Turin was very warm but covered in clouds yesterday so I was afraid of an inclement weather on the following day, when together with my travel companion and friend, Gosia, we were going to climb up the Alpes. Our destination was the famous sanctuary of Sacra di San Michele; its impressive silhouette has perched on Mount Pirchiriano, which is jutting out at almost 1000 meters (exactly 936m) above sea level in Italian region of Piedmont, in the Alpes.
The Egyptian Museum and the Shroud of Turin
Piedmont, or ‘Piemonte’ in Italian, literally means the “land at the foot of the mountains”. It is located in the north-western part of Italy, bordered to the north by Valle d’Aosta and Switzerland, to the east by Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, to the south by Liguria and to the west by France. This beautiful land offers a lot of various attractions and breathtaking views, from beautiful alpine lakes and mountain landscapes to charming monuments and towns with vineyards. The region is also famous for delicious food, offering local cheese, truffles, and chocolate, not to mention delightful Piedmont wine and beer!
One evening, we went for a famous Italian dessert, which is undoubtedly tiramisu, and another time, we enjoyed by sharing a good portion of bagna cauda, which is a real speciality in Province of Piedmont: melted cheese, with olive oil and butter, flavoured with fresh anchovy and garlic, and all of that served in a hollowed-out bread, and with various snacks for dipping. Actually, Autumn and Winter seasons are just perfect moments for tasting fondue as it warms you up, and we were just in time for tasting it, visiting the region at the end of October.
Piedmont’s capital is Turin – the second largest cultural and economic centre in northern Italy, which can boast one of the greatest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts, preserved by the Egyptian Museum (see: Acrobatic Somersault of the Egyptian Dancer from Turin), and the holiest relic of Christianity, which is the Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone), also known as the Shroud of Turin, because t is well-kept-up at the seat of the Archbishop of Turin, namely, inside the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista. Although it is not possible to see it but on special occasions, the faithful always have an opportunity to approach the chapel, where it is preserved.
Along the Demonic Rift, on the Fourth Stop on Saint Michael’s Sword
The architectural symbol of Piedmont is, however, Sacra di San Michele, which is also called Saint Michael’s Abbey, located above the municipalities of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino and Chiusa di San Michele. Either you follow ‘Saint Michael’s Sword’ from north southwards, as we do, or from the south northwards, that would be the fourth, out of seven stops on the pilgrimage way dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The complex lies also on the route of ‘Via Francigena’, an ancient pilgrim path from Rome to Canterbury, and while it is followed southwards, it is called Via Romea. The fact that Sacra di San Michele is the fourth stop on the pilgrimage path, either way it is taken, it is so half-way of the whole Line. Consequently, Sacra di San Michele is also located just in the middle of the ‘Via Michaelica’, namely the section of Saint Michael’s pilgrimage path between the two ancient and most significant monastic sites of Saint Michael, namely Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, in northern France, and Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Gargano, in southern Italy. Precisely, there are 1000 kilometres from each of those sanctuaries to this half-way pilgrimage stop, which the Mont Pirchiriano used to be in the past, before it actually grew in significance, as an abbey and a strategic point on the way, which is believed to have originally been traced by the Archangel himself, with his sword carried against demons.
A legend goes that a furious battle in heaven opened a long rift, stretching from Mont Saint Michel to Monte Gargano, by which some of the fallen angels were devoured before it closed back, creating the original way of the triumphant Archangel. Consequently, although the rift is not visible today, its presence is still marked by ‘Via Michaelica’. From the Middle Ages, the route was followed by pilgrims and today, by both, pilgrims and tourists, looking for an authentic experience of feeling the mysterious past.
Welcomed by the Archangel at the Foot of His Abbey
Saint Michael’s Abbey is located nearly 30 kilometres in a direct line, north-west of Turin. It takes less than an hour to reach the place by car but there are also good train connections from Turin to nearby towns, such as Saint’ Ambrogio di Torino, Avigliana or Chiusa di San Michele, from where you can either take a pilgrimage trail or a taxi to drop you just at the foot of the Abbey. We decided to call a taxi in the morning to get to the Sanctuario from Turin, and come back by train from Saint’ Ambrogio. It was dictated by a need to arrive on Mount Pirchiriano just before it opens to avoid larger groups of people filling in the space of the complex. Moreover, we were not in a good physical shape to do trekking up from Sant’Ambrogio, which is quite steep and difficult to follow. Our taxi stopped in the park in the Piazzale Croce Nera, which is 500 metres from the Abbey. Despite my worries, the weather on our day of meeting with the Archangel turned out to be exceptionally good; a lot of sunshine with a light breeze from the Valley of Susa made our walking tour an agreeable experience. The road led us through a shadow of trees, between which an impressive corpus kept emerging with reddish and blueish colours between their branches. Just at the foot of its massive entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a modern statue of the Archangel with his sword embedded in the rocky foundation of the abbey.
Saint Giovanni in the Val of Susa
The Pirchiriano Mount’s name is quite ancient and means ‘pigs’, as much as the nearby Caprasio stands for ‘goats’, and Musiné for ‘donkeys’, which may be related to ancient beliefs of the Celts who had lived in the region till the mid of the first century AD.
Some monumental remains on the Mount witness to a story that the Pirchiriano had already been a military stronghold built by the Romans, who venerated there mostly unidentified Alpine deities. Longboards, who occupied the site between the sixth and the end of the seventh centuries, were successively replaced by the Carolingians, who left the Pirchiriano by the end of the ninth century, giving their way to the Saracens. Finally, the Pirchiriano Mount was entrusted to the Bishop of Torino, and by the end of the tenth century, first hermits arrived in the region and they mostly inhabited the Valley of Susa, in the north of the Pirchiriano. They mainly shared their desire for lives in isolation, entirely devoted to God by anchoritism of the Irish monks who had sought out a deserted place in the wilderness to fulfil their mission. Among hermits coming to the Valley of Susa, there was a monk, called Giovanni Vincenzo, who was one of Saint Romuald’s (951-1027) followers and students. The latter was a wandering reformer of Italian monasticism and hermitages, and responsible for the so-called ‘Renaissance of eremitical asceticism’ in Italy. In his mission, he was stimulated by the form of monasticism parallel to the original eremitism once founded in Egypt, which was then transplanted to Hiberno-Scotland (modern-day Ireland and Scotland). From there, such monastic ideas may have spreaded southwards, together with Irish monastic foundations in Europe.
Giovanni Vincenzo lived in his Celle on the Mount Caprasio. According to his hagiography, Giovanni, later canonized as a saint, was born in Besate around the year 955, and he was around 45 years old when he died. The same records testify that he was appointed the fifty-seventh archbishop of Ravenna, under Pope John XIV, in the year 983, with the name of John X. After the accounts, he held the archdiocese between 983 and 998 over the decades, in which the empire was governed by the successive emperors of Otto dynasty. In this period, as evidenced by the history of Ravenna, the Kingdom of Italy was united with that of Germany within the Holy Roman Empire, and Otto, one of the main Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, set Ravenna as its capital. In 998, Giovanni Vincenzo retired as a hermit on Monte Caprasio in Val di Susa in the natural caves near the town of Celle, where he died around 1000 AD.
On 12 January 1150 his body was transferred to the parish church of Sant’Ambrogio in Turin, currently the church of San Giovanni Vincenzo, which we also had an opportunity to visit on the way back from the Sacra di San Michele. San Giovanni has become the patron saint of the community of Sant’ Ambrogio di Torino. However, some scholars claim there were actually two hermits called Giovanni, whose hagiographies had once merged into one story. They suggest that Giovanni who was actually involved in the legend of Saint Michael had never been the archbishop but a later need for his ennoblement in the eyes of the faithful made him be identified with the apostolic head of Ravenna. Anyway, we may not be allowed to know what was the true story of the saint.
Saint and the Archangel
But what did Saint Giovanni have to do with the Archangel? And what did trigger the process of building the monastery of Saint Michael on the Mount Pirchiriano?
The cult of the Archangel itself had developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and was brought to life in the East, in places similar in landscape to the sites of sanctuaries along the Archangel’s Axis, namely in isolation and in elevated places. The worship of Saint Michael may have migrated to Italy in the fifth century, as his first recorded apparitions happened in around 450 AD. on Monte Gargano. It is possible that Saint Michael was also worshiped on the Pirchiriano by Longboards, between the sixth and seventh centuries, so long before there was the very first church built in his devotion. The origins of the Abbey are itself shrouded in mystery, and the only source of information on its beginnings is given by two legends, later described in the chronicle of the Monastery. They are both beautifully illustrated in the “Fresco of the Legend”, inside the church of the Sanctuary, which explains the circumstances of the foundations of the Sacra di San Michele.
As the legend goes, Saint Giovanni experienced several apparitions of Saint Michael. It may have happened either when he retired from his function as the archbishop, if we accept that version of his hagiography or yet before he actually became the archbishop. The former is more probable if it is assumed that follow-up constructing works changing the initial church into a Romanesque abbey started between 983 and 987. It is also important to underline that the Saint lived at the verge of the period in which the fear of the end of the world was very strong and frightening. With the new millennium, when the expected end did not come, the construction majestically grew in its structure and significance, as if it was an expression of mankind’s gratefulness sent to the Heavens.
There are no Better Construction Engineers than Angels
The known tradition says that Saint Michael ordered San Giovanni to erect his church on the Mount, as much as it earlier happened in the case of Saint Aubert in Normandy. San Giovanni was less reluctant in fulfilling Saint Michael’s demand than the Saint from Mont Saint Michel, and he started to build the church on the Mount Caprasio, where he lived, and which was famous for praying hermits. The works he started, however, could not be completed because the stones laid during the day (in other version, which is more possible, it was wood) mysteriously disappeared at night. San Giovanni was sure the stones were stolen by some thieves, he stayed awake to guard site of construction. Yet, what he saw at night terrified him greatly, as he discovered that the thieves are actually angels, who transported the stones on another mount nearby, which was the Mount Pirchiriano. Then San Giovanni understood it was Saint Michael’s desire to build his church just there, on the opposite mount. After this miraculous event, the Saint obediently followed the angels to the Pirchiriano, where he set up his new hermitage and continued to build the Archangel’s church.
The first legendary building was actually a very small church, constructed with the help of angels, or according to a different version, entirely built by human hands, whereas the angels had just brought the needed building material and so the miracle of constructing the church was continued by people. Nonetheless, it was consecrated by the angels, or by the Archangel himself, which explains the name of the Abbey as Sacra: consecrated, thus sacred. Very similar legends of angels involved in building sacred sites abound; the most famous is a folk story of the construction of the eleven churches of Lalibela in the twelfth century, in Ethiopia, where angels helped people in their construction, by taking a night shift position. On the other hand, the pseudographical text of the Testament of Solomon reads that there were fallen angels summoned by King to build the Temple, what they did in fear of the power of God’s angels. Accordingly, the mentioned ‘Fresco of the Legend’ shows angels, along doves, who transfer the wood from one mount to the other. There is also depicted the Bishop of Torino, Amizzone, who was coming to the Pirchiriano with the intention of consecrating the church, when he found out it had already been consecrated by the angels.
Ugo di Montboissier’s Penance
The second part of the legend, or the second legend, tells a story about the Abbey’s later founder, namely, the Count Ugo di Montboissier, who once encountered the hermitage of San Giovanni on the Mount Pirchiriano, with a simple church, or rather a complex of three small chapels built onsite dedicated to Sain Michael. The Count had actually been looking for redemption for his sins. The Pope gave him a choice of his penance: either he would go for an exile, which would be for him a religious pilgrimage, or he would give foundations to an abbey. Having known the history of the church on the Pirchiriano, Ugo finally decided to continue building works there on a much greater scale than before.
The Fresco shows him leaving the town of Susa and heading off to the Pirchiriano in order to establish the Monastery. The foundation was entrusted to Benedictine order, different in its organisation and ideals from the previously established Insular monasticism. In the thirteenth century, Saint Michael’s Abbey lived its Golden Age, when its majestic Romanesque silhouette gained additional Gothic additions. Nerveless, the decay of the Abbey came together with the fall of the Benedictines. Consequently, after 600 years the Abbey stayed abandoned, that is to say it till 1836, when it was entrusted to Rosimini Fathers on behalf of the Vatican. In was also then when the bodies of the Savoy family were moved from Torino to the Sacra, giving the beginnings to the “Trail of Princes” (or Nobles). The Rosimini Fathers are still in the Sacra, taking care of the monument as the symbol of the region, and a very important witness to the glorious past, and of Saint Michael’s intercession.
“Antica Mulattiera” and the “Trail of Princes”
Due to the fact that Sacra di San Michele has been a significant destination as the pilgrimage site, there are a few trails around the Mount, which are perfect for doing trekking. I would recommend the mentioned above out-and-back trail, which is called the “Trail of Princes” and starts in the community of Avigliana, yet it can also be done from Mortera, to finally arrive at Mont Pirchiriario. The name “Trail of Princes” was coined after 1836, when a funeral procession brought twenty-four corpses of the nobles of the Savoy family, along the way from the cathedral of Turin to the Abbey on top of the Mount!
The entire “Path of the Princes” takes around 3 hours (9 kilometres) to be completed and is of a moderate level of challenge. When there are less travellers, one can rally enjoy solitude and beauty of the path itself, which amazing panoramic views of Sacra di San Michele and the lakes of Avigliana. Yet, we did not follow that path back that time. Instead, we chose the trail of Antica Mulattiera, which means as much as the ‘Mule Track’. It is the most ancient forest path that curves up in zig-zags along the way from Sant’ Ambrogio to Sacra di San Michele, and back; it has been used as a traditional way of approaching the Abbey for at least a thousand years. It is quite steep and rugged, and hence demands from visitors to be in a better physical shape.
Climbing down towards Saint’ Ambrogio
We slowly descended worn-away cobblestones of the road, moving forward the town below, and catching glimpses of the towering Abbey behind us. For those, who are just making their way up with great effort, its silhouette must be a real promise of rest, and so also a desirable destination. While climbing down, we encountered there 15 stone crosses at the windings of the road, each representing one of the Stations of the Cross.
It allows us to travel back in time and join in mind medieval believers, where a pilgrimage was an integral part of Christian life, even though modern pilgrims changed today in tourists, looking for pleasure in hiking, inspiring views and food tested on the trail, and much less in Christian religion and its angels. You can still be on a spiritual search for your destiny, and enter, in the way a medieval pilgrim did it, into the grandeur of nature that eventually explodes in manmade (and angel made) complex of Saint Michael’s Abbey. Then you can observe how its architecture merges into the tissue of natural landscape. At the final section of the path, we additionally encountered wooden characters, as if taken straight from the Land of Oz.
Before us, the gate to Saint’ Ambrogio opened, with its church just below the steep alpine slope of the Mount and the outline of the Sanctuario, high above, crowning its top. Such a beuty of architecture and nature inspires feelings of transcendence and creates a continuation of the legend also in modern literature. In the imagination of an Italian debuting writer, Umberto Eco, Sacra di San Michele became in 1980 a perfect setting of a mysterious murder within the walls of Benedictine Abbey. Although it is only a literary fiction, the Abbey itslef stimulates an atmosphere of mystery; its large and steep stairway is called the Stairway of the Dead, where a few tombs with skeletons of Benedictine monks were found in large niches, and each of them had his own history. Yet, “the silence of the centuries dominates everything” (Traverso, 1992:11).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
All Trails, 2023. ‘Sentiero dei Principi’ (2023), in alltrails.com. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3HynyrR>.
Kosloski, P., 2020. ‘How St. Michael helped build Sacra di San Michele, in Comics’, in ‘Voyage’. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kI2dTL>.
Rogano, F., 2017. ‘The legend of Saint Michael’s Abbey – Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte’, in Emadion. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3H67mfO>.
Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Val de Susa’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.
Top Most Beautiful Places in Europe, 2019. ‘Sacra di San Michele, Italy’, in ‘Sacra di San Michele’, in themostbeautifulplacesineurope. Accessed on 28th January, 2023. Available at <https://bit.ly/3Hdw91R>.
Traverso, O., 1992. Sacra di San Michele. Monumento Symbolo del Piemonte. Genova: Edizioni D’Arte.
Although the Google Map showed an estimated time of reaching the hill of Acropolis in thirty minutes, my uncle and I did not take into account the heat, generously sent by Helios, and the fact that we should first climb the path leading up to the hill (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of the Gods). At some point, we had to slow down our walk as the hillside grew steeper and so we were both out of breath (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). And even if we kept moving up, the site seemed still far in the distance. Why is it always so hard to see the summit while you are climbing up?
On the way up the hill
Located on the western edge of the city of Rhodes, the hill with the Acropolis on its eastern slope is called Agios Stephanos, also known as Monte San Stephano by the Italians (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020). But there is also its third name, Monte Smith, after the name of the British Admiral, Sir Sidney Smith who built there in 1802 (Ibid.) “an observation post to monitor the movements of Napoleon’s fleet during the Egyptian campaign” (Via Gallica 2020). “[The] Acropolis of Rhodes and its imposing Temple of Apollo, dominates the views” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).
From the site, which is situated at altitude of 111 metres, it is possible to see a small valley surrounding the city and the western coast with precipitous cliffs overlooking blue waters of the Ixia Bay (Rice 1995:384; Via Gallica 2020; Themis 2020). Especially at sunset, the site “offers breathtaking [and panoramic] views [reaching as far as] the island of Symi and […] the Turkish coast, about [twenty] kilometres away” (Via Gallica 2020).
Two acropolises instead of one
As recent excavations have revealed, the ancient city of Rhodes had in fact two acropolises; the other one with the Temples of Aphrodite and Dionysus was situated on the site now occupied by the Palace of the Knights and Collachium (the northernmost part of the Medieval City) (Via Gallica 2020; Medieval Town “Collchium” 2019).
The ancient city of the Classical Greece was therefore much larger; “it stretched from the northern tip of the island at the site of the current” (Via Gallica 2020) Medieval Town and went south-westwards to where today are the remains of the Acropolis of Rhodes (Ibid.). The latter “was a large elevated plateau […], lying just inside the main fortification wall, running [east-west], along the southern boundary of the [ancient] city” (Rice 1995:384). Unlike most ancient acropolis, that one was not fortified (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019; Via Gallica 2020); so “it is not a towering citadel which dominates the lower city, but it does present a distinct elevated profile when Rhodes is seen from the sea – the means of approach in antiquity. [Ancient] streets running [westwards and southwards] from the main inhabited areas in the [east] and [north] gave access to the [Acropolis] from the [city], and it could also be reached from outside […], through the city gate situated near the southern end of modern Odos Sophouli (ancient north-south street P)” (Rice 1995:384).
Nowadays, it is possible to get there from the Medieval Town either by bus or on foot, leaving through the western side of the city walls (Via Gallica 2020).
