Tag Archives: Sacred Architecture

In the Underground Cave Church of Aya Tekla in Silifke

This field-trip to Turkey turned out to be extremely difficult. Last January, parts of the country, including Istanbul, were covered with thick layers of snow and ice. This prevented me from organizing the first two flights with a change in Istanbul, although for Turkey itself this amount of water turned out to be a blessing with the onset of hot summer weather. In any case, according to the famous saying “third time lucky”, the third flight finally took place and I eventually landed in Turkey. The winter time of visiting this country turned out to be extraordinary, as I could see Turkey in a greener and more luscious landscape than in summer. Although the snow slowly disappeared from the coastal area, and the orange of fresh fruit dominated the colours of sunny streets, the monuments located in the higher parts of the mountains were still covered in thick white folds, the amount of which increased in proportion to the car’s climbing up a winding road. Fortunately, the place where I was going had already escaped winter and turned out to be easily accessible, especially since our little group was the only one who decided to visit this place.


The sanctuary and pilgrimage site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık is situated in south-central Turkey, in a picturesque province of Mersin, within an ancient and geo-cultural region of Cilicia, and very near the Mediterranean coast (Kristensen 2016:229; Edwards 2016:151). More precisely, the site is located one and half kilometres south of Seleukeia (modern-day Silifke), on the river Kalykadnus (the modern river Göksu) (Kristensen 2016:229-330; Edwards 2016:151), in which waters the Emperor Barbarossa drowned during the Third Crusade, in 1190, yet before his army reached the Holy Land (Portal Editor 2021).

The district of Silifke itself is very ancient, being dated back to the times before the Bronze Age (Portal Editor 2021); its name has originated from the name of one of Alexander the Great’s diadochs, namely, Seleucus I Nicator, whose Empire also included the ancient Cilicia before 63 BC. (Ibid.) Saint Thekla is believed to have lived in her cave, in the proximity of Silifke, over a century later.

Aya Tekla and her history

Saint Thecla was born as a member of a pagan and wealthy family in the Greek city of Iconium (modern Konya), in the first century AD., yet before the death and resurrection of the Saviour (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49). When Saint Paul of nearby Tarsus came to her city (45–48 AD.) to preach, the young virgin not only converted to Christianity but also became a zealous disciple and follower of Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). In order to escape from her first persecutors, including her own parents and a Roman fiancé, Thecla disguised as a man and wandered through Anatolia together with Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). During her lifetime, the girl was often exposed to persecutions and close to martyrdom; yet she was often miraculously saved; already in Iconium, she had been condemned to be burned at the stake, and elsewhere, she was thrown to the lions (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-53; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).

Martrydom of Saint Thecla; the Saint thrown to the lions. Limestone relief, possibly Coptic in origin, Brooklyn Museum. Wessel (1965), Pl. 52, p. 59.

At that time, many Christians were looking for a protection against Romans in underground cavities (Portal Editor 2021). One of them, near Silifke, became the last refuge of Thekla (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Yet before she died and was buried there, she continuously preached, healed, and performed miracles (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). As a legend goes, she escaped from her last oppressors by disappearing underground, leaving behind only her coat that eventually turned into stone (Iza 2017).

The cave first became a secret meeting point of local Christians and served as their place of worship, and finally became an important Christian pilgrimage site and Saint Thecla’s martyrium (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Thecla had been recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church but has been particularly venerated by the Coptic Church (Iza 2017). Her hagiography is told in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, from the late second century, written in Asia Minor (Ibid.). According to a Greek appendix to the apocrypha, Thekla was possibly murdered on site by her persecutors (Edwards 2016:151), and so she is titled “the first martyr among women” (Ibid.:151).

The Cave of Silifke and its pilgrims

The site of Saint Thecla Church and its growing monastic enclosure was one of the most significant early Christian pilgrimage destinations of the Byzantine period in Asia Minor, especially over the period of the fourth century (Kristensen 2016:229-230). Apart from the site in Silifke, there are also alternative memorial shrines, aspiring to the title of the last resting place of the Saint, such as Saint Thecla’s grave in Maalula, in Syria (Iza 2017).

Till today, the site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık has usually been referred to as Sancta Tecla or Aya Tekla Church (in Turkish: Aya Tekla Kilisesi,; in Greek: Hagia Thékla) (‘Aya Tekla Church’ 2021). The hill containing now the shrine of Saint Thecla is also called in Turkish Merymelik, which invokes the place of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.). Yet, “the site was intimately tied to the life of Thekla and her post mortem miracles” (Kristensen 2016:330).

In the second century, the first small Christian church was built just above the cave, which was itself enlarged and turned into an underground church (Iza 2017). Further monastic buildings were erected with time, gradually changing the area into a monastic enclosure (Ibid.). Works at a much larger scale started on site only in the fifth century, by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno the Isaurian, who owed his military triumph over his rival to Saint Thekla, as she had appeared in front of the Emperor and assured him of his future victory (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017). As a result, a huge basilica was founded on top of the hill, above the cave (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021), and a “new temenos” (Edwards 2016:151) was erected around the site in 476 (Ibid.:151). Till the early sixth century, the site had been furthermore architecturally enriched due to a growing number of pilgrims; there were possibly built two additional basilicas and many supplementary buildings (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).


Textual context

The written sources on the site mostly comes from before the fifth century (Kristensen 2016:232). The earliest accounts of the site, attesting its importance in Christian topography, are dated back to the year 374 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). They say that the sanctuary attracted many famous pilgrims, such as Gregory of Nazianzus – a Cappadocian Father, who later became the Patriarch of Constantinople (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). He was on site in the 370s and described the monastic sanctuary in his writing as parthenona (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). Egeria, possibly a Western nun and the author of accounts of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visited the shrine in May 384 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). She testifies the existence of a monastic community “beyond measure” on site, and describes a massive wall, sheltering the area from invaders (Edwards 2016:151).


Initial archaeological excavations on the site started in 1907, yet they left behind many unsolved issues and questions (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). In the 1940s, the site suffered much damage due to treasure hunting activities and poor quality digs, without proper recording a stratigraphic sequence or leaving the movable finds discarded, some of which keep crumbling around the site or are freely deposed without a context (Edwards 2016:151).

