Tag Archives: Sacred Architecture

Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings

It was once believed that only thanks to the Divine Consort – the Queen, the royal power could rest in the hands of the king – her husband (Żylińska 1972-1986:56; see Noble 2003:79-84). It was also a remnant of matriarchal times that Pharaohs shaved their beard to resemble their feminine consorts; when the king-warrior replaced the divine Queen in the performance of sacred rites, he put on women’s dresses and had his face close shaved (Ibid.:56). At a time when in Egypt the Pharaohs were fully in power, in accordance with the old tradition, they still close shaved, but to emphasize their masculinity – because the patriarchal time had already come – they additionally wore an artificial beard, together with their coronation garments (Ibid.:56-57).

Royal Wife and goddess by birthright

Menkaura flanked by the goddess Hathor (left) and the goddess Bat (right). Graywacke statue in Cairo Museum. The sculpture shows the concept of the Divine Consort – the Queen who grants the royal power to a male king – her husband. Photo by Chipdawes (2019). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Menkaure“ (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also, Thutmose the First, the third pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty in the times of the New Kingdom, had his face close shaved (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). He became a Pharaoh thanks to his marriage to his half-sister, in whose veins divine blood flowed and whose offspring also had divine origins (Ibid.:57). For no matter who the queen of Egypt was married to, the god Amon-Re was considered the father of her children (Żylińska 1972-1986:57; see Noble 2003:79-84). The child of the Queen Ahmose and the god Amun-Re was a girl (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). She was given the name Hatshepsut. On the other hand, Thutmose the First had also a son with the concubine, whose name was Thutmose as well (Ibid.:57). Those events possibly took place at the turning of the fifteenth century BC.

Mortuary temples in western Thebes

I was just thinking about the life of an extraordinary Egyptian queen. Jadwiga Żylińska (1972-1986:56-70) tells her story like a fairy tale, which, however, really happened.

We had already landed on the west bank of the Nile. In a few minutes we were to reach Deir el-Bahari, a valley near the famous Valley of the Kings (“Deir el-Bahari” 2020). It is a complex of mortuary temples and a part of the Theban Necropolis in the Upper Egypt (Ibid.). The so-called mortuary temples erected in Western Thebes can be divided into two main groups: terraced temples and temples with a classical arrangement (Lipińska 2008: 160; see: Miracle of the Sun). Among the terraced temples, the oldest and largest is that of Queen Hatshepsut, built under the influence of the construction of the Mortuary Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep the Second, erected during the reign of the Eleventh Dynasty, which ruled at the end of the third millennium BC. (Ibid.:160). In turn, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut was a model for others, later sepulchral edifices (Ibid.:160).

Djeser-Djeseru – Hatshepsut’s temple, the focal point of the compound. Photo by Dan Lundberg (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Surviving for eternity

Our bus was rocking on the way to our next destination, and my mind again went back to the Eighteenth Dynasty and Hatshepsut herself. At that time, the capital of Egypt was in Thebes. After the Hyksos were driven out of the land of the Pharaohs (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans), the city returned to its former glory and grew in splendour with each passing year (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). Hatshepsut often sailed from the east bank of the Nile, where the palace was located, to the West Thebes, where the dead reigned (Ibid.:57-58). She wanted to see if the work on the tomb being erected for her earthly father had already progressed (Ibid.:58). It was the only time when the inhabitants of the commercial district and the port could see the tall, long-legged and motionless-faced Pharaoh’s divine daughter (Ibid.:58).

Seeing the tomb erected by the Chief Royal Architect, Ineni, Hatshepsut thought that a mortuary temple should also be built for herself (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). That one would survive for eternity when there was no more trace of her on earth (Ibid.:58).

My thoughts were interrupted by the whistle of the opening doors of the bus. When we got out of it, a long train with six-seat carriages came to take us to the foot of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

Successor of her father

Hatshepsut’s representation in a documentary (screenshot). Source: TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap 60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen”, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db.

When Hatshepsut turned twenty-four, Thutmose the First announced her as his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). The celebration took place in Karnak, in the temple of Amun-Re (Ibid.:58). It was followed by her marriage to her sick and weak half-brother, Thutmose the Second, who was seven years old (Ibid.:59). Three years later, Thutmose the First died and the new royal couple began reigning together over a united Egypt (Ibid.:59). Yet, although Hatshepsut was just a Great Royal Wife, it was clear that Egypt was ruled mainly by her (Ibid.:59).

Just after starting her reign over Egypt, the Queen immediately began erecting her mortuary temple in the Nile Valley, on the west side of Thebes (Żylińska 1972-1986:59).

The Alley of Sphinxes

The train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. By order of the Queen, it was erected directly opposite the district of Amun-Re, on the eastern side of the Nile (Lipińska 2008:160). The Alley of Sphinxes once led to the sanctuary, each with Hatshepsut’s face (Żylińska 1972-1986:66). Now there is no trace of the Alley, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes … (Dr Andrzej Ćwiek in PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).

There is no trace of the Alley in front of the Mortuary Temple, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes. Each was with Hatshepsut’s face. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

‘The alley of sphinxes was about 500 m, or 1000 Egyptian cubits long. Based on the recorded databases, we assume that there were about 70 sphinxes. The alley was 6 meters wide, and the distance between the statues was about 17 m’, explains Dr Andrzej Ćwiek, a member of Polish-Egyptian archaeological and conservation mission (PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).

Senenmut

The creator of the funerary complex of Hatshepsut, Senenmut, designed a building on a monumental scale Nile (Lipińska 2008:160). He was Hatshepsut’s favourite and the chief architect of the Queen’s works in Deir el-Bahari (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:160). Senenmut “first enters the historical record as the ‘Steward of the God’s Wife’ (Hatshepsut) and ‘Steward of the King’s Daughter’ (Neferure). […] After Hatshepsut was crowned Pharaoh, Senenmut was given more prestigious titles and became high steward of the king” (“Senenmut” 2020).

