that the church ruins in Doonfeeny Churchyard date back to the seventh century (Sacred Landscapes 2020). Nevertheless, it was overbuilt on the site previously occupied by an ancient church, probably from the sixth century (Ibid.). The Ordnance Survey Letters (1838) and the board also inform that to the south of the church, there is a cemetery surrounded with a fosse in the form of a fort, which is Dún (Fort) giving its name to the parish: Dún Fhíne (Fine’s Fort) (Ibid.).

The layout of the Four Maols’ Fort. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

After the information on the board, north of the parish church there is an earthen work, called ‘The Fairy Fort of Doonfeny’. In fact, these are the remains of Rath Ui Dubhda, standing for ‘O’ Dowd’s Fort (Sacred Landscapes 2020). As a local story goes, the Four Maols, known as the infamous murderers, built the original fort there, which they dedicated by killing a swine (Ibid.). This pagan act was apparently inspired by a pro-Christian tradition, where the animal was a substituted for human sacrifice (Ibid.). The board ads that the Four Maols’ grave can be seen in Ballina, a town in north County Mayo (Ibid.). The grave is well recognizable as it is marked by a dolmen (Ibid.).

Saint Patrick again

From the site  we could see Dún Briste at Downpatrick Head (Jackman 2018: site 69).

One of the so-called blow holes in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It is enticing to consider that the ‘real’ Patrick may have seen this tall stone with his own eyes. It is not a great distance to Foghill, believed to be Foclut, the area that he described in his writings where he was held as a slave as a young man. The stone would have certainly already been standing for thousands of years before [St] Patrick’s time, and may have still been a distinctive marker on the landscape. If a young Patrick did see the stone, did he know what it symbolised? Or was it just another unknowable symbol in the strange pagan land in which he found himself?” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Legend-encrusted blow-holes

When we finally caught up with the rest of the group reaching atop the visitor centre at Downpatrick, we were rewarded with “a wonderful view of this ancient and sacred landscape stretching as it does off down by the majestic Céide cliffs and across the foam to historic Downpatrick Head with its awesome, legend-encrusted blow-holes and the mighty storied sea-pillar of Dún Briste” (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020).

Of the growling blow-holes we had already come across in the area of Belderrig, which are called Poille Beaga – ‘Small Holes’, the one on the headland of Downpatrick, Poll na Seantuinne or Poll na Sean Toinne, meaning ‘the Hole of the Old Wave’ (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020) “is by far the largest, most impressive and the one most associated with the history and folklore of the place” (Ibid.). Although they are all carved naturally by thousands of years of marine erosion, there are a few legends ascribing these chasms more supernatural origins (Ibid.).

Legendary Ireland

Such stories are ubiquitous in whole Ireland. They may have appeared when ancient people were looking for a reason of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, in many cases, they may directly refer to historical circumstances or characters who had fired the imagination (Harpur, Westwood 1997:6).

Picturesque cliffs between Belderrig and Ballycastle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).

Featured image: Dun Briste at Downpatrick, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland


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Jackman N. (2018) Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Guide to its Historic Treasures. Cork: The Collins Press.

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Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis

The definition of Sacred Geography “may be broadly [understood] as the regional [or global] geographic locating of sacred places according to various […] factors” (Gray 1982-2020). Accordingly, “certain geographical features and areas figure more prominently than others on the sacred map” (Forbes-Boyte 2011). Were they all chosen by a mere accident or were they selected for a purpose?

“The World Grid”. Photo by Misztika (2020). Ley-vonalak. Source: Ley-vonalak (2020).

The layout of such sites may be perceived as a sacred code created for unknown reasons by ancient civilizations. All around the world, mankind built extraordinary structures on powerful sites, and although they can be separated by large distances and thousands of years, they are simultaneously interconnected all over the planet by invisible paths, similar to latitudinal and longitudinal lines, and  commonly known as the world grid (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Amateur archaeologist, Alfred Watkins, discovered in 1921 that ancient features and structures across the English landscape appear to be arranged on straight ley lines (Ibid.). In 1925, he published his remarks in the book The Old Straight Track, where he proposes that ancient monuments are linked by a network of intersecting straight and measurable tracks (Ibid.). Such sites are usually geographically higher than other areas around them, and some, especially in England and France, feature prominent Christian monuments but usually constructed over more ancient ruins (Burns 2011). In his work, Watkins further theorizes that ancient landmarks along ley lines were deliberately constructed by men for the purpose of lining the trade routes, which is questionable, as many of such sites are naturally situated in the areas difficult for being simply reached by a human-being, such as mounts, islands and bogs (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Some other researchers believe that ley lines are geomagnetic and are points of the Earth’s energies, and subsequently marked by man-made sacral constructions (Burns 2011).

According to independent authors and researchers, there is a notable alignment of sacred and ancient sites, called the Apollo/St Michael Axis, stretching from the shores of Ireland south to Greece and Israel. The GIS project I has been involved in is to illustrate that Line, which crosses the sanctuaries dedicated to both, the Christian Archangel, Michael and the Greek god, Apollo. By using different tools, such as hillshade and viewshed, its major aim is to investigate if the sites are geographically related, as the authors claim, and the Axis itself is more than just an enigmatic coincidence.

Discovery of the Apollo/St Michael’s Axis

Jean Richer, an eminent French scholar living in Greece in 1950s, was engaged in the study of literature and mythology. He was also interested in the holy character (Genius Loci) of landscapes, especially in terms of ancient architecture. According to him, the sacred geometry had been once reflected in temples and monuments built on significant sites (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9). “His studies led him to suspect that there may have been some underlying plan that determined the form and positioning of temple architecture in relation to the topography of the land, and for this idea he coined the term Sacred Geography” (Ibid.:7).

While visiting ancient sites in Greece, Jean Richer  posed several questions: why are certain temples situated on top of inaccessible mounts or in isolated plains? Is their location a matter of a coincidence or a well-planed positioning? And finally: what factors did decide about their site? The same questions came to Richer’s mind while he was visiting megalithic monuments of Celtic Brittany. Is there any relations between the Celtic and classical landscapes? (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Apollo’s Line

“Apollo Citharoedus (“Apollo with a kithara”), Musei
Capitolini, Rome”.
Photo by Ricardo André Frantz
(2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Apollo” (2020). In. Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the process of his research, the French scholar discovered that at least three of the most significant Greek temples and oracles connected with the ancient god, Apollo, were in direct alignment, and all of them lying on a straight line (Michell 2000: xiii).

  1. Delos – Apollo’s legendary birthplace,
  2. Delphi – main sanctuary of the same Greek god,
  3. Athens – the centre of the goddess Athena, with Apollo’s altar in the cave at the Acropolis (Richer 1994:1-16, 29-36, 120-125, 209).

Later, two other sites have been added to that group of Apollo’s sanctuaries (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Left: Surya on a quadriga, Bodh Gaya relief, India. Right: Classical example of Phoebus Apollo on quadriga (1870). Photo: anonymous, 19th century. Drawing: Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893). Report For The Year 1871-72 Volume III, Plate XXVII, and description p.97. Bodh Gaya quadriga relief of Surya and Classical example of Phoebus Apollo on quadriga. A coin of Plato of Bactria (145-130 BCE), Ai Khanoum. Public domain. Source: “Apollo” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

4. Kerkyra – Corfu, with the so-called Secret Temple of Apollo, 5. Rhodes – the island of the Sun God, Helios/Phoebus, also identified with Apollo (Richer 1994:22, 39, 94, 201, 122, 297; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).

Most prominent of all Apollo’s sites is the temple of Delphi, in Greece. After the Greek mythology, the god took his heavenly chariot twice a year to travel from Delphi to the faraway land in the north (Burns 2011).

St Michael’s Line

Richer also discovered that the Apollo’s Line extends north beyond ancient sites of Greece to pass through most ancient pre-Christian and Christian sites in Italy, France, Great Britain and Ireland, all connected, in turn, with the Christian figure of Archangel Michael (Michell 2000: xiii).

Thirty-sixth tapestry of the Apocalypse tapestry: “Saint Michael fighting the Dragon” by Hennequin de Bruges and Robert Poisson (1375 and 1382). Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

These encompassed such spectacular sites as, starting from the south:

  1. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  2. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. St. Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  5. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11-12).

Seven Mounts

Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). Source: Catholic Herald (2017).

After the Book of Enoch, which is the apocrypha to the Bible, “St. Michael appears to be a protector of [seven] mountains and the Tree of Life that is located on one of [them]” (Kosloski 2019). According to the same tradition, “an imaginary line links seven different monasteries from Ireland to Israel, [which are all dedicated to the Archangel] (Ibid.). Usually, it is called the Sacred Line/Axis of St. Michael, St. Michael’s Line/Axis or the Sword of St. Michael (Ibid.). The latter is clearly a reference to Saint Michael as the Archangel with the sword and His victorious fight with the devil, usually represented as a dragon speared with the sword under His feet (Ibid.).

