The living Sardinian Stone Age

Sòrgono is a long village between the mountains of Barbagia in Sardinia. In fact, it is the gate of Barbagia. The narrow gauge railway from Cagliari – a former miner’s railway – also struggles up to this point. For centuries, its surroundings have been a meeting place for the region’s shepherds, who drive their flocks up to the mountain pastures from here on April 25, St. Mark’s Day, and then down from there on September 29, St. Michael’s Day. Around the village, lonely medieval shepherd’s churches stand here and there in a valley or on a hilltop. Before the spring departure and after the fall arrival, the shepherds gather at these with their flocks, family members and flock owners, to ask for divine help in a big joint Holy Mass for the lonely life that will last for half a year, and later to say thanks for the help they received. Churches are sometimes opened on other major holidays, for example, on Easter Monday, when young shepherds hold a common feast and roast sheep next to them. Such as at the Gothic San Mauro shepherd’s church, to which we are heading now.

But before we get to the church which stands six kilometers from the village, I have an urgent task. I have to fill AdBlue in our van, otherwise it will stop. On Easter Sunday I was looking in vain for an open gas station in Sardinia. By Easter Monday, the quantity drops below the critical line. I can only do a maximum of fifty kilometers. However, the gas station in Sòrgono is also closed. I could buy fuel with card, but AdBlue could be bought only in the shop. I ask the two Sardinians filling up their cars where we could buy it. They discuss it, they mention shops “uptown”, but then they agree that they are also closed. They speak Italian with difficulty and awkwardly, it seems they only use Sardinian on a daily basis. The older one starts making calls in this language. “My uncle has it in Artzana, four kilometers from here. Come after me.” We follow him. We stop in front of a real jack-of-all-trades courtyard, like the ones in the outskirts of Budapest when I was a child. Disassembled engines, tile mosaics about to be assembled, parts of unknown purpose in a circle. The uncle begins to pour AdBlue from a thirty-liter demijohn into a five-liter wine jug. I take it out to fill in the van. “But this is white wine”, Miki says, and he repeats to the puzzled uncle: “vino bianco”. “I also have it!”, he replies happily. He opens a large iron door next to the workshop and invites us into a hypermodern cellar with steel fermentation tanks. In the meantime, I want to pay for the AdBlue, but he says it was out of friendship, we should try the wine instead. We are in a hurry, but it would be an insult to refuse this offer. He pours everyone white wine, then red, and then even homemade champagne. He says that he cultivates fifteen thousand vines on three hectares alone, now he has a thousand and four hundred liters in the cellar. “And which sorts?” “Well”, he laugsh, “I have ten different sorts of red, I mix them together. And also eight sorts of white.” In the meantime, the nephew announces that there is a religious feast at the Lusurgiu shepherd’s church eight kilometers away, they cook for five hundred people, there is dancing, mutton roasting, and we all are welcome. We’re drooling, but we brush it off, because someone has to check in at Cagliari airport in three hours.

Then we would not find a single gas station, café or shop open until the airport. Without this unexpected help, we would not have reached Cagliari that day.

The shepherd’s church San Mauro rises on a small hill next to the Sòrgono-Ortueri road. A squat structure with strong buttresses on both sides, its square façade has a huge rose window, similar to many other Sardinian Gothic churches, such as the parish church in Gavoi. The semicircular protective cornice above the rose window is supported by two clumsy angels. On each of the two railings of the steps leading up to the gate, a recumbent lion holds a coat of arms, most probably of Aragon, now indelible.

Abbot St. Maurus, the patron saint of the church, was the first disciple of St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order around 510. According to tradition, he brought Benedictine monasticism to Gaul. His biography full of miracles, which founded his cult, was also written there, in the abbey of Glanfeuil on the Loire, in the 9th century. He was especially revered in Sardinia, many churches were dedicated to him. As he was a Benedictine monk, the church near Sòrgono dedicated to him was also long assumed to be the remains of a former monastery of this order. However, no written or archaeological sources indicate the existence of such a monastery. It seems that, since its building in 1574 – or, more likely, from the building of an earlier church standing here – it has always served as a shepherd’s church.