TT 353 of Sen-en-Mut (Senenmut tomb) – a hypogeum built by the order of Sen-en-Mut, 97.36m long and 41.93m deep. Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, some of archaeological evidence supports the idea that he had an emotional connection with the Queen and there was an intimate relationship between them (Quilici 2007). One of the traces supporting this hypothesis is definitely Senenmut tomb, placed just beneath the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, and ambiguous representations and writings inside it (Ibid.). Although Senenmut was the government official, he was just of low commoner birth, and so such a relation with the Queen-Pharaoh, who was perceived as an incarnation of gods on earth would be outrageous to the public at that time (Ibid.). Still, there is no decisive evidence that such an affair took place at all (Ibid.).

Prosperity of Egypt in stone

When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. The temple, although largely reconstructed by archaeologists, is remarkable and still arouses admiration among visitors; It was built of local white limestone beautifully harmonizing with the natural colour of the rocks, and its well-balanced porticoes are supported either on pillars or on polygonal columns of several types (Lipińska 2008:164). A real feast for the eyes!

Our train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters in a straight line, and the width of the central courtyard exceeds 100 meters (Lipińska 2008:161). The difference in levels between the lower courtyard and the highest storey of the temple is over 15 meters (Ibid.:161). According to the classical temple plan, the temple complex began with the lower temple, also built on terraces, almost completely ruined today (Ibid.:161). A one kilometre long avenue led to it, guarded once by the mentioned Sphinxes (Lipińska 2008:161; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). The main temple had no pylons, only a stone gate in a wall of white limestone surrounding the courtyard (Lipińska 2008:161). The entire structure is situated on three successive levels: the lowest one is a courtyard closed on the west side with porticoes, between which a sloping ramp leads to the middle level (Ibid.:161). The northern portico has a badly damaged decoration depicting hunting and fishing, and the southern portico shows a unique scene of the transport of two obelisks ordered by the Queen in Aswan, and floated by a large barge to Thebes (Ibid.:161). One of these obelisks still stands in the Temple of Karnak (Ibid.:161).

‘The Queen also donated to the expansion of the Temple of Karnak itself,’ recalled Menes, our guide (Lipińska 2008:161; Quilici 2007). There, on a granite obelisk covered with a thick layer of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), she had the following words inscribed (Żylińska 1972-1986:66; Brier 2017).

“I have thought of what people shall say, [when they see the monuments I have founded]. Don’t say my words are exaggerations but say how like her it is, to be true to her father”.

Time Trips (2021).

At that time, for a daughter to be considered as not worse than a son, she had to be twice as good as him (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

The facade of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, Deir-el-Bahri. When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, states it is well shown in stone that Hatshepsut brought prosperity to the country (Quilici 2007). Not only did she greatly contribute to the growth of the Temple of Amon-Re in Karnak, but also she actually founded Luxor Temple (Ibid.).

She had brought peace and abundance

The reign of Hatshepsut therefore took place in peace, time spent on daily duties and pleasures of common Egyptians, and the growth of the Queen’s power through the foundation of monumental temples and the establishment of and strengthening trade contacts, including such rations with Caphtor (possibly Crete), and with the legendary land of Punt. It is probably thanks to the Queen’s help that the inhabitants of the Nile Delta, fleeing the effects of the volcanic eruption on Thera, found rescue and refuge in Thebes. Yet, it is unknown if the recorded disaster had been caused by the volcano or if it had happened at all at that time, as Hatshepsut’s reign was rather a period of prosperity (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

My sister in front of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple and among the crowds of tourists visiting the monument of Deir-el-Bahri. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Years later, people got used to such affluence and common wealth, resulting from long-term peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:60). There was no hunger or thirst in any part of the country, livestock multiplied in abundance, the children of Egyptians were born on the Nile, no one lacked grain, oil, or honey (Ibid.:60). Memories of the Pharaohs’ war expeditions faded into oblivion and slowly, like all past events, became legendary (Ibid.:60). Similar stories were also told to little Thutmose, Thutmose the Second’s son, born of a concubine like his father (Ibid.:61). He listened to similar stories with bated breath and burning face, and in his heart a longing for the glory of war and a thirst for conquest was born (Ibid.:61).

Arranged miracles of Amun-Re

At that time, the priests of Amun-Re in Karnak gained more power and influence, including such matters as the appointment to the throne of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:134). The best example illustrating their dominance happened the case of the son of Thutmose the Second (Ibid.:134). Although Thutmose the Third’s father was the Pharaoh, his mother was not the Great Royal Wife but the lesser lady of the Harem (Ibid.:134). So he had no right to the throne, but he was the only male descendant of the king who died, leaving behind only a legitimate daughter, Neferure (Ibid.:134). At first, the priests of Karnak thought that the boy was more suitable to be a ruler, and ‘arranged’ a miracle; during the procession in the pillared hall of the temple of Amon-Re, the god’s statue stopped in front of the boy hiding in the shadows of the pillars and appointed him as the successor of his deceased father (Ibid.:134).

The way up to the first level of the Temple; from the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Thutmose the Third took over the throne but it did not prevent the priests from coronating the widow of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut, just a few years later (Lipińska 2008:134). To justify the crowning of Hatshepsut, the priests composed a song about her divine origins, according to which the god Amon-Re himself, taking the form of Thutmose the First, visited his holy wife and conceived the daughter (Ibid.:134). When she was born, the god introduced her to all the gods as the future ruler of Egypt (Ibid.:134). The priests of Amun-Re probably understood the Pharaoh did not have to be a man, especially when the Hyksos were eventually defeated and the country needed peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:59). On the whole, there seems to be a trace in this tangled story of the existence of two factions among the priests of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, one supporting Thutmose the Third and the other, Hatshepsut (Lipińska 2008:134-135).

False beard of the Pharaoh-Queen

Hatshepsut had been crowned the Pharaoh at Karnak (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). During the ceremony, she appeared in a ritual outfit, in a diadem with a uraeus, which has always stood for ‘goddess’ and was strongly linked to royalty in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:61; Noble 2003:83-84). In her hands in turn she held a golden whip and a staff, both crossed on her breast (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). According to the repeated ritual, she had a false beard attached to her face, which actually was a double mystification, but she was not aware of it (Ibid.:61). The patriarchy had already left its mark on people’s minds and there was no turning back to the old values. By attaching a false beard, the woman now imitated the man to be honoured and become the Pharaoh, the female incarnation of Horus (Ibid.:61).

Horus as a falcon in front of the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

On the same base of the obelisk founded by Hatshepsut, the carving also reads (Brier 2017):

“I erected them for my father Amun. They could be seen from the other side of the Nile, their tips gleaming in electrum” (Brier 2017).

It is true that “Hatshepsut used her obelisks as a form of propaganda[?] [Nevertheless, she had never tried to] pass herself off as a man. She calls herself the female Horus—female falcon—meaning she [was] the king, although she [was] female” (Brier 2017).

Hatshepsut as the goddess Hathor in the form of a cow with a golden disc between her horns. In such an incarnation, Hathor is identified as a mother, and so the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who played the role of a feeder of an Egyptian nation (represented as a small figure in front). In the relief, a visible human figure, standing below the cow, is drinking milk directly from the udder of a Hathor-cow. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But Hatshepsut was also the earthly incarnation of Horus’ divine wife, Hathor. The name Hathor means ‘House of Horus’ which embodies the whole idea of ​​a divine wife giving her husband the right to the crown (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161; see Noble 2003:79-84). Hathor – the goddess of beauty and love – was often pictured as a cow or a woman with cow horns on her head, between which a solar disk was placed (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161-162; see Noble 2003:79-84). Such attributes not only emphasized her role as the mother feeding her nation (cows have always been extremely valuable in this part of the world), but also the fact that she was of extraordinary beauty.

How’s that? Beautiful? Cow ?’, I once asked my Egyptian guide.

‘Have you seen the cow’s eyes? They are large and deep framed with a veil of long lashes’, explained Menes.

I tried to remember a picture of a cow’s head from my childhood, which I spent in the countryside. There were two good lasses, although I never paid much attention to their ‘wonderful’ eyes.

‘When a man says you look like a cow, it will be the biggest compliment,’ promised the guide.

I smiled. I would like to see the expressions of European women hearing similar compliments.

Hathor (Hatshepsut) as the Cow of the Heavens in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first people thought that Hatshepsut, that is to say, Horus and Hathor in one person, would be a regent until her daughter Nefrure grew up and married her half-brother Thutmose in due time, who would be thus granted the throne (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). But it soon became apparent that Hatshepsut did not intend to rule in anybody’s name but her own (Ibid.:61). She herself probably planned to prepare her daughter for the future role of the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ibid.:61). Thutmose, on the other hand, was given military training; he was to become a military commander, maybe even a general, but he was to stay away from Thebes and reigning in Egypt (Ibid.:61).

Offerings from Punt

A famous expedition of Hatshepsut to the land of Punt took place at that time (Żylińska 1972-1986:64-65). It was a commercial journey, further than before (Ibid.:61). Punt, a legendary land often associated with today’s Somalia, was beyond the fourth Nile cataract and further than Niya (a kingdom in northern Syria), where the foot of an Egyptian soldier never reached (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:163).

Reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. A painted relief depicting scenes from Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But at the time of the Fifth Dynasty, there had apparently been an earlier expedition from Egypt reaching Punt, when Egyptian ships entered its distant ports (Żylińska 1972-1986:64). At the time of Hatshepsut, however, in addition to the sailors, several court scribes and painters were to accompany the queen so that they could describe the whole expedition and depict it in pictures (Ibid.:64). At the rising Moon, five thirty-oar boats left the Red Sea harbour and headed south (Ibid.:64). The expedition lasted two years and returned to Thebes at the time of harvests with unbelievable treasures (Ibid.:64). The Dukes of Punt mistook the Egyptian expedition for the messengers of heavens and fell on their faces before Hatshepsut (Ibid.:65). The Egyptians prudently held the hostages, and then proceeded to exchange goods: piles of fresh incense, precious myrrh trees, ebony, ivory gold, cinnamon leaves, antimony, baboons, vines, dogs and leopard skins (Ibid.:65). In return, the Queen of Egypt offered them innumerable piles of coloured beads, various fabrics, daggers with decorative handles, painted vessels, two chairs and a multitude of hatchets, both suitable for cutting trees and killing cattle and people (Ibid.:64).

Punt Reliefs, Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri. Photo by Zigor Agirrezabala Vitoria (2016). Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

The expedition returning from Punt was welcomed in Thebes with excitement and feverish curiosity, and news of the imported riches and wonders of Punt, the divine land from which the Egyptian goddess Hathor hailed, fired the imaginations of residents of the palace as well as the commercial district (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). But in this general mood of joy, there was no exultation accompanying the return of the victorious army, that incomparable triumphant intoxication aroused by the soldiers riding on the chariots of war and the long columns of prisoners with the mark of slaves on their faces following them (Ibid.:65).

Temple tells a story

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple was also 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). Now the Queen began to decorate the walls of her temple (Ibid.: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 Pixbay.

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 capitels

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: Hatshepsut’s temple. Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Ian Lloyd – lloydi.com (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38ldwbX>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

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

“Menkaure“ (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/39cEWA3>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

“Senenmut” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/35fTkqa>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

Brier B. PhD (2017) “Erecting an Obelisk: A Monument of Egyptian Grandeur”. In: The Great Courses Daily. From the Lectures Series: The History of Ancient Egypt. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hNZwdL>. [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.

Lipińska J., Marciniak M. (2006) Mitologia starożytnego Egiptu. Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza ‘Auriga’.

Vicki N. (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Compony.

PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski Sz. (2008) “Rozpoczyna się kolejny sezon badań Polaków w Deir el-Bahari w Egipcie“. In: Nauka w Polsce. Ministerstwo Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Xfyti8>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

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].

Time Trips (2021) “The Inscription on Hatshepsut’s Obelisk”. Based on the translation by Amir Hussein. In: Timetrips.co.uk. Available at <http://bit.ly/2JQb9o9>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap #60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hRnTaC>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

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

Chaitya (Ćajtja) – Sculpted Abyss of the Caves

A type of Indian temple, mainly Buddhist, in the form of an elongated rectangular hall, divided by rows of pillars (Bhaja) or columns (Ajanta) into the main nave with a semi-circular apse, where the reliquary in the form of a stupa rises; it replaces the altar typical of the time of Ashoka (Aśoka) (circa 268 – 232 BC.). Two lower (side) aisles are composed of standing in one row pillars, primarily carved without capitals or bases (Bhaja), creating a circuit (ambit) around the stupa in the apse. The pillars/columns equally play a constructional function by supporting the mass of the barrel vault of the carved temple, which is decorated with ribs of arched timber beams.

Karli Chaitya section in perspective. Drawing of the “Great Chaitya” at the Karla Caves, when built, in about 120 AD. Photo from Percy Brown (1872-1955) – Indian Architecture, Buddhist and Hindu, published in 1956 Bombay, India (1955). Public domain. Drawing source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Structures of this type are very monumental and decoratively sculpted and painted. The same model was repeated in a free standing temples of rectangular layout. In the rock-cut temples, the highly elaborated stonework is also visible in its façade, which creates a massive entrance; it opens to the outside of the rock with a horseshoe-shaped opening, also forming a kind of eaves. The stone facade happens to be richly sculpted and always closely imitates wooden elements of contemporary buildings both, inside and outside the temple; at the entrance there is a porch with a large ogee window, known as kudu or gavaksha, and a gallery comprised of balustrades forming balconies and blind lucarnes (dormer windows) with lattice railings.

Development of the Chaitya arch. Development of the chaitya arch from the Lomas Rishi Cave on, from a book by Percy Brown. Photo from Percy Brown (1872-1955) – Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindu). First published in India in 1900. (1955). Public domain. Drawing source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to Percy Brown, the prototype of Chaitya is to be found in sanctuaries belonging to the Ajivika sect associated with Jainism and Vaishnavism. Chaitya temples were carved in rock or built as free-standing constructions of stone, brick or wood. The wooden chaityas are known only from excavations, due to the perishable material. However, rock-cut temples with some wooden elements, which had been created since the third century BC., can be still found in Karla, Ajanta, Bhaja and Ellora caves. Yet, the actual date of the appearance of such temples is debatable and some scholars move it forwards in time to the first century BC. Since the first century AD. this type of temples had still developed, gradually enriching itself with new elements and ornaments, the evolution of which had continued until about the sixth century AD.

Featured image: Timber ribs on the roof at the Karla Caves; the umbrella over the stupa is also made of wood. Photo by Vatsalbhawsinka (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Chaitya” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3oC2R1k>. [Accessed 30th January, 2021].

Auboyer J. (1975) Sztuka Indii [Les arts de l’Indes et des pays indianisés], pp. 56-57. Krzywicki J. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe.

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 80. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

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

Something good for everyone

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

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

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

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

Longing for archaeology

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

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

Strange and amazing Yucatan

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

Cenotes and caves

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

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

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

Altépetl

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

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

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

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

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298). According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

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

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

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

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

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

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

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

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

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

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

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

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

Venturing out into the earth

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

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

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

Modern tourist attractions

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

Cenote Ik Kil

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

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

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

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

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

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

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

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

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

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

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

More about dwarfs

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

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

Crunchy nachos and human bones

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

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

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

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

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

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

Burials or human sacrifice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching history by accident

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

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

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Art Institute Chicago (2020) “Vessel of the Dancing Lords. Arts of the Americas; Gallery 136”. In: Art Institute Chicago. CC0 Public Domain Designation. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pGXGyk>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

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

David (2020) “Cenote Ik Kil, Chichen Itza: Ultimate Guide (2020)”. In: The Whole World is a Playground. Available at <http://bit.ly/2WUdFfM>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

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

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

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

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

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

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Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

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

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

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Christianisation of the sea pirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacral architecture

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

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

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made of upright staves

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

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

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

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

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

Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval master carpenters

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

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

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

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

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

Types of stave churches

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

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

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

Inventory

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

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

Remains of the glorious past

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

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

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

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

Modern alterations

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

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

Threats

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

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

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

Modern fame and restoration

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

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

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

The significance and future of the stave churches

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracle of the Sun

The waters of the River Nile are “a symbol of rebirth and eternal life to the ancient Egyptians. [It] has for untold centuries been the lifeblood of their country. The river and its banks appear from the air to be one long green ribbon of fertility snaking through the arid desert. This ribbon is Egypt: the Nile’s bounty created it, and made possible the rise of one of the world’s great civilizations. […] The Greek historian, Herodotus neatly summed up the relationship between country and river: ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile.’ […] The prosperity created by the Nile, [in turn,] enabled the Egyptians to raise magnificent monuments along its course – temples and memorials to the ancient gods and kings” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42,49).

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

Ancient Egypt seen from the Nile

Nubian girl sitting by the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“For centuries, the Nile has been the life-giving artery of Egypt. From the land nourished by its waters arose the great civilization of ancient Egypt, with its golden temples and pyramids. Today visitors can cruise between its palm-lined banks on voyages into the past” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:42). Together with my little sister and a group of archaeology students we embarked on one of the luxurious and authentic boutique ships at the port of Luxor to explore the ancient civilization from the River. While our stay on the ship, we were accommodated in  private spacious cabins with a view on the River. Overnight, the ship was anchored in successive ports and at dawn, it restarted its engines to continue the journey up the Nile. On our way southwards, we stopped at Edfu and Kom Ombo temples, both constructed mainly during the Ptolemaic dynasty circa between 237–47 BC. When we were not visiting the temples spread out along the banks of the Nile, we could enjoy the extensive sun deck areas around the swimming pool while tasting gourmet cuisine and taking in the scenery (Team of the Sanctuary Retreats 2020). And all that was possible in February, when Poland was covered in snow and cold.

Macbeth on the Nile

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

“Macbeth” in Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

‘Well read it then’ – I advised.

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

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

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

Anchoring at Aswan

Feluccas by on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Convoy composed of a single car

One of the greatest jewels of ancient Egyptian architecture built in the southern Egypt is undoubtedly the temple complex of Abu Simbel, situated in Nubia, at the second cataract of the Nile. It lies on the western bank of the River, by the Lake Nasser and near the border with modern day Sudan. At the same time, It is located around 290 km southwest of Aswan and it takes three to four hours to get there from the port (Serwicka 2010). The road there leads through an isolated area of the desert, thus due to safety reasons, a special convoy is organised (Ibid.). It sets off every day at 4 AM (Ibid.). Coaches, busses and other vehicles must come to one place (Ibid.). The police count them and then they can start their journey (Ibid.). From that moment on, our car was ahead speeding along the asphalt road across the sands of Sahara desert (Ibid.). After a while, the whole convoy fell apart; we lost the sight of the police and other vehicles in the darkness of the dawn (Ibid.). I thought that such a convoy made no sense as everyone was lost in the desert on their own (Ibid.). Eventually, we safely reached Abu Simbel as the first of all. It was just after 7 AM and the rising sun had already broken through the darkness and reflected four sitting colossal statues of the temple, situated by one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

Two Temples by the Lake

Temple’s front façade. Source: Jess Lee (2020). “Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor’s Guide.” In: Planet Ware.

The ancient complex at Abu Simbel consists of two temples. They are both sculpted from a mountainside in Nubia (Leona 2015), and they were erected to demonstrate the strength, power and eternal superiority of Egypt on the southern border of the state (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018). The builder of the complex was Ramesses II the Great (1290-1224 BC). He was the third king of the Nineteenth Dynasty of the Ramesside (Ibid.). “During his long reign, [the Pharaoh] created nearly half of Egypt’s surviving temples [of the New Kingdom], many of them erected to celebrate his deeds in winning back and protecting Egypt’s Asiatic empire from the Hittites” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:49). As one of the greatest and most famous pharaohs of Egypt, Ramesses II also “became the model for Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’” (Richardson 2020).

The Statues of the so-called Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Great Temple

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

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

The View of the Great Temple from one side. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

The Sun Rise at the Lake Nasser. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Layout of an Egyptian temple

Fragment of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The building generally repeats the layout of an Egyptian temple characteristic of the New Kingdom, serving the worship of the ruler and gods. Usually, such a ground plan is linear and longitudinal; typically, it contains major successive elements arranged along the axis starting from its entrance: an avenue of sphinxes, pylons (gateway [Lucie-Smith 2003:178]), the colonnaded courtyard, hypostyle hall, Barque shrine, and finally, the sanctuary (the holly of hollies) (Kubik 2020:5). Moreover, the further chambers are getting the lower and darker (Ibid.). Like in a general plan, “the interior of the Great Temple in Abu Simbel is organised along a series of halls aligned with one another” (Magli 2016). Although, the rock temple does not have an avenue of sphinxes or the colonnaded courtyard, it includes other major parts of the Egyptian temple. Stairway to the temple plateau (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16) goes to the pylons – tall tapered towers (Lucie-Smith 2003:178). In Abu Simbel, the gateway is shaped out of the rock, flanking the entrance with colossi on each side (Mark 2018). Passing between the two pairs of gigantic figures representing Ramesses II, the central entrance leads to the vast rectangular hypostyle hall with eight massive 10 metres tall pillars, arranged in two rows and representing the mummies of Osiris, with some features of Ramesses (Leona2015; LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Mark 2018). Inside “a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place” (Leona 2015). It is followed by the second hall with four square pillars (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16). Both interiors are decorated with reliefs showing the heroic life of the king and depicting religious scenes, mainly the royal pair paying homage to the gods (LinkedIn Learning 2015:S16; Magli 2016; Mark 2018; Kubik 2020:5). Finally, the vestibule leads to the very end of the temple – the sanctuary with four figures of seated gods (Ibid.). As it is the most intimate and secret part of the temple, according to the Egyptian model of a temple (Kubik 2020:5), it is a room of a small size measuring four meters by seven (Leona 2015). It also stands for the heart of the temple, where the so-called  ‘miracle of the sun’ happens twice a year (Ibid.). 

