Tag Archives: Sacred Architecture

The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region

Turin was very warm but covered in clouds yesterday so I was afraid of a rainy weather on the following day, when together with my travel companion and friend, Gosia, we were going to climb up the Alpes. Our destination was the famous sanctuary of Sacra di San Michele; its impressive silhouette has perched on Mount Pirchiriano, which is jutting out at almost 1000 meters (exactly 936m) above sea level in Italian region of Piedmont, in the Alpes.

The Egyptian Museum and the Shroud of Turin

Piedmont, or ‘Piemonte’ in Italian, literally means the “land at the foot of the mountains”. It is located in the north-western part of Italy, bordered to the north by Valle d’Aosta and Switzerland, to the east by Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, to the south by Liguria and to the west by France. This beautiful land offers a lot of various attractions and breathtaking views, from beautiful alpine lakes and mountain landscapes to charming monuments and towns with vineyards. The region is also famous for delicious food, offering local cheese, truffles, and chocolate, not to mention delightful Piedmont wine and beer!

One evening, we went for a famous Italian dessert, which is undoubtedly tiramisu, and another time, we enjoyed by sharing a good portion of bagna cauda, which is a real speciality in Province of Piedmont: melted cheese, with olive oil and butter, flavoured with fresh anchovy and garlic, and all of that served in a hollowed-out bread, and with various snacks for dipping. Actually, autumn and winter seasons are just a perfect moment for tasting fondue as it warms you up, and we were just in time for tasting it, visiting the region at the end of October.

Piedmont’s capital is Turin – the second largest cultural and economic centre in northern Italy, which can boast one of the greatest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, preserved by the Egyptian Museum (see: Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin), and the holiest relic of Christianity, which is the Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone), also known as the Shroud of Turin, because it is well-kept-up at the seat of the Archbishop of Turin, namely, inside the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista. Although it is not possible to see it but on special occasions, the faithful always have an opportunity to approach the chapel, where it is preserved.

Along the demonic rift, on the fifth stop of Via Michaelica

The architectural symbol of Piedmont is, however, Sacra di San Michele, also called Saint Michael’s Abbey, located above the municipalities of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino and Chiusa di San Michele. If you follow Via Michaelica from north southwards, as we do, that would be the fourth out of seven stops on the pilgrimage way dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The complex lies also on the route of Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim path from Rome to Canterbury, and while it is followed southwards, it is called Via Romea. Curiously, Sacra di San Michele is located literally just in the middle of Saint Michael’s pilgrimage path, between the two ancient and most significant monastic sites of Saint Michael, namely Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, in northern France, and Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Gargano, in southern Italy. Precisely, there are 1000 kilometres from each of those sanctuaries to this half-way pilgrimage stop, which the Mont Pirchiriano used to be in the past, before it actually grew in significance, as an abbey and a strategic point on the way, which is believed to have originally been traced by the Archangel himself, with his sword against demons.

A legend goes that a furious battle in heaven opened a long a rift, stretching from Mont Saint Michel to Monte Gargano, by which some of the fallen angels were devoured before it closed, creating the original way of the triumphant Archangel. Consequently, although the rift is not visible today, its presence is still marked by Via Michaelica. From the Middle Ages, the route was followed by pilgrims and today, by both, pilgrims and tourists, looking for an authentic experience of feeling the mysterious past.

Saint Michael’s Abbey is located nearly 30 kilometres in a direct line, north-west of Turin. It takes less than an hour to reach the place by car but there are also good train connections from Turin to nearby towns, such as Saint’ Ambrogio di Torino, Avigliana or Chiusa di San Michele, from where you can either take a pilgrimage trail or a taxi to drop you just at the foot of the Abbey. We decided to call a taxi in the morning to get to the Sanctuario from Turin, and come back by train from Saint’ Ambrogio.  It was dictated by a need to arrive on Mount Pirchiriano just before it opens to avoid larger groups of people filling in the space of the complex. Moreover, we were not in a good physical condition to do trekking up from Sant’Ambrogio, which is quite steep and difficult to follow. Our taxi stopped in the park in the Piazzale Croce Nera, which is 500 metres from the Abbey. Despite my worries, the weather on our day of meeting with the Archangel turned out to be exceptionally good; a lot of sunshine with a light breeze from the Valley of Susa made our walking tour an agreeable experience. The road led us through a shadow of trees, between which an impressive corpus kept emerging with reddish and blueish colours between their branches. Just at the foot of its massive entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a modern statue of the Archangel with his sword embedded in the rocky foundation of the abbey.

Saint Giovanni in the Val of Susa

The Pirchiriano Mount’ name is quite ancient and means ‘pigs, as much as the nearby Caprasio stands for ‘goats’, and Musiné for ‘donkeys’, which may be related to ancient beliefs of the Celts who had lived in the region till the mid of the first century AD.

Some monumental remains on the Mount witness to the fact that the Pirchiriano had already been a military stronghold built by the Romans, who venerated there mostly unidentified Alpine deities. Longboards, who occupied the site between the sixth and the end of the seventh centuries, were successively replaced by the Carolingians who left the Pirchiriano by the end of the ninth century, giving their way to the Saracens. Finally, the Pirchiriano Mount was entrusted to the Bishop of Torino, and by the end of the tenth century, first hermits arrived in the region and they mostly inhabited the Valley of Susa, in the north of the Pirchiriano. They mainly shared their desire for lives in isolation, entirely devoted to God by anchoritism of the Irish monks who sought out a deserted place in the wilderness to fulfil their mission. Among them there was a monk, called Giovanni Vincenzo, who was one of Saint Romuald’s (951-1027) followers and students. The latter was a wandering reformer of Italian monasticism and hermitages, and responsible for the so-called. “Renaissance of eremitical asceticism” in Italy. In his mission, he was stimulated by the form of monasticism parallel to the original eremitism once founded in Egypt, which was then transplanted to Ireland. From there, such monastic ideas spread southwards, together with Irish monastic foundations in Europe.

Giovanni Vincenzo lived in his Celle on the Mount Caprasio. According to his hagiography, Giovanni, later canonized as a saint, was born in Besate around the year 955, and he was around 45 years old when he died.  The same records testify that he was appointed the fifty-seventh archbishop of Ravenna, under Pope John XIV in the year 983 with the name of John X. He held the archdiocese between 983 and 998 over the decades in which the empire was governed by the successive emperors of Otto dynasty. In this period, as evidenced by the history of Ravenna, the Kingdom of Italy was united with that of Germany within the Holy Roman Empire, and Otto, one of the main Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, set Ravenna as its capital. In 998, Giovanni Vincenzo retired as a hermit on Monte Caprasio in Val di Susa in the natural caves near the town of Celle, where he died around 1000 AD.

On 12 January 1150 his body was transferred to the parish church of Sant’Ambrogio in Turin, currently the church of San Giovanni Vincenzo, which we also had an opportunity to visit on the way back from the Sacra di San Michele. San Giovanni has become the patron saint of the community of Sant’ Ambrogio di Torino, however, some scholars claim there were actually two hermits called Giovanni, whose hagiographies had once merged into one story. They suggest that Giovanni who was actually involved in the legend of Saint Michael had never been the archbishop but a later need for his ennoblement in the eyes of the faithful made him be identified with the apostolic head of Ravenna. Anyway, we may not be allowed to know what was the true story of the saint.

Saint and the Archangel

But what did Saint Giovanni have to do with the Archangel? And what did trigger the process of building the monastery of Saint Michael on the Mount Pirchiriano?

The cult of the Archangel itself had developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and was brought to life in the East, in places similar in landscape to the sites of sanctuaries along the Archangel’s Axis, namely in isolation and in elevated places. The worship of Saint Michael may have migrated to Italy in the fifth century, as his first recorded apparitions happened in around 450 AD. on Monte Gargano. It is possible that Saint Michael was also worshiped on the Pirchiriano by Longboards, between the sixth and seventh centuries, so long before there was the very first church built in his devotion. The origins of the Abbey are itself shrouded in mystery, and the only source of information on its beginnings is given by two legends, later described in the chronicle of the Monastery. They are both beautifully illustrated in the “Fresco of the Legend”, inside the church of the Sanctuary, which explains the circumstances of the foundations of the Sacra di San Michele.

As the legend goes, Saint Giovanni experienced several apparitions of Saint Michael. It may have happened either when he retired from his function as the archbishop, if we accept that version of his hagiography or yet before he actually became the archbishop. The former is more probable if it is assumed that follow-up constructing works changing the initial church into a Romanesque abbey started between 983 and 987. It is also important to underline that the Saint lived at the verge of the period in which the fear of the end of the world was very strong and frightening. With the new millennium, when the expected end did not come, the construction majestically grew in its structure and significance, as if it was an expression of mankind’s gratefulness sent to the Heavens.

There are no better builders than angels

The known tradition says that Sain Michael ordered San Giovanni to erect his church on the Mount, as much as it earlier happened in the case of Saint Aubert in Normandy. San Giovanni was less reluctant in fulfilling Saint Michael’s demand than […] but he started to build the church on the Mount Caprasio, where he lived, and which was famous for praying hermits.  The works he started, however, could not be completed because the stones laid during the day (in other version, which is more possible, it was wood) mysteriously disappeared at night. San Giovanni was sure the stones were stolen by some thieves, stayed awake to guard site of construction. Yet, what he saw terrified him greatly as he discovered that the thieves are actually angels who transported the stones on another mount nearby, which was the Mount Pirchiriano. Then San Giovanni understood it was Saint Michael’s desire to build his church just there. After this miraculous event, the saint obediently followed the angels to the Pirchiriano, where he set up his new hermitage and continued to build the Archangel’s church.

The first legendary building was actually a very small church, constructed with the help of angels, or according to a different version, entirely built by human hands, whereas the angels had just brought the needed building material and so the miracle of constructing the church was continued by people. Nonetheless, it was consecrated by the angels, or by the Archangel himself, which explains the name of the Abbey as Sacra: consecrated, so sacred. Very similar legends of angels involved in building sacred sites abound; the most famous is a folk story of the construction of the eleventh churches of Lalibela, in Ethiopia, where angels helped people in their construction, by taking a night shift position. On the other hand, the pseudographical text of the Testament of Solomon reads that there were fallen angels summoned by the king to build the Temple, what they did in fear of the power of God’s angels. Accordingly, the mentioned Fresco of the Legend shows angels, along doves, who transfer the wood from one mount to the other. There is also depicted the Bishop of Torino, Amizzone, who was coming to the Pirchiriano with the intention of consecrating the church, when he found out it had already been consecrated by the angels.

Ugo di Montboissier’s penance

The second part of the legend, or the second legend, tells a story about the Abbey’s later founder, namely, the Count Ugo di Montboissier, who once encountered the hermitage of San Giovanni on the Mount Pirchiriano, with the simple church dedicated to Sain Michael. The Count had actually been looking for redemption for his sins. The Pope gave him a choice of his penance, either he would go for an exile, which would be for him a religious pilgrimage or he would give foundations to an abbey. Having known the history of the church on the Pirchiriano, Ugo finally decided to continue there building works on a much greater scale than before.

The Fresco shows him leaving the town of Susa and heading off to the Pirchiriano in order to establish the Monastery. The foundation was entrusted to Benedictine order, different in its organisation and ideals from the previously established Insular monasticism. In the thirteenth century, Saint Michael’s Abbey lived its Golden Age, when its majestic Romanesque silhouette gained additional Gothic additions. Nerveless, the decay of the Abbey came together with the fall of the Benedictines. Consequently, after 600 years the Abbey was abandoned, that is to say till 1836, when it was entrusted to Rosimini Fathers on behalf of the Vatican. In was also then when the bodies of the Savoy family were moved from Torino to the Sacra, giving the beginnings to the “Trail of Princes (Nobles)”. The Rosimini Fathers are still in the Sacra, taking care of the monument as the symbol of the region, and a very important witness to the glorious past, and of Saint Michael’s intercession.

“Antica Mulattiera” and the “Trail of Princes”

Due to the fact that Sacra di San Michele has been a significant destination as the pilgrimage site, there are a few trails around the Mount, which are perfect for doing trekking. I would recommend the mentioned above out-and-back trail, which is called the “Trail of Princes” and starts in the community of Avigliana, yet it can also be done from Mortera, to finally arrive at Mont Pirchiriario. The name “Trail of Princess” was coined after 1836, when a funeral procession brought twenty-four corpses of nobles of the Savoy family, along the way from the cathedral of Turin to the Abbey on top of the Mount!

