Tag Archives: Sacred Architecture

Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

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

Something good for everyone

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

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

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

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

Longing for archaeology

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

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

Strange and amazing Yucatan

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

Cenotes and caves

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

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

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

Altépetl

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

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

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

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

Recreation of the holy landscape

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

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

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

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

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

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

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

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

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

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

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

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

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

Venturing out into the earth

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

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

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

Modern tourist attractions

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

Cenote Ik Kil

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

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

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

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

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

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

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

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

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

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

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

More about dwarfs

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

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

Crunchy nachos and human bones

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

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

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

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

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

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

Burials or human sacrifice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching history by accident

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

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

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Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. (2013) ”Słowniczek.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Göttkonige im Regenwald]. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies. Available at <http://bit.ly/3rKBQvn>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Oleg Och (2011) “Cenote Chichi de los Lagos. Homun. Yukatan by Televisa Bicentenario”. In: Oleg Och Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rFAfXS>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

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

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

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

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Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

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

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

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Christianisation of the sea pirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacral architecture

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

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

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made of upright staves

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

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

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

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

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

Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval master carpenters

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

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

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

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

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

Types of stave churches

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

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

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

Inventory

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

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

Remains of the glorious past

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

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

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

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

Modern alterations

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

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

Threats

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

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

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

Modern fame and restoration

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

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

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

The significance and future of the stave churches

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracle of the Sun

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

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

Ancient Egypt seen from the Nile

Nubian girl sitting by the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Macbeth on the Nile

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

“Macbeth” in Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

‘Well read it then’ – I advised.

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

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

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

Anchoring at Aswan

Feluccas by on the Nile. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Convoy composed of a single car

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

Two Temples by the Lake

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

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

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

The Great Temple

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

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

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

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

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

Layout of an Egyptian temple

Fragment of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

The Temple for the Beloved Wife

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

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

The View of the Small Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel

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

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

Original name of the site

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

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

Epitome of king’s ego and godhood

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

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

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

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

Another view of the Great Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Warrior-King

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

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

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

Godlike Pharaoh

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

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

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

Key-role of the Sun and Egyptian Calendar

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

Ancient Calendar

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

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

AKHET (inundation) 120 days

PERET (growth) 120 days

SHEMU (harvest) 120 days (Ibid.).

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

The View of the Nasser Lake. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Magical Journey of the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching the Solar Year

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

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

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

The Aswan High Dam

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

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

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

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

Ancient technology vs. Technology of the 60s

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

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

Just after the Pyramids of Giza

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

“Abu Simbel Temples” (2020). In: Simple English Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gv02g9>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

 “Live the history live in Aswan, Abu Simbel Sun Festival” by  Memphis Tours (2018). Available at <https://bit.ly/39oXr2b>. [Accessed on 28th March, 2020].

“Tropical year” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3brrDLs>. [Accessed 28th March, 2020].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hermitage of the Archangel

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

Valentia Island
Valentia Island. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

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

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

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

Out of reach …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off we go …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skellig Michael
Reaching the Skelligs by Boat (statue in Cahersiveen). Source: Skellig Gift Store (2017).

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

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

The Loneliest Place on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skellig Michael
Monastic idea brought by the Copts ? Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However,  after some researchers, the shape of these monastic structures was reminiscent of the monastic areas in Egypt. Desert fathers built similar huts in the shape of bee hives, most often from silt, initially in isolation, later probably in order to provide themselves with greater security and mutual support, they began to gather in small communities, putting together a number of such structures. Before the belly-like huts became the home of the hermits, they had been first simple houses. Similar constructions are traditional for the desert regions of the Middle East and for millennia they have been used as such by the rural community, such as by one in the territories of today’s Syria, in the town of Sarouj.

Skellig Michael
A cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. I learnt that there were apparently thirteenth hermits occupying the monastic sites, which is a symbolical number that stands for twelve apostles led by Jesus Christ.  One legend – a treasury of knowledge on the past – ascribes the founding of the monastery to St. Fionan in the sixth century. Still the first historical reference goes back to the fifth century and says of the King of West Munster being pursued by Oengus, King of Cashel. The former fled to Scellec (Sceillic), which means a steep rock. Hence the name f the islands. In the following years, there were three recorded attacks on the monastery by the  Vikings who put many monks to death. During one of them, the Abbot, called Eitgall was chained up and starved to death to amuse his captors. Some monks escaped slaughter by hiding in rocky crevices, still they were left on the rock without their coracles burnt by the leaving Vikings.

Skellig Michael
There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

To my surprise, one story says that King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway met there a hermit who impressed him so much that he became baptized. After his return to Scandinavia, he is said to have introduced Christianity there before he died in the year 1000 AD. The Skellig monastery had greatly flourished since the sixth century and lasted famous till the twelfth century, when the Celtic Church was overtaken by the Church in Rome and the meaning of monasticism started long ago by Coptic hermits ceased. What is more, around 1200 AD, the climate had changed. Cold weather and fierce storms made the island even more inhospitable than before. As a result the monks moved to Ballinskelligs Bay on the mainland leaving behind their desolate rock.

Skellig Michael
The beehive huts resemble the style of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was not until the late tenth century or early eleventh as the monastery is first referred to as Skellig Michael in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. Probably, the small church dedicated to St Michael was built at that time. Its architecture is thus different from the earlier dry-stone constructions built by the monks. It is believed to have had a hollow stone of miraculous properties fixed to its wall. Some scholars consider the Libellus de Fundacione Ecclesie Consecrati Petri from the mid thirteenth century to be one of the most important written source on Skellig Michael. The manuscript originates from the Consecratus Petrus, an Irish Monastery in Regensburg, in Bavaria. Since the seventh century on, the Irish monks had been travelling to the mainland, founded monastic sites and preached … but it is another story … Anyway, the manuscript reveals a tale from Irish Monks in medieval Germany. It provides a context for its dedication to Archangel Michael.

Skellig Michael
Anonymous : Victorious St Michael. Source: Skellig Gift Store (2017).

As the story goes Ireland suffered under a plague of demons, dragons, serpents and toads. People called upon St Patrick who banished the demons to the highest mountain (Skellig), cutting off all access for safety. Still, the evil was still present there. St Patrick then raised his arms in invocation and suddenly, the skies illuminated. Out in the Ocean, on top of Great Skellig, stood Archangel Michael with the host of angels surrounding him. Angelic forces battled with the demons and eventually cast them into the Ocean. Eventually, the angels returned to Great Skellig, and from the peak, Archangel Michael ascended back to heaven, leaving his miracle-working shield behind.

Skellig Michael
The pagan period is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was the early Christian age of Skellig. The pagan one is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Unfortunately, such records are usually treated as purely mythical, without historical value.  According to them, the fabled rulers of Ireland – Tuatha de Danaan, once used their magical powers to overcome new  invaders (1400 BC). They caused a shipwreck and brought death to two sons of the invaders’ leader – Milesius. Skellig became a burial place to one of the brothers, who was called Irr. Another legendary visitor was Daire Domhain – the King of the World, who stayed on Skellig in around 200 AD before attacking the mainland. Irish stories are full of legends of old and new invaders, of victors and defeated.

Skellig Michael
All of the island lie on the same invisible path. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael is the last of three islands dedicated to St Michael I have seen. All of them lie on the same invisible path, aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. The so-called Apollo/St Michael Axis stretches further south-east to run  not only across the tree islands but also two Archangel’s monasteries suspended high in the mountains, and finally reaches the sites in Greece, dedicated to Apollo, the pagan counterpart of Archangel Michael.

Continue reading Hermitage of the Archangel

Mount Sinai Trekking

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.

Mount Sinai, Egypt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

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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.

At the beginning, the rocky track was wide enough to walk more comfortably. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

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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.

Many a time it was difficult to use camels, and with heavy heart, people had to go down to walk on their own. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

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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!’

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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 guess.

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. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

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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.

Sunrise at Mount Sinai. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

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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.

Continue reading Mount Sinai Trekking