According to such a theory, the Axis revolves around the following seven ancient monasteries: (Kosloski 2019).

  1. Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland),
  2. Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
  3. Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
  4. Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
  5. Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
  6. Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece – in the north-west of Rhodes),
  7. Stella Maris Monastery (Mount Carmel, Israel) (Kosloski 2019).

However, the number of sites varies by tradition (Kosloski 2019) and after some other sources there are over thirty such places related to the same Line/Axis.

The Final Point

“St. Michael” by Raphael (c. 1504–1505). Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although the seventh and ultimate location on the Line in the south, namely Stella Maris Monastery or the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is definitely associated with Saint Michael’s Sword, “[there] doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the Mount Carmel [and the Archangel]” (Michael 2018). Mount Carmel may be considered as the closing point because of its alignment and topography, and also because it is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Pagan worship of Baal was replaced by that of Jehovah, and His Prophet, Elijah, triumphant over the pagan priest is represented just in the same way as the Archangel killing the devil-dragon (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366; Kosloski 2019 “How Mount Carmel …”).

Michael casts out rebel angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré or John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Source: “War in Heaven” (2020). Public domain. {{PD-1925}} In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, if “the curvature of the earth [is taken] into account, the [Line] ends at the ‘Gates of Hell’ at the foot of Mount Hermon” (Michael 2018), situated between Syria and Lebanon and north to Mount Carmel. The Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) describes the legendary Mount Hermon as the place where fallen angels descended to earth or, after the Revelation (Rev.12:7–10), they were cast down from Heaven by Saint Michael and His angelic army. According to other sources, however, the last point of the Axis should be Megiddo Tell (in Greek known as Armageddon – the location of the final battle between the good and evil), lying close to Mount Carmel (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366) Consequently, “the remarkable alignment of all the [places] is perceived as a sign, pointing to an apocalyptic battle between St. Michael and [the devil]” (Kosloski 2019).

“Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon” by Master of Saint Verdiana (c. 1380 -1389). Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The given above sites are all said to be located in a straight line and are either “associated with apparitions of [the Archangel or] ancient [sanctuaries] of devotion to the heavenly messenger (Kosloski 2019).” .

Two key characters

The Apollo-Saint Michael Axis “thus formed a corridor of sanctuaries that ran right through western Europe, linking the ancient Greek world to some of the most prominent centres of the Christian religion” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1).

“Apollo Killing the Python” by Hendrik Goltzius (after) (Holland, Mülbracht, (1558-1617). Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What do these two characters, pagan Apollo and Christian Archangel Michael, have in common? Obviously, they share the same attributes and associations. They are both connected with the symbol of the Sun, and their legends give the same archetypal type of a dragon’s slayer; whereas St Michael kills the devil in the disguise of the dragon, Apollo slays the famous Python, the serpent guardian of the Delphic oracle. Sometimes, Archangel Michael is even related to as the Christian counterpart of the Greek god of the sun, and furthermore his name itself means: “He who is like God” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-4).

Alignments – General Characterisation of Sites and their Coordinates

The first English publication on Richer’s discovery took place in 1991 by Christine Rhone and John Michell (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12) who observed that “the first thing one wants to know about this line is its degree of accuracy when it is projected across the surface of the globe. Richer defines it as a line of constant bearing with the meridian, a so called rhumb line, which can be represented on Mercator’s projection of the globe by a straight line drawn between Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel” (Ibid.).

“Saint Michael fighting a dragon” by Lambert de
Saint-Omer, c.1448 (vellum), in Chantilly, Musée
Condé. From: Shuker, K. (2006). Public domain
(modified). {{PD-US}}. Wikipedia.

In order to investigate if the theory of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis is correct, the very first step is to use ArchGis Map in order to mark the points of the sites and check if they are aligned according to the direction described by Jean Richer, namely of 60 degrees NW-SE. If this alignment exists, the successive points should be placed on the same line. It is to visually verify whether by using a map projection, all the points are represented along the straight line. Here the first problem occurs: although the sites associated with St. Michael can be accurately marked as points on a map and their coordinates can be easily found, Apollo’s sites are not so evident in this case. Unlike Saint Michael who resides on particular mounts or mountains, Apollo is associated with the whole islands; on some of them, there is more than one temple dedicated to this solar god. On Rhodes, for instance, there may be two Apollo’s sites; one is in the north, in Rhodes (the island’s capital), and the second possibly in Camiros (Kameiros), situated around forty kilometres to the south-west of the City of Rhodes. Yet the most prominent of the two seems to be the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes (see Island of the Sun). The authors also point to Camiros and Rhodes but additionally identify Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:8, 343-346).

The initial lines (Figure 1 and 2), which have been drawn by means of GIS, include both: the sites of Saint Michael and Apollo, from the first point (Skellig Michael) to the last one given by the authors, that is to say, Mount Carmel in Israel. If we take into consideration all the Archangel’s sites including Saint Michael’s Monastery on the Greek island of Symi, the line would go slightly astray to the north from the line of Apollo’s sanctuaries, which starts itself from the Greek island of Corfu.

Figure1: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis with the starting and final points. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the coordinates slightly differ in several cases, the straight line consequently breaks at some points. To reach a relative compromise, the coordinates of Apollo’s islands, and not particular points with the temples, have been chosen for the sake of this project.

60 Degrees 11 Minutes West of North

As it is illustrated by the Figure 1, the Axis goes across the planet almost 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:13). Nevertheless, Richer (1998) admits that “each segment may not be oriented perfectly in the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Although there are differences, according to the scholar, they are “minimal and compensate for one another, so that the direction as a whole is indeed very close to this theoretic angle” (Ibid.), as it is shown in the Figure 2 (below).

Figure 2: The Apollo/St Michael’s Axis. GIS Project. Copyright©Archaeotravel. LineAxis – the line running across the sites (through all the points). Linia archeo – the line joining the starting and ending points. St Michael’s Axis – the line joining the mounts dedicated to St. Michael. Apollo’s Axis – the line joining the temples dedicated to Apollo.

As it is mentioned above, St Michael’s Line joins with Apollo’s between Monte Sant’Angelo and the island of Corfu. There the Line seems slightly broken, while it is moving south and changing into Apollo’s Axis (red line of “LineAxis” indicates such breaks). Nevertheless, if we draw a line that omits Apollo’s sites on its way and goes directly from Monte Sant’Angelo, in Italy, further to the site of the Archangel on Symi, in Greece, it would keep a more straight axis (Figure 3). In this case, however, it would not finish exactly at Mont Carmel, situated to the south, but more likely it would reach closer to the point of Mont Hermon.

“Archangel Michael Panormitis.” Source: Fred and
Bev’s Odyssey. (2014)

What is also quite interesting is the fact that the Monastery of Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece) was built around the fifth century AD “over the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the pagan god Apollo” (Sanidopoulos 2010). Accordingly, at least one of the sites of Saint Michael overlaps with an ancient site dedicated to Apollo. It is also observed that a few sites of the cult of Apollo or of Saint Michael are clustered around in the proximity of the main Line, yet not being directly crossed by its axis. For example, on Symi, most of the monasteries and churches scattered around the island are dedicated to Saint Michael (Sanidopoulos 2010). The same phenomenon appears in France, where the Archangel is venerated as the patron saint. Similar multiplicity of Apollo’s temples is noticed on the Greek islands.

To sum up, although some sites are a little bit astray from the exact direction of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis, it is the result of natural orientation of the landscape, where the temples/monasteries were located. As it is underlined above, another issue concerns the exact coordinates of the sites in question; on Rhodes, there may be more sites associated with Apollo/Helios, and thus the coordinates may differ respective of the chosen site. Furthermore, although some of the sites do not exactly lie on Apollo/St. Michael Line, they all run along the straight line drawn between the first and last points, which can be graphically illustrated and analysed by means of the GIS map, providing that all the coordinates are adequate. Finally as John Michell and Christine Rhone (1998) conclude: “Bearing in mind the distance from the west of Ireland to the Holy Land, some 2 500 miles, [around 4 024 km], and the fact that many of the sites are natural landmarks, sanctifies by nature rather than by human choice, the straight path on which they all stand is indeed narrow” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Nonetheless, it can be observed that the closer the Line a particular site is located, the more significant it seems in terms of the cult and heritage.

“The Legendary Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbour” (1886) Painting by Ferdinand Knab. Included in “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” by Ferdinand Knab. Public domain; {{PD-US}}. In: Wikimedia Commons.

Chosen Points on Apollo/St. Michael Axis

Richer’s study has been continued by several researchers, among others, the authors of the book, entitled The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, namely Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell. According to their and Richer’s studies, the mentioned alignment of sacred sites stretches for around 2, 500 miles (4024 kilometres). It starts from the Atlantic remote coast of Ireland, and then goes across western Europe and, if extended, it reaches Mount Carmel in Israel, near the infamous Armageddon site (Megiddo) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16). Apart from the most important sites mentioned above, others also fall on this alignment (Le Mans, Bourges), or are situated nearby (Tours, Nevers, Blois, Perugia), however, still connected to the mentioned heroes. On the whole, the authors enumerate and describe over thirty sites related to Apollo/St Michael’s Axis (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).

Figure 4: Saint Michael’s Axis with the five prominent sanctuaries studied in the GIS project. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, Apollo/St Michael Axis passes across or nearby (with all the main sanctuaries in bold):

  1. Skellig Michael, Ireland,
  2. St. Michael’s Mount, UK,
  3. Mont St. Michel, France,
  4. Mayenne, France,
  5. Le Mans, France,
  6. Tours, France,
  7. Blois, France,
  8. Issoudun, France,
  9. Bourges, France,
  10. Sancoins, France,
  11. Nevers, France,
  12. Moulins, France,
  13. Digois, France,
  14. Charolles, France,
  15. St.Vincent des Pres, France,
  16. Cluny, France,
  17. Macon, France,
  18. Perouges, France,
  19. Lyons, France,
  20. Vienne, France,
  21. St. Beron, France,
  22. Bozel, France,
  23. Sacra di San Michele (Turin), Italy,
  24. San Michele (Castiglione di Garfagnana), Italy,
  25. Monte Sant Angelo (Gargano), Italy,
  26. Kerkyra, Greece,
  27. Delphi, Greece,
  28. Athens, Greece,
  29. Delos, Greece, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ),
  30. Archangel Michael of Panormitis, Symi, Greece, (Kosloski 2019),
  31. Rhodes, Greece,
  32. Mount Carmel (or nearby Armageddon), Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ) or Mount Hermon, Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).

In the GIS presentation, there is only a limited number of sites included in order to provide a more detailed description of their landscape (Figure 4). Furthermore, the project focuses particularly on Saint Michael Axis and the features of His five prominent mont-sanctuaries, in terms of their coordinates, natural location, elevation and geographical visibility.

Coordinates of the chosen Apollo/Saint Michael’s sites

As it is illustrated above, the ley St. Michael/Apollo Line breaks at some points on its way southwards, especially as it moves from the northern Saint Michael’s way to the southern Apollo’s path. However, when we separate the two ley lines and and draw them one by one, they both keep a more straight axis. It is also because they include less points on their way than when they are combined together.

Five Apollo’s sites (all in Greece) and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Apollo’s Axis with five temples on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Kerkyra – Corfu: 39,6243°N; 19,9217°E
  2. Delphi: 38.4824°N; 22.5010°E
  3. Athens: 37.9838°N; 23.7275°E
  4. Delos: 37.3963°N; 25.2689°E
  5. Acropolis of Rhodes: 36.4399 °N; 28.2106 °E

Five St Michael’s sites and their coordinates according to Google Maps:

Saint Michael’s Axis with five sanctuaries on its way. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
  1. Skellig Michael (Ireland): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W
  2. St Michael’s Mount (UK): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W      
  3. Mont St Michel (France): 48.6361°N, 1.5115°W
  4. Sacra di San Michele (Italy): 45.0964°N, 7.3422°E
  5. Monte Sant’Angelo (Italy): 44.1527°N, 10.4113°E

Geographical Features and Origins of Saint Michael’s Sites on the Axis

Local map of Saint Michael’s Mount from 1946. Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Both characters, Apollo and St. Michael, possess high rocks or islands. Although St Michael preferred rocky summits, Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis, seem to have owned the entire Greek islands: Corfu, Rhodes, Delos, Delphi, all located on the Line. Apollo’s sanctuaries are usually situated on the slopes of mountains, apparently chosen for their spiritual features. Some temples, dedicated both to Apollo and St Michael, are also set in the rocky caverns (Athens/Sacra di San Michele) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). According to Jean Richer (1994), they were placed “in the middle of nowhere, on top of inaccessible mountains or isolated in remote plains” (Ibid.:7).

Plan of the Mount Saint Michel by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc” (2020). Public domain. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Saint Michael’s sanctuaries share not only their dedication to the Archangel but also the way in which He inspired their creation, through dreams and visions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). “One obvious feature is that they are all rocky summits or mountains, […] traditionally associated with the “angel of high places” (Ibid.:13). All of them reach up not less than over 60 meters above sea level and are not easily accessible, located either some distance off the coasts or in the mountains, like floating islands on the ocean or castles high in the clouds. All monasteries have also been the pilgrim centers for centuries and most prominent St Michael’s sites in their regions (Ibid.:1-29).

Digital Elevation Models and Visualizing the Terrain Data

In order to illustrate a geographical shape and topographic features typical of Saint Michael’s sites, their digital elevation models (DEM) have been used for all the five enumerated above sites. Then the hillshade effect has been applied to all of them so as to obtain a 3D representation of the surface. Land-forms are mapped with the help of colour levels, which represent geographical features of all the sites, such as their heights, and visually depict the layout of lowlands (green) and highlands (red).

Skellig Michael’s elevation: 218 metres (715 feet) above sea level.

Skellig Michael, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael, also called the Great Skellig is the most dramatic Saint Michael’s sanctuary of all. It looks like a black and hardly accessible pyramidal rock in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles (12 km) off the west coast of Ireland, in County Kerry (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55; Department of Culture 2010). Skellig Michael is known for legendary apparitions of the Archangel over its rocks but mostly it is recognized as one of the most significant examples of early Christian Irish monasticism and its highly ascetic character (Department of Culture 2010). Probably already in the sixth century, a small group of monks chose the isle for their remote and inaccessible monastery (Ibid.). As such the Skellig is usually described as the loneliest place on earth (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55).

Saint Michael’s Mount’s elevation: 67 metres (221 feet) above sea level.

Saint Michael’s Mount, UK. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A rocky island in Cornwall is connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway at low tide, and can be reached only by boat at high tide (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). It has been regarded as the Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint Michel in France since it was handed to the Benedictine religious order by Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century (“St Michael’s Mount” 2020). Yet the site had featured a monastery already around the eighth century (Ibid.). Saint Michael’s Mount is situated in the lowest point of land above sea level of all the sanctuaries.

Mont Saint Michel’s elevation: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Mount Saint Michel, France. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is one of the most spectacular monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael, situated just off the coast of Normandy in northern France, on a large rocky island encrusted with a complex of medieval constructions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). As a legend goes, in 708 Aubert, the bishop of Avranches had in his dream a vision of the Archangel Michael who instructed him to build an oratory on a large isolated rocky islet (Harpur, Westwood 1997:166). Eventually, Mont Saint Michel grew to become a powerful religious center in the Middle Ages, drawing pilgrims from far and wide (Ibid.:166).

Sacra Di San Michele’s elevation: 888 metres (2913 feet) above sea level.

“Sacra Di San Michele”. Photo by Elio Pallard (2013). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The last two monasteries are set high in the mountains. The first one is placed in the highest point above sea level of all sanctuaries. It is located in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, forty kilometers from Turin Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery dedicated to Saint Michael was built in the tenth or eleventh century, on the summit of mount Pirchiriano, which is still guarding the natural route through the Italian Alps into France (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11; Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery is apparently the very same place that inspired the writer Umberto Eco to conceive the best-seller work in 1980, the Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) (Sacra di San Michele 2020).

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s elevation: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, Italy. Photo by Angelo Totaro; “Emozioni Photo”. Please see Emozioni Foto Video by Angelo Tataro. Source: Foggia Today.

San Michele di Monte Gargano is the last footprint of the Archangel, placed in Italy, on the spur on the boot-shaped outline of the country, on the ridge of Gargano mountain (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). The heart of Saint Michael’s Sanctuary is placed in the grotto, which has been the destination of numerous pilgrimages, starting from the Norman monastery of Mont Saint Michel (“Monte Sant’ Angelo” 2020). According to a legend, the grotto was dedicated to Saint Michael as the Archangel had appeared there three times, in 490, 492 and 493 (Ibid.). Additionally, in 2019 archaeologists of the Ludwig Maximilian University excavating the site announced their discovery of traces of Hellenistic temple dated to the second century B.C. (Ibid.).

Visualizing the Visibility

The DEM data set has been used to create viewsheds as in the analysis of the elevation and landform of the sites. The maps represent the areas visible within 10 km from the sites in red, and those invisible in green.

Skellig Michael’s visibility: 218 meters (715 feet) above sea level.

St Michael’s Mount’s visibility: 67 meters (221 feet) above sea level.

Mont Saint Michel’s visibility: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.

