Treasures of the Ancient World Carved Into Rock

Dalyan tombsPhoto:
Image: Alexander Shap

For almost 2600 years from 1280 BCE to the 12 and 13th century CE, rock-cut architecture was all the rage from the Far East and Orient, to Africa and the Middle East. It is the practice of creating buildings by carving solid rock, preferably from the top down. Unlike caves and other natural rock crevices, rock-cut architecture is all man-made. Follow us while we take a tour of tombs and cave dwellings carved into rocks around the world.

Probably the earliest rock-cut structures were the two massive Abu Simbel rock temples in southern Egypt. Pharaoh Ramses II had them carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century BCE as an intimidating monument to himself and his queen Nefertari. The intricate details and huge structures took more than 20 years to carve.

The two Abu Simbel rock temples today:
Abu Simbel templesPhoto:
Image: Holger Weinandt

The impressive entrance to the Great Sun Temple of Ramses II:
Great Sun TemplePhoto:
Image: Mrs Logic

What we see today is not the original environment because in the 1960s the whole complex was moved up to an artificial hill above the Aswan High Dam reservoir at a cost of $40 million. The complex move was necessary to avoid flooding of the temple structures after the creation of Lake Nasser, a huge water reservoir, constructed after the erection of the dam.

The original location of Abu Simbel (underwater) shown at the Aswan Museum:
Abu Simbel original locationPhoto:
Image: Zureks

The Nabataeans, an ancient Semitic people who inhabited what is now Jordan, extended the rock-cutting tradition from around 600 BCE to 300 CE. Their most famous structure is Al Khazneh or “The Treasury” in Arabic, known to movie buffs from the 1989 film India Jones and the Last Crusade and others.

The magnificent entrance to Al Khazneh:
Al KhaznehPhoto:
Image: Graham Racher

Al Kazneh was carved into the reddish sandstone typical for the region between 100 BCE and 200 CE. The Greek-influenced temple is flanked by two burial chambers on either side. Unfortunately, many of the architectural details have eroded since.

The Lycians of southern Anatolia in what is now Turkey built hundreds of rock-cut tombs in the 5th century BCE. The most famous are the rock-cut tombs in Dalyan on Turkey’s south-west coast.

The Dalyan rock tombs:
Dalyan rock tombsPhoto:
Image: BillBI

Unlike the Abu Simbel temple complex they were influenced by, these tombs are facades rather than elaborate structures extending further inside the rock. However, the way they merge with the cliff face is truly impressive.

In perfect harmony with nature:
Dalyan tombsPhoto:
Image: Alexander Shap

Speaking of impressive – the Lycian League, a federation of ancient cities in the region of Lycia, was the world’s first federation guided by democratic principles. They even went on to influence the United States Constitution.

In India, there is a greater variety and quantity of rock-cut architecture than anywhere else. Indian rock-cut architecture is mostly religious in nature as caves are considered sacred, regardless of whether they are natural or man-made. The earliest rock-cut structures date back to the 3rd to 2nd century BCE and were built by Buddhist monks. Unlike the Egyptian and Turkish examples above, these structures were not tombs or monuments but actual living spaces with kitchens, living areas, sleeping quarters and monastic spaces.

The Bhaja Caves near Lonavala in Maharashtra date back to 200 BCE:
Bhaja cavesPhoto:
Image: Soham Pablo

The impressive main prayer hall:
Bhaja Caver prayer hallPhoto:
Image: Elroy Serrao

That the Karla Caves just a few kilometers away are stylistically similar is no coincidence as both cave complexes are situated along the same important ancient trade route connecting the Arabian Sea with the Deccan mountains. The Karla Caves were constructed just a few decades later and are believed to have been completed in 160 BCE.

Don’t miss the people on the left to get a feeling for the size:
Karla CavesPhoto:
Image: Deepak Amembal

The remarkable interior of the Karla Caves:
Karla Cave interiorPhoto:
Image: Soham Pablo

Interesting to note in this context is the connection between Buddhist monks and traders and therefore the spiritual with the commercial. Buddhist missionaries used to accompany traders on busy international trade routes through India and the merchants, in turn, funded or even commissioned elaborate cave temple complexes that also offered lodging for traveling traders.