Consequently, it is now problematic to determine a correct chronology for the development of the monastic complex, including the building phases of the three basilicas and the underground church (Kristensen 2016:232; Edwards 2016:151). Nowadays, excavations take place on site but with longer intervals, when the site is left for tourists, while a huge area of the site has never been excavated (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). “Therefore, our knowledge about the [complex], its architecture, and the cave itself is incomplete [to this day]” (Iza 2017). On the other side, there are up-to-date substantial works on the site, which are provided by numerous Turkish and international scholars, who offer a more analytical approach to the research.


Elements of the complex

The architectural complex of Silifke, approximately measuring 700×350 metres, lies on northwest-southwest axis and is located on a rising rock shelf of limestone (Edwards 2016:151). Apart from the underground church, central to the site, the complex is composed of multiple buildings of a different purpose (Edwards 2016:151; Iza 2017).; there are “at least nine huge cisterns, a western-oriented aqueduct with attached conduits [from the fifth century], a bathhouse, a small church, graves, house tombs, […] numerous natural caves” (Edwards 2016:151), and the three basilicas from the fifth and early sixth centuries, the North, Central and the South, all considerably damaged but still featuring a set of key architectural elements (Ibid.:151).

The South Basilica

The South Basilica was built above the cave in the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). It was one of the largest three-nave basilicas ever built in Anatolia (79×38 meters) (Ibid.:151). The church used to have two rows of fifteen columns, and a narrow narthex and a stepped platform (crepidoma) at the west (Ibid.:151). At the east, there was a rounded apse, opened once by two windows; its remains with three buttresses on the exterior are still proudly protruding high above the ground, as a single architectural element still well visible on the slope (Ibid.:151).

“[The] enormous cavern of the basilica above […] stood in stark contrast to [the underground church], [which must have] offered to visitors an evocative experience that alternated between the darkness of the enclosed space and the [brighter spaces of the basilica]” (Kristensen 2016:258).

The Underground Church

An entrance to the underground shrine of Saint Thecla was located under the south aisle of the South Basilica (Edwards 2016:151). The exact date of its construction is not known but it can be estimated for around the fourth century and it had surely been continuously elaborated at least since that time (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:258; Kristensen 2016:258,260). As mentioned before, there was initially a smaller church at the entrance to the grotto before the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). In preparation for constructing a larger edifice above it, the cave must have been reduced in size but its walls were instead beautifully decorated in gilded mosaics, which gave an additional brightness to the darkened space (Kristensen 2016:258).

After the South Basilica was built by Zeno, the cave was possibly accessed “via two descending shafts from a narrow hall flanking the south aisle; light entered by a third shaft” (Edwards 2016:151). Now the opening to the cave, located slightly south-east, is accessible from the outside; having descended a few steps, we entered an underground space through a rounded arch. Then another flight of stairs led us deeper, under a barrelled vault, inside the church of a rectangular plan, typical of a basilica layout (18×12 meters) (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151), with a central nave (10 metres long), defined by two rows of three Doric columns, which were reused from earlier architectural structures (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151). Hence, the columns can be described as spolia (Edwards 2016:151), “repurposed building stone for new construction or decorative sculpture reused in new monuments” (‘Spolia’ 2022).

Although the church had been designed in the form of a basilica, it is still visible it was adjusted to a natural shape of the limestone grotto, tangibly evoking the presence of Saint Thecla (Kristensen 2016:258). Whereas the south-east side aisle is asymmetrical (Edwards 2016:151), “the colonnade at the [north-west] almost abuts a later [ashlar] masonry wall that separates the church from a maze of ancient rock tombs” (Ibid.:151). The central nave is limited with a round arch leading further to a somewhat scarped, semi-circular apse, facing north-east (Ibid.:151). Possibly, there were no pastophories, flanking it in the past (Ibid.:151). Today there is an altar featuring an icon of Saint Thecla, protected by a glass and surrounded by flowers and candles. I lit a few of them, which filled the space with a flickering light against the artificial one that allows visitors to explore the shrine.

At the north-west side of the church, there is a narthex with a barrel-vault, leading to the funerary part of the church, possibly with Saint Thecla’s tomb (Edwards 2016:151). Along the mentioned masonry wall, separating the funerary part from the north aisle, there are a few architectural elements deposited, which are mostly remains of capitals with Christian symbols, like the Chi-Rho with the Alpha and Omega and the Latin Cross.

The north-east section of this part of the church must deliberately have been blocked by the construction of an apse with two windows, allowing limited views into the innermost part of the cave (Kristensen 2016:258). It is said that there are some mosaic fragments in the corners of its ceiling but possibly they are so poorly preserved that it is now difficult to discern them in an artificial light (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151).

That deepest section of the cave behind the apse is believed to have been the holy of holies, where Thekla had lived, performed miracles and finally disappeared underground or was killed (Kristensen 2016:258). “While giving visitors peeks into [the memorial] part of the cave, the windows simultaneously restricted physical access to it; this is evidence of a careful staging of access to Thekla’s divine presence where pilgrims were kept at a distance to the most sacred part of the sanctuary” (Kristensen 2016:258).


Such a layout of the underground church is typical of an early Christian cemetery or memorial basilicas, erected around or above a martyr’s tomb and dedicated to their memory, as much as Saint Peter’s Basilica, founded by Constantine the Great in 324. The access to Saint Peter’s tomb had been both restricted and allowed for pilgrims, without disturbing sacred ceremonies in the church. Likewise, the narthex in Saint Thecla’s Church allowed to move directly to its memorial part, with no need for entering the central nave of the church.

The province of Mersin, in Turkey, offers a richness of ancient and early Christian sites, among which the complex of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık, together with a contemporary to it Alahan Monastery (Koja Kalessi), lead its prime in teaching Christian spirituality and early architecture to scholars and tourists alike.

Featured image: “Just south of the [South Basilica] and the cave, there is the best-preserved cistern (out of six identified so far) in this location. Water was supplied to it by the system of aqueducts. The cistern has a rectangular plan with sides 12.6 and 14.1 meters long. It is surrounded by the 1.7-meter-thick wall. The outer side of the wall is ashlar masonry, and the inside was built from bricks covered with two layers of plaster to provide [permeability]. The cistern is covered with three barrel vaults, supported on the walls and the columns” (Iza 2017). Own photo, taken in February, 2022. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


‘Aya Tekla Church’ (2021) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3t4GZQI. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).

Bocachete (2006) ‘Martyrium of Saint Thecla, at Silifke, Ayatekla (Turkey)’ (Photo in Public domain), in Wikipedia. Available at https://bit.ly/354FD0m. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).

Edwards, R. W. (2016). ‘Ayatekla’, in Finney, P. C. (ed.) The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 151–152.

Iza (2017). ‘Saint Thecla Church and Cave in Silifke’, in Turkish Archaeological News. Available at https://bit.ly/3Ie83TQ. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).

Kristensen, T. M. (Summer 2016). ‘Landscape, Space, and Presence in the Cult of Thekla at Meriamlik’, in Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 24, Number 2, Project Muse. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 229-263.

Portal Editor (2021). ‘Silifke’s Ayatekla – student of the Apostle Paul’, in ALATURKA. Culture and Travel Portal. Turkey. Available at https://bit.ly/3p4JEZu. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).

‘Spolia’ (2022) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3Id3f0W. (Accessed 24th February, 2022).

Tańska-Hoffmanowa, K. (1845). ‘Święta Tekla. Uczennica Świętego Pawła’, Święte niewiasty: obrazki pobożne, Volume 1. Lipsk: Nakładem Księgarni Zagranicznej (Librerie étranger), pp. 49-53.

Wessel, K. (1965). Coptic Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. Thames&Hudson Ltd. 59.

Zalewska, E. (2020). ‘Saint Thecla – the Iconographic Pattern of this Female Saint and Her Role in the History of Christianity’ [‘Święta Tekla – ikonografia i miejsce świętej w historii Kościoła’], in Nowak A. Z., Kuczyńska, M. (eds.), Latopisy Akademii Supraskiej 11. Dzieci w kulturze duchowej Prawosławia. Białystok, Kraków: Oikonomos. Akademia Supraska; Muzeum Ikon w Supraślu, pp. 223-239.

Jawajska Przygoda od Piramidy Światła do Świątyni Tysiąca (a tour offered in Polish).

Archeologia wyspy Jawy wraz z wizytą na Bali.

Wyprawa indywidualna dla 6 – 10/15 osób (w zależności od zainteresowania). Orientacyjny okres wyjazdu: 18-31 lipiec, 2023 (14 dni).

Nazywam się Asia i jestem archeologiem. Obecnie piszę pracę doktorską na Uniwersytecie w Dublinie. Chociaż moją specjalizacją jest głównie tematyka wczesnego chrześcijaństwa w Iroszkocji i jego powiazań z tradycją koptyjską, w ramach moich szerokich zainteresowań i studiów leży również archeologia i mitologia Azji Południowo-Wschodniej, szczególnie wydarzenia opiewane przez eposy Ramajany i Mahabharaty, ale także język architektury hinduistycznej i buddyjskiej.

Z tego tytułu zapraszam na wycieczkę w świat bogów i demonów oraz ich architektonicznych siedzib, przez wieki uznawanych przez ludzi za sacrum a przez archeologów i historyków za zagadkę. A to wszystko w transcendencji baśniowych krajobrazów.

DZIEŃ 1: JAKARTA (18.07.23; lot z Warszawy w tym wypadku odbędzie się 17 lipca)

Witamy w Indonezji! Po wylądowaniu w DŻAKARCIE (zachodnia część wyspy Jawa) czekają Was procedury imigracyjne oraz odbiór bagaży. W hali przylotów będzie czekał na Was przewodnik oraz prywatny, klimatyzowany pojazd, którym wyruszamy w 3-4 godzinną drogę na południe, kierując się tym samym w stronę naszego hotelu. Droga wiedzie nas przez chłodny BOGOR, „miasto deszczu”, za sprawą najwyższego poziomu opadów w Indonezji (pada tu ponad 320 dni w roku!), nad którym majestatycznie góruje WULKAN SALAK. Następnie trasa prowadzi przez plantacje herbaty i rejon PARKU NARODOWEGO GUNUNG GEDE PANGRANGO o powierzchni 150 km2, skupionego na dwóch WULKANACHGEDE i PANGRANGO. Nie trudno zgadnąć, że to właśnie im Park zawdzięcza swoją nazwę. Widowiskową trasę urozmaicimy przerwą na posiłek, relaks w gorących źródłach oraz wizytą u stóp okolicznych wodospadów w okolicy Bogor (w zależności od czasu). Kolację zjemy w rejonie południowego podnóża wulkanu Gede, w przyjemnie chłodnym mieście SUKABUMI (ok. 100 km od Dżakarty), a noc spędzimy w niedużym, 3* hotelu SANTIKA HOTEL SUKABUMI z odkrytym basemen (Superior Room, 25 m2). To świetna baza wypadowa oraz znakomite miejsce, aby zregenerować się po długim dniu aklimatyzacyjnym.