Sacra Di San Michele’s visibility: 888 meters (2913 feet) above sea level.

Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s visibility: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.

The results look quite interesting. In all cases, there is a wide range of visibility as all the sites are located on the summits of mounts/mountains. The visibility from Mont Saint Michael and Saint Michael’s Mount is strongly concentrated around the sites and then is scattered in red spots around the area, especially in the case of Skellig Michael. Additionally, at the site of Sacra Di San Michele and Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, the reach of visibility forms long red belts, as both sanctuaries are situated on the ridge of the mountains.

There are, however, some factors that should be taken into consideration while evaluating the viewshed tool, as they may greatly affect the visibility. First of all these are atmospheric conditions at the sites in question; the weather in those areas is prone to sudden changes and has a disturbing influence on the view from the top of the monasteries, especially due to dense mists and clouds.

Results of the GIS Project

On the whole, GIS turned out to be a very valuable and beneficial tool in description and deeper analysis of the subject, providing that the data applied is of a good quality to fully illustrate all the points of the project.

“Sacra Di San Michele in the clouds” (2018). Photo credits: Franco Borrelli. Source: Munumento Symbolo Del Piemonte.
“Saint Michael’s Abbey over the fog”. Photo by Elio Pallard (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Sacra di San Michele” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The results show that the major sites dedicated to Apollo/St Michael are on a straight ley Line, more or less aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. Others stay close to this Line. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that St Michael’s monasteries accomplish their main purpose of being the sacral centers: not easily accessible but visible and welcoming pilgrims venerating the Archangel.

My own pilgrimage

I have always dreamed of making a pilgrimage along St.Michael/Apollo Line. However, due to a vast distance of the track, it is unlikely for me to complete it at once. Therefore, it will be more reasonable to divide the route into shorter sections or visit the sanctuaries while traveling around a particular country.

The Limbourg brothers (XV century) the Miniature (folio 195r), showing “La Fête de l’archange : le Mont Saint-Michel. In: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Public domain. {{PD-US}}. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So far I have visited three of the seven Saint Michael’s Mounts and some of Apollo’s temples while visiting Greece. The first site of the listed sanctuaries I have ever seen was Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. I went there in 2006, during my year stay in France. As I studied history of art in Paris, I usually travelled at that time around the country to see its artistic and architectural treasure, which France is so famous for. It was long before I had ever learned about Saint Michael’s Axis, which eventually happened in 2008, during my visit in Cornwall – a charming Celtic peninsula belonging to United Kingdom. I spent there a long May weekend with my friend. Having reached the most westerly town, Penzance, we both travelled to Saint Michael’s Mount, situated in the bay, near the town of Marazion. At that moment, I understood there must be a strong connection between these two Saint Michael’s mounts, the Norman and the Cornish, but I mainly thought of their mutual dedication to the Archangel, their similar architecture and natural terrain of their location. I had not realized yet, they could be both geographically interconnected and that there are other sanctuaries of that kind in Europe.

It was in 2008, in Tintagel (Cornwall), where I learnt about Saint Michael/Apollo’s Axis. In a small bookshop, just by the seaside, I had found a very interesting book telling a story about Saint Michael the Archangel, his pagan counterpart, Apollo, and their ongoing war on the Ley Line going straight across Europe, from Ireland southwards to Israel … The Cover of the book by Broadhurst, P., Miller, H.  Shanley, V., Russel B. (2000) The Dance of the Dragon: An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Photo by Karolina Jędrzejko. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Eventually, after travelling westwards along the Cornish peninsula, we reached the legendary site of Tintagel. There, in one of local library shops, I found a very interesting and thick book by P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003) The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, which explains in detail the idea of St. Michael/Apollo Axis. Since then, I have involved myself in the authors’ research by means of my own studies, including for example the represented above the GIS project. The book itself has become my personal guide through the pilgrimage along the Axis. Also this is why I broadly share here the theories I have found in the undertaken research.

Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall depicted in 1890s painting by James Webb. Public domain. Source: “Saint Michael’s Mount” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After visiting the Cornish sanctuary in 2008, yet in the same year, I travelled once again to Mount Saint Michel, in France, to see it from the perspective of the Axis research. Only in July, 2015, had I a rare opportunity to land on one of the most inaccessible sites of the Archangel – the Skellig Michael in Ireland, which has already been fully described in one of my previous posts, entitled, Hermitage of the Archangel. In all cases (Cornwall, Normandy and Ireland), the three sites share not only highly spiritual atmosphere but also very similar geographical features. All of them are off the shore, with their summits covered in monastery structures. First two are additionally tidal islands of more or less conical shape, located deeply in the bays with salty marches and wetlands (Bonnot 2013; “Birdwatching – Marazion Marshes” 2018). Visiting them was both inspiring and deeply motivating for my work.

Hopefully, I will continue my pilgrimage southwards in the coming years …

Featured image: Drawing: The Apollo-St. Michael Axis.

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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“Thirty-sixth tapestry of the Apocalypse tapestry: Saint Michael fighting the Dragon” by Hennequin de Bruges and Robert Poisson (1375 and 1382). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JPOjJO>. [Accessed 8th April, 2020].

“War in Heaven” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2x7Ekg2>. [Accessed 6th April, 2020].

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Burns, K. (2011) “Aliens and the Secret Code”. Ancient Aliens; Episode 13; Season 3. Prometheus Entertainment.

Bonnot, C. (2013) French case studies: Upper tidal flat evolution in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel (NW France). Available at <https://bit.ly/2r7RZg0>. [Accessed 24th April, 2018].

Rhone, C. Michell, J. (1998) “Twelve-Tribe Nations”. London: Thames&Hudson. In: P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003).

Creightmore, R. Rocka, J. (1996-2018) “Introduction to Earth Energies”. In: Land and Spirit. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Hy0qfE>. [Accessed 6th April, 2020].

Department of Culture (2010). “Skellig Michael.”. In: World Heritage. Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2x7gUaN>. [Accessed on 9th April, 2020].

Drawing: “Apollo Killing the Python” by Hendrik Goltzius (after) (Holland, Mülbracht, (1558-1617). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JO6b7B>. [Accessed 8th April, 2020].

Drawing: The Apollo-St. Michael Axis. Available at <https://bit.ly/2RiibT3>. [Accessed on 6th April, 2020].

Drawing: Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893). Report For The Year 1871-72 Volume III, Plate XXVII, and description p.97. Bodh Gaya quadriga relief of Surya and Classical example of Phoebus Apollo on quadriga. A coin of Plato of Bactria (145-130 BCE), Ai Khanoum. Public domain. Source: “Apollo” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3oF0pb3>. [Accessed 8th December, 2020].

Figure 3: Map of “Saint Michael’s line” (2017). Public domain. Source: “Saint Michael’s line” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3mXwLgG>. [Accessed 8th April, 2020].

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Miniature: “Saint Michael fighting a dragon” by Lambert de Saint-Omer, c.1448 (vellum), in Chantilly, Musée Condé. Public domain (modified). In: Shuker, K. (2006). Wikipedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/39Sba5E>. [Accessed 7th December, 2020].

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The cover of the book by Broadhurst, P., Miller, H.  Shanley, V., Russel B. (2000) The Dance of the Dragon: An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion. Photo from Amazon.co.uk. Available at <https://amzn.to/2XoRUX2>. [Accessed on 9th April, 2020].

The Limbourg (XV century) “La Fête de l’archange : le Mont Saint-Michel. In: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry; f.195r. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3c1ZURS>. [Accessed 9th April, 2020].

Miracle of the Sun

The waters of the River Nile are “a symbol of rebirth and eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. [It] has for untold centuries been the lifeblood of their country. The river and its banks appear from the air to be one long green ribbon of fertility snaking through the arid desert” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42,49).

“This ribbon is Egypt: the Nile’s bounty created it, and made possible the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. […] The Greek historian, Herodotus neatly summed up the relationship between country and river: ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile.’ […] The prosperity created by the Nile, [in turn,] enabled the Egyptians to raise magnificent monuments along its course – temples and memorials to the ancient gods and kings” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42,49).

The River Nile in the south of Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ancient Egypt seen from the Nile

“For centuries, the Nile has been the life-giving artery of Egypt. From the land nourished by its waters arose the great civilization of ancient Egypt, with its golden temples and pyramids. Today visitors can cruise between its palm-lined banks on voyages into the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42).

Nubian girl sitting by the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Together with my little sister and a group of archaeology students we embarked on one of the luxurious and authentic boutique ships at the port of Luxor to explore the ancient civilization from the River. While our stay on the ship, we were accommodated in  private spacious cabins with a view on the River. Overnight, the ship was anchored in successive ports and at dawn, it restarted its engines to continue the journey up the Nile. On our way southwards, we stopped at Edfu and Kom Ombo temples, both constructed mainly during the Ptolemaic dynasty circa between 237–47 BC. When we were not visiting the temples spread out along the banks of the Nile, we could enjoy the extensive sun deck areas around the swimming pool while tasting gourmet cuisine and taking in the scenery (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). And all that was possible in February, when Poland was covered in snow and cold.

Macbeth on the Nile

One day, after a delicious afternoon tea, my sister laid out on a sun lounger, by the pool. She closed her eyes. Right next to her lay an abandoned book that she had brought from Poland. On the cover, there was the title and author: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare.

‘Why did you even take this book if you don’t read it and only carry it with you?’, I asked my sister coming out of the pool and settling beside her.

“Macbeth” in Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Agnieszka didn’t even look at me. She just murmured. ‘Because this is my compulsory reading and if I do not read it until the end of winter holidays, I will get F.’

‘Well read it then’ – I advised.

This time my sister sat down and looked at me behind her sunglasses. ‘Look around and say … Does it look like Scotland at all?’

‘Well no, it does not’, I admitted. ‘But unfortunately I haven’t got the “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie.’

‘Death will come on my Polish class after my return’, Agnieszka replied, but she did not open the book.

Anchoring at Aswan

Feluccas by on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After the fifth day of our cruise, we were slowly reaching Aswan. The city is situated in the far south of Egypt and constitutes the gateway to Nubia – an important region of ancient and medieval Africa situated along the Nile encompassing the area between the southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. The city of Aswan is also “called the ‘Jewel of the Nile’. Pink and grey granite thrusts upward through the Nubian sandstone, forming mountains, cliffs and jagged outcrops. The Nile runs clear and cold here, and endless waves of golden sand swirl against its banks” (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). Our ship was welcomed there by the elegant, white triangular sails of feluccas – a traditional wooden sailing boats widely used in the eastern Mediterranean (Harpur, Westwood 1997:44). David Roberts, the nineteenth century British artist, usually painted them and wrote in his diary: “Nothing to the painter can exceed  in beauty these craft skimming along the river with their white sails spread and shivering in the wind” (Ibid:44).

The elegant, white triangular sails of boats. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Convoy composed of a single car

One of the greatest jewels of ancient Egyptian architecture built in the southern Egypt is undoubtedly the temple complex of Abu Simbel, situated in Nubia, at the second cataract of the Nile. It lies on the western bank of the River, by the Lake Nasser and near the border with modern day Sudan. At the same time, It is located around 290 km southwest of Aswan and it takes three to four hours to get there from the port (Serwicka 2010).

The road there leads through an isolated area of the desert, thus due to safety reasons, a special convoy is organised (Ibid.). It sets off every day at 4 AM (Serwicka 2010). Coaches, busses and other vehicles must come to one place (Ibid.). The police count them and then they can start their journey (Ibid.). From that moment on, our car was ahead speeding along the asphalt road across the sands of Sahara desert (Ibid.). After a while, the whole convoy fell apart; we lost the sight of the police and other vehicles in the darkness of the dawn (Ibid.). I thought that such a convoy made no sense as everyone was lost in the desert on their own (Ibid.).

Eventually, we safely reached Abu Simbel as the first of all. It was just after 7 AM and the rising sun had already broken through the darkness and reflected four sitting colossal statues of the temple, situated by one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

Two Temples by the Lake

The ancient complex at Abu Simbel consists of two temples. They are both sculpted from a mountainside in Nubia (Leona 2015), and they were erected to demonstrate the strength, power and eternal superiority of Egypt on the southern border of the state (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018).

The builder of the complex was Ramesses II the Great (1290-1224 BC). He was the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty of the Ramesside.(Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018). “During his long reign, [the Pharaoh] created nearly half of Egypt’s surviving temples [of the New Kingdom], many of them erected to celebrate his deeds in winning back and protecting Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). As one of the greatest and most famous pharaohs of Egypt, Ramesses II also “became the model for Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” (Richardson 2020).

The Great Temple

Detail of the façade of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Most remarkable and known to tourists is the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, built to venerate the gods, mainly Amon-Ra, Ptah, Ra-Horakhti and the deified Ramesses II himself (Mark 2018). Beside it, there is also the so-called Small Temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Ramesses’ favourite wife (Ibid.). Both monuments were carved in solid rock and believed to have been created during around twenty years at the time of the reign of Ramesses II, in the thirteenth century BC (Ibid.).

“The Great Temple stands [30 metres] high and [35 metres] long with four seated colossi, [each one 20 metres tall], flanking the entrance” (Mark 2018). Two gigantic statues carved to each side represent Ramesses II on his throne (Ibid.). One of them lost his head during an earthquake in the first century BC (Serwicka 2010). Beneath them, there are smaller figures depicting the pharaoh’s defeated enemies: the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites (Mark 2018). There are also statues depicting Ramesses’s family members and their protecting gods (Ibid.).

Layout of an Egyptian temple

The building generally repeats the layout of an Egyptian temple characteristic of the New Kingdom, serving the worship of the ruler and gods. Usually, such a ground plan is linear and longitudinal; typically, it contains major successive elements arranged along the axis starting from its entrance: an avenue of sphinxes, pylons (gateway [Lucie-Smith 2003:178]), the colonnaded courtyard, hypostyle hall, Barque shrine, and finally, the sanctuary (the holly of hollies) (Kubik 2020:5). Moreover, the further chambers are getting the lower and darker (Ibid.).

Fragment of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Like in a general plan, “the interior of the Great Temple in Abu Simbel is organised along a series of halls aligned with one another” (Magli 2016). Although, the rock temple does not have an avenue of sphinxes or the colonnaded courtyard, it includes other major parts of the Egyptian temple. Stairway to the temple plateau (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16) goes to the pylons – tall tapered towers (Lucie-Smith 2003:178). In Abu Simbel, the gateway is shaped out of the rock, flanking the entrance with colossi on each side (Mark 2018). Passing between the two pairs of gigantic figures representing Ramesses II, the central entrance leads to the vast rectangular hypostyle hall with eight massive 10 metres tall pillars, arranged in two rows and representing the mummies of Osiris, with some features of Ramesses (Leona2015; LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Mark 2018). Inside “a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place” (Leona 2015). It is followed by the second hall with four square pillars (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16).

Both interiors are decorated with reliefs showing the heroic life of the king and depicting religious scenes, mainly the royal pair paying homage to the gods (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Kubik 2020:5). Finally, the vestibule leads to the very end of the temple – the sanctuary with four figures of seated gods (Ibid.). As it is the most intimate and secret part of the temple, according to the Egyptian model of a temple (Kubik 2020:5), it is a room of a small size measuring four meters by seven (Leona 2015). It also stands for the heart of the temple, where the so-called  ‘miracle of the sun’ happens twice a year (Ibid.). 

At the sides of the main axis of the temple, there are also storerooms and two chapels. Such rooms also appear in other Egyptian temples (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Kubik 2020:5).

The Temple for the Beloved Wife

Beloved Ramesses’ wife and queen Nefertari . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The Small Temple stands nearby at a height of [12 metres] and [is 28 metres] long. This temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari” (Mark 2018). There are “four statues of the king and two of the queen at a height of [10 metres]. The prestige of the queen is apparent in that, usually, a female is represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh while, at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is rendered the same size as Ramesses. The Small Temple is also notable in that it is the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a ruler dedicated a temple to his wife” (Ibid.). The first was the Pharaoh Akhenaton (Ibid.). In the fourteenth century BC, he built a temple dedicated to the famous queen Nefertiti, his beloved wife (Ibid.).

The walls of the Small Temple illustrate Ramesses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods, especially to the goddess Hathor (Mark 2018). Actually, the location of the site was dedicated to Hathor long before the temples were constructed by Ramesses. For this reason, it is believed that the choice of this site was not accidental (Ibid.).

Original name of the site

Surprisingly, the temple complex was not originally named as ‘Abu Simbel’ (Mark 2018) but it was apparently referred to in the past as the ‘Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun’” (DHWTY 2019). Actually, “the Swiss explorer [Johann Ludwig] Burckhardt was led to the site by a boy named Abu Simbel in 1813 and the site was then named after him (Ibid.). Burckhardt, however, was unable to uncover the site, which was buried in sand up to the necks of the grand colossi” (Ibid.).

The Great Temple of Ramesses II (left) and the Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari (right). Photo by Holger Weinandt (2004); cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples.” (2020). In: Simple English Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia..

