The fig tree grows its flowers strangely inside out, concealed within the soft interior of the fruit. Erszébet imagines the fig’s hidden fairy weight of seeds, grown in sweetness that is also a darkness. Like treasure in a cave.
―Jody Shields,The Fig Eater
We are accustomed to seeing stylized imitations of plant and rock textures and forms decorating our homes, workplaces and just about anywhere we go. Cave stalactites have found their way into architecture as well, in the ornate form called mocárabe or muqarna. Also known in Arabic as al-halimat al-‘uliya, or the overhang, mocárabe is an ornamental design that originated in northern Africa and Iran in the 10th Century, consisting of sculpted geometric shapes projecting downward from a surface.
Perhaps the most famous use of this beautiful decoration in the West is in the Alhambra palace of Granada, built under the direction of the Nasrid dynasty in Spain. Above is the domed ceiling of the Sala de los dos Hermanas, the Room of the two Sisters, reaching down like an exquisite, lacy flower. The regularity and mathematical precision of the mocárabe are hypnotic, somehow soothing.
Nearby is the star shaped dome of the Sala de los Abencerrajes, the Room of the Abencerrages, with its stunningly placed windows throwing patterns of light and shadow over the fantastic mocárabe, which resemble images in a giant kaleidoscope.
The name of the room stems from a legend in which an unnamed sultan slew the entire Abencerrages family for an unsolicited affair between one of their number and a royal lady. He reportedly had them shut up in this beautiful room, then ordered his men to kill them. There is an evocative red rust stain in a fountain at the center of the room which may have inspired or at least given given credence to the story. Perhaps it was a fable, someone’s idea of discouraging hanky-panky in the court. One can see how imaginations might run wild in such a fantastic place.
Looking into a corner in the Sala de los Abencerrajes
The invocation of the cave is so strong in some of these rooms that I can imagine some vampire hanging about as a bat, living it up Dracula style.
Another of Nasrid work can be seen at the Corral del Carbòn in Granada, a simple storehouse originally used for foodstuffs and later for charcoal. The work here is less delicate and fine, but it is still pretty impressive, especially considering the function of the building.
Mocárabe became so ingrained in Spanish culture that it was incorporated into the Palacio Real de Aranjuez in Madrid, the residence of the King of Spain, commissioned by Philip II and finished in the mid 18th century.
Islamic craftsmen and artists have been extremely creative in their use of texture and patterning in decoration, partially because figures of humans and animals were not permitted for their use on religious grounds. To portray any being which contains the breath of life can be seen as an affront to God, an attempt to create like He created, but to focus the mind in patterns is recognized as a centering and meditative practice.
Islamic geometric patterns are second to none in their mathematical elegance, complexity and beauty. The mocárabe itself may have spiritual significance, perhaps symbolizing the cave in which Mohammed received the Koran.
Mocárabe was originally introduced to Spain and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Almoravid dynasty of Morocco, centered at Marrakesh, who ruled over southern Spain and were instrumental in defending the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus (Andalusia) against the Christian army of the Castilian and Aragonese. Much of the richness of southern Spanish culture is due to the influence of the highly advanced Islamic civilization which flourished there from 711 to 1492 AD. You can read more here. There is much more beauty to be found.
The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
Synkroniciti is fond of Lewis Thomas. We’ve quoted him before here and again here.
Caves are places of deep spiritual significance, containing connotations of safety and shelter on one hand and darkness and terror on the other. Much like the human psyche itself, a cavern is a mysterious and disorienting place which both invites and evades exploration. It is no surprise that, over the centuries, humans have built temples and shrines inside of caves, filling the walls with paintings, the chambers with statues, and hewing into the rock itself. Here are a few such places.
Sutri is a small town near Rome with an ancient past. There are dozens of Etruscan tombs carved into the hillsides, forming a cemetery which predates Roman civilization. Nestled amongst these tombs is the Church of the Madonna del Parto, or Mother of the Birth. This beautiful and eerie little cave was, in Roman times, used as a Mithraeum, a chamber sacred to the deity Mithras, who was said to be born in a cave. It was long ago converted into a Christian church, expunging obvious traces of its former use and covering its walls with romanesque touches and frescos.