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

The Abu Simbel temples sit on the west bank of the Nile River. (Image credit: WitR Shutterstock). Source: Owen Jarus (2018).

The Temple for the Beloved Wife

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

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

The View of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel

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

The temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari (matiplanas/Adobe Stock) . Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

Original name of the site

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

Surprisingly, the temple complex was not originally named as ‘Abu Simbel’ (Mark 2018) but it was apparently referred to in the past as the ‘Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun’” (DHWTY 2019). Actually, “the Swiss explorer [Johann Ludwig] Burckhardt was led to the site by a boy named Abu Simbel in 1813 and the site was then named after him. Burckhardt, however, was unable to uncover the site, which was buried in sand up to the necks of the grand colossi” (Ibid.). Another version says, the boy called Abu Simbel was actually a guide for Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus performer and collector of Egyptian antiquities (Ibid.). Eventually, it was him, who first uncovered Abu Simbel in 1817 (Ibid.). After arriving at Abu Simbel, he tried to uncover it “from thousands of tons of sand but every bucket he removed was replaced by yet more sand sliding down the dune. Just at the point of giving up, he discovered a very simple solution to the problem; wetting the sand held it in place and after years of struggling, he finally found the entrance to the Great Temple and became the first man for centuries to walk inside it” (Hawas 2008). His main aim, however, was not archaeological research but most probably looting. When he did not find any treasure inside, he abandoned further exploration of the temple and finally left the site (Mark 2018; Serwicka 2010).

Epitome of king’s ego and godhood

Two of the four Colossi at the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Two Colossi viewed from the way to the Entrance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Another view of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Warrior-King

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

The Pharaoh’s authority and power actually depended on fulfilling these two functions (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). Reliefs within the temples illustrate the Pharaoh’ dilemma between his earthly and god-like natures (Ibid.). His story represented there starts with the battle of Kadesh (Ibid.). “Ramesses’ great victory at Kadesh is […] depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. It is certain, based upon the extensive artwork throughout the interior of the Great Temple, that the structures were created, at least in part, to celebrate Ramesses’ victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC” (Mark 2018) The Hittites Empire was the great enemy of Egypt, whose lands were stretching  from ancient Anatolia to Syria (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008). The Great Temple of Abu Simbel gives a full testimony and artistic records of Ramses II’s military engagement in one of the most famous battles in ancient history (Ibid.). According to the scenes represented in reliefs, It was a brutal clash between two contemporary superpowers with the use of their whole armies and modern weapons, such as chariots (Ibid.). The final result of the battle is unknown to historians, however, the same records within the temple prove the undisputed victory of Ramses II over his enemies (Ibid.). The fact is that Ramses eventually made a peace deal with the Empire of Hittites but Ramses’ role as a king-warrior had not been completed yet (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008; Mark 2018). Although, Abu Simbel mainly shows the evidence of the battle of Kadesh, “the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to other scholars” (Mark 2018) that the temple complex was possibly begun after the Nubian Campaigns, undertaken by Ramesses II after the battle of Kadesh, in 1244 BC (Ibid.). Hence it can be concluded that it was built as a symbol of Egypt’s power at the border with another enemy – the Nubians (Serwicka 2010; Mark 2018).

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

Godlike Pharaoh

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

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

Accordingly, Abu Simbel reveals the two important notions defining a pharaoh: a defender of Egypt and a god (Boraik, Brand, Hawass, El Bialy 2008).

Key-role of the Sun and Egyptian Calendar

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

Ancient Calendar

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

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

AKHET (inundation) 120 days

PERET (growth) 120 days

SHEMU (harvest) 120 days (Ibid.).

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

The View of the Nasser Lake. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Magical Journey of the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching the Solar Year

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

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

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

The Aswan High Dam

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

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

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

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

Ancient technology vs. Technology of the 60s

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

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

Just after the Pyramids of Giza

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

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

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

The Great Temple of Rameses II in Abu Simbel from above, Egypt. (rayints/Adobe Stock). Source: DHWTY (2019). In: Ancient Origins.

Featured image: “The Entrance to the Great Temple.” Source: Travel to Egypt (2020).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Abu Simbel Temples.” In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xrtlOh>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

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Authors of Wikipedia (2013) 33 Extremes on Earth. The Electronic Edition. Białobrzegi: Masterlab. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JnBQwo>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Boraik, M., Brand, P., Hawass, Z., El Bialy, M. (2008)“The Greater Temple of Abu Simbel” Hawass, Z. Egypt’s Ten Greatest Discoveries. Discovery Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3almYut>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Cultural Heritage News (2018) “The Legacy of Abu Simbel and the Birth of an Idea.” In: Cultural Heritage News. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Up5hVh>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

DHWTY (2019) “Abu Simbel: The Great Temple of Ramesses II was Almost Lost.” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2xsExu2>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Fawzy, M. (2018) Egypt Today by Mena. Available at <https://bit.ly/39oVdzR>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Hafner, M. Karolewski, G. & ETI (2020) ”Świątynia Ramzesa II Abu Simbel.” In:  Express Travel International ETI. Available at <https://bit.ly/3br6v86>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Harpur, J. Westwood, J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

Hawass, Z. (2008) “The Greater Temple of Abu Simbel.” In: Egypt’s Ten Greatest Discoveries. Discovery Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3almYut>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Jarus, O. (2018) “Abu Simbel: The Temples That Moved.” In: Live Science. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dxijrv>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Kubik, K. (2020) Sztuka starożytnego Egiptu 4000 p.n.e. do IV w.n.e. ZPPKP: Opole. PDF Available at <https://bit.ly/2vVZqgT>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Lee, J. (2020) “Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor’s Guide.” In: Planet Ware. Available at <https://bit.ly/39qOuWa>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Leona (2015) “The Miracle of the Sun.” In: E-Tinkerbell’s Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UqrLp1>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

LinkedIn Learning (2015) “Abu Simbel Temples Egypt” Slides: 1-49. In: In. Slide Share. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QOIOP5>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Magli, G. (2016) “Karnak, Abu Simbel and the Egyptian calendar.” In: Polimi Open Knowledge. Politecnico Milano. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JiOflm>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Mark, J. J. (2018) “Abu Simbel” In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QO1P4k>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Murphy, M. (2002) Exploring Ancient Civilisations: Egypt (Enhanced eBook). Carthage: Teaching&Learning Compony. p. 22. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WQqf16>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Photo: “The Entrance to the Great Temple.” Travel to Egypt. Available at <https://bit.ly/33PSzSH>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

Pooyard, P. (2012) The Revelation of the Pyramids. Ekwanim Production&Wild Bunch.

Richardson, E. (2020) “The Temple of Abu Simbel.” In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WRmW9M>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Serwicka, E. (2010) “Abu Simbel czyli witajcie w Egipcie.” In: Daleko Niedaleko. Available at <https://bit.ly/342Xujn>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Team of the Sanctuary Retreats (2020) “Luxury Nile Cruises – 5-Star Luxury Cruise.” In: Sanctuary Retreats. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WKTX7A>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.

Archaeological site of Mitla and the ruins of the palace, Oaxaca. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …

The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.

The word Mitla itself means ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all  sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.

‘Place of the Rest’

Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The word Mitla itself comes from Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.

The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.

The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.

The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.

It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.

Examining geometric mosaics of Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.

The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown) and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.

In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.

My attention was immediately caught by other walls painted bright red. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.

The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.

Missing stone anomaly

We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.

“Here, they made a mistake!” – he noticed, eager to show us his discovery. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.

‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.

‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.

At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.

Who was there first … ?

I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.

I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster, Mitla had been constructed first with greater stones, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).

In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.

Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.

Christian Baroque church of San Pedro in Mitla. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: Pre-Columbian city of Mitla is one of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico (apart from Monte Alban), and the most important of the Zapotec culture. In the picture, the Hall of the Columns within the palace or the residence of the Zapotecs’ high priest. Late Post-Classic Period, 1300-1500 CE. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Continue reading Creeping into the Lugar de los Muertos with an Archaeologist

Hermitage of the Archangel in Ireland

Summer weather was at its best while we were driving south along the Ring of Kerry, which is also a stage of the famous Wild Atlantic Way with sea-salted shores and blowing winds.

Valentia Island. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The scenery was breath-taking – it was like stepping into a picture book. Our destination, the Skellig Islands, lie 12 km off the Kerry coast and the boats there depart from Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. The Islands are actually two very steep rocks, protruding proudly out of the wild roaring Atlantic. Skellig Michael, which peaks at 217 metres above sea level, was the home of a group of 13 monks in the sixth century AD. This monastic settlement became then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The smaller island, Little Skellig, which is a haven to various seabirds, has the second largest gannet colony in the world.

Valentia Island: View from our B&B’s window. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“You can do Ireland in a day, but you really only do Valentia properly in a lifetime”[1]


[1] Karen O’Connell (2018). “Explore Valentia”. In:  Valentia Island. Come on in. Valentia Island Development Company.

We had booked our B&B on Valentia Island – one of Ireland’s most picturesque westerly points. It lies off the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwest of County Kerry and is accessible either by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge from Portmagee and by car ferry from Renard Point, Cahersiveen, which operates from April to October. The ferry crossing takes around 5 minutes. After a night-sea journey from Wales, and travelling across a large piece of Ireland, from Rosslare, we felt only like going to bed. B&B (like the very few houses scattered around the island) was isolated and charming place of the home-stay atmosphere of remote villages.

Night falling upon Valentia Island with the Skelligs in the distance. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Out of reach …

We were planning to take our Skellig Michael landing tour in one day and I was praying just for god weather conditions as the landing on the rock is always subject to this natural factor and the Irish weather is really unpredictable… We arrived in Ireland at the end of July having had the visit booked already at the beginning of May, as one must do it much in advance before heading off to the Skelligs. It was in 2015, just before the Star Wars’ Episode VIII was filmed at its top, and Luke Skywalker won its place on the island, removing its real and fascinating characters in the shadow. Due to that, nowadays it is even more difficult to land on the island as there are hordes of Star Wars’ fans and thus government restrictions apply now more than ever, not to mention a very high price for this major tourist attraction that may well be the highlight of every holiday.

One of the most fascinating destinations in Ireland. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

First of all, tours with landing can only be taken from May to September. All bookings are usually taken online with no waiting list. If there is a cancellation the spots automatically become available again on the booking page, which happens very rarely. There is one trip per day for this tour departing at approximately 9:00 am daily, usually from Portmagee Marina (depending on the tour operator) if the sea and weather conditions are suitable. As I have mentioned, availability for this tour is very limited so you really need to book well, well, well … in advance: there is a maximum of 4 persons per booking and the tour itself is not suitable for children under 12 years of age.

When I am looking at the availability now, I can see the whole season is nearly booked out (there is only one date available!) Also you would require a reasonable amount of fitness to undertake climbing the rock at its summit. In case your boat tour is cancelled, you can take instead a tour around two islands but without landing …

The Skelligs seen from Valentia Island. The best place to begin our journey. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the morning of the tour day, our B&B’s hostess welcomed us with a wide smile assuring us the boats were going to departure. I also responded with a beaming smile and came back to my full Irish breakfast composed of crumbled eggs, fried sausages, crunchy toasts and milky butter. I had already phoned my tour operator and he assured me the weather would be perfect for our journey.

‘Would you like some pudding?’, – the hostess asked. ‘I’ve got delicious black and white pudding if you wish’.

‘I’d love to’ – my friend said in Polish – ‘I feel like having something sweet …’

Evening on Valentia Island, just after crossing the sea to Michael Skellig. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Pudding is a type of food that can be either a dessert or a savoury dish, which comes from French boudin, meaning “small sausage”. My friend who shudders at any kind of red meat definitely was for the first option, whereas the hostess had meant the second one. When my friend  finally found out, she refused point-blank to try anything of this kind.

Off we go …

Good walking shoes, mostly hiking boots with an ankle support, and waterproof clothes are essential!  The boats are small fishing vessels and the open sea crossing takes approximately 45 minutes.

Office of Public Works (2014). “Visiting Skellig Michael – A Safety Guide”. Source: Youtube.

Rough seas make you get soaked to the skin, even if a day is full of sunshine. The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Hence it may be a very difficult experience for people who are prone to seasickness. The site is also difficult to walk around, as well as may pose problems for anyone with a fear of heights. There are no visitors’ facilities of any kind on the island, such as toilets or a shelter. This is a bare and high rock exposed to the weather.  Make sure you bring with you enough food and water. All your stuff should be packed in one small backpack to allow your hands to be free while climbing up and down the steep staircases.

The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A camera should be with you but only hung around your neck. Sun cream is also very important. Even if the sky seems cloudy, there’s enough sunlight reflecting from the water to cause sunburns. While our cruise to the Skelligs, the sky was completely covered in grey clouds. On the island there was already the sun and on our way back I got a strong sunburn on my face. After drinking a pint of Guinness in the end, my face looked like a red berry on the background of green Ireland. Well, it’s not to discourage you, just let you know what you can expect … One more thing! Once landed on the island beware of seagulls and albatross hunting for meal! It can be your sandwich or a cookie you have just grabbed in your mouth …  You may have a literally close encounter with a huge bird flying onto your face. As I did myself!

Beautiful puffins can be seen on the Skellig Michael from April to early August. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Without a doubt, one of the most graceful and friendliest bird visiting the Skelligs is a puffin. They arrive and breed on the island from March to early August. It’s a cute, colourful seabird with a huge, yellow-reddish beak and curious eyes. While the birds are walking around, they look like black-white balls rolling down the hill. It’s really worth seeing!

Skellig Michael
Reaching the Skelligs by Boat (statue in Cahersiveen). The “Irish Currach” recommend tar-covered leather-skinned ships as timber boats would easily break apart in the Ocean. Photo and caption source: Skellig Gift Store (2017). “Archangel Michael: Saint of the Skelligs”. In: Skellig Gift Store.

Just before our heading off, there was a warm shower. I sat by the side of my friends, back to other people. We were eight altogether, not counting two men, probably fishermen driving the boat. Although it was a rather wet and rough journey, I really enjoyed it. This is one of these moments you may really feel a unique atmosphere of ancient Ireland. We were on the open sea and our crossing seemed to go on forever. I also thought about ancient monks and pilgrims who must have made just the same distance in simple boats – coracles, and without modern navigation devices down the centuries. I wondered how many of them had survived.

Now crossing takes around one hour. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Loneliest Place on Earth

Two black pinnacles of pointed rocks thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean. The smaller of these two is known as Lesser Skellig, which is home to a great number of gannets, and grey seals lying airily on their backs and enjoying the warmth of the summer sun. Visitors cannot land on it as it is the birds’ reservation. The larger island and our destination is called Great Skellig or Skellig Michael. The latter name probably originates from a legend saying that St. Patrick once saw the Archangel Michael hovering over the island. Here, in the wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean and isolated from the comfort of the mainland, early Christian hermits lived for centuries fighting with natural forces and invaders coming from the sea – the Vikings.

Peter Cox (Photography) (2017) “The Wonder of Skellig Michael”. Source: Youtube.

Their harsh life many a time is similar led by Christian monks in Egypt who started this kind of an isolated existence, dedicated to God – monasticism. I believe that in their desire to imitate the lives of the Egyptian Fathers, Irish monks found their substitute for the desert in the sea and ocean. On numerous islands like Aran, Inishkea North, Duvillan, Iona, or Skellig Michael, Christian Celtic monks were looking for their own desert. Just like an Egyptian desert of the Coptic hermits, an ocean is huge, desolated and deprived of sweet water. On the other side, it must have seemed attractive, unknown, inhabited by fantastic monsters, and so became an escape from the earthly world. The ocean has been a symbol of trial, weakness, heroism, and as in the unfriendly desert, the help of God becomes indispensable there.

I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The waters were calm on the open sea but as we were getting closer to the rising pyramid of the rock, the waves became stronger fiercely crushing against the shore. Our drives moored the boat properly and we carefully climbed out of it. The rock-solid land beneath my feet seemed to jump up and down as much as our boat. I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat, and I could just felt the loneliness of this place fulfilled with the ghosts of the wandering monks.

The views were stunning! Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. There are over 600 uneven and steep stairs leading up to the monastery. I felt my great respect for the monks who chose this remote island for their home. It called for extraordinary self-discipline and great courage. As modern pilgrims, we entered into the monks’ enclosure almost suspended in the sky. The views were stunning!

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We passed through a low archway breaking the silence of the past. A small monastic garden sheltered around with rough stones. Another archway led us higher to the tiny chapel and a cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock.  These extraordinary shelters are circular from the outside but square in the inside. Perhaps the hermitage on the Skellig has preserved the original pattern of monastic buildings, existing once at monastic sites on the mainland. The beehive huts resemble the stle of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition.