Beginner’s Guide to Sardinia: Nuraghe

If you close your eyes and imagine the beauty of Sardinia, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

If you’re not Sardinian, odds are that the first things that will come to mind are the white sandy beaches and the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea. This is probably the most popular image of Sardinia – sun, sea, and sand…

There’s something missing in this picture though.

What about the Sardinian people, or the island’s history and traditions?

And what about Nuraghe?

What are Nuraghe?

Nuraghe, pronounced nur-ag-ay, are a symbol of Sardinia and its once powerful Nuragic civilisation.

When you travel anywhere around the island of Sardinia, you’ll eventually come across the ruins of seemingly isolated circular or honeycomb shaped stone towers – these stone towers are called Nuraghe.

Can you spot it?
Many Nuraghe ruins blend into the surrounding landscape.
Nuraghe Sa Domu ‘e s’Orcu found near the town of Domusnovas.
Copyright: vivaladolcevita.com

These Megalithic towers have been standing for millennia, thanks mainly to the way in which they were constructed.

The Nuraghe’s stone walls consist of three parts:

  • An outer layer

This layer tilts inwards and is made of many layers of stones. The stones on the bottom can weigh several tonnes, and generally get smaller as the wall gets higher.

Tilted outer layer of Nuraghe at Barumini
Copyright: vivaladolcevita.com
  • An inner layer

Here you’ll find smaller stones usually joining to make a waterproof domed ‘corbelled’ roof on the inside. This type of dome stops water from entering into the Nuraghe’s inner rooms.

Nuraghe roof
Corbelled inner layer of Nuraghe at Barumini
Copyright: vivaladolcevita.com
  • An intermediate layer

In this layer, found between the inner and outer layers, you’ll find very small pieces of loose stone, sand, and soil. This mixture helps to add strength and allows the Nuraghe to stand based on gravity alone.

You shouldn’t confuse Nuraghe with the stone and cement towers built by the Spanish in the 16th century though. The Spanish conquerors built these towers to protect Sardinia’s coastlines from pirates.

Nuraghe
Nuragic settlement, Barumini
Copyright: vivaladolcevita.com

How old are the Nuraghe?

Archaeologists have dated Nuraghe to the Bronze Age – from 1800 BC to 1500 BC.

Unfortunately there are pretty much no written records from this era, so we know almost nothing about the language of the people who built these huge feats of engineering – or why they built them.

Italian archaeologist Massimo Pallottino, stated that the Nuraghe are some of the most advanced and monumental pieces of architecture of the period in the western Mediterranean.

Nuraghe
Nuraghe Palmavera, Alghero
Image credit: sardegnaturismo.it

Do we have any theories about why the Nuraghe were built?

We have a few actually, but most experts believe that the vast majority – of which there are believed to be between 7,000 and 10,000 – were built for defence.

To defend from whom, we don’t really know.

Other theories are that the Nuraghe were built as religious sites for worship, for burials, or simply as status symbols.

It’s possible that each Nuraghe was a separate ‘kingdom’ and that they didn’t quite get along with their neighbours. It’s also very possible that they were all united as a common ‘state’ and that they were built to defend the people from the many other violent civilisations present in the Mediterranean at the time.

Unfortunately Nuraghe pose more questions than they have given actual answers.

It doesn’t help either that of over 7,000 discovered Nuraghe, only a handful have been scientifically excavated.

Nuraghe
Reproduction model of ‘Su Nuraxi’ Nuraghe, Barumini
Image credit: fondazionebarumini.it

Who were the Nuragic Peoples?

In short, we don’t really know that either.

There are many theories about the civilisation that built the Nuraghe – one of the more popular theories being that they were a fierce sea-faring civilisation – the Shardana.

The Shardana were first mentioned by the Egyptians during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in 1300 BC…

“… the Shardana of rebellious mind, whom none could ever fight against, who came bold, in warships from the midst of the Sea, those whom none could withstand…”

Inscription by Ramesses II on a stele from Tanis

These warrior people seemed to have struck fear into the ancient Egyptians who wrote many times about coastal raids and frequent naval battles between Egyptians and the Shardana ‘Sea Peoples’.

A British historian, Michael David Wood, has also suggested that Shardana raids contributed greatly to the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation in ancient Greece.

After Pharaoh Ramesses II finally defeated the invaders, he captured some as prisoners of war and incorporated them into his personal Pharaoh’s bodyguard.

Ancient Egyptian carvings show the Pharaoh’s guards wearing helmets adorned with horns, equipped with round shields and large bronze age swords – typical of the Shardana warriors.

Shardana
Members of Ramesses II’s Shardana personal guard in a relief in Abu Simbel.
Image credit: Wikipedia

How does this theory relate?

Well, during archaeological excavations in Sardinia, more than 500 bronze statuettes have been discovered dating from the Nuragic era.

These statuettes, usually measuring about 30cm tall, depict warriors with horned helmets, rounded shields, and large bronze swords or long bow weapons.

Notice any similarities?

Notable Examples

Su Nuraxi di Barumini, probably the most famous of the numerous existing Nuraghe, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is well worth a visit. You can find this Nuraghe just outside the town of Barumini in South Sardinia – around a 50 minute drive from Cagliari.

The great Sardinian archaeologist, Giovanni Lilliu, discovered this example of a ‘complex Nuraghe’ in the 1950’s.

For more information on this Nuraghe, and for guided tours, check the Fondazione Barumini website by clicking here.

Other great examples of Nuraghe are Santu Antine (Torralba), Losa (Abbasanta), Palmavera (Alghero), Genna Maria (Villanovaforru), Seruci (Gonnesa), and Arrubiu (Orroli).

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