Category: Heritage Preservation

The Birdman Competition – “The Hunger Games” of Rapa Nui

The Birdman Competition – “The Hunger Games” of Rapa Nui

Many of us are familiar with “The Hunger Games” – we’ve either read the books or watched the movies, or both, or maybe just heard of them from our friends. The idea of “The Huger Games” is that in order to maintain peace in a futuristic society, they would host an annual competition where each district would chose a competitor (a tribute) to fight in the games. The winner, the only survivor of the games, would then become the victor and would become famous and highly praised.

You would think that’s a cruel way to keep peace and might think that’s just a book or a movie, but what if I told you that reality is closer to it than you might have imagined? I traveled to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to see the moai and to learn more about them – why did the Rapa Nui people build the moai and how did they transport them all over the island. I did get to learn all about the moai, and thanks to an enthusiastic local guide who loves her island and her culture I learned so much more! She introduced me to a whole new aspect of Rapa Nui history that was not familiar to me: the birdman cult.

After a period of wars and constant fighting between clans there was a substantial decrease in population. This was due to the killings between clans in combat or cannibalism, where captured people from one clan served as food for the capturing clan. To save the population from extinction, the chiefs of clans found a way to stop the killings and make peace on the island – the birdman competition.

So what is the birdman cult and the birdman competition?

The birdman cult revolves, not surprisingly, as the name suggests, around a bird. More specifically, the bird was the manutara bird, or the sooty tern. In the Rapa Nui culture the manutara bird was often associated with the gods. So a connection to the bird would mean a connection to the gods and the one who would have this connection would become the ruler of the island for a whole year. But how did they establish this connection?

View of the Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao islands from Rapa Nui.
View of the Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao islands from Rapa Nui.

Every Spring the manutara bird came and lay its egg on the Motu Nui island, the largest of the three small islands off the south-west coast of Rapa Nui (picture above). The birdman competition took place every year around the arrival of the manutara bird. What the competitors had to do sounds pretty simple – get the egg of the bird and bring it back to the chief of his clan. Once the clan chief received the egg he became the ruler of the island for one year, until the next competition.

Things are never as easy as we hope they would be. Each clan chief had his designated competitor. He would choose a competitor who was well fit with great strength and courage. Oftentimes the competitors trained from a very young age to be able to compete in the birdman competition.

Rano Kau volcano where the birdman competition started.
Rano Kau volcano where the birdman competition started.

Before the manutara bird arrived, the competitors gathered at the Orongo village, close to the Rano Kau volcano (picture above). There, when the competition started the competitors had to climb down the volcano cliff to reach the water. They started their descent from the lower edge of the volcano cliff, noticeable in above picture. They had to climb down an almost vertical cliff of about 300 meters. Then, they had to swim for almost two km from Rapa Nui to Motu Nui in waters with strong currents and sharks. And, as if mother nature didn’t offer enough obstacles, they also had to be constantly on the lookout for the other competitors who might try to kill them at any moment to get rid of their competition.

Once they reached Motu Nui they still had quite a few challenges awaiting. Whoever survived the trip had to hide and live in tiny caves on Motu Nui until the manutara bird arrived. And, of course, they also had to find a way to avoid being killed by their competitors during this long wait for the bird.

When the bird arrived and laid its egg ,the first to get the egg let the people waiting on Rapa Nui know by shouting “Ka varu te puoko!”, which means “Shave your head!”. This signaled that someone had the egg and was returning to Rapa Nui. This might signal success, but the competition didn’t end here. He still had to get back to Rapa Nui and present the egg to his clan chief. This means he had to swim again for about two km and climb the 300 m cliff, now carrying an egg with him. To ensure the safety of the egg, the competitor placed the egg safely in a headband and then started his return adventure carrying the egg on his head.

The Tangata Manu or the Birdman

Once the competitor achieved his task of safely handing the manutara bird egg to his chief, he became the winner of the competition. He thus became the Tangata Manu or the birdman and became highly revered in society. For everyone to remember his courage and achievement, each Tangata Manu had his mark, a symbol of a being with human body and bird head, carved in the rocks at Orongo by the head of his clan. These petroglyphs are still visible today on the rocks surrounding the Rano Kau volcano. Moreover, the symbols of the Tangata Manu can be observed carved in rocks and caves (top picture) all over the island to forever preserve the bravery of the birdman.

The clan chief who received the manutara egg became the ruler of the island, thus ensuring peace among the different clans for another year.