Another version says, the boy called Abu Simbel was actually a guide for Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus performer and collector of Egyptian antiquities (DHWTY 2019). Eventually, it was him, who first uncovered Abu Simbel in 1817 (Ibid.). After arriving at Abu Simbel, he tried to uncover it “from thousands of tons of sand but every bucket he removed was replaced by yet more sand sliding down the dune. Just at the point of giving up, he discovered a very simple solution to the problem; wetting the sand held it in place and after years of struggling, he finally found the entrance to the Great Temple and became the first man for centuries to walk inside it” (Hawas 2008). His main aim, however, was not archaeological research but most probably looting. When he did not find any treasure inside, he abandoned further exploration of the temple and finally left the site (Mark 2018; Serwicka 2010).

Epitome of king’s ego and godhood

Abu Simbel is said to be the most impressive, largest and significant temple complex of Pharaoh Ramses II the Great – the most prominent king of the nineteenth dynasty (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). It was hence the monument of the Egypt’s greater builder, warrior and ruler who reigned over sixty seven years and turned the land of Egypt into a display of his achievements (Brand 2008). A thorough analysis of the temples’ walls, art and statues also reveal a dual role of the Pharaoh (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II as a god and warrior-king. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Ramses’ first function was a defender of the nation: a warrior, champion and a hero fighting against enemies and defending Egypt from their hands (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). On the other side, his second role involves religion; he is not only a mediator between men and gods but a divine figure himself equal to other gods in the Egyptian pantheon (Ibid.). After Peter Brand, PhD. (2008) “the king has one foot in a divine world and one foot in a human world.” In both temples of Abu Simbel, “Ramesses is recognized as a god among other gods and his choice of an already sacred locale [for the temple (it was Hathor’s domain)] would have strengthened this impression among the people” (Mark 2018).


The Pharaoh’s authority and power actually depended on fulfilling these two functions (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). Reliefs within the temples illustrate the Pharaoh’ dilemma between his earthly and god-like natures (Ibid.). His story represented there starts with the battle of Kadesh (Ibid.).

Agnieszka between the two statues of the royal couple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Ramesses’ great victory at Kadesh is […] depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. It is certain, based upon the extensive artwork throughout the interior of the Great Temple, that the structures were created, at least in part, to celebrate Ramesses’ victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC” (Mark 2018). The Hittites Empire was the great enemy of Egypt, whose lands were stretching  from ancient Anatolia to Syria (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II’s military engagement in one of the most famous battles in ancient history (Ibid.). According to the scenes represented in reliefs, It was a brutal clash between two contemporary superpowers with the use of their whole armies and modern weapons, such as chariots (Ibid.). The final result of the battle is unknown to historians, however, the same records within the temple prove the undisputed victory of Ramses II over his enemies (Ibid.).

The fact is that Ramses eventually made a peace deal with the Empire of Hittites but Ramses’ role as a king-warrior had not been completed yet (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). Although, Abu Simbel mainly shows the evidence of the battle of Kadesh, “the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to other scholars” (Mark 2018) that the temple complex was possibly begun after the Nubian Campaigns, undertaken by Ramesses II after the battle of Kadesh, in 1244 BC (Ibid.). Hence it can be concluded that it was built as a symbol of Egypt’s power at the border with another enemy – the Nubians (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018).

Behind my sister, the representation of the slaves/defeated enemies – probably the Nubians. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Godlike Pharaoh

Apart from his representations as a king-warrior, Ramesses was also portrayed as a living god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). By means of Abu Simbel complex, he declared his divinity, and so the temples were not only built to the gods but also to Ramses himself as a god (Ibid.). This dedication is well expressed in the heart of the Great Temple – the holly of hollies, where the seated statue of Ramses II is placed between the three other statues of the same size, representing major gods of Egypt (Ibid.). Such a representation signifies that the Pharaoh is equalised with the divine beings by becoming one of them (Ibid.). Accordingly, Abu Simbel reveals the two important notions defining a pharaoh: a defender of Egypt and a god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Key-role of the Sun and Egyptian Calendar

The alignment of sacred ancient structures with the rising or setting Sun or with the position of celestial bodies in the sky at various astronomical events appears throughout the whole world (Mark 2018). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, aligned with the east, is another example of uncanny ancient architecture and its orientation to the rising sun. Furthermore, it also reveals a special relation to the Egyptian calendar (Magli 2016; Mark 2018).  

Ancient Calendar

The ancient Egyptian calendar was composed of three seasons linked to the three cyclic events of the River Nile and so the rhythm of human life on its banks (Murphy 2002; Authors of Wikipedia 2013; Magli 2016). Each season contained 120 days (four months of thirty days) (Magli 2016):

Great Pillared Hall, Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Source: chemistkane/Adobe Stock. Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

AKHET (inundation) 120 days

PERET (growth) 120 days

SHEMU (harvest) 120 days (Magli 2016).

Akhet started the new Egyptian year “in mid-July with the sightseeing of the star Sopdet in the early morning sky and the beginning of the floods” (Murphy 2002). It was then the season “when the Nile flooded, leaving a several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding  in agricultural growth” (Authors of Wikipedia 2013). Peret was the time of growing, which had happened by November and Shemu was the harvest season without rains, having started by March (Ibid.). To the total of 360 days, ancient Egyptians “added 5 days, which gave 365 days, without any corrections such as leap years” (Magli 2016). Those “last five days of the year were given over to the celebrations of various gods’ and goddesses’ birthdays and were considered unlucky” (Murphy 2002).

The View of the Nasser Lake. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet ancient Egyptians realised “that their calendar was too short to take into account the length of the tropical year” [ that is to say, 365 days and ¼ of the day] (Magli 2016). “A tropical year is the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth; for example, the time from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, or from summer solstice to summer solstice” (“Tropical Year” 2020). For this reason, “the Egyptian calendar drifted of one solar day each four years, making a complete turnaround in 4 x 365 = 1 460 years” (Magli 2016).

Magical Journey of the Sun

As described above, the chapel (the sanctuary or the holly of hollies), located at the end of the Great Temple, includes four seated figures of gods (Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Leona 2015). From the left, there are Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses the Great, and Ra-Horakhti (Magli 2016). Their tiny chapel is covered in darkness for most of the year (Fawzy 2018). Nonetheless, “on 20th February and on 22nd October every year, and for a few days just before and after those dates, the Sun rises in alignment with the axis of the temple” (Magli 2016) and illuminates its interior in a very particular way.

Caption from the lecture by Giulio Magli (2016), showing the enlightenment of the key statues in the temple of Abu Simbel on 20th February and on 22nd October of every year. Lecture: “Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Egyptian calendar.” In: Polimi Open Knowledge. Politecnico Milano (published on Youtube).

In a magical journey of the Sun, the light beam moves 65 meters from the entrance along the axis of the temple and reach the inner chapel at the end of the building. (Magli 2016; Hafner, Karolewski & ETI 2020). Whereas the sunlight carefully omits Ptah, who is a chthonic god related to the underworld suspended in perpetual darkness, it  successively illuminates the statues of Amun-Ra, then Ramesses and finally Ra-Horakhti, who is a personification of the solar disc (Leona 2015; Magli 2016; Mark 2018).

“The Sanctuary: House of the Gods”. CC. Ben Snooks. Photo modified. Source: Jess Lee, (2020) “Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor’s Guide.” In: Planet Ware.

We came there only at the beginning of February so we could not celebrate ‘the miracle of the sun’ coming into sight just a few weeks later. It was a pity. It must be a great experience to observe “the rising sun [penetrating] the heart of the mountain and [gradually flooding  the statues] in light. It takes about twenty minutes for the light to pass. According to the ancient Egyptians, the sun rays would thus recharged of energy the figure of [the Pharaoh]” (Leona 2015).

Reaching the Solar Year

Visitors taking part in the Sun Festival in the Abu Simple temple in south Aswan for 20 minutes in a rare phenomenon that takes place twice a year – Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today by Mena.

“This spectacular hierophany implies an architectural constraint that conditioned the entire planning of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel right from the onset” (Magli 2016). Like in other famous temples in Egypt (e.g. Karnak) the origins of the temple layout is associated with the Egyptian calendar (Ibid.). The two key dates in the Great Temple’s alignment marked the beginnings of the two seasons: Peret (around 22nd October) and Shemu (around 20th February) (Ibid.). In fact, the same dates are also believed to correspond to Ramesses’ birthday in February and coronation in October (Mark 2018; Fawzy 2018). The Calendar is said to have been devised in 2 700 BC (Magli 2016). Consequently, when Ramesses II “accessed to the throne of Egypt in the thirteenth century BC, 1 460 years were elapsed” (Ibid.). For this reason, “he could celebrate himself as the Pharaoh who started reigning at the time the Egyptian calendar re-aligned with the solar year” (Ibid.). The answer to this special event was the astronomical alignment of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel.

Short film advertising the Sun Festival at Abu Simbel on 22nd October in 2018.
“It’s almost here, coming to Egypt on October 22nd! If you won’t be there, don’t worry, we’ve got you.”
“Live the history live in Aswan, Abu Simbel Sun Festival” by  Memphis Tours (2018). Published on Youtube (2020).