*Free photo source

DZIEŃ 2: BANDUNG (19.07.23)

Po wczesnym śniadaniu czas na wykwaterowanie. Wyruszamy w 2-godzinną trasę do kompleksu megalitycznego GUNUNG PADANG (tłum. “Góra Światła” lub wymiennie “Góra Oświecenia”), którego odkrycie spowodowało sporo zamieszania w powszechnie znanej historii. Tarasy i dziedzińce kompleksu zbudowane są ze skalnych bloków i głazów o wadze 250-600 kg. Nie to jednak stanowi o niezwykłości tego miejsca. Otóż klejone starożytnym cementem ruiny zlokalizowane są na… wzgórzu stworzonym ludzkimi rękami! Archeolodzy dowodzą, że pod spodem kopca o kształcie piramidy czai się najstarsza konstrukcja wybudowana być może nawet 22 000 lat temu przez nieznaną cywilizację sprzed epoki lodowcowej! Oznacza to, że wyprzedziła ona pierwszą znaną cywilizację Mezopotamii o blisko 15 000 lat, a Göbeklitepe o 10 000 lat … Zapraszamy na spacer, który ukaże podobieństwo Gunung Padang do peruwiańskiego Machu Picchu, a także unaoczni rozległość terenu, który jest kilkakrotnie większy od świątyni Borobudur. Porozmawiamy również o kontrowersjach wokół Góry Światła – jak choćby o ofercie kupna praw do tego terenu wartej 1 miliard dolarów amerykańskich. Mówi się, że rząd Indonezji odrzucił tę propozycję licząc, że plotki o złocie ukrytym w piramidzie nie są jedynie plotkami. Gdy emocje nieco opadną, skierujemy się na lokalny lunch oraz w kierunku aktywnego WULKANU TANGKUBAN PERAHU (tłum. “Odwrócona Łódź”, ze względu na kształt góry), skąd rozpościera się oszałamiający widok na region BANDUNG. Następnie wizyta w kalderze wulkanu z wyjątkową panoramą krateru oraz (jeśli czas pozwoli) wizyta w kolejnych gorących źródłach w CIATER, aby odpocząć w ciepłej, siarkowej wodzie lub wizyta na lokalnym targowisku w miejscowości CIWDEY. Kolacja i nocleg w pobliżu KRATEROWEGO JEZIORA KAWAH PUTIHCIWIDEY VALLEY RESORT & HOT SPRING WATERPARK, BANDUNG (Superior Room, 25 m2).

*Photos from ‘Gunung Padang’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022).

DZIEŃ 3: KAWAH PUTIH (20.07.23)

Przed nami kolejne wczesne śniadanie, wykwaterowanie i wyjazd. Drogę umilą nam aromatyczne truskawki, „popisowy numer” tutejszych rolników. Na celowniku mamy KAWAH PUTIH (tłum. “Biały Krater”) ze swym emblematycznym jeziorem o wulkanicznym rodowodzie. Naszym zdaniem jego kolor bliższy jest turkusowi i może zmieniać się w zależności od zawartości siarki. W słoneczne dni kolor jeziora jest surowy i jasny, a w pochmurne cały krater może być spowity mgłą, co zapewnia równie niesamowite doznania. Niezależnie od palety barw hipnotyzujący widok uśpionego krateru jest jednym z najbardziej niezapomnianych przeżyć z Jawy. Posileni lunchem wyruszamy w stronę centralnej Jawy, do PEKALONGAN. 6-7 godzinną trasę pokonujemy klimatyzowanym pojazdem, rekompensując sobie w ten sposób brak połączenia lotniczego na trasie Bandung – Jogjakarta. Do Pekalongan docieramy wieczorem, w samą porę na pożywną kolację i nocleg w hotelu 3* SANTIKA PEKALONGAN (Superior Room, 22 m2), na skraju Morza Jawajskiego.

DZIEŃ 4: YOGYAKARTA (21.07.23)

Po śniadaniu wykwaterowanie i wyjazd z Pekalongan. Upewniamy się, że mamy pod ręką kurtkę przeciwdeszczową, ciepłą bluzę i czapkę, dzięki którym nagłe zmiany warunków atmosferycznych na wysokości 2 300 m n.p.m. nie będą bolesne. Kierowca zabiera nas w malownicze okolice płaskowyżu DIENG (tłum. “Siedziba Boga”), w którym zakochują się wszyscy miłośnicy przyrody. Droga urozmaicona meczetami, wioskami, tarasami ryżowymi na stromych zboczach, plantacjami owoców i warzyw zajmie nam ok. 2-3 godzin. Na dnie kaldery zobaczymy jedne z najstarszych indonezyjskich świątyń, które zostały odkryte przez archeologów w wyniku osuszania gigantycznego jeziora. To nie tylko najstarsze zabytki kultury jawajskiej, ale przede wszystkim jedno z najpiękniejszych miejsc w Indonezji! Mistycyzmu dodają mu aktywne wulkany, na których w VII w. zbudowano świetnie prosperujący, górski kompleks świątynny, o który dbali hinduscy kapłani i pustelnicy. Spędzimy czas nad JEZIOREM TELAGA WARNA, którego kolor wody zmienia się w zależności od czasu, pogody i perspektywy. Wspólnie polować będziemy na moment, w którym woda przybierze fenomenalną, szmaragdową barwę, bowiem o kolorach decyduje załamanie światła osadów siarki, które zalegają na dnie kolejnego, spektakularnego jeziora. Po przerwie na lokalny lunch wyruszamy do YOGYAKARTY (Jogjakarty) (4-5 godzin drogi) – kulturowego centrum wyspy. Zakwaterowanie w GALLERY PRAWIROTAMAN YOGYAKARTA (Deluxe Room, 35 m2), kolacja i odpoczynek.

*Free photo source


Po śniadaniu dzień, na który wszyscy czekaliśmy z nutką ekscytacji. Przygotowujemy niewielkie plecaki, wodę oraz nakrycie głowy i wyruszamy na spotkanie z historią starożytnej Jawy. Główną atrakcją dnia są obiekty wpisane na listę światowego dziedzictwa UNESCO, czyli BOROBUDUR – największa na świecie świątynia buddyjska oraz pobliski PRAMBANAN – imponujący kompleks świątyń hinduistycznych, które swoją wspaniałością mogą konkurować nawet z Angkor Wat. Sąsiedztwo obydwu świątyń będzie przyczynkiem do rozmowy o harmonii i tolerancji. Opowieść rozpoczniemy od zaznajomienia się z nazwą „candi”, którą w języku indonezyjskim określa się świątynie hinduskie i buddyjskie. Candi Borobudur to świątynia z przełomu VIII/ IX wieku. W jej piramidalnej konstrukcji odzwierciedlona jest buddyjska wizja świata. Przez niektórych określany jako mistyczny – krajobraz kilkudziesięciu posągów Buddy, zamkniętych w stupach i ułożonych na planie mandali, którego tłem jest porośnięta dżunglą równina Kedu z wystającym na horyzoncie stożkiem wulkanu Merapi. Prambanan to hinduistyczny kompleks z IX w. Pierwotnie liczył 232 obiekty architektoniczne ułożone na planie trzech wielkich czworokątów, które zostały poważnie uszkodzone przez trzęsienie ziemi za sprawą wybuchu Merapi. Świątynie z Prambanan zniknęły wówczas na tysiąc lat, przysypane pyłem wulkanicznym. Porośnięte lasami czekały cierpliwie, bowiem dla bogów czas przecież nie istnieje. Mieszkańcy Jawy nie odważyli się ruszyć kamieni przez stulecia, bo wierzyli, że wszystkiego pilnują demony. Obejrzymy zatem największy i najbardziej znany kompleks hinduistyczny leżący poza granicami Indii. Posłuchamy o kulcie 3 bogów – Śiwie (Bóg Niszczyciel), Wisznu (Bóg Utrzymujący Świat) i Brahmie (Bóg Stworzyciel), analizując detale ozdobnych reliefów inspirowanych scenami z Ramajany – największego hinduistycznego eposu. Kolejnym przystankiem na tym samym obszarze będzie piękna, choć mało znana, królewska świątynia – CANDI SEWU (tłum. “Świątynia Tysiąca”), druga co do wielkości świątynia wyznawców Buddy na Jawie (tuż po Borobudur). Mówi się, że dawniej otoczona była ponad tysiącem mniejszych stup, stąd wzięła się jej nazwa, jednak archeolodzy doliczyli się 249 pomniejszych świątyń. Zajrzymy jeszcze do buddyjskiej świątyni CANDI PLAOSAN z IX stulecia, składającej się z dwóch bliźniaczych kompleksów. Legenda mówi, że tłem powstania Plaosanu było wielkie uczucie pomiędzy hinduskim księciem i buddyjską księżniczką, których do końca życia nie rozdzieliła religia. Wejścia do świątyni strzegą 4 potężne postacie, przypominające uzbrojone ogry – to wojowniczy dvarapala, czyli strażnicy drzwi lub bramy, dość powszechny element architektoniczny w kulturze hinduskiej i buddyjskiej. W zależności od wielkości i zamożności świątyni strażników ustawiano pojedynczo, w parach lub w większych grupach. Mniejsze budowle mogły mieć tylko jednego dvarapala. Po lunchu czas na ostatnią świątynię na naszej dzisiejszej trasie. Niewielka w porównaniu z Borobudur, buddyjska CANDI MENDUT, szczyci się trzema 3-metrowymi posągami. Wewnątrz ruin z chłodnego mroku wyłonią się trzy monumentalne rzeźby przedstawiające mistyczne ciała Buddy – sami wówczas zobaczycie, że Cewi Mendut jest niesłusznie omijana przez odwiedzających, ponieważ tutejsze rzeźby są arcydziełami na światową skalę. Wieczorem zapraszamy na kolację z set menu (18:30) oraz na wyjątkowy spektakl, który odbędzie się w amfiteatrze pod gołym niebem (w okresie pory suchej, czyli maj – październik; obowiązują 3 klasy biletowe; 19:30 – 20:30). Na naszych oczach odegrany bedzie taneczny dramat RAMAJANA BALLET – czyli interpretacja sanskryckiego eposu „Dzieje Ramy” o indyjskich korzeniach. Godzinne przedstawienie to znakomite połączenie choreografii, muzyki i zachwycających kostiumów blisko 200 tancerzy. Tancerze i aktorzy wystąpią dla nas na tle oświetlonej świątyni Prambanan. By mieć pewność, że nie poczujecie się zagubieni, przed rozpoczęciem spektaklu nakreślimy jego fabułę, a także podpowiemy na co zwrócić szczególną uwagę. Druga noc w GALLERY PRAWIROTAMAN YOGYAKARTA (Deluxe Room, 35 m2) i czas na regenerację po aktywnym dniu.


Po śniadaniu wykwaterowanie i przejazd do ruin RATU BOKO, których funkcja do dziś pozostaje zagadką. Niektórzy eksperci sądzą, że miejsce miało character religijny, inni zaś upatrują w nim ufortyfikowany pałac królewski z wyraźną pozostałością murów obronnych. Dzięki położeniu na zboczu wzgórza rozpościera się stąd piękna panorama Prambanan i WULKANU MERAPI – tło, które aż się prosi, by uwiecznić je na zdjęciach. Wyruszamy na zachód wyspy, w kierunku CANDI CETO. Po drodze postój na lokalny lunch, następnie około 3 godz. drogi z okazją do degustacji tutejszych owoców egzotycznych. Uprzedzamy, że droga do jawajsko-hinduskiej świątyni Candi Ceto jest wymagająca – złośliwi mówią, że tylko dla ludzi o mocnych nerwach, bo pnie się stromo w górę wzdłuż wysokich klifów. Pora przyodziać się w coś cieplejszego, bo Candi Ceto wzniesiono na zboczu STRATOWULKANU GUNUNG LAWU, na wysokości blisko 1 500 m n.p.m. Świątynia do złudzenia przypomina obiekty, które znać możemy z Bali. Dysponuje kilkoma tarasami, z których najwyższe są niedostępne dla odwiedzających, bowiem Candi Ceto wciąż pozostaje aktywnym miejscem kultu religijnego. Warto pamiętać, że Gunung Lawu stanowi także umowną granicę pomiędzy Centralną a Wschodnią Jawą, którą przekroczymy już jutro. Nocleg w SUKUH COTTAGE NEAR CANDI SUKUH (Standard Room, 16 m2).