As I mentioned, the main function of shepherds’ churches was to serve as a ritual meeting place of shepherds transhuming – that is, marching up and down between winter and summer pastures – on April 25 and September 29. At this time, the anthropomorphic breads that the shepherds brought with them were blessed, as I presented in the post about Sardinian breads. But the church of San Mauro has also had its own special holidays. January 15, the day of St. Maurus is Santu Maru de is dolos, the feast of St. Maurus of pains, when he is mainly asked for soothing rheumatic pains. On Easter Monday – that is, when we were there – is Sant Maru de is flores, the spring festival of St. Maurus of the flowers. But the biggest holiday is the last Sunday of May, Sagra ’e Santu Maru, or Santu Maru erriccu, the day of the rich St. Maurus, who brings abundant harvest and flocks. This holiday is surrounded by a six-day pilgrimage and animal fair, to which pilgrims come from all over the island.

The interior of the church, of which I have never been able to take my own photo

The memory of the centuries-long celebrations is preserved by the numerous graffiti that were scratched and carved into the stones of the church’s façade. Most of them are of a “hic fuit” type, showing the visitor’s name and year, and some even his schematic figure. But many pictures depict the façade of the church itself in a schematic form, as if the pilgrim would bring it as an offering to the great church, just as in other pictures the founders hold the model of the church in their hands, or as in the Neolithic Sardinian nuraghi, the towers made of large stones, there stood a small bronze or stone model of the nuraghe for magical protection.

sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1 sanmauro1

I wrote centuries, but what if it’s more like millennia? Transhuming shepherding is much older than Christianity, and the shepherds must have held ritual meetings here during their ascents into and descents from the mountains even before that. But where?

It would be obvious to say that in the same place, on the site of the church. But knowing the topography of the area, an even more obvious and much more surprising explanation offers itself.

A few hundred meters from the church, under giant cork oaks, stands the megalith complex Biru ’e Concas, erected in the 3rd millennium BC, one of the most important monuments of Neolithic Sardinia. The complex ensemble consists of three rows of menhirs, separated from each other by a short footpath. The majority of the menhirs – in Sardinian, perdas fittas, stones stuck in the ground – are flat stones without any symbol, but two show anthropomorphic patterns. An eye and a nose were carved on top of one, and a broad-bladed Sardinian knife around the waist on the other, just like in the richly carved anthropomorphic menhirs exhibited in the Laconi Menhir Museum.

Around the three rows, a number of additional menhirs – about 150 in total – are standing or lying on the ground, either alone or in the form of a circle.

sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2 sanmauro2

These menhirs, of which there are many still standing all over Sardinia, were mostly associated to large megalithic tombs, which the Sardinian folk calls tomba de gigantes, tombs of giants. These graves – like the megaliths of Coddu ’Ecchiu and Li Lolghi in the pictures below – were the burial places of prominent leaders, tribal or village chiefs, ancestors, “kings”. And the graves of the ancestors were surrounded by menhirs representing the mourners or descendants. Their being human representations is often emphasized by their anthropomorphic features: eyes and noses, daggers worn on the waist by men, and bulging breasts by women.

Tamuli near Macomer: three male and three female menhirs in a row next to a tomba de gigantes

It is a fascinating experience to stand by these huge rows of stones, which bear witness to a culture of many millennia without any words or signs, but with stubborn expressive power. To a culture that dominated a large part of Europe before the Celts, and which we must consider as the root of our European civilization even before the Greek culture.

The tombas de gigantes got their name from the fact that their burial chambers deep in the ground far exceed the length of the human body. The reason is that, in addition of the resting place of the dead, the tombs also served as sanctuaries for the living, as evidenced by the small lower gate of their central menhir. As recorded by many ancient authors, before a big decision or initiation into manhood, the Sardinians entered the grave of a revered ancestor, and spent a night or two in the chamber, without eating or drinking, only munching on the hallucinogenic plant called sardonium, and accepting the visions experienced here as a guidance. This custom was called incubatio by the Latin authors, and this term was adopted by modern psychological literature as well.

Unlike in the continent, Christianity took root in Sardinia without destroying such cultic places, tombs and menhirs. They were probably no longer regarded as pagan sanctuaries, but as respectable graves and memorial stones of the ancestors, which is why they were able to survive in thousands on the island. The continuing cult of the menhir rows of Biru ’e Concas is evidenced by the fact that the transhuming shepherds still hold celebrations around them to this day. This was probably the original cult place of the ascent and descent, which only moved a few hundred meters away with the construction of the first church of San Mauro. A similar prehistory is found in many other pastoral churches in Sardinia, which were also built in the immediate vicinity of Neolithic sacred places, in order to consecrate the place according to the new religion, while preserving the old site as a representative of the ancestors and the tradition.

That the shepherd’s church really took over the sacred role of the former tomba de gigantes and menhir ensemble, is evidenced by one more proof. It is the modest pilgrim accommodations that are attached to the church’s sanctuary and surround the church’s courtyard. These puritan rooms are called in Sardinian cumbissía (mostly in the plural, cumbissías). As Massimo Pittau, an excellent researcher of the Neolithic Sardinian culture points out, not only the name, but also their function is related to incubatio. The little rooms all face the church. Pilgrims have stayed in them in order to get a dream during one or more nights spent near the holy place that will guide them on their life’s journey.

If this is the case, then the shepherd’s church of San Mauro and its celebrations which are still alive today, are as extraordinary representatives of the Sardinian Stone Age as the procession of the mamuthones in masquerade burying the winter in Mamoiada.


At dusk I am standing in front of the Staatsbibliothek with two large bags of loan books on my shoulders. I’m looking on my mobile which bus comes first. I hear a shy voice behind me: “Would you like an apple?” I turn around and see the speaker matching the voice, a small, shy, thin-faced homeless person who offers me a beautiful red-yellow apple. I don’t want to deprive him of this beauty. “No, thanks.” “And do you have an euro for me?” he asks in elegant German. I dig in my pockets. I hate coins, I usually try to get rid of them as soon as possible, but luckily now I find a two-euro piece. While I’m searching, he tells me that he really likes apples, but the other day he almost choked on one, it got stuck in his throat and he could barely cough it out. As he talks, I can see that he only has one tooth like in the cartoons. It is difficult to safely eat apples like this. He thanks me for the coin, and offers me the apple once more. I turn it down once more, although later I recall that maybe I should have done better to him by accepting it. “Then let me give you something else”, he says. He begins to search his infinite number of pockets. He cannot find it. He searches through them again. I know this, I have exactly the same number of pockets. After a while, I say: “It’s okay. Next time”, I almost add inshallah, since this year I have guided mainly in Muslim countries this far. I start to go towards the subway. After some two hundred meters, I hear his muffled voice behind me: “Hallo, guter Mensch!” I turn around, he reaches me. He reaches out his clenched fist. “This is it. I have found it. I don’t know whether it is made of gold or not. Maybe it brings luck, maybe not.” He pours it into my hand. I say thanks, einen schönen Abend noch. I only look at it in the light of the lamp.

Hagia Sophia through the back door

In July 2020, Turkish President Erdoğan restored by decree the mosque status of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, which was transformed into a mosque in 1453, after the capture of Constantinople, and then into a museum in 1934 by Atatürk’s decision. This decision, by which Erdoğan sought to favor his conservative voter base and illustrate his own authoritarian power, sparked protest around the world. The public nature of the museum made it a kind of bridge between cultures and religions, and its non-denominational accessibility symbolized that it was not only part of Islam, but of the world’s heritage, a common cultural treasure of humanity. Sharia, of course, does not recognize such categories. But what will happen to the beautiful Byzantine mosaics rediscovered after 1934 and made publicly visible, which are obviously incompatible with an active mosque, since this is why they were whitewashed in 1453? And how can hundreds of thousands of tourist visit a cult place that serves prayer? Erdoğan dismissed these problems: “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”, he said. That promise has since been proven to be a lie.

At the time of the decision, these questions were not relevant, because the country was still closed to tourists due to Covid. When it was possible to travel again in 2021, I visited the cathedral with curiosity. The change was big. You could enter the building without a ticket, but only to the lower level. The gallery with most of the mosaics was closed to visitors. Many people were praying in the mosque. The prominent mosaics visible from here – the image of the Mother of God with the child Jesus on the vault of the apse, above the current mihrab, and the archangel Gabriel on her left – were covered by stretched canvases.

The apse mosaic of Hagia Sophia in 2019 (above) and 2021 (below)

Before our current trip to Istanbul, news spread that the gallery had been opened. We visited the cathedral again with curiosity. The result, to put it kindly, is half-baked. The lower level can be entered only by Turkish citizens – so much for Erdoğan’s promise. The entrance to the gallery is on the back side of the church, from the side towards Topkapı Sarayı. It is a makeshift tunnel with electronic access gates. The ticket office is opposite the tunnel, with a long line in front of it for the €25 ticket (which is more expensive than the most expensive Western ticket I know, the one for the Vatican Museum). Tickets can supposedly be bought online, but according to the local guards, it is not recommended, because the electronic entry gate often does not recognize the electronic ticket code. In such cases, the ticket is reset, and a new one must be purchased by waiting for your turn in the line.

Later, I experience that online ticket buying is virtual in the strict sense of the word. In some of the overlappingmandatory sections of the poorly designed website it is simply impossible to enter data. Thus, the queue is the only way to go.

When you are finally inside, a spiral staircase takes you directly to the gallery. It has a gently sloping, knurled surface. It was obviously used for bringing up construction material fifteen hundred years ago.

You can walk around the gallery and see everything: the mosaics depicting the emperors and their spouses, the beautiful Deesis mosaic, the pictures of the three church fathers on the wall of the northern gallery facing the interior, the Viking runes scratched into the marble of the southern gallery by the bored bodyguards.

Christ Pantokrator, with Empress Zoe and her third husband, Constantine IX Monomachus on either side. Made between 1028 and 1042. The mosaic originally depicted her first husband, Romanos Argyros. Only the head was replaced in 1042 for that of her third husband.

The Mother of God, with Emperor John Komnenos and his wife Eirene (the Hungarian Piroska, daughter of St. Ladislas, King of Hungary) on her both sides. To the right, on the turning wall, the heir to the throne, Alexios, who died early. Made between 1118 and 1143

Deesis, i.e. the plea of the Mother of God and Saint John the Baptist to Christ the Pantokrator. It was made in 1261, after the reconquest of Constantinople from the Crusaders. John’s title “ὁ πρόδρομος”, the forerunner is translated as “pioneer” by the informative inscription

You can also look down on the lower level, and you can see how Turkish citizens – most of them tourists just like you, no one is praying, so the segregation is more discriminatory than religious – are walking around in the mosque. However, you cannot go down.

hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1 hagiasophia1

And some pictures from 2021, when foreigners could admire the church also from the lower level:

hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2 hagiasophia2

This is a particularly big loss for us Hungarians. After all, on either side of the mihrab stand the two large bronze candlesticks that King Matthias had made in Buda in Italian Renaissance style, and which Sultan Suleyman took from the Church of Our Lady in Buda Castle after the sacking of the city in 1526, along with the library, weapon collection, bronze statues and the library of Matthias’s palace as well as with the treasures of the churches of Buda and Pest. Until now, you could admire them up close, and even a sign proved their coming from Buda. Now, viewed from the gallery, they are almost indistinguishable in the covering of cult objects. As if we had been robbed a second time. Along with all of humanity.

The candlesticks on either side of the mihrab back in 2021

At the same time as the Hagia Sophia, the greatest treasure of Byzantine art, the Chora church, was also reclassified from a museum to a mosue, even though its mosaics had only recently been restored with many years of work. It was also closed immediately, and since then noises of work can be heard from it. It is rumored that it will also be opened within a mont or two. But there, all the mosaics are in the cult space of the mosque. I wonder what the combination of violence, stupidity and hypocrisy experienced in Hagia Sophia will result there?