The Aswan High Dam

The process of the illumination had happened very precisely for over four thousand years. “Inevitably, the demands of modern progress have conflicted with the need to preserve the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49).

The statue of Ramesses the Great at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is reassembled after having been moved in 1967 to save it from flooding. “Per-Olow” – Per-Olow Anderson (1921-1989) – sv: Forskning & Framsteg 1967 issue 3, p. 16. Public domain. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Luckily, “these two considerations were spectacularly reconciled with the building of the Aswan Dam, when the temples of Abu Simbel were saved from the raising waters” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In the 60’s of the twentieth century, the two temples were dismantled (Mark 2018) and, “in an astonishing feat of engineering completed in 1966, [they were] moved bodily 65 metres above their original site” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). In order “to give the impression of the temples cut into the rock cliff, […] a man-made mountain was erected” (Mark 2018). Altogether, there were 2 200 blocks of stone (the heaviest weighing around 30 tons), moved upwards by heavy machinery (Pooyard 2012). The reconstruction of the temple took five years (Ibid.). The project was directed by UNESCO and led by a multi-national team of archaeologists, engineers and other specialists from around fifty different countries (Pooyard 2012; Leona 2015; Mark 2018; Cultural Heritage News 2018) “to rescue what was viewed, for the first time, as the shared heritage of humankind” (Cultural Heritage News 2018). In the same Nubian Rescue Campaign other monuments have been also saved and preserved, namely the Temple of Isis situated on one of the islands on the Nile and Christian wall paintings from the Cathedral of Faras (DHWTY 2019).

A scale model showing the original and current location of the temple (with respect to the water level). The site submerged under reservoir water since the 1970s, and the rescued and relocated temples’ new higher sites. The photo was taken of a display at the at the Nubian Museum, in Aswan. Photo by Zureks (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Abu Simbel Temples.” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient technology vs. Technology of the 60s

“Great care was taken to orient both temples in exactly the same direction as before” (Mark 2018). Nevertheless, today it can be observed that it was not fully effective despite all undertaken efforts (Leona 2015; Serwicka 2010). Namely, on the two key-dates, the left arm of the statue of the god Ptah, positioned originally in the way preventing it to have been reached by the Sun, now is partially exposed to the sunlight. Simultaneously, the left side of the statue of the god Ra-Horakhti, seated on the far right, is not being illuminated anymore. Some sources also say that the culmination point of solar illuminations initially happened exactly on 21st February and 21st October (see Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015; Mark 2018) but today the dates of the performance are slightly shifted (Serwicka 2010; Leona 2015). Such a disorder of the ‘miracle of the sun’ is the result of the displacement of the Great Temple in the twentieth century (Ibid.). The project turned out to be very successful as it saved the Nubian monuments from being flooded. Thanks to the international work, determination and funds it was possible to preserve such ancient architectural treasure as Abu Simbel for future generations. Yet, even with the use of all modern equipment and machinery, it was not possible to reproduce the original precision designed by ancient architects in orienting the temple (Leons 2015).

The illumination shifted slightly rightwards – the result of the temple’s displacement in the 60s. Source: Muhammad Fawzy (2018) Egypt Today by Mena.

Just after the Pyramids of Giza

Nowadays, the ancient site of Abu Simbel is the most visited place in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza (Mark 2018). It has even got “its own airport to support the thousands of tourists who arrive at the site each year” (Ibid.). Yet we were coming back to Aswan and our luxurious ship by car. Sleepy and tired with the heat, I was trying to keep myself awake to admire the landscape behind the window. For a while I was looking at the sandy and harsh desert, and the horizon blurred in the sun. Finally I closed my eyes and fall asleep next to my sleeping sister.

Great moments on the luxurious cruise on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was our last night on the ship. The following evening we were going to Cairo by train. The light breeze and the proximity of the river nicely neutralized the heat of the night. My sister was resting in the cabin. Immediately after arriving from Abu Simbel, she felt sick. A doctor from Aswan was called. He gave her an injection and promised that she would feel much better the next day. As it turned out, he was right. I had been hoping for that. There was a long way yet to travel.

Featured image: The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II as a god and a warrior-king. 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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Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)

In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.

Brú na Bóinne

According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).

The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.

Less known but essential

The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of  the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.

Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky

Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.

Working in the field. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of  Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.

One of the sunniest days. Still wet and muddy. Wellingtons were the only option … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.

‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.

‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.

Ancient site of Loughcrew

Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).

Three hills with neolithic mounds. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).

“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)

There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).

‘Ollamh Fodhla’s Seat’ – The ‘Hag’s chair’. Photo credits: Knowth.com. Colours intensified. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T, is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).

Cartoon of the Caillech/Witch dropping the stones from her apron. Photo by Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937. Photo and caption source: Lynda McCormack (2020). “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.

“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”

Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as the Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, female judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of the year, referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).

Loughcrew as a passage tomb

Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).

Magical properties?

Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020).

The inner passage of Cairn T. Loughcrew Passage Tomb cairn T, The wall on the left is pitted with so-called “cup marks”. When the tomb was opened, a large number of chalk balls were found at the base of this stone. These balls fitted the stone precisely; they may represent the stars in the sky. Photo and caption by Rob Hurson (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)

Astronomical instrument?

The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.

Stone Age writings

Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).

Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).

Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).

Personally, I wish I could participate in such a celestial performance, when the stones of megalithic constructions seem to come alive under the touch of the rising sun. It is as if the right fuel had restarted the old mechanism of a complicated device, the function of which, however, is still hardly known to us.

Featured image: Bing Map: the Cairns of Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew complex, Ireland). Carnbane West and Carbane East. The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. 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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Astronomical Sanctuary of the Cloud People Atop the Hill

We were travelling in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, moving along the mountain range of Sierra Madre. The mountains climb there from 500 to 3 250 metres above sea level, bringing low temperatures with frequent frost in their higher parts. For some, it does not even sound like Mexico … especially in February.

Shivering from the cold and … excitement

When the alarm rang it was 5 am. That morning was really chilly. I forcefully shivered when my feet touched the icy cold stone floor. The unpleasant feeling made me literary jumped into my shoes. Then I quickly switched on a small electric heater. The red diode came on together with a characteristic loud noise. Finally I felt a gentle blast of warm air. Still shivering I grabbed my clothes and went to the bathroom, of course, dragging the buzzing heater behind me.

The constructions of Monte Alban. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With a cup of hot coffee, warming up my hands, and wrapped up in my balmy cardigan, I felt much better when we finally arrived at Monte Alban. Outside it was still cold but just a thought alone about the site filled with a mystery, a myth and a legend recharged my battery and I was ready to give up my warm seat inside the car.

Like an eagle perched high-up

Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Monte Alban looks like an eagle perched high-up in its nest; it is located around 1 940 metres above sea level and 400 metres above the Altiplano of the Oaxaca Valley, which offered us breath-taking panoramic views of the horizon and so of the huge area surrounding the site (“Monte Albán” 2019; Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Precisely, Monte Alban occupies the meeting point of three arms of the Valley, known as the Etla, Tlocolula and the Valle Grand (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Before the fifth century BC., they were inhabited by various tribes, of which the most important was the community of San Jose Mogote in the Etla branch (Ibid.). That population is believed to have initiated the city of Monte Alban and effectively unified local tribes under their control, either by means of a peaceful alliance or by force (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

The city offered us breath-taking panoramic views of the horizon. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is thought that Monte Alban had played a very important role in Mesoamerican history since its rapid development around the third century BC. Its importance ceased only in the eighth century AD., when the site was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Archaeologically, the history of the city is divided into several successive stages, such as ‘Monte Alban Early I’, ‘Monte Alban Late I’, ‘Monte Alban II’, ‘Monte Alban III’ and ‘Monte Alban IV’, etc., which all correspond to certain periods of time, from the fifth century BC. to the beginning of the fifteenth century AD. (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Strom 2019). The first phases with the Zapotec dominance correspond to the city’s cultural growth, where it had played the role of a religious center till the eighth century AD., whereas during the last two phases the gradual fall of the city was followed by its final abandonment; it was the time of the Mixtec and later cultures (Strom 2019). Only during the latter phases, the city became surrounded by fortifications (Strom 2019; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

The site filled with mystery, myth and legend recharged my battery … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Origins shrouded in mystery

The matter of the city’s origins itself is strongly debated (Heyworth 2013). Apparently, the very first settlement appeared on the site already before the fifth century BC. but with a limited population till the time when the Zapotecs grew in number and became more powerful, mainly due to the centralization (Heyworth 2013; Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). Generally, Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec empire, where approximately 20 000 people had lived at its heyday (Ibid.). Between the first century BC. and the second century AD., Monte Alban developed to an influential political metropolis, being in lead within the Oaxaca region and possibly beyond it (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014). We can even assume that the city owed its pivotal role not only to its central role in the Valley but also for that it was built at the crossroads of trade routes between the highlands of Teotihuacán to the west and the Mayan lowlands to the east (Ibid.).

Real architects of the city

Who was the real architect of the city? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although it was the centralization process that eventually gave the beginning of the dominant Zapotec civilization, it does not mean that the people of San Jose Mogote were the real architects of the city (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In fact, none of the tribes in the Valley, including the ancestors of the Zapotecs, had built anything that would be even slightly similar to the style of the sophisticated architecture found at Monte Alban (Ibid.). The Zapotecs had also been far from using such advanced engineering and building techniques as those employed in the city (Ibid.). What is even more thought-provoking is that among the construction phases of Monte Alban, the earliest ones are the most innovative (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). As a matter of fact, the architects of Monte Alban, just like the Olmecs, made their calculations by means of the bar-dot code, proving their advanced knowledge of mathematics (Hancock 2016:155). They also used the calendar invented by the Olmecs, which has commonly been ascribed to the Mayans (Ibid.:155). If the calendar, astronomy and counting of time occupied such a prominent place among the inhabitants of Monte Alban, maybe they themselves were heirs of the Olmecs, or even their descendants? (Ibid.:155). The Maya, on the other hand, would have to be regarded as devoted guardians of this cultural heritage (Ibid.:155).

Artificial flattening of the hill with the Sunken Patio on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

One of the most puzzling features of the city of Monte Alban is the fact that it was actually built atop an artificially flattened hilltop (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Such a position could obviously provide a sense of security and make a city a fortified stronghold (Ibid.). But was it the case? In truth, a gradual development of a rather ceremonial space and the use of principles of sacred topography suggest that Monte Alban was built for quite different purposes than to play just a defensive function (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Strom 2019). Besides, as discussed above, “the city’s [fortifications] were added several hundred years after the city had risen to power” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014).

Plan of the Monte Alban archaeological site, created by MapMaster. The SVG original (which turned out to be smaller than anticipated) can be found at Image:Monte Alban archaeological site.svg (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Original photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Successive phases of construction

Officially, it is assumed that monumental architecture had appeared on the site since the third century BC., however, other theories say it may have happened even earlier (Heyworth “A Brief History” 2014; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Irrespective of the real time of its initiation, the city was built in successive phases (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Firstly, the hilltop must have been artificially levelled, primarily in the areas of the Main Plaza and the North Platform with the Sunken Patio (Ibid.). Then there emerged its first huge constructions, such as the System IV, Monticle M and J (the so-called Observatory) (Ibid.).

Monticle J, known also as the Observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Monticle J aka the Observatory

Particularly the latter seizes viewers’ attention (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), especially while being observed from the bird’s eye view. The observatory, consisting of a strange arrow-tipped structure, stands at an angle of 45 degrees to the main axis of the city, deliberately shifted a few degrees from the northwest (Hancock 2016:154). Although the Monticle J was one of the first building constructed at the site, its peculiar shape (Ibid.) and “juxtaposition to the rest of the Main Plaza and its temples” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014) make it unfit to the overall plan of the city (Ibid.).

Graham Hancock (2016:154-155) crawled inside the Observatory during his visit to Monte Alban. Afterwards, he described it as a labyrinth of narrow tunnels and staircases from which various parts of the sky can be observed (Ibid.:155). Indeed, I was sure that it must have been once used as an astronomical device. The building’s “odd pentagonal shape points, literally, like an arrow to the south-west and it is believed it was deliberately designed to align with the star Capella on its heliacal rising” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). It is supported by the fact that the Observatory’s shape itself reproduces on earth the position of five dominant stars of Auriga Constellation, in which Capella is the brightest one (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013).

View of Monte Alban and its mountainous surrounding. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In addition, “the understanding of heliacal phenomena is important to the growing studies of archaeoastronomy and the history of science [in general]” (Schaefer 1987:S19) What is it all about?

The building’s “odd pentagonal shape “. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Bradley E. Schaefer (1987:S19) explains that “celestial bodies undergo periods of invisibility, when the Sun is nearby. These periods of invisibility are bounded by the dates of the star’s heliacal rising and setting. The star is first glimpsed during morning twilight on the date of heliacal rising”, when it re-emerges at sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). “The apparition […] of the star ends on the date of heliacal setting when the Sun approaches too close to the object” (Schaefer 1987:S19), that is to say, when the star rises after the sunrise (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). Aveni (1978) claims that “the heliacal rise of Capella from Monte Alban occurred on the day of the first solar zenith passage[1]in the year 275 [BC.]” (Schaefer 1987:S31), which is actually the theoretical date of the construction of the Observatory (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). In order to capture that event, the building was provided with the so-called zenith tube (Ibid.) – a narrow horizontal passageway or shaft (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Strom 2019) “which only allows light to shine directly through it on a specific day, when the sun reaches a precise position in the sky” (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013). That phenomenon takes only place on 2nd May (Strom 2019).

[1] [the Sun at the highest point in the sky, 90 degrees from the horizon] (Heyworth “The Observatory” 2013; Barnhart, Powell 2010-11).

Engineering feat

As much as the Building J proves the importance of astronomy to the inhabitants of Monte Alban, their real feat of high level engineering was achieved by the artificial flattening of the hill (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014), or as we should rather say – by the cutting off the top of it in order to build the city. “The Main Plaza alone stretches for 300 [metres] from north to south and 200 [metres] from east to west” (Ibid.). Additionally, to the north of the Main Plaza, there is also the so-called Sunken Patio (Patio Hundido), which was hewed further down into the rock (Ibid.) and so “scientifically designed to reflect sound and amplify it” (Ibid.). Actually, a much easier way to achieve the same effect would be a construction of walls around the perimeter (Ibid.). Yet, for some reasons, the city’s architects had chosen to accomplish a gargantuan task of “[digging] down into the hilltop to carve the space out” (Ibid.).

Actually, I am getting used to this ancient phenomenon of making things far more complicated than necessary. Here we can ask the question usually posed by alternative archaeologists: ‘Was it then a difficult task to them at all?’

To make the thing even more intriguing, “the Patio Hundido is replicated twice at Monte Alban with smaller scale versions known as System IV and [Monticle] M” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Furthermore, all these three patio groups are aligned in such a way to reflect not only celestial events but also to show their mutual geometric relations with other compounds of the city (Ibid.). That fact, in turn, makes the whole city “an observatory or [even a complicated] celestial timepiece” (Ibid.).

Astronomical Observatory

Scattered blocks of stone among mysterious constructions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Gathered evidence shows that the inhabitants of Monte Alban were able to understand and predict such celestial events “as the passing of comets, eclipses, helical risings, equinoxes and solstices” (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). In these terms, Monte Alban may not have been originally designed as a fortified stronghold, whose function would be narrowed to controlling the region (Ibid.) “but rather [as] a sacred sanctuary dedicated to reading the celestial objects of the skies” (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, “the astronomy may have been the real reason for building [the complex] on the craggy impractical hilltop – for Monte Alban is one of the few cities in the world that enjoys incredible 360° views of the horizon” (Ibid.).

The impressive stairs leading up to the South Platform. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

When we climbed up the hills in the proximity of the South Platform, I looked down at the city spreading in front of me and valleys of Oaxaca below me. The whole picture seemed to be suspended in the background of the dark mountains and white clouds in the sky. In the center, the Main Plaza gleamed in the morning sunlight (Hancock 2016:153). It was fringed by clusters of pyramids and other buildings arranged geometrically to each other (Ibid.:153). The whole arrangement gave an impression of perfect proportion and symmetry (Ibid.:153).

With every kilometre I took through Mesoamerica, the mystery of its ancient cities kept growing and deepening (see Hancock 2016:153). Consequently, I have felt magnetically attracted, although it does not promise its mysteries to be revealed.

Featured image: Monte Alban. 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.


“Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VdZB13>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Barnhart, E., Powell, C. (2010-11) The Importance of Zenith Passage at Angkor, Cambodia, pp. 1-23. University of Texas at Austin Chautauqua Program courses to the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia.

Hancock G. (2016) Ślady palców bogów. [Fingerprints of Gods]. Kołodziejczyk G. trans. Warszawa: Amber.

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Ortega, M., Miguel, M. J., Camacho, A. (2005). “Microstructural study of the treasure of tomb #7 of Monte Alban, Oaxaca.” In: Microscopy and Microanalysis. pp. 19-24.

Schaefer, B. E. (1987) “Heliacal Rise Phenomena.” In: Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, vol. 18, pp. S19-S33.

Strom, C. (2019) “The Zapotecs of Monte Alban – The First Civilization in Western Mexico?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2HKlo8S>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].