*Free photo source


Stałym zwyczajem tuż po śniadaniu wykwaterujemy się, będąc gotowi do drogi w stronę pobliskiej, hinduistycznej świątyni CANDI SUKUH, określanej mianem „erotycznej świątyni”. Ukryta w lesie, pozwoli nam odbyć krótki trekking nim dotrzemy do piramidy z grubo ciosanego kamienia, która przywodzi na myśl budowle Majów z terenów dzisiejszego Meksyku i Ameryki Centralnej. Przed nami trzypoziomowa architektura z XV w. ulokowana na zachodnim zboczu góry Gunung Lawu. Zagadkowa, odizolowana świątynia słynie ze swych płaskorzeźb, na których większość postaci jest naga od pasa w dół. Genitalia są przedstawione na kilku posągach, co jest dość rzadkie wśród klasycznych zabytków jawajskich. Niektórzy tłumaczą to historią powstania świątyni. Była ona bowiem wybudowana w czasie, gdy na Jawie toczyły się walki o władzę między muzułmanami, którzy zajmowali północ wyspy, a hindusami, którzy przeważali na południu. Miecze i penisy miałyby symbolizować hinduistyczne zwycięstwo z powodu większej męskości. „Erotyczna świątynia” będzie głównym tematem rozmów podczas lunchu, natomiast tuż po nim wyruszamy w długą drogę do aktywnego WULKANU BROMO – jednego z najsłynniejszych wulkanów w całej Indonezji. Zajmie nam to ok. 7-8 godz., które urozmaicimy historiami o starożytnej i dzisiejszej Jawie. Zmieniający się krajobraz umili nam najdłuższy z transferów na naszej trasie. Dzisiejsza noc będzie krótka, ze względu na wczesną pobudkę i obserwowanie wschodu słońca nad Bromo, dlatego po kolacji zachęcamy do porządnej regeneracji. Zakwaterowanie i kolacja w CEMARA INDAH HOTEL NEAR MT. BROMO (Standard Room, 18 m2), możliwie najbliżej punktu startu jutrzejszej eskapady.


Przygotowani na chłód i wiatr, wyruszamy już o 3:00 – 3:30. Mrok nocy przecinają wiązki światła naszych samochodów terenowych. Kierujemy się do PARKU NARODOWEGO BROMO TENGGER SEMERU, a dokładniej w stronę zbocza Mt. Penanjakan, do najpopularniejszego punktu widokowego. Czeka nas krótki, acz intensywny spacer z latarkami lub czołówkami z parkingu do najwyżej położonego punktu widokowego “King Kong Hill” (ok. 15 min) lub „Seruni Platform” (mniej popularnego). Warto być jednak przygotowanym na nieprzyjemne warunki atmosferyczne, przede wszytskim chłód. Już za moment niebo zacznie płynnie zmieniać kolory, szykując dla nas jeden z popisowych spektakli Matki Natury. Z ciemności wyłonią się kolejno trzej kompani – WULKAN BATOK (2 470 m n.p.m.), BROMO (2 329 m n.p.m.), SEMERU – najwyższy szczyt Jawy (3 676 m n. p. m.) oraz kilka mniej popularnych wulkanów i kalder znajdujących się na terenie parku. Z każdą minutą ich zbocza będą mienić się coraz cieplejszymi barwami. Uroku temu pocztówkowemu krajobrazowi dodaje położenie Bromo. Wulkan znajduje się wewnątrz masywnej kaldery Tengger (krater wulkaniczny o średnicy około 10 km), otoczonej morzem jasnego piasku wulkanicznego. Nim oddalimy się w stronę hotelu i śniadania, przejedziemy w pobliżu krawędzi Bromo, a chętni będą mogli przespacerować się po wulkanicznym pyle i wykorzystać poranne światło do fantastycznych ujęć. Uwaga: najlepszą przejrzystość powietrza i szansę na podziwianie panoramy Parku Narodowego niesie ze sobą okres od kwietnia do października. Wracamy do hotelu, aby sprawnie zjeść śniadanie, spakować bagaże i wyruszyć na lotnisko w Surabaya (ok. 4 godz.), skąd odlecimy do Denpasar (Bali). Po drodze przerwa na lunch lub posiłek na lotnisku (w zależności od zapasu czasu). Pożegnanie z polskojęzycznym, jawajskim przewodnikiem i check-in na przelot na Bali – wyspę, o której mawia się, że zagęszczenie świątyń to 4 budowle na 1 kilometr kwadratowy! Lądujemy na BALI, odbieramy bagaże i witamy się z kolejnym polskojęzycznym przewodnikiem. Kierujemy się wspólnie do komfortowego, kameralnego hotelu SOL BENOA BY MELIA 4* (Sol Room, 50 m2) z dostępem do dość szerokiej plaży ze złotym piaskiem. Trasa do hotelu zajmie nam ok. kilkunastu minut dzięki niedawno wybudowanej, płatnej drodze ekspresowej. Kolacja we własnym zakresie – w hotelu, w jednej z pobliskich restauracji lub w punktach ze street-foodem do których z łatwością można dotrzeć pieszo wybierając się na spacer poza kompleks hotelowy. Uwaga: w przypadku zmian w programie lub jeśli wyda się to Wam zasadne, na Wasze wyraźne życzenie możemy wykupić pakiet all-inclusive 24/7. Pakietu nie możemy rezerwować na wybrane dni, może obowiązywać wyłącznie przez cały czas trwania zakwaterowania.

*Free photo source


Wczesne śniadanie oraz spotkanie z przewodnikiem, który porwie Was w drogę na północny zachód Bali oraz na kolację i zakupy w UBUD. Przed nami kolejny, intensywny dzień. Na początek ok. 2 godz. trasy wiodącej przez wioski i zielone tarasy ryżowe. Prawie na pewno napotykamy przynajmniej kilka procesji religijnych (pogrzeb, ślub lub cykliczne lokalne ceremonie) – szybko przekonacie się wówczas, że Bali jest jak jeden wielki plener fotograficzny! Odwiedzimy PURA BESAKIH na zboczu świętej GÓRY AGUNG, zwaną „Matką Wszystkich Świątyń”. Ze względu na to, że jest to najważniejsza świątynia, celebrowane są tutaj liczne święta – około 70 w ciągu 210 dni balijskiego kalendarza. Znajdziemy się na wysokości ok. 1000 m n.p.m., aby zwiedzić cześć z zespołu 23 świątyń i mniejszych sanktuariów. Najważniejszym miejscem jest PURA PENATARAN AGUN LEMPUYANG, do której można się dostać po pokonaniu wysokich schodów i przejściu przez “candi bentar” (rozszczepioną bramę). Przyjrzymy się ołtarzom dedykowanym hinduistycznej trójcy – Trimurti. Ołtarze udekorowane są na różne kolory odpowiadające konkretnemu bóstwu. Biały to kolor Sziwy, czerwony Brahmy, a czarny Wisznu. Następnie pora na górzysty region KINTAMANI z emblematycznym, masywnym wulkanem i KRATEREM BATUR, jeziorem o tej samej nazwie i okolicznymi dolinami. Jeśli pożywny lunch i aromatyczna kawa z tutejszej plantacji, to koniecznie z widokiem na wulkan! Zatrzymamy się w malowniczej wiosce na krawędzi krateru na szereg balijskich specjałów i kolejną porcję zdjęć. Po ok. 1 godz. przejździe znajdziemy się w pobliżu Ubud, a dokładniej mówiąc w GUNUNG KAWI  – kompleksie grobowców i świątyń rodem z XI wieku. To jedno z najbardziej fascynujących stanowisk archeologicznych na Bali. Otoczone polami ryżowymi, częściowo pochłonięte przez dżunglę, sprawia wrażenie opuszczonego i niedostępnego miejsca. Gunung Kawi obejmuje grupę 9 królewskich nagrobków, wykutych w skalistych klifach po obu stronach wąwozu świętej rzeki Pakerisan (która dalej niespiesznie płynie do świętych źródeł wody w pobliskiej świątyni TIRTA EMPUL, jednej z najsłynniejszych i nie bez kozery najładniejszych miejsc na wyspie). Zobaczymy je pod warunkiem pokonania 370 schodów, które doprowadzą nas do zacisznego miejsca pośród skał. Tu bije ogromna energia niosąca ze sobą harmonię. Przed wejściem na teren kompleksu mija się szpalery sklepików z całym swym dobrodziejstwem – wygospodarujemy nieco czasu na zakupy, na które pojawi się także szansa w Ubud. Pół godziny później jesteśmy już w leśnym parku „Monkey Forest Sanctuary”, na spacerze w towarzystwie zuchwałych makaków. Pilnując okularów i plecaków niespiesznie maszerujemy do XIV- wiecznej świątyni DALEM AGUNG PADANGTEGAL, wzniesionej ku czci bogini śmierci, Durgi. W międzyczasie pojawią się kolejne okazje do zakupu rękodzieła (m. in. wiklinowych torebek, łapaczy snów, kadzideł, ubrań i dodatków) w sklepikach z mydłem i powidłem oraz na pchlim targu w Ubud. Czas wolny warto przeznaczyć na samodzielną kolację w wybranej przez siebie (lub rekomendowanej przez nas) restauracji, następnie wspólny spacer przez Ubud w stronę naszego pojazdu. Po zmroku wracamy do hotelu SOL BENOA BY MELIA 4* (Sol Room, 50 m2).

DAY 10: CZAS WOLNY (27.07.23)

Dzień, który zawsze niesie ze sobą wiele frajdy – czas wolny, który można spędzić we własnym stylu. Awanturnikom i niespokojnym duchom pomożemy zorganizować dodatkową, indywidualną wyprawę np. całodzienną eskapadę na słynną wyspę NUSA PENIDA z okazją do snorklowania i plażowania; CEREMONIĘ OCZYSZCZENIA w wybranej, balijskiej świątyni; wyprawę w okolicę UBUD, by przespacerować się przez tarasy ryżowe i spędzić dzień w Jungle Beach Barze; masaż i zakupy w modnych dzielnicach Bali. Lunch i kolacja we własnym zakresie. Kolejna noc w hotelu SOL BENOA BY MELIA 4* (Sol Room, 50 m2).

*Free photo source


Kolejna zmiana adresu. Dzień rozpoczynamy śniadaniem w hotelu, wykwaterowaniem i przejazdem na lotnisko w Denpasar. Stąd o 10:20 wyruszamy w rejs liniami Batik Air do LABUAN BAJO na wyspie FLORES (czas przelotu ok. 1 godz.; możliwe są późniejsze połączenia, aby wykorzystać czas na Bali), meldując się na miejscu już o 11:30. W trakcie całej podróży towarzyszy polskojęzyczny przewodnik. Przejazd na lunch z zimnym piwem oraz check-in w hotelu w Labuan Bajo. Czas wolny na basenie, na plaży lub w mieście. Samodzielna kolacja w restauracji hotelowej lub poza miejscem zakwaterowania. Zakwaterowanie w PURI SARI BEACH HOTEL 3* z bezpośrednim dostępem do plaży.


Po śniadaniu wyruszamy na prywatną eksplorację PARKU NARODOWEGO KOMODO – jednego z najbardziej oryginalnych, a przez to najciekawszych parków we wschodniej Azji, nie na darmo wpisanym do „7 Nowych Cudów Natury”. Zobaczymy wszystkie miejsca, które przyciągają turystów z całego świata niczym magnes, pamiętając przy tym, że na PN Komodo składa się aż 30 wysp! Przygotowujemy ręczniki, stroje kąpielowe i kremy z filtrem, łapiemy wiatr w żagle i cumujemy przy KELOR ISLAND, aby jeszcze przed słońcem w zenicie wdrapać się na tutejszy punkt widokowy dla wspaniałej, niemal katalogowej panoramy – na horyzoncie okoliczne wyspy, wszelkiej maści łodzie i turkusowa woda. Na dole czeka na nas poczęstunek oraz czas na pierwsze snorklowanie. Uwaga: podłoże jest kruche I kamieniste, dlatego podczas wspinaczki przydadzą się zakryte, dobrze trzymające buty sportowe z bieżnikiem. Nim zrobi się okrutnie gorąco, a my poczujemy się jak w terrarium, cumujemy przy słynnej RINCA ISLAND, jednego z dwóch adresów waranów z Komodo. Wyruszamy w trwający blisko godzinę trekking po sawannie w towarzystwie lokalnych rangerów, aby na własne oczy spotkać endemiczne, 3-metrowe smoki z Komodo ze skórą niczym zbroja. Jak to z naturą bywa, możemy napotkać ich kilka lub wcale, ospałe lub aktywne. Na wyspie Rinca żyje ich ok. 1050 sztuk na 198 km2 (na Komodo ok. 1 700 sztuk na 390 km2; źródło: BBC 2020, dane na 2018 r., brak aktualnych danych na temat populacji w podziale na wyspy). Szlaki trekkingowe mają różne poziomy trudności i długość. Czas na schłodzenie się w orzeźwiającej, krystalicznie czystej wodzie, następnie lunch z przekąskami z grilla oraz zimne piwo na łodzi. Na kolację i nocleg wracamy do hotelu PURI SARI BEACH HOTEL 3* z bezpośrednim dostępem do plaży. Samodzielna kolacja w restauracji hotelowej lub poza miejscem zakwaterowania.


Przed nami kolejny dzień na terenie PN Komodo, dlatego wypływamy skoro świt. Po najpiękniejszą panoramę regionu wyruszamy na PADAR ISLAND, przytulnie umiejscowioną pomiędzy Rinca a Komodo. Jest tu naprawdę bajecznie, a tej panoramy po prostu nie wypada przegapić. Wspinaczka zajmie nam ok. 20-40 minut, na szczyt wiedzie całkiem komfortowa, betonowa trasa ze stopniami i kamieniami. Nie ma roślin czy wzniesień rzucających cień, więc zawsze maszeruje się tu w pełnym słońcu. Po drodze pojawia się wiele punktów widokowych na których możemy poprzestać, ale te najbardziej spektakularne są na samym szczycie. Cumujemy przy niewielkiej wyspie KOMODO, gdzie na dość rozległym, leśnym terytorium (390 km2) żyje blisko 1700 waranów. To nasza drugie podejście na wypadek gdyby wizyta na Rinca skończyła niepowodzeniem, a Wami targały mieszane uczucia. Rezerwujemy czas na lunch, zdjęcia i snorklowanie na rafie przy PINK BEACH, której kolor nadają małe cząsteczki czerwonego koralowca. Przed zachodem słońca kierujemy się na wyspę Kalong, by pokazała nam kolejny cud Parku – zrywające się do lotu „latające lisy”, które o zmierzchu wyruszają na sąsiednie wyspy w poszukiwaniu jedzenia. Olbrzymia kolonia niegroźnych dla człowieka nietoperzy na tle wielobarwnego nieba wygląda jak wielka migracja ptaków. Na kolację i nocleg wracamy do hotelu PURI SARI BEACH HOTEL 3* z bezpośrednim dostępem do plaży. Samodzielna kolacja w restauracji hotelowej lub poza miejscem zakwaterowania.

Brama niebo przy świątynii balijskiej PURA PENATARAN AGUN LEMPUYANG z widokiem na wulkan o zmierzchu

*Free photo source

DAY 14: POWRÓT NA BALI (31.07.23)

Śniadanie w hotelu, wykwaterowanie i wyjazd w kierunku lotniska Labuan Bajo. W towarzystwie polskojęzycznego przewodnika lecimy do DENPASAR, na Bali (wylot rejsem linii Batik Air; czas przelotu: ok. 1 godz.), skąd kierujemy się na pożegnalny lunch. Wybraliśmy dla Państwa miejsce, które robi wrażenie tak na gościach, jak na nas samych. Beach bar z pięknym designem, smacznym jedzeniem, kolorową mieszanką gości – La Brisa Beach Restaurant Canggu w rejonie SEMINYAK, słynącego z dobrych restauracji, modnych barów i klubów. Dla chętnych czas na zakupy oraz 60-minutowy masaż ciała w PRANA SPA, który rozluźni Was przed podróżą. Transfer na lotnisko uzależniamy od ostatecznej godziny Waszego wylotu.


Wycieczka oparta na scenariuszu Archaeotravel.eu organizowana przez Biuro Podróży: Ex Oriente Lux. Cena bedzie dostepna końcem jesieni 2022. Zgłoszenia przyjmujemy do końca marca, 2023 lub do wyczerpania miejsc.


• Loty wewnętrzne (Surabaya – Denpasar; Denpasar – Labuan Bajo – Denpasar)

• Prywatny transfer klimatyzowanym pojazdem

• Polskojęzyczny przewodnik na Jawie

• Polskojęzyczny przewodnik na Bali

• Zakwaterowanie w obiektach kategorii 3* i 4*

• Wyżywienie full-board na Jawie (śniadanie, lunch, kolacja)

• Wyżywienie half-board na Bali (śniadanie, lunch)

• Spektakl Ramajany

• Masaż ostatniego dnia

• Butelkowana woda (2 x 0,5 l dziennie)

• Opłaty wstępu, niezbędne podatki

• Ubezpieczenie KL i NNW


• Wiza (pod warunkiem dalszego obowiązywania w lipcu 2023).

• Loty międzynarodowe

• Napiwki uznaniowe

Jeżeli chcesz do nas dołączyć, proszę o kontakt.

Prasat and its Meaning in Khmer and Thai Architecture

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

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

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


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

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

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

Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang in the Khmer Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another megalithic site

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

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

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

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

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

White Elephant

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

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Genius Loci

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity of the Man Found in the Sarcophagus of Palenque

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

Mayan Matryoshka-style

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

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

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

Descendant of the race of giants

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

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

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

Who was really buried in Pakal’s tomb?

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

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

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

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

Inconsistent results

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

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

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

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

Which way leads to the afterlife?

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

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

The Tree of Life

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

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

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

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

Hidden birds game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic and alternative interpretations of the image

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

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

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

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

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

New definitions of old truths

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

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

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

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

Exclusivity for the truth

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

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

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

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

In the Mouth of the Earth Monster

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

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

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

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


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