The entire “Path of the Princes” takes around 3 hours (9 kilometres) to be completed and is of a moderate level of challenge. When there are less travellers, one can rally enjoy solitude and beauty of the path itself, which amazing panoramic views of Sacra di San Michele and the lakes of Avigliana. Yet, we did not follow that path back that time. Instead, we chose the trail of Antica Mulattiera, which means as much as the Mule Track. It is the most ancient forest path that curves up in zig-zags along the way from Sant’ Ambrogio to Sacra di San Michele, and back; it has been used as a traditional way of approaching the Abbey for at least a thousand years. It is quite steep and rugged, and hence demands from visitors to be in a better physical shape.

Climbing down towards Saint’ Ambrogio

We slowly descended worn-away cobblestones of the road, moving forward the town below, and catching glimpses of the towering Abbey behind us. For those, who are just making their way up with great effort, its silhouette must be a real promise of rest, and so also a desirable destination. While climbing down, we encountered there 15 stone crosses at the windings of the road, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross.

It allows us to travel back in time and join in mind medieval believers, where a pilgrimage was an integral part of Christian life, even though modern pilgrims changed today in tourists, looking for pleasure in hiking, inspiring views and food tested on the trail, and much less in Christian religion and its angels. You can still be on a spiritual search for your destiny, and enter, in the way a medieval pilgrim did it, into the grandeur of nature that eventually explodes in manmade (and angel made) complex of Saint Michael’s Abbey. Then you can observe how its architecture merges into the tissue of natural landscape. At the final section of the path, we additionally encountered wooden characters, as if taken straight from the Land of Oz.

Before us, the gate to Saint’ Ambrogio opened, with its church just below the steep alpine slope of the Mount and the outline of the Sanctuario, high above, crowning its top.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

All Trails, 2023. ‘Sentiero dei Principi’ (2023), in alltrails.com. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3HynyrR>.

Kosloski, P., 2020. ‘How St. Michael helped build Sacra di San Michele, in Comics’, in ‘Voyage’. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kI2dTL>.

Rogano, F., 2017. ‘The legend of Saint Michael’s Abbey – Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte’, in Emadion. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3H67mfO>.

Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Val de Susa’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.

Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Sacra di San Michele, Italy’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.

Traverso, O., 1992. Sacra di San Michele. Monumento Symbolo del Piemonte. Genova: Edizioni D’Arte.

A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants

Archaeological Tour organised by Tour Partner Group (TPG), previously Irish Welcome Tours. The tour runs from minimum 5 participants. Maximum: 10 participants.

DAY 1: Dublin

Visit at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. You will listen to an informal lecture on Prehistory of Ireland with the classification of megalithic tombs and a rich history of stunning archaeological finds. Then we are going to see Giant’s Graves in Co Dublin: Ballyedmonduff Giant’s Grave. It is one of the Ireland’s finest wedge tombs. The site is reached by way of a walking trail from a gate on Ballyedmonduff Road (see: Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants). Next, Brennanstown Giant’s Grave, which lies in the valley of Glen Druid about a mile southwest of Cabinteely. It is a hugely impressive portal tomb known as Brenanstown Dolmen.

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark. It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Evans, 1938). Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology. These legendry tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers. Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts had abounded with possible origins of the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell, 2012).

The below evening activity is available only for the dates: 18 April and 20 June:

An evening of folklore and fairies (it does not include meal).

A Tale of the Deeds of the Tuatha de Danann and the supernatural race of giants – the Formorians. This unique, authentic and entertaining evening of Irish storytelling offers a memorable night out in Dublin. Guests are enchanted by stories of Irish life long ago and gain fascinating insights into the beliefs surrounding the fairy world and Irish rich culture of storytelling. Take your imagination back in time as you listen to the magical tales of Irish Folklore our ancestors shared when they gathered around the fire at night. You will leave this unique evening with a deeper understanding of Irish culture and the Irish landscape, bringing the stories of Ireland with you on your journey

One Night stay in Co. Dublin

DAY 2: Co. Louth & Co. Antrim

Welcome to the Land of legendary Giants. For some reason they had once chosen Ireland for their dwelling. Next stop is Proleek known as the Giant’s Load – imposing and masterful.  The dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008). Local legend claims that the dolmen dates back to a battle between a Scottish giant Para Buidhe Mór Mhac Seoidin and the Irish mythical hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Para challenged Fionn mac Cumhaill to combat, but Fionn poisoned the nearby river and Para drank from it. Another local tradition claims that if a visitor puts three stones atop the dolmen, they will be granted a wish, or will be married within the year.

Afterwards, we travel by the ancient lands of the High Kings of the Kingdom of Ulaid stopping to visit the Navan Fort. It is a place where myth and reality meet. It is one of Ireland’s most famous and important archaeological sites. Legends say that Macha, the ancient goddess of war and fertility, scored the earth with her brooch pin and traced the famous outline of this sacred stronghold of the hero Cu Chulainn, home of the famous Red Branch Knights and Ulster Cycle of tales. Cú Chulainn and Finn McCool are two of Ireland’s best-known mythological heroes and legend has it they were both giants often fighting each other on the Connemara Mountains.

Beaghmore – a whole set of seven stone circles is our next stop. An enigmatic site described as a transportation portal in the book The Giants of Glorborin: Ancient Conflict in a New World by Jim Murdoch. Then, we will be passing by the Lough Neagh. The giant Finn McCool, who had a hand in many a ruction in the north, had made the lough by scooping out a huge fistful of earth to throw at a retreating English giant; it fell into the Irish Sea and became the Isle of Man. We will have an opportunity to explore the Giant’s Ring: the hedge at Ballynahatty is just so impressive, measuring almost 200 metres in diameter with an embankment almost four metres high in places. This hedge is an enormous amphitheatre with the remains of a passage tomb as a focal point (Dempsey, 2019).

