Somehow this morning I ended up reading about an artificial island and devotional chapel constructed in Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor.
“In 1452,” we read at montenegro.com, “two sailors from Perast happened by a small rock jutting out of the bay after a long day at sea and discovered a picture of the Virgin Mary perched upon the stone.” Thus began a process of dumping more stones into the bay in order to expand this lonely, seemingly blessed rock—as well as loading the hulls of old fishing boats with stones in order to sink them beneath the waves, adding to the island’s growing landmass.
Eventually, in 1630, a small chapel was constructed atop this strange half-geological, half-shipbuilt assemblage.
Throwing stones into the bay and, in the process, incrementally expanding the island’s surface area, has apparently become a local religious tradition: “The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is alive even nowadays. Every year on the sunset of July 22, an event called fašinada, when local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island, takes place.”
The idea that devotional rock-throwing has become an art of creating new terrain, generation after generation, rock after rock, pebble after pebble, is stunning to me. Perhaps in a thousand years, a whole archipelago of churches will exist there, standing atop a waterlogged maze of old pleasure boats and fishing ships, the mainland hills and valleys nearby denuded of loose stones altogether. Inadvertently, then, this is as much a museum of local geology—a catalog of rocks—as it is a churchyard.
One of many books I’ve been enjoying this autumn is On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma, an extended look into where formal deviation occurs in the world and what unexpected, often emotionally disconcerting, shapes and forces can result.
[Image: The Dariel Pass in the Caucausus Mountains, rumored possible site of the mythic Alexander’s Gates].
According to Asma, measuring these swerves and abnormalities against each other—and against ourselves—can shed much-needed light on the alternative “developmental trajectories” by which monsters come into being. This speculative monsterology, as he describes it it, would thus uncover the rules by which even the most stunning mutational transformations occur—allowing us to catalog extraordinary beings according to what Asma calls a “continuum of strangeness: first, nonnative species, then familiar beasts with unfamiliar sizes or modified body parts, then hybrids of surprising combination, and finally, at the furthest margins, shape-shifters and indescribable creatures.” Asma specifically mentions “mosaic beings,” beings “grafted together or hybridized by nature or artifice.”
In the book’s fascinating first-third—easily the book’s best section—Asma spends a great deal of time describing ancient myths of variation by which monsters were believed to have originated. From the mind-blowing and completely inexplicable discovery of dinosaur bones by ancient societies with no conception of geological time to the hordes of “monstrous races” believed to exist on the imperial perimeter, there have always been monsters somewhere in the world’s geography.
[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, mythic isotope to Alexander’s Gates].
Alexander’s Gates, Asma writes, were the ultimate wall between the literally Caucasian West and its monstrous opponents, dating back to Alexander the Great:
Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration.
(…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.
Beyond this wall was a “monster zone.”
[Image: The geography of Us vs. Them, in a “12th century map by the Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi. ‘Yajooj’ and ‘Majooj’ (Gog and Magog) appear in Arabic script on the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass, enclosed within dark mountains, at a location corresponding roughly to Mongolia.” Via Wikipedia].
Interestingly, a variation of this story is also told within Islam—indeed, in the Koran itself. In Islamic mythology, however, Alexander the Great is replaced by a figure called Dhul-Qarnayn (who might also be a legendary variation on the Persian king Cyrus).
Even more interesting than that, however, the Koran‘s own story of geographically distant monsters entombed behind a vast wall—the border fence as theological infrastructure—appears to be a kind of literary remix of the so-called Alexander Romance. To quote that widely known religious authority Wikipedia, “The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an… matches the Gog and Magog episode in the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars.” That is, the Koran, supposedly the exact and holy words of God himself, actually contains a secular myth from 3rd-century Greece.
The construction of Dhul-Qarnayn’s wall against the non-Muslim monstrous hordes can specifically be found in verses 18:89-98. For instance:
“…Lend me a force of men, and I will raise a rampart between you and them. Come, bring me blocks or iron.” He dammed up the valley between the Two Mountains, and said: “Ply your bellows.” And when the iron blocks were red with heat, he said: “Bring me molten brass to pour on them.” Gog and Magog could not scale it, nor could they dig their way through it.
Think of it as a kind of religious quarantine—a biosafe wall through which no moral contagion could pass.
[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, via Wikipedia].
For instance, Asma goes on to cite a book, published in the 14th century, called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There, we read how Alexander’s Gates will, on some future day blackened by the full horror of monstrous return, be rendered completely obsolete:
In the end, Mandeville predicts, a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claims, without revealing how he comes by such specific prophecy, that during the time of the Antichrist a fox will dig a hole through Alexander’s gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, as such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway between the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the gates, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.
In any case, the idea that the line between human and not-human has been represented in myth and religion as a very specifically architectural form—that is, a literal wall built high in the mountains, far away—is absolutely fascinating to me.
The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols, and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river.
Nearby are the ruins of another cave monastery, called Vanis Kvabebi.
In the formal application sent to UNESCO for consideration of the site, we read that the architecture of this region can be seen as spatially punctuating the landscape, supplying moments of almost grammatical emphasis:
Fortresses and churches erected on high mountains and hills are perceived as distinguished vertical accents in such a horizontally developed setting. They terminate and emphasise natural verticals, being in perfect harmony with the latter. They introduce great emotional impulse imparting specific grandeur to the whole environment. The same artistic affect is created by rock-cut monasteries and villages arranged in several tiers on high rocky mountain slopes.
Originally constructed in the 12th century—in a region inhabited by humans since at least neolithic times—and very much resembling one of the cave-cities of Cappadocia, Vardzia is a spatially fantastic site (and, I’d assume, a videogame level waiting to happen).
It is also located in one of the most geologically interesting places on earth—at least from a subterranean standpoint—as the nation of Georgia also contains the world’s deepest known cave.
As National Geographic explained in an article several years ago, Krubera Cave—also known as Voronya—is still incompletely explored, despite its record-breaking, abyssal depths; expeditions have spent more than three weeks underground there, mapping windows and chambers, sleeping in tents, and using colored dyes to trace rivers and streams locked in the rock walls around them.
Check out this sequence of images, for instance, documenting an organized descent into the planet—or this article about caving in Abkhazia, or even this summary of the “Call of the Abyss” exploration project that sought to find the true depths of Voronya Cave.
In any case, there’s absolutely no geological connection between Vardzia and Krubera Cave—there is no secret tunnel system linking the two across the vast Georgian landscape (after all, they are extremely far apart)—but how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below.
In fact, I don’t mean to belabor the point here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the CIA has satellite photos that have been used as scouting documents for the rumored location of Noah’s Ark—it is “satellite archaeology,” one researcher claims. That is, there being quite a few religious members of the U.S. government, things like Noah’s Ark are considered more objective and archaeological than they are superstitious or theological.
But how absolutely mind-boggling would it be to find out someday that there is, operating within the U.S. intelligence services, a small group of especially religious analysts who have been scouring the Caucausus region, funded by tax dollars, and armed with geoscanning equipment and several miles of rope, looking for the entrance to Hell?