Bolshoi Zayatsky, Russia

Mysterious Russian Babylons

About to leave
On the way to Orthodoxy
rocky island
Orthodoxy on board
autumnal scenario
firewood & others
autumnal orthodoxy
conversation on board
Convenient anchorage
Beyond the rocky coast
Return to deck
Insular Orthodoxy
photographic moment
A set of prehistoric spiral labyrinths made of stones decorate Bolshoi Zayatsky Island, part of the Solovetsky archipelago. Devoid of explanations as to when they were erected or what it meant, the inhabitants of these northern reaches of Europe call them vavilons.

We woke up in the wake of a night spent together in the house shared by Andrey Ignatiev and Alexey Sidnev, originally from Arkhangelsk, temporary residents of Solovetsky, an archipelago scattered across the White Sea's Onega Bay, the same sea that welcomed Bolshoi Zayatsky.

Andrey and Alexey are both geological engineers. They were preparing a plumbing network that the island had long lacked. The duo only spoke Russian. Fluent in English, Alexey Kravchenko, the guide of Saint Petersburg who accompanied and guided us, supported us as a translator and relational link.

He had the help of the unavoidable vodka, of course. Not even aware that we had to wake up at 7:30 am, it occurred to us to reject the hosts' genuine and generous drink offer. The vodka we were served could only be of excellent quality.

Os gherkins of cucumbers and other vegetables, part of the delicacies with which Russians in general are used to accompanying and mitigating alcohol, gave us a dawn without major dramas, which does not mean easy, much less a good mood.

Dawn and Navigation Towards Bolshoi Zayatsky

The new day also dawned like this: gray as we hadn't seen it for two days. We pack the backpacks. We had an improvised breakfast with the grocery stores that accompanied us. We slammed the door of the Soviet apartment and gave ourselves up to toil.

It is with our faces pinched by the dawn cold that we walk towards the small local port, little more than a reinforced wall that limited a mirror water. When we got there, a group of Russian visitors was already waiting in a mirth, in the vicinity of the “pechak”, a boat named after one of the archipelago's emblematic capes.

Two crew members appearing from the interior give boarding order. Shortly thereafter, we set sail for the White Sea.

Orthodox nun, Bolshoi Zayatski Island, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

Orthodox nun follows aboard the Pechak boat that connects Solovetsky to Bolshoi Zayatski.

The light wind little or nothing stirred the neutral vastness we were plowing. But only the displacement of the vessel was enough to chill the bones and souls of western and accidental tourists from whom the other passengers struggled to understand the origin.

Passenger boat Pechak, White Sea, Solovetsky Islands

Passengers from Pechak photograph the island coast of the Solovetsky archipelago.

Almost an hour after departure, we saw the outline of buildings on one of the almost shallow islands that followed. With the approach of "pechak”, we noticed that the tallest and most irregular was an old wooden Orthodox church installed beyond a coastal strip full of large rounded stones and trunks. Next to it, two brick and stone houses seemed to serve the temple. We were in Bolshoi Zayatsky.

Orthodox Church, Bolshoi Zayatski, Solovetsky Islands, Russia.

Orthodox church and supporting buildings above the stony coastline of Bolshoi Zayatsky.

Landing and First Steps

The "pechak” docks at the end of a wooden pontoon. A tall, slender, blond young crew member dressed in a camouflaged military uniform completes the ditching and a new release order.

One by one, we all walked along the walkway installed on a stone base that connected the jetty to the entrance to the church. Ahead follows the only passenger in clashing attire, snuggled in a full-length yellow oilcloth.

A more composed group is formed than the embarkation group. The young man in the oilcloth assumes his role as a guide and begins a long dissertation in Russian. At first, we remained in the group, attentive to the translated explanations that Alexey Kravchenko gave us.

Shortly thereafter, the entourage splits. We also missed Alexey. We are left with our own sensory discovery of Bolshoi Zayatsky that despite the adjective (bolshoi = large) is only 1.25 km2

Bolshoi Zayatski Orthodox Church, Solovetsky Islands, Russia.

Walkway leads to the old wooden church of Bolshoi Zayatski.

A Mysterious Sub-Arctic Island

A multicolored vegetation lined the island. Reddish and yellowish bushes stood out above the predominant green. And a stray colony of stones dotted the carpet formed by a kind of lush tundra gorse.

We return to the group. They had stopped once more by the guide, in an area of ​​the island where the underbrush of greenery formed an intricate tangle of furrows.

The leader returns to his verbal charge. We join Alexey who, in turn, is intrigued. In such a way that it limits itself to listening and transmits little or nothing to us. "This is really very very bizarre!" he finally lets go, astonished at what the guide could not explain.

This is the normal manifestation of those who are confronted with those strange monuments that are now lithic-vegetable or hear trustworthy descriptions of them. It's not just its esoteric composition that amazes.

The reason why the labyrinths are concentrated in an area of ​​only 400m remains to be determined.2 from the west of Bolshoi Zayatsky, while about 850 moles arise mainly from the east. How, incidentally, the dispersion of both megalithic elements across the various islands of the Solovetsky archipelago is enigmatic.

In Bolshoi Zayatsky the labyrinths are fourteen. In the overall tally of the Solovetsky Islands, there are thirty-five, all made of local stones. The smallest is six meters in diameter. The diameter of the largest measures twenty-five meters. Apart from the labyrinths and molds, there are also several petroglyphs.

Orthodox church in autumn, Bolshoi Zayatski, Solovetsky Islands, Russia.

Russian orthodox church in short autumn setting of Solovetsky archipelago.

Questions Labyrinths Don't Answer: Who? Like? Why

The heart of this spiraling question is obvious: who built them? When? For what? In any case, the attempts at explanation come from a long time ago and are disparate, a bit like the northern parts of which stone labyrinths of the same type can be found: England, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Russia.

In most cases, they were created on islands, peninsulas, estuaries and river mouths, with unispiral, bispiral, concentric and radial shapes. Its surrounding shapes are circular or oval. Only in rare cases, square.

The European distribution of these labyrinths has sent several of the scientists intrigued by the phenomenon to the ethnic profile of the Nordic peoples, in the particular case of the Kola Peninsula and the area around the White Sea, to the background of the current Sami people that inhabits, today, the north of Norway, of the Finland and northwestern Russia.

Orthodox Crosses, Bolshoi Zayatski, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

Orthodox crosses on the coast of Bolshoi Zayatski island, Solovetsky archipelago

Saivos and Other Theories for all tastes

In 1920, Russian scientist N. Vinogradov theorized that labyrinths were I leave, sacred mountains in which the souls of the deceased roamed. However, the definition of I leave received serious additions. THE Encyclopaedia Britannica defines them as “one of the Sami regions of the dead, in which the saivoolmak (deceased) lived happy lives in the world savoir supernatural with their families and ancestors.

The Sami believed that the saivoolmak they built tents, hunted, fished and lived as they had lived on the face of the Earth. You savoir they were considered sacred and sources of power that could be used by shamans. When the shamans wished to enter a trance, they summoned the guardian spirits of the I leave.”

It was understood, therefore, that the labyrinths functioned as a kind of boundary between the world of the living and the spirits and that they were used in rituals carried out to help souls to pass from one world to another.

Stone and bush maze, Bolshoi Zayatski, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

Russian visitor from Bolshoi Zayatski leaves one of the island's labyrinths.

Vlad Abramov's Labyrinth Walk

We were mostly busy finding the best perspectives and documenting them. But, there were already several people who took the trouble to follow its mystical paths. Vlad Abramov, a dedicated investigator of Bolshoi Zayatsky's labyrinths, experimented with traversing them.

So he described what he felt. “After entering a labyrinth and repeatedly walking around the center, one leaves the center through the same entrance. After several laps, it becomes unclear how much has already been walked and how much remains to be done. In subjective terms, time stops but, in a clock, the great labyrinth is covered in fifteen minutes.

It's hard to be distracted; the track is narrow. Requires looking at your feet. The rail rotates both clockwise and backwards. Finally, the exit appears and one is glad that the journey is over.”

Millennial labyrinth, Bolshoi Zayatski Island, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

A visitor from Bolshoi Zayatski bypasses one of the island's many labyrinths.

The guide in the peculiar yellow oilcloth continued his explanations in Russian. These, so demanded the concentration of Alexey, that we continued without his transmission of knowledge. For us, as for all mortals, the mystery lingered. The theory of savoir is. Contradicted by several others that are gradually more earthly.

Calendars? Fish Traps ?

Some scholars argue that the labyrinths were built by fishermen during stormy days, in order to trap evil spirits, or a kind of mythological goblins that brought bad luck. In this context, fishermen walked to the center of the labyrinths and attracted the spirits until they lost them at sea.

The former Soviet mathematician, now Russian Yuri Yershov, came up with a third, mixed explanation: that labyrinths served as a kind of schematic mirrors of the moon's orbit and the sun's apparent orbit, used as useful calendars.

According to another postulation, from 1970, by historian and anthropologist Nina Nikolaevna Gurina (1909-1990), instead of being used to drive evil spirits out to sea, Bolshoi Zayatsky's labyrinths were nothing more than fish traps.

Firewood in support house, Bolshoi Zayatski Island, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

Back of a Bolshoi Zayatski support house.

That would be the reason why almost all of them were built by the sea, in areas that, between three and five millennia ago, were covered by the advance and retreat of the tides. According to Gurina NN, the fish swam through the entrance and were trapped in the labyrinths, which facilitated their capture by the natives.

A Mystery To Last

Whatever its true reason for being, millennia later, the labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky, the Solovetsky Islands and pre-Arctic northern Europe in general continue to seduce travelers and scientists eager to solve the riddle.

Several, publish works and maintain blogs dedicated to the theme, some full of graphic schemes and geometric analysis and formulas. In any case, these works and blogs are sources of knowledge as hermetic as the mazes they cover. And they generate heated debates.

We reverse direction over the walkway and return to the church's surroundings. The ancient temple was also built there as a form of Christian affirmation against the pagan beliefs that the ancestral peoples had spread in Bolshoi Zayatsky and throughout the region.

It has been so punished by the harsh climate in these parts of Russia that it is fragile. Even so, the guide opens the door for us so that everyone, religiously everyone, could peek inside.

Pechak boat, Bolshoi Zayatski, Solovetsky Islands, Russia

The Pechak boat awaits the return of visitors from Bolshoi Zayatski.

Through a steamed-up window in the temple, we noticed that the crew of the “pechak” was already collecting the ropes that held the ship. Shortly thereafter, we sailed from Bolshoi Zayatsky towards the Solovetsky Island, she too is the master of her secrets.


A TAP flies from Lisbon to Moscow on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 2:3 pm, arriving at 5:6 am. And it flies from Moscow to Lisbon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, at 23:10 am, arriving at 06:20 am.

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