Lecture on Greek architecture
The Acropolis finally opened to us, revealing its treasures. “Far from the urban liveliness, [we were] standing on the top of Monte Smith hill” (Themis 2020), accompanied just by striking musical performances of Greek cicadas. I felt utterly tired but deeply satisfied we made it. My uncle even speeded up while we are approaching a row of reconstructed columns towering ahead as if the city’s guardian (Tourist Guide 2020). They are the part of the Temple of Apollo Pythios, “which are visible today from the commercial harbour even above the intervening modern building” (Rice 1995:384). they. ‘Amazing’, my uncle admitted, still panting. ‘Now I can give you a lecture if you want’, he exclaimed enthusiastically, gasping for breath.
It must be emphasized that many areas [of the site] are now overgrown or filled in since they were last investigated many decades ago, which makes any observations based only on what is visible to the naked eye today superficial and in need of refinement” (Rice 1995:387). But in its glorious past, the site must have looked impressing; “it consisted of a monumental zone with [sanctuaries], large temples, public buildings and places of worship, [including underground cult places] (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019]. Significant buildings] were mainly built on terraces reinforced by powerful walls” (Via Gallica 2020).
Different constructions vary in their dating but most buildings were erected during the Hellenistic times (323-31 BC) (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). “These public structures would have been a visual highlight above the busy harbours, drawing the eyes above and away from the bustling dock areas” (Rice 1995:348). Apart from the Temple of Apollo (C), on the Acropolis stood the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies (B) (Ibid.:384). There was also “the stadium (D) with an adjacent [Odeion] (E), very probably a nearby gymnasium (F) and possibly the theatre (G)” (Ibid.:384). The lecturer in classical archaeology, E. E. Rice (1995:384) says that “it […] appears likely that the main civic sanctuary of Helios […] was located on the eastern [side] of the [Acropolis of Rhodes]”.
In the third century BC., it may have housed one of the legendary Wonders of the Ancient World and Greece, the bronze statue of the Colossus of Rhodes, (Ibid.:384). From that point, the mounting representation of the patron Sun god, Helios, would be visible to those approaching the island from the sea.
On the Rhodian Acropolis, there were possibly also landscaping features, characteristic of ancient sanctuaries, such as trees and sacred groves surrounding the buildings (Ibid.:386). Such a theory is attested by the observation made by the orator Aelius Aristides, from the second century AD, (Ibid.:386) “that ‘the Acropolis is full of fields and groves’. […] The open spaces of the Rhodian [Acropolis were probably] due to the fact it was a virgin site when the city of Rhodes was founded and designed at the end of the fifth century BC. […] The new structures which were built upon the [Acropolis] were therefore inserted into the natural landscape which already predominated; [these were] fields, groves, natural rock hollows [and] cliff faces […]” (Ibid.:386).
Stadium and Odeion
In an olive grove to the east of the Acropolis, there are the partly restored Temple of Apollo, the stadium and the Odeion (Via Gallica 2020). The so-called stadium of Diagoras was built around second century BC. (Themis 2020; Via Gallica 2020).
It is located southeast of the hill and oriented north-south (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). It measured according to the Greek standards, over one hundred and eighty metres in length and around thirty-five in width (Via Gallica 2020). This was one of the very first sites that were excavated in 1912 and, like the Odeion, it is was largely restored (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). Hence their perfect condition known at present (Ibid.). The stadium could contain over ten thousand spectators, attending various exhibitions and athletic games (Stefanu 2017). There “athletic competitions were staged as part of the Haleion Games, an important celebration held by the ancient Rhodians in honour of the god Helios” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).
However, taking into account that the uppermost part of the monument has not been excavated yet, its size and so the capacity of the stadium may have been much larger (Stefanu 2017). Among the stadium’s authentic parts, there are sphendone (a semi-circular part at the end of an ancient Greek stadium), the proedries (seats of honour, dedicated to the officials), (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019), “and some of the lower seats in the auditorium. Also preserved is the starting mechanism for the athletes” (Ibid.). The stadium was made from the local limestone, with rectangular blocks but of different sizes, which depended on their location (Stefanu 2017). Each element has got smooth surface and fits perfectly in the whole construction without the use of mortar (Ibid.). To the east of the stadium, there was additionally a gymnasium, which was partially uncovered (the western side along with its north-east corner) (Via Gallica 2020). It was a large square building (around two hundred metres wide), where many works of art were uncovered (Ibid.).
Another important element of the ancient site lies northwest of the stadium (Via Gallica 2020). It is a white marble Odeion (theater) built in the second century BC (Stefanu 2017; Via Gallica 2020). It was possibly used for attending musical performances or rhetoric lessons given by famous speakers, as its stage is too small to be a scene of a theater (Ibid.). One who was standing in the middle of it could be well heard around, at each point of the construction (Stefanu 2017). There were probably eight hundred spectators who could watch performances (Via Gallica 2020). Although the Odeion looks impressive today, it has been entirely rebuilt by the Italian archaeologists, and only its bottom shelf is authentic (Ibid.).
Today tourists usually enjoy the sunset sitting on the stairs of the stadium or of the nearby Odeion, which regularly hosts musical and theatrical performances (Themis 2020). At the time of our visit, however, there were just a few tourists walking around the reconstructed columns; it was definitely too hot to enjoy the Acropolis by staying for longer in the sun. Our sightseeing unfortunately fell at full noon, but we had no choice due to limited time on Rhodes. If we had stayed on the island a few days, we would have certainly taken the evening walk to the Acropolis with the family, of course, just for volunteers …
Agora and necropolis
The both constructions, the stadium and Odeion, were once situated just in the centre of the ancient agora (known as the forum in the Roman times) (Stefanu 2017). It was a very central site, where all the political and cultural events took place (Ibid.). Piles of ancient stones placed together there consist of finds from the archaeological excavations; they all come from the ancient agora and contain precious parts of various buildings, sometimes covered in Greek writings (Ibid.). It is a pity, they are not exposed in the museum as objects of further studies (Ibid.).
South of the ancient city, there is also a Hellenistic necropolis of Saint John (Agiou Ioannou) (Tourist Guide 2020; Via Gallica 2020). “The most important of these are the large corner funerary complex with tombs featuring vaulted masonry tombs, the cluster of yet more tombs of vaulted stonework crowned by a monument with triglyphs and metopes and the tomb carved into the rock that includes a monumental gateway. Of greatest interest is the underground quarry where burial chambers were dug into the sides of the tunnels”(Tourist Guide 2020).
Stairs leading to the temples
Nonetheless, the most significant part of Monte Smith is the Acropolis (Stefanu 2017). From the place of the previous agora, there are stairs leading up to the Greek temples of Acropolis of Rhodes, which were, like other ancient sanctuaries, built upon an area of elevated ground (Stefanu 2017; “Acropolis” 2020). Hence akron, meaning the highest point and polis – city (“Acropolis” 2020). Today, on the site, there are mostly huge pieces of stones, such as blocks of local limestone and marble, possibly from Naxos or from Pharos, scattered everywhere around the place (Stefanu 2017). Some original building material had already disappeared; they were mostly reused for the construction of post-Hellenistic buildings (Ibid.).
“[Once] situated on the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies was orientated east-west and was a porosDoric peripteral temple (having a columned portico on all four sides). Four oversize column drums and parts of a capital and architrave still [can] be seen on the site. This was where the Rhodians kept the texts of their treaties with other states.
The temple stood in a larger temenos bounded by a stoa on the east” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). The only reconstructed structures, however, belong to the Temple of Apollo, which was also built in the Doric style (Via Gallica 2020). The temple stood “on the southern part of the hill, on the west side of a large rectangular terrace. It [was] orientated [east-west, and like the Temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polies it was also a poros peripteral temple, but smaller […]. Part of [its north-eastern] side [has been restored” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019): rising from the incomplete stylobate, there are just four columns and a small section of the entablature as the remains of the temple colonnade. It is also evident that its entrance must have once led through a wide staircase (Via Gallica 2020). Although the temple does not exist anymore, the preserved remains are still able to witness to its monumental character (Ibid.).
Nothing was left from the once impressive façade of the stoa (a covered walkway or portico for public use); only its foundation has been preserved to our times (Via Gallica 2020; “Stoa” 2020). Southeast of the stoa wall, there starts “the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut chambers [carved in] the slopes beneath the [Acropolis] summit; other similar [underground] systems are [cut] into the ridge that curves to the [south and west], towards the main buildings on the summit, and to the [north] where it meets the [western] edge of the [Acropolis]. These structures, partly open to the sky but beneath ground level, have traditionally been described as nymphaea” (Rice 1995:387-388) or the Temple of Nymphaea (Via Gallica 2020).
“The word nymphaeum originally meant a shrine of the nymphs, but since nymphs were traditionally associated with caves, and caves with water, the term came to be [later] applied to an ornamental fountain” (Ibid.:388). Archaeological study shows that the Temple of Nymphaea on the Acropolis of Rhodes “consists of four subterranean cave-like constructions cut into the rock with entrance steps, communicating passages and a large opening in the central part of the roof. […] Water cisterns and lush vegetation complete the picture” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019) “Despite the undoubted fact that shade, water and attractive decoration would have made these places pleasant enough to visit and linger in during an ascent to the [Acropolis], they nonetheless led directly to the summit where the main religious buildings were located. The alignment with the grid plan and direct connections with streets and stoas make this evident” (Rice 1995:403).
Why were such underground structures built? What function might they have had? It is believed “they were places for recreation and worship” (Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019). “Cults of the nymphs were [highly] popular [in the Hellenistic] period; they and Pan were also worshiped in Rhodes. [A late] fragmentary inscription found on the Rhodian [Acropolis], dated to the third or fourth century AD, […] mentions a shrine of Pan (a ‘Paneion’) near of sanctuary of Artemis Thermia, [the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister]” (Rice 1995:402). Nothing else is known about the Paneion but there are the remains of other places of worship, which may have once been the Artemision (a temple attributed to the cult of Artemis) (Rice 1995:402; Hellenic Ministry of Culture 2010-2019).
The cult ‘Thermia’ of the goddess Artemis presumably had associations with thermal waters. It can be hence speculated that ‘some grottoes indeed had passages which connected into the underground aqueduct system” (Rice 1995:402-403). If so, the artificial caves would have “played an important role, since water supply was vital to the survival of the city, and they might have functioned as shrines to deities directly associated with water, [which is manifested by] recesses in the interior walls for statuettes” (Ibid.:403). “[The] evidence of the votive dedications [in the caves] shows that these areas clearly had a primarily […] religious function. The extensive systems of grottoes covered a significant part of the Rhodian [Acropolis, including] the separate system of [south] of the [Temple] of Apollo precinct” (Ibid.:403), and so it may have once been linked to the temples themselves. It is hoped that future archaeological excavations by modern methods may go some way [further] in revealing its mystery (Ibid.:402).
Successive ways of destructions
All the ancient acropolises on Rhodes and elsewhere are located on the mounts, as much as the sites falling on the axis dedicated to both, Apollo and Saint Michael (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). The following conquerors of Rhodes also reached there but did not respect the ancient sites and they left their signs on them as the remnants of war, having scratched the beauty of the temples (FM Records 2014). Who and why destroyed them?
As a matter of fact, there were three periods that had greatly contributed to the destruction of the site (Stefanu 2017). The first devastation was, however, caused by nature and happened already in 226 BC, when a huge earthquake hit the island of Rhodes and toppled down most of the buildings on the site, including the Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). The temples of the Rhodian Acropolis were rebuilt but in 42 BC they were again destroyed (Ibid.). This time it was because of the Roman senator, Casius, and his army (Ibid.). Yet, the most modern warfare turned out to be the most destructive to the Acropolis (Ibid.). In 1944, the Germans installed their artillery on the hill, which was consequently bombarded by the British (Ibid.). That it turn affected the temples, which suffered considerable damage (Ibid.).
Time for excavations
Successive excavations and restoration work carried out on Rhodes in the twentieth century allowed to uncover the sites and reconstruct some of the ancient buildings. However, historically diverse, multiply layers of uninterrupted constructions makes such sites difficult to excavate and interpret archaeologically (“Lindos 2020”).
“The [Acropolis] of Rhodes offers different archaeological problems from those posed by the rest of the ancient city. Unlike the lower town, the hill has not been much built over, but neither has it been much excavated except for the Temple of Apollo Pythios and the stadium-Odeion area, which [had mainly been] investigated and reconstructed” (Rice 1995:387) by the Italian School of Archaeology in Athens from 1912 to 1945 (Via Gallica 2020). Other areas have been partially studied both by the Italians and by the Greek Archaeological Service after the World War II (Rice 1995:387).
“From 1946 onwards Greek Archaeologists [have conducted] a series of excavations, bringing into light important findings regarding the site’s history and topography. During the 60’s and 70’s more reconstruction work was carried out to the west foundation of the Temple of Pythian Apollo. In 1996 further reconstruction was added on the Temple and the [Nymphaeum]. There is still an ongoing excavation in the Acropolis archaeological park, a protected area that covers an area of 12,500 m². As the archaeologists say, the current findings represent only a fragment of the glorious past of the ancient city of Rhodes” Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2010-2019).
Back to the port
Suddenly, my uncle awoke from thoughts on the ruined temples and quickly looked at his watch. He looked terrified. ‘She’s going to kill us’, he said. I knew who he meant.
Around thirty minutes later, we were back at the port of Rhodes. We had made our way back much faster as, according to the basics of the physics and fear, we were walking down, additionally being pushed by the vision of my furious aunt. Meantime, we got a message that the whole company was waiting for us in a cove with a small beach, just outside the Old Town walls at Virgin Mary’s Gate. The place is located between Kolona Port and Cruise Port, so we could wait in the proximity for our ferry to go back to Asia (Rhodes Oldtown 2020).
When we got there, again breathless, everybody was either enjoying sun or swimming in the warm sea. My aunt did not even notice at first we came back. She just waved to us from water. After a while, I reminded myself that I was still wearing my bikini underneath, and soon I also dived into blue sea. It was a great refreshment after the archaeological adventure full of sun and effort.
The island’s ambiance took me centuries back (FM Records 2014). It seemed as if the Sun god had shed beauty to his land; on Rhodes, visitors got the impression of living in a fairy tale as they are carried away by the blue sea, warm beaches, locals’ welcoming smiles, picturesque ports, churches, and soaring ancient temples (Ibid.).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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It was only before nine in the morning but the heat of July had been already rising. I felt drops of sweat running down my back and I quickly moved to the shadow, as the queue was moving towards the catamaran rocking on the sea waves. It was going to take me from Fethiye to the Greek Island of Rhodes. Actually, I was embarking together with six members of my family; I and my sister had joined our aunt and uncle, and three our cousins for relaxing holidays in the Aegean region of Turkey.
Just relaxing summer holidays
Initially, the idea was to spend two weeks just enjoying the sun and warm sea on southwestern Turquoise Coast. But it was not my idea. Although I really appreciate the both aspects of summer holidays, I relax most when I visit museums and above all explore archaeological sites. Especially in Turkey, I could hardly resist digging up its fascinating past. Of course, this time just metaphorically. Sometimes, I travelled on my own or occasionally with somebody else, when my family felt tired with staying on the beach. But nobody could keep up with my everyday trips around southwestern Turkey, especially when it came to endless wandering around ruins in the full sun. Maybe except my uncle, who is a university professor of Fine Arts, and my sister and the oldest cousin, who sometimes dared to see more than a swimming pool at the hotel. Yet more often than not, they did not even feel like trying. This time, however, we all decided to spend one day on the island of Greece. For some it was even a tempting opportunity to visit two different countries during one holiday.
The Greek island of Rhodes is lying on the southeast corner of the Aegean Sea and its capital, the City of Rhodes is just eighty-four kilometres away from the southwestern coast of Turkey, and the whole journey across the sea takes around one hour and a half. Moreover, everybody could decide to either stay there on the beach and relax or do some sightseeing around the city.
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, situated just to the south of Anatolian western coastline on a crossroads between East and West (FM Records 2014; “Rhodes” 2020). The history of Rhodes, as in the case of other islands in the Mediterranean region, is like an art of mosaic; various cultures and myths have encrusted it over centuries. Rhodes still bears the hallmarks and visible influences of the vast plethora of very cultures that have inhabited it throughout its long history (FM Records 2014). As such, the island has played an important cultural and social role since the ancient times until nowadays (Ibid.). Largely because of its geographical and strategic position between the Aegean and Mediterranean seas and its accessibility to both Europe and the Middle East, the island was consistently fought over for the majority of its recorded history (FM Records 2014; History Time 2017).
Today, diversity is one of the characteristics of this Greek island, as there are relics from different periods of time in its every corner (FM Records 2014). Apart from ancient temples, the Christian faith is also very present on the island and marked by byzantine churches, usually dedicated to the Mother of Jesus Christ and different saints (Ibid.). Rhodes also marries ancient and medieval monuments with blue-water beaches, offered generously to the tourists (Ibid.). Modern and cosmopolitan, the island is at once the land of medieval knights and cradle of enchanting ancient myths (Ibid.). Its marvellous history combines with generous sunlight that justifies the Rhodes definition as the island devoted to the Sun god (Ibid.).
From the Neolithic to the fall of the Colossus of Rhodes
Rhodes was first inhabited by Stone Age Neolithic people, possibly just after the last Ice Age, which ended around 12 000 BC (History Time 2017). However, there is only scarce archaeological evidence about these peoples (Ibid.). The first culture who made a lasting impression on the island’s history were the Minoans who seemed to have colonized Rhodes in the course of the Bronze Age (Ibid.). After the eruption of Thera volcano, the Minoan civilization gradually collapsed and was subsequently replaced by Mycenaeans in the region, in the fifteenth century BC. (see The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans) (Ibid.). The Mycenaean civilization was composed of the ancients, whose heroic deeds were recorded by later Greek authors, such as Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey (ninth century BC.) (Ibid.). Among the ranks of legendary Mycenaeans, there were such heroes as Achilles and Odysseus who fought the War against Trojans (Ibid.). “Homes mentions that Rhodes [also] participated in the [war] under the leadership of Tlepolemus” (“Rhodes” 2020).
Around the eighth century BC., the so-called Dorian Greeks came to the island (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). They were one of the four Greek tribes formed in the so-called Archaic period of Greece (“Rhodes” 2020). The Dorians “built the three important cities of [Rhodes]: Lindos, Ialyssos and Kameiros, which together with Kos, Cnidus and Halicarnassus on the mainland made up the so-called Dorian Hexapolis” (Ibid.). During the Classical Greek period, the Persians repeatedly invited the island but their ruling was always short (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). In the intervals of their brief conquests, “[in] 408 BC., the cities [of Rhodes] united to form one territory” (“Rhodes 2020), eventually founding the modern capital of Rhodes on the northern end of the island, which still exists today and is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). “Its regular plan was, according to Strabo, superintended by the Athenian architect Hippodamus [of Miletus]” (“Rhodes” 2020). In the Hellenistic period starting in the fourth century BC, Rhodes asserted its independence and rose steadily in prominence, quickly becoming a world center for learning and culture (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). During this time, through a combination of skillful diplomacy and by the use of its strong navy, Rhodes maintained to retain its autonomy for hundreds of years despite of threats from the side of contemporary leading empires (History Time 2017).
It was then, precisely in 280 BC., that the Colossus of Rhodes was constructed by the ancient Rhodians (Steedman 2004; (History Time 2017). It was meant to represent the Sun god Helios, the patron of the island (Steedman 2004). Although it was initially thought that the bronze statue was standing at the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes, it was most likely erected uphill, either on the site occupied today by the medieval castle or on the nearby hill with the Acropolis of Rhodes (Rice 1995:384; Steedman 2004). The Colossus was thirty-tree metres high, almost as much as the Statue of Liberty (forty-six meters), and it was categorized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Steedman 2004). The large statue was also the best example of the vast power and wealth of the city-state of Rhodes (Steedman 2004; History Time 2017). But once erected it was sadly lost in the earthquake, in 228 or 226 BC, and never rebuilt (Steedman 2004; Hisgett 2013; History Time 2017).
From the Romans back to the Greeks
In the second century BC., a new power arouse in the Mediterranean region that the Greek city-states could not withstand (History Time 2017).
After periods of short alliances, conflicts and political outmanoeuvre, the island of Rhodes was finally incorporated into the Roman Republic in 164 BC, effectively ending its lengthy period of independence (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). However, it still remained important and became a provincial capital of Rome, and subsequently of the Byzantine Empire, which carried on Rome’s legacy over the many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (Ibid.). During this period, Rhodes changed hands several times (History Time 2017). But the most important newcomers were the Arabs, after the rise of Islam in the 600s AD (Ibid.).
Aftermath, Rhodes inevitably became integral in the ensuing power struggle which raged between the Christianity and Islam for the next one thousand years, during the time of crusades (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). “In 1306–1310, the Byzantine era of the island’s history came to an end when the island was occupied by the Knights Hospitaller” (“Rhodes” 2020). They heavily fortified the island and converted it into an ideal of medieval chivalric values (History Time 2017). Much architecture visible today in the City of Rhodes was constructed during this period including huge castles and city walls spanning for more than four kilometres (Ibid.). By the sixteenth century, a new power had risen upon the Mediterranean; based in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) grew from its humble roots to encompass much of the Middle East and southern Europe and subsequently set its gaze upon Rhodes (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020). The Knight Hospitaller who numbered no more than 7500 men made a valiant horse stand at the Palace of the Grand Master but they could do little as the huge invasion force led by the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent landed on the island in 1522, with an army possibly numbering as many as 200 000 men equipped with the gigantic siege weapons and canons (History Time 2017). The Ottomans held onto the island for the next several centuries until the collapse of their Empire in the early twentieth century (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020).
“In 1912, Italy seized Rhodes from the Ottomans during the Italo-Turkish War” (“Rhodes” 2020) and occupied the island till 1948 (Ibid.). During the World War II, Rhodes subsequently fell under the sway of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany but eventually it became the part of the independent Greece whose territorial ambitions were supported by Britain and the Allies (History Time 2017). Now as a part of Greece, the island remains one of the most interesting historic sites in the region (History Time 2017; “Rhodes” 2020; FM Records 2014).
Medieval City of Rhodes and the Knights Hospitaller
We were approaching to the island by a ferry; it was a unique occasion to see its towering fortifications from both the sea and the city sides. They “are shaped like a defensive crescent around the medieval town” (“Fortifications of Rhode” 2019), with their grey walls soaring above colourful boats and ships being anchored in the harbour. “Construction works on these fortifications were initiated in the late [seventh] century AD, [but mostly rebuilt] by additions and expansions that coincided with the start of the Crusades, [and particularly during the sovereign of the order of the Knights Hospitaller]” (Medieval Town 2019).
The whole massive structures were “bestowed upon the Medieval City of Rhodes” (Ibid.). I could observe “the typical outlook of a fortified medieval stronghold, with clearly identified modules like the Citadel, [also known as the Palace of the Grand Master], the Fort […] and the urban area” (Ibid.). The most characteristic monument of the City of Rhodes is the Medieval Town, that throbs with life and has a hospitable atmosphere (FM Records 2014). The Castle of the Crusader Knights is even today a notable huge edifice (FM Records 2014).
It was built in 1350 and is saved in a very good condition (Ibid.). Imposing towers with pill-boxes and solid gates protected the interior composed of one hundred and fifty-six rooms (Ibid.). The former hospital of the Knights of Rhodes was built in 1440 and is now the city’s archaeological museum (Ibid.). Art also flourished in Rhodes; above all, it has developed a rich tradition in pottery (Ibid.). In the village of Archangelos, people still use the old way to manufacture pottery objects (Ibid.). Clay of Rhodes has been one of the best in the world and hence even Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was made of Rhodes’ bricks during Rhodes’ Byzantine period (Ibid.).
Acropolis of Rhodes and the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis
After a tour around the Old Town, my family felt exhausted and gave up further sightseeing. They all sat around an ornamental, medieval fountain at Ippokratous (Hippokratous) Square, “which, along with a grand staircase from the south west section, is the only remaining evidence of the Castellania, an important building constructed by the Knights Hospitaller in the [fourteenth] century” (GPSmyCity 2020). Without paying much attention to the monument’s beauty, major part of the group refused to move for the next hour. Some wanted to eat, others drink or play with pigeons, and my aunt had spotted earlier beautiful shoes, so she definitely wanted to go shopping. None was of my interest so I decided to visit one of my must see sites on the island, namely the Acropolis of Rhodes.
Not only is it an archaeological site dating back to the Hellenistic Greece but it is also one of the successive points placed on the so-called Apollo-Saint Michael Axis, I had started to follow just after the lecture of the book, The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, by Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell (2000-2003) (see: Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis). Apart from the Acropolis of Rhodes, there are other three sites on the island identified by the authors as possibly linked to the cult of Apollo, namely Camirus (Kamiros), Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003:8, 343-346). But although there is a Doric temple dedicated possibly to Apollo at Camirus (“Camirus” 2020), there is not much evidence of such dedications at the two other sites.
In Feraklos, there are the ruins of a medieval castle built in the Byzantine period and maintained till the Ottoman times (“Feraklos Castle” 2019). The same place was earlier occupied by an ancient Acropolis, which may have been partially dedicated to Apollo but it is not archaeologically supported (Ibid.). The ancient city of Lindos is in turn a beautiful Acropolis, surrounded by little houses of the white town, located on the southeastern coast of the island (FM Records 2014). Beaches stretch there just at the feet of ancient temples, where tired visitors may have a swim and enjoy the sun (Ibid.). The road to the Acropolis leads uphill and is usually travelled by donkeys, driven by tourists (Ibid.). Due to its location, the site views of the surrounding harbours and coastline (Ibid.). The major temple of Acropolis was built in the fourth century BC. but it was not, however, dedicated to Apollo but to Athena Lindia (FM Records 2014; “Lindos” 2020). Yet it was erected on the remains of a more ancient temple (“Lindos” 2020). Did it adore Apollo?
The island of gods
The Temple of Apollo atop the Acropolis of Rhodes; that was where I wanted to go (Lawrence 2005:Scroll XX). For a while, my uncle stood as if torn apart between his duties towards family and a tempting option of seeing the remains of the Greek temple. Eventually, he decided to join me. According to the map, the site lay within a walking distance, around half an hour on foot, so we promised to be back up to two hours. My aunt was not much enthusiastic about the idea of staying alone with two teenagers and two children, and so she looked a bit upset when we were leaving. Yet our passion for ancient monuments was stronger and finally won with our doubts.
Legends hovers around Rhodes and the island is very present in the ancient Greek mythology (Up Living 2020). They say that the first inhabitants of the island were the Telchines who apparently appeared there in the Bronze Age (Up Living 2020; “Rhodes” 2020). It was a mysterious tribe who tracked its origins back to Phrygia but they came to Rhodes from Crete or Cyprus (Ibid.). “Their name comes from the ancient Greek verb thelgo, meaning to attract or to charm and they were [believed] to be great sorcerers (Ibid.). According to one source, they were the sons of Thalassa (the Sea) and [that is] why they were very able mariners, a fact which is actually historically well documented. The Telchines were also great technicians, particularly at the treatment of metal, [and] mason artists, creating the first statues dedicated to the [gods]” (Up Living 2020).
The Telchines’ only sister, the nymph Alia, bore Poseidon’s six sons and her only daughter: Rhode, whose name means a rose (Up Living 2020; GreekMythology.com 1997-2020).
Fall of the Telchines
By gods’ actions and their own faults, the Telchines soon lost their power over the island and were buried by Poseidon, along with their beautiful island (Up Living 2020). Witnessing that, people of Rhodes flew from their drowning land (Ibid.). “Historically, this flight might be linked to the destruction of the Minoan civilization by the eruption of the volcano [of Thera]: people afraid of a great flood tend to forsake island settlements” (Ibid.). Some years after, twelve Olympus gods and their divine allies defeated the Titans and shared their lands between them (Ibid.). Zeus “promised Helios, [who was the Sun god, that he] would appoint him [a] ruler of the next land to emerge out of the sea. [At] that exact moment, [Rhodes] re-emerged on the sea’s surface in the form of the nymph Rhode (or Rose), who had been left there alone, beautiful and soaking wet. Helios fell instantly in love with her, dried her up from the water with his warm sunbeams and they lived together ever since. Rhode bore Helios seven sons and one daughter. Their oldest son, Kerkofos [had] then three sons of his own: Kaminos, Ialysos and Lindos, who divided Rhodes up into regions to rule over, giving them their names” (Ibid.). They were historically the three city-states established on the island by the tribe of Dorians (“Rhodes” 2020).
Some other version of the same myth says that these three boys were actually born by Rhode and so were Helios’ sons (FM Records 2014). Irrespective of the right version, the sea-nymph Rhode became a protector goddess of the island of Rhodes, while Helios was worshipped as its patron god (Up Living 2020). By these means, his dominance of the island was confirmed and people held him in great reverence, showing their dedication by a contraction of the famous Colossus of Rhodes (Ibid.). Additionally, “Rhodes is said to have been blessed with year round sunshine, as well as with gifts from two more very important [gods], as acknowledgement of Helios’ help during the fight with the Titans; Zeus sent golden rain upon Rhodes, providing its inhabitants with great wealth, while Athena blessed them with the gift of art and craft-making” (Ibid.), equal to the Telchines’ artistic abilities (Ibid.).
On the Acropolis of Rhodes, there lie the remains of the temples, of which most iconic are the reconstructed ruins of the Temple dedicated to Apollo Pythios (Rice 1995:384). The god’s title Pythios reminds he was the prophetic deity of the Delphic Oracle (“Apollo” 2020). Yet as one of the Olympian gods, Apollo had more than one power; he “has been recognized as [the patron] of archery, music and dance, healing and diseases, the Sun, […] light, [and] poetry” (Ibid.). Prof. Richard Martin says that according to Greek mythology, Apollo was also a civilizer, teacher and organizer; he brought roads to places where they had never existed before (Roos, Kim 2001). He was the one who healed but also could bring plague (Ibid.). Such a feature is typical of many Greek gods; if they could cause something, they could equally stop it (Ibid.). Apollo is also believed to have driven his chariot to faraway lands (Burns 2011). He flew along the straight line, stopping at some sites, where the ancient built aftermath sacral buildings dedicated to the god (Ibid.).
Apollo’s flight trajectory is described by some authors as the ley line or straight track, which overlaps in the north of Europe with the Saint Michael Axis (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003; Burns 2011). The Archangel in turn is also associated with the Sun and for some scholars he is the Christian counterpart of Apollo (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2000-2003). On the other side, driving the Sun chariot was more associated by the ancient Greeks with Helios than with Apollo (“Helios” 2020). Yet, even though ancient sources say that these were two separate gods, they have been usually combined as one single deity, known as Apollo Helios, especially during the fifth century BC. (“Apollo 2020). And as such, they were both referred to as Phoebus, which means shiny or bright (Ibid.).
Apart from Apollo Pythios or Helios, who by tradition owned the Island of Rhodes, two other Greek gods were also venerated on the Acropolis, in the temples dedicated to them by the ancients. Those were Athena and Zeus, who by mythology favoured the island by granting it generous gifts. Was it then the act of building the Acropolis of Rhodes inspired by the divine patronage of the island or by the genius loci of the place itself? Or maybe, as some enthusiasts claim, Apollo’s chariot landed on the hill, on its way north and along the ley line, giving the god’s worshipers a good reason of erecting there his temple?
Featured image: The Acropolis of Rhodes with the Temple of Apollo on Agios Stephanos (also called Monte Smith). The Temple of Pythian Apollo on top was a poros peripteral temple; restored is part of the north-eastern side with four columns and a part of the architrave. In the background there is visible a picturesque bay. Photo by roytmand (2017). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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The definition of Sacred Geography “may be broadly [understood] as the regional [or global] geographic locating of sacred places according to various […] factors” (Gray 1982-2020). Accordingly, “certain geographical features and areas figure more prominently than others on the sacred map” (Forbes-Boyte 2011). Were they all chosen by a mere accident or were they selected for a purpose?
The layout of such sites may be perceived as a sacred code created for unknown reasons by ancient civilizations. All around the world, mankind built extraordinary structures on powerful sites, and although they can be separated by large distances and thousands of years, they are simultaneously interconnected all over the planet by invisible paths, similar to latitudinal and longitudinal lines, and commonly known as the world grid (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Amateur archaeologist, Alfred Watkins, discovered in 1921 that ancient features and structures across the English landscape appear to be arranged on straight ley lines (Ibid.). In 1925, he published his remarks in the book The Old Straight Track, where he proposes that ancient monuments are linked by a network of intersecting straight and measurable tracks (Ibid.). Such sites are usually geographically higher than other areas around them, and some, especially in England and France, feature prominent Christian monuments but usually constructed over more ancient ruins (Burns 2011). In his work, Watkins further theorizes that ancient landmarks along ley lines were deliberately constructed by men for the purpose of lining the trade routes, which is questionable, as many of such sites are naturally situated in the areas difficult for being simply reached by a human-being, such as mounts, islands and bogs (Burns 2011; Serena 2018). Some other researchers believe that ley lines are geomagnetic and are points of the Earth’s energies, and subsequently marked by man-made sacral constructions (Burns 2011).
According to independent authors and researchers, there is a notable alignment of sacred and ancient sites, called the Apollo/St Michael Axis, stretching from the shores of Ireland south to Greece and Israel. The GIS project I has been involved in is to illustrate that Line, which crosses the sanctuaries dedicated to both, the Christian Archangel, Michael and the Greek god, Apollo. By using different tools, such as hillshade and viewshed, its major aim is to investigate if the sites are geographically related, as the authors claim, and the Axis itself is more than just an enigmatic coincidence.
Discovery of the Apollo/St Michael’s Axis
Jean Richer, an eminent French scholar living in Greece in 1950s, was engaged in the study of literature and mythology. He was also interested in the holy character (Genius Loci) of landscapes, especially in terms of ancient architecture. According to him, the sacred geometry had been once reflected in temples and monuments built on significant sites (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9). “His studies led him to suspect that there may have been some underlying plan that determined the form and positioning of temple architecture in relation to the topography of the land, and for this idea he coined the term Sacred Geography” (Ibid.:7).
While visiting ancient sites in Greece, Jean Richer posed several questions: why are certain temples situated on top of inaccessible mounts or in isolated plains? Is their location a matter of a coincidence or a well-planed positioning? And finally: what factors did decide about their site? The same questions came to Richer’s mind while he was visiting megalithic monuments of Celtic Brittany. Is there any relations between the Celtic and classical landscapes? (Michell 2000: xiii; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).
In the process of his research, the French scholar discovered that at least three of the most significant Greek temples and oracles connected with the ancient god, Apollo, were in direct alignment, and all of them lying on a straight line (Michell 2000: xiii).
Delos – Apollo’s legendary birthplace,
Delphi – main sanctuary of the same Greek god,
Athens – the centre of the goddess Athena, with Apollo’s altar in the cave at the Acropolis (Richer 1994:1-16, 29-36, 120-125, 209).
Later, two other sites have been added to that group of Apollo’s sanctuaries (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).
4. Kerkyra – Corfu, with the so-called Secret Temple of Apollo, 5. Rhodes – the island of the Sun God, Helios/Phoebus, also identified with Apollo (Richer 1994:22, 39, 94, 201, 122, 297; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-9).
Most prominent of all Apollo’s sites is the temple of Delphi, in Greece. After the Greek mythology, the god took his heavenly chariot twice a year to travel from Delphi to the faraway land in the north (Burns 2011).
St Michael’s Line
Richer also discovered that the Apollo’s Line extends north beyond ancient sites of Greece to pass through most ancient pre-Christian and Christian sites in Italy, France, Great Britain and Ireland, all connected, in turn, with the Christian figure of Archangel Michael (Michell 2000: xiii).
These encompassed such spectacular sites as, starting from the south:
Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
St. Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11-12).
After the Book of Enoch, which is the apocrypha to the Bible, “St. Michael appears to be a protector of [seven] mountains and the Tree of Life that is located on one of [them]” (Kosloski 2019). According to the same tradition, “an imaginary line links seven different monasteries from Ireland to Israel, [which are all dedicated to the Archangel] (Ibid.). Usually, it is called the Sacred Line/Axis of St. Michael, St. Michael’s Line/Axis or the Sword of St. Michael (Ibid.). The latter is clearly a reference to Saint Michael as the Archangel with the sword and His victorious fight with the devil, usually represented as a dragon speared with the sword under His feet (Ibid.).
According to such a theory, the Axis revolves around the following seven ancient monasteries: (Kosloski 2019).
Skellig Michael (Co. Kerry, Ireland),
Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, UK),
Mont Saint Michel (Normandy, France),
Sacra Di San Michele (the Italian Alpes),
Monte Sant’ Angelo on the Gargano peninsula (Italy),
Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece – in the north-west of Rhodes),
Stella Maris Monastery (Mount Carmel, Israel) (Kosloski 2019).
However, the number of sites varies by tradition (Kosloski 2019) and after some other sources there are over thirty such places related to the same Line/Axis.
The Final Point
Although the seventh and ultimate location on the Line in the south, namely Stella Maris Monastery or the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is definitely associated with Saint Michael’s Sword, “[there] doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between the Mount Carmel [and the Archangel]” (Michael 2018). Mount Carmel may be considered as the closing point because of its alignment and topography, and also because it is mentioned in the Bible as the place where the Pagan worship of Baal was replaced by that of Jehovah, and His Prophet, Elijah, triumphant over the pagan priest is represented just in the same way as the Archangel killing the devil-dragon (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366; Kosloski 2019 “How Mount Carmel …”).
Nevertheless, if “the curvature of the earth [is taken] into account, the [Line] ends at the ‘Gates of Hell’ at the foot of Mount Hermon” (Michael 2018), situated between Syria and Lebanon and north to Mount Carmel. The Book of Enoch (Enoch 6:1-6) describes the legendary Mount Hermon as the place where fallen angels descended to earth or, after the Revelation (Rev.12:7–10), they were cast down from Heaven by Saint Michael and His angelic army. According to other sources, however, the last point of the Axis should be Megiddo Tell (in Greek known as Armageddon – the location of the final battle between the good and evil), lying close to Mount Carmel (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003: 347-366) Consequently, “the remarkable alignment of all the [places] is perceived as a sign, pointing to an apocalyptic battle between St. Michael and [the devil]” (Kosloski 2019).
The given above sites are all said to be located in a straight line and are either “associated with apparitions of [the Archangel or] ancient [sanctuaries] of devotion to the heavenly messenger (Kosloski 2019).” .
Two key characters
The Apollo-Saint Michael Axis “thus formed a corridor of sanctuaries that ran right through western Europe, linking the ancient Greek world to some of the most prominent centres of the Christian religion” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1).
What do these two characters, pagan Apollo and Christian Archangel Michael, have in common? Obviously, they share the same attributes and associations. They are both connected with the symbol of the Sun, and their legends give the same archetypal type of a dragon’s slayer; whereas St Michael kills the devil in the disguise of the dragon, Apollo slays the famous Python, the serpent guardian of the Delphic oracle. Sometimes, Archangel Michael is even related to as the Christian counterpart of the Greek god of the sun, and furthermore his name itself means: “He who is like God” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-4).
Alignments – General Characterisation of Sites and their Coordinates
The first English publication on Richer’s discovery took place in 1991 by Christine Rhone and John Michell (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12) who observed that “the first thing one wants to know about this line is its degree of accuracy when it is projected across the surface of the globe. Richer defines it as a line of constant bearing with the meridian, a so called rhumb line, which can be represented on Mercator’s projection of the globe by a straight line drawn between Skellig Michael and Mount Carmel” (Ibid.).
In order to investigate if the theory of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis is correct, the very first step is to use ArchGis Map in order to mark the points of the sites and check if they are aligned according to the direction described by Jean Richer, namely of 60 degrees NW-SE. If this alignment exists, the successive points should be placed on the same line. It is to visually verify whether by using a map projection, all the points are represented along the straight line. Here the first problem occurs: although the sites associated with St. Michael can be accurately marked as points on a map and their coordinates can be easily found, Apollo’s sites are not so evident in this case. Unlike Saint Michael who resides on particular mounts or mountains, Apollo is associated with the whole islands; on some of them, there is more than one temple dedicated to this solar god. On Rhodes, for instance, there may be two Apollo’s sites; one is in the north, in Rhodes (the island’s capital), and the second possibly in Camiros (Kameiros), situated around forty kilometres to the south-west of the City of Rhodes. Yet the most prominent of the two seems to be the Temple of Apollo Pythios on the Acropolis of Rhodes (see Island of the Sun). The authors also point to Camiros and Rhodes but additionally identify Feraklos and Lindos (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:8, 343-346).
The initial lines (Figure 1 and 2), which have been drawn by means of GIS, include both: the sites of Saint Michael and Apollo, from the first point (Skellig Michael) to the last one given by the authors, that is to say, Mount Carmel in Israel. If we take into consideration all the Archangel’s sites including Saint Michael’s Monastery on the Greek island of Symi, the line would go slightly astray to the north from the line of Apollo’s sanctuaries, which starts itself from the Greek island of Corfu.
As the coordinates slightly differ in several cases, the straight line consequently breaks at some points. To reach a relative compromise, the coordinates of Apollo’s islands, and not particular points with the temples, have been chosen for the sake of this project.
60 Degrees 11 Minutes West of North
As it is illustrated by the Figure1, the Axis goes across the planet almost 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:13). Nevertheless, Richer (1998) admits that “each segment may not be oriented perfectly in the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Although there are differences, according to the scholar, they are “minimal and compensate for one another, so that the direction as a whole is indeed very close to this theoretic angle” (Ibid.), as it is shown in the Figure 2 (below).
As it is mentioned above, St Michael’s Line joins with Apollo’s between Monte Sant’Angelo and the island of Corfu. There the Line seems slightly broken, while it is moving south and changing into Apollo’s Axis (red line of “LineAxis” indicates such breaks). Nevertheless, if we draw a line that omits Apollo’s sites on its way and goes directly from Monte Sant’Angelo, in Italy, further to the site of the Archangel on Symi, in Greece, it would keep a more straight axis (Figure 3). In this case, however, it would not finish exactly at Mont Carmel, situated to the south, but more likely it would reach closer to the point of Mont Hermon.
What is also quite interesting is the fact that the Monastery of Archangel Michael of Panormitis (Symi, Greece) was built around the fifth century AD “over the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the pagan god Apollo” (Sanidopoulos 2010). Accordingly, at least one of the sites of Saint Michael overlaps with an ancient site dedicated to Apollo. It is also observed that a few sites of the cult of Apollo or of Saint Michael are clustered around in the proximity of the main Line, yet not being directly crossed by its axis. For example, on Symi, most of the monasteries and churches scattered around the island are dedicated to Saint Michael (Sanidopoulos 2010). The same phenomenon appears in France, where the Archangel is venerated as the patron saint. Similar multiplicity of Apollo’s temples is noticed on the Greek islands.
To sum up, although some sites are a little bit astray from the exact direction of Apollo/St. Michael’s Axis, it is the result of natural orientation of the landscape, where the temples/monasteries were located. As it is underlined above, another issue concerns the exact coordinates of the sites in question; on Rhodes, there may be more sites associated with Apollo/Helios, and thus the coordinates may differ respective of the chosen site. Furthermore, although some of the sites do not exactly lie on Apollo/St. Michael Line, they all run along the straight line drawn between the first and last points, which can be graphically illustrated and analysed by means of the GIS map, providing that all the coordinates are adequate. Finally as John Michell and Christine Rhone (1998) conclude: “Bearing in mind the distance from the west of Ireland to the Holy Land, some 2 500 miles, [around 4 024 km], and the fact that many of the sites are natural landmarks, sanctifies by nature rather than by human choice, the straight path on which they all stand is indeed narrow” (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). Nonetheless, it can be observed that the closer the Line a particular site is located, the more significant it seems in terms of the cult and heritage.
Chosen Points on Apollo/St. Michael Axis
Richer’s study has been continued by several researchers, among others, the authors of the book, entitled The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, namely Paul Broadhurst, Hamish Miller, Vivienne Shanley, and Ba Russell. According to their and Richer’s studies, the mentioned alignment of sacred sites stretches for around 2, 500 miles (4024 kilometres). It starts from the Atlantic remote coast of Ireland, and then goes across western Europe and, if extended, it reaches Mount Carmel in Israel, near the infamous Armageddon site (Megiddo) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16). Apart from the most important sites mentioned above, others also fall on this alignment (Le Mans, Bourges), or are situated nearby (Tours, Nevers, Blois, Perugia), however, still connected to the mentioned heroes. On the whole, the authors enumerate and describe over thirty sites related to Apollo/St Michael’s Axis (Creightmore, Rocka 1996-2018; Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).
Accordingly, Apollo/St Michael Axis passes across or nearby (with all the main sanctuaries in bold):
Archangel Michael of Panormitis, Symi, Greece, (Kosloski 2019),
Mount Carmel (ornearby Armageddon), Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ) or Mount Hermon, Israel, (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-16 ).
In the GIS presentation, there is only a limited number of sites included in order to provide a more detailed description of their landscape (Figure 4). Furthermore, the project focuses particularly on Saint Michael Axis and the features of His five prominent mont-sanctuaries, in terms of their coordinates, natural location, elevation and geographical visibility.
Coordinates of the chosen Apollo/Saint Michael’s sites
As it is illustrated above, the ley St. Michael/Apollo Line breaks at some points on its way southwards, especially as it moves from the northern Saint Michael’s way to the southern Apollo’s path. However, when we separate the two ley lines and and draw them one by one, they both keep a more straight axis. It is also because they include less points on their way than when they are combined together.
Five Apollo’s sites (all in Greece)and their coordinates according to Google Maps:
Kerkyra – Corfu: 39,6243°N; 19,9217°E
Delphi: 38.4824°N; 22.5010°E
Athens: 37.9838°N; 23.7275°E
Delos: 37.3963°N; 25.2689°E
Acropolis of Rhodes: 36.4399 °N; 28.2106 °E
Five St Michael’s sites and their coordinates according to Google Maps:
Skellig Michael (Ireland): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W
St Michael’s Mount (UK): 51.7707°N; 10.5405°W
Mont St Michel (France): 48.6361°N, 1.5115°W
Sacra di San Michele (Italy): 45.0964°N, 7.3422°E
Monte Sant’Angelo (Italy): 44.1527°N, 10.4113°E
Geographical Features and Origins of Saint Michael’s Sites on the Axis
Both characters, Apollo and St. Michael, possess high rocks or islands. Although St Michael preferred rocky summits, Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis, seem to have owned the entire Greek islands: Corfu, Rhodes, Delos, Delphi, all located on the Line. Apollo’s sanctuaries are usually situated on the slopes of mountains, apparently chosen for their spiritual features. Some temples, dedicated both to Apollo and St Michael, are also set in the rocky caverns (Athens/Sacra di San Michele) (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). According to Jean Richer (1994), they were placed “in the middle of nowhere, on top of inaccessible mountains or isolated in remote plains” (Ibid.:7).
Saint Michael’s sanctuaries share not only their dedication to the Archangel but also the way in which He inspired their creation, through dreams and visions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:1-29). “One obvious feature is that they are all rocky summits or mountains, […] traditionally associated with the “angel of high places” (Ibid.:13). All of them reach up not less than over 60 meters above sea level and are not easily accessible, located either some distance off the coasts or in the mountains, like floating islands on the ocean or castles high in the clouds. All monasteries have also been the pilgrim centers for centuries and most prominent St Michael’s sites in their regions (Ibid.:1-29).
Digital Elevation Models and Visualizing the Terrain Data
In order to illustrate a geographical shape and topographic features typical of Saint Michael’s sites, their digital elevation models (DEM) have been used for all the five enumerated above sites. Then the hillshade effect has been applied to all of them so as to obtain a 3D representation of the surface. Land-forms are mapped with the help of colour levels, which represent geographical features of all the sites, such as their heights, and visually depict the layout of lowlands (green) and highlands (red).
Skellig Michael, also called the Great Skellig is the most dramatic Saint Michael’s sanctuary of all. It looks like a black and hardly accessible pyramidal rock in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles (12 km) off the west coast of Ireland, in County Kerry (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55; Department of Culture 2010). Skellig Michael is known for legendary apparitions of the Archangel over its rocks but mostly it is recognized as one of the most significant examples of early Christian Irish monasticism and its highly ascetic character (Department of Culture 2010). Probably already in the sixth century, a small group of monks chose the isle for their remote and inaccessible monastery (Ibid.). As such the Skellig is usually described as the loneliest place on earth (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12,55).
A rocky island in Cornwall is connected to the mainland by a cobbled causeway at low tide, and can be reached only by boat at high tide (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:12). It has been regarded as the Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint Michel in France since it was handed to the Benedictine religious order by Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century (“St Michael’s Mount” 2020). Yet the site had featured a monastery already around the eighth century (Ibid.). Saint Michael’s Mount is situated in the lowest point of land above sea level of all the sanctuaries.
Mont Saint Michel’s elevation: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.
It is one of the most spectacular monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael, situated just off the coast of Normandy in northern France, on a large rocky island encrusted with a complex of medieval constructions (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). As a legend goes, in 708 Aubert, the bishop of Avranches had in his dream a vision of the Archangel Michael who instructed him to build an oratory on a large isolated rocky islet (Harpur, Westwood 1997:166). Eventually, Mont Saint Michel grew to become a powerful religious center in the Middle Ages, drawing pilgrims from far and wide (Ibid.:166).
Sacra Di San Michele’s elevation:888 metres (2913 feet) above sea level.
The last two monasteries are set high in the mountains. The first one is placed in the highest point above sea level of all sanctuaries. It is located in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, forty kilometers from Turin Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery dedicated to Saint Michael was built in the tenth or eleventh century, on the summit of mount Pirchiriano, which is still guarding the natural route through the Italian Alps into France (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11; Sacra di San Michele 2020). The monastery is apparently the very same place that inspired the writer Umberto Eco to conceive the best-seller work in 1980, the Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) (Sacra di San Michele 2020).
Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s elevation: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.
San Michele di Monte Gargano is the last footprint of the Archangel, placed in Italy, on the spur on the boot-shaped outline of the country, on the ridge of Gargano mountain (Broadhurst, Miller, Shanley, Russel 2003:11). The heart of Saint Michael’s Sanctuary is placed in the grotto, which has been the destination of numerous pilgrimages, starting from the Norman monastery of Mont Saint Michel (“Monte Sant’ Angelo” 2020). According to a legend, the grotto was dedicated to Saint Michael as the Archangel had appeared there three times, in 490, 492 and 493 (Ibid.). Additionally, in 2019 archaeologists of the Ludwig Maximilian University excavating the site announced their discovery of traces of Hellenistic temple dated to the second century B.C. (Ibid.).
Visualizing the Visibility
The DEM data set has been used to create viewsheds as in the analysis of the elevation and landform of the sites. The maps represent the areas visible within 10 km from the sites in red, and those invisible in green.
Mont Saint Michel’s visibility: 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level.
Sacra Di San Michele’s visibility: 888 meters (2913 feet) above sea level.
Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano’s visibility: 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level.
The results look quite interesting. In all cases, there is a wide range of visibility as all the sites are located on the summits of mounts/mountains. The visibility from Mont Saint Michael and Saint Michael’s Mount is strongly concentrated around the sites and then is scattered in red spots around the area, especially in the case of Skellig Michael. Additionally, at the site of Sacra Di San Michele and Monte Sant’ Angelo Di Gargano, the reach of visibility forms long red belts, as both sanctuaries are situated on the ridge of the mountains.
There are, however, some factors that should be taken into consideration while evaluating the viewshedtool, as they may greatly affect the visibility. First of all these are atmospheric conditions at the sites in question; the weather in those areas is prone to sudden changes and has a disturbing influence on the view from the top of the monasteries, especially due to dense mists and clouds.
Results of the GIS Project
On the whole, GIS turned out to be a very valuable and beneficial tool in description and deeper analysis of the subject, providing that the data applied is of a good quality to fully illustrate all the points of the project.
The results show that the major sites dedicated to Apollo/St Michael are on a straight ley Line, more or less aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. Others stay close to this Line. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that St Michael’s monasteries accomplish their main purpose of being the sacral centers: not easily accessible but visible and welcoming pilgrims venerating the Archangel.
My own pilgrimage
I have always dreamed of making a pilgrimage along St.Michael/Apollo Line. However, due to a vast distance of the track, it is unlikely for me to complete it at once. Therefore, it will be more reasonable to divide the route into shorter sections or visit the sanctuaries while traveling around a particular country.
So far I have visited three of the seven Saint Michael’s Mounts and some of Apollo’s temples while visiting Greece. The first site of the listed sanctuaries I have ever seen was Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. I went there in 2006, during my year stay in France. As I studied history of art in Paris, I usually travelled at that time around the country to see its artistic and architectural treasure, which France is so famous for. It was long before I had ever learned about Saint Michael’s Axis, which eventually happened in 2008, during my visit in Cornwall – a charming Celtic peninsula belonging to United Kingdom. I spent there a long May weekend with my friend. Having reached the most westerly town, Penzance, we both travelled to Saint Michael’s Mount, situated in the bay, near the town of Marazion. At that moment, I understood there must be a strong connection between these two Saint Michael’s mounts, the Norman and the Cornish, but I mainly thought of their mutual dedication to the Archangel, their similar architecture and natural terrain of their location. I had not realized yet, they could be both geographically interconnected and that there are other sanctuaries of that kind in Europe.
Eventually, after travelling westwards along the Cornish peninsula, we reached the legendary site of Tintagel. There, in one of local library shops, I found a very interesting and thick book by P. Broadhurst, H. Miller, V. Shanley, B. Russel (2003) The Dance of the Dragon. An Odyssey into Earth Energies and Ancient Religion, which explains in detail the idea of St. Michael/Apollo Axis. Since then, I have involved myself in the authors’ research by means of my own studies, including for example the represented above the GIS project. The book itself has become my personal guide through the pilgrimage along the Axis. Also this is why I broadly share here the theories I have found in the undertaken research.
After visiting the Cornish sanctuary in 2008, yet in the same year, I travelled once again to Mount Saint Michel, in France, to see it from the perspective of the Axis research. Only in July, 2015, had I a rare opportunity to land on one of the most inaccessible sites of the Archangel – the Skellig Michael in Ireland, which has already been fully described in one of my previous posts, entitled, Hermitage of the Archangel. In all cases (Cornwall, Normandy and Ireland), the three sites share not only highly spiritual atmosphere but also very similar geographical features. All of them are off the shore, with their summits covered in monastery structures. First two are additionally tidal islands of more or less conical shape, located deeply in the bays with salty marches and wetlands (Bonnot 2013; “Birdwatching – Marazion Marshes” 2018). Visiting them was both inspiring and deeply motivating for my work.
Hopefully, I will continue my pilgrimage southwards in the coming years …
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology; University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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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.
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.
“You can do Ireland in a day, but you really only do Valentia properly in a lifetime”
 Karen O’Connell (2018). “Explore Valentia”. In: Valentia Island. Come on in. Valentia Island Development Company.
We had booked our B&B on Valentia Island – one of Ireland’s most picturesque westerly points. It lies off the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwest of County Kerry and is accessible either by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge from Portmagee and by car ferry from Renard Point, Cahersiveen, which operates from April to October. The ferry crossing takes around 5 minutes. After a night-sea journey from Wales, and having travelled 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 an isolated and charming place of the home-stay atmosphere of remote villages.
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 are applied now more than ever, not to mention a very high price for this major tourist attraction that could be the highlight of every holiday.
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 long … in advance: there is a maximum of four 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 …
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 …’
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 that kind.
Off we go …
Good walking shoes, mostly hiking boots with an ankle support, and waterproof clothes are essential for the tour! 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 sources 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.
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.
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 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.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.