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On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar

Yesterday we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Algeciras in Andalucía (South of Spain) to the port of Tanger-Med, in Alcazarseguir (Morocco), fifty kilometres away from Tangier. The crossing took us one hour and a half by ferry. As soon as I put my foot on Moroccan land, I felt the difference between European and African way of welcoming.

In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Together with my suitcase I was thrown into a chaotic whirlwind of events, full of noise, hustle and bustle, and calls of touts, offering their baggage and transport services, of course for an appropriate fee. Were it not for my determination and calm, my suitcase would inevitably be grabbed by one of them and carried with me to a pre-arranged taxi. My thoughts calmed down only in a hotel in Tangier, where I stayed with my younger sister, Agnieszka and my cousin, Alicja.

Tiled alcove in Tangier

Later on the same day, we all headed off to the city’s old town, Medina. First, we came across Grand Socco, surrounded by shops and small restaurants, where women were selling circle loaves of delicious bread, and hooded men were meeting in an irregular square (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:117). From there, we walked through the keyhole gate to Medina and ended up in a world of 1000 and 1 nights (Ibid.:117). Intensive colours of the facades of the old towns’ houses and the Moroccan vegetation were already beautifully rendered by the painter Matisse, who stayed in Morocco and admired Tangier in 1912 (Ibid.:116). The high walls and the stepped streets of the Kasbah sparkled with colours of the facades and wall paintings of a diverse and refined character, both decorative and narrative (Ibid.:117).

An intricately tiled and carved alcove (a recess in the wall) at Kasbah in Tangier. Today, its refined art is a famous landmark of the city. In a narrow street in Medina of Asilah. The walls are decorated with various colorful murals. Here a long wave of a multicoloured frieze. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was especially delighted with an intricately made alcove at Kasbah, which was tiled with ornate mixture of blue, green, yellow and orange tiles, and decorated with stone carvings.

Blue-washed Chefchaouen and colourful Asilah

We experienced such an intense sensations of colours and shapes only in Andalusia, we had just come from, and in two other cities in the north of Morocco. It was when I walked along the narrow lanes of Chefchaouen, with its washed colours of walls and houses, covered in multiple layers of white plaster and bright blue paint, and its roofs with red tiles, outstanding vividly against the background of cold shades (Lonely Planet 2021). On the other side, Asilah, a town south of Tangier, is one of typical Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, which attracts various artists like a magnet (Stannard, Keohane. et al. 2009:130-131,146). Fragrant citrus trees grow along its streets, fish taverns put small wooden tables outside, and the walled Medina shines with the white facades of numerous houses, which are additionally enlivened by colorful murals (Ibid.:145-146). Some building are painted in various shades of colours so that the narrow streets and passages create a real rainbow.

Chefchaouen,is a city in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco, which is famous for its picturesque, blue-washed buildings of the old town, Medina. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it soon turned out, this part of the world is not only welcoming to artists and tourists with its colourful atmosphere but also to visitors, who are eager to step in an archaeological mystery and listen to ancient legends and myths.

Towards Cap Spartel

The following day, we travelled westwards, along the Atlantic coast. The beautiful Cap Spartel, situated fifteen minutes west of Tangier, offers great long sandy beaches on the most north-western point in Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019:no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). When the wind blows from the east, it gives holidaymakers better protection from its unpleasant gusts (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; Peters 2019).

Relaxing moments at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This “extraordinary cape […] wraps around the north-western edge of Africa. From [there, it is] possible to see [how] different waters of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean mingle” (Peters 2019: no page provided). The most interesting road to the headland is Mountain Road, leading next to exclusive properties belonging to the Moroccan royal family and the residence of the ruler of Saudi Arabia (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122). The hill itself is, in the words of Joe Orton (1933-1967), “a replica of the Surrey countryside […] with its winding lanes, foxgloves, huge pink climbing roses, tennis courts and gardens irrigated by sprinkles” (Ibid.:122). Then the road bends near the headland, passing a trail that leads to the Cap Spartel lighthouse, built by foreign diplomats between 1861 and 1864 (the lighthouse marks the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar), and to several bays with sandy beaches and deep turquoise blue sea, each with its own restaurant (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:122; bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Africa in the Grottes d’Hercule

We took the direction of the stunning caves of Hercules (Grottes d’Hercule). They are located just south of the Cap Spartel (Peters 2019: no page provided). The caverns have got two entries or rather openings; one facing the land is an actual entry for coming visitors, created by the local Berbers, who cut stones from the rock (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

One of the openings of the Grottes of Hercules is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, featuring even the island of Madagascar. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The second opening is highly intriguing; looking out towards the Atlantic ocean, it closely resembles the shape of the continent of Africa, while being observed from outside (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Peters 2019: no page provided). Inside the cave, one can see Africa’s mirror image, with its island of Madagascar on the wrong side. Scholars claim it was geologically carved by waves of the sea, whereas others suggest the opening was created by Phoenicians who established their colonies along north-western Africa, in the regions of ancient Maghreb, namely Mauretania and Numidia (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) along with the city of Carthage (Tunisia), developed later in the Carthaginian Empire that existed between the seventh and second centuries BC., when the so-called Punic Wars took place (bctermeulen et al. 2021).

Past and modern guests to the caves

Nonetheless, the caves had been already inhabited since prehistoric times (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123). Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer (the first half of the first century AD) living on the Bay of Gibraltar, wrote of the caves as of great antiquity already in his time (Du Pouget 1892:33). Undeniably,  the caves have revealed numerous traces of human activity in Stone Age; researchers have found there a great amount of worked flints, such as knives and arrow-heads (Ibid.:33). As a popular story goes, the caves constitutes the one end of a twenty-four kilometres subterranean tunnel between Morocco and Spain; it is so believed that the renowned macaque monkeys at the rock of Gibraltar came to Europe from Africa just this way (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020).

Although there has never been any trace of the monkeys inside the caves, once the cavities were surely used to organize receptions; it was there that an English photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton, threw a party, during which his guests were served hashish and sea-chilled champagne (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:123).

Stepping into ancient myths

When we were approaching the entry of the caverns, we first encountered typical stalls offering souvenirs to tourists on the terrace (Peters 2019:no page provided). Then I noticed a comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs.

A comic, though charming mural on the rock, representing a smiling and bearded Hercules, who looks like a packed bully with highlighted washboard abs, overhang on skinny legs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Once in the cave, it is important “to look up to see where locals have carved out round stones from the cave walls, used for milling grain, for generations” (Peters 2019:no page provided). But what I like most about the place is that the cave complex is surrounded by ancient myths and legends. (bctermeulen et al. 2021). It is rumoured that the site was the resting place of Hercules (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021). According to some versions, the hero took a nap there either before or just after he completed his eleventh of the twelfth labours, given to him by King Eurystheus of Tiryns (Peters 2019: no page provided; bctermeulen et al. 2021; Odyssey Traveller 2020). The task in question was to retrieve the golden apples from the garden of Hesperides, who were Atlas’s daughters, assigned to look after the tree and protect their apples (Odyssey Traveller 2020). The fruits were not valuable just because they were of gold but because their flesh could bestow eternal youth on humans who ate them (Ibid.). After ancient writers, the garden with the golden apples may have existed in nearby Roman city of Lixus, which is the modern day city of Larache at the Atlantic coast (88,5 kilometres south of Tangier) (bctermeulen et al. 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

Inside the caverns, there are visible oval or round cut shapes, protruding from the walls; accounts say it is the effect of the rock being carved out by locals, who have used it for milling grain. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The ancient city had been founded by the Phoenicians, around 1100 BC., as one of the first of their colonies and trade centres in Northwest Africa (Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:147). Apart from a few megalithic stones built into the citadel, only sparse remnants of the pre-Roman period have survived, and apart from the Roman mosaic representing Oceanus, most of the finds were transferred to the museum in Tetouan (Ibid.:148).

Pillars of Hercules

The former BBC North Africa correspondent and author, Richard Hamilton describes the route that the hero took to accomplish this impossible task; accordingly, “[he] travelled [first] to the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains to find the garden and tricked Atlas himself […] into giving him the apples” (Odyssey Traveller 2020). A Roman version adds that while Hercules (or rather Heracles) “was on his way to the garden, he found he had to cross a mountain, [which, however, blocked [his way. Thus], using his superhuman strength, Hercules smashed through the mountain, splitting its rocky face in half and separating Europe and Africa. This was how the Strait of Gibraltar was born and the reminders of this act can be found in the Rock of Gibraltar and the Jebel Musa, east of Tangier” (Ibid.).