One night stay in Co. Antrim

DAY 3: Co. Antrim

The below acivity is offered only in an itinerary available for the dates: 19 March and 18 April, 2023:

Departure from Belfast to Doagh Holestone – 1.39 m (4.5 ft) tall standing stone, with its prominent perforation, is known locally both as the Holestone and the Lovestone. The reason for the first name is evident, while the second name for the stone requires a bit of explanation. While some holed stones in Ireland are known for oath-making and others for use in childbirth. The Doagh Holestone, 1.6 km outside of Doagh on Holestone Road, has acquired a reputation as the place to exchange marriage vows. Although the waist-high hole in the pillar is but 8 cm in diameter, it is sufficient for a woman’s hand to pass through, where she may grasp the hand of her intended on the opposite side of the stone. It may be that such ceremonies had their origin in an era when clergy were not conveniently available in rural communities, and a betrothal using the Holestone was good enough, according to local custom, to avoid the stigma of an illegitimate birth. A priest or the civil authorities could then later ratify the marriage when one was available.

The below activity is available only in an itinerary for the date: 20 June, 2023:

If you like cliffs and do not be afraid of the void, then we recommend you to visit the Gobbins! Famous throughout the country, this place is a hiking trail dug into the cliff, and will take you along the northern Irish coast. Breathtaking landscapes guaranteed! A walk along The Gobbins Cliff Path is more than just a fun day out in nature. Its a journey through time and into the elements. You’ll gain a new perspective on the sea, on Northern Ireland’s landscape and on yourself. 

Torr Road-Ballycastle, undoubtedly one of the most scenic drives in Ireland affording views of Scotland and the Scottish Isles. Stop to admire and take photos of Dunluce Castle. Then, walk in the footsteps of giants and discover the secrets of the stunning Causeway Coastal Route. Giant’s Causeway is a gigantic geological formation consisting of more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, some of which reach up to 12 meters high!  According to the legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. At the same time, the story is related to the origins of the Lough Neagh.

One night stay in Co. Derry.

DAY 4: Co. Donegal

Departure from Derry

Next, we will head off to Malin Head and take a circular walk around it, which is the northernmost point of Ireland. Our walks starts at the car park close to Lloyd’s Tower, at the highest part of the headland. Shortly after setting out keep an eye open for a 30m deep chasm through which the sea roars; it is called locally Hell’s Hole. Soon the gravel path comes to an end, and after a sign warning about the cliffs, a more natural meandering path continues to the extremity of Malin, a place called Banba’s Crown. The ancient Book of Invasions says that Banba, with three men and 150 women followers, was the first woman to invade Ireland, and her name has become one of the ancient names of the island, the others being Fódla and Éire. It is wonderful to sit on the clifftop, in the midst of the sea pinks and watch the Atlantic. Legends say that Tír na Nóg, the land of permanent youth and health, lies to the west, in the path of the sun. You are at the most northerly point of Ireland. To the southeast, the rounded mountains of Inishowen roll westwards to Dunaff Head, while to the north, over the horizon, only the Outer Hebrides interrupt a straight line to the Arctic. Time of the walk: 1 hr 30.

Prehistoric rock art, Inishowen, County Donegal: the Isle of Doagh in Inishowen is one of the most important sites in Western Europe for rock art dating back to at least 3000 B.C. There are more than 40 known sites (the biggest collection in Ireland) with two new discoveries having been recently made close to the Isle. Most of the sites consist of cup-and-ring art, but very little is known about their significance. It is speculated that in ancient times the Isle of Donagh may have been considered a sacred island. Time of the: 1 hr 30 minutes.

Finally, welcome to the ancient kingdom of the mystical Tuatha de Danann and the site of their ancient seat at the Grianan of Aileach Fort. The origins of the fort are dated back to 1700 BC. It is linked to the mysterious invaders who came to Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills and fought against a fierce race of giants. This area of Inishowen is one of the richest in the country for historical monuments and nearby you can find ancient passage tombs, early Christian churches, rock art and some of the earliest Celtic crosses.

One night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5: Co. Donegal (Tory Islnads). An additional day offered only for 20 June, 2023.

Today, we will satnd face to face with Balor of the Evil Eye. We will first take a ferry from Magheroarty to cross the sea. County Donegal’s Tory Island is a beautiful spot to visit, home to distinctive scenery, monastic ruins and locals with fascinating stories to tell. There were, it seems, many giants hereabouts once. You would never know that one of mythology’s most fearsome men is said to have lived here once. Balor of the Evil Eye a mythical Cyclopean giant and demon, made Tory his island and Tor Mor, a tower on Tory, his fortress. Balor was a ruthless and brutal giant with a singular, poisonous eye on his forehead that unleashed a fiery devastation when opened. It was on Tory that he ruled and imprisoned his only daughter, Ethnea, until she betrayed him and brought about his downfall. The place was named Torach, the Island of Towers, for its high broken cliffs. There are shattered black buttresses, pillars, and towers of basalt. If you pass on the sea, you are often apt to mistake them for strongholds in ruins. Old legends assert that the castellation was the pastime of giants. 

Take up this invitation and you certainly won’t be disappointed: make your way to the top of Dún Bhaloir – the legendary fort of Fomorian chief, Balor – and you’ll be surrounded by 90-metre-high cliffs as you gaze out across the wild, roaring Atlantic. We will also visit An Chros Tau (The Tau Cross), an iconic cross dating back to Colmcille’s monastic period (6th century). The intriguing Cross suggests early seafaring links to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Carved from a single slab of slate, the island’s fishermen pray here before heading out to sea. Whilst exploring Tory, you may also find a graveyard with a very mysterious backstory. In September of 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail for Tory, with the unenviable task of collecting rent from residents and overseeing evictions. Disaster struck in the wee hours; the ship hit rocks and sank. Though the reasons for the sinking have never been fully established, many islanders attribute the Wasp’s demise to An Cloch Mallacht (their Cursing Stone). Dating back to Druidic times, the stone could supposedly be used to release negative forces on enemies. Six Wasp crewmen survived the tragedy, while eight of the dead are buried in the island’s Reilig Ghallda (Foreigners’ Graveyard). 

Second night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5/6: Co. Donegal & Co. Sligo

Departure from Letterkenny. Stop at the Poisoned Glen, which lies at the foot of Mount Errigal, the tallest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains range. It is one of the most renowned areas for its sweeping valleys, imposing mountains and shimmering lakes. Glen received its name from Balor of the Evil Eye, the one-eyed Chieftain who lived on Tory Island. Balor had a gorgeous daughter who he kept closed away in a Tower out of men’s view. However, word of her beauty spread and she was kidnapped and brought to Magheroarty. It’s thought that Balor was killed by a rival chieftain in the Glen with a spear through his eye. The blood poured from Balor’s eye turning the Glen red and splitting the great stone Cloch Hatán in 3 parts.

In his brief discussion of the Kilclooney Dolmen and its environs, R. Æ. Baillie concludes that, with dolmens’ history lost, “…it must ever remain a mystery how those huge stones were lifted up and carried, often considerable distances.” Was it a feat of giants …? But perhaps the biggest mystery about this portal tomb is why there is a miniature dolmen doppelgänger, with its capstone on the ground, only 5 m (16.5 ft) away.

Next, we will follow the road to Cloghanmore Megalithic Tomb and Mallin More Megalithic cementary. “The Great Stone Heap” was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century. Strikingly unique of this court tomb is that its two secondary burial chambers each contain something not found in any other court tomb: an orthostat with the signature rock-art designs of the Irish passage tomb. While not nearly as numerous nor as complex as the decorations at the Newgrange or Loughcrew passage tombs, characteristic passage tomb art on the two stones was noted when the monument was first discovered. Then we shortly stop by Slieve League Cliffs – Ireland’s ultimate sea cliff experience. Afterwards, we make our way to Sligo and will see beautiful Ben Bulben and listen to the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne. 

Night Stay in Co. Sligo

DAY 6/7: Co. Sligo

We start from Carrowmore Megalithic Site. It’s one of the most dense concentrations of megalithic tombs of different categories. Portal, court and wedge tombs usually are nicknamed giant’s graves. It’s the largest megalithic complex in Ireland and a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone interested in Irish history, pre-history, original peoples and settlements, or for those just curious about huge, ancient ruins…and how they might have gotten there. Walking along the paths beside the monuments gives many opportunities for taking photographs and asking questions of the brilliant local guides. 

“The road winds gently upwards on ever narrowing roads, until the last of the cottages is left below […] The cliffs, green and limestone grey, rise on each side of you now and are peaked in many places by sudden domes, like bald-headed giants rising above the hill tops” (Chris Thompson, Story Archaeology, 2012). The 15 passage tombs of the Carrowkeel Complex lie on this line created by the eastward spread of Neolithic burial practices some 6,000 years ago. It is also the site of a mythical Battle of Moytura which took place between the Tuatha de Danann and the ancient giants of Ireland.  Lured from his stronghold on Tory Island, Balor the Giant was blinded in battle and mistakenly burned his own army to the ground. A huge hole was seared into the earth and later, filled with water, becoming Sligo’s Loch na Sui: the Lake of the Eye.

Heading off to Co. Cavan and Cavan Burren Park. Folklore tells that two young giants, Lugh and Lag, challenged each other to jump a gorge in order to show off to the female giant whose love they both sought. Unfortunately, Lag fell to his death. But that’s how the Giant’s Leap Chasm got its name. And the nearby Giant’s Grave, where Lag is said to lie, is a wedge tomb built to its striking shape some 4,000 years ago. Whatever folklore says, facts can be even more fascinating. We will follow The Giant’s Leap Trail (2.7km). Duration – Approx. 50mins on bog-bridge and gravel path terrain with a 35 metre climb.

Second night in Co. Sligo

DAY 7/8: Co. Fermanagh

Departure from Sligo and climb up the slopes of the Cuilcagh Mountain often referred to as Ireland’ Stairway to Heaven. The view that you’re treated to from the top of the Cuilcagh Boardwalk is pretty special.

It’s along one of those surprising roads less travelled – and an experience to really make your day. Layers of history peel back to reveal a breathtaking wealth of natural and manmade features, all fused together into an exceptional prehistoric landscape. After your walk, take a tour of the spectacular Marble Arch Caves, which are a major tourist attraction, set in the picturesque foothills of Cuilcagh Mountain, just a short journey from the island town of Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The landscape encompassing the Marble Arch Caves was formed over 340 million years ago. Today this natural environment of caves, rivers, mountains, ancient woodlands, waterfalls and gorges offer an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the incredible range of activities and experiences the Marble Arch Caves have to offer.

Finally, we head off to Co. Meath.

Night stay in Co. Meath.

DAY 9/10: Co. Meath

Heading off to the Boyne Valley. It will take you another step closer to the passage tombs of Newgrange and Four Knocks, one of Europe’s most dazzling megalithic sites. According to common knowledge, these were served as burials, however, studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky and thus some researchers argue these were originally astronomical devices.

Finally, we visit the Hill of Tara, known as Temair in gaeilge, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It has been shrouded in myth and legend from the time of Tuatha Dé Danann right up to modern Irish history. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Temair was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site. Sitting on top of the King’s Seat (Forradh) of Temair is the most famous of Tara’s monuments – Ireland’s ancient coronation stone – the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny”, which was brought here according to mythology by the godlike people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, as one of their sacred objects. It was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara.

Second night in Co. Meath

DAY 10/11: Co. Meath

For volonteers, in the morning, a balloon flight over the Boyne Valley (only offered in itinerary for the date of 20 June, 2023). You should request it at the moment of booking the tour.

On this last day, we move to Loughcrew Cairns – Passage Tombs (see: Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun). It is a megalithic burial site dating from 3500BC-3300BC built on three hilltops. There are around 30 cairns and mounds dotting the site making it one of the largest megalithic burial grounds in Ireland. The site is known in Irish as ‘Sliabh na Cailleach’ which translates as ‘Mountain of the Witch’. (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Legends link the site with a witch called Cailleach Bheara who is also associated with such megalithic sites as CARROWMORE in Co. Sligo. According to another account LOUGHCREW was inhabited by a hag named Garavogue’. The story goes that the hag was a giantess who is said to have dropped huge heaps of stones from her apron onto the land as she jumped from hilltop to hilltop. The very same story is heard at other megalithic sites in Ireland and … in Malta. CAIRN T is the principal monument of the entire Loughcrew complex, sitting on its summit, the highest point in Co. Meath. Known as “The Hag’s Cairn,” it features a megalithic writing on its orthostats, which is read by the equinox sunrise. Its mystery has not been revealed … 

In the afternoon, you will be transfered back to the city centre of Dublin, from where you can either go to the airport or to your hotel in Dublin.

END OF THE TOUR

Requirements:

  • You should be equipped with waterproof clothes and appropriate footwear such as hiking/walking boots with a thick tread and ankle support. Trainers are not acceptable.
  • The itinerary includes moderate walking (1-4,5hrs) tours so a level of physical fitness is needed.

DATES:

19 March, 2023 : 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 February, 2023).

19 March, 2023 : RATE FROM €2 600 per person.

18 April, 2023: 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 March, 2023).

20 June, 2023: 11 days/10 nights (available for booking till 30 April, 2023).

SERVICES INCLUDED IN QUOTE:

9/10 nights’ accommodation at the hotels 3*/4* suggested, double/twin rooms with private bath/shower. Single rooms on request.

9/10 full Irish Breakfasts at your hotels

An archaeologist and local guides specialized in folklore/archaeology (if a given tour is additionally guided).

Private driver-guide

Tory Island crossing (return) (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).

Admissions to:

  • Evening of folklore and fairies (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).
  • Navan Centre Guided Tour
  • The Giant’s Causeway
  • The Gobbins (only for 20 June, 2023).
  • Carrowmore Megalithic Site
  • Marble Arch Caves
  • Newgrange

Service charges and taxes at current rates.

All services are subject to availability at time of definite booking.

NOT INCLUDED IN PACKAGE PRICE:

International flights

Beverages, lunches, dinners

Any other services not stated in the above

TERMS&CONDITIONS:

1. A non–refundable deposit is required to confirm the booking.  This is 10% of the whole rate per person.

2. In event of cancellation the following charges will apply:

a) booking deposit is strictly non-refundable 

b) 6 – 4 weeks before date of departure 30% cancellation charge will apply 

c) 4 -2 weeks before date of arrival 50% cancellation charge will apply 

d) 2 weeks or less before date of arrival 100% cancellation charge will apply

2. TPG is not responsible for any injury, accident or stolen goods – please get travel insurance and relevant visas before booking this tour and have a passport with at least 3 months past the end date of the tour.

3. Single travellers are very welcome. If we are unable to find your roommate or you wish to have a single room, there will be the supplement added to the total rate. Early registration will facilitate this process.

4. Please hold off booking your international flights, until the tour is confirmed in writing via email. TPG is not responsible for any costs incurred. Please email for further details.

5. Itinerary may be subject to change if circumstances arise beyond reasonable control.

6. TPG accepts no responsibility for losses or incidental expenses due to delay or change in schedules, hotel booking irregularities, defaults, accidents, sickness, quarantine, emergency, weather, strikes, war, travel restrictions, or other causes. All such losses are the sole responsibility of the participants. Please make sure you have travel insurance to cover all the unexpectable incidents.

Why with us? What makes us stand out?

  1. Carefully selected date of the trip. March (after Saint Patrick’ Day), and April are not so touristy months, and the time specifically builds up a unique ambiance of the archaeological landscape. June, in turn, promises a good weather and allows to participate in a wider range of activities.
  2. A unique combination of 3 subjects: archaeology, folklore and a grandeur of nature.
  3. Friendly relations with local guides built over the years. Thanks to them, you will see authentic, unique and low-tourist places that other agencies often do not offer.
  4. Off the beaten track – the tour offers alternatives to Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions.  And if they are still popular, like Newgrange or the Giant’s Causeway, you will see them from a different perspective.
  5. A small group of 5 to 10 participants. Thanks to this, we move more efficiently, and thus – we are able to see more. In such conditions, you also have better contact with the guides and your comments, questions and expectations will always be noticed.
  6. Experienced guides with extensive knowledge of Ireland. You also have an opportunity to participate in an informal study expedition with an archaeologist.

If you are ready to embark on the tour at any of the above dates, please register your interest. We will be happy to answer your questions and send you further details.

Following ‘Via Michaelica’, from the Mounts to the Caves

As an archaeologist, currently conducting PhD research on early Christianity, I have embarked on an expedition, or rather a pilgrimage, that takes me in most of its complexity with the Seven Archangels, and the seven sanctuaries-mounts dedicated to Saint Michael. They were built along the ley line, stretching southwards from northern Europe, with the Skellig Michael jutting from the Atlantic Ocean, to Mount Carmel In Israel, as its final point. But is it just a point or a cluster of sites around this holy place, important to both, Jews and Christians? (see: Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis)

So far, I have visited the three sanctuaries in the north of Europe. Yet, when I started my exciting journey in 2006, I barely associated the sites with the Archangel; at that time, I was not aware of the fact they are all placed on the imaginative line running 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north or that they are actually seven in number, all aligned southwards on the extension of the axis. In 2008, during my short visit in Cornwall, I learnt there is much more to the story I had known so far. For some, saying that a book can change your life is a cliché … Maybe … But in my life I have read at least two books that turned out to be the bestsellers of my life, giving me proper guidelines on how to live with passion. Having encountered one of them in a small bookshop in a town of Tintagel, my perception of legendary places, shaped by the faith of pagans and Christians alike, has greatly grown; it has triggered my imagination and challenged me to follow a Christian pilgrimage path that was firstly marked by Saint Michael’s steps.

Together with my travel companions, in October, 2022, I am heading off to two other Archangel’s sanctuaries in Italy. First, I will climb up the Mount Pirchiriano, beautifully situated in Piedmont of north-western Italy, where the silhouette of Sacra di San Michele is shouting in between the peaks of the Alpes. And then I will travel southwards to not less prepossessing Monte Sant’Angelo on Gargano Peninsula, surrounded by the navy-blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Thought-provoking is a binding connection between those two sites and Mont Saint Michel in France, of which Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Gargano is the only one not consecrated with a human hand.

Visual reports online from my expeditions will be available on my website. Later on, they will be richly supplemented with exhaustive written descriptions. Meantime, I invite you on a pilgrimage along Saint Michael’s Axis.

January, 15th, 2023: More than two months have passed since my last trip to the Sanctuaries of Saint Michael. In October, I managed to visit the fourth of them, Sacra di San Michele (see :The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region), and in November, the fifth one, which is the famous Monte Sant’Angelo on the Gargano peninsula. The time turned out to be extremely intense, because apart from going to Italy and studying along St. Michael’s Line, I also visited Christian sacral places in Lebanon and Egypt. Many of them are also related to angels’ activities, not only to Saint Michael, but also to his other six archangel companions. In Lebanon, I had the opportunity to travel through the sacred Valley of Quadisha, where Saint Michael is celebrated as much as Saint Elijah. I also tried sweet wine, made from grapes grown on Mount Hermon – the same one that was to witness the descent of fallen angels to earth… In Egypt, I visited the meeting place of Saints Paul and Anthony. It reminded me of the scene from the Irish High Crosses, showing two Saints with a raven flying with bread over their heads. I climbed up more than 1,000 steps to the cave of Saint Anthony, and after entering the sanctuary of the monastery, I got lost in thinking about the scenes of saints, angels and Majestas Domini.

The five first steps on ‘Via Michaelica’, while travelling southwards: Skellig Michael (2015), Saint Michael’s Mount (2008), Mont Saint Michel (2005, 2008), Sacra di San Michele (2022), an Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Saint’ Angelo (2022). The best way of experiencing the pilgrimage is to travel with your close freinds. Song by Sia “Unstoppable”; photo: the illustration of Saint Michael’s Sword with all the seven points; the board can be seen inside the Church of Saint Michael at Sacra di San Michele, in Piedmont.

All the thoughts come together in one piece that adds new chapters to the work on Saint Michael’s legendary Sword, (and to my PhD).

While Saint Michael is still chasing and hunting for demons, along the Line from north to south, I am coming back to my studies … I hope you will enjoy new articles that will soon appear on the website.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Photo: Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). In: Catholic Herald (2017). Available at <https://bit.ly/2jhwxSd>. [Accessed 15th April, 2018].

Mount Sinai Trekking in Search of the God at Sunrise

That night was simply full of magic and mysticism. When we reached our starting point to head off the Mount Sinai, the world had already laid down in darkness, yet disfigured with a thousand spots of light coming from clusters of bonfires and torches. Black silhouettes of Bedouins and camels were standing out sharply against their orange flames, casting their elongated shadows on the rocky ground, like the finest dancing lacework. Above us,  the navy-blue dome of the sky was spread out, sprinkled with shiny stars.

Awe Inspiring Feeling

I felt at once happy, excited … and cold. It was January. By the Red Sea, about three hours away, the weather was much warmer, letting me swim and sunbath all day long, but here the temperature was far lower, and suddenly I felt a freezing blast of air all over my body. I trembled from cold and quickly started to follow an example of my friend putting on herself subsequent layers of a pullover, waterproof jacket, scarf, winter hat and gloves.It’s difficult to imagine I was wearing my bikini yet in the afternoon …

Egypt or Saudi Arabia

Covered from head to toe, we were ready to take a night time hike up the legendary mountain of Sinai. With its peak reaching up to the height of 2285 meters, the mountain is placed on the Sinai Peninsula, close to the famous monastery of Saint Catherine, situated just at its foot. According to the biblical tradition, Mount Sinai was once climbed up by Moses, where he was given Ten Commandments by God, as the set of laws and teaching instructions to mankind. For this reason, the track leading up the mountain is usually called The Path of Moses and as such it has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Some scholars disagree with a common belief that the Old Testament event took its place in here. Actually, the tradition of placing the biblical meeting of Moses with God on the Sinai in Egypt was started in the fourth century, by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helen. Furthermore, the same scholars argue that according to the Bible, a “real” Mount Sinai is located in the ancient land of Midian, and it is nowhere else but in Saudi Arabia.

Yet it is difficult to gather enough evidence to definitely prove the theory and convince all who still doubt it, but as long as there are questions waiting to be answered, the quest for the truth will hopefully go on.

Before going on a spiritual journey

It was about 1 or 2 AM when we headed off our torch lit trail of pilgrimage with an intention to catch sunrise from its summit. It was going to take us about three to four hours to get there. However, the time taken usually depends on people’s ability and physical condition. We need also take into account regular stops to rest and warm up, preferably at small stalls along the way with hot water and blankets. It’s also useful to have a bottle of mineral water with you and a bar of chocolate (just in case you need to charge up your batteries) in your backpack.

I admit I was not so well prepared at that time as I would do, planning my trekking anew, but for those who would like to climb up there, if it’s possible in the future (I mean here the political situation in Egypt), it is good to know such essentials. Additionally, you should definitely take good trekking shoes and warm clothes if you climb up in winter.

Fourth Wise Man

At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Some people mounted camels led by Bedouins, others decided to go on foot. We chose the latter way of transport … and we survived! Moreover, anytime you feel tired walking, you can also hire one of these useful desert  animals to carry you up.

Under starry sky, among muffled sounds of mixed languages and the clamor of grumbling camels walking between us, I felt as if I was back in time, going to welcome the newly born Christ.

South Korean Sweets on the Egyptian Desert

Halfway, the path was getting narrower, with rocky stairs up and down and partially icy. Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Standing right in the middle of an Egyptian desert I saw that red granite mountains were covered in white caps of snow, shining beautifully against the rock.

Finally, just one hour before the expected sunrise, we got to the last stop to be fully ready to take our final climb to the summit. I was chilled to the bone. My friend as well, and as she was much more tired than me, she refused to go any further before she took some rest. I quickly agreed to do so. We entered one of numerous tents put up for pilgrims, just at the foot of the summit. A warm stream of air hit me from the inside. Only a loud gurgle of boiling water and a Bedouin’s voice recommending a variety of refreshments could be heard over the hubbub of the crowded people, talking, laughing, eating and drinking. And all of them squeezed together on wooden benches were trying to win as much of a heavy blanket so they could to cover their frozen legs under.

‘There is enough space for you to sit down with us!, said eastern-looking man smiling so widely his eyes turned into two horizontal lines.

‘Thank you a lot’, I replied.

‘Welcome, welcome!’, he uttered, still smiling.

We sat together one by one and I reached for a piece of the desirable blanket.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like it much’, I apologized  my friend. I kept yet in mind she refused to use it several times on the way as they did not look clean enough to her … and they smelled strongly with camels.

‘It doesn’t matter’, she said hiding her legs under the smelly blanket. ‘Well …  I’m going to stink, but at least I would feel warmer … and I’ll take a shower first when we finally get back to the hotel!’

I smiled to her. I really like her gentle irony and sarcastic sense of humour. She is so honest in it. I’m sure that if it was somebody else sitting by my side, such remarks would make me crazy but Gosia behaves in such a sweet way I’ve just got addicted to her. Since our first journey together to the Middle East, we have already travelled many times, and I hope we will keep travelling together in the future.

‘Some soup?’, asked me the same smiling man moving a vaporous bowl full of noodles toward my nose.

‘Oh no!’, Gosia strongly refused. ‘It’s too risky. I don’t trust them. They may not have boiled the water enough. I’m not going to stay in the middle of nowhere suffering from an Egyptian diarrhea.’

Of course she said it in Polish and luckily the eastern-looking man did not understand a word. Instead he made a big gulp of his noodle soup not caring much if the water had been prepared appropriately.

‘No, thank you. We are fine’, I replied. ‘Where do you come from?’, I asked after a while.

‘From South Korea. I’m here together with my friends to see the sunrise’, he replied waving to a group of smiling young people from the opposite bench. ‘And you?’

‘We are from Poland, and we are here just for the same reason as you are, I suppose …

My new friend smiled and nodded to my guessing.

Suddenly I realized all people came here from far away, climbed up and were waiting for a miracle of sunrise, whereas they could admire just the same miracle at their houses scattered around the world. Their passion for travelling is an answer itself.

‘Are you single?’, the man asked out of the blue.

‘Well …’, I felt disconcert. ‘… Why are you asking?’.

‘If you are single, my friend is single too’, he said to me and then added something in Korean, surely to his single friend. The latter approached me with a piece of Korean sweet and encouraged me to try it: ‘It will give you power to reach the summit’, he promised while I was unwrapping up something that looked like orange jelly. I tried it carefully. It tasted like jelly.

‘Do you want some?’, I asked my Gosia.

‘No, thank you. I don’t feel like having a Korean diarrhea either …’, she said outright. ‘Enjoy!’

Sunrise

The very last length of the track turned out to be the most challenging of all. The stairs carved out along the path were filled with sharp stones covered in ice, and the slope itself was dangerously steep. Our Egyptian guide was doing his best trying to help us to move forward even if he kept sliding down the rocky steps. When eventually we reached the summit I forgot I was tired, frozen and out of my breath. The view itself was breathtaking …

“Wow!” I sighed.

The sunrise had just started. When the very first rays reached the rusty rocks of the summit, the Sinai Mount shone up reflecting the sunlight. Beneath, the curtains of darkness opened and blazing red landscape appeared to people gathered together at the top. Some were sitting side by side covered in blankets; others were standing up like enchanted columns of rock. Flashes of cameras brightened time after time. While the sun was rising higher and higher, the Sinai mountains uncovered their rugged outlines to the coming day, casting their dark shadows against a rocky desert.

It does not matter if Moses had ever been here. In such moments like that, you can definitely meet God and talk to Him …

Saint Catherine and Her Monastery

And then there left just trekking down. It was much funnier as it was already taken in the warm, Egyptian sun. In front of our eyes desert colours were dancing happily; even usually unmoved camels were pleased with the daylight and surely with the fact they could throw heavy loads away from their backs.

At the end of the way down, we came to the high walls of Saint Catherine Monastery. Built in the sixth century, the monastery is one of the oldest working Ortodox Christian monasteries in the world. It is very famous for its unique collection of Byzantine pre-iconoclastic panel icons that miraculously survived the hard time of religious turmoil on the lands of Byzantium. By the same tradition which leads Moses’ track to the Sinai Peninsula, the Burning Bush from the Bible grows just in here, within the walls of the monastery. According to the narrative, Moses heard the Voice of God who had taken the form of the burning bush not consumed by the flames. At that time Moses was ordered to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

Before we stared visiting that religious pearl in the desert, we opened our lunch boxes and enjoyed the silence of monastic atmosphere.

Unexpectedly, Gosia interrupted it thinking aloud: “I feel sorry for Moses” she said seriously “Poor man … he must have been exhausted just walking up and down…”

Egyptian Uprising

Few days before our trekking to the Sinai Mount, at the end of January, 2011, we landed on the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh. On the coach to the hotel I noticed numerous armed soldiers spread out all over the way. Suddenly our coach was ordered to stop by a military. From the perpendicular road a long black limousine went across in front of our coach. Then I found out that inside there was Sajjid Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was coming back from an emergency summit meeting organized in the face of the situation in Tunisia. A week later while we were crossing Israelite-Jordan border in Eilat, we learned about the Egyptian Revolution that had forcefully burst out in Cairo.

Featured image: Sinai mountains, Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“The Real Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia”. In: Revealing God’s Treasure. In: Providence’s Youtube Channel. Accessed on 29th Jun. 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wPg8Jh>.

Amer (2018) “Catching Sunrise at Mount Sinai, Egypt – Breathtaking to say the least”. In: “Mount Sinai Trekking”. In:  Where it all begins. Accessed on 29th June, 2018, link unknown.

Vetratoria.com (2018). “The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery”. In: The Holy Monastery of the Mount Sinai. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8zMYQ>.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery” (2015). In: Wkipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed on 29th June, 2018. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QeBPle>.

The Gesture of Saint Anne of Faras and its Mysteries

Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).

Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia

Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).

Styles of Faras wall paintings

“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).

From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).

Construction phases of the Faras cathedral

Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Female programme in the Nubian art

In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).

At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).

Ancestors of God

Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).

Mother of Theotokos

Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Saint Anne of Faras

The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.

Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once  the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).

Portrayal with no analogies

Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).

Timeless image of silence

The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).

There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to  a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).

“Most perfect of all prayers”

The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).

In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.

Worth being remembered

Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.

Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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