As rock-cut architecture blossomed in India, cave interiors became more elaborate and surfaces were often decorated with paintings. The sophisticated Ellora Caves 30 km from Aurangabad, also in the state of Maharashtra, mark a high point towards the end of the rock-cutting period.

Part of the Ellora Caves, hewn into the Charanandri Hills:
Ellora CavesPhoto:
Image: Soman

The 34 caves belonging to the complex were built between the 5th and 10th century CE and contain 17 Hindu caves, 12 Buddhist ones and 5 Jain caves; rather temples and monasteries than caves. The Buddhist caves were the earliest, constructed between the 5th and 7th century, then came the Hindu caves in the 7th century followed by the Jain temples.

Ellora from above:
Ellora from abovePhoto:
Image: Stephan & Klaudia Mandl

Unique to Ellora is the fact that unlike the previous examples of rock-cut architecture we have seen, these caves do not simply consist of a facade plus an interior, but are complete three-dimensional buildings created by carving away the hillside. Needless to say that they required several generations of planning, coordination and labour to complete.

The spectacular monolithic Kailash or Kalaisanatha Temple is the last true Indian rock-cut structure. Later architecture became almost fully structural in nature and temples were free standing, made from bricks cut out of the rock rather than hewn into it.

Ellora’s Kailash Temple:
Kailash TemplePhoto:
Image: QuartierLatin1968

Together with coveted merchandise, rock-cutting skills travelled eastwards along popular trade routes like the North Silk Road where they reached China. Hundreds of rock-cut caves with statues of Buddha were built between 450 and 525 CE. Among the most famous ones are the Longment Grottoes in China’s Henan province. Like the Ellora Caves, they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

The Longmen Grottoes and Mt. Longmen as seen from the Manshui Bridge:
Longmen GrottoesPhoto:
Image: Pratyeka

The Longmen grotto complex contains 2345 caves and niches, 2800 inscriptions, 43 pagodas and over 100,000 Buddhist images collected over various Chinese dynasties.

Giant Boddhisatvas in the main grotto; see the visitor’s head at the bottom for size:
longmen boddhiPhoto:
Image: Ishai Bar

The Yungang Grottoes near Datong in the province of Shanxi are remarkable because of their many colourful Buddhist paintings and murals. All in all, the complex consists of 252 grottoes and more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. The first period of carving started around 460 CE under the supervision and with the support of the imperial court. It ended with the move of the court in 494 CE after which private patrons took over for funding and other support.

Buddha statues in various sizes and well-preserved wall paintings:
Buddha statues YungangPhoto:
Image: Felix Andrews

Outside the grottoes:
Yugang grottoesPhoto:
Image: Steve Cadman

Also on the Silk Road are the Mogao Caves in China’s Gansu province. They are best known for their stunning and well-preserved Buddhist art that spans a period of 1,000 years from 366 CE onwards. A vast collection of scriptures was discovered in the early 1900s.

The Mogao Caves, hewn into the rock:
Mogao CavesPhoto:
Image: Tom Thai

The true beauty of the grottoes is revealed inside where visitors can admire well-preserved paintings from the 10th century. To keep it that way, photography is not allowed. The 10th-century mural below depicting Tang Dynasty monastic architecture from Mount Wutai was scanned from Patricia Ebrey’s book Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999).

A painting of the Mount Wutai monasteries in Cave 61:
Mogao paintingsPhoto:
Image: Pericles of Athens

Last but not least, we’re travelling to Africa for our final example of rock-cut architecture. Lalibela in Ethiopea is the site of 11 rock-cut churches built during the reign of Lalibela in the 12th and 13th century, now a UNESCO World heritage site. The most famous one is the Church of St. George or Bete Giyorgis in Amharic, often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Bete Giyorgis in Lalibela:
St. Georg LalibelaPhoto:
Image: Giustino

The monolithic church was carved out of solid rock and takes up a 25 x 25 x 30 m area in the shape of a cross. It is said to be the most finely executed and best preserved of the 11 churches.

Like a cross:
Bete GiyorgisPhoto:
Image: Jialiang Gao

Of course there are many more sites of rock-cut structures than the ones portrayed here but the ones above are a good starting point for anyone wanting to trace the roots of this important architectural period further. Have you been to any other places with rock-cut architecture? We’d love to know.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 11, 12, 13