Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.
If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.
After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.
“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”
“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”
“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.
Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!
So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.
Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.
The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.
In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.
In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.
This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.
In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:
“Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)
When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.
However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.
Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.
Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.
We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.
“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.
We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.
The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.
But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.
Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.
One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.
You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.
I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.
Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.
After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.
Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.
We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.
These mountains are a place for gods.
I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.
* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:
The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai
One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.
There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.
When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.
The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.
The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.
Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.
“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)
People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.
In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.
Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.
Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.
Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.
War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.
In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.
The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.
It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.
The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.
Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:
“Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…“
(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)
This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.
The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.
Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.
But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.
In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.
Thank you for reading
If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s
It’s the end of October, and as it is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain I thought it would be a good idea to look a place that is both mysterious and iconic: Glastonbury Tor.
To most, the mere mention of Glastonbury will likely conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. You’ll think of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.
It’s a great party, but to me that’s not the real Glastonbury.
This small town in southwest Britain is an ancient place. The real Glastonbury is a place of mystery, lore and legend. It is a place that was sacred to the Celts, pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it is the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it is the resting place of the Holy Grail.
Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong there, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.
I lived in the countryside outside of the town for about 3 years and I never tired of walking around Glastonbury and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique.
From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s majestic Tor shrouded in mist.
Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or a ‘bulging hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting. On the top is the tower of what was the church of St. Michael, a remnant of the 14th century. Before that, there was a monastery that dated to about the 9th century A.D.
However, habitation of this place goes much farther back in time with some evidence for people in the area around 3000 B.C. But it was not always a religious centre. In the Dark Ages, the Tor served a more militaristic purpose and there are remains from this period.
In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for the Druids, and early Christians, Dark Age warlords and late medieval monks.
In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor is said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Faery King and Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.
Gwynn ap Nudd is the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn. He is an Underworld god. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth. (Quick hint: We delve into this in the upcoming Eagles and Dragons novel, Warriors of Epona!)
If you are on the Tor at Samhain, you may hear the sound of hounds and hunting horns as the lord of Annwn emerges for the Wild Hunt of legend.
In Arthurian romance, there is a tradition of the wicked Melwas imprisoning Guinevere on the Tor. Arthur rides to the rescue, attacks Melwas and saves Guinevere. This particular story mirrors an episode in Culhwch ac Olwen, one part of the Welsh Mabinogion, in which Gwythyr ap Greidawl attempts to save Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, whom he is supposed to marry, from Gwynn ap Nudd himself.
Another even more fascinating Arthurian connection can be found in a pre-Christian version of the ‘Quest of the Holy Grail’, called the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ which was found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’. In this tale, Arthur and his companions enter Annwn to bring back a magical cauldron of plenty. In this, some say that ‘Corbenic Castle’ (the ‘Grail Castle’) is actually Glastonbury Tor. It isn’t just Herakles and Odysseus who journeyed to the Underworld!
Glastonbury Tor is not only associated with Celtic religion, myth and legend. It is also said by some to be a place of power or a sort of vortex in the land that lies along some of the key ley-lines, including what is called the St. Michael ley-line. The majority of sites associated with St. Michael, the slayer of Satan, along the ley-line were indeed places of power and belief of the old religion.
But this is nothing new. Christians built on top of sites sacred to the pagans they were eager to overcome. What better way to symbolize your ‘victory’ than to build right on top of a site and make it yours.
‘Gates of Annwn and Gwynn ap Nudd? Let’s build a church of St. Michael on top of it! That’ll show ‘em!’
But myth and legend persist through story and place, and the Tor is a prime example of how successive traditions do not overcome each other, but rather combine to make up the various aspects of that place.
If you ever get to Glastonbury, the Tor is a definite must. Walk to the top and sit awhile. Look out over the landscape and watch the crows and magpies dive in the wind around the steep slopes. Close your eyes and listen. While you’re there, you can decide whether you are sitting on a natural formation, a ceremonial labyrinth, a hill fort, a sleeping dragon, the mound where Arthur sleeps until he is needed once more, or the doorstep of the Gates of Annwn itself! The Tor is all of these things and more.
However, no matter what you believe, one thing is certain: Glastonbury Tor remains a site of extreme beauty and mystery that is well worth a visit, even if it is just to watch the sun sink in the West.
Have a safe and happy Samhain.
I can’t believe the holidays are upon us already. Where did autumn go to? It seems that the festive time of year always manages to creep up on us.
And that’s a good thing! It certainly is time for a bit of a break, some good cheer, and a few helpings of my homemade wassail.
I hope you enjoyed the wonderful posts from my fellow authors during the Holiday Historical Fiction Blowout event from December 1-8th. It was a very busy eight days, but we had a great time, met some new readers, and picked up some great books!
I hope many of you were able to take advantage of the fantastic .99 cent deals.
Time for a new blog post.
During this time of year, with the run-up to Christmas, talk of yule logs, wassail (drink and carols), I always tend to gravitate toward my Medieval interests.
Summer makes me think of ancient Greece and Rome, but the time of the Winter Solstice sets me firmly in the Middle Ages. Perhaps it’s the songs I imagine being sung in soaring cathedrals, or the glow of bees’ wax candles among fresh strands of cedar and pine. I have a bit more time at home, and it becomes my castle, a place where I can sit, read one of my antiquarian books of Arthurian tales, and think back on the year with gratitude.
After digging up the Christmas ornaments last weekend, I was going through one of many boxes of old photos that I have from my studies and travels, and came upon a packet of prints from a visit to a truly amazing place – Rosslyn Chapel.
Having lived in St. Andrews, Scotland for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to visit new and interesting sites all of the time, from Melrose and the Roman fort at Trimontium in the Scottish borders, to Inverness and Eilean Donan castle, and everything in between. It was something new every weekend. You can visit prehistoric sites, Pictish hill forts and Roman remains, of which there are many.
The great thing about living in Britain is that there are more medieval sites to visit than you can possible see in a lifetime.
One of the most interesting sites that I did visit during my time in St. Andrews was Rosslyn Chapel.
I was fortunate enough to have done this in the pre-Da Vinci Code days of publishing after which, I am certain, hordes of eager tourists turned the quiet chapel into a virtual marketplace of symbology. I’m not trashing that as I’m sure the major influx of funds helped Rosslyn Chapel to complete the restoration which finished in 2013. When I visited the chapel, there was scaffold everywhere, along with piles of stone that were to be used in the work.
But oh, what a place! And what a treat for me and my three friends to have it all to ourselves at the time.
Rosslyn Chapel lies just south of Edinburgh and has been known as many things throughout its history – the Chapel of the Grail, a key to the secrets and treasures of the Templar Knights, the survivors of which were absorbed, some say, into the Masonic order. Certainly, many authors and historians have contributed to theories that go beyond the boundaries of conventional academia. And why not? It makes for fascinating fiction as well as some perfectly viable historical theories. A few book mentions later on.
Rosslyn Chapel was founded in 1446 (a few years after the founding of St. Andrews University in 1410, my alma mater) by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney, who was buried in the chapel. It took some forty years to build what remains today and even that was not what was intended, for the original plan called for a larger structure. Evidence of this was found in an early excavation when the archaeologists discovered foundation walls that went well beyond the existing walls. Not everyone perceived Rosslyn as a sanctuary, a work of art, or marvel of mysticism. Many, especially protestants, labelled Rosslyn as a house of idolatry, no doubt disconcerted by the images staring at them from every corner of the intensely ornate chapel.
I will not go into the long history of Rosslyn Chapel here as this is more of a short pictorial tease. However, this place was not awarded the respect that was due to such a work of art. In 1650, during the Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops were besieging St. Clair Castle (only about 100 meters away), the English horses were stabled in the chapel. In 1688, pro-Protestant villagers from Roslin entered and damaged the chapel because it was “Popish and idolatrous”.
It was abandoned until 1736 when James St. Clair repaired the windows, roof and floors. If you have read a great deal about Rosslyn, the Templars and/or Masons, you will know that the name of St. Clair (or Sinclair) figures prominently.
In April of 1862, Rosslyn Chapel was rededicated as a place for worship and has undergone various stages of repair over the years, including when I visited in 2000.
It is, unfortunately, easy to get taken up with picture taking in such a place. I know that at first, I certainly did, but once I ran out of film (yes, before digital was common!) I was able to sit quietly in that place and admire it for a while. I remember it being very quiet, and there certainly was a feeling of constantly being watched (and not by CCTV cameras!). No, there was definitely a feeling to the place, unlike any other.
Yes, you do have some of the usual religious iconography and stained glass, but there is more of the unusual and mysterious. Questions certainly abound. For instance, the appearance of American vegetation such as aloe or Indian corn! There is a plethora of mythical creatures, dragons especially, of unusual angels such as the one playing the bag pipes, or another carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce (could it be the Black Douglas who was to take the Bruce’s heart to Jerusalem?).
One of the most famous works in the chapel is the Apprentice Pillar. This twisted pillar, based with eight coiled dragons, is a true masterpiece and the story goes that when the master mason was away, his apprentice continued to work and created something that far surpassed that of the master. The master mason was so enraged with jealousy that he killed the apprentice with his mallet.
I think however, that the most striking thing for me was the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel. At one point, you look up and there above is an intricate pattern of alternating daisies, lilies, flowers, Roses and stars.
Numerous books have been written about this place, countless pictures published on-line, but there is no substitute for actually visiting it and interacting with it.
Rosslyn has quite a story to tell, no matter what your perspective. You can gaze at it for hours and not see it all.
Here are a few recommended reads that touch on Rosslyn, but also on the Templars and Masons. If fiction is your thing, check out Jack Whyte’s Templar Trilogy in which the St. Clairs make an appearance. Oh, and why not check out Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – it may not be literary fiction, but it is highy entertaining and has caused millions of people to pick up a book and read who might not otherwise have done so. Besides, he fictionalizes some quite interesting theories put forward by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as well as other alternative historian/detectives.
A couple of non-fiction recommendations that I have are Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins and secondly, The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair. The latter is a very interesting exploration into the Templars and the possibility that they travelled to North America more than ninety years before Columbus’s journey of discovery. I know, it sounds mad, but it’s truly fascinating and besides, the Vikings discovered Newfoundland some five hundred or so years before Columbus! For you alternative history buffs out there, you’ll already have made the link to the carvings of Indian corn and aloe on the walls or Rosslyn Chapel.
Well, that’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Be sure to check out the Rosslyn Chapel website for more information.
As ever, thank you for reading.
Also, do check out this 4-part BBC documentary on Rosslyn Chapel hosted by art historian, Helen Rosslyn – yes, the chapel has been in her family for hundreds of years!
The Autumn Equinox has come and gone, and a giant ‘Blood Moon’ made its round of the earth. From the photos I’ve seen, it was spectacular.
Harvest time is here.
However, in the city, it’s a bit difficult to feel a connection to harvest, our rural roots having been eclipsed long ago by fast, urban living.
In a small effort to reconnect with the earth and our western ancestors who were bound to it, I thought I’d mention a couple of traditions around what has been, for thousands of years, an extremely sacred time of year.
Of course, this is the time of year for Thanksgiving (earlier in Canada than in the USA) when we sit around the table en-famille and stuff ourselves like the turkeys that grace our tables. And wine, oh yes, and lots of it for the oenophiles among us.
But where does all this come from? Not the pilgrims, I can tell you that.
Apart from this being the time of year when summer gives way to fall, when the length of days is equal to that of nights, this time of year is when crops were harvested and preparations made for the coming winter.
In ancient Greece it was the month of Beodromion and the festival Apollo, and the time for one of the most sacred rites: The Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were of course, in honour of the Goddess Demeter who was associated with crops, fertility, harvest and the protection of marriage. The Mysteries also honoured Persephone, Demeter’s daughter who would go to spend half the year in the Underworld with Hades. The time of harvest is associated with the death of agriculture and Persephone’s time away from her mother, the time Demeter would weep, wintertime.
“Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of
good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away
Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart? For I heard
her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was. But I tell you
truly and shortly all I know…
(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter – Hecate to Demeter)
…But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the
heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the
dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the
gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of
men, disfiguring her form a long while.”
(from Hesiod’s Hymn to Demeter)
The cult of Demeter and Persephone existed for over one thousand years and Eleusis, one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece, was where the highly secretive ceremonies would take place in September and October. Sparse details about the ceremonies include bathing in the sea, sacrificing a piglet (not a turkey!), various sacred, secret objects, and a procession from Athens to Eleusis.
The site of Eleusis is itself an amazing archaeological site that is well worth the visit if ever you have the opportunity. Apart from the vast complex of temples, and other remains, you can see the cave where Persephone supposedly descended into the Underworld, a door to Hades’ realm. Facing the dark entrance is a well, known as the “Tears of Demeter”, thus named because of the goddess’ weeping in that spot. It’s a very moving place.
Let us not dwell too long in ancient Greece however, for our Celtic ancestors in Europe also revered this time of year. To the Celts, harvest time was also known as Alban Elfed (Welsh for ‘Light of Autumn’), and the Feast of Avalon (Feast of Apples) among other names.
To the Celts, this was the time of year when the acorns fell from the sacred oaks and the last sheaf of wheat was cut by a young maiden. It was a time of reverence and thanks for the Earth’s bounty, a time to harvest once more, and to slaughter animals before the onset of winter. An offering of apples would often be placed on burials to symbolize rebirth, hence the Feast of Avalon, Avalon of course being the ‘land of apples’.
Harvest time, to the Celts, also preceded the sacred festival of Samhain which marked the end of the light of summer and the beginning of winter’s dark. Again, the cycle of light and dark, birth and death is an ever present arch-type, a cycle of which our ancestors were keenly aware and for which they had a deep respect.
So, as we sit to our laden tables this autumn, perhaps we should tip a bit of wine to the goddess who wept for her daughter’s departure into darkness, and for the end of light. When the harvest moon shines down on us in all its luminescence where we live in a world of concrete floors and steel girders, think of our forest and field-dwelling ancestors. They looked up at that same moon for ages from the dark circles of their sacred groves, and gave thanks for all they had.
Thank you for reading.
My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.
The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.
But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.
Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.
Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.
The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.
The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…
Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.
It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.
In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.
The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.
I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.
There are no words, really.
Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.
For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.
In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.
Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.
Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…
…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.
(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)
Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.
All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.
You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.
Thank you for reading…
What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…
Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city: