Tag Archives: Sacred Architecture

Prasat and its Meaning in Khmer and Thai Architecture

The term has derived from the Sanskrit prāsāda or more accurately, kudakhan or rueanyotand. It usually stands for a Khmer and Thai word meaning a ‘castle’, ‘palace’ or a ‘temple’. Accordingly, in Khmer architecture, prasat means a tapered tower (or towers) rising at the centre of a temple or a temple complex (e.g, Prasat Thom), which is often compared to a pyramid-like structure or even a temple-mountain. Many a time, prasat is surmounted by prang (a usually tall and richly carved spire). Whereas in Thai architecture, it involves a royal or religious building form. “It is a building featuring an ornate roof structure, usually multi-tiered, with one or more spires. The form symbolizes the centre of the universe, which is traditionally associated with the monarch or the Buddha” (“Prasat (Thai architecture)” 2021).

Prasat Neang Khmau – the Black Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured imge: The Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace is a prominent example of the prasat formin Thai architecture. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


“Prasat” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3h9oPsF>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

“Prasat (Thai architecture)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2R99WM6>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

“Khmer architecture” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bdNIQ3>. [Accessed 9th May, 2021].

Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang in the Khmer Empire

What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire of ancient Khmers (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020).

Mysterious seven-tiered pyramid of Prang. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Secondly, it is visibly a stepped pyramid and only two such pyramids exist in Cambodia (Mohan 6th April, 2020). One of them is Prang and the other is called Baksei Chamkrong Temple from the same period (Ibid.). Some scholars also compare these two pyramids to a similar construction in Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; Lapkura 2021; Manatunga 2009:204) (see Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History).

Thirdly, “the pyramid has [well-proportioned] terraces of regular hight, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples” (Sopheak 2020).

Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.

Next, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.

These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).

Another megalithic site

On a direct way to Prang, there is a huge compound wall erected around the pyramid, which was not typical of other similar constructions in Cambodia (Mohan 10th April, 2020). It may suggest the area had a strictly limited access (Ibid.).

The pyramid of Prang is a six-stepped pyramid but the pedestal of lingam on top forms its seventh level (Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85; see: Sopheak 2015). It means it is half higher than a typical royal temple ever built by ancient Khmers (Sopheak 2020; Osmanagich 2017). The pyramid is dressed in sandstone and its stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85). Additionally, on some stone blocks there are protrusions, described as knobs, widely applied in other examples of megalithic constructions (Mohan 19th March, 2020). They are present, for example, in Peru, Egypt, Turkey and India (Ibid.)

The form of a stepped pyramid appears together with the cult of devaraja, “god-king”, and the king as an incarnation of Shiva, represented by lingam, which is confirmed by Sanskrit inscriptions in Prasat Thom (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). Such Khmer concepts can be enclosed in the name of Tribhuvaneśvara – the god worshiped in Koh Ker (Coedès in: Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:48), whose name is in Sanskrit an epithet of Indra or Śiva (Wisdom Library 2021).

In front of the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The artificial temple mountain […] is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). After Dr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). “On the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Sopheak 2020). As Dr. Osmanagich (2017) points out the weight of stones differs from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol) (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). The Lingam is said to have measured over 9 metres in height and been made of transparent crystal (Mohan 14th March, 2020). Additionally, the city of Koh Ker is still referred to by locals as Lingapura (city of lingams) and the pyramid as the Sahasralinga Temple, which means thousands of lingams (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mohan 28th March, 2020). The city was also called Chok Gargyar (the grove of Hopea odorata) (Zéphir 2015, “Koh Ker” 2021), “translated as city of glance, […] or as iron tree forest” (Koh Ker 2021). The current names, such as Koh Ker and Prasat Prang are modern (Mohan 28th March, 2020).

The lingam from Prang had already gone but inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020; Mohan 6th April, 2020). The date is puzzling as the King Jayavarman the Fourth, who is believed to have constructed the Pyramid, came to this area only a few days before the given date (Mohan 6th April, 2020). Accordingly, the lingam must have been consecrated prior to the construction of the pyramid (see: Mohan 6th April, 2020; Sopheak 2020) or the pyramid is more ancient.

The linga may have simply been looted (Sopheak 2020), leaving behind a deep hole in the middle of the platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020; Mohan 10th April, 2020), which  is symbolically supported by telamon life-size lions statues (Cunin 2019; Mohan 10th April, 2020). These are Yali, lion-like figures, usually found in South India temples, shown as holding up a structure of a temple (Mohan 10th April, 2020).

The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).

The pillars taken over by offensive nature. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

White Elephant

To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it. In Hinduism, the White Elephant is also a symbol of the god Indra who is represented on the white elephant while holding the Vajra, a mythical device, by means of which, as locals claim, he built Prasat Prang (Mohan 14th March, 2020; 6th April, 2020).

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe, the King Jayavarman’s decision about moving the capital to Koh Ker was caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Undoubtedly significant was its geographical location; it was “along the royal road network that connected Angkor to many of its various peripheral settlements” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). Most important was an ancient highway between Koh Ker and Wat Phu in modern day southern Laos, which was first discovered by Lajonquière and confirmed in twenty-first century by another researcher, Damian Evans, as the most important strategic road of the Khmer empire (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the complex function as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is described above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid. And I was wondering where the inspiration came from …

Genius Loci

The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).

Genius Loci of the site is still tangible. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …

Featured image: Mysterious seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) at Koh Ker, Cambodia. 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.


“Khmer architecture” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bdNIQ3>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Ciccone, T. M. (1998-2020) “Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker, Cambodia.” In: Asian Historical Architecture. Available at <https://bit.ly/37z2nkk>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Cunin, O. (2019). “Two Emblematic Khmer Shaiva temples – Prasat Thom and Banteay Srei” (PDF retrieved from Academia). In: Khmer Temple: Architecture and Icons. Visual presentation of a lecture given in April 2019 at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. Available at <https://bit.ly/2wevMD7>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Hall, T., Penny, D., Hamilton, R. (2018). Re-evaluating the occupation history of Koh Ker, Cambodia, during the Angkor period: A palaeo-ecological approach. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0203962, pp. 1-25. Available at <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203962>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Higham, C. (2001). The Civilization of Angkor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Kossak, S., Watts, E. W. (2001). The Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lapkura (2021). “Sathmahal Prasada”. In: Lapkura.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UEc40l>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Lawrence, K. (2020). “Koh Ker: The Unsolved Puzzles of the Pyramid.” In: Sailingstone Travel. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Hr3Q1u>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Manatunga, A. (2009). ”Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia during the Period of the Polonnaruva Kingdom”. In: Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia. Kulke, H., Kesavapany, K., Sakhuja, V. eds. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

Mazzeo, D., Antonini, C. S. (1978). Monuments of Civilization. Ancient Cambodia [Civiltá Khmer],  Arnoldo Mondadori trans. London: Cassell.

Miura, K. (2016). “Koh Ker.” In: Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution. Hauser-Schäublin, B., Prott, L. V. eds. London&New York: Routledge.

Mohan, P. (10th April, 2020). “Mysteries of the Ancient Koh Ker Temple, Cambodia – Secret Sculptures Hidden on Top Revealed”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3DumNeD>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (14th March, 2020). “30 FEET CRYSTAL LINGAM Found in Cambodia? Ancient Koh Ker Pyramid reveals Advanced Technology?”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iNXThW>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (19th March, 2020). “Tajemnica starożytnych „KNOBS” w świątyniach – dowód technologii topienia kamienia / Geopolimeru?” In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3BvhMSq>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (28th March, 2020). “1000 Year Old ENERGY LINGAM Discovered? Advanced Ancient Technology at Koh Ker Pyramid, Cambodia”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X2LSxE>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Mohan, P. (6th April, 2020). “Ancient Pyramid Built in just 12 HOURS? Koh Ker Temple, Cambodia”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uXl6TV>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Osmanagich, S. (2017). “Revealing the Mysterious Story of the Koh Ker Pyramid in Cambodia”. In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/320OoTc>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Sibson, M. (2019). “The Enigmatic Koh Ker Pyramid of Cambodia” In: Ancient Architects Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SPGSpZ>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Sopheak, H. (2020). “Prasat Thom temple complex in Koh Ker.” In: Koh Ker – Temple Town Tours. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SHaZzO>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Wisdom Library (2021). “Tribhuvaneshvara, Tribhuvaneśvara: 3 definitions”. In: Wisdom Library. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lJGjhb>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2021].

Zéphir, T. (2015).“Koh Ker – ephemeral capital of the Angkorian Empire (928-944 AD)”; conference. In: The Society of Friends of the Cernuschi Museum [La Société des Amis du Musée Cernuschi]. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iLn1Gj>. [Accessed 15th October, 2021].

Identity of the Man Found in the Sarcophagus of Palenque

Presumably, in order to preserve the precious archaeological find in its original state, Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier had not unsealed the unearthed sarcophagus for six months since it was discovered (My Gen 2021). And it took archaeologists an additional week of work before they eventually lifted the five-ton beautifully carved lid of the sarcophagus, on 28th November, in 1952 (Ibid.).

Mayan Matryoshka-style

Eventually, it turned out that the inside of the rectangular stone slab of the tomb had been additionally closed off with another smaller slab, attached by means of stone plugs in the holes (Quetzal Resistance 2011; My Gen 2021). The additional and strangely shaped lid ultimately uncovered the final resting place of the dead, whose long and beautifully attired skeleton was lying inside a similarly-shaped coffin (My Gen 2021). As a result, the whole tomb design slightly resembles a set of Matryoshka dolls, where one of a smaller size is placed inside a larger one.

Howard Carter examining the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun. On the whole, there were three coffins, decreasing in size. Exclusive to The Times – The New York Times photo archive, via their online store (1922). Public domain. Photo source: “Tutankhamun” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The interesting shape of the smaller coffin lid, sometimes compared to a body-shape, drew Graham Hancock’s attention (2016:158); he connects it with a specific type of Egyptian coffins with a widen bottom (Ibid.:158). It is a characteristic that also appears in the shape of the coffin under the Temple of the Inscriptions (Ibid.:158). Yet, the Egyptian caskets were made of wood and had wide bases as they were often placed vertically, as if they were standing (Ibid.:158). By comparison, Pakal’s coffin was carved out entirely of solid stone and was arranged horizontally (Ibid.:158). The author therefore wonders why the builders of the sarcophagus took more trouble extending its lower part since it had no practical application (Ibid.:158). Or maybe it was the shape itself, which really mattered? (Ibid.:158); it actually resembles the aforementioned keyhole symbol, but which is turned upside down and with a circle part squashed, looking slightly like an eclipse. Moreover, the Matryoshka-style of Palenque sarcophagus had been also applied in Egyptian royal coffins, such as the set of Tutankhamun’s three coffins, characterized each by a decreasing size (Tyldesley 2016).

