Coba – Quintana Roo – Mexico



More on the Maya

Coba – Quintana Roo


The pre-Hispanic settlement of Coba is situated in the north-east of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, 47 km from the Caribbean Sea. It comprises five lakes – Coba, Macanxoc, Xcanha, Sacalpuc and Yaxlaguna – and still boasts part of its rich vegetation and wildlife in a state where tourist resorts are rapidly encroaching on the natural environment.

Pre-Hispanic history

Several of the inscriptions found at the site confirm that in this case – a very rare occurrence – Coba is the original name of the city. One of the possible and, given its proximity to the lakes, most plausible translations is ‘ruffled waters’. The city of Coba covers an area of approximately 70 sq km. In this region with its absence of surface water, the presence of the lakes must have played a crucial role in the development and survival of the city and its population. The city boasted a large network of sacbeob or raised stone causeways, of which about 50 have been recorded. The length and width of these ‘white roads’ vary: some serve as internal connections for groups of buildings, while others link distant cities and regions. Such is the case of Sacbe 1, which is 100 km long. The classical architecture of this city is more akin to the predominant style in the Peten region of Guatemala, rather than to that of northern Yucatan. The inhabitants of Coba who did not belong to the ruling class lived on the outskirts of the city, in dwellings very similar to those used by the present-day Maya. The first settlements recorded date from the Late Preclassic, and although no constructions from that period have been found to date, they probably took the form of villages on the edges of the lakes, with an economy based on farming and hunting. In the Early Classic, Coba exerted economic and political power over several nearby communities. The road network and most of the stelae at the site date from the Late Classic. Between AD 800 and 1000, the city experienced a construction boom and extended the road network; meanwhile, relations declined with the Peten region and increased with the Gulf coast. By the Postclassic, the city’s hegemony was on the wane and it fell under the influence of more ‘Mexicanised’ groups. The existing buildings were remodelled in the new ‘East Coast’ architectural style, which became the common denominator of coastal sites such as El Rey, Xelha, Tulum, Xcaret, etc.

Site description

Coba group.

This large group of buildings, the oldest in the city, is situated between two lakes and several sacbeob leading off in various directions.

The acropolis, which comprises numerous buildings and superimpositions, must have been the most important complex for hundreds of years. Although only a small part of it has been explored and is open to visitors, there are several notable constructions. The iglesia (‘Church’) stands 24 m high and is the second tallest construction at the site. It comprises nine rounded tiers and has been altered and added to on several occasions over the years, for example by stairways which cover earlier versions, terraces with rooms along the sides, etc. Its earliest construction phase dates from the Early Classic, while the latest addition corresponds to a Postclassic adoratorium at the top of the structure. At the foot of the building, opposite the stairway, is a fragment of the upper part of Stela 11 and a round altar in front of it. Although most of the carving has been eroded, it is still possible to distinguish a few square panels which corresponded to glyphs. Opposite the Iglesia, a little to one side of it, are two courtyards formed by elongated buildings which in their day must have had vaulted roofs. A long seating area culminating in a vaulted stairway leads to the two courtyards. The stairway may also have been used for watching important events in the main plaza of the group. Its steps were decorated with modelled stucco and painted in bright colours. Fragments of Stela 12 stand at the south end of the seating area, and one of the two Ball Courts at Coba is situated alongside the Acropolis.

The ball court comprises two parallel volumes open at the ends and with sloping walls rising from a long bench that delimits the narrow playing area. There are two rings jutting from the top of the volumes. Embedded above the slope of the west volume are two panels depicting prisoners, and on the opposite side a panel and a stone plaque at the centre. The two Ball Court volumes are different: the one on the east side has two stairways leading to vaulted rooms at the top, while the west volume appears to have been surmounted by a construction made of organic material. Behind this volume are the fragments of two stelae, erected during the Postclassic when the Ball Court was no longer used. The Maya ball game was a ritual symbolising the struggle between life and death, the struggle between two opposing forces. It often took the form of a divine trial for settling disputes, and occasionally was staged merely for entertainment purposes. Situated opposite the Ball Court is the

Kan stairway, named after the kan glyphs visible on the some of the steps. It is flanked by two human skulls.

Group D.

Of this large group situated between sacbeob 4 and 8, the Paintings Group, the Ball Court, Sacbe I and the Xaibe are open to visitors. This group contains numerous constructions dating from the Postclassic, the last period of occupation.

Paintings group. The group takes its name from the traces of murals found on the walls of two structures.

Building 1 is the tallest and is surmounted by a small vaulted temple with traces of a mural depicting farming rituals. At its foot, mounted on the stairways, stands structure 2 ; part of the vault has collapsed and inside is a fragment of Stela 27.

Structure 3 is an elongated chamber with columns that must once have supported a wood and straw roof; opposite them are 13 small altars on which the incense burners used for rituals would have been placed. Alongside Structure 1 stands

Structure 6, whose function has not yet been confirmed. It consists of two chambers, nowadays minus their roof, abutted to a square platform. Further west, almost at the centre of the group, is

Structure 4, a low platform with sloping walls and a wide frieze around the perimeter. Stela 26 stands on one side of the structure; although nowadays greatly eroded, it represents a richly garbed personage holding a ceremonial staff and standing above a group of prisoners, framed by glyphs. A little further west stands

Structure 5, an example of the talud-y-tablero (‘slope-and-panel’) style of architecture, and adjoining it a long, stepped platform culminating in a small room with columns. At the top of the stairway is Stela 28 which depicts a scene very like that of Stela 26.

Ball court. This is very similar to the Ball Court in the Coba Group, displaying common traits such as rings on each section and panels depicting prisoners embedded in the slopes. However, in this case there are various unique features, including markers above the court used for scoring points during the game. The central marker represents a human skull, beneath which a rich offering was found, while the one at the end is a disc featuring the image of a decapitated jaguar. The most important feature of all is the enormous hieroglyphic tablet at the centre of the slope on the north volume. The 74 glyph cartouches it contains make reference to two historical moments in the city’s existence, and there are three mentions of the name ko-ba-a, the toponym of the ancient city. Next to the building are the replicas of two panels that once adorned the construction, although the exact place is not known. One of the panels represents a ball game player holding a cruciform object.

Sacbe 1

As you head towards the Nohoch Mul Group, you will pass alongside the beginning of Sacbe I, 100 km long, which leads north-west to Yaxuna, an ancient Maya city not far from Chichén Itzá. This is the longest of all the causeways found at Coba.


This unusual building from the Classic period which the archaeologists have named xaibe (‘crossroads’) is situated very close to the point where several sacbeob converge. It adopts the shape of an apse, with four sloping tiers culminating in a cornice. In the Postclassic it gained a small stairway leading to the landing between the first and second tiers and a fragment of stela, delimited on each side by a low wall, lending it the impression of a shrine. The tiers are inset into the main body of the building, simulating a stairway, but it is obvious from their dimensions that they could not have been used for this purpose. Although there is general tendency to ascribe an observatory function to all round buildings, no evidence has been found to support that hypothesis in this case. Its function therefore remains to be confirmed.

Nohoch Mul group

This group consists of numerous buildings, but only three of them have been excavated and are open to visitors. Nohoch Mul means ‘large mound’ in Maya, and the name is a reference to

Structure 1 which stands 42 m high and is not only the largest of this group but also the tallest such structure in northern Yucatan. This grand building has two stairways at the front; one rises to the temple at the top while the other one runs in parallel to the former but stops at a lower level. The construction consists of a seven-tier platform with rounded corners and a temple at the top in the typical Postclassic architecture: inset lintel and a frieze with simple moulding and niches containing scenes of a diving god, once painted in red and blue. Inside the temple, a bench occupies half of the space. The parallel stairway leads to a vaulted room where a stela fragment embedded in the floor was found, with carvings on the front and back. Next to the main stairway, two rooms adjoin the large platform but at different levels – one at ground level and the other at the height of the first tier. Only the front and part of the sides of this large building have been excavated. In the vast plaza associated with this group stands

Structure 10, a platform with rounded corners and the remains of a construction with two rooms at the top; the vault that covered them has collapsed and only part of the walls are still standing. Stela 12, the best preserved of all such monuments found at Coba to date, stands opposite the stairway. It depicts an elegantly attired dignitary holding a large staff with both hands. The feet rest on the backs of two prisoners, while two more prisoners flank the scene. The date mentioned in the glyphs is 30 November 780 of the Common Era, the latest date recorded on the monuments at Coba. Situated in the same plaza is

Structure 12, a low platform with a sloping wall, opposite which stands Stela 21. A chamber was found inside the structure, possibly to accommodate a tomb, but to date only small offering without any human remains has been found.

Macanxoc group

This group of buildings is reached via Sacbe 9, the widest causeway found at Coba. The group sits on a large terrace and comprises constructions of varying dimensions, most with ceremonial functions. There are 8 stelae in the group and 23 altars associated with constructions that vary in size and shape. Most of the stelae are greatly eroded and it is difficult to make out the scenes they depict. However, they all share the same theme: a richly attired personage in the middle, holding a large ceremonial staff or sceptre against his breast, with prisoners at his feet and/or sides.

Monuments and ceramics

Stela l

Sculpted on all four sides, this is the first such monument you come across when you reach the latter group. It stands on a platform with stairways on all four sides and contains 313 glyphs that make reference to four dates related to our calendar: 29 January 653, 29 June 672, 28 August 682 and 21 December 2012, the latter date corresponding to a winter solstice. The first three denote important events that happened in Coba in the 7th century AD, while the last one refers to a date yet to come.

Stela 4

This is situated inside a small vaulted shrine on the stairway of one of the largest buildings of this group. The text is composed of 132 glyphs that mention the date 19 March 623, coinciding with the vernal equinox. The Maya would erect these large blocks of stone to record the names of governors, important events, births, alliances, deaths, accessions to power, conquests, etc., but also major astronomical events.

Stela 8

Situated inside a small shrine, only the lower section has survived. Its dates corresponds to 12 October 652. In front of it are several small square altars.

Stela 3

The structure opposite which this stela stands denotes several construction phases. The small temple at the top, with entrances on all four sides, is the first construction the stela was associated with. Judging from its morphology and size, it must have had a ceremonial function. The final construction phase is represented by the benches at the front, where the stela stands. In front of it are two altars – a circular one from the Classic period and a smaller, square one from the Postclassic. The stela comprises 160 blocks of glyphs arranged in nine columns. The date inscription corresponds to 25 January 633.

Stela 2

This stands opposite Structure 7, which had three construction phases. The first phase is represented by a platform with sloping walls and rounded corners, visible on the rear of the building, which subsequently gained two rooms. The final phase covered the two earlier and constitutes a small adoratorium and altar at the top of the structure. The structure corresponds to the Late Classic but continued to be used as a shrine during the Postclassic. The stela depicts the central personage standing on the back of a prisoner with his hands tied, lying face down – the only one in this position on the stelae that have been found to date. The date inscription on this monument is 4 December 642.

Stela 5

This is situated at the foot of the stairway of Structure 3 and displays carvings on all four sides. The back and front show high-ranking dignitaries, slaves and glyphs, while the sides only have glyphs. The date of the monument is 21 August 662. Opposite stand two altars: a circular one from the Classic period and a square one from the Postclassic.

Stela 6

This is situated inside a small shrine. The date is the oldest one recorded on the stelae at Coba and corresponds to 10 May 613. The occupational sequence covers a long interval of time beginning in the Late Preclassic. The ceramics from this period denote connections with the ceramic traditions of the Peten region and Belize, as well as the northeastern section of the Yucatan Peninsula and Yaxuna. The ceramics from the Early Classic are associated with those of the north-eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and the River Belize region. In the Middle Classic, when Coba attained the status of city, the ceramic connections spread to various parts of the Maya area, while the local ceramics derived from the Peten style spread within the region to other coastal sites such as Xelha and Xcaret. The ceramics from the Late Classic show a greater connection to the northern Maya area, giving rise to local variations that set them apart from the ceramics produced in the inland. In the Postclassic, ceramic manufacturing was interrupted or greatly influenced by the style that characterised the ceramics of the north-eastern region, specifically with sites in the west such as Mayapan. The ceramics from the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula – greatly abundant on the east coast during this period – are virtually non-existent at Coba, denoting the tenuous connections that existed at the time with other sites in the region.

Maria Jose Con Uribe

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp427-433.



1. Coba Group; 2. Group D; 3. Paintings Group; 4. Ball Court; 5. Xaibe; 6. Sacbe 1; 7. Nonoch Mui Group; 8. Macanxoc Group; 9. Chumuc Mui Group.  

Getting there:

From Tulum. A combi leaves the corner of Calle Osaris Norte and Av Tulum at 10.00 – possibly not on Sundays. It will drop you off at the entrance to the site at Coba. Cost M$80.

If this is too late a start (which it probably is) then you could try doing the journey in stages with more local combis to the villages along the road to Coba.

Getting information about the return can be problematic. Probably the quickest, if not necessarily the cheapest, is to flag down a collective taxi leaving the village, almost certainly going to Tulum.


20d 29’29” N

87d 44’09” W



Once inside it’s well worth considering whether to hire a bike or not. The buildings are spread out over a wide area and a bike, either powered by yourself or paying for a bike taxi, will save a lot of time. There are hundreds of bikes for rent and tens of bike taxis.

Rent of bike:

M$65 for the length of your stay in the site.

More on the Maya

Anti-Communist paintings – Shkodër Franciscan Church

The Communist as Anti-Christ

An angry Communist threatens Franciscan friars

More on Albania ……

Anti-Communist paintings – Shkodër Franciscan Church

Religion is interesting in Albania. Travelling around you can’t help but notice the new mosques and churches (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) that are appearing everywhere. Whether there’s a real need for so many is debatable, I’ve hardly seen any evidence of what could be called a ‘religious revival’. However, the Catholic Church, in particular, is on the offensive and that can best be seen with the anti-Communist paintings in the Franciscan Church in Shkodër. 

When I’ve gone past mosques after the call to prayer there’s hardly as much activity as there is on a regular basis at the mosque in Liverpool 8. And when I’m expecting there to be the 6 o’clock mass in the Catholic Churches there have been even fewer people in the church at that time than there might have been a few hours earlier. Or the churches are locked up. I don’t really know the timetable used by the Greek Orthodox church (and I’m hardly an authority on any other religious sect really) but I’ve not seen crowds streaming from their doors either.

I’ll no doubt return to religion in other posts but in this one I want to concentrate on one particular church and five paintings inside of that church. This is the Franciscan Church (known as The Big Church) in the city of Shkodër, in the north-west of Albania, not far from the Montenegrin border.

Having their headquarters outside of the country, the Franciscans, in 1946, were forced to cease their activities in Albania – as were the Jesuits. In January 1947 a cache of arms and ammunition was found in their church in Shkodër and that led to the state clamping down hard on the order. The priests maintained these arms had been planted by the Albania security forces – but they would, wouldn’t they – and pleaded their innocence. The Franciscans resented this greatly and held that grudge for almost 50 years. However, those were times when efforts were being made by countries such as Britain and the US to do anything, and everything, they could to get a change of government in Tirana, one much more amenable to their political philosophy. We may have to wait another half a century before any material in the secret British Government archives might reveal more definite proof.

In the intervening period the church had been used as a cinema and auditorium but with the counter-revolution of 1990 they got their church back and a few years after that commissioned three new paintings – two more were to follow in 2012.

These are unlike any paintings I personally have seen in any church, of whatever variety of religion.

Here they represent that the gloves are off. They are a declaration of war against any society that has the temerity to challenge their superstition and their right to peddle such ideas to the young, confused, frightened and impressionable. Nowhere have I seen a clearer representation of the virulence of their hatred for socialism and, perhaps, is only comparable with the attitude of the Catholic Church and priests in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and earlier still during the height of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. The arch-reactionary Karol Wotjyla would have loved them.

All the post-Communist, political/religious painters in this church have been painted by P Sheldija – I haven’t been able to find out anything about him. I can only assume that s/he is a local of Shkodër and that s/he’s still alive – at least s/he was in 2012. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t come across any more of his/her work outside this building. 

Communists threaten Franciscan Friars

Who placed the arms in the Franciscan Church?

The first one is entitled ‘Shpifja e Madhe’, meaning the ‘Great Lie’ where the Franciscans maintain their innocence and is dated 1996. 

What is interesting in this painting, and one of the aspects that unites the first three, is the influence of the Socialist Realist style in the depiction of the images. They depict ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations. There are those who are obviously ‘good’ and those who are positively ‘evil’. Here there is no muddying of the waters. Communists = BAD, Franciscans = GOOD. And the ordinary people are the ones who suffer in this eternal battle. 

Because it is an eternal battle and as the Communists are the Anti-Christ, they are literally the agents of the Devil. The Devil (or his disciples) are behind the Communists in both a literal and figurative sense. They are at the back of the Reds, talking into their ears, inciting them to attack the church and its loyal, faithful and non-violent servants. The Devils have horns, tails and bat like wings. The fires of Hell surround this group.

(We are encouraged to suspend disbelief here and forget the persecution that the Catholic Church perpetrated throughout the centuries, the deaths they precipitated, and the lack of sympathy for any ideas, or religions, which were not totally in accord with what was decreed in Rome. The ‘extirpation of idolatry’ was the term used in this context in South America following the arrival of the Spanish and entailed the physical destruction on any remnants of indigenous faith and beliefs.)

The principal Communist is aggressive, angry. His gun points at the Franciscans, his other fist raised in a threatening manner, a sneer on his face. Two of the Franciscans are in chains, forced to carry armfuls of guns. They are calm, stoical and have an angel of God looking over them. In a painting in a side chapel St Francis holds an infant Jesus in his arms.

At the bottom are the people. A mix of ages, social and ethnic backgrounds, gender and degrees of fear, shock, supplication, confusion displayed on their faces. They are begging, imploring that all this violence ceases.

(A Catholic raised friend who saw these paintings was shocked to see modern weapons depicted in a painting inside a religious building. I was a little surprised at that as I’ve seen an innumerable number of paintings and statues, world-wide, where St James the Moor-slayer is cutting off heads on all sides or where St Michael has been plunging a spear into the devil or his disciples.)

On either side of the painting are quotes from the Book of Psalms. The left hand side reads:

Qe, bakëqijtë harkun e shternguen

mbi kordë shigjetën vendosen

per t’i shigjetue fshehtas të drejtët.

This translates as:

For, lo, the wicked bend their bow,

they make ready their arrow upon the string,

that they might privily shoot at the upright in heart.

Psalm 11, v2

On the right hand side we have:

Per shkak të mjerimit të vorfenve

per shkak të klithmës së të ndryghunve

tashti do të ngrihem-thotë Zoti-e

do ta shpëtoj atë që e perbuzin.

Which means:

For the oppression of the poor,

for the sighing of the needy,

now will I arise, saith the LORD.

I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

Psalm 12, v6 – but that’s not quite correct, at least in my Bible. The quote is from verse 5 and not verse 6.

The atheists meet while the Catholics hold Mass

The atheists meet while the Catholics hold Mass

The second painting depicts an atheist, anti-religion meeting in the city of Skodër. On a banner is the famous phrase from Karl Marx – ‘Feja eshtë opium per popullin’, ‘religion is the opium of the people’. This banner is the red one, placed above the entrance of the Franciscan church when it had been converted into a community centre after discovery of the hidden arms cache and the punishment of the perpetrators. On the white banner the slogan is ‘Fight against religious ignorance’ – ‘Lufte kunder paragjykimeve fetare’.

This was also painted by Sheldija and is dated 1997 (signature and date in bottom right hand corner). It is above the title ‘Pavdeksia e fese’ which I think best translates as ‘religion is Immortal’ or ‘Religion can never die’.

The figures in the foreground have turned their backs on all this ‘nonsense’. Like in the previous painting they are a mix of ages and genders. Traditional as well as contemporary dress is depicted. The central figure here is a priest whose stole (the long, narrow sash a priest would wear when saying Mass and which he kisses before putting around his neck) is resting on the head of a bowed man, presumably a form of blessing.

An old woman looks tired and weary and in her hand is holding a rosary, which a young girl shares with her. Another woman also has a rosary in her hand but this one has the cross hanging just above the head of a baby in a cot. A young woman is reading from a Bible and in the background is the building in which the painting now resides, the Franciscan church.

This also has two quotes from the Book of Psalms on either side. On the left is:

Q hyj, e pushtuen paganët pronën tande,

e dhunuen tempullin tand të shejtë,

Jerusalemin e banë një grumbull rrenojash!

ua dhanë kufomat e sherbëtorëve të tu per ushqim shpendëve të qiellit,

mishin e shejtenve të tu bishave të malit.

This translates as:

O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance;

thy holy temple have they defiled;

they have laid Jerusalem on heaps.

The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven,

the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.

Psalm 79, verses 1 and 2.

On the right we have:

Kthehu, o Zot! deri kur kështu?

Deh, ki mëshirë për shërbëtorët e tu!

gëzona për ditët që na mundove,

për vjetët që i kaluem në mjerim.

Translated as:

Return, O LORD, how long?

And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy;

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

The carving says Psalm 90, verses 13-15 but it is actually verses 13 and 14. Perhaps the Albanian Bible numbers differently from mine.

Crucifixion of Franciscan Friars

Crucifixion of Franciscan Friars

The third doesn’t have a title but is a reference to the Crucifixion. Also painted by Sheldija it’s dated (I think) 1997. Instead of Christ hanging on a cross we have two Franciscan friars being tortured by being tied to a tree. One of them looks up to heaven, his face a mixture of pain and serenity knowing that salvation awaits him. 

Above him is another priest who seems to have been jammed into a fork of the branches although a rope comes from the branches to his left which presumably goes around his body to stop him falling. He has his eyes closed and is probably dead. It appears that his right arm has been cut off above the elbow as his sleeve is ragged and empty. What could be a tourniquet is around the upper arm. I’m not sure what is represented here.    

On either side of the tree, sitting on the ground, are two Communists, both armed and one with the red star on his cap. They are possibly asleep, resting on their weapons. There’s obvious references to the crucifixion of Christ and the way it has been traditionally represented, with Roman soldiers taking the place of the Communist Partisans. 

Although the idea is that the Franciscans suffered for their believes it seems to be bordering on heresy to imply that a mere mortal, Franciscan priest has the same authority as the (Son of) God. Even St Francis only went as far as to claim the stigmata. 

In the background there’s a depiction of the very Franciscan church, with a distorted entrance facade on the right and the bell tower on the left.

Whilst the first two paintings are in alcoves along the length of the left hand side of the nave the painting of the Crucifixion is in an alcove to the left of the altar, up a few steps.

These were the modern paintings that were displayed in the church quite soon after its reconsecration and that remained the case until 2012 when two more paintings, also by the same painter, Sheldija, appeared on the right hand side of the nave. These both share and differ in style from those of the 1990s.

The first of the latest additions is entitled ‘Fe e dëshmueme me gjak’ which translates to something like ‘Bloody [Religious] Martyrdom’, martyrdom being very much a religious concept and therefore, perhaps, the word religious is slightly redundant.

Bloody Martyrdom

Bloody Martyrdom

This follows very closely the style of the two paintings from the 1990s in that it is very much influenced by Socialist Realism but the image is as far from the principles of Socialist Realism as it is possible to get. In fact, this is quite a disturbing image and incorporates all those negative and pernicious aspects of capitalist, going-on fascist, society.

Whether it depicts an actual event I have been unable to ascertain, there’s no indication of such in the immediate vicinity of the painting, or it might just represent religious ‘persecution’ of the Franciscans in Albania’s past. If the previous paintings are anti-Communist this painting is anti-Islam and the devils are now Muslims in general.

As was the case with real Socialist realism imagery there was often a local reference in the painting or sculpture. Here we have reference to Rozafa Castle, which sits on a hill to the south of the present day city. The castle can be seen ion the top right hand corner.

At the base of the hill we have a small settlement of some kind where the only building which has suffered any damage is the small Christian church depicted on the left hand side of the panel. There are cracks in the wall, the roof is caving in and the small cross that would have been over the main entrance has been toppled over. The three or so homes in the picture seem to be intact.

Walking downhill from the building in the forefront (on the right) is a group of nine Albanians, all in traditional dress – seven men and two women. Outside of the church is another group of six Albanians – five men and one woman. What I don’t understand about these people is that they don’t display any emotion at all, unlike the very clear ‘distress’ shown by the Christians just a few metres away on the other side of the nave.

What I don’t understand here is what Sheldija is saying about them. Are they complicit in the ‘crime’ being committed, i.e., are they also Muslims and agree with the fate of the Franciscans or is it that they just don’t care? It’s difficult to tell as there’s no certainty about the date of the ‘event’.

Until the declaration of ‘Independence’ in 1912 the country had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire for centuries and although there might have been attempts by the Catholic Church to make an inroad in Albania (as they tried to do in all parts of the world as part of their imperial attitude towards religion) I can’t see them being able to actually build a church in secret, leading to its destruction when the Turks ‘discovered’ the transgression.

For the central image is the murder of two Franciscan friars by the Turks, represented by the five males in the right hand side foreground. We only get a fullish picture of one of them, the dark-skinned, bare-chested individual on the left of that group. He also holds the only weapon in view and that’s a long sword, blood covering its tip. The fact that there’s no firearms would seem to push this episode back a few hundred years – which I find even more confusing.

But as virtually all images of martyred Catholics I’ve seen in any part of the world the death has to be made even more cruel, more horrendous, more sadistic that it would have been in reality – this by a religious faith that has been destroying religious locations and the people holding non-Catholic faith for centuries.

What we see are two, sharpened wooden stakes that have been set into the ground and, presumably, the friars have been sat on the point so that their own weight forces the stake through their bodies – a favoured form of execution of the 13th century Mongol emperor. This seems to have been used by the Ottoman’s, even into the early 20th century, and the spike is called the Khazouk. If done by an expert the victim could live in agony for a matter of days. The fact that it was in occasional use by the Ottomans is accepted but I have been unable to find any documentary proof that in was used in Shkodër against Franciscans.

But in many ways that’s not what Sheldija is saying. He wants to make the point that the Franciscans were persecuted and the more hideous he can make this claim the better to attract his chosen audience – the ignorant and frightened of Albania who can’t make any sense of the society in which they live.

But as with some of his earlier works Sheldija dabbles in the heretical, equating the martyrdom of the Franciscans with the crucifixion of Christ, there being many references here to what have become, over the centuries, the traditional accouterments surrounding that supposed event.

The base of the Khazouk

The base of the Khazouk

Here is depicted the desecration of those items that are an integral part of the Catholic ritual: a crucifix laying in the grass; a chalice used for the Eucharist knocked over and spilling the wine (an allegory of the spilling of Christ’s blood); what looks like a discarded alb – the long, white vestment worn by a priest during a Catholic Mass; and a couple of books, one of which will be the Bible. The tip of the bloodied sword held by the Ottoman in the foreground is touching the cover of on of the books here stressing the idea of violence against the Christian church.

In the bottom right hand corner are the tools used to erect the khazouk; a mallet, three wooden stakes and a couple of stones used to maintain the khazouk vertical with the writhing of the victim.

What of the two victims of this martyrdom? As is always the case with Catholic martyrs not only are they shown with the instruments of their martyrdom they always have a serene look on their faces. And that’s the case here.

The friar on the left looks towards Heaven and holds a small wooden crucifix in his left hand, holding it close to his chest. His right hand hangs down at his side, pointing towards the ground. Behind his head protrudes the sharp, bloodied end of the spike and as he is still alive his own blood runs down the lower end of the stake and blood drips from his feet onto the alb.

The central, and presumably the more important, of the two has his arms outstretched on either side of his body, in emulation of a crucifixion. His right arm is bent slightly and he holds a small wooden crucifix towards the light of the Holy Ghost which emanates from the sky above. This is a common motif found in those paintings of Francis of Assisi as he ‘receives’ the stigmata – the wounds of Christ.  As with his companion the blood covered spike appears a couple of feet above his head and his blood flows towards the ground along the wooden stake and from his bare feet.

One of the problems with this painting, in a society that is supposed to be ‘united’ now that Socialism has been dismantled, is that these images perpetuates the divisions within the country that are never far from the surface when religion is concerned.

In many Catholic churches in southern Europe you will encounter paintings, sculptures, of Sant Iago (St James) Matamorros – Moor Killer. The commissioning and the present day existence of these images can be put down to a less enlightened age but the fact that they are commissioned in the 21st century says a lot about the hypocrisy of the current wearer of the Triple Crown in Vatican City.

Most Albanian Muslims won’t be aware of such images – people with strong religious beliefs would never be seen dead in the ‘holy’ place of another faith – but they will tend to harden the attitudes of fundamentalist Catholics (of which there are many in Shkodër.

The other 2012 addition to the Franciscan Church’s decoration is entitled  ‘Për fe e atdhe’ – ‘For God and Country’, and depicts (amongst others) the images of eight Franciscans who would later, at the end of 2016, be Beatified – plus one other who was obviously not considered to be saint material. 

For God and Country

For God and Country

They were all charged with counter-revolutionary activity and died in the ten years following liberation. Many of them had been ordained and had worked in Fascist Italy and were openly ‘friends’ of the United States. When the US and Britain were actively attempting to subvert the young Socialist state; refusing to accept the revolutionary government and the Albanian Communist Party as the legitimate representatives of the people; sending flotillas of warships to intimidate the people who had suffered so much to rid their country of two fascist armies; and supporting the collaborating monarchist Fascists in neighbouring Greece in a Civil war against the working people and peasantry it was no wonder the state took a hard-line against any such counter-revolutionary activity.

It wasn’t as if the Roman Catholic Church had a spotless reputation when it came to popular movements. The Church was an open and fervent support of Franco, in Spain, against the legitimate government in the Civil war of 1936-39. Eugenio Pacelli (also known as Pius XII) was still in control of the Vatican after collaborating with both the Italian and German Fascists during the Second World War. He had no love of Socialism and supported the violent suppression of the attempts of building socialism in Bavaria (where he was Papal Nuncio) in 1919. And in Albania itself high ranks in the Catholic hierarchy opening consorted with the invading forces of both Italy and Germany.

Catholic priest in league with Hitlerites

Catholic priest in league with Hitlerites

So claims of ‘innocence’ by these priests have to be taken with a significant pinch of salt. The time of the ‘revolutionary priests’ of South America were a few decades into the future. All these priests had been brought up in an environment of Fascism and anti-Communism. they wouldn’t easily have dropped that stance and stood with the people. 

We know the names of the Franciscans in the picture as their names are stitched into their clothing – as if their mothers didn’t want them to lose their cassocks. The image was painted four years before the decision about the ‘Blessed martyrs’ was taken and in 2012 the expectation must have been that Luigj Palio (the one at the top with the mustache) would have been among their number. He didn’t make the cut, however, for a reason I don’t know. 

I don’t find this a particularly good painting – on any level. It lacks the bitterness and hatred of the other three in the building and also any lack of humour. By inter-twining the colours of the Papacy (yellow and white) with those of the Albanian stated (red and black) the artist seeks to give the impression of the close relationship with the present day capitalist country of Albania. However, the Catholics are very much a minority, their heartland being the area around the town of Shkodër itself.

The crown of thorns on the crucified Christ morphs into thick thorns bushes that line the inside of the arch at the top of the picture and then transform themselves into barbed wire around the crosses in the centre of the picture and creeping down to the church candles, symbolising what Sheldija considers to be persecution of religion. 

As this is a Franciscan church an image of St Francis of Assisi is included, standing before the crucified Christ, his hands facing the viewer so that the ‘stigmata’ (the wounds of Christ) can be seen in the palms of his hands together with a spot of blood on the outside of his cassock on the right hand side.  

One of the friars, Bernardin Palaj, standing on the right hand side of the image, holds a large green book in his hands, symbolising his ‘intellectual’ status.

An image of the very Franciscan church dominates the centre of the picture with the clock and bell tower rising up into the top right corner.

At the apex of the arch is an angel dressed in a purple dress, carrying a large bunch of branches. It’s difficult to make out exactly what they are, they don’t look like olive – which would be a symbol of peace (and also victory – after all the Catholic church has got back what it always wanted in Albania, that is a capitalist state). Another theory would be that the angel is bringing vegetation to cover the guns that the friars were to hide on the basement of the church.

Sheldija was obviously educated and trained under a Socialist system and the influence of Socialist realist style was still great in the 1990s, such that – apart from the content – it would have been stylistically indistinguishable from works by his contemporaries. However, like so many ‘intellectuals’ Sheldija sought to bite the hand that had fed him and used his skills to attack Socialism for the benefit of ignorance and obscurantism. 

These have been the most political paintings I’ve seen in any of the churches I have visited in Albania. It’s not surprising that these should be in Shkodër as this was the Catholic heartland. In that city you don’t come across any Greek Orthodox churches, although there are at least three mosques.

At the same time Shkodër was also the place that the first Communist cells were established that later led to the foundation of the Communist Party of Albania (later the Party of Labour of Albania). Not surprising really, it’s in those locations of the greatest reaction that the seeds of revolt germinate and grow. Then and in the future!


The Franciscan church is in the narrow street Rruga At. Gjergji Fishta which passes to the left hand side of the Intesa Sanpaolo Bank at the bottom end of the pedestrianised street Rruga Kolë Idromeno in the centre of town, just beside the Big Mosque.


N 42.067372

E 19.515415


42° 4′ 2.5392″ N

19° 30′ 55.494′ E

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