Casa Grande National Monument
During our stay in San Tan Valley, Arizona, we took a short sightseeing trip on the only day during our visit that stayed under 90 degrees. The homeowners had highly recommended two places to us – Casa Grande Ruins National Monument and St Anthony Monastery.
I did a bit of research about Casa Grande which didn’t set up high expectations for us, but we thought what the hey and took off into the barren desert and drove about an hour southeast.
From a distance, it looked a bit ridiculous to both of us, and we weren’t surprised. I saw what you see in the above photo and thought, “Okay, I’ve seen it, let’s go.” However, when we got closer, we found it was fascinating. How did they build up three stories plus with just mud and rocks? Don’t know, but they did it several hundred years ago.
We learned much later (while in a park in California) that the location was on a trail a famous Mexican explorer chose to try while looking for a good route to San Francisco. While there we figured it had to do with water because there is just nothing around that spot. Desert for miles around, mountains far off in every direction and not a lick of shade anywhere.
These photos show what’s left of the structure after several centuries of wind and rain. Well, mostly wind. It’s a wonder they found enough water to make mud.The wooden braces are all modern, put in by the Park folks to keep the structure standing.
Talk about thick walls; they were certainly thicker than anything you see these days, must have helped keep it cool and warm inside.
They don’t let you walk or climb inside the structure, so all the photos are from the periphery. Since we arrived around 9:00 am it wasn’t hot yet, but a visit during the afternoon would be unbearable.
A few of the walls are still as flat and straight as drywall. Those folks had some good construction skills.
The smaller walls, mostly ground down by the elements, were for family homes, the larger buildings were common areas, or so the speculation goes. From atop this building you could easily see for miles around which was likely for defensive purposes. We could imagine no other reason to look around the area as it’s the same for miles no matter which way you look.
Saint Anthony Monastery
About 20 minutes further southeast of Phoenix we found the monastery. The big question that immediately came to us was why in the world did they choose this spot? It is as improbable as the Casa Grande location. Access to water must have been the critical factor. They obviously have plenty of that.
The first thing we had to do was get me covered from head to foot – it is a monastery after all. I had to wear a scarf and a long skirt. No hair showing, or skin. That was easily done with the help of volunteers and baskets full of colorful garments available to borrow.
Our first impression was one of order: everything symmetrical, and carefully placed. The second is the stonework – walkways, fences, and buildings. Well made, lots of variety, and mosaics throughout. The third, and our favorite, the gorgeous woodwork throughout each building, some entirely wooden.
There’s a loop through the property taking in all the seven chapels, some large, others just tiny – good for maybe a dozen people to stand in. This is a Russian Orthodox place, no doubt about it. Apparently, these folks aren’t into sitting for services. Most chapels had no seating at all, though some had a few carefully placed benches.
This is what twenty-five years and lots of funding can do for a desert location: very impressive.
The stonework was intricate and beautiful, and we did enjoy entering all those buildings. There were a few others there visiting, but not many.
Here’s one of the smaller chapels, protected by fierce looking creatures.
At the big level, this was the most impressive sight. An extremely orderly ceiling/roof made entirely of wood. Intricate patterns of color and shapes throughout. All handmade. We don’t know where all that wood came from, but it wasn’t local. There aren’t enough trees nearby to build a tree house and no lumber yards for a hundred miles.
These photos show a typical view of one of the chapels, circular ceiling with lots of carvings, pictures, icons surrounding the central part. They are big on chandeliers too.
I loved the ceilings – the symmetry, colors, and light. It was fun to see such beauty in the middle of the Arizona desert.
On another level the wood carving was fantastic. These were not just inlays in the back of a chair. A single bench or display for an icon would be of a piece, sometimes ten feet tall, carved by hand.
The art was distinct as well, most of it around themes of saints often with a spear or sword involved, like this one of St. George or Michael taming the dragon.
A lot of time and effort went into this place, that’s for sure. During our tour, we did see a couple of monks walking, covered from head to toe in black and ignoring all visitors.
From one part of the loop, we could see acres of olive orchards, date trees too. They were as orderly and well kept as the chapels. A very industrious lot those monks!
We finally made it around the loop, returned the modesty garments and went out to see if our reflectixs had kept the car cool, or at least inhabitable for a drive home. They had, thank goodness. If you’re ever near Phoenix, you might include this one in your itinerary. It’s worth the drive out into the desert.
What’s Next – into the wild west
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