Descendant of the race of giants

All the archaeological reports accordingly claim that in the sarcophagus in Palenque, there was found a skeleton of a tall man (My Gen 2021; Hancock 2016:158). Nevertheless, the same scientific sources never give any precise information about the exact measures of the skeleton (My Gen 2021). In my opinion, it is not sufficient to argue that some person is tall or not as such descriptions are quite subjective as they may be based on a personal judgement.

Anthropological Museum of Mexico City. Funerary dress and jewellery of king Pakal of Palenque, seventh century AD. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, such a matter as the height of an individual should be given in detail. In spite of the information missing, some alternative researchers, however, keep trying to calculate an approximate skeleton’s height, basing on equally estimated measurements of the strangely shaped sarcophagus’ cut in stone, which was specially designed for the corpse (My Gen 2021). Such estimates can be only possible to obtain by means of the provided accurate measurements of the main, rectangular lid of the sarcophagus, which are the following: the square slab of the tomb is 30 centimetres (10 inches) thick, 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide and 3,7 metres (12,5 feet) long (Hancock 2016:159). As a result of a mathematical analysis, the skeleton would have belonged to a male measuring well over 2,2 metres in height (over 7,3 feet) (My Gen 2021).

Who was really buried in Pakal’s tomb?

Although the skeleton found inside the sarcophagus is usually recognized as the remains of the king Pakal, his identity has become repeatedly questioned (My Gen 2021; Von Däniken 1991:182).

First doubts arouse mainly due to the inconsistent date of 633 AD., which is the latest among those found on the sarcophagus and so it does not chronologically correspond to the conventional date of Pakal’s death (Von Däniken 1991:182). The doubts have deepened even more together with the results of interdisciplinary identification examination of the skeletal remains from the sarcophagus, which were presented at “a symposium organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina for the Sixty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2003” (Wordtrade.com 2021). During the project directed by a specialist in Maya civilization remains, Prof. Vera Tiesler, a wide range of laboratory analyses had been used with comparative data, including archaeological, bioanthropological and epigraphical studies of the Maya culture (Ibid.). Age assessment of the individual was mainly carried out by means of morphological observations and histological methods, including even mathematical approaches applied by paleo-demographers (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross in Palenque features mysterious openings in the shape of keyhole. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, during the conference, there was no mention about results of radiocarbon dating of the bones or whether it had ever been conducted (My Gen 2021; see: Wordtrade.com 2021). It is only known that there was no DNA extraction, which Vera Tiesler explains by the fact of a very poor and fragmentary condition of the studied skeletal remains, which have been hardly preserved in seventy-five percent (Wordtrade.com 2021). As a result, even though the time of the individual’s death is relatively recent in comparison with other analysed skeletal remains from cultures existing before our era, the age determination and other analyses of Palenque skeletal remains may be erratic and inconsistent (Ibid.).

Inconsistent results

Particular results of one of the conducted examinations, however, seem quite reliable and they entirely put the identity of the individual found in the sarcophagus under question. Precisely, it was the analysis of wear on the skeleton’s teeth, which has placed the age of their owner at death as forty years old, which is simultaneously an average lifetime of the ancient Mayas (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021). Consequently, it means the skeleton must have belonged to a man forty years younger than Pakal at the moment of his death, when he was eighty years old (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). Such a contradiction may have resulted either by a wrong interpretation of the dates ascribed to Pakal’s lifetime or the fact the skeletal remains do not belong to Pakal at all.

Despite such conflicting results, most scholars have no doubts about the identity of the skeletal remains in the sarcophagus in Palenque and so they reject any possibility it may not be the skeleton of the king Pakal (Wordtrade.com 2021). Probably, in order to achieve a compromise, they have accepted that at the moment of his death Pakal could be either in the low age range, estimated between forty and fifty years, or the highest estimated age of eighty years (Ibid.). But does it bring any final conclusion to the question of age of the skeletal remains and, indirectly, of dating the burial itself?

Temple of the Inscriptions, seen from the Palace side. It is built on the stepped pyramid with nine platforms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a wide range of an acceptable age for the found skeleton is justified by scholars due to particular challenges in its precise age determination (Wordtrade.com 2021). After Prof. Vera Tiesler the human remains under question cause particular difficulties in their studies, not only because they are extensively fragmented, but also because of the age range of the individual (Ibid.). Skeletal specialists agree that it is highly difficult to precisely estimate skeletal age in case of the dead adults, especially those who were over fifty years old at the moment of their death (Ibid.). This is why the results cannot be more precise or consistent unless some novel and conclusive methods are applied in this context.

Which way leads to the afterlife?

If the conducted examinations of the found skeleton generally fail in determining the identity of the buried individual, is it possible to find out missing answers in the imagery of his sarcophagus? The latter is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating Mayan monuments and is still the subject of a fierce debate even today, which is especially about an intriguing relief on the lid. Despite different interpretations of the scene, scholars generally believe that it depicts a mythological image or the king’s journey into the world of the dead. For the Mayans of the Classic period, the afterlife was located in the underground world filled with water and so it was associated in the earthly world with actual water reservoirs or caves (Eberl 2013:311; see 😊). Accordingly, the dead body of the ruler was to rest in the burial chamber in the centre of the Temple of the Inscriptions, symbolizing an artificial cave and the king’s descent into the earth, by means of the steps leading down to the underworld (Ibid.:311). The stone lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus was therefore intended to recreate his journey to the afterlife (Ibid.:311).

But if this interpretation is correct, and the Mayan underworld was located underground, why does a small pipe of psychoduct led Pakal’s soul from the tomb back to the temple outside it?

The Tree of Life

Cosmological Mythology of the ancient Maya was recorded in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a Latin compilation of Mayan texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Wagner 2013:288). The act of creation described there was preceded by the destruction of the world by the flood (Ibid.:288), also mentioned by numerous independent sources, such as the “Book of Genesis” in the Bible and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (see😊

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

As the story goes, the very centre of the created world inhabited by the Maya was graphically marked by the Tree of Life, connecting the zenith with the nadir (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Not without a surprise, such a motif also appears in the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures (see😊. In the Mayan iconography, the central motif of the panel in the Temple of the Cross is a symbolic representation of such a tree that grows from the sacrificial bowl (Wagner 2013:288; see😊 The image must be strongly stylized because it resembles more a cross rather than a tree. After experts, branches covered with flowers grow on its both sides, whereas the two-headed serpent hanging on it symbolizes the eternally green tree and the colour of the centre of the cosmos (Ibid.:288). Additionally, on its highest branch, the god Itzamna sits on the throne, dressed as blue birds (Ibid.:288).

Here I must admit to myself that if I interpreted the relief of the Temple of the Cross myself, I would never have noticed some of the described details without a professional help of specialists.

Hidden birds game

On the sarcophagus from Planeque there are hieroglyphs and more or less abstract images. Starting from the top of the lid positioned in a vertical position, there is found a central motif that was recreated with slight changes on the later and the aforementioned relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of the Cross (Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187; see😊. In the first place, it is easy to notice a kind of a cross just in the middle, whose arms divide the surface, and metaphorically the world into four parts, and at the same time indicate the four cardinal points with its arms (see: Eberl 2013:314; Von Däniken 1991:186).

A drawing of the lid of the tomb of Maya ruler Pacal the Great. Drawing by Madman2001 – Made it myself based on several drawings References for this description (or part of this) or for the depiction in the file are not provided (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. Image modified. Photo and caption source :“Temple of the Inscriptions” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to experts having translated its imagery, a whole ornithological garden can be seen in the relief around the cross, including the Mayan bird Quetzal and the bird Moan, symbolising death (Von Däniken 1991:186-187; Wołek 2012:18). The latter was probably crouching just below the squatting anthropomorphic figure. Indeed, a strongly stylized outline of a pair of eyes and something that looks like a duck bake are visible there. Similar element also appears in the relief of the Temple of the Cross, but no one interprets it there as the bird Moan heralding death …

Furthermore, after a conventional interpretation of the relief from the Temple of the Cross, at the top of the Tree of Life sits the Mayan god Itzamna, depicted once again in the form of a bird (Wagner 2013:282). Its mirror image with small changes was also carved on earlier Pakal’s sarcophagus (see: Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187). For consistency of the both interpretations, it must be just the same bird in the both representations. But if Itzamna is sitting at the top of the cross, where is Quetzal? Apparently, it is crouching on the head of a man lying under the Tree of Life … (Von Däniken 1991:186). I need to admit that I cannot discern anything there except for elements looking like bird feathers, probably being a part of the lying man’s headgear … Dr. Ruz, in turn, sees Quetzal wearing the mask of Tlaloc and is one of miniature mythological creatures coming out from a two-headed dragon …  (Ibid.:187). Still nothing … I cannot see either the dragon or a creature wearing Tlaloc’s mask and jumping out of any head… Yet, according to translating the lid experts, a proper interpretations of the imagery is only possible when the lid is viewed from a horizontal position … (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18)

Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, most scientists believe that the imagery on Pakal’s sarcophagus should only be interpreted in a horizontal arrangement (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18). And here is another contradiction. The relief from the Temple of the Cross, which depicts the same main motif, can be only analysed in a vertical position, and the correct positioning of the relief is evidenced by two male figures standing on both sides of the Tree of Life, while it is depicted vertically.

Why is it so that the both images sharing exactly the same elements have been interpreted separately and so incoherently?

Academic and alternative interpretations of the image

Continuing the analysis of the sarcophagus lid from the vertical position, it can be noticed that under the Tree you can see the gaping mouth of the Earth Monster, which grins its teeth dangerously and threatens with its tusks (see: Von Däniken 1991:186-187). This element is missing in the later relief from the Temple of the Cross, likewise the main character of the scene on the sarcophagus. It is a male figure in a reclining position, situated just under the Tree of Life. Some experts claim it is Pakal who at the moment of his death falls into the mouth of the underworld, or of the Earth Monster armed with teeth, to be reborn like the god of corn (Von Däniken 1991:187; Eberl 2013:314).

The Tree of Life itself seems to grow out of the Earth-Monster between its tusks, and pierce the belly of the lying man with its roots. In addition, strange vines appear to grow from the man’s mouth and nose and on the back of his head. Maybe it is the Tree of Life that wants to consume the individual? Others argue that the “creepers” on the back of the king’s head are only part of an intricately pinned up hairstyle or headgear (Von Däniken 1991:187). As I mentioned earlier, some experts notice there the bird Quetzal, which would crouch on the king’s head (Ibid.:186).

‘Or maybe the ruler is inside a large skyrocket and goes into space?’, ask the proponents of the ancient astronaut theory, who support the thesis that ancient peoples around the world had contacts with representatives of a highly developed alien civilization, whom they consequently took for gods (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012).