Yet, according to a Greek version of the myth, the Strait of Gibraltar should be rather ascribed to the tenth labour of Hercules, which was to steal the cattle of the three-bodied and three-headed giant, Geryon (Perseus digital library 2021). The giant is believed to have lived on an island Erythia, which was located in the proximity of the border line between Europe and Libya (Ibid.). Geryon kept there a herd of red cattle guarded by a two-headed hound, called Orthus (Cerberus’s brother) and another giant, the herdsman Eurytion (Ibid.). When Hercules finally reached the island, possibly to mark the track of his long journey, he erected there two enormous mountains, the first one in Europe and the second in Libya (Ibid.).

The photo I bought from one of the souvenir sellers, offering such to tourists in front of the Caverns of Hercules. The photo represents the African outlines of the opening facing the Atlantic Ocean with a Moroccan man standing on the cliff, in the background, and wearing a traditional djellaba with a baggy hood called a qob. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another story, parallel to the Roman version above, says that Hercules encountered a massive mountain in his way and so he split it into two (Perseus digital library 2021). Either way, these two peaks or the parts of the previous mountain became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules and the strait between Spain and Morocco became the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, referred to by numerous ancient writes as the feat of Hercules (Ibid.). Moreover, according to ancient accounts, the mythological landscape of the Mediterranean may have differed at the time of Hercules from what is observed nowadays and so there was a mountainous landmass between modern day Spain and Morocco in the time of the events described by myths.

Giants in the way of the hero

It is also worth mentioning that Atlas himself was one of the leading titans, which stand for giants in the Greek mythology. He was actually the son of the titans, Clymene (or Asia) and Iapetus (“Titanomachy” 2021). After the Titanomachy (the war of gods) Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the sky on his back and herby he is usually represented in art (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). The Greek poet Hesiod writes (between 750 and 650 BC) that Atlas stood at the edge of the world in extreme west, which immediately brings to mind the northwest Africa (modern Morocco) (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, Atlas had become associated with this particular region over time; he is a reputed father of the nymphs, Hesperides, who guarded the golden apples beyond seawaters in the extreme west of the world (Hesiod’s Theogony, c. 700 BC) (Ibid.). Therefore, Atlas also appears in the myth of the eleventh labour of Hercules, while the hero travels around the region of northwest Africa in search of Hesperides’ Garden (Ibid.).

The north-western coast of Morocco with Cape Spartel; from there one can observe how waters of various shades of blue mingle between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The extreme west of the world was also a dwelling place of the Gorgons who lived in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea, which may, in turn, correspond to the islands of Cape Verde due to Phoenician exploration (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). After killing one of the Gorgones named Medusa, another demigod, Perseus flew over the region and used the chopped head to turn Atlas into a mountain range (Ibid.). Accordingly, “Atlas’ head [became] the peak, his shoulders ridges and his hair woods” (Ibid.). Additionally, the blood of Medusa’s head dropping down the ground during Perseus’ flight over the region gave rise to venomous Libyan snakes (Ibid.). Consequently, Atlas became commonly identified with the range of mountains in northwest Africa and by the time of the Roman Empire, associating the Titan’s’ seat with the range of Atlas Mountains, which were near ancient Mauretania and Numidia, was strongly established (Ibid.).

The Titan and the King

In Plato’s Timaeus-Critias (the fifth century BC.) Atlas is described as the firstborn son of the god Poseidon (the titan Atlas’ cousin) and the mortal woman, Cleito, who inherited the crown of Atlantis (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021). Additionally, Atlas described by Plato was possibly the same individual as the recorded first legendary king of Mauretania (Ibid.), which supports the thesis the real island of Atlantis may have been located in the Eye of Africa (Richat structure), beyond the Pillars of Hercules and in modern-day Mauritania (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

The mixture of various colours on the walls of the city of Asilah. The very same concept also appears in the old town of Tangier. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hence, it seems there were more than one character bearing the same name: Atlas the Titan and Atlas, the demigod and king. Although both were relatives (Atlas the Titan was Poseidon’s cousin), it seems that the heroes named ‘Atlas’ have often been confused, even in ancient times. For example, the works of Diodorus of Sicily (the first century BC.) and Eusebius Pamphili (the fourth century AD.) give an Atlantean account of Atlas, where his parents are titans, Uranus and Gaia (Poseidon and Atlas’ grandfathers) (“Atlas (mythology)” 2021).

Antaeus contra Hercules

Another son of Poseidon that Hercules met in his way to a successful accomplishment of his eleventh task was Antaeus, who also existed among the ranks of mythical giants living in northwest Africa and became especially associated with Tangier (Greek Mythology.com 1997-2020). Some sources add that Antaeus was Atlas’s son-in-law, married to his daughter Tinjis.

Painting: Hercules fighting with Anteus by “Spanish Caravaggio”, Francisco de Zurbarán (the seventeenth century). Public domain. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

But the most important relative of the giant was actually his divine mother, Gaia (earth), from whom he drew his enormous strength, namely, nobody could defeat him while he was touching the ground (Greek Mythology.com 1997-2020). Antaeus is said to have dwelled in Libya, where he challenged humans who were passing by his lands to wrestling competitions, which he naturally always won (Ibid.). Having killed his unfortunate opponents, Antaeus used their skulls for a construction of a temple dedicated to his father, Poseidon (Ibid.). The giant equally challenged Hercules, who was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides for the golden apples (Ibid.). After understanding the mystery of Antaeus’ strength, the hero grabbed the giant in a bearhug, lifted him above the ground and consequently strangled in his fatal embrace (Ibid.).

Was Hercules a giant?

The scene of the fight between Antaeus and Hercules often appears in modern art, where the height of Hercules usually matches the height of the giant. Is it just an artistic interpretation or was Hercules a giant as well? Or maybe by these means, artists would like to metaphorically equalize Hercules’ strength with that possessed by giants or suggest that giants actually were of the size of humans, even such supernatural as Hercules? According to the myth, Hercules was the son of a mortal woman, Alcmene, and the god Zeus (Poseidon’s brother) (Grieco 2019).

Therefore, he was a hyperbion – a demigod superior to other men in his supernatural physical strength and courage, as much as other half-gods were, like Perseus, Theseus, or Achilles, who although was born of a mortal father, had a divine mother who was a sea nymph, Thetis (Grieco 2019). Yet, none of them is described as a giant, that is to say, belonging to any recorded race of giants, contrary to some offspring being a result of an intercourse between gods and divine females or goddesses (Ibid.). The Titans’ (Atlas, Antaeus and Geryon’s) fathers were gods and their mothers were not mortal women but goddesses, giantesses or nymphs (naiads), namely, Clymene (or Asia), Gaia and Callirrhoe.

Ex pede Herculem

On the other side, if the term ‘giant’ is considered in the context of a physical size, precisely, the height, it can be concluded that Hercules, along with other demigods, can be regarded as a giant, as he is described much taller than average humans. Unfortunately, no ancient writers give a precise height of mythological heroes, though some took an attempt to estimate it by means of various calculations. One of such experiments is attributed to Pythagoras and concerns Hercules’ height (“Ex pede Herculem” 2019). It is known under a maxim of proportionality: ex pede Herculem, which means ‘from his foot, [we can measure] Hercules’ (Ibid.) Accordingly,

The Artist Moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments, chalk and sepia drawing by Henry Fuseli, 1778-79. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“[the] philosopher Pythagoras reasoned sagaciously and acutely in determining and measuring the hero’s superiority in size and stature. For since it was generally agreed that Hercules paced off the racecourse of the stadium at Pisae, near the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made it six hundred feet long, and since other courses in the land of Greece, constructed later by other men, were indeed six hundred feet in length, but yet were somewhat shorter than that at Olympia, he readily concluded by a process of comparison that the measured length of Hercules’ foot was greater than that of other men in the same proportion as the course at Olympia was longer than the other stadia. Then, having ascertained the size of Hercules’ foot, he made a calculation of the bodily height suited to that measure, based upon the natural proportion of all parts of the body, and thus arrived at the logical conclusion that Hercules was as much taller than other men as the race course at Olympia exceeded the others that had been constructed with the same number of feet.”

Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae (the second century A.D.), translated by John C. Rolfe of the University of Pennsylvania for the Loeb Classical Library, 1927. In: “Ex pede Herculem” (2019).

Pythagoras does not provide a calculated Hercules’ height. He just concludes the hero was much taller than other men. Still it is possible to estimate it basing the mathematician’s calculations on the fact that “the Olympic stadium was about 600 of the demigods shoe lengths, [that is to say, around] 192 meters long [in comparison to the 186 m of the classical stadium]. That gave him approximately a 32 cm foot” (Georgiades 2020). By making further necessary calculations, it can be assumed that Hercules must have been almost 3 metres tall (Ibid.). The same calculations can be successfully applied to other demigods, such as Perseus or Theseus.

Correct or incorrect scale

The size of Hercules can be also judged by his scale in relation to the Nemean Lion that he killed as the first of his twelve labours. The moment of the fight between the hero and the beast is frequently represented by antiques, where Hercules is equal to his opponent, while the animal is standing at its hind legs (Magus 2014). Providing that the lion was twice as the size of a regular lion or a tiger, which is around two metres, Hercules possibly measured up to four metres in height, that is to say, as much as the standing African lion (Ibid.). Similar relation can be observed in the sculpted representation of Gilgamesh holding a lion; by scaling off the lion, which is assumed to be of a normal size, it can be calculated that Gilgamesh was up to five metres tall (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Unless he grasps an African lion, like Hercules does.

Heracles and Antaeus, red-figured krater by Euphronios, 515–510 BC, Louvre (G 103). Hercules (on the left) is visibly smaller in scale than the giant, the difference does not seem significant, though. In scale it is possibly 4 metres to 8, providing that Hercules was around 4 metres .At the same, Plutarch records that Antaeus was 27 metres, so the difference the giant must have been nearly seven times taller than Hercules. Uploaded in 2007. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These are, however, pure speculations as artistic interpretations may not be consistent with the reality. The same concerns the scene of the wresting between Hercules and the giant, Antaeus. Contrary to modern paintings or sculpture, ancient Greek artists represented Antaeus exceeding Hercules in height, yet by hardly a few cubits (cf. Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). That, in turn, does not match the height of Antaeus, given by an ancient historian, Plutarch (the turn of the second century AD.), according to whom, the giant was sixty cubits tall (over twenty-seven metres) (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). However, a Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 – 87 BC.) reveals that the historian simply copied the information concerning Antaeus’ stature from the tale of another Roman general, Aulus Gabinius (101-47 BC.), which, in turn, does not add any credibility to the story (Ibid.:13).

Coming back to the question: “who were the Nephilim?

If Greek gods had truly been fallen angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many alternative scholars suggest, the above conclusions would rather suggest that Genesis Chapter 6:1-4 actually means that “when the sons of God (Greek gods) went to the daughters of humans”, the giants had already dwelled on the earth, before and after the fallen angels appeared down there (Gentry 2019). As a professor of Old Testament interpretation, Dr Peter Gentry (2019) underlines, the mighty ones (the biblical giants) may have had nothing to do with the fallen angels’ sexual relations with mortal women (“daughters of men”), who gave birth to demigods of supernatural powers, such as Hercules or Perseus, but their offspring may not have been giants but humans of supernatural powers (see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre).

What is more, the verse Genesis 6:4 demythologizes the Nephilim by reading “[these] were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gentry 2019). Simultaneously, the text does not explain who they exactly were and where they came from (Ibid.). Why? After Dr Gentry (2019) the Nephilim were well known to the first readers of the text and there was no need for further explanations. It is a pity, however, the same knowledge was not passed down and preserved to our days. Simultaneously, Dr Gentry (2019) also points out to the fact that one should be very humble while interpreting the verses of Genesis 6:1-4, as they are extremely difficult to be explained straightforward.

Roman conquest of the town of Tingis

In addition to myths, the evidence for the existence of giants in Northwest Africa is also brought up by the mentioned above second-hand account, given by the Greek historian Plutarch. Although it may be not reliable, it relates the actual conquest of the town of Tingi (Tingis) in north-western Africa by the Roman general Quintus Sertorius during the Punic Wars, in the first century BC. (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The town was also referred to as Tenga, Tinga or Titga in Greek and Roman records but today is known as Tangier in Morocco (“Tangier” 2021).

Are these fingerprints of the divine heroes, left behind on the walls of Asilah? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As one story goes, at that time, the town was a pilgrimage site of the tomb of the giant Antaeus, the same who had been killed by Hercules (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). It was also a tourist attraction for ancient visitors as much as or even more attracting than the Caves of Hercules are today (Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tangier” 2021). As Plutarch writes, Quintus broke open the tomb of the venerated giant and found there its gigantic skeleton (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The historian also describes the general’s reaction at the sight of the peculiar remains inside the tomb; at that time, the bloodlines of the giants had gradually diminished over the centuries and giants were not simply met in the street (Ibid.).

But how great was his surprise when, […] he beheld a body sixty cubits long [over twenty-seven metres]. He immediately offered sacrifices, and closed up the tomb; thus adding considerably to the respect and reputation which it had previously possessed.

Plutarch, Langhorne (1826), pp. 12-13.

City in honour of the widow of the giant

The Greeks knew ancient Tangier as Tingis, “which may have originated from the mythological name of Tinjis, [a] daughter of Atlas and widow of Antaeus, the giant” (“Tangier” 2021).

Exploring the famous Asilah murals. Colourful paintings naturally add to the city a more chilled out ambiance. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is also believed that after killing Antaeus, Hercules made the widow his consort (Plutarch, Langhorne 1826:13). As a result, Tinjis gave birth to Hercules’ son, called Syphax, who reigned over the region Plutarch, (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). After Tinjis’ death, her son also established the port and named it Tinjis in her honour (Langhorne 1826:13; “Tangier” 2021). Actually, the city of Tangier was founded by Phoenicians at the beginning of the first millennium BC., as one of their African colonies, and as such it preserved for long its Phoenician traditions, and the gigantic skeleton was also called Phoenician (“Tangier” 2021; Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Who were the Phoenicians?

The first Phoenician city-states had emerged in the late Bronze Age, that is to say, at the end of the thirteenth century BC., in what is now southern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-9). But one of the main features of the Phoenician civilization is the phenomenon of colonization (Ibid.:23); they were unrivalled seafarers of the ancient ages, who mastered the navigation through the seas and oceans, even beyond the contemporary world (Quayle, Alberino 2017). Already around 1110 BC., the Phoenicians founded the city of Cadiz (Gades or Gadir) on the Iberian Peninsula (Ibid.:10,23), the site Plato mentions as the border between Greek and Atlantean influences (see: Sunk Island in the Sahara Desert).

Warship with two rows of oars, in a relief from Nineveh (c. 700 BC). It could represent one of Phoenician vessels. Photo created in 2005. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The most colonized areas by the Phoenicians were the islands of Cyprus (around tenth century BC.), Sardinia (around ninth century BC.) and Malta (around 800 BC.) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:11-13,23). Also the whole Northwest Africa became an important area colonized by the Phoenicians (Ibid.:23). The founding of the city of Utica (modern-day Tunisia) probably took place in 1101BC, of Lixus in 1110 BC. (Morocco) but the most important city founded in this area by the Phoenicians was actually Carthage (around 814/813 BC) (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:10,12,23; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:148).

The city of Tangier in Morocco was also established in the period, between the tenth and the eighth centuries BC. (“Tangier” 2021). Such a port town, located on the western point of the strait of Gibraltar, must have provided the Phoenicians an undisputed access to the wider Atlantic (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Major Phoenician trade networks and colonies (c. 1200–800 BC.). Drawing by User: Rodrigo (es), User: Reedside (en) (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After Phoenicians, the Carthaginians continued to develop the Tingis, making it an important port of their empire by the fifth century BC. (“Tangier” 2021; Stannard, Keohane et al. 2009:149). Nevertheless, they were not such excellent seafarers as their ancestors, the Phoenicians.

From the Land of Canaan westwards

The history of Phoenicia itself is unknown (Niesiołowski-Spanó, Burdajewicz 2007:8-11). One of the most widely accepted views is that the origins of the Phoenicians should be looked for in the dramatic events in the Mediterranean Basin (turn of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC.) (Ibid.:10-11). The cultural changes and migration of people were intense, peaceful or armed and rapacious (Ibid.:11). This process is known as the invasions of the Sea Peoples (see: Following the Phaistos Spiral of Mystery) (Ibid.:11). The geographic area where the Phoenician culture originally developed constituted an integral part of the land known as Canaan (Ibid.:9). According to the Book of Numbers, the thirteenth century was also the time when, after the death of Moses, one of his spies, Joshua, led the Israelite tribes in the conquest of Canaan (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

The First African Map (Prima Affrice Tabula), depicting Mauretania Tingitana (northern Morocco) and Mauretania Caesariensis (western and central Algeria), from the Ulm Ptolemy. Ptolemy, translated into Latin by Jacobus Angelus – Rare Maps. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Tangier” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to Numbers 13:32-33, races of giants dwelled in that region. Yet with the help of the God, Israelites defeated them (Ibid.). Alternative researchers, Steve Quayle and Timothy Alberino (2017), claim that giants also existed among the Phoenicians, who were partially forced by Israelites to flee from the land of Canaan; they likely regrouped on the island of Sardinia and from there migrated further across the contemporary world. The Jesuit scholar, Antonio Graziani (1620-1684) widely studied the origins of the Nuraghe culture in Sardinia and concluded that its connections to the Canaanites, who settled down there by the ninth century BC., are prominent (Quayle, Alberino 2017). The Greeks referred to these Canaanites as Phoenicians (Ibid.).

Problematic columns

Scholars interpret Phoenicians’ migrations westwards by the fact, they were in need of numerous ports scattered around the contemporary world to develop their oversea trade network. On the other hand, there are early medieval records supporting the thesis that the Phoenicians were pushed to exile from Canaan by the the migrating eastwards peoples of the God, the Israelites (Quayle, Alberino 2017).

Beautiful view of a street in Asilah, with typical Arabic architecture. Different colours of the doors, like green and blue, seem very typical of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the sixth century AD., when Numidia was under the Christian emperor Justinian, a Greek historian, Procopius of Caesarea, claimed that the Canaanites who had built a fortress at Tigisis in Numidia, had also erected there two columns emblazoned with the Punic (the Canaanite, also Phoenician language) inscription (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017), saying:

We are they who fled from before the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Nun.

Procopius of Caesarea, History of the Wars of Justinian 4.10.21-22. In: Graves (2014).

Apart from Procopius, the mysterious inscription cut in the columns is also mentioned by Moses of Khoren, an earlier Armenian historian (the fifth century AD), and by an anonymous Greek historian (ca. 630 AD.) in the Chronicon Paschale (Graves 2014):

The inhabitants of these [islands in the Mediterranean] were Canaanites fleeing from the face of Joshua the son of Nun.

Anonymous Greek historian, Chronicon Paschale. In: Graves (2014).

If the columns or pillars had ever existed, they had already vanished together with their mysterious inscriptions. After Procopius of Caesarea, the columns were standing in Tigisis, in Numidia. Scholars claim that the name of the place can either refer to the ancient town of Tigisis in Numidia (near what is now Aïn el-Bordj, Algeria or to Tingis (Tangier in Morocco) (Graves 2014; Quayle, Alberino 2017; “Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). The former was the seat of a bishopric during the Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine eras, which is when Procopius lived under the rule of Justinian, who made the town fortified (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). There was also another Tigisis in Northwest Africa (today between present-day Dellys and Taourga in Algeria) and it was within the boundaries of Mauretania Caesariensis (“Tigisis in Mauretania” 2018). All of the three potential locations of the columns are anyway located in the region, where Phoenicians were present. What is more, the earliest known source of the inscription comes from the Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, and it is possible he borrowed it from more ancient records.

Nevertheless, most academics agree the passage of the columns are almost certainly hokum, which may have been invented by late antique writes or relied on a local guide’s information, or be a simple compilation of some earlier Jewish tradition (“Tigisis in Numidia” 2020). Bryant G. Wood (2005:98) points out that “It is highly unlikely that the Phoenicians of North Africa would have invented such a demeaning tradition to explain how they came to be in North Africa” (Graves 2014).

Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates

We were drowning in soft poufs in one of the charming cafes of Asilah, hidden in the narrow corridors of the city. Marzipan cone-shaped chocolates, iced coffee, and mint tea had been just served on our round and tiled table. I was so ready to plunge in their sweet and refreshing smell and taste. Yet, in my thoughts a host of sinister giants still marched, claiming their place in history. But there is no history, only the myth remained.

Wandering with a camera in the streets of the Medina in Asilah. I constantly kept taking photos of charming spots in the city I encountered with each taken step. The same atmosphere was also very tangible in Tangier and Chefchaouen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Featured image: As the story goes Africa has been represented in the Grottes d’Hercule either by nature or ancient people (the Phoenicians). 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Atlas (mythology)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Zv65tk>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

“Antaeus” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pEP6jb>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2021].

Ex pede Herculem” (2019). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZCB8Uo>. [Accessed on 21st February, 2021].

“Phoenicia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uniEVZ>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2021].

“Tangier” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qJdnWw>. [Accessed on 20th February, 2021].

“Tigisis in Mauretania” (2018). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pIwBdn>. [Accessed on 20th February, 2021].

“Tigisis in Numidia” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uhrGUu>. [Accessed on 20th February, 2021].

“Titanomachy” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NF23Mr>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

bctermeulen, gabrielfalcao, scoutboy (2021). “Caves of Hercules. Tangier, Morocco”. In: Atlas Obscura. Available at <https://bit.ly/3awwmhm>. [Accessed on 18th February, 2021].

Du Pouget, Jean-François-Albert, marquis de Nadaillac (1892). Manners and Monuments of Prehistoric Peoples. New York&London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Gentry, P. Dr (2019) “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?” In: Southern Seminary. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ujh0KZ>. [Accessed on 8th February, 2020].

Georgiades M. (2020). (Amateur science enthusiast). “How tall was the Greek hero Heracles and Theseus?”. In: Quora. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZHzXCR>. [Accessed on 21st February, 2020].

Graves D. E. Dr (2014). “Bonus 27-Two Inscribed Phoenician Columns”. In: An Introduction with Recent Discoveries that Support the Reliability of the Bible. Biblical Archaeology. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NlANmp>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

Greek Mythology.com (1997-2020). “Antaeus”. In: Greek Mythology.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ucYQob>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

Greek Travel Pages (gtp) (2021). “The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites:Olympia”. Smith W., Yalouris N. eds. In: Greek Travel Pages (gtp). This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press1976. Cited Sep 2002 from Perseus ProjectURL below, which contains 92 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks. Available at <https://bit.ly/2P0FJxx>. [Accessed on 21st February, 2021].

Grieco G. P. (2019). “Was Hercules a giant in Greek mythology?” In: Quora. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qIU6Ev>. [Accessed on 21st February, 2020].

Lonely Planet (2021). “Welcome to Chefchaouen”. In: Lonely Planet. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aDneaU>. [Accessed on 20th February, 2021].

Magus (2014). “How tall was Hercules and how much did he weigh in Greek mythology?” In: Yahoo. Answers. Available at <https://yhoo.it/3kd9EOG>. [Accessed on 21st February, 2021].

Niesiołowski-Spanó Ł., Burdajewicz M. (2007). Mitologie świata: Fenicjanie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

Odyssey Traveller (2020). “Caves of Hercules, Morocco”. In: Odyssey Traveller. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ubfIf1>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

Perseus digital library (2021). “The Cattle of Geryon”. In: Perseus digital library. Ed. Gregory R. Crane. Tufts University. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pCVF5x>. [Accessed on 19th February, 2021].

Peters L. (2019) Moon Morocco. EBOOK / ISBN-13: 9781640491342.

Plutarch, Langhorne, W. and J. (1826). Plutarch’s Lives: Translated from the Original Greek, with Notes Historical and Critical, and a Life of Plutarch, Volume 4. Fourth Edition. London: C. Baldwin Printer, New Bridge-street.

Quayle S., Alberino T. (2017). True Legends – Episode 3: Holocaust of Giants. GenSix Productions.

Stannard D., Keohane A. et al. (2009). Przewodnik ilustrowany: Maroko [Insight Guide Morocco]. Śmietana B., Usakiewicz W. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Berlitz.

Wood Bryant G. (2005). “Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Conquest,” Bible and Spade 18, no. 4.

Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary

We were sitting on the train going across Pomeranian Voivodeship southwards, in the direction of Malbork. It was really hot. Nothing surprising as it was the beginning of August but in Poland the weather is changeable, and you cannot predict it even in summer. One week ago, when I and my sister met with our Austrian friends by the Baltic Sea, it was rather cloudy and then it kept raining for the first two days of our stay. In such an inconvenient outlook, we dedicated our time to short city breaks in Tri-city, which is a metropolitan area in northern Poland (Pomerania) and it includes three major cities, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot, as well as minor towns in the area. We got there and back either by train or by a ferry across the Bay of Puck from the very tip of Hel Peninsula.


The Hel Peninsula from the bird’s eye view. Video source: KolejFilmy (2016) ”Kolej na Hel – Pociągi z lotu ptaka”.

Let’s go to Hel

Once, when I had spent vacations with Kathi and Wolfgang in the Alps, I expressed my idea of going together to ‘Hel’ for summer. For a while they kept looking at me with no hidden surprise, and then probably started analyzing my health condition. When they kept silent, blinking at me, astonished, I realized how my words were misunderstood and I quickly explained. ‘Oh no, not this “Hell”. Another one … You know … It’s one of the best holiday spots in Poland.” When they still did not react. I grabbed my smartphone and googled ‘Hel Peninsula’.

It is a good idea to visit Hel on a bicycle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Wonderful and relaxing time on long, sandy beaches of Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hel (pronounced as the English word “hell”) is actually a town at the ultimate end of Hel Peninsula, a 35-km-long sand bar, covered with thick woods and splashed by deep blue waters of the sea on its both sides (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The Hel Peninsula is one of the most interesting regions of the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020).

In fact, the peninsula should be professionally called the Hel Spit as it is a narrow spit of land that shelters the bay (PoznajKrajTV 2020). Still, it is commonly referred to as a peninsula (Ibid.). The entire Hel Peninsula is unique in its landscape and belongs to the Coastal Landscape Park (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The narrowest is at its base, in the area of the town, Władysławowo, it is only about one hundred meters, while its width at the end, near the town of Hel, where we stayed, is just about three kilometres (Ibid.). So when we look at the map of Poland, it looks like a ‘cow’s tail’ (Ibid.).

As impossible as it sounds we have visited Hel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In some narrow places, the spit is sometimes flooded by storm waves, which  causes stunting of oak trees in these areas (PoznajKrajTV 2020). A railway line and a comfortable road with a bicycle path run through the entire Hel Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Tourists staying there can enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded beaches by the open sea or the beaches located by the Bay of Puck (Ibid.). There are many campsites by the Bay that specialize in servicing windsurfers and kite surfers because there are very good conditions for practicing this sport (Ibid.). Along its Baltic coast, there are some interesting seaside resorts; starting from the mainland, it is Władysławowo, Chałupy, Kuźnica, Jastarnia, Jurata (mostly for the elite), and finally Hel (Ibid.).

Encountering history at each step

Hel is an old Kashubian port town, and a summer resort located at the end of the Peninsula (PółwysepHel.pl 2020; PoznajKrajTV 2020). The port of Hel is not only an excellent base for water sports but mostly for modern history enthusiasts (PółwysepHel.pl 2020). The tip of Peninsula is just scattered with defensive fortifications, such as shotting bunkers or air raid shelters, which had been built especially during the last World War until the 1950s. (PoznajKrajTV 2020).

‘The Hel Peninsula is [also] a cemetery of various types of wrecks from different periods of history’, says Władysław Szarski, director of the Museum of Coastal Defense, located in the town of Hel (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020; see PółwysepHel.pl 2020). Photographer Grzegorz Elmiś has lately found a fragment of a wooden ship with various elements, possibly from the nineteenth century (MAK/gp. Source: TVN24 2020). An undoubted attraction of Hel is additionally the lighthouse, open to the public; climbing to the top will reward its visitors with a picturesque view of the sea and the Hel Peninsula from its summit (PółwysepHel.pl 2020).

From fishing villages to the famous holiday resort

It is difficult to imagine that around four hundred years ago, the Hel Peninsula did not exist at all (PoznajKrajTV 2020). At that time, there were only two islands with fishing villages in the Bay (Ibid.). So how did this wonderful place come about? On the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, there is a coastal sea current that flows from the west towards the east, which keeps accumulating sand in some places, and over the course of hundreds of years had built a large headland, today up to a hundred meters thick, below which there is a chalk rock (Ibid.). There are no freshwater streams in Hel, but there is still much humidity caused by local microclimate (Ibid.).

High concentration of iodine in the air by the Baltic Sea, especially in autumn, and fresh air from oak forests on Hel bring health and relaxation to all the visitors. Depending on the weather in summertime, everybody can enjoy either the sun and endless sandy beaches or a thrilling hunt for amber along the Baltic coast, just after a sudden storm.

For its distinctive climate and long, sandy beaches my friends started to call the place the Polish Caribbean with freshly cold water for swimming. And only Wolfgang was ambitious enough to stay in the water for more than five minutes. Mostly, we spent our time either walking in the forest or cycling along the northern coast, reaching Jurata and Jastarnia. When it was sunny and warm, we bought several types of smoked fish, good Polish bread, and stayed on the empty beach for the whole day. And so we enjoy coastline views, silence and our own company, while building the Giza plateau out of the sand. Sand castles were too ordinary for us …

Coming back in time to the Middle Ages

When our train left the railway station of Hel behind, we promised to come back there in the future. At that time, however, we were going back in time to visit another unique site in Pomerania – the medieval castle of Malbork. Its huge perimeter walls and brick towers can be seen yet from the train which is passing by the city of Malbork, by heading to the north or south of Poland.

Red brick walls of the Gothic Malbork Castle have always made a great impression on visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Castle of Saint Mary’s City

Malbork is a bricked castle, erected on stone foundations (Bieszk 2010:104). It is the largest medieval complex in Europe in terms of the area it occupies, which is over twenty hectares (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It is also one of the finest examples of Gothic defensive and residential architecture in Europe (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the huge complex rises in the northern part of the modern city of Malbork, on the elevated right bank of the Nougat River and is jokingly called “the largest pile of bricks in Europe” because it is estimated that the Teutonic Knights used about three and a half million hand-made and fired bricks to build it (Bieszk 2010:104; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174).

Malbork castle from the bird’s eye view. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

In the Middle Ages, it was called Castrum Sanctae Marienburch, which means the Castle of Saint Mary’s City, and was the most important of over one hundred bricked castles built by the Teutonic Knights in their monastic state within the present borders of Poland (Bieszk 2010:7-8;104; see Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It included the areas of Chełmno, Kuyavian, Dobrzyń, Prussia proper and New Marchia (Bieszk 2010:7). As Janusz Bieszk (2010:7) writes, the so-called Teutonic castles fascinate and attract. Their original architectural shape and unique beauty of the bricked edifice, beautifully blended into the Slavic landscape of towns and villages, make a great impression on visitors even today (Bieszk 2010:7).

Such a range of large castles was a defence system functioning in the Middle Ages in northern Poland, the borders of which were determined by: in the west and south by the castle in Kostrzyn, in the north by the castle in Puck, in the south of central Poland by the castle in Bobrowniki and finally in the east by the castle of Metenburg (Bieszk 2010:7).

Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy)

The castles were to show off the power and influence of the Order and their state in Europe (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). The basis of the economic and political strength of the Teutonic knighthood was an excellent economic organization, which in the mid-fourteenth century led the Knights to their prominent position in the basin of the Baltic Sea (PWN 1997-2020). Constant fights with Lithuania brought the Teutonic Knights international fame and attracted European knights to expeditions, but finally led to the loss of the order’s religious character (Ibid.).

Stanisław Jasiukiewicz as the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen. Shot from the movie “Knights of the Teutonic Order” (”Krzyżacy”), directed by Aleksander Ford (1960). Source: Tele Magzayn. Galeria zdjęć (2020).

Teutonic Knights were popularly called in Polish Krzyżacy, which simply means Knights of the Cross. It was because they wore a large black cross on their white clothes and coats. The official name was much longer, that is to say, the Order of the Hospital of the Holy Virgin Mary of the German House in Jerusalem (Lat.: Ordo fratrum hospitalis sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum) (PWN 1997-2020). Like their more famous counterparts, Templar Knights or Johannites, Teutonic Knights formed a knightly order founded during the crusades to the Holy Land, and so their main task was to take care of pilgrims and the sick and to fight the infidels (Ibid.).

Threat of the black cross

The order was founded in 1190 in Palestine and converted into a knighthood in 1198; it was headed by the Grand Master and  Chapter (PWN 1997-2020). With the beginning of the thirteenth century, Christian forces were slowly retreating from the Holy Land under the Muslims’ pressure, and the Order moved to Europe (Ibid.). After being expelled from Hungary in 1224-1225 for their imperial ambitions, Teutonic Knights came to the Chełmno Land (northern Poland) in 1226, summoned by Konrad I of Mazowiecki to fight pagan Prussia (Ibid.).

In medieval Europe, the black cross caused common terror among people. Today you can dress up as a Teutonic knight when visiting their castle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They conquered it (as it was the Order’s original task) but with time they followed the same aggressively expansive policy as in Hungary, which was not actually difficult to be foreseen (PWN 1997-2020). As a result, they established their own monastic state in the occupied lands, constantly striving to expand their borders at the expense of their neighbours, like the Kingdom of Poland (Ibid.). With each conquered or stolen piece of land, they built a castle to mark there their presence. For this reason, the Teutonic black cross became the symbol of threat and fear instead of Christian service and mercifulness, the Order was originally established for.

Grunwald (1410)

The Teutonic Knights were definitely infamous in medieval Poland for their mischievous deeds, and constantly fought against by Polish kings. In 1308–1309 they occupied Gdańsk in Pomerania, which started the period of long Polish-Teutonic wars; their first stage ended in 1343 with the Kalisz Peace, at the time of Casimir III the Great, who reigned as the King of Poland from 1333 to 1370 (PWN 1997-2020). The threat by the Teutonic Knights of Lithuania became one of the causes of the Polish-Lithuanian union in 1385. In 1409, the Teutonic Knights started the so-called Great War with one of the greatest battle of the Middle Ages (Ibid.).

Two naked swords given to the Polish King Władysław II Jagiello and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas by the heralds of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The handing over of the swords was a symbolic excuse to start the Battle of Grunwald, 1410. In: “Miecze grunwaldzkie”. (2019) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Emil Karewicz as the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło. 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.

The final fight was at Grunwald (Poland) in 1410, where the Teutonic Knights were strongly defeated by the united Polish-Lithuanian forces led by the Polish King, Władysław II Jagiełło (PWN 1997-2020). Like later Azincourt in 1415, Grunwald was one of the greatest battles and turning points in the European history. Since then, the political and economic power of the Order had collapsed (Ibid.). Further wars with Poland in the fifteenth century led to the impoverishment of the population of the Teutonic state and its final secularization in the sixteenth century (Ibid.).

Mischievous knights

In one of his historic novels, Knights of the Teutonic Order (1900) (Krzyżacy) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author describes the Teutonic-Polish tense relations just one decade before Grunwald (1410).

Against the background of significant historical events, Sienkiewicz tells a story of colourful and expressive characters; the tragic love of the heroes is a melodramatic theme, and the fight against the treacherous Teutonic Knights was to raise the spirit of Poles under the partitions (”Krzyżacy (powieść)” 2020). The plot of the novel also takes place at the Malbork castle.

Polish pyramids

The history of Teutonic knights, however, is not the only interesting aspect of the site.

As some Polish researchers state, Poles do not have to leave their country to look for traces of ancient civilizations (Białczyński 2017). There are places in Poland that are not less interesting as Egyptian pyramids or cyclopean constructions in Peru, and there are yet many mysteries in the Polish history waiting to be explained (Ibid.). Some of them concern medieval castles, such as the royal Wawel castle in Kraków or Malbork (Ibid.). Archaeologists presume that the greatest number of medieval constructions was built in our lands from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, of which there are mostly castles founded by Casimir III the Great, another group by the Teutonic Knights, others by minor local princes or families, and also those more legendary, apparently built either by angels or demons (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998).

The Malbork castle’s massive turrets by the Nougat. Photo by Jan Nowak, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Historians agree that castles of stone (mostly in the south-west of Poland) and of brick (in the north-east of the country) had been built since around the end of the tenth century (Christianisation of Poland) (Białczyński 2017; see Matusik, Miszalski 1998). The choice of building material used may be related to its access, as well as the possibility of its transport to the construction site, but may also be related to the level of building technology in a given period (Białczyński 2017).

According to the official history, contemporary inhabitants of the country had a sufficiently good technique to build such a big number of huge buildings in that period (Białczyński 2017). However, some alternative thesis says some of these constructions were re-built on much older stone foundations, that is to say, stone foundations had already been there in the period that is commonly associated with wooden constructions in Poland (Ibid.). Moreover, when looking closely at the Polish strongholds, some of their stone elements should not exist at all according to the official history, as their processing is characterised by a highly advanced technology (Ibid.). Many authors claim that some features of the stones bear similarity to those observed in Egypt or Peru … This theory in a first place concerns medieval castles ascribed to Casimir III the Great, but there are also Teutonic castles known of that phenomenon (Białczyński 2017; Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018).

Alternative history of Poland and of its castles

Famous propagators of such alternative and controversial theories are, among all, an independent historian and author, Janusz Bieszk, and a geologist, Dr. Franc Zalewski. The latter traces down extraordinary aspects of medieval constructions, such as unusual tool marks left on some stone slabs (see Zalewski 2018).

Red silhouette of the castle is full of mysteries. Photo by Krzysztof Karwan, (2016) Free images at Pixabay.

Whereas some of them are exposed in a commonly accessed areas, the major part of such features is hidden in castles’ basements (Zalewski 2018; Tagen TV 2018). In one of his interviews, Janusz Bieszk admits that during his work on Teutonic castles, he was not allowed to go down to the basements to carry on his studies (Tagen TV 2018). Simultaneously, he admits that the Teutonic knights could not have been able to build such a large number of fortifications from the scratch just during a century (Ibid.). He says that the Malbork castle itself, has got peculiar stones incorporated into the bricked walls, which show marks of mechanical tools (Ibid.). At the same time, he admits it is difficult to say without further examination of the site who made them and when (Ibid.). ‘The fact is that most Teutonic castles are set on the ancient foundations’, he assures (Ibid.). ‘When the knights came, they must have built over the ancient remains, using accessible materials such as bricks or stone’ (Ibid.) Similar assumptions are made by Dr. Franc Zalewski regarding Casimir’s castles and the royal Wawel castle with its surroundings (Zalewski 2018).

The courtyard of the castle in Malbork. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is easy to guess, we were not allowed to descend in the undergrounds of the castle as we were just common tourists visiting the complex. I even doubt I would have obtained a permit if I had applied for it as an independent researcher. Maybe such an option would be considered if I worked as a part of an archaeological team on site … Hopefully, such an opportunity will arise in the future. I am also planning to have a tour along the trail of the Eagle’s Nests, where the southwestern stone castles and medieval ruins are located. For the need of the present and rather short visit, we had to rely on an official version of history (see: Red-Bricked Castle of Marienburg on the River Nougat).

Featured image: Almost deserted, long and sandy beaches with predominant silence and cooling breeze are typical of Hel Peninsula, in Poland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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Tagen TV (2018). “Sława Lechii”: interview with Janusz Bieszk. In: Tagen TV. Available at <https://bit.ly/3ggZSZU>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Zalewski F. (2018). ”Na jakich fundamentach budowano Zamki w Polsce? Cykl: Gdy przemawiają kamienie (cz.1)” – lecture. In: Dr. Franc Zalewski. Hidden History Hunter. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Lavnt3>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2020].

Imagery of the Valley of the Moon in Jordan

In the late afternoon, we found ourselves on the threshold of Wadi Rum. Known also as the Valley of the Moon (“Wadi Rum” 2020), this magic land is located in the southern part of Jordan, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, and about forty kilometres east of Aqaba (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265).

Across the desert … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Lawrence from Arabia

Today, Wadi Rum is a home to Jordan Bedouins, who are Arab semi-nomadic people inviting visitors to their fairy-tale kingdom. One of the most famous guests to Wadi Rum was undoubtedly T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935), also known as Lawrence from Arabia (Biography 2014-2015). He was a British military officer and archaeologist greatly involved in Middle Eastern affairs and in the Great Arab Revolt (Ibid.). In the years 1917-1918, Lawrence travelled through Wadi Rum several times describing his enchantment at the entrance into the Valley as follows (“Wadi Rum” 2020):

The portrait of T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935), in Wadi Rum. Also known as Lawrence from Arabia advocated for Arabs’ independence. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles. The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than then body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination.”

Lawrence, T.E. 1935:351

Iram of the pillars

We climbed onto one of the three off-road cars and started our journey through sandy and rocky oranges of the desert. The sun was still hanging high but the night falls there in the nick of time. It automatically brings a sudden cold that replaces the daytime sun heat. In such conditions warm clothes are a must.

In its fascinating past, Wadi Rum must have been inhabited by many various cultures whose distinctive traces are still visible today (“Wadi Rum” 2020).

Piles of stones may hold various meanings. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is likely that it receives its name from Iram of the pillars, which is usually described as a lost city, region or tribe mentioned in the Quran (Ibid.). Cut into the sandstone and granite rock, it includes an area of ​​approximately seventy-four thousand hectares of amazing landscape, distinguished by extraordinary natural and cultural value (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; “Wadi Rum” 2020). The natural environment consists mainly of the typical though stunning desert landscape with a varied topography (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). There are sandy plains, cliffs, gorges and even caves and rocky landslides (Ibid.:265). An interesting diversification of that landscape are natural rock formations in the form of arches, bridges and arcades (Ibid.:265).

Petroglyphs

Within this area, groups of pre-historic petroglyphs have been found at several sites (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). The rock drawings most likely come from twelve thousand years ago and prove the existence of settlement in this desert area since prehistoric times (Ibid.:265). Due to cultural landscape and its natural values, in 2011 the protected area of ​​Wadi Rum was entered on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List (Ibid.:265).

Unidentified animal-like creature on the reddish rock. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Among the rock carvings that were found in Wadi Rum, there are twenty-five thousand figurative representations and twenty thousand characteristic signs looking like inscriptions that could constitute the first attempts to create a writing (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015). The former usually represent people and animals, whereas among the latter, there are North-Arabian scripts: Nabatean, Islamic (Kufic), Arabic and mostly the so-called Thamudic inscriptions (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015; “Wadi Rum” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020).

The Thamud

The Thamud belonged to ancient Arabian tribes occupying the north-western Arabian peninsula between the late eighth century BC and the fourth century AD (“Thamud” 2020). “They are mentioned in contemporary Mesopotamian, Classical, and Arabian sources” (Ibid.). It does not mean, however, all the petroglyphs from Wadi Rum were made by that tribe (“Thamud” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020). Actually, the name Thamudic was invented by nineteenth-century scholars for major part of inscriptions covering a huge area from Syria to Yemen (“Thamudic” 2020). “[Such inscriptions belong to a large group of] Ancient North Arabian (ANA) alphabets which have not yet been properly studied” (Ibid.).

The Nabatean

Many petroglyphs from Wadi Rum, however, are ascribed to Nabateans, an ancient nomadic Arab people who emerged between the fourth and second century BC and held their independence till the annexation of their territory to the Roman Empire in 106 AD (“Nabataeans” 2020). Nabateans are also said to be creators of Petra and although they surely inhabited the site, there is much doubt regarding the original builders of the city. It is, however, another story …

In tranquil and shaded Ain Shalaaleh, on the south side of Wadi Rum, there is the head of a Nabatean rock-cut aqueduct, which is close to Rum village and the remains of the Nabatean temple (Mohammad, “Confusion (….)” 2015).

Typical images of Wadi Rum: animals, humans, enigmatic symbols and inscriptions. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Lawrence wrote that “[on] the rock-bulge above were clear-cut Nabathaean inscriptions, and a sunk panel incised with a monogram or symbol. Around and about were Arab scratches, including tribe-marks, some of which were witnesses of forgotten migrations: but my attention was only for the splashing of water in a crevice under the shadow of the overhanging rock. I looked in to see the spout, a little thinner than my wrist, jetting out firmly from a fissure in the roof, and falling with that clean sound into a shallow, frothing pool, behind the step which served as an entrance. Thick ferns and grasses of the finest green made it a paradise just five feet square.” (Lawrence 1935, p.355).

Images for communication

“Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock’s surface by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading with something like a stone chisel. Inscriptions are characters [created just] in the same way as petroglyphs. Most petroglyphs [in Wadi Rum] were made on cliff faces, [large] rocks, and boulders” (Mohammad 2015).

In the process of deciphering … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The content of the petroglyphs and other artifacts found in the area are a source of knowledge about the social change and lifestyle of prehistoric desert tribes in the Arabian Peninsula (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). “The illustrations of people show human figures holding bows and arrows” (Mohammad 2015). By their side, there is a large number of drawings representing animals, such as camels, ibexes, and horses (Ibid.). “[Alongside] all these figures are [enigmatic] symbols like lines and circles. Experts [assume] that they are instructions and messages left by [prehistoric] people [to communicate]. Some of them [may be] about giving directions to find hidden springs, [whereas others] about updating each other on things like who visited the area last. Altogether, these engravings [are believed] to provide an insight into the development of human thought [as] a pattern of pastoral, agricultural, and urban human activity” (Ibid.).

Scorpions were already asleep

We got off the car and approached one of the multiplied rocks. Its reddish surface was carved with intriguing images.

Are there any other hidden petroglyphs? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first sight I could discern some animal figures, mostly camels. Yet some were rather difficult to guess. Whereas some camels were depicted in movement with funny forked tails, others were standing still and the one had an inscription inside its body. The biggest one with its long neck looked like a giraffe. Only its single visible hump indicated that it was a dromedary after all. There were also a few primitively drawn human figures with outspread arms and legs, who may stand for Neolithic members of a nomadic tribe. Those were quite similar to Neolithic human representations from northern Africa. Most intriguing, however, were strange symbols depicted around the recognized characters – one looked like a mountain peak – and inscriptions accompanying the whole scene. ‘I wish I could stay here longer and make drawings’, I thought while taking a thousand of pictures. Pushed by curiosity and in search of further images, I slipped under the rock ledge above the carvings. After a while I found there some traces of petroglyphs but mostly fragmented inscriptions. ‘You are a peeping type of a person’, said our Bedouin guide smiling. ‘It’s good that scorpions are already asleep’, he added.

It was pitch-dark when we finally reached back our camp. The electrical lamps illuminated a row of large tents waiting for tired visitors. We had just arrived to Jordan and Wadi Rum turned out to be our gate to its treasures.

Featured image: Wadi Run – petroglyphs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Nabataeans” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3nNAs8u>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Thamud” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lWe8cf>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Thamudic” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3950pfL>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

“Wadi Rum” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kS4OoI>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Biography (2014-2015) “T.E. Lawrence”. In: Biography.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/3kOf69e>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

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.

Lawrence, T.E. (1935) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

Mohammad, F. (2015) “Confusion about the Real Lawrence Spring Cleared”. In: Wadi Rum. Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J58ZA0>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Mohammad, F. (2015) “The Petroglyphs and Inscriptions of Wadi Rum”. In: Wadi Rum. Nomads. Available at <https://bit.ly/36VBEjz>. [Accessed on 22nd November, 2020].

Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

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

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

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

Christianisation of the sea pirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacral architecture

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

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

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar and other carved heads of baldachin in Stave Church of Hopperstad. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Creative Commons CC0 License. Photo source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke

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

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

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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

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

Dragon at the roof‘edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

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

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

View of interior with the side altar and an empora (matroneum) with St Andrew’s crosses. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010).  Creative Commons CC0 License. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

Made of upright staves

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

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

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

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

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

Construction

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

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

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

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000).“Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace.

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

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

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

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

Medieval master carpenters

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

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

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

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

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

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the [Type B] with a raised centre room [and a raised roof, whereas] some have mid-masts and are of the so-called Møre type. [There are also medieval stave churches of a unique architectural style in Europe, with galleries, a chancel and cross naves, which belong to the so-called Nummedals-type (“Nore Stave Church” 2020)]. However, there is a reason to believe that the simplest and smallest [Type A], with a somewhat larger but single nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave [churches] during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20; see: “Stave church” 2020).

View from the east on Hopperstad Stavekirke. Photo by Peter (2006). CC BY-SA 2.0. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

Inventory

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

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

Remains of the glorious past

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

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

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

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

Modern alterations

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

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

Threats

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

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

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

Modern fame and restoration

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

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

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

The significance and future of the stave churches

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

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

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

Featured image: Sloping roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Dragons breathing fire at the top of Hopperstad Stave Church (detail). Photo by Fabos (2005). Public domain. Image cropped. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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

“Nore Stave Church” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3w5IPk0>. [Accessed on 14th August, 2020].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rops D. (1969) Kościół wczesnego średniowiecza. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX.

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

Turowska-Rawicz M, Sypek R. (2007) “Ludy skandynawskie”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita. Warszawa: New Media Concept.

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

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

Within the Walls of Imperial Cities

We were slowly moving in the direction of the magical Red City, Marrakesh. It was going to be my second visit in this amazing place and though it was a few years ago I still remembered delightful activities it offered: a walk through the charming and mysterious Medina, a visit to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, one of the largest and best Koranic schools in the Maghreb countries, then to the famous Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, where the largest in the world, undirected street spectacles begin at sunset. There, one could admire snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and local healers, all amidst exotic sounds, rhythms and fragrances.  

Miracle Square – Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marakesh. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Behind us there was left the magical world of a ‘Thousand Kasbahs’ (see Road of a Thousand Kasbahs). Ahead of us there were Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh – imperial cities.

Luxurious SPA in an unfriendly landscape

It was early in the morning when our coach was climbing through the High Atlas mountains. It finally stopped at the picturesque Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, at an altitude of over 2260 metres above sea level. A strong wind was pulling my hair and blew into the folds of my clothes as I tried to embrace the charm of the country’s magnificent views that stretched across the mountain landscape.

The Almoravid army managed to transferred through this hostile environment four hundred horsemen, eight hundred camel-riders and two thousand foot soldiers (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Whereas the army was composed of desert warriors, the mountains were a completely different environment to them (Ibid.). Yet they had a clear goal: reaching the northwest of the mountains, where lived the tribes of Berbers considered by them as heretics (Ibid.).

Aghmat

In 1058, first people to feel the force of the Almoravid army were the rulers of Aghmat, a small city nestling in a lush valley on the northern site of the mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Eventually, the town became a new headquarters from where the army took further their jihad against the Berber tribes dwelling nearby (Ibid.). For long Aghmat was thought to be a lost city (Ibid.). After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far (Ibid.).

Aghmat, a former Almoravid capital city. It was thought to be a lost city. After being localized, the site has been excavated but a carried study has revealed only its small portion so far. Source : Babas (2019).

One of the most substantial finds of the town is an almost intact hammam or a bathhouse, which is also one of the oldest in Morocco and one of the biggest in Maghreb (500 square metres) (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). In this context, it is regarded as an architectural masterpiece; the bathouse required an expert knowledge for heating and water supply for such an enormous space (Ibid.). The bathhouse was not made of mud, like kasbahs, but of stones and mortar, which made it a more solid construction (Ibid.). Its remains also illustrate the scale of the settlement in the medieval town and how expertly its inhabitants understood how to use water, which is a very important recourse in the area even today (Ibid.). As it turned out, water was not only used in public places as the hammam, mosque or the palace, but it was also utilised for irrigation (Ibid.). Accordingly, water had two distinct uses :in a first place it was used for public buildings and private houses, and after three days, the same water was used for irrigation of the fields (Ibid.).

Beginnings of Marrakech

With time, the Almoravids started to appreciate a city life but for desert nomads the city was in a wrong place (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Surrounded by mountains and hills from three sides, Aghmat was not in a good defensive position as an army was used to fight in the open space (Ibid.). After a decade, the Almoravids stared looking for a new base from where they could expand and take on more territory (Ibid.). Eventually, they chose a flat dry open piece of land over thirty kilometres from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; it was the city of Marrakesh (Ibid.).

Marrakesh, the so-called Red City due to its ochre colours of the walls. Photo by Iwona Wilczek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The founding of the city in 1070 represents a point in history, when the Almoravids became an imperial force (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). What began as a collection of tents rapidly became an established city and the Berbers who settled there were offered security in return of their taxes, which were used for the further expansion of the Almoravids’ territory (Ibid.). The city only lacked water (Franus 2012:159). This problem was handled by a smart engineer from Baghdad who designed a system of channels to bring water from the Atlas (Ibid.:159). Since then, Marrakesh has been drowning in flowers; now every wealthier family has got a garden, where figs, palms, roses and jasmines are grown (Ibid.:159).

Red City

When Abdullah Ibn Yasin died, Youssef Ibn Tachfine took charge of the jihad and made a great contribution to the dynasty than any other man; he turned a fledgling kingdom into an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Firstly, he developed the urban area of Marrakesh (Ibid.); “a circuit of walls around the city was built to defend it (Jacobs 2019). “Made with red earth from the surrounding plain, the walls [have been in the colour of] ochre” (Ibid.), and hence “[some call it the Pink city while for [others] Marrakech represents the feisty shade of [red]” (Toa 2017) and is called the Red City (Jacobs 2019). “Today, even outside the walls, in the modern Ville Nouvelle, buildings are still faced in that same hue. It looks particularly beautiful on the ramparts along the west side of the Medina when lit up by the setting sun” (Jacobs 2019).

As we were approaching the city, I looked for a characteristic picture: palm trees rising from behind the red wall, in the background of which mighty mountains loomed (Franus 2012:158). The city of Marrakech is today a fairy-tale metropolis known for its beautiful gardens, excellent cuisine, reliable weather and an atmosphere of eternal fun (Ibid.:158-159). “[Its] souks […] are a feast for [human] senses. [One’s] eyes are treated to a blast of colours, while [their] olfactory organs are welcomed by the enticing fragrance of honey-cakes and spices. As one strides through the crowded souks, one gets a glimpse of the lifestyle of common man. A further walk into the interiors of the city [takes] to the traditional courtyard homes of the city known as ‘riadas’. […] Adjacent to a mosque in medina, lies a huge plaza known as the [Jemaa el-Fnaa] that was historically the centre of Marrakech. Water sellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and food throng the square, which was once the spot for public executions” (Toa 2017).

Expansion

After the creation of the Almoravids’ capital the Berbers set out establishing an empire (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). Their army took the jihad north, taking city after city, Fez – Tangier – Algiers, expanding their influence eastwards, well beyond what it is now called Morocco (Ibid.). And having conquered the north-western Africa, the Almoravids extended their jihad beyond it, to Europe (Ibid.).

Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh; one of the windows in the gallery of the courtyard. carved stucco decoration, including an Arabic inscription in kufic script. Below part is carved of cedar in square patterns. Photo by Gosia Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A parallel Islamic world had existed in Spain and Portugal since the eighth century and was known as Al-Andalus (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). The south of Spain had flourished under the rule of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a rich civilization of lavish palaces and elegant gardens (Ibid.; see Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus). Yet in the eleventh century, the caliphate broke up into weak city-states being attacked by Christian armies from the north of Spain (Ibid.). Therefore, Muslim rulers of Spain appealed to the Almoravids for help (Ibid.). Youssef Ibn Tachfine repelled the Christians but he was disgusted by the European Muslims’ lack of dedication to Islam (Ibid.). Consequently, in 1019 he returned to Andalusia in force and deposed its Muslim rulers (Ibid.). Afterall, the Almoravids ruled over a vast kingdom that stretched out from the Sahara to Spain, and from the Atlantic coast to Algeria (Ibid.). It was the first time, the vast Muslim territory had been united politically and spiritually under one management and the people who achieved it – the Berbers, those who had been previously referred to as the barbarians of the desert (Ibid.).

Medieval charms of Fez

I was looking down the hill at the medina of Fez; the city consists of almost a thousand tangled streets, tens of thousands of low houses, madrasahs, palaces and mosques (Franus 2012:153).

A bird’s eye view of Fez. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Two hundred thousand people live and work there (Franus 2012:153). The largest medieval place in the world is impressive when viewed from above, but it seemed more orderly than up close (Ibid.:153). After crossing the gate, we immediately fell into the city’s labyrinth and my already poor orientation completely disappeared in this maze (Ibid.:153). Fortunately, I was not on my own and one of my friends, who is an architect, features extraordinary orientation skills. Nevertheless, finding the right path turned out to be more than difficult. We had headed for the famous Fez tannery. When we finally reached our destination, someone gave us mint leaves and suggested that we put them to our nose (Ibid.:158). Then we went up the narrow stairs to the terrace; the smell coming from the tannery was getting there really intense and not very pleasant (Ibid.:158). Mint was supposed to neutralize it. Below, the coloured eyes of the vats filled with urine and dyes sparkled in the sun (Ibid.:158). Hence the awful smell. People were bustling around them and occasionally dipping a batch of fresh hides into the paint (Ibid.). The technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages (Ibid.:158).

Fez tannery; the technology of work at the tannery has not changed here since the Middle Ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Back in the streets of Medina. The heat was pouring down from the sky and the white walls were making us blind by reflecting a strong sunlight (Franus 2012:153,158). In summer, the temperature in the old streets of Fez reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius, so wherever possible, there are nets or mats that cut off the flow of sunlight (Ibid.:153). Besides, the streets are so narrow that it is not possible to see anything but the sky (Ibid.:153). Once entered the maze, one just needs to give up their senses and get lost, and then find themselves again by means of a courtesy of an inhabitant of the medina (Ibid.:153). Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of Fez has not changed for hundreds of years (Ibid.:153; see (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). It was founded by the Almoravid Sultan Yusuf ibn Tashfin who had united two previously competing and autonomous settlements and rebuilt the city until the eleventh century (“Fez, Morocco” 2020).

Fes el Bali quarter, the oldest walled part of
Fez with narrow streets and alleys.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

With the stubbornness of a maniac, we walked through the old town; the streets were getting narrower and narrower, so that sometimes we had to squeeze sideways (Franus 2012:153,158). Another time we had to give way to loaded donkeys, the only means of transport in the local alleys (Ibid.:158). On the way, we passed by hundreds of small shops with items so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off them (Ibid.:158). Moroccans love beautiful products and prefer handicrafts to mass production (Ibid.:158). The greatest Moroccan artists are actually in Fez (Ibid.:158). Their ancestors have settled there since the time Fez was founded under the Idrisid rule between the eight and the nineth centuries as the two separate settlements, and Fez’s craftsmen have constantly improved their skills (Franus 2012:158; (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). However, only “[under] the Almoravid rule, [did] the city [gain] a reputation for the religious scholarship and the mercantile activity” (“Fez, Morocco” 2020). In the twelfth century, also scientists, clergy and mystics came to Fez, making it the medieval center of Morocco’s science (Franus 2012:158).

Nevertheless, the reign of the Almoravids dynasty was relatively short-lived (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012).

Enemy came from the mountains

High in the mountains behind Imperial Cities of Morocco, a new force had been born; rival Berbers holed up in the High Atlas Mountains (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). While, the Almoravids had never felt comfortable in the hills, a new group of Islamic revolutionaries laid there the groundwork for their domination over the mountainous region (Ibid.). They were called the Almohads, which stand for the people who believed in the unity of God (Ibid.). The Almohad movement was founded in the twelfth century by Muhammad Ibn Tumart among the Berber Masmuda tribes in the south of modern Morocco (Ibid.). The leader was not a desert warrior like the Almoravids (Ibid.). He lived in the mountains, where he spent decades studying Islam (Ibid.). He claimed to have been divinely chosen to restore the true faith as he understood it (Ibid.).

The Tin Mal Mosque is a mosque located in the High Atlas mountains of North Africa. In this area the Almohads’ revolution started. Source: Atlas Mountain Guides Compony (2020). If you are interested in their tours, please check on the website given below (Bibliography).

Tinmel is the village, where the revolution started (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). From there, Ibn Tumart preached against the arrogance and corruption of the Almoravids (Ibid.). In fact at that time, Moroccan society was purely Muslim (Ibid.). Therefore, Ibn Tumart’s role was not to convert the society to Islam a second time; he only used religion to legitimize his political project and, eventually, create a large Islamic empire in the western Mediterranean (Ibid.). Tinmel was his starting point towards Marrakech (Ibid.). In 1130 a long  military campaign started between two groups: the Almohads and the Almoravids (Ibid.). Eventually, in 1147 the dynasty of the the Almoravids was fought back (Ibid.).

Building a new empire

Once the Almohads were within the walls of Marrakech, they wanted to stamp their authority on the city (Casely-Hayford 2010-2012). They started by replacing the most significant of the Almorav