The Magao caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are an enormous complex near Dunhuang, China, formerly a strategic outpost and cultural center on the Silk Road. Numbering almost 500, the caves are filled with Buddhist shrines and also contained a library which has been divided among museums all over the world. Under construction from 366 to 1368 AD, they contain culture from many dynasties, exhibiting different styles and changes in thought. You can read about and explore the caves in depth at the Dunhuang Academy Website.
Magao Cave 428 is exceptionally large and contains many murals of differing styles dating from the Northern Zhou dynasty, 557-581 AD. The size and richness of this particular cave are due to edicts that Emperor Wu issued persecuting Buddhists. Monks from many parts of China fled to the remoteness of Dunhuang to escape death and persecution and to build sanctuaries to preserve their faith. You can read more about Cave 428 here.
The difference in style between the mural from Cave 428 and the tenth century mural above is extreme. The later work is much more flowery and has a completely different grasp of shading and perspective, while the first has similarities to Christian iconography from Eurasia, especially to paintings of haloed saints. Thoughts and styles traveled fluidly along the Silk Road.
Ellora is another ancient place, a village in the state of Maharashtra, on the western side of India. This cave complex is impressive for its architecture and sculpture, as well as its ecumenical nature. Of the 34 cave shrines, 12 are Buddhist (5th to 7th century), 17 are Hindu (6th to 8th century) , and 5 are Jain (10th century), attesting to the level of religious tolerance which existed for centuries in the region.
The Hindu Temple of Kailashnatha, dedicated to Shiva, is widely considered to be the most impressive of the shrines. It required 100 years to hew it from the rock complete with artistic flourishes and ornaments, while 200,000 tons of rock were removed in the process. It is difficult to get a concept of the size of the temple, since it begins in the dark far below. The Kailashnatha stands in an area more than twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and its three stories were carved from the top down, gradually descending into the depths. Yipes!
In contrast, the Buddhist Shrine of Cave 10, know as Vishwakarma or Sutar ka jhopda, Carpenter’s hut, is elegant in its simplicity. A 15 foot Buddha is seated in preaching pose, cheerfully waiting in the dark for the faithful to arrive and meditate, while a vaulted ceiling, which might remind you of an European cathedral, soars overhead. Again, ideas travelled far more widely among people and religions in the past than we are accustomed to believe. Behind him is a stupa which may contain relics or the ashes of monks. This fellow seems rather inviting, as opposed to the aggressive impressiveness of many such sites or the haunted loneliness of others.
When they reached the end of the room he stopped, and muttered some words she could not understand. She opened her eyes, and saw the wall slowly fading away like a mist, and a great black cavern in front of her. A bitter cold wind swept around them, and she felt something pulling at her dress. “Quick, quick,” cried the Ghost, “or it will be too late,” and, in a moment, the wainscoting had closed behind them, and the Tapestry Chamber was empty.
My theory is we don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and ask quickly if anybody’s there.
Remember the Fortress of Solitude from Superman comics and movies? In 2000, miners near Naica, Mexico stumbled upon something miraculous. Near 1,000 feet (over 300 meters) below the surface, where temperatures can reach upwards of 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) with %100 percent humidity, lay a chamber full of giant selenium (gypsum) crystals. The largest measured to date is around 39 feet long (almost 12 meters).
In 2010, a film crew descended to capture the scene for the BBC. Read photographer and camera man Paul Williams’ article about the spellbinding and dangerous experience here. You can also see a clip from the film made in the cave. He had an amazing journey.
Only a few hundred people have entered the Cueva de los Cristales, most with Sinusit respirators and Tolomea suits packed with ice, both made specifically for the cave environment. The heat and humidity are extremely deadly; even equipped properly it becomes unsafe after about 20 minutes, as moisture begins to condense in the lungs. Prolonged exposure leads to suffocation by drowning, followed by baking. Without equipment a person won’t last more than 10 minutes.