And under the influence of such a hypothesis, the “creepers” or headdress ornaments, magically turn into double wires running inside the spacecraft (see: Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Such a theory has been successfully instilled by a controversial researcher and author, Enrich von Däniken. By taking a closer look at the lid in an upright position, he has noticed that the figure depicted takes the position of today’s cosmonauts during the launch of a space rocket (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). You can also see that the ‘cosmonaut’ is touching some devices with his hands, which look like levers (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). His feet rest on some kind of pedals (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). And beneath it, you can see what resembles flames and not the teeth of an Earth Monster (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Additionally, the king has something like a breathing apparatus in front of his face (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). ‘This element is called’ giver of life ‘,explains Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of Däniken’s followers (Burns 2012). ‘So it seems logical that it could be oxygen. It is also logical that in space a man would need a similar breathing mask’, he says (Ibid.).

Following this interpretation of the sarcophagus lid, we may come to the conclusion that the picture presented in it proves the theory of the relationship between the Mayan rulers and aliens. So which interpretation is correct?

New definitions of old truths

Various representations of the bird Quetzal and the Mouth of the Underworld or the Earth Monster, are typical imagery features of the religion and mythology of the Mesoamerican peoples, and therefore also of their art (see😊. As we can see, a similar sarcophagus motif of the cross was also immortalized on a later relief from the Temple of the Cross. But was it meant as the Tree of Life for the Maya?

Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All such interpretations are found within a framework of modern speculations and guessing, likewise contemporarily invented names given to ancient cultures, their architectural structures and artifacts (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Hancock 2016:156). The Temple encompassing Pakal’s sarcophagus certainly was not called the Temple of the Inscriptions by the Maya themselves (Ibid.:175-176). In turn, the Earth Monster was imagined as an anthropomorphic-zoomorphic figure mainly by the Aztecs, who worshiped it under the female name Tlaltecuhtli (see😊 The Aztecs, however, were one of the most recent cultures of Mesoamerica, whose development was only interrupted by the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century.

By applying the same known matrix of mythological interpretations to all discovered artifacts from the world of ancient cultures in Mesoamerica does not really add anything in determining the real meaning behind them. It only causes that we are stubbornly going around in circles, putting another painting into the same frames. According to archaeologists and art historians, the Maya could create metaphorical representations of nature, which they provided with divine features, as many other ancient cultures around the world did. Then the Earth Monster jaws would be a universal and metaphorical image of the underworld or the gateway to the underworld, in which the Mayans certainly believed and worshiped (see😊. By the time of the Aztecs, such an image could gradually evolve to finally adopt the image of the half human goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Exclusivity for the truth

On the other hand, the image on the sarcophagus may not originally have been purely symbolic, but with time it took on just such a character; perhaps a Mayan artist initially tried to recreate a scene he had seen or heard about, but he dressed it in images that were understandable to his contemporaries, or to himself.

Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It did not necessarily have to be a spacecraft launch or the maw belonging to a monster that looks as if it had been taken alive from Mayan nightmares. It could have been an image of a phenomenon or truth that once terrified, but at the same time aroused a sort of respect among various inhabitants of Mesoamerica at the time. What was that? We do not know. And perhaps we will never know the truth. Besides, no one can claim exclusivity for the true understanding of the Mayan images, and no diploma or academic degree guarantees their correct interpretation. One would have to arrange a chat with an ancient Maya first. I wonder how the ancients would react to contemporary interpretations of scenes that they once created. Probably their jaw would drop …

The sculptor of the sarcophagus could actually have left a hieroglyphic inscription on its surface, which would identify the man imagined there (see: Von Däniken 1991:182,186). The problem is that some of the hieroglyphs found on the sarcophagus still cannot be deciphered (Von Däniken 1991:186; Hancock 2016:157).

In the Mouth of the Earth Monster

In the central part of  the Temple of the Inscriptions, suspended at the top of the stepped pyramid, there is a series of stairs steeply sloping down from enormous stone slabs of the floor (Hancock 2016:157). The sandstone steps are polished by the soles of millions of tourists visiting Palenque and are now quite slippery, also due to the tropical humidity hovering in the air (Ibid.:157). The stairs lead to the crypt. ‘The Earth Monster’s Mouth’ measures 7 metres in height and 9 metres in length (Ibid.:158). The burial chamber is now separated from the visitors by a heavy grating, and additionally, a usually foggy glass hinders the access to it together with a possibility of seeing the sarcophagus in detail (Von Däniken 1991:184).

Fortunately, in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, there is a replica of the sarcophagus, which I was able to successfully photograph, although the inability to use a flash significantly worsened the sharpness of the image (see: Von Däniken 1991:185). Thus you need to have much patience to make a successful shot of this famous and controversial monument. The image itself is also often reproduced in various forms by local Indians who sell them massively to tourists. You can then hang such a woven or painted picture on the wall, of course in a vertical position, and keep trying to solve its mystery for hours after returning home from Mexico.

Featured image: Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. 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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Spire (Helm) – A Slender Tower Crowning the Roof

The top of a tower or the end of a dome or helmet but mainly at the summit of church steeples. A spire is usually in the shape of a very tall, slender and pointed pyramid or cone. It may have a square, circular, or polygonal plan. It is also the slender helmet itself on top of a roof or tower. “Spires are typically built of stonework or brickwork, or else of timber structure with metal cladding, ceramic tiling, shingles, or slates on the exterior”. Brick or stone spires, sometimes openwork, were characteristic of Gothic architecture and they are called pinnacles. In French Gothic, the spire at the transept crossing is much more slender and openwork than the two towers (bell-towers) rising at the western end of a church, or more often a cathedral (region of Île-de-France). Whereas in English Gothic, the spire at the transept crossing is a much more massive steeple (tower) crowned with a spire, as it simultaneously plays the role of a bell-tower (for example, Salisbury cathedral). In the Baroque period, spires were made of copper sheet and were crowned with helmets. Spires are also a characteristic element of Ruthenian and Russian architecture.

The slender and openwork spire at the transept crossing of the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris (France). It was designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who built a new roof and spire for Notre-Dame in the nineteenth century, after centuries of the cathedral’s negligence. Unfortunately, due to human recklessness, it was destroyed in the cathedral’s fire in 2019. Photo by Karolina Jędzrzejko. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Spire of Salisbury Cathedral (completed 1320) (123 metres with its tower and spire on top). Photo by Antony McCallum (2016). The author is the uploader, photographer, full copyright owner and proprietor of WyrdLight.com. CC BY-SA 4.0. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo source: “Spire” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


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Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History

In my head I could still hear the noise of the airport, a commotion and rush at the customs control and at baggage claim, when I suddenly fell into the arms of tropical scenery, with its heavenly peace and tranquility given by the sound of the river and the whisper of huge leaves swaying in the wind. Hidden in the shadow of the tall boughs on the shore, I lazily observed a bright sunlight pouring profusely over the river and a group of elephants frolicking in it.

At first, I could not believe that I had become part of this picturesque image: in the background of a dense curtain of tall palm trees and thick creepers protruding from green ficuses and their trunks, heavily wrinkled bulks of elephants were wading in the silvery water of the river. Some turned over and poured water on each other, using their long trunks like watering cans.

Rhapsody for an elephant

Elephants have always been a very important national element of Sri Lanka and as such these animals have become part of the folklore and leading characters of Southeast Asian legends. Throughout ages, men in Asia have taken numerous advantages of elephants’ strength to create massive constructions, using the animals not only for dragging heavy loads and their transportation but also for military purposes. The aforementioned king of Sigiriya, Kashyapa (also Kassapa), was to take part in his last fight also on the back of an elephant (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Especially the white elephant with long tusks has always been of a great importance to both, Hinduism and Buddhism, where, as tradition says, it serves either as a mount for the Hindu god, Indra, or appears in a dream of the mother of Gautama Buddha, just before he is conceived. The white elephant is an equally significant symbol of the royal power in Sri Lanka. During the processions of religious festivals in Kandy, the king’s white elephants have driven a reliquary with the most venerated there a Buddhist relic, namely, the famous Buddha Tooth preserved to our times, and brought to the island in the fourth century AD. by Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta. The same relic had previously been also preserved in another ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, where it was possibly housed in the shrine of Hatadage.

Tired after the journey in the cramped seat of the plane, I was laying on the steps of the stairs leading down to the river, and I was watching a wonderful spectacle of playing elephants as if I had been in a daydream. But such a sweet laziness could not last forever. And after a short break in Pinnawala, a famous elephant orphanage on the island, we finally set off on the way to meet archaeology of one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.

Gateway to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was first designed as a country residence before it became the successive capital of the Sinhalese kings, after the destruction of the former royal centre in Anuradhapura, in 993 AD. (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005).

In the foreground of the remnants of the Palace of the kings of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Actually, Polonnaruwa was designated as a capital by the Chola dynasty, who abandoned the previous one in Anuradhapura for strategical reasons (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). In 1070 AD., it was, however, overtaken by Sinhalese kings who kept Polonnaruwa as their capital (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). As a matter of fact, it was during the Sinhalese rule when the city’s glory reached its peak (Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Among the greatest kings of that period was the second king who ruled the capital, namely King Parakramabahu the First, whereas the third one, the King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) eventually led the kingdom to bankruptcy and so, in the early thirteenth century, the glory of Polonnaruwa had ceased (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Finally, it was abandoned, and the Sinhalese capital was moved to the western side of the island, to the city of Kandy, which became the very last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Part of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka

Together with two other historical capitals, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the city of Polonnaruwa creates one of the three angles of the pyramid-shaped graphic sign of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). As an archaeological and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa comprises numerous monuments of different periods and functions; besides the Brahman ruins of the Cholas rule, from between the tenth and eleventh centuries, there are picturesque remnants of abundant Sinhalese constructions, built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including a famous king’s, Parakramabahu the First, magnificent garden-city (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Unknown building among royal and sacred edifices

Almost all the constructions in the area of Polonnaruwa are historically recorded (Mohan 2019). Apart from earlier temples dedicated to Hindu gods, there are mostly secular buildings, like the Royal Palace and the Audience Hall, and Buddhist shrines, most famous of which are Dalada Maluva, including the Sacred Quadrangle with the unique Vatadage (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020), “where the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was housed” (Bell 1903:14-15 in: Manatunga 2009:2004), Lankatilaka Vihara and Gal Vihara (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

The Satmahal Prasada in Polonaruwa. The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues. Nevertheless, their identity has been disfigured by intentional destruction. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Photo by Bernard Gagnon (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Satmahal Prasada” (2021). Photo source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, there is no account of a pyramidal-like stepped edifice situated in an elevated area, which is generally perceived as the most mysterious structure of all in the whole ancient city and sometimes the only ancient pyramid in Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004; Lapkura 2021).

