Tag Archives: Secular Architecture

Prasat and its Meaning in Khmer and Thai Architecture

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

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

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


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

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

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

Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History

In my head I could still hear the noise of the airport, a commotion and rush at the customs control and at baggage claim, when I suddenly fell into the arms of tropical scenery, with its heavenly peace and tranquility given by the sound of the river and the whisper of huge leaves swaying in the wind. Hidden in the shadow of the tall boughs on the shore, I lazily observed a bright sunlight pouring profusely over the river and a group of elephants frolicking in it.

At first, I could not believe that I had become part of this picturesque image: in the background of a dense curtain of tall palm trees and thick creepers protruding from green ficuses and their trunks, heavily wrinkled bulks of elephants were wading in the silvery water of the river. Some turned over and poured water on each other, using their long trunks like watering cans.

Rhapsody for an elephant

Elephants have always been a very important national element of Sri Lanka and as such these animals have become part of the folklore and leading characters of Southeast Asian legends. Throughout ages, men in Asia have taken numerous advantages of elephants’ strength to create massive constructions, using the animals not only for dragging heavy loads and their transportation but also for military purposes. The aforementioned king of Sigiriya, Kashyapa (also Kassapa), was to take part in his last fight also on the back of an elephant (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana).

Especially the white elephant with long tusks has always been of a great importance to both, Hinduism and Buddhism, where, as tradition says, it serves either as a mount for the Hindu god, Indra, or appears in a dream of the mother of Gautama Buddha, just before he is conceived. The white elephant is an equally significant symbol of the royal power in Sri Lanka. During the processions of religious festivals in Kandy, the king’s white elephants have driven a reliquary with the most venerated there a Buddhist relic, namely, the famous Buddha Tooth preserved to our times, and brought to the island in the fourth century AD. by Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta. The same relic had previously been also preserved in another ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, where it was possibly housed in the shrine of Hatadage.

Tired after the journey in the cramped seat of the plane, I was laying on the steps of the stairs leading down to the river, and I was watching a wonderful spectacle of playing elephants as if I had been in a daydream. But such a sweet laziness could not last forever. And after a short break in Pinnawala, a famous elephant orphanage on the island, we finally set off on the way to meet archaeology of one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.

Gateway to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was first designed as a country residence before it became the successive capital of the Sinhalese kings, after the destruction of the former royal centre in Anuradhapura, in 993 AD. (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005).

In the foreground of the remnants of the Palace of the kings of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Actually, Polonnaruwa was designated as a capital by the Chola dynasty, who abandoned the previous one in Anuradhapura for strategical reasons (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). In 1070 AD., it was, however, overtaken by Sinhalese kings who kept Polonnaruwa as their capital (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). As a matter of fact, it was during the Sinhalese rule when the city’s glory reached its peak (Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Among the greatest kings of that period was the second king who ruled the capital, namely King Parakramabahu the First, whereas the third one, the King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) eventually led the kingdom to bankruptcy and so, in the early thirteenth century, the glory of Polonnaruwa had ceased (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). Finally, it was abandoned, and the Sinhalese capital was moved to the western side of the island, to the city of Kandy, which became the very last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Part of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka

Together with two other historical capitals, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the city of Polonnaruwa creates one of the three angles of the pyramid-shaped graphic sign of the Cultural Heritage Triangle of Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana). As an archaeological and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa comprises numerous monuments of different periods and functions; besides the Brahman ruins of the Cholas rule, from between the tenth and eleventh centuries, there are picturesque remnants of abundant Sinhalese constructions, built between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, including a famous king’s, Parakramabahu the First, magnificent garden-city (UNESCO 2021; Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

Unknown building among royal and sacred edifices

Almost all the constructions in the area of Polonnaruwa are historically recorded (Mohan 2019). Apart from earlier temples dedicated to Hindu gods, there are mostly secular buildings, like the Royal Palace and the Audience Hall, and Buddhist shrines, most famous of which are Dalada Maluva, including the Sacred Quadrangle with the unique Vatadage (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020), “where the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was housed” (Bell 1903:14-15 in: Manatunga 2009:2004), Lankatilaka Vihara and Gal Vihara (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020).

The Satmahal Prasada in Polonaruwa. The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues. Nevertheless, their identity has been disfigured by intentional destruction. Copyright©Archaeotravel. Photo by Bernard Gagnon (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Satmahal Prasada” (2021). Photo source: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, there is no account of a pyramidal-like stepped edifice situated in an elevated area, which is generally perceived as the most mysterious structure of all in the whole ancient city and sometimes the only ancient pyramid in Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004; Lapkura 2021).

Named as Sathmahal Prasada

The structure has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building (Mohan 2019). It is located in the proximity of the Vatadage and so it is included within the Buddhist complex of Dalada Maluva (Brown D. Brown J. Findlay 2005; Wulff Hauglann 2020; Saumya 2020). This is why Anura Manatunga (2009:204) thinks it was also build for religious purposes  as other constructions on site. For this reason, Sathmahal Prasada is believed to have served as a stupa, built in the proximity of other prominent Buddhist ruins such as stupas and monasteries of Polonnaruwa (Lapkura 2021).

As much as the Quadrangle may have played the role of the most important royal monastery of Sinhalese kings ruling in the city, Sathmahal Prasada must have had a very significant function as well (Manatunga 2009:204). Yet, the pyramid may not have belonged to the Buddhist complex originally (Mohan 2019). And as Anura Manatunga (2009:204) admits the construction “is still unidentified and remains an ambiguous monument [as] we cannot [pinpoint its] builder, purpose or even the ancient name of the building”.

Accordingly, experts do not know who built it or why it was built (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204; Lapkura 2021). Its original name is equally lost in history (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:204). As such, it can be described only by means of its appearance and it actually resembles a stepped pyramid with entrances on all four sides (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Moreover, it is also one of no more than four other ancient constructions on the island with square bases, providing that the others are all older religious ruins in Anuradhapura, most of which are damaged (Lapkura 2021). It is equally worth mentioning that none of the three structures reveal any signs of having been pyramids and all appear to have been rather squat in their shape (Ibid.).

Origins shrouded in mystery

Due to its growing mystery, Sathmahal Prasada has continuously provoked some new theories and scholars’ guesses concerning its provenience and function (Manatunga 2009:204-205). For example, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865–1937), an epigraphist and archaeologist of Sri Lanka, speculates (1928:92-93) that it may have been once a palace, as much as it is claimed today about the function of the construction on top of the Rock of Sigiriya (Ibid.:204). The scholar based his theory on the fact that epigraphical sources say that one of the most famous kings of Polonnaruwa, Nissanka Malla (1187- 1196) had built a seven-storey palace for himself (Ibid.:204). Nevertheless, unlike in the case of the so-called ‘Palace’ on top of Sigiriya, academics commonly agreed that “the solid tower-like building [of Sathmahal Prasada] is not habitable and, therefore, cannot be residential building” (Ibid.:204).

Another symbolic representation of the Mount Meru in the shape of a pyramid

Most relevant of all seems to be a suggestion made by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), a Sri Lankan Tamil metaphysician, pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, who proposed  (1965:165) that Sathmahal Prasada actually represented the mythical Mount Meru, as much as many other examples of sacred architecture in Southeast Asia and in India (Manatunga 2009:204). Some alternative authors even claim it has similarities with pyramidal architecture, created by contemporary oversea cultures (Lapkura 2021).

A Buddhist monk passing by Sathmahal Prasada, in Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851-1937), who was the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, describes Sathmahal Prasada in his Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey 1903, 1906, and 1910 (2009:14) as “a solid brick structure with seven storeys that diminished in width and height stage by stage” (Manatunga 2009:204). And although he does not directly call it a pyramid, his narrative undoubtedly identifies it as a pyramidal structure. HCP Bell (1903:14) also adds  that “[the] top of the building has collapsed but it is still high, at 53 feet, [which is over 16 metres. And] at the ground level it is a 39 [feet] 2 inches square building, [that is, almost 12 metres]” (Ibid.:204).

Southeast Asian affinities

In terms of the construction’s origins, Anura Manatunga (2009:204) claims that Sathmahal Prasada, together with Gal Vihara statues and Pothgul Vehera, shows more likely Southeast Asian affinities. Her theory is also supported by earlier authorities (Ibid.:204-205). Reginald Le May (1885-1972), a British art historian and a Honorary Member of the Siam Society, writes in A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam (1962:97-98) that Sathmahal Prasada bears some similarity to a bigger and taller pyramidal structure of Wat Kukut in Northern Thailand, which is additionally contemporary to the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle (Ibid.:205). Among other contemporary Thai constructions similar to Sathmahal Prasada, the book Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. C. 1000 to C. 1500 by W. M. Sirisena (1978:123) also enumerates Suwanna Chedi in Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, which is also pyramidal in its structure (Ibid.:204).

On the other side, HCP Bell (1903:14-15) claims that Sathmahal Prasada resembles more Khmer constructions of the Angkor complex in Cambodia (Manatunga 2009:204). Accordingly, the construction would be “an architectural link between the simplest form of rectangular pyramid such as Ka Keo, [possibly Ta Keo] with plain vertical walls and strait of stairs up the middle of each side and the elaborate towers at Mi-Baume, [in Angkor Wat] and other similar shrines” (Bell 1903:14 in: Manatunga 2009:204).

Mysteries come in pairs

Nowadays, in its ruined but still pyramid-like shape, Sathmahal Prasada is usually compared to an equally mysterious Khmer temple in Cambodia, namely, the unique pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) of Koh Ker, which also features seven platform, or to Baksei Chamkrong temple in Siem Reap (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Lapkura 2021). Possibly significant is the fact that the both temples were once dedicated to Shiva and built around the tenth century AD. (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). What is more, they resembles some Mayan temples built in Mesoamerica, though on a smaller scale (Lapkura 2021).

On the whole, the construction of Sathmahal Prasada is entirely distinctive from other ancient temples in Polonnaruwa or other buildings, characteristic of Sri Lanka (Mohan 2019; Saumya 2020; “Polonnaruwa” 2021; Manatunga 2009:204). There are no such architectural parallels found in the country or in the South Asia (Mohan 2019; Manatunga 2009:2004). In fact, both tourists and archaeologists are puzzled, while looking at the construction (Mohan 2019).

The mysterious pyramidal structure of Polonnaruwa has been named in modern times as Sathmahal Prasada, which literally means a seven-storey building. Its original name is unknown, whereas most of the constructions in the city is identifiable. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Pyramids also come in pairs

In all ancient civilisations, there are similar pyramidal constructions, built in different time and in various places around the world (Mohan 2019; Lapkura 2021). Stepped pyramids exist in Egypt, Mexico, in lands of the former Ancient Mesopotamia (ziggurats), and in India (Mohan 2019). Generally, such structures appear in a given area usually in numbers and, as it has been speculated, there is also another stepped pyramid in Sri Lanka, possibly once built on top of the Sigiriya Rock (Ibid.). The latter is sometimes referred to as the Great Pyramid of Sri Lanka, in comparison to Sathmahal Prasada, which is much smaller in scale but more completely preserved than its possibly larger equivalent of Sigiriya (Ibid.).

Two pyramids found on the island

After Praveen Mohan (2019), Sathmahal Prasada is actually a perfect match for the pyramid on top of Sigiriya; it features bricked ramps and is also built with the lime mortar set between the bricks. It is furthermore composed of the four sides, with a bricked quadrangle base, like at Sigiriya (Ibid.). It also contains a remaining flight of stairs made of bricks, on the west side of the pyramid, leading up to the first storey (Manatunga 2009:2004; Mohan 2019). Looking at Sath Mahal Prasada, it is also possible to speculate how the Great Pyramid of Sigiriya would have looked like before its upper part was demolished (Mohan 2019).

Carved figures with disfigured identity

The only feature that may give some insight into the origins of Sathmahal Prasada are sculpted statues; namely, “[the] centre of each storey of the building has niches on all four sides. A standing figure, [possibly] of a deity made of bricks and stucco is projected on these niches” (Manatunga 2009:2004).

The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An anomaly regarding the sculpture is that the faces of all the statues carved around the stepped pyramid are entirely chopped off, erased or disfigured (Mohan 2019). It could not be an effect of natural forces as the visible destructions are strikingly similar on all the four sides of the structure (Ibid.). Consequently, it can be claimed that the statues’ faces were meant to be deliberately destroyed and so their identity was to be forgotten together with the name of the pyramid’s builder and the true origins of the construction itself (Ibid.).

Polygonal masonry in Polonnaruwa

Yet before I approached the towering façade of Sathmahal Prasada, my attention was immediately drawn by a stone henge separating the remnants of an ancient shrine of Hatadage, built by King Nissanka Malla in the twelfth century, and the pyramidal construction itself. Interesting was the fact that the wall featured polygonal masonry, where huge megalithic stones of various sizes and shapes had been dressed together in a way they resembled a jigsaw puzzle. I also observed that surfaces of each polygonal stone had been cut either with straight or rounded sides but all had joints perfectly fitting adjacent blocks. Sometimes among two or more larger slabs, there were tiny polygonal stones, matching perfectly the free space between them. I was just amazed. The same type of polygonal masonry is very characteristic of megalithic constructions not only in Asia but also in the whole world. Is the wall contemporary to the bricked pyramid of Polonnaruwa? Or maybe it is even more ancient as possibly are some examples of megalithic masonry at Sigiriya … (see: Denied Pyramid on Top of the Rock of Sigiriya)

The question of the lost civilization appears again

Nowadays, all the four entrances to the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada are completely sealed off and there are guards preventing anybody from walking inside it (Mohan 2019). Such precautions are said to protect people from being at danger in case the structure accidentally collapses (Ibid.).

Two friendly macaques were sitting down on the bricked wall of the Eastern Gate. They are apparently attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks. In the background, the facade of Sathmahal Prasada. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘It is a pity that Sathmahal Prasada cannot be properly restored and seen also from the inside’, I thought, while observing its upper part, narrowing behind a bricked wall of the Eastern Gate to the city. Two friendly macaques were sitting down on it, visibly attracted by passing tourists, or rather by contents of their bags and backpacks.

For a while I was observing with pleasure their graceful movements over broken bricks of the wall.

‘Oh, how much this bricked wall differs from that beside Sathmahal Prasada’, I was still considering the matter of the seen example of polygonal masonry.

Finally, gathering all the facts about the two archaeological sites of Sri Lanka, with their partially surviving constructions, namely the said gigantic stepped pyramid on top of Sigiriya and the smaller one in Polonnaruwa, it can be understood that there was possibly once an ancient civilisation who built pyramidal structures and created polygonal megalithic walls on the island, as elsewhere, anyway, in the whole ancient world (Mohan 2019).

Featured image: The area between the twelfth century’s shrine of Hatadage and the pyramid of Sathmahal Prasada of the unknown age. There is another mysterious construction; namely, the stone wall featuring visible polygonal masonry. Such elements, as the pyramid and the boundary hedge question the real origins and age of the site of Polonnaruwa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


“Polonnaruwa” (2021). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3z9ObwE>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

“Satmahal Prasada” (2021). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3DhCmaj>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

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Amazing Lanka (2021). “Sathmahal Prasadaya (Seven Storied Palace)”. In: AmazingLanka.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3j4XZm0>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

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Brown D., Brown J. Findlay A. (2005). “Polonnaruwa”. In: 501 Must-Visit Destinations: Discover Your Next Adventure. London: Bounty Books.

Coomaraswamy A. K. (1965). History of Indian and Indonesian Art. New York: Dover Publication.

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u >. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Lapkura (2021). “Sathmahal Prasada”. In: Lapkura.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UEc40l>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Le May R. (1962). A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam. Tokyo: Charles F. Tuttle.

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

Mohan P. (2019). “Secret Pyramids Discovered in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka?”. In: PraveenMohan Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3CtIFH1>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Saumya (2020). Polonnaruwa. Sri Lanka. In: Stories by Saumya. Available at <https://www.storiesbysoumya.com/ancient-city-polonnaruwa-sri-lanka/>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Sirisena W. M.  (1978). Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. C. 1000 to C. 1500. Leiden: F.J. Brill.

UNESCO (2021). “Ancient City of Polonnaruwa”. Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0. In: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sFqE41>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Werk E. (2008). “Wat Kukut (Wat Chama devi), Lamphun, Thailand – Example of Dvaravati art”. In: Wikipedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3y5fyXf>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Wickremasinghe D. M. De Z. (1928). “The Slab Inscription of Kirti Nissanka Malla at Ruvanvali Dagaba, Anuradhapura”. In: Epigraphia Zeylanica, Volume II. Government of Ceylon.  

Wulff Hauglann M. (2020). “10 Must-See Things in The Ancient City Polonnaruwa”. In: Nerd Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sEmyJN>. [Accessed on 22nd August, 2021].

Stoa in Ancient Greek Architecture

The term has derived from Greek. Plural: stoas, stoai, or stoae.

It is hall structure, commonly designed for public use. “Early stoas were open at the entrance with columns, usually of the Doric order, lining the side of the building” (“Stoa” 2021). Simultaneously, they had a wall at the back, often with doors leading to added warehouses. As such, “they created a safe, enveloping [and] protective atmosphere” (Ibid.). In the architecture of ancient Greek cities, stoa had been in existence since the fifth century BC.

“Later examples were built as two stories, and incorporated inner colonnades usually in the Ionic style, where shops or sometimes offices were located. These buildings were open to the public; merchants could sell their goods, artists could display their artwork, and religious gatherings could take place” (“Stoa” 2021).

Athens: the Stoa of Attalos (the Museum of the Ancient Agora) and the Church of the Holy Apostles, as seen from Acropolis hill. Photo by A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Stoa of Attalos” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Hellenistic times, stoas ran around the four sides of the market, creating a kind of peristyle with a shady roofed portico. “Stoas usually surrounded the […] agora of large cities and were used as a framing device” (“Stoa” 2021). They were usually erected in the courtyards of gymnasiums and palaestras. They also surrounded port pools, closed a pier or ran as covered walkways along roads. Other examples were designed to create safe, protective atmospheres which combined useful inside and outside space.

The most famous is the stoa of Poikile (Stoa Poecile), situated on the north side of the Ancient Agora of Athens. It was covered with famous paintings, and therefore it was also called the ‘Painted Stoa’. It is mostly famous of the philosopher Zeno of Citium (335-263 BC.), who met his followers there and taught, He was a Hellenistic thinker who founded the Stoic school of philosophy. Consequently, “[the] name of the Stoic school of philosophy [has derived] from ‘stoa'” (“Stoa” 2021).

Featured image: View of the Stoa Amphiaraion. By J. M. Harrington, personal digital image (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Stoa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


“Stoa” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3urJqMz>. [Accessed on 7th May, 2021].

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PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 389. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Teutonic Order in the Castle of Malbork and its Ghosts

The brick walls of the castle in Malbork always make a great impression on its visitors as they walk among the countless castle red towers, bastions and courtyards, delving deeper into its long corridors and their secrets. We felt just the same gloomy atmosphere when, following the guide, we listened to the history of the castle and of its inhabitants, whose ghosts are said to still live within its chambers and underground. And even though it was a very hot summer day, we got goosebumps when we listened to scary stories of the haunted castle.

From the commander’s castle to the seat of grand masters

As a result of successive re-constructions of the Teutonic seat in Malbork, the complex was modified from the two-part commander’s castle (the Upper and Low Castles) to the three-part headquarters of the Grand Master (Bieszk 2010:106). Accordingly, it was composed of the Upper Castle, Middle Castle and Low Castle, also known as the Outer Bailey (Ibid.:106). Its huge spaces were not only heated by fireplaces and furnaces, but also by the central heating system (hypocaustum); the heated air from the fired stones of the furnace entered the hall, such as the chapter house, through special channels and holes in the floor with covers (Ibid.:107).

The Palace of Grand Masters (Middle Castle). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Upper Castle and its treasury

In the west wing of the Upper Castle, living quarters for Teutonic dignitaries were expanded (Bieszk 2010:107). There was also a central treasury (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The treasury was closely guarded and locked with two doors, and the last one, made of metal, required three keys to be open (Ibid.). They were held each by the Grand Master, Grand Commander and Grand Treasurer (Ibid.). Therefore, the treasure door was only opened in the presence of these three dignitaries (Ibid.). Interestingly, in addition to gold and valuables, the treasury also contained … sweets (Ibid.). Those were gold-coated candies uniquely tasted by the Grand Master (Ibid.). This is the reason why they were guarded so carefully and the treasurer himself personally escorted them, when they were going to be served to the Grand Master (Ibid.).

Marienburg 1900. View of the Upper Castle from the east in 1901 in the neo-Gothic form. The outside wall of presbytery (the eastern part of the church) is adorned with the statue of the Virgin with the Child, slightly visible in the image. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Despite all these elaborate safeguards the vault had once been robbed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was done by bakers who worked in a bakery right under the treasury (Ibid.). Somehow they found out that there was great treasure above them, which supposedly was piled on the floor (Ibid.). So they made a hole in the ceiling in the kitchen, and the gold fell right on their heads (Ibid.). They quickly left Malbork, but the Teutonic Knights unfortunately caught them (Ibid.). They were judged and sentenced to death by hanging (Ibid.). Despite the recovery of the valuables, the treasury soon began to glow empty, because fifty years later the expedition to Grunwald forced the payment of the army of many thousands and the Order never returned to its financial splendour (Ibid.).

Eight-meter high Protector Saint

In the northern wing of the Upper Castle, in turn, the former convent chapel was rebuilt into the largest conventual castle church in the Teutonic state (Bieszk 2010:107). Its tall and long body from the side of the chancel reached twenty meters beyond the perimeter of the castle walls, which consequently distorted the regular, four-sided outline of the Upper Castle (Ibid.:107). Additionally, in 1340, on the eastern facade of the church, a huge, eight-meter-high Gothic figure of the Virgin Mary with the Child was made of artificial colourful stone (Bieszk 2010:107-108; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

Unfortunately, the figure was destroyed in 1945 along with the eastern part of the church (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). In September 2014, its reconstruction began, and its ceremonial unveiling took place in 2016 (Ibid.). 350,000 coloured cubes made of Venetian glass were used to create the mosaic (Ibid.). Among them, there was also glass in which gold flakes were embedded (Ibid.).

Apart from the Gothic statue, the whole church, along with the Chapel, greatly suffered in the last War, and mostly during the successive plunders of the Red Army (Jaśmin 2017).

Chapel of Saint Anne

The church was two-story construction, and under the presbytery there was the Chapel of St. Anne, where eleven grand masters were buried (Bieszk 2010:107). In order to enter the church, one actually needs to go through the chapel of Saint Anna (Jaśmin 2017). At its door, just above one’s head there is a beautifully carved Gothic portal (Ibid.). There are also various dark stories and legends associated with this place that visitors eagerly listen to (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

In 1330, the Grand Master, Werner Von Olsern, was deceitfully murdered inside the castle (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is commonly believed that this happened while he was leaving St. Anne’s Chapel, as it was the only place he visited without guards (Ibid.). He was killed by his monastic brother, Jan von Endorf, who the Teutonic Knights claimed insane (Ibid.). However, it is likely that it was a planned assassination (Ibid.). Werner had peaceful intentions towards the Kingdom of Poland and wanted to thoroughly reform the Order, which must have upset the corrupted knights, striving for power and further plunderers (Ibid.).

… and its ghosts

Another story says the Chapel is haunted by ghosts of Teutonic grand masters who were buried there (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).

The interior of the castle church in Malbork (reconstructed). Photo by Tomasz Walecki (2019). Free images at Pixabay.

In 1650 the Jesuits erected their monastery between the castle church and the south-eastern wing of the Middle Castle (JS 2011). As a result, the western part of the chapel was separated by a wall reaching from its floor to the ceiling (Ibid.). This division covered almost a quarter or a fifth of the entire chapel and joined two opposite windows (Ibid.). In order to obtain a convenient road to the city, a wooden bridge was made on cross-beams (Ibid.). The ends of the beams rest on the sills of both windows (Ibid.). Window openings, which in the Jesuit times were additionally secured with closed shutters, devoid of window frames, now served as doors (Ibid.).

The bridge covered the entire space between the western side wall of the chapel and the wall erected on the eastern side (JS 2011). People’s steps on the wooden bridge made a dull reverberation in the dark and formidable room of the necropolis (Ibid.). The reverberation resembled the thunder of horse horseshoes. For this reason, the bridge was named the Thunder Bridge (Ibid.). In the upper part of the wall separating the chapel of St. Anna, both on the west and east sides, the masons left two small gaps (Ibid.).. Through one of them you could look into the castle cellar, through the other – to the chapel of St. Anna (Ibid.). The openings were opposite each other and were the size of an ordinary brick (Ibid.).

Chapel of Saint Anne in the castle of Malbork. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

One day, while carrying out other bricklaying works, one of the workers was ordered to brick up two mysterious holes (JS 2011). He fulfilled the task but on the morning of the next day, both bricks were found to be gone (Ibid.). Another mason completed the same work in less than five minutes (Ibid.). And this time the next morning, the same mysterious openings still existed in the wall (Ibid.). Also, further efforts to brick the holes in the wall did not bring any results (Ibid.). These fruitless works were finally abandoned (Ibid.). Sometime later, one of the Jesuits returned to his cell late. It was already dark, but he noticed some movement right next to the unfortunate holes (Radio Malbork 90,4 2020). Curious as he was, he walked closer (Ibid.). Then he saw the ghostly figures of the grand masters emerge from the crypt and like misty clouds heading towards the castle hall (Ibid.). Therefore, it was believed that the souls of the deceased grand masters of the Teutonic order buried in the tombs of the Chapel of St. Anna passed by these openings at night inside castle for ghostly gatherings (Ibid.).

Today, it is believed that to this day, the ghosts leave the basement of the chapel at midnight and go to one of the castle rooms, where they conduct scholarly discussions until dawn (Ibid.).

Trapdoor of Gdanisko

The already mentioned tower Gdanisko was also rebuilt after 1309; it was connected to the Upper Castle with a covered porch built on the arcades and was additionally provided with a drawbridge (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku 2020). In addition to being a tower of the final defence, it was also a toilet with a sanitary function (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Instead of today’s toilet paper, in the toilet cabbage leaves were used, which could also be replaced with hay (Ibid.). It was then possible to hide there not only from the invasion but also use it for a personal and intimate retreat (Ibid.).

Marienburg (1890-1900). General view of the castle from the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle, the bastion of Gdanisko is visible. Unknown author. This image is sourced from the United States Library of Congress, Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It happened, however, it was the very last place seen by some misfortune knights before their death (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The moat near Gdanisko claimed many victims; the inconvenient knights were usually made drunk, and when they went to the toilet to Gdanisko, the trapdoor suddenly opened and they disappeared into the moat (Ibid.).

Middle Castle

The Middle Castle served as the capital of the new monastic state (Bieszk 2010:108). Here were the court residences of the Grand Master and his commander, representative and banquet rooms decorated in a sophisticated way, state offices, a chancellery, archives and central treasury, as well as hotel facilities for guests and the main hospital (Ibid.:108).

Entering the knights’ bedrooms, it can be observed that their beds appear to be quite short (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights, although not tall, slept in a reclining position (Ibid.). They believed that if they were to lie completely on the bed, they would bring death upon themselves, because it was believed that the death only took those who were lying completely in their beds (Ibid.).

Eating and drinking at will

The western wing of the Middle Castle housed the Grand Refectory, the largest knightly banquet hall in the country that could seat up to four hundred knights at the tables (Bieszk 2010:109). It still amazes with its size and brightness (Ibid.:109). The Refectory had a refined palm ceiling supported in the middle on only three main, slender, granite pillars (Ibid.:109). In addition, it had tall stained glass windows and the aforementioned heating system (hypocaustum) (Ibid.:109). Next to it was a kitchen with a huge stove, from which food was delivered (Ibid.:109). Further there was a pantry and food stores (Ibid.:109).

Malbork Castle, High Castle (A) and Middle Castle (B), ground floor plan. Brockhaus, 1892. Uploaded by the User: Topory (2004). Public domain. Source: ”Zamek w Malborku” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Sebald Tharsen summons up the devil

The Teutonic knight, Sebald Tharsen, had no moderation in eating and drinking, and he cursed on every occasion (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). One night, returning to his room after a lavishly drunk supper, he called for a man to take off his shoes (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The servant was asleep, so Sebald began to curse and summoned the devil himself, who appeared immediately, grabbed his boots and pulled them off his legs together with the skin (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The resulting wounds began to suppurate (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). The unfortunate man lived in terrible torment for almost half a year (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). His death became a warning to the other knights (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Sekulada.com 2017). But Sebald’s story apparently did not teach them enough …

Summer Refectory

On the first floor of the Middle Castle there were two most representative halls of the grand masters, where court life took place and official receptions and ceremonial meetings with guests of the Knights took place (Bieszk 2010:110).

The largest of them was the Summer Refectory, considered a wonder of building craftsmanship in the state (Bieszk 2010:110). It had a beautiful, high and extensive palm tree ceiling supported by only one granite column, and two walls filled with large windows with colourful stained glass, giving refined lighting to the room (Ibid.:110). It is worth noting a fragment of a cannonball is stuck in the wall above the fireplace in the Refectory (Ibid.:110). It once belonged to an eighty-kilogram ball from the cannon fired by Polish artillerymen during the siege of Malbork in 1410 (Ibid.:110). There is an interesting story connected with it.

Cannonball above the fireplace

The first information about the unexpected defeat of the Order at Grunwald reached Malbork the day after the battle, on July 16th, 1410 (Bieszk 2010:113). The news of the loss sparked an atmosphere of fear and panic in the castle, where only a small operational crew was stationed (Ibid.:113). The entire elders of the Order had died at Grunwald or fled (Ibid.:113). However, those who survived took control of the situation and the crew of the castle was finally strengthened (Ibid.:113-114). At the end of July, Malbork was besieged by King Władysław Jagiełło along with the Polish-Lithuanian army (Ibid.:113-114).

Chroniclers describe that during the eight-week siege, a traitor was supposed to hang a red flag outside the Summer Refectory’s window, when the survived important representatives of the Order gathered there (Bieszk 2010:114; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At that moment, the traitor gave a signal to those besieging the castle to shoot (Ibid.). The cannonball was supposed to fly into the room and hit the only pillar supporting the entire structure to crash onto the heads of the gathered (Ibid.). The cannonball, however, missed the pillar by six centimetres and hit the wall behind it (Ibid.).

Buried tunnel

Another story came also from the time the castle was besieged. It tells about a pilgriming knight from Jerusalem who was staying in Malbork (Radio Malbork 90,4 (2020). Terrified by the sound of cannon shots, he decided to take a desperate act and ran into the underground corridor against which he had been warned by the knights (Ibid.). The legendary tunnel was supposed to be several meters underground and lead to the town of Nowy Staw, situated eleven kilometres away (Ibid.). For the pilgrim, the tunnel was the only way of escape (Ibid.). However, as soon as he entered the tunnel, it was suddenly blocked by a procession of headless dread knights and other ghosts (Ibid.). Facing the ghosts, the terrified knight finally chose a fight with a living enemy and screamed out of the tunnel (Ibid.). When news of his terrible adventure spread among the Teutonic knights, the tunnel was filled up immediately and now nobody knows where its entrance was (Ibid.).

The castle is a tangible symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order in medieval Europe. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Palace of the Grand Masters

The multi-storey Palace of the Grand Masters was built in the second half of the fourteenth century by adding it to the south-west part of the Upper Castle wing, from the river side (Bieszk 2010:110). At that time, the monastic state was at the height of its economic and military power, and the Grand Master was equal to the European rulers (Ibid.:110). Thus the architecture, silhouette and interior design of the palace corresponded to the contemporary requirements of royal residences (Ibid.:110).

Low Castle and barbican

Built in the first half of the fourteenth century, the Low Castle lies behind the moat of the Middle Castle (Bieszk 2010:111). It was the largest part of the rectangular castle and played the role of economic, production and commercial centre of the state (Ibid.:111).

Asinus. Source: Stary Malbork.pl (2007) “Plan of the Malbork castle” with the barbican on the other side of the River Nougat. In: Skyscraper.

Also in the first half of the fourteenth century, on the other side of the Nougat, at the bridge, a barbican was built (Bieszk 2010:113). It was an octagonal fortified complex made of brick but on stone foundations, and adapted to firearms (Ibid.:113). The walls were surrounded by a moat fed with river water (Ibid.:113). The entrance to the bridge led through the middle of the barbican (Ibid.:113).

Malbork in the hands of the Polish Crown

After the victory of the Battle of Grunwald, but the unsuccessful siege of Malbork by the Polish army in 1410, the castle finally was sold by mercenary troops to the Polish Crown in 1457, during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492), and belonged to the Polish Crown until the First Partition of Poland in 1772 (Bieszk 2010:115). In this way, the castle became a Polish royal residence by the Baltic Sea, a great arsenal of the commonwealth in this region and a storage of food. Its strategic importance was difficult to overestimate (Ibid.:115).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen being defeated and killed in the Battle of Grunwald (1410). Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja”. In: Film Interia.pl.

Ghost Castle Night Tour

We had just walked kilometres to visit the castle. Before saying ‘goodbye’, our English speaking guide invited us for a Ghost Castle Night Tour that usually happens regularly in summer. I had heard it was worth taking part in. Firstly, night time with pale lights illuminating the castle builds up an eerie atmosphere around it. Then, we could get familiar with most haunted spots in the complex, and finally, there are additional attractions in the form of disguised actors who play wandering ghosts of Teutonic knights. Their sudden appearance on the visitors’ way must be a really creepy experience …

Taking a break by the Malbork Castle. Its edifice is huge! Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Haunted castle

One of the largest fortresses of medieval Europe, Malbork, holds a great haunting potential (Paulina 2017). There is enough space in the castle for the ghosts of several Teutonic masters to wail at the same time without getting in each other’s way (Ibid.). It is common, for example, to see two knights with their heads under their armpits guarding the entrance to the secret room (WP Turystyka 2018). They apparently had lost the heads in the battle (Ibid.). As ghosts, they must guard the hidden Teutonic treasures (Ibid.). Apparently they were once accompanied by a headless horse (Ibid.). It is said that once a year, on New Year’s Eve, it runs out of the underground tunnel and gallops around the castle three times, finally returning to the depths of a secret chamber for the next twelve months (Ibid.). Mostly haunted are underground dungeons (Ibid.). There is also a secret corridor that dogs are afraid to walk through (Ibid.).

Wooden staircase to the morgue

Nevertheless, the most hunted is a modest, wooden spiral staircase in this entire bricked jungle (Paulina 2017). Unfortunately, it cannot be accessed by “ordinary” tourists (Ibid.). Noisy sounds like of a falling man’s body was clearly heard several times on the stairs (Ibid.). Even when the alley with the steps was illuminated, the ghosts did not stop making noise and materializing in this place (Ibid.). After examination of the place, it turned out that in the times of the Teutonic Knights, fatal stairs led to the morgue (Ibid.). The corpses of knights carried along the steps could have been accidentally dropped, not to mention some parts of their metal and heavy armour (Ibid.). Hence the loud, ghostly noises (Ibid.).

There are many legends about the Malbork castle. It is to explore it as well at night … with ghosts. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Ghost by the Golden Gate

In the Malbork castle there is one more haunted place but silent for a change (Paulina 2017). An aggressive ghost lurks near the Golden Gate, through which one enters the castle church (Ibid.). The mysterious figure jumps out of the shadows, catches a passing man from behind and clenches his bony hands around his neck (Ibid.). It disappears before the defending victim has time to break free and examine what actually has happened; there is nobody around but red fingerprints on the victim’s body (Ibid.).

Castle by the Nougat

In spite of the fact, the night tour was highly tempting to us, we were just exhausted. After one week of chilling out on the Hel Peninsula, the sightseeing day in Malkbork seemed particularly intensive. Moreover, the summer heat was much more felt here than by the Baltic Sea, where we were exposed to a pleasant cooling breeze rippling through the body. As much as we were tired, we were also starving. This is why, we left the walls of the castle and passed over the bridge to the opposite side of the Nougat, where the barbican stood in the past. To our joy and relief, we found there a very special restaurant with a stunning view of the castle and river. It was actually a boat transformed into a quite original, though expensive restaurant. ‘Once a time, we can afford it’, I thought. Anyway, we were too hungry to look for something different further from the complex. Moreover, the view from the boat fully rewarded us a high bill.

The Courtyard of the Malbork Castle astonishes with its size and majesty. Photo by Erwin Bauer (2015). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

Before our dinner was served, we were enjoying the sight of the red massive towers and walls gracefully reflected in the river; their wrinkled images intertwined with the colours of sunset. After the last World War, many years of reconstruction works were undertaken, preserving the historical shape of the castle (Bieszk 2010:116). The renovation of the entire medieval complex was carefully carried out with the participation of outstanding specialists in many fields, and the works are only now coming slowly to an end (Ibid.:116). In 1997, the complex of Malbork was entered on the UNESCO list (Ibid.:117).

Exemplifying the Middle Ages of Poland

The imposing silhouette of the castle became a symbol of the power of the Teutonic Order (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). In its heyday, hardly a few contemporary strongholds could match its artistry and majesty. This was also appreciated by filmmakers, who made many productions at the castle (Ibid.:174). In the complex, it is also worth visiting the halls displaying collections of amber from the Baltic Sea, armour, weapons and rich archaeological finds (Ibid.:174).

The castle of Malbork brings the spirit of the Middle Ages back in time to its international visitors and gives them an invaluable insight into a rather complex history of Poland in the time of its continuous military struggles, the change of ruling dynasty, and also the country’s mighty and victorious achievements, including architecture and art.

Sienkiewicz’s character, Fulko de Lorche, a Lorraine knight who comes to Poland with the intention of fighting pagans beside the Teutonic knights, after discovering the real “face” of the Order, accurately concludes the contemporary situation: ‘Your life in Poland is more difficult and entangled than I thought in Lorraine’.[1]

Malbork Castle welcomes visitors from the whole world. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). Source: Free images at Pixabay.

[1] The phrase comes from the script of the Polish film, Knights of the Teutonic Order (the original title in Polish: Krzyżacy), 1960, directed by Aleksander Ford. based on the novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Featured image: The Gothic silhouette of the castle in Malbork by the River Nougat. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan (2016). 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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Bieszk J. (2010) Zamki Państwa Krzyżackiego w Polsce. Warszawa: Bellona.

Chabińska-Ilchanka E., Dylewska K., Horecka K., Jaskulski M., Kastelik M. M., Łatka M., Ressel E., Willman A., Żywczak K. (2015). Niezwykłe miejsca świata. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo SBM Sp. zo.o.

East News/POLFILM (2018). “’Krzyżacy’: pierwsza historyczna superprodukcja” (photos: 1, 2, 3, 7). In: Film Interia.pl. Available at <https://bit.ly/36KPfuU>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

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Radio Malbork 90,4 (2020). “Legendy Malborka i Żuław. Audycja Pedagogicznej Biblioteki w Malborku”. In: Radio Malbork 90,4. Available at <https://bit.ly/33Lj1hf>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

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u_gy45h2iz (2019). Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lTWXYe>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

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WP Turystyka (2018). “Zamek w Malborku”. In: WP Turystyka. Available at <https://bit.ly/2JKM9y9>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Rock-Cut Tomb of a Hero in the City of Tlos

The following week, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye, in Lycian Turkey. After forty minutes of enjoying the bumping off-road, we eventually reached the ruins of an ancient city of Tlos, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:65).

To see the ancient city of Tlos and its tombs, together with my two little cousins, I joined a daily jeep tour to the second longest gorge in Europe, known as Saklikent, situated approximately fifty kilometres south-east from Fethiye. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In 1838, it was discovered by Sir Charles Fellows (1799-1860), a British archaeologist, famous for his expeditions in Turkey (Bean 1989:65). The settlement of the acropolis is on the hill, which though does not seem very high from the side of a modern town, it rises to almost perpendicular cliffs on the north-east (Ibid.:66). On top of the hill, there is now an unoccupied Turkish castle from the nineteenth century (Ibid.:65-66). Below it, on the hill’s east slope, there are traces of successive constructions, including Lycian remains of the walls and Roman masonry with re-used building material (Ibid.:66). There are also two groups of Lycian tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north (Ibid.:66). In a large open and now cultivated flat space, just at the foot of the hill, there are scattered numerous and various stone elements (Ibid.:66). Some scholars claim these are the remains of the agora (Ibid.:66).

In Tlos, there are two groups of Lycian rock-cut tombs; the first one is just below the summit, whereas the second group stretches towards the north. Among sepulchral architecture, there are also sarcophagi. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, along the west hillside and below the ancient city-wall, there are still visible rows of seats of a stadium, whose originally regular line now is disrupted by a modern installation of walls and a running stream (Bean 1989:66). Nevertheless, such an arrangement of the agora, which apparently used to be situated alongside the stadium, is quite outstanding for ancient Lycian or Greek urban architecture (Ibid.:66). On the east side of the open space, there are remains of a market-building and a large complex of chambers with arched windows (Ibid.:66). To the south-east, there is in turn a baths, called by locals Yedi Kapi (‘Seven Doors’), which apparently refers to the remaining building’s apsidal projection with seven windows (Ibid.:66). To the east of the baths, there is a huge open square, which according to another thesis, should be acknowledged as an actual agora of the city (Ibid.:66-67). To the west of the square there is an Early Byzantine church, and to the east, a large and well-preserved Roman theater, which comes from around the first century A.D. or even earlier (Ibid.:67).

The city of Tlos

The city of Tlos is very ancient, as it had already been mentioned in the Hittite records of the fourteenth century BC., under the name of Dalawa, situated in the occupied by the Hittites territory of Lukka (Bean 1989:65).

Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just a Lycian hero, Bellerophon, and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Simultaneously, it was called Tlawa by the Lycians themselves, for whom it was one of the six principial cities in their lands (Bean 1989:65). When it was incorporated into the Province of the Roman Empire, it was known as ‘a very brilliant metropolis of the Lycian nation’, and in the Christian times, under the Byzantine Empire, Tlos was granted with its own episcopate as a part of the metropolitan of Myra (Ibid.:65). Nonetheless, the city was hardly mentioned by ancient writers, except for few notes given by contemporary geographers or two historic incidents occurring there, recorded in inscriptions (Ibid.:65). The latter also tell that ancient citizens of Tlos were divided into at least three demes (a political division of Attica in ancient Greece), which were named after famous Lycian heroes, such as Iobates, Sarpedon or Bellerophon (Ibid.:65).

Bellerophon and his Pegasus

According to myths, the site is strongly associated  especially with one of Lycian heroes, Bellerophon, from whom the early rulers of the Tlos claimed to descend (Miszczak 2009). This famous mythological figure is best known as a great rider who managed to tame and ride Pegasus (Ibid.). Pegasus was a winged steed miraculously brought to life; namely, it had jumped out of the neck of Medusa after Perseus cut off her head (Ibid.). Bellerophon mounted Pegasus with the help of the goddess Athena and her magical bridle (Ibid.). Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he lost gods’ favour, when he tried to reach the summit of Olympus on his Pegasus (Ibid.).

The so-called Tomb of Bellerophon (on the left) is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name. Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Bellerophon was worshiped as a hero in Lycia, especially in Tlos, where he was also believed to have lived in the fourth century BC., and where he was said to have eventually been buried (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:68). Legend says that one of the greatest tombs in the necropolis of Tlos was built just  for him and that it was dedicated by citizens of Lycia (Miszczak 2009). Archaeologists, in turn, have never supposed that the tomb belonged to Bellerophon himself (Bean 1989:68). As a matter of fact, the grave is anonymous as there is no inscription revealing its owner’s name (Ibid.:68). The only thing referring there directly to the hero is a relief depicting Bellerophon flying on Pegasus (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67-68).

Typical temple – tomb of Lycia

Among all the tombs cut in the acropolis hillside, the so-called Tomb of Bellerophon is also the greatest and most significant, which can suggest it was prepared for someone important, almost as much as the mythological hero (Bean 1989:67). Dating from the first half of the fourth century BC., the tomb is located low down, on the north side of the cliff (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:67).

Lycian tombs of different categories in Tlos, Turkey. In the foreground, there are sarcophagi, whereas in the background house-tombs are carved high up in the rock. Apart from those, the most outstanding of all tombs in Tlos is the one cut in the rock as a temple-tomb. Photo by Nikodem Nijaki (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image modified. Photo source: “Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons.

Like in the case of the Tomb of Amyntas in ancient Telmessus (Fethiye), the Tomb of Bellerophon also falls into the temple-tomb category (Ibid.:67). It has got two squared pilasters in antis, with Ionic capitals and a pediment above them (Ibid.:67). Inside the porch, the front wall is articulated into three parts; on either side of the imitated stone doorway with studs and decorations, there are two real side-doors raised almost one metre above the threshold blocks; they lead directly to grave-chambers (Ibid.:67-68). The left-hand door opens to a chamber with four benches for the corpses; the one on the right additionally features a stone pillow for the dead’s head, alongside the niche for offerings (Ibid.:68). Most likely it was the bench reserved for the principal member of the family (Ibid.:68). The door on the right leads, in turn, to a smaller funeral room, equipped only with three benches (Ibid.:68).

Reliefs and a mystery of their mutual connections

The most important of all features of the tomb is, however, the mentioned above relief representing Bellerophon. It is situated on the left-side of the upper part of the front wall of the porch (Bean 1989:67). The hero is riding a flying Pegasus while rising his left arm (Ibid.:67). The rider and his steed are facing right, towards another relief, positioned above the left-hand side door (Ibid.:67). The latter shows a feline-like animal, a lion or leopard, facing left, towards the coming hero (Ibid.:67). At first sight, the position of the both reliefs suggests that they are related, and some scholars interpret them as two components of the same mythological scene; according to a Greek myth, Bellerophon fights against and slays a monster, Chimera, after she devastates Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:67-68; The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021).

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC. Photo by Marsyas (2005). Uploaded in 2020. CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Bellerophon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The myth of Chimarea is also strongly associated with another site in ancient Lycia, namely the Mount Chimaera, which is often localized in Yanartaş , in geothermically active region with naturally burning flames (“Yanartaş” 2021; “Mount Chimaera” 2021). “It has been suggested that the fires are the inspiration for the fire-breathing Chimarea in Homer’s Iliad” (“Yanartaş” 2021). Nevertheless, George E. Bean assumes “that the original location of the ancient Mount Chimarea was further west, as cited by Strabo, at a location where similar fires burned” (Ibid.).

Chimarea is usually described as a fire-breathing female hybrid, composed of parts of such animals as a lion, a goat and a dragon (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica 2021). Nonetheless, the relief representing the feline does not resemble the mythological hybrid at all (Bean 1989:68). What is more, the both representations are shown in a different scale, which may be against the thesis that they belong to the same narrative (Ibid.:68). The relief showing the lion-like animal may be rather related to two other reliefs of the tomb, each appearing on the threshold blocks below the two side-doors, which also represent animals, interpreted either as horses or dogs (Ibid.:67).

Just passing by history

Tlos was just a short stop on our way to the gorge of Saklikent and, unfortunately, I did not have enough time to explore it properly. My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. But I was able to capture their attention just for a while; as children usually do, they got bored quickly with the crumbles of stone and wanted to move on. Fortunately, I came back to the site years later on a proper study trip to Tlos.

My little cousins curiously listened to the story of Bellerophon, his winged horse, Pegasus and flying mermaids, crouching at the tombs in order to transport souls of the dead into the afterlife. Yet, it was just a short stop at the Lycian history. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the time of my first visit to this ancient site, it was more like a relaxing tour with a brief meeting with the Lycian past, just before jumping into the icy cold blue water of Saklikent and exploring the beauty of the canyon.

Featured image: The ancient city of Tlos towering over the area, believed to have been one of the most important religious city of Lycia. Over its ancient remains, there is a Turkish castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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


“Bellerophon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3sa1V66>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Lycian tombs in Tlos” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3jqJMk3>. [Accessed on 25th June, 2021].

“Mount Chimaera” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wKpFBr>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Tlos” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d64v8X>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

“Yanartaş” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3t70B5f>. [Accessed on 10th April, 2021].

Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Miszczak I. (2009). ”Dzieje Licyjczyków”. In: Miszczak I., Miszczak J. Turcja w sandałach. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kVybIh>. [Accessed on 8th March, 2021].

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2021). “Chimera. Greek mythology”. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at <https://bit.ly/391nAqy>. [Accessed on 20th March, 2021].