Thursday 12 November 2015

Being Lara Croft: deciphering the monolith in the Tomb of the Prophet from Rise of the Tomb Raider

A clue from Lord Croft...

During a break in my own Egyptological research, I was browsing through different social media, and among all the hype for the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider I found the following image, a page from Lord Croft’s research that appears on Lara’s wall in her apartment:

Lord Croft's notes (

It shows a copy of the inscription of the monolith from the Tomb of the Prophet that Lord Croft was researching before his death, and that Lara finds in her trip to Syria in the beginning of the game. Many of you know about my passion for ancient languages, and have seen the analysis that I made of that same inscriptions back when the first gameplay of Syria was released (you can read it in my Instagram account, @hypatia_alexandrina:

Screen captures from the cutscene of Lara reading the monolith in the Tomb of the Prophet (

I immediately realized that the notes in Lord Croft’s page and the inscription in the tomb have the same exact text. One of the features of it that I commented when I made my first analysis was that the inscription looked kind of cut or broken, as if some parts of the image had been cut and pasted. It was hard to read in the cutscene, and I could only figure out a few words. Some signs also didn't look right for Greek. Of course, I am used to classical Greek, and I mostly work with texts on papyrus, so my knowledge of Greek epigraphy, and especially of that of the Byzantine period, is limited. After finding Lord Croft’s copy of the inscription, I started reading more text, and it made continuous sense in Greek. I started thinking that perhaps the appearance of the characters in the inscription was such because it was not originally a text carved on stone, but a text on a mosaic, in which the characters look more angular. I started doing some research on Byzantine mosaics, and particularly mosaics from the region of Syria-Palestine (since this text is supposed to be in Syria). I came across, of course, the famous mosaic of Madaba, and I realized that the shapes of the characters in the inscription where very similar to those. Thus, I narrowed my search down to Byzantine mosaics in Jordan, and I finally found this image:


This mosaic was originally in the Theotokos chapel of the Wadi ‘Ayn al-Kanisah monastery in Mount Nebo, Jordan, and dates to the 8th century. Currently it is in the Mount Nebo Museum. It was absolutely clear then that the Rise of the Tomb Raider team had taken the text for the monolith from this mosaic. I looked for the publication of the inscription and I found the following article in Italian: M. Piccirillo (1994): “Le Due Iscrizioni della Cappella della Theotokos nel Wadi 'Ayn Al-Kanisah - Monte Nebo,” Liber Annuus 44, pp. 521-530. 

And now, what everyone has been asking for a while: what does the text say? Here is the copy of the inscription from Piccirillo’s article, and his transcription of the text:

M. Piccirillo (1994): “Le Due Iscrizioni della Cappella della Theotokos nel Wadi 'Ayn Al-Kanisah - Monte Nebo,” Liber Annuus 44, p. 528.

The translation of the text in English would be the following: 

“By the providence of God, this venerable monastery of the Holy Theotokos (Mother of God) was reconstructed, at the time of Job, bishop of the Madabans, and of George the recluse. For the salvation of all those who have offered. 15th Indiction of year 6270.” 

The text is surrounded by a red circle, and on each one of the corners we can see four vessels emanating water, with four names in Greek, ΓΗΩΝ, ΦΗΣΩΝ, ΤΙΓΡΗΣ, and ΕΥΦΡΑΤΗΣ, corresponding to the four rivers of Paradise: Gihon, Pishon, Tigris, and Euphrates (according to Genesis 2:10-14). One of the elements that had confused me when I looked at the inscription and wrote my first analysis was the shape of one of the signs, which is not common in Greek. This sign looks like a little loop, and appears on lines 2, 5, and 6 (x2). Since I am an Egyptologist, it first looked to me as the Coptic letter djandja ϫ. It happens to be, nevertheless, a weird writing of the diphthong ΟΥ, which also appears in the mosaic of Madaba. 

Going back to the context of the inscription, let’s look at a map of the region (the red star indicates the location of the monastery):

Map of Jordan, with the location of the monastery of Wadi 'Ayn al-Kanisah marked with a red star (

The inscription was found in 1994 during the excavations of a chapel in the northern sector of the ruins of the monastery of Wadi ‘Ayn al-Kanisah, in Mount Nebo, Jordan, which is located very close to Madaba and to the capital, Amman. This is a plan of the ruins of the chapel, with the location of our inscription indicated with a red square:

Plan of the chapel, with the location of the mosaic indicated in red (M. Piccirillo (1994): “Le Due Iscrizioni della Cappella della Theotokos nel Wadi 'Ayn Al-Kanisah - Monte Nebo,” Liber Annuus 44, p. 523)

The most interesting thing about it is that it has a date. The chapel was rebuilt at some point, and the part of the mosaic that includes our inscription was added later. Therefore, the date on the mosaic gives us the date of this reconstruction. But this date is not given in a way that is familiar to most people: 15th indiction of year 6270. During the Byzantine empire, the reference point used for dates was not, like now, the birth of Christ, but what they thought was the age of the World since Creation. Therefore, our inscription is dated in year 6270 since the Creation of the World. This way of dating is called Byzantine Era, and locates the birth of Christ in the year 5508 of the world. Therefore, year 6270 would correspond to year 762/3. The other element mentioned, the 15th indiction, corresponds to the period between September 1 of 761 and August 31 of 762.  Since the year in the Byzantine Era started on March 25, the date of our inscription corresponds to the period between March 25 and August 31 of year 762. Leah Di Segni, in the aforementioned article (p. 533), hypothesizes that the ceremony of the reopening of the chapel after its reconstruction might have taken place on August 15, the day of the feast of the Theotokos, since the chapel is dedicated to her.

Archaeology and video games

One of the great things of videogames that use real historical and archaeological elements in their narratives is that they bring attention upon topics that, otherwise, would not be known by most of their players. The Byzantine empire has not received as much attention by popular literature, movies, or games, as other civilizations, such as ancient Egypt (an exception is the wonderful novel by Matilde Asensi, The Last Cato, which I totally recommend). Many teenagers who are playing now Rise of the Tomb Raider may even be experiencing their first contact with this historical period through the game. This analysis has shown that the team at Crystal Dynamics did their homework when they looked for an inscription to locate in the Tomb of the Prophet. They chose a real Byzantine inscription, and one from the area of Syria-Palestine (in this case, from modern Jordan). As we say in Egypt, alf mabrouk, Crystal Dynamics! Congratulations!

Marina Escolano-Poveda,
Baltimore, November 11, 2015