Named as Sathmahal Prasada

The structure has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building (Mohan 2019). It is located in the proximity of the Vatadage and so it is included within the Buddhist complex of Dalada Maluva (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). This is why Anura Manatunga (2009:204) thinks it was also build for religious purposes  as other constructions on site. For this reason, Sathmahal Prasada is believed to have served as a stupa, built in the proximity of other prominent Buddhist ruins such as stupas and monasteries of Polonnaruwa (Lapkura 2021).

As much as the Quadrangle may have played the role of the most important royal monastery of Sinhalese kings ruling in the city, Sathmahal Prasada must have had a very significant function as well (Manatunga 2009:204). Yet, the pyramid may not have belonged to the Buddhist complex originally (Mohan 2019). And as Anura Manatunga (2009:204) admits the construction “is still unidentified and remains an ambiguous monument [as] we cannot [pinpoint its] builder, purpose or even the ancient name of the building”.

Accordingly, experts do not know who built it or why it was built (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204; Lapkura 2021). Its original name is equally lost in history (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204). As such, it can be described only by means of its appearance and it actually resembles a stepped pyramid with entrances on all four sides (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Moreover, it is also one of no more than four other ancient constructions on the island with square bases, providing that the others are all older religious ruins in Anuradhapura, most of which are damaged (Lapkura 2021). It is equally worth mentioning that none of the three structures reveal any signs of having been pyramids and all appear to have been rather squat in their shape (Ibid.).

Origins shrouded in mystery

Due to its growing mystery, Sathmahal Prasada has continuously provoked some new theories and scholars’ guesses concerning its provenience and function (Manatunga 2009:204-205). For example, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865–1937), an epigraphist and archaeologist of Sri Lanka, speculates (1928:92-93) that it may have been once a palace, as much as it is claimed today about the function of the construction on top of the Rock of Sigiriya (Ibid.:204). The scholar based his theory on the fact that epigraphical sources say that one of the most famous kings of Polonnaruwa, Nissanka Malla (1187- 1196) had built a seven-storey palace for himself (Ibid.:204). Nevertheless, unlike in the case of the so-called ‘Palace’ on top of Sigiriya, academics commonly agreed that “the solid tower-like building [of Sathmahal Prasada] is not habitable and, therefore, cannot be residential building” (Ibid.:204).

Another symbolic representation of the Mount Meru in the shape of a pyramid

Most relevant of all seems to be a suggestion made by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), a Sri Lankan Tamil metaphysician, pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, who proposed  (1965:165) that Sathmahal Prasada actually represented the mythical Mount Meru, as much as many other examples of sacred architecture in Southeast Asia and in India (Manatunga 2009:204). Some alternative authors even claim it has similarities with pyramidal architecture, created by contemporary oversea cultures (Lapkura 2021).

A Buddhist monk passing by Sathmahal Prasada, in Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851-1937), who was the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, describes Sathmahal Prasada in his Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey 1903, 1906, and 1910 (2009:14) as “a solid brick structure with seven storeys that diminished in width and height stage by stage” (Manatunga 2009:204). And although he does not directly call it a pyramid, his narrative undoubtedly identifies it as a pyramidal structure. HCP Bell (1903:14) also adds  that “[the] top of the building has collapsed but it is still high, at 53 feet, [which is over 16 metres. And] at the ground level it is a 39 [feet] 2 inches square building, [that is, almost 12 metres]” (Ibid.:204).

Southeast Asian affinities

In terms of the construction’s origins, Anura Manatunga (2009:204) claims that Sathmahal Prasada, together with Gal Vihara statues and Pothgul Vehera, shows more likely Southeast Asian affinities. Her theory is also supported by earlier authorities (Ibid.:204-205). Reginald Le May (1885-1972), a British art historian and a Honorary Member of the Siam Society, writes in A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam (1962:97-98) that Sathmahal Prasada bears some similarity to a bigger and taller pyramidal structure of Wat Kukut in Northern Thailand, which is additionally contemporary to the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (Ibid.:205). Among other contemporary Thai constructions similar to Sathmahal Prasada, the book Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. C. 1000 to C. 1500 by W. M. Sirisena (1978:123) also enumerates Suwanna Chedi in Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, which is also pyramidal in its structure (Ibid.:204).

On the other side, HCP Bell (1903:14-15) claims that Sathmahal Prasada resembles more Khmer constructions of the Angkor complex in Cambodia (Manatunga 2009:204). Accordingly, the construction would be “an architectural link between the simplest form of rectangular pyramid such as Ka Keo, [possibly Ta Keo] with plain vertical walls and strait of stairs up the middle of each side and the elaborate towers at Mi-Baume, [in Angkor Wat] and other similar shrines” (Bell 1903:14 in: Manatunga 2009:204).

Mysteries come in pairs

Nowadays, in its ruined but still pyramid-like shape, Sathmahal Prasada is usually compared to an equally mysterious Khmer temple in Cambodia, namely, the unique pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) of Koh Ker, which also features seven platform, or to Baksei Chamkrong temple in Siem Reap (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Lapkura 2021). Possibly significant is the fact that the both temples were once dedicated to Shiva and built around the tenth century AD. (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). What is more, they resembles some Mayan temples built in Mesoamerica, though on a smaller scale (Lapkura 2021).

On the whole, the construction of Sathmahal Prasada is entirely distinctive from other ancient temples in Polonnaruwa or other buildings, characteristic of Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Manatunga 2009:204). There are no such architectural parallels found in the country or in the South Asia (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004). In fact, both tourists and archaeologists are puzzled, while looking at the construction (Mohan 2019).

The mysterious pyramidal structure of Polonnaruwa has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building. Its original name is unknown, whereas most of the constructions in the city is identifiable. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Pyramids also come in pairs

In all ancient civilisations, there are similar pyramidal constructions, built in different time and in various places around the world (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Stepped pyramids exist in Egypt, Mexico, in lands of the former Ancient Mesopotamia (ziggurats), and in India (Mohan 2019). Generally, such structures appear in a given area usually in numbers and, as it has been speculated, there is also another stepped pyramid in Sri Lanka, possibly once built on top of the Sigiriya Rock (Ibid.). The latter is sometimes referred to as the Great Pyramid of Sri Lanka, in comparison to Sathmahal Prasada, which is much smaller in scale but more completely preserved than its possibly larger equivalent of Sigiriya (Ibid.).

Two pyramids found on the island

After Praveen Mohan (2019), Sathmahal Prasada is actually a perfect match for the pyramid on top of Sigiriya; it features bricked ramps and is also built with the lime mortar set between the bricks. It is furthermore composed of the four sides, with a bricked quadrangle base, like at Sigiriya (Ibid.). It also contains a remaining flight of stairs made of bricks, on the west side of the pyramid, leading up to the first storey (Manatunga 2009:2004; Mohan 2019). Looking at Sath Mahal Prasada, it is also possible to speculate how the Great Pyramid of Sigiriya would have looked like before its upper part was demolished (Mohan 2019).

Carved figures with disfigured identity

The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues; namely, “[the] centre of each storey of the building has niches on all four sides. A standing figure, [possibly] of a deity made of bricks and stucco is projected on these niches” (Manatunga 2009:2004).

The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An anomaly regarding the sculpture is that the faces of all the statues carved around the stepped pyramid are entirely chopped off, erased or disfigured (Mohan 2019). It could not be an effect of natural forces as the visible destructions are strikingly similar on all the four sides of the structure (Ibid.). Consequently, it can be claimed that the statues’ faces were meant to be deliberately destroyed and so their identity was to be forgotten together with the name of the pyramid’s builder and the true origins of the construction itself (Ibid.).

Polygonal masonry in Polonnaruwa

Yet before I approached the towering façade of Sathmahal Prasada, my attention was immediately drawn by a stone henge separating the remnants of an ancient shrine of Hatadage, built by King Nissanka Malla in the twelfth century, and the pyramidal construction itself. Interesting was the fact that the wall featured polygonal masonry, where huge megalithic stones of various sizes and shapes had been dressed together in a way they resembled a jigsaw puzzle. I also observed that surfaces of each polygonal stone had been cut either with straight or rounded sides but all had joints perfectly fitting adjacent blocks. Sometimes among two or more larger slabs, there were tiny polygonal stones, matching perfectly the free space between them. I was just amazed. The same type of polygonal masonry is very characteristic of megalithic constructions not only in Asia but also in the whole world. Is the wall contemporary to the bricked pyramid of Polonnaruwa? Or maybe it is even more ancient as possibly are some examples of megalithic masonry at Sigiriya … (see: Denied Pyramid on Top of the Rock of Sigiriya)

The question of the lost civilization appears again

Nowadays, all the four entrances to the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada are completely sealed off and there are guards preventing anybody from walking inside it (Mohan 2019). Such precautions are said to protect people from being at danger in case the structure accidentally collapses (Ibid.).

Two friendly macaques were sitting down on the bricked wall of the Eastern Gate. They are apparently attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks. In the background, the facade of Sathmahal Prasada. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘It is a pity that Sathmahal Prasada cannot be properly restored and seen also from the inside’, I thought, while observing its upper part, narrowing behind a bricked wall of the Eastern Gate to the city. Two friendly macaques were sitting down on it, visibly attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks.

For a while I was observing with pleasure their graceful movements over broken bricks of the wall.

‘Oh, how much this bricked wall differs from that beside Sathmahal Prasada’, I was still considering the matter of the seen example of polygonal masonry.

Finally, gathering all the facts about the two archaeological sites of Sri Lanka, with their partially surviving constructions, namely the said gigantic stepped pyramid on top of Sigiriya and the smaller one in Polonnaruwa, it can be understood that there was possibly once an ancient civilisation who built pyramidal structures and created polygonal megalithic walls on the island, as elsewhere, anyway, in the whole ancient world (Mohan 2019).

Featured image: The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple had been finished; it rose unsurpassed in its beauty and solitude on white terraces, surrounded by columns, against the background of a dark massif of mountains (Żylińska 1972-1986:65).

Temple tells a story

Having come back from the land of Punt, the Queen began to decorate the walls of her temple (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). She had her history painted on them, from the moment when her mother, Queen Ahmose, was visited by the god Amun-Re, through her birth, the announcement of her succession to the throne, the history of the trip to Punt, until the day when she would give her divine body under the protection of the goddess Nut, asking her to make place for her among the stars lest she die forever (Ibid.:65-66).

Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A transverse ramp led us to the middle level of the temple, with a similar architectural shape to the lower one, but more extensive (Lipińska 2008:161). On both sides of the portico closing the courtyard from the west, there are chapels of collaterally worshiped deities in the temple (Ibid.:161). The Hathor chapel was built on the south side, and the Anubis chapel on the north side (Ibid.:161,163). In the chapel of the goddess Hathor, embodied by Hatshepsut, both pillars and smooth, cylindrical columns topped with so-called Hathor’s capitals were built (Ibid.:164).

The north side of the central courtyard is occupied by a colonnade that was never completed (Lipińska 2008:163). The northern portico is decorated with bas-reliefs illustrating the legend of the divine birth of Hatshepsut (Ibid.:163). The southern portico, on the other hand, is decorated with the highly detailed image of the exotic land of Punt, famous and unusual in the history of ancient Egypt, where the Queen went with a trade expedition (Ibid.:163).

The third story of the Temple has a different spatial layout and here are the main rooms of the monument (Lipińska 2008:164). From the second, central courtyard, we climbed the ramp again (Ibid.:164). At the end of the way up, we were greeted by another terrace with porticoes on either side (Ibid.:164). Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris; they are five meters high each (Ibid.:164). The entrance is on the axis and leads through a red granite portal (Ibid.:164). It guided us to the inner courtyard, behind which there is a barque shrine, partially carved into the rock and deeper, in the very heart of the temple, there is the sanctuary or the holy of holies (Ibid.:164). On both sides of the inner courtyard there were additionally chapels: on the north side an open courtyard with the altar of solar worship, and on the south side, there was a tomb chapel and two sarcophagi: one for Hatshepsut and the other for her earthly father; these were their sacrificial halls (Lipińska 2008:164; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). For everything that Hatshepsut undertook and everything that she did, she did with her father Thutmose the First in mind, who placed her over his son and appointed her his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

Hatred Queen

However, not everyone worshiped the Queen as their Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). For the son of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut was an ordinary usurper (Ibid.:67). Thutmose the Third hated her with the hatred of all the years spent in the shadow of her divinity (Ibid.:67). He wanted to fill them with the toil of military expeditions, the clamour of battles, the march through the deserts and the glory of the military victory (Ibid.:67).

Deir El Bahari; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Nina Evensen (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

Eventually his wish came true (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). The news of the war fell on Egypt like a vulture from high above; Syrian cities revolted against the Egyptian crews, demolished Egyptian holy statues and proclaimed independence from Pharaoh’s rule (Ibid.:67-68). On the day of the Egyptian army’s departure, Hatshepsut handed over the highest military power to Thutmose (Ibid.:68). A few months later, news began coming into Thebes announcing the victory of the Egyptian army (Ibid.:68). All Egypt was in a frenzy of joy (Ibid.:68). It was the first triumph of war in over thirty years that struck and drunk city dwellers like young wine (Ibid.:68). Only mothers cried for their slain sons and worried that their bodies were not properly prepared for the journey to the Land of the Dead and that their souls might not have been brought to the Judgment of Osiris and so died for eternity (Ibid.:68-69).

A view to a sanctuary chamber on the upper platform of the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor’s west bank, Egypt. Photo by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz (2004). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut proclaimed Thutmose the Third the co-regent of Egypt, and they were to share power together (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). There were also rumours that he was going to marry Princess Neferure (Ibid.:69). And when people had ceased to worry about the change and to speculate whether the Queen’s stepson would be satisfied with his assigned share of power, Hatshepsut unexpectedly passed away (Ibid.:69). Nobody ever found out under what circumstances she died (Ibid.:69). Yet not long ago, it was still a mystery of history.

Mystery of the history

Moreover, Hatshepsut’s body mysteriously vanished from the sarcophagus she had chosen for herself, and in which she would have given her immortal soul into the hands of the goddess Nut; when the sarcophagus was reopened again, it turned out that the queen’s mummy originally buried there disappeared without a trace (Żylińska 1972-1986:69; Quilici 2007). However, the Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus had never been deposited in her Mortuary Temple, which was rather a cenotaph (Quilici 2007; Lipińska 2008:171). The Hatshepsut’s last resting place was to be in the Valley of the Kings, intended for the Pharaohs (Lipińska 2008:171). This place, due to its seclusion and difficult access, provided a better protection against robbers (Ibid.:171). It is also believed that the choice of the site could equally be influenced by the landscape, above which the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn has stood, towering over the valley like a colossal pyramid (Ibid.:171).

Site plan of Deir el-Bahari (in French). Drawing by Gérard Ducher (user:Néfermaât) (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Drawing and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Already at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, to which Hatshepsut belonged, the existing way of building a royal tomb and a mortuary temple in one sepulchral complex was given up (Lipińska 2008:171). It was considered that the separation of these two elements may have contributed to a better protection of the tomb, which had since been placed in the distant, hard-to-reach rocks of the mountain massif in Western Thebes (Ibid.:171). These are complexes belonging to both the Valley of the Kings and of the Queens (Pharaohs’ wives). It seems that this chapter in the sacred sepulchral architecture of Egypt was initiated by the second ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep the First (Ibid.:171). His son and Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose the First, on the other hand, introduced the construction of a new type of royal necropolis in the Valley of the Kings, a desert valley on the other side of the massif closing the Deir el-Bahari Valley from the west (Ibid.:171).

Deir el-Bahari with Hatshepsut’s temple, temple of Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, West Thebes, Egypt. Above the necropolis complex towers the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn, like a colossal pyramid, which had probably influenced the choice of the place by the pharaohs. Photo by Nowic (2003). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut’s mummy was buried in the tomb labelled today as KV20, the deepest tomb in Egypt, situated over ninety-one metres underground, in the Valley of the Kings (Quilici 2007). “It was probably the first royal tomb to be constructed in the valley, […] distinguished from other tombs in the [area], both in its general layout and because of the atypical clockwise curvature of its corridors. […] KV20 was the original burial place of Thutmose I […] and later was adapted by his daughter Hatshepsut to accommodate both her and her father” (“KV20” 2020).

The Name to be forgotten

After Hatshepsut’s death, no mourning rituals were announced, and no coronation ceremony took place, as if Thutmose the Third had been a Pharaoh since his father’s death (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Sometime after these events, by the orders of the new Pharaoh, teams of workers began the painstaking work of destroying all traces of Hatshepsut’s existence (Ibid.:69).

Thebes – Temple Dêr el Bahri. Photo by Ephtimios Freres – Rare Books and Special Collections Library; the American University in Cairo, early twentieth century. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Sphinx Avenue and in the porticoes on the third-level terrace of her temple, the stonemasons smashed the heads with the face of the Queen, then they threw her statue in coronation garments from a granite base and proceeded to demolish her representations in relief (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). First they hammered her eyes, then they knocked down the uraeus from her forehead, and when they did so, they smashed the statue into thousands of pieces, by throwing it from the height of a two-story building (Ibid.:69). All inscriptions with the name of Hatshepsut were being erased with chisels for many months (Ibid.:70). In their place, engravers carved the name of Thutmose the Third or his son Amenhotep the Second (Żylińska 1972-1986:70; Quilici 2007). Also the papyri with the Queen’s edicts were destroyed, and her painted images were covered with thick layers of plaster (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Preserving the name of the dead was essential in ancient Egypt as they would not have been recognised by gods. And if the name of a mummy had been forgotten, they would not have been able to enjoy the Eternal Life and their souls would have disappeared into nothingness. Just in the same way as it was going to happen with the soul of deceased Hatshepsut. Erased from the list of Pharaohs, without a sarcophagus, not prepared for the way to the Land of Osiris, she was to fall apart, disappear from memory and dissolve into emptiness (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Thutmose the Third began his reign of Egypt by denying the existence of the last divine Queen of Egypt, who was a Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Rebirth of the Pharaoh

Thirty-five centuries later, the remnants of the desecrated statue of the Queen were excavated from the sand layers, as the stonecutters had left them, and a team of archaeologists carefully put them back together, restoring the statue of the divine Hatshepsut to its original shape (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Similarly, Osiris’ statues with her features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen, who became one of the most famous and colourful, yet mysterious Pharaohs of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:164-166).

Osiris’ statues with Hatshepsut’s features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since 1961, the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple has been reconstructed by Polish archaeologists and other specialists, initially under the supervision of a Polish famous archaeologist, Kazimierz Michałowski (Lipińska 2008:165; see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Speechless”). During the reconstruction of the retaining wall, which is the background for the temple, a terrace carved in the rock was discovered, probably to protect the temple from rock fragments falling down (Ibid.:165). The destruction of the temple was not made entirely by Thutmose the Third himself; It experienced many further destructions, for example, in the Late Period, and was rebuilt in the Ptolemaic and Coptic times (Ibid.:165). The Ptolemaic enlarged the sanctuary of Amun, creating another one behind it, devoted to the cult of the three healer deities (Ibid.:165). Deir-el Bahari was then famous for miraculous healings, where the sick came even from distant Greece (Ibid.:165-166). In the Coptic times, a Christian monastery was built on the upper level of the temple, and the valley owes its name to the monastery: Deir-el Bahari means ‘northern monastery’ (Ibid.:166).

Beside the Stepmother anyway

During the work in the Deir el-Bahari Valley, Polish archaeologists unexpectedly also found the ruins of the temple of Thutmose the Third, located in the vicinity of the temple of Hatshepsut, his hatred stepmother (Lipińska 2008:166). The construction of the Temple of Thutmose the Third began when, at the Pharaoh’s order, the statues of Hatshepsut were smashed and carvings with her names erased from the walls, which was associated with the destruction of all the traces of the reign of the Queen-Pharaoh (Ibid.:166). Although Thutmose the Third was one of the greatest Pharaohs in history, it is ironically, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, and not the ruins of the Temple of Thutmose the Third, that arouses widespread admiration today, and the very name of the Queen, so shamefully removed, is much more often mentioned by visitors to Deir el-Bahari.

In front of Deir el-Bahri; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Ron Porter (2014). Photo cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixabay.

The building of Thutmose the Third was situated in the centre of the Valley, obviously on a higher level than the Queen’s temple, despite very unfavourable natural conditions (Lipińska 2008:166). The structure erected had a shape borrowed from both neighbouring temples; those of Mentuhotep the Second and Hatshepsut (Ibid.:166). Tens of thousands of fragments of polychrome reliefs were recovered from the rubble of this, also three-level temple, which was destroyed at the end of the New Kingdom (Ibid.:166). Reconstruction of the wall reliefs allowed to recreate the decoration of the temple after many years (Ibid.:166).

Temples in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari

During the New Kingdom, shortly after the reign of Thutmose the Third, there were three buildings in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari, which must have been once a magnificent complex of architecture harmonizing with the natural landscape of the Valley. At that time, the temple of Mentuhotep had not yet been destroyed (Lipińska 2008:166). Next to it, the temples of Hatshepsut and Thutmose the Third rose in all their majesty (Ibid.:166). The wide processional avenues, running parallel to the bottom of the Asasif Valley, were framed by necropolises with decorated tomb facades (Ibid.:166). As underlined above, the background of the whole necropolis were rock cliffs dominated by the El-Kurn peak with a triangular top resembling a pyramid (Ibid.:166). The rhythm of the horizontal temple porticoes and the sloping ramps of the three temples, each different but consistent with the others in style, must have produced a wonderful effect in the rays of the sun continuously shining from the cloudless sky (Ibid.:166-167). This effect was enhanced by the colour contrasts between the bright brown rocks being the background of the temples, the white and rich polychrome of the buildings, and the green foliage of the trees that used to grow in the lower courtyards (Ibid.:167).

The so-called Hathor chapel on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard. A photographer at work. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the foot of the ramp in the courtyard of the Hatshepsut’s Temple, there were also two small pools filled with water (Lipińska 2008:167). Each part of the architectural complex harmonized with each other and with the surrounding environment; they were built gradually over the centuries, and although there is no question of spatial planning, according to scholars, the harmony of the whole complex and the organic connection of the buildings with nature are the main advantages of Deir el-Bahari, as opposed to richer but chaotic buildings in the Amun-Re district of Karnak in Eastern Thebes (Ibid.:167,170).

Hathor looking down from the capitals

I was standing on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard, admiring pillars and columns at the Hathor chapel. They are usually referred to as the Hathor or sistrum columns (The MET 2020). Their capitals show heads of Hathor in the form of a cow on four opposite sides. Each is additionally topped with a naos-sistrum sound-box (Ibid.). Such a capital had been quite typical of Egypt since the beginning of the New Kingdom. Between them, I noticed smooth movements of a photographer nimbly climbing the pillars and columns up and down with a huge camera hanging from his neck. From time to time, he froze in a peculiar pose in his acrobatic dance between the columns, and took a series of pictures of the cow goddess.

Neglected mummy from KV60

Hatshepsut’s story was still on my mind. I was trying to piece it together. Her name was wiped out from the history intentionally, her legacy destroyed, her mummy vanished for centuries (Quilici 2007). Actually, it was officially uncovered in the tomb KV60, located close to the KV20, in 1903 by Howard Carter (Ibid.). It is speculated that Hatshepsut’s mummy had been removed from her original tomb and shifted from place to place for centuries, in order to save it either from grave robbers or a final destruction by the following Pharaohs, taking into account Hatshepsut’s name was being hacked away in the entire Theban region by Thutmose the Third (Ibid.).

Matriarchy had already been over

For some reasons, her image as the Pharaoh must have been removed (Quilici 2007). It was so, along with the names of Senenmut and Hatshepsut’s daughter (Ibid.). By this means, Neferure, Hatshepsut’s desired heir to the throne, would simply vanish from history (Ibid.). Female Pharaoh grooming her own daughter to be her successor to the throne must have been too radical in her plans at the time of patriarchy (Ibid.). This is probably why Neferure’s last resting place is located high in the mountain cliff, In the small opening in the rock, very distant from Thebes and difficult to be found (Ibid.). Moreover, the hacked away name of the Queen was usually being replaced by the name of Thutmose the Third’s son, Amenhotep the Second (Ibid.).

Pillars with the Hathor capitals in the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

After Kara Cooney, it is possibly the key to the whole campaign against Hatshepsut and severe attempts to destroy her legacy; she and her female heir must have been removed from common memory to avoid a woman descendant to mount the throne in Egypt (Quilici 2007). Therefore the attack on Hatshepsut’s legacy was all about the politics of succession; Thutmose the Third wanted to make sure that the succession remained patrilineal, that it to say, it would be passed down from father to his son (Ibid.). But in order to guarantee a smooth succession, it was essential to remove the Queen and her daughter from history (Ibid.). Eventually, it made Thutmose the Third’s masculine descendants take Hatshepsut’s place (Ibid.).

Tale-tale tooth

Discovered in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the mummy of Hatshepsut has finally found its place among other royal mummies in the Museum of Archaeology in Cairo, Egypt (Quilici 2007). It has her left arm bent in a royal position, the feature typical of deceased Egyptian Pharaohs, and is still well preserved, despite the fact it used to be long transferred from one tomb to another before being finally abandoned and neglected (Ibid.). Identifying the Hatshepsut mummy was only possible by means of an analysis of a tooth found in the canopy box with the Hatshepsut name (Ibid.). Further  studies have also revealed she died at the age between forty and fifty and was killed by an infection in her body (Ibid.).

Walking down the ramp of the Temple. Photo taken by Marek, Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Rescued from oblivion and becoming famous

Owing to the team of specialists, led by the Egyptian archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, the Queen was rescued from oblivion (Quilici 2007). Hatshepsut has regained her position as one of the most powerful women that the world had ever seen on the throne of the Pharaohs (Ibid.).

Since then, the mysterious story of Hatshepsut has attired attention of various scholars and authors, such as an associate professor of Egyptology, Dr Kara Cooney  whose book, The Woman Who Would Be King (2014) greatly underlines Hatshepsut’s legacy.

Author Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy (2014). Kara Cooney, author of “The Woman Who Would Be King” and leading Egyptologist, discusses Hatshepsut, Egypt’s longest reigning female pharaoh and her legacy. Learn more about Hatshepsut at KaraCooney.com. Film source: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel.

Featured image: The Mortuary Temple of the Queen Hatshepsut in Deir El Bahari. Photo by Joanna Gawlica-Giędłek (2017). Free images at Pixabay.

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


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“KV20” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3omnZcP>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Free pictures at Pixbay. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LtkZgc>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

Lipińska J. (2008). Sztuka starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Arkady.

Quilici B. (2007). Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen. Starring Kara Cooney and Zahi Hawass. Discovery Channel.

The Crown Publishing Group (2014). “Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy”. In: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pH7BUO>. [Accessed on 3rd February, 2021].

The MET (2020). “Column with Hathor-emblem capital and names of Nectanebo I on the shaft. 380–362 B.C. Late Period”. In Metropolitan Museum. Available at <http://bit.ly/3q1SMfv>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Żylińska J. (1972-1986). Kapłanki, Amazonki i Czarownice. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Teutonic Order in the Castle of Malbork and its Ghosts

The brick walls of the castle in Malbork always make a great impression on its visitors as they walk among the countless castle red towers, bastions and courtyards, delving deeper into its long corridors and their secrets. We felt just the same gloomy atmosphere when, following the guide, we listened to the history of the castle and of its inhabitants, whose ghosts are said to still live within its chambers and underground. And even though it was a very hot summer day, we got goosebumps when we listened to scary stories of the haunted castle.

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

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

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

Upper Castle and its treasury

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

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

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

Eight-meter high Protector Saint

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

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

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

Chapel of Saint Anne

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

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

… and its ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapdoor of Gdanisko

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

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

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

Middle Castle

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

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

Eating and drinking at will

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

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

Sebald Tharsen summons up the devil

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

Summer Refectory

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

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

Cannonball above the fireplace

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

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

Buried tunnel

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

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

Palace of the Grand Masters

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

Low Castle and barbican

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

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

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

Malbork in the hands of the Polish Crown

After the victory of the Battle of Grunwald, but the unsuccessful siege of Malbork by the Polish army in 1410, the castle finally was sold by mercenary troops to the Polish Crown in 1457, during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492), and belonged to the Polish Crown until the First Partition of Poland in 1772 (Bieszk 2010:115). In this way, the castle became a Polish royal residence by the Baltic Sea, a great arsenal of the commonwealth in this region and a storage of food. Its strategic importance was difficult to overestimate (Ibid.:115).

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

Ghost Castle Night Tour

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

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

Haunted castle

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

Wooden staircase to the morgue

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

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

Ghost by the Golden Gate

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

Castle by the Nougat

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

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

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

Exemplifying the Middle Ages of Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Rock-Cut Tomb of a Hero in the City of Tlos

The following week, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye, in Lycian Turkey. After forty minutes of enjoying the bumping off-road, we eventually reached the ruins of an ancient city of Tlos, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:65).

To see the ancient city of Tlos and its tombs, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1838, it was discovered by Sir Charles Fellows (1799-1860), a British archaeologist, famous for his expeditions in Turkey (Bean 1989:65). The settlement of the acropolis is on the hill, which though does not seem very high from the side of a modern town, it rises to almost perpendicular cliffs on the north-east (Ibid.:66). On top of the hill, there is now an unoccupied Turkish castle from the nineteenth century (Ibid.:65-66). Below it, on the hill’s east slope, there are traces of successive constructions, including Lycian remains of the walls and Roman masonry with re-used building material (Ibid.:66). There are also two groups of Lycian tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north (Ibid.:66). In a large open and now cultivated flat space, just at the foot of the hill, there are scattered numerous and various stone elements (Ibid.:66). Some scholars claim these are the remains of the agora (Ibid.:66).

In Tlos, there are two groups of Lycian rock-cut tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north. Among sepulchral architecture, there are also sarcophagi. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, along the west hillside and below the ancient city-wall, there are still visible rows of seats of a stadium, whose originally regular line now is disrupted by a modern installation of walls and a running stream (Bean 1989:66). Nevertheless, such an arrangement of the agora, which apparently used to be situated alongside the stadium, is quite outstanding for ancient Lycian or Greek urban architecture (Ibid.:66). On the east side of the open space, there are remains of a market-building and a large complex of chambers with arched windows (Ibid.:66). To the south-east, there is in turn a baths, called by locals Yedi Kapi (‘Seven Doors’), which apparently refers to the remaining building’s apsidal projection with seven windows (Ibid.:66). To the east of the baths, there is a huge open square, which according to another thesis, should be acknowledged as an actual agora of the city (Ibid.:66-67). To the west of the square there is an Early Byzantine church, and to the east, a large and well-preserved Roman theater, which comes from around the first century A.D. or even earlier (Ibid.:67).

The city of Tlos

The city of Tlos is very ancient, as it had already been mentioned in the Hittite records of the fourteenth century BC., under the name of Dalawa, situated in the occupied by the Hittites territory of Lukka (Bean 1989:65).

Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just a Lycian hero, Bellerophon, and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, it was called Tlawa by the Lycians themselves, for whom it was one of the six principial cities in their lands (Bean 1989:65). When it was incorporated into the Province of the Roman Empire, it was known as ‘a very brilliant metropolis of the Lycian nation’, and in the Christian times, under the Byzantine Empire, Tlos was granted with its own episcopate as a part of the metropolitan of Myra (Ibid.:65). Nonetheless, the city was hardly mentioned by ancient writers, except for few notes given by contemporary geographers or two historic incidents occurring there, recorded in inscriptions (Ibid.:65). The latter also tell that ancient citizens of Tlos were divided into at least three demes (a political division of Attica in ancient Greece), which were named after famous Lycian heroes, such as Iobates, Sarpedon or Bellerophon (Ibid.:65).

