Rock-cut tombs

Although the trