The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Proskynema – eternal adoration carved in stone

Proskynema – eternal adoration carved in stone

Throughout the ancient landscape of Egypt, incorporating not only temples and sacred sites, but also tombs and mountain rock faces as well as private letters and other tokens of devotion, is visible still today inscriptions made by pious visitors in honor of the divine world. While such inscriptions cover a great span of textual and pictorial graffiti, ranging from prehistoric rock art to Byzantine saints, to proskynema stands out as a symbol not only of religious piety, but more importantly as a symbol of cultural assimilation, religious tolerance and an acceptance of the coming together of eastern and western knowledge. As such it makes a perfect symbol for ancient illumination, a symbol of true Hellenistic philosophy in the spirit of Alexander the Great.

To proskynema inscription at Abydos

 The art historian within very much appreciate each visit to an Egyptian temple, partially enjoying the relief work and architectural elements for their artistic beauty, while the other part continuously analyze those images on display in order to comprehend a deeper message which the original creator once hoped to communicate. The archaeologist is incorporating also the state of preservation, the combination of pottery scattered on the floor, and at multileveled places for sure recording with the bare eye the layers of deposits, the stratigraphy, while playing a sequence of optional historical outlines like a film before the third eye. However, there is a third component to the experience of working with ancient material which so often is dismissed or disregarded, although it is one of the most important factors we have got in order to approach an understanding of the ancient world which we study. This component is that of visualization, allowing ourselves to step into the world of the ancients by painting before our eyes an image of how it could have been. This is what makes it possible for us to at least try to connect with the material we study, and as a part of it, the very core of it, is the respect that follows. Without respect for the ancient material there is no need to study it! Is there?
to proskymena at Kalabsha Temple

So, returning to to proskynema and how these inscriptions have a deep impact on us personally, we have to admit the third component of the process. Thus, when standing in an ancient Egyptian temple, admiring its decoration and analyzing its various components, and there documenting an ancient Greek inscription carved in stone with the intention of lasting for eternity, one has to allow those feelings of a more esoteric nature, the connection between us as modern viewers and the ancient creator who once stood at the very same place carefully carving the words of gratefulness and piety.

Adoration inscriptions at Gebel el-Silsila

To proskynema literarily translates ‘to make obeisance’, to fall down on your knees and show your respect to the divine world, although an inscription in itself could symbolize the entire act. Such an act of religious devotion was far from limited to the Graeco-Roman period, as it was a frequent feature in traditional pharaonic times too. For example, it was required when standing before the pharaoh himself. The Greek formula, though, appears on Egyptian monuments and sacred sites primarily from the time of the introduction of Sarapis, thus early Ptolemaic Period, and continues in the form of adoration before the ancient deities until the official closing down of the temples in favor of Christianity.

To proskynema at Philae Temple

As upcoming blog posts will show, to proskynema is often placed on specific areas within the structure or natural surroundings on which it is carved. As an example we can document a clear connection with so called pilgrim gouges, marks left by visitors who scraped the surface of the sacred stone in order to bring with them a piece of the divine in the form of a powder, either consumed as a magical potion or placed upon an altar closer to the visitor’s home. This is another feature of ancient Egyptian religious life which unfortunately is too often disregarded and left without comments, and those who do mention these gouges agree in a magical application created by pilgrims, no one is taking it any further to analyze it in depth. As we will discuss with you later, we take a stand point of regarding the possibility of a more shaman oriented position of the person responsible, a spiritual practitioner unattached to the traditional priesthood and more of a naturalistic function, but again, this is a topic which we will have to return to later on. Returning to to proskynema we consider such inscriptions as a key to a greater understanding of a more general religious application. They are the witness put forward by common men and women, often but far from always soldiers, such as in the Temple of Kalabsha. To be honest, these inscriptions have lasted for thousands of years and are in that respect no different from the sculptured hieroglyphic texts covering the walls of the same sacred landscape. Thus, we bow ourselves in respect for those who in their turn bowed in adoration before the ancient deities who once were considered to protect and guide us humans.

"Pilgrim gouges" at Deir el-Cheluit

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

to proskynema

I bow to thee in gratitude, I bow to thee in respect
I bow to thou knowledge, I bow to thou understanding
I come in peace, I come in silence
I come to call on thee, I come to praise thou name
I come bearing gifts from far away,
gifts worthy solely thy mighty kingdom
I come with sacrifices not known to common men
I present to thee offerings of greatest earthly powers

Standing on my knees on thy golden fabric
grains of sand in eternal movement through thy divine hourglass
Bowing before thy heavenly altar
Placing upon it three sacred offerings
I present to thee the symbol of life
I present to thee the symbol of continuation
I present to thee the symbol of eternity

I surrender to thee my sacred name
I surrender to thee my mortal life
I surrender to thee my divine spirit

I bow to thee for acceptance
I bow to thee for guidance
I bow to thee for protection as thy name becomes mine
To proskynema to proskynema

Monday, June 27, 2011

Calleth you, cometh I

Know my true name and you will know my soul, not to be given with ease, but provided in clues. Call for me and I will obey, bound to you by the sacredness of my true name. But ask for no more than you can master. As you call my sacred name I will raise myself up and step forth from the Underworld, take back my head, collect my limbs, gather my bones, feast on the food which does not stale and drink which does not sour. I am one of the spirits who come forth from the Underworld; grant you unto me the things which my body need, and heaven for my soul and a hidden place for my mummy.

This week's arch news (June 20-27)

Workers find ancient burial ground
One of the coolest jobs ever: a beer archaeologist
Knocking down menhirs
Peering into the Past: Camera Looks Inside Ancient Mayan Tomb
9,000 year-old artifacts found near Thunder Bay
17 million years ago hominoids ventured into sub- tropical Eurasia
Roman Fort Project needs your support
A Crusader town emerges under an old Israeli port

Archeologists closer to telling Acadians' tale - Nova Scotia
Yenikapı metro dig reveals fifth-century shipwreck
Archaeology: New Thracian grave found in northeastern Bulgaria
Egyptologists plan to restore 4,500-year old boat found near pyramid, hope for tourism boost - The Washington Post
Iceman's Stomach Sampled—Filled With Goat Meat
Ice Age art from Florida
A Massive Early Maya Center and a Race Against Time
'Holy Shroud made by Giotto'
and as reported previously during the week: Egypt to uncover 2nd solar boat at Giza
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Archaeologists Uncover Story of Ancient Thracians' War with Philip II of Macedon

When the stones begin to crumble on the Akhenaten boundary stele
Mexican Archaeologists Find Ancient Staircase at Tlatelolco, May Confirm First Building
Roman baths found on site of new City of York Council HQ
Iraq's Ancient Ur Site in Danger : Discovery News
Did climate change cause Greenland's ancient Viking community to collapse?
UC Research Uncovers Late Bronze Age Fortress
Cutting edge training developed the human brain 80 000 years ago - Lund University

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nikopolis - Octavian's city of victory

Today our journey takes us to the ancient site of Nikopolis (Actia Nicopolis), located south of the mountains of Kassopeia (will be presented in another blog post), in the Epirus landscape of western Greece. It was founded in 28 B.C. on a site dedicated to the worship of Apollo, and given its name “city of victory” personally by Gaius Julius Octavianus (later to become Augustus) after his victorious battle at Actium in 31 B.C. against female Pharaoh Kleopatra VII and her famous lover and member of the Roman triumvirate, Markus Antonius (Dio LI.l.2-3; Suet. Aug. 18.2; Paus. VII.18.9, X.38). However, Nikopolis was not only a symbol of defeating purely Markus Antonius and Kleopatra, but one signifying the entire campaign.

As a lover of all things Ptolemaic, it was a rather remarkable experience to visit this site and walk on the streets named after the person finally responsible for the fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. While most people interested in ancient history adore Augustus, I (Maria) cannot help but feeling just a little bit of sadness as he marks the end of a great cultural era – measured in my eyes. Admittedly, it was an overall paradox experience as feelings of grief were mixed with great admiration of the ancient beauty that was presented before my eyes. So, while bearing with me the entire significance of the city name and in my head walking proud with steps honouring Queen Kleopatra and her ancestors, I had to surrender to the ancient historian within me, to allow the archaeological remains to speak their own language and take me by storm with a message that knows no victory or defeat, simply being pure material culture charged with historical energy of each individual ever to have walked these streets. (Photos below show "garden items" surrounding the small local museum.)

Returning to the factual bit on the site, Nikopolis was made an example (among others) by the Romans, who used it as a show room of Rome’s strength and power: Nikopolis was “Romanized” meant to symbolise Rome’s domination over Greece. As such it was decorated with various monuments, some of which you can see on the photographs. One of the most evident features is the huge fortification (red brick) walls that surround the rectangular shaped city. However, the walls presented for visitors today date primarily to the early Christian and Byzantine period. The walls contained four main gates and it is said that the city walls originally held bronze details captured from the boat of Markus Antonius, accompanied by a large inscription emphasising the price of betrayal:
“Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Julius, following the victory in the war which he waged on behalf of the republic in this region, when he was consul for the fifth time and commander-in-chief for the seventh time, after peace had been secured on land and sea, consecrated to Neptun(us) and Mars the camp from which he set forth to attack the enemy now ornamented with naval spoils” (for the text, see Murray W.M. and Petsas P.M., Octavian’s Campsite Memorial for the Actian War, 1989, 86)

As most Roman cities Nikopolis was created in accordance with intersecting decumanus – a main street oriented east-west– and cardo – a main street oriented north-south. Among the best preserved monuments today stands the Odeon, which you can see on the photographs, and as a show piece of Roman control it naturally included also a Gymnasium, Stadium and theatre. The Odeon is estimated to have had a two stories high scene provided with three arched doorways. On the photos you can view the scene through the eyes of a spectator focusing on the scene and the orchestra, notice especially the beautiful, multicoloured marble mosaic floor. Supported by three semicircular porticos of different height, the auditorium was reached via three corridors. Located in the centre of the city, the Odeon was used for lectures and various forms of performances, most importantly during the Nea Aktia games honouring Apollo. The cavea had nineteen rows of seats made of limestone, divided into two sections. In accordance with the archaeological material the Odeon was used at least until the late 3rd century AD.

Again, similar to the majority of Roman cities this one had an advanced aqueduct system providing water from the spring of Louros to its inhabitants. Whether anyone considered a possible link to the River Styx located in the vicinity is another story... This aqueduct system provided water also for the traditional Roman thermae – the baths – which was a public building located in the northern section of the city, to the west of the fortification walls. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city was populated to some degree of Roman veterans combined with regular families and workers specialising in minting of copper coins. Nikopolis was one among other Greek sites which enjoyed donations from the Roman aristocracy and elite. It could count to its benefactors men like Herodes I, King of Judea, Emperors Nero and Hadrianus, and, of course, its founder Octavianus.

In terms of religion, Nikopolis was already during Greek rule dedicated to the worship of Apollo, respected by Octavianus who dedicated a war monument to the solar deity, and re-established in his honour the Actian Games. In addition to Apollo, and as mentioned in the inscription sited above, Nikopolis included also the veneration of Mars and Neptunus, both a logical choice as far as location and symbolism is concerned. Augustus was later to be identified with Neptunus in Virgilius’ Aeneid (Vir. Aen. 1.148-56), and their link is documented also in art, as Octavianus is depicted holding a trident while charging his chariot past an enemy caught by stormy waves. Octavianus’ connection with Mars was that of Mars Ultor, who as the god of war protected and guided the emperor to be during his campaigns against Markus Antonius and Kleopatra.
In addition to the Roman remains Nikopolis has several Byzantine monuments to show. Most impressive are the seven preserved basilicas founded around the century shift of 5th and 6th centuries, decorated with detailed mosaics, some of which you can see on the photos. However, prior to receiving its Byzantine basilicas Nikopolis saw a couple of centuries of decline, only to rise up again during the 5th century, again becoming not only an administrative centre of trade, but also one that included a more artistic side as well as religious. Prior to accepting Christianity as a state religion, Nikopolis functioned also as a centre of philosophy, including the Stoic philosopher Epiktetos who was expelled from Rome during the reign of Emperor Domitianus.

As in many additional situations the Christian church incorporated previous traditions in their own, dismissing any credit to previous inhabitants. Thus, Nikopolis was no longer the victorious symbol of Octavianus, but instead a place founded by the Apostle Paulus, who describes in his epistle how he invited Titus to join him from Crete to spend the winter in Nikopolis. As the Byzantine period came to its end handing over to the Dark Ages and eventually the Medieval period, Augustus’ symbol of victory fell into decline and was replaced by the fortress of Preveza, close to the ancient city of Berenike named in honour of Berenike I, mother of female Pharaoh Arsinoë II and her husband-brother Ptolemaios II Philadelphos. I guess you all understand where I felt most at “home”?!

The overall impression of visiting the ancient site of Nikopolis is that of awe as there is so much still preserved and well looked after. It is a site where you can spend not only hours but days, walking in the footsteps of learned philosophers arguing on the topics of existence and spirituality, things still debated today and by far taken any further than it did back then. To some extent I believe that they understood more back then than we do today as there are too much distractions surrounding us today, too much modern interference, and too much socio-political interaction. Regardless of looking at the monuments created by Emperor Augustus to be or those of his imperial followers, those dating back far earlier than the Romans, or those dating to the Byzantine, Christian devotees, they all seem to have a natural and unquestionable respect for nature and the natural surroundings in which they lived and functioned. As for the ancients, pre-Christians, this is of course even more evident as the site honoured deities that originally sprung up from natural phenomena. However, while various sites around Greece do have a rather heightened spiritual energy that resonates within each visitor in different ways, Nikopolis had a an energy of pride and glory rather than that of religion. As with all ancient monuments one can walk on the streets once crowded by an active ancient community, feeling a deep respect and connection with our ancient forefathers, and regardless of how we react when visiting these sites, we all feel it in one way or another. This is what brings us back time after time, to explore and learn more, in an attempt of understanding and reconnecting with our own past, our history. This is at least what drives us forward, a historical calling that will never end as each day brings something new to consider.  

As always thank you for joining us!
John & Maria
Ps. Please note that all names are spelled in accordance with the original language, thus making Marc Anthony Markus Antonius and Cleopatra VII Kleopatra VII.