Bellerophon and his Pegasus

According to myths, the site is strongly associated  especially with one of Lycian heroes, Bellerophon, from whom the early rulers of the Tlos claimed to descend (Miszczak 2009). This famous mythological figure is best known as a great rider who managed to tame and ride Pegasus (Ibid.). Pegasus was a winged steed miraculously brought to life; namely, it had jumped out of the neck of Medusa after Perseus cut off her head (Ibid.). Bellerophon mounted Pegasus with the help of the goddess Athena and her magical bridle (Ibid.). Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he lost gods’ favour, when he tried to reach the summit of Olympus on his Pegasus (Ibid.).

The so-called Tomb of Bellerophon (on the left) is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name. Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Bellerophon was worshiped as a hero in Lycia, especially in Tlos, where he was also believed to have lived in the fourth century BC., and where he was said to have eventually been buried (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:68). Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just  for him and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia (Miszczak 2009). Archaeologists, in turn, have never supposed that the tomb belonged to Bellerophon himself (Bean 1989:68). As a matter of fact, the grave is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name (Ibid.:68). The only thing referring there directly to the hero is a relief depicting Bellerophon flying on Pegasus (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67-68).

Typical temple – tomb of Lycia

Among all the tombs cut in the acropolis hillside, the so-called Tomb of Bellerophon is also the greatest and most significant, which can suggest it was prepared for someone important, almost as much as the mythological hero (Bean 1989:67). Dating from the first half of the fourth century BC., the tomb is located low down, on the north side of the cliff (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67).

Lycian tombs of different categories in Tlos, Turkey. In the foreground, there are sarcophagi, whereas in the background house-tombs are carved high up in the rock. Apart from those, the most outstanding of all tombs in Tlos is the one cut in the rock as a temple-tomb. Photo by Nikodem Nijaki (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image modified. Photo source: “Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category (Ibid.:67). It has got two squared pilasters in antis, with Ionic capitals and a pediment above them (Ibid.:67). Inside the porch, the front wall is articulated into three parts; on either side of the imitated stone doorway with studs and decorations, there are two real side-doors raised almost one metre above the threshold blocks; they lead directly to grave-chambers (Ibid.:67-68). The left-hand door opens to a chamber with four benches for the corpses; the one on the right additionally features a stone pillow for the dead’s head, alongside the niche for offerings (Ibid.:68). Most likely it was the bench reserved for the principal member of the family (Ibid.:68). The door on the right leads, in turn, to a smaller funeral room, equipped only with three benches (Ibid.:68).

Reliefs and a mystery of their mutual connections

The most important of all features of the tomb is, however, the mentioned above relief representing Bellerophon. It is situated on the left-side of the upper part of the front wall of the porch (Bean 1989:67). The hero is riding a flying Pegasus while rising his left arm (Ibid.:67). The rider and his steed are facing right, towards another relief, positioned above the left-hand side door (Ibid.:67). The latter shows a feline-like animal, a lion or leopard, facing left, towards the coming hero (Ibid.:67). At first sight, the position of the both reliefs suggests that they are related, and some scholars interpret them as two components of the same mythological scene; according to a Greek myth, Bellerophon fights against and slays a monster, Chimera, after she devastates Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:67-68; The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021).

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. Photo by Marsyas (2005). Uploaded in 2020. CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Bellerophon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The myth of Chimarea is also strongly associated with another site in ancient Lycia, namely the Mount Chimaera, which is often localized in Yanartaş , in geothermically active region with naturally burning flames (“Yanartaş” 2021; “Mount Chimaera” 2021). “It has been suggested that the fires are the inspiration for the fire-breathing Chimarea in Homer’s Iliad” (“Yanartaş” 2021). Nevertheless, George E. Bean assumes “that the original location of the ancient Mount Chimarea was further west, as cited by Strabo, at a location where similar fires burned” (Ibid.).

Chimarea is usually described as a fire-breathing female hybrid, composed of parts of such animals as a lion, a goat and a dragon (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021). Nonetheless, the relief representing the feline does not resemble the mythological hybrid at all (Bean 1989:68). What is more, the both representations are shown in a different scale, which may be against the thesis that they belong to the same narrative (Ibid.:68). The relief showing the lion-like animal may be rather related to two other reliefs of the tomb, each appearing on the threshold blocks below the two side-doors, which also represent animals, interpreted either as horses or dogs (Ibid.:67).

Just passing by history

Tlos was just a short stop on our way to the gorge of Saklikent and, unfortunately, I did not have enough time to explore it properly. My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. But I was able to capture their attention just for a while; as children usually do, they got bored quickly with the crumbles of stone and wanted to move on. Fortunately, I came back to the site years later on a proper study trip to Tlos.

My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. Yet, it was just a short stop at the Lycian history. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the time of my first visit to this ancient site, it was more like a relaxing tour with a brief meeting with the Lycian past, just before jumping into the icy cold blue water of Saklikent and exploring the beauty of the canyon.

Featured image: The ancient city of Tlos towering over the area, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia. Over its ancient remains, there is a Turkish castle. 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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“Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3jqJMk3>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2021].

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

“Tlos” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d64v8X>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Yanartaş” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3t70B5f>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

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

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

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2021). “Chimera. Greek mythology”. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at <https://bit.ly/391nAqy>. [Accessed on 20th March, 2021].

Sacred Enclosure of Abaton in the Ancient World

In ancient times, the name given to holy places, sacred district or underground, usually Greek temple buildings, or a sacred grove, accessible only to priests and so restricted to common people. Sometimes, it was accessible to the faithful who have submitted to ritual cleansing. In Greek, the definition described ‘untrodden place’, as only priests were allowed to set foot in most of them.

The term stands either for an inaccessible religious building, such as a monastery or part of a sacred building and its enclosure. In ancient Greece, abaton was also meant as a bedroom for patients expecting miraculous healing while sleeping and it was usually built as a long stoa.

Among others, abaton is mostly used in reference to an enclosure or a temple of Asclepius, in Epidaurus (sixth century BC.-fourth century AD., Peloponnese, Greece), a temple on the island of Bigeh, in the Nile river situated in historic Nubia, where ancient Egyptians venerated the burial of Osiris (The Middle Kingdom, 2055–1650 BC.), and finally a monument on the island of Rhodes, erected by Artemisia the Second of Caria to celebrate her conquest of the island (the fourth century BC.).

Featured image: View of the Island of Philae with Isis Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, in the Nile, Nubia. Island of Bigeh and its ruins in foreground. 1838 painting by David Roberts. Painting by David Roberts (1838). Public domain. Image cropped. Photo and caption source: “Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Bigeh” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kjpuYy>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Abaton (disambiguation)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3D4SWdg>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Epidaurus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sD1VgI>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Artemisia II of Caria” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL5Htj>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Abaton” (2018). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3B08ehr>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

“Abaton” (2021). In: Powered by Oxford Lexicon. Available at <https://bit.ly/3D3rnkt>. [Accessed 21st August, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 1. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Different Roads of the Ancient World Guided by Different Writers

Like Antipater of Sidon, Philo of Byzantium lists other Wonders of the Ancient World than those given in today’s lexicons (Zamarovsky 1990:8; see: Travel Guidebooks of the Ancients in the Hands of Modern Visitors). He clearly does not consider the Lighthouse from Pharos as a wonder of the world and, like Antipater, grants this dignity to the walls of Babylon (Ibid.:8). There is also no description of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus in his work, as this chapter has been lost along with a part of the description of the temple of Artemis (Ibid.:8). What is more, after J.C. Orelli, Philo of Byzantium describes the wonders in a more subjective way, ascribing them more glory and splendour than they really deserve (Ibid.:8). Therefore, in order to obtain a faithful description of these timeless works, one should turn for help to Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and many other ancient authors and, equally, to modern archaeology (Ibid.:8).

Fragment from Herodotus’ Histories, Book VIII on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2099, dated to early 2nd century AD. (2010). Public domain. Caption source: Mingren W. (DHWTY) (2017). “Picking Apart the Words of Herodotus: Was He a Father of Histories or Lies?”. In: Ancient Origins. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2021). Public domain.

Father of History

Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), called by Ciceron the “Father of History”, was a native but Hellenized Carian, born in Halicarnassus (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He has travelled a huge part of the world, even for our measure, and everywhere he did what the Greeks called ‘theory’, that is to say in modern language, conducting research (Ibid.:8). Accordingly, he got to know countries, cities and people, and wrote down everything he learned about their past (Ibid.:8). The work Histories of Herodotus to this day is a valuable historical resource about peoples such as the Lydians, Medes, Persians, the ancestors of the Greeks, the Scythians, and even the Slavs, and about lost countries, such as Babylon, Little Asiatic Greece, regions of India and Arabia, and, of course, ancient Egypt (Ibid.:8).

Bust of Herodotus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009). Public domain. Photo and caption source: ”Herodot” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Herodotus adds to the list of wonders and describes in detail also the Tower of Babel (the ziggurat of Etemenanki in ancient Babylon and not necessarily the Biblical Tower of Babel), the bridge over the Euphrates River again in Babylon and the legendary Egyptian labyrinth (Zamarovsky 1990:8). All these wonders either are in ruins, vanished or, like the latter, has never been found (though academic Egyptologists claim that the labyrinth has already been uncovered and it has turned out to be much less miraculous than it is described by the ancient historian).

Simultaneously, Herodotus also delightedly described three other buildings, all of the located on the island of Samos, treating them as ancient marvels of architecture (Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:3). These were the water-pipe tunnel, port breakwater and a temple in honour of Hera (Ibid.:3).

The book, Travels with Herodotus (2004) by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author shows how Herodotus’ records have also stimulated an imagination and creativity of modern authors (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021). Kapuściński was the Communist-era Polish Press Agency’s correspondent and in the aforementioned book the author compares his travels through Asia and Africa with the adventures of the ancient historian, Herodotus, where he conducts deliberations and often recounts amusing or interesting anecdotes from his escapades, enriched by those from the Histories of Herodotus (“Ryszard Kausciński” 2021; lubimyczytać.pl 2021).

Personally, I often refer to the quotes from this book, especially those about the nature of man in relation to travel and the passion for discovering the world, or the the phenomenon of travelling itself:

After all, the journey does not start when we hit the road and it does not end when we reach the finish line. In fact, it starts much earlier and practically never ends, because the tape of memory keeps spinning inside us, even though we haven’t physically moved for a long time. Actually, there is such a thing as an infection by travel, and it is a kind of disease that is essentially incurable.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

And there is another interesting quote that seems particularly true in relation to travelles being continuously pushed into the unknown by their own personal passion and curiosity of the wold, in comparison to people to whom such feelings are completely alien:

The average person is not particularly curious about the world. Well, they are alive, they have to face this fact somehow and the less effort it costs them, the better. But learning about the world involves effort, and that is a great deal of effort that consumes men.

Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus, 2004.

I believe that explorers of the world must have made such an effort, from ancient times to the present day.

Father of Geography

Strabo. By André Thevet (1584) Original uploads comes from Potraits from the Dibner Library of the History and Science of Technology. Updated upload from the original scan from the book André Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres, chap. 35, page 76. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Strabon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Strabo (the first century BC.), called in turn the “Father of Geography”, was a slightly later travel guide around the contemporary world (Zamarovsky 1990:8). He was born in the Greek settlement of Amaseia in Pontus (in present-day Turkey), by the Black Sea (Ibid.:8). Like Herodotus, Strabo undertook numerous journeys and travelled all over the known world (Ibid.:8). The results of his observations the author included in the seventeen books of Geographica hypomnemata (Ibid.:8).  As an ancient guide along the track of the Seven Wonders, Strabo helped find paths in ancient Egypt, on the Island of Rhodes and in Mesopotamia and described some of the Eastern legends related to the subject, such as those about Ninos and Semiramis (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus, Pliny and Pausanias, and their wonders

There were also other ancient travellers and authors, who were experts on the ancient wonders (Zamarovsky 1990:8). One of them was Diodorus Siculus or Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) (Ibid.:8). He includes particularly important information on the wonders in his descriptions about Egypt, Babylon and Greece (Ibid.:8). Some of them he drew from the now lost work of Ctesias of Cnidus (the fifth century BC.), the physician of the Persian king, Artaxerxes the Second (Ibid.:8).

Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a nineteenth-century fresco). Uploaded by fonte. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Diodorus Siculus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The next author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder (the first century AD.), was a Roman author, who created the famous Historia Naturalis (Zamarovsky 1990:8). In terms of the subject of wonders, it is extremely important that he was interested in the history of art and so he interpreted the wonders in their artistic context (Ibid.:8). Moreover, as a real Roman citizen, he also included on the list the whole city of Rome (Klein 1998:137). The constant drive to knowledge, however, ultimately led to Pliny’s downfall; on August 24, in 79 AD., the author wanted to take a closer look at the erupting volcano Vesuvius, which resulted in his death from poisoning by sulfur fumes (Zamarovsky 1990:8-9).

Nineteenth century image of Pliny the Elder. Uploaded by the User: Angela (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

In the second century AD., there was another guide to the Seven Wonders, a Greek geographer Pausanias, who elevates to the rank of wonders the walls of a citadel from the times of the Mycenaean, located in Argolis, in the Peloponnese (today’s Tiryns) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes (Ibid.:9). Hence, similar megalithic walls composed of crude stones are called cyclopean. Pausanias’ work, known as Hellados Periegesis (Description of Greece), was especially appreciated by Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890), the famous discoverer of Troy, who, using information from Pausanias, thought that he had excavated the so-called tomb of king Agamemnon in Mycenae (Peloponnese), in 1876 (Ibid.:9). The archaeological site is located around twenty kilometres north of Tiryns and is also characterised by similar cyclopean masonry. Moreover, it has turned out that it is not the tomb of the legendary Greek chieftain from Troy, but actually of a Mycenaean king who reigned in Mycenae several centuries earlier (Ibid.:9).

More travel guides wanted

Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, created circa 1485. Uploaded by Institution: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Pausanias (geographer)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among other authors writing with the wonders of the world, a Roman poet, Marcus Valerius Martialis (the first century AD.), considers the Roman Colosseum to be the first of the wonders of the world (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). A Latin Author, Gaius Julius Hyginus (at the turn of our era) adds to the list of wonders the palace of the Persian king Cyrus in Ekbatan (today Hamadan in Iran), built of coloured stones and gold by an artist, named Memnon (Zamarovsky 1990:9; Klein 1998:137). The palace is also included among the wonders of the world by a  Roman writer Vibius Sequester (the fifth century) (Zamarovsky 1990:9). Another Roman geographer and historian, Lucius Ampelius (the fourth century) even multiplies the number seven by seven wonders and records forty-nine wonders of the world, including the oil sources in present-day Iraq or Iran (Ibid.:9).

More pretenders for the title

Among other wonders mentioned by various ancient authors, there is also a notice of the horned altar on the Greek island of Delos and Egyptian Thebes of the hundred gates (Klein 1998:137). And then one can list the wonders endlessly: Minos’ Labyrinth in Crete, Hadrian’s Tomb in Rome (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo), the Roman Capitol, the Athenian Acropolis, or finally the altar of Zeus in Little Asian Pergamon (modern Turkey) (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

From the Middle Ages to modern times

In the first millennium AD, two monks also wrote about the wonders of the ancient world in Christian Europe (Zamarovsky 1990:9). The one was an ex-dignitary at the court of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great, and was called Cassiodorus (490-583), whereas the second was an Anglo-Saxon historian, known as Beda (673-735) (Ibid.:9). J.C. Orelli assumes, however, that the work on the ancient wonders is wrongly ascribed to Bede, as the book seems too primitive to have been written by a man as educated as he was (Ibid.:9).

Historia Nturalis by Pliny the Elder. Uploaded in 2005. Public domain. Photo source: “Pliniusz Starszy” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

The author of the first modern work on the ancient wonders was also a monk, but apart from that also a French philologist and archaeologist, and a great traveller (Zamarovsky 1990:9). He is known as Bernard de Montfaucon (1665-1741) (Ibid.:9). In his work Diarium Italicum (Italian Journal) there is a new list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was based on ancient sources (Ibid.:9). It contains: Egyptian Thebes, the walls of Babylon, the Mausoleum in Halicarnassus, the pyramids by the Nile, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Roman Capitol and the Tomb of Hadrian (Ibid.:9).

After Bernard de Montfaucon, it was the turn for an encyclopaedist who eventually  represented such a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as it is well known today (Zamarovsky 1990:9).

The magic number of seven

All the lists of the ancient wonders may have  contained various monuments but they have always had one common feature (Klein 1998:139). Namely, the number of the ancient wonders has always been limited to seven (or seven was additionally multiplied by seven) (Ibid.:139). This was because the number of seven played an important role in the Greek tradition (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Moreover, it was already widely referred to in cultures much older than that of ancient Greece (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). As a matter of fact, the ‘seven’ encompassed the entire mystery of existence and was seen as a magic number (Klein 1998:139). As such it reappears numerously in culture (Ibid.:139).

Masonry tunnel in ancient Tiryns,in Peloponnese, Greece. According to legend, it was the seat of the hero, Hercules, built of blocks so huge that the structure is attributed to one-eyed giants, Cyclopes. Photo by Alun Salt – originally posted to Flickr as Tiryns, a passageway (2005). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Tiryns” (2021). ” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Greece, there were seven artes liberales, in Greek mythology, seven gates defended the Greek city of Thebes (Boeotia, central Greece), against which Theseus set off at the head of seven heroes (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Then, the Christian tradition enumerates the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Sacraments, and the week was divided into seven days, too; as the Bible says, on the seventh day God rested after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). It was also believed that there had been seven hills of Rome, on which the city was established, and that the heaven and hell were divided into seven spheres, hence the phrase ‘the seventh heaven’ (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). In addition, the Bible says about seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and then the seven ripe heads of grain and the seven worthless heads of grain (Genesis 41:26-27) (Klein 1998:139; “7 (liczba)” 2020). Noah waited seven days before he released a dove from the Ark to see if the flood waters had subsided (Genesis 8:6-12) (Klein 1998:139). Seven is also the key to Saint John’s Revelation; there are mentioned the seven churches, the seven spirits (Revelation 1:4), the Seven Signs in the Book of Signs (Revelation 1:19-12:50), seven golden lampstands (Revelation 1:12), seven stars (Revelation 1:16), a scroll with seven seals (Revelation 5:1), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits (Revelation 5:6), as many angels, the trumpets of the Last Judgment (Revelation 8:2) thunders (Revelation 10:3) and seven thousand people killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) (Ibid.::139). There is also a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns on its heads (Revelation 12:3), the seven last plagues (Revelation 15:1), seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God (Revelation 15:7) and also seven kings (Revelation 17:10). Such list is much longer.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok). Unknown author – second (1904–1926) edition of Nordisk familjebok Transferred from sv.wikipedia. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Statue of Zeus at Olympia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A special position of the number seven can also be obtained scientifically (Klein 1998:139). In mathematical terms, seven is a prime number, so it is only divided by itself and by one (Klein 1998:139; Starożytne Cywilizacje 2007:2). Accordingly 7 cannot be a product or a quotient of integers other than 7 in the range from 1 to 6 and from 6 to 10, so it cannot be obtained either by multiplication or by dividing the integers from the given range (Klein 1998:139-140).

Rankings of modern wonders

From a psychological point of view, the number seven seemed to be perfect for the ancients in terms of quantity; it would have been too difficult or even impossible to select up to three ancient wonders, and a list of more than ten would, in turn, have lost its relevance (Klein 1998:140). One could imagine loads of magnificent buildings, but not loads of wonders of the world (Ibid.:140).

Nowadays, numerous travel guidebooks and magazines are created describing increasingly distant and exotic destinations (Lachowicz 2015). Such “wonders of the world” are usually illustrated in rankings, by referring to them as ‘places to visit before you die’. And although ‘the must-see places’ are usually grouped into sub-categories, like monuments and places within particular countries, cities, or lists including just architectural monuments or wonders of nature, their number keeps changing. Accordingly, one can find in travel books or online such travelling clues as “21 Most Beautiful Places in Poland to See Before You Die!”, “25 Truly Amazing Places To Visit Before You Die”, “30 World’s Best Places to Visit”, “50 Must Visit Places in the World” or “50 awe-inspiring natural wonders for your bucket list”, and so on …

Well, once the world has become larger, it has also got smaller due to greater possibilities of modern travellers to reach its remotest corners. Accordingly, the number of places to visit has essentially grown.

“Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”, as an Arab proverb says; the Great Pyramid, as the Pyramid of Khufu is usually called, has captivated human imagination throughout centuries. Various studies evidently show that there are as many presumptions as false facts about the history and construction of the pyramid. As a result, it has remained an everlasting mystery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite all these changes of the world, we still come back in memories to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which even now create a unique world of human achievements, on which Pliny the Elder writes about in the first century AD., referring to the Egyptian pyramids in his words: “Owing to such works, people ascend to gods, or gods descend among people” (Klein 1998:140-141).

Featured image: Detail of a relief of Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris, France. Photo by Jastrow (2008). CC BY 3.0. In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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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