Now think about it – would you chose to participate in such a competition if it meant creating peace and stopping an entire culture from going extinct? And if you did, would you be able to complete the tasks of this competition? If you think of all the challenges they had to overcome you can see why they were so highly regarded in their society. You would really have possess extraordinary strength and courage to participate and win the birdman competition.

The Protectors of Easter Island

The Protectors of Easter Island

You’ve probably heard many stories about Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) and about the moai, theories on how they were made, why they were made and how they were transported around the island. But how much of that is really true? This summer I spent ten days on Easter Island and I’ve learned so much about its fascinating history, and I’m happy to share it all with you.

What are the moai?

Moai at Ahu Tongariki

The moai are monolithic stone statues that are very specific to Rapa Nui. These majestic statues are found all around Rapa Nui, and, opposite to what some might say, they do not face the ocean. The moai are always facing inland, looking over the land of the different tribes of the island. They’re there to protect the people of the tribe they’re guarding. But how do they do that, you might wonder. Each moai is carved in the memory of a certain ancestor of that tribe, and that’s not just any ancestor, but very high-ranking ancestor, someone whose spiritual energy, called the mana, would be strong enough to protect the tribe. To do that, the moai were erected on platforms called ahu and there they were placed on top of the bones of that ancestor. This was done so that the mana of that person would move through the body of the moai upwards towards the head and then the mana was transmitted through their eyes, once these were in place, to their tribe. This way the Rapa Nui ancestors could always watch over their people and protect them.

Building the moai

The moai were built at the quarry at Rano Raraku, one of the volcanos on Easter Island. Walking around this site gives you the feeling that you’re walking through history. This is the home of many moai who never made it to their platforms, who were left there, either still in the process of carving, or carved and ready for transportation and even some who had attempts of transportation. You can see some of these moai at Rano Raraku in the image below, where you can see that parts of their bodies are in the ground, for some, that’s several meters underground. That was not intentional, and it happened because when the Rapa Nui stopped building and moving the moai, these moai that you see below were left there and constant rain on the island led to material from the mountain sliding down the slope covering large parts of their bodies. This is why sometimes people assume that the moai are just head statues, but, in fact, all moai had bodies.

The moai from the quarry at Rano Raraku

Going back to the building of the moai, at Rano Raraku the carvers had plenty of material to work with, as their material of choice for building the moai was the volcanic tuff. About 95% of the moai on Easter Island are made of volcanic tuff, while the other 5% are made of other materials, such as basalt, trachyte, or red scoria. Once the moai reached the ahu, they became alive when they were placed on the platform and the eyes were added in the eye sockets.

Another detail that you see in pictures of moai is a red top added on top of the moai heads. They are called pukao and are made of red scoria. Often people assume, wrongly, that the pukao are hats. In fact they are their hair, being representative of the topknots. The Rapa Nui people grew their hair long, their hair length being associated with the mana, so the pukao is placed on the top of the moai to help pass on the mana.

Transporting the moai

If you’re thinking of the size of these moai, which could reach 18 m, you can’t help but wonder how did the Rapa Nui people move them around the island without any modern means of transportation? There are pretty much just as many hypotheses of how this was done as they are about how and why they were built. While some of these theories are more worldly, saying that they were transported with the tree logs, which lead to the deforestation of the island, others are a bit more other-worldly, involving the help of ancient aliens, as if humans don’t have enough ingenuity to figure out by themselves how to transport the moai.

While all the theories sound interesting – some more realistic than others – recent studies have shed some light on this mystery. In fact, the way the moai got the the platforms is pretty simple – they walked. Obviously, they didn’t walk on their own, that would get us back to the ancient aliens stories, they walked with a bit of help from the Rapa Nui people.

With the majority of the moai being built at the Rano Raraku quarry, the walking of the moai from the quarry is easier to understand when you think of the fact that Rano Raraku is a volcano, and the moai were carved up on the mountain slope. This helped in getting the moai into their walking position – after carving, the moai were slid down the slope of the mountain until they reached flat ground. There, ropes were tied around the heads of the moai, eye level, and people on either side of the moai pulled the ropes, moving it slowly to their final resting place.

To learn more about the history of Rapa Nui, have a look at the birdman competition and see how the Rapa Nui people managed to maintain peace on the island.

If you’re interested in learning even more about the moai and Rapa Nui/Easter Island please subscribe to my newsletter using the form below because more posts on the fascinating history of Rapa Nui will follow.

The Stars of Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Stars of Louvre Abu Dhabi

Louvre Abu Dhabi, a truly universal museum, is a marvelous construction where art and architecture meet science and engineering to create a unique space that unites cultures.

One of the things I love about Abu Dhabi, and the UAE, is that this place represents a universal multicultural center that unites people from a large variety of cultures and religions. The UAE is a perfect example of a mixed population living harmoniously together in this multicultural center of the Middle East that everyone living here calls home. This idea of universality that we encounter all over the UAE is also reflected in the design of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Having the galleries organized in chronological order, from Ancient Times to Modern Times, makes it easy for the visitor to experience the similarities, at each point in time, between different cultures across the globe.

The ‘rain of light’ at Louvre Abu Dhabi

The special architecture of this universal museum, with its city-like design and a dome that appears to be floating turns Louvre Abu Dhabi itself into one giant work of art. Though it appears to float, the dome structure is made up of eight layers, weighing a total of about 7,500 tonnes. The unique arrangement of the eight layers of the dome, with their repeating pattern create the stars of Louvre Abu Dhabi. During the day the sun shines though the 7,850 unique stars giving birth to a rain of light (picture below), and during the night, when the dome is lit, you can admire from afar the beautiful shining stars of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The rain of light passing through the stars of Louvre Abu Dhabi

The art at Louvre Abu Dhabi

Walking through the different galleries of Louvre Abu Dhabi you get the chance to experience art and culture from around the world in chronological order. This way you are exposed to the evolution of art from various parts of the world. At the same time, you can see for yourself how, from prehistory to present, cultures from around the world are bound by similar creative ideas. So instead of building boundaries between countries and cultures, maybe we should learn how to appreciate the connections we share with one another as a human race.

The other “stars” of Louvre Abu Dhabi are, of course, the works of art that are showcased in this universal museum. Here, I’m only showing three of the beautiful artworks on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi, but there are so many more to explore and admire in all the museum galleries. First, there’s Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler, which I absolutely had to share as a Heritage Scientist who has seen the 1997 movie Bean, where the painting gets damaged and turns into a different kind of art. Then, there’s Ai Weiwei‘s Fountain of Light, with its 32,400 crystals inviting us to “see humanity in a new light”. And last, but not least, there’s The Cock by Constantin Brancusi. Being Romanian, I was very happy to see one of Brancusi’s sculptures on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi and had to share it with the world.

Top left: Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1, known as Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler
Bottom left: Fountain of Light by Ai Weiwei
Right: The Cock by Constantin Brancusi

If you’re ever in this region I recommend you take some time to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi to learn about the similarities between cultures from past to present and take some time to experience Abu Dhabi where you can also be emerged into a multicultural environment.

Palmyra – The Rebirth of an Ancient City

Palmyra – The Rebirth of an Ancient City

The ancient city of Palmyra is an excellent representation of human desire to preserve history and culture. You might be wondering why I take this optimistic view of the Palmyra ruins and all the destruction caused to this site throughout the millennia… The answer is that, after all the destruction it suffered, people always worked together to reconstruct it, to bring Palmyra back to life. And this gives me hope that, while some people (extremists) don’t value culture, there are many more people out there who care about our past and who are willing to work together to safeguard our World Heritage sites.

The site of Palmyra

Palmyra, ‘Pearl of the Desert’, a site located 210 km northeast of Damascus, was a very important city in antiquity. Historic accounts date its establishment date back to the 2nd millennium BC, followed by mentions in the Bible during the time of King Solomon. However, it was only during the 3rd century BC that Palmyra started flourishing. During this time it acted as a major hub on the Silk Road, a trade route connecting Persia, India, China and the Roman Empire. The many civilizations passing through this trading post heavily influenced its art and architecture. Owing to this, the site of Palmyra has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980 as a key cultural center from ancient history.

Nowadays, this vast ancient site includes many ruins, mentioning below few of them:

The destruction of Palmyra

We’re familiar with the news from the past years on the destruction inflicted by ISIS at Palmyra. Less familiar for many people is Palmyra’s troubled history. Being a significant establishment at the crossroads between the East and the West, Palmyra has suffered several conquers and destructions in the past. The major city downfalls occurred in 273 by the Roman Emperor Aurelian, the early 1400s by the Timurid Empire, each followed by its reconstruction. Its ruins were discovered in the 17th century, developing into a major touristic attraction of Syria due to its important historical and cultural contribution.

Al-Lat lion statue Palmyra

More recently, the chain of destruction at Palmyra continued with the capture of the site by the Islamic State or ISIS, first in May 2015 and then again in December 2016. During their occupation, ISIS caused damage to the Temple of Baalshamin, parts of the Temple of Bel, the facade of the theatre, the Tetrapylon, and several other tombs and statues, including a 2000 year old limestone statue of a lion, the Lion of Al-lāt.

The rebirth of Palmyra

Following the recapture of the site by the Syrian army in March 2017, the site was subjected to extensive renovations. UNESCO created an emergency safeguarding for the Portico of the Temple of Bel with a proposed budget of $150,000 for its restoration. Moreover, specialists at the National Museum of Damascus successfully reconstructed the statue of the Al-lāt lion. UNESCO and several countries offered to join efforts with Syria to help restore this historical site and its artifacts, thus revealing the global value of heritage. It’s only through joined efforts and working together that we can succeed in creating global change and protect our planet with its beauties, history and culture.

Let’s start the New Year with hope – hope that we’ve learned from our past mistakes and hope that we can create a better world by working together as a one entity – the humankind, and not as people separated by borders, religion, or race.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

African Proverb

Happy New Year to everyone!!

Reaching enlightenment and protecting the Borobudur Temple

Reaching enlightenment and protecting the Borobudur Temple

Spending my holidays in Indonesia I got the chance to learn about the local culture, savor the delicious local cuisine and explore many of the cultural sites of this beautiful country. One of the sites I visited is the Borobudur Temple, a symbol of reaching enlightenment in Buddhism.

The Borobudur Temple in Central Java province in Indonesia is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 8th-9th centuries AD, the Borobudur temple combines religious symbolism with art and architecture in a marvelous terraced structure with the Great Stupa at its top. Its terraced structure is a representation of the path to Nirvana and the different stages one needs to journey in order to attain enlightenment.

In 1991 the Borobudur Temple was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is now a protected monument. What kind of factors lead to the deterioration of this temple and what do we need to protect it from?

Earthquakes decapitating the Buddha statues

Indonesia is situated in a a region of high tectonic plate activity, being surrounded by several tectonic plates. Their movement leads to the occurrence of many high-magnitude earthquakes in the region, and many more of lower magnitude.

Walking around on the different levels of the temple I noticed that many of the Buddha statues from the temple architecture are missing their heads. Through further inquiry, I found out that there are 504 Buddha statues displayed in the Borobudur temple structure and more than 200 of them lost their heads during earthquakes in the past. The neck is the weakest part of a Buddha statue and when struck by a powerful earthquake it can easily be broken and the head is detached from the body. Thanks to Science, some of heads that were found in the area were reattached to their bodies.

Volcanic ash from Mount Merapi

The Borobudur Temple is located in the vicinity of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano. Its name, meaning “mountain of fire” describes perfectly its high volcanic activity. Its most recent eruption was in May 2018, just one month before my visit in this region.

In the 2010 Mount Merapi eruption, a layer of up to 2.5 cm of volcanic ash was deposited on the surface of the Borobudur temple. The acidic nature of the volcanic ash is a big cause of concern towards the preservation of the site. This is because the acid can deteriorate the stone structure. Therefore, immediate action towards a thorough cleaning of the ash-covered temple was taken as it is crucial to its conservation.

Climate leading to biodegradation

The humidity in this region created the perfect environment for the growth of moss, algae and lichens. Due to these ideal climate conditions for the growth of these plants, they invade the stone structure, which can lead to its degradation. Constant action, through cleaning and brushing of the stones, must be taken against these biological factors to protect this UNESCO World Heritage site from biodegradation.

People reaching for the Buddha statue

It is said that if you touch the Buddha statue inside the stupa and make a wish it will be granted. For this reason, many of the tourists visiting the Borobudur temple try to touch the statue. However, touching the stupa and the Buddha inside can lead, in time, to breakage of the stone. Since more than 1 million people visit the site every year, touching the stupa and the Buddha could have severe consequences. Tourists are now advised not to touch the stupa and not to step on its stone in order to reach the Buddha inside. If we can’t protect this monument from the force of nature, we should at least try to protect it from people.

I can understand that everyone has wishes and would like to see certain things happening. But don’t you think it would be better to just take action towards our goals and do everything we can to make them happen rather than touching this precious site of cultural heritage with the possibility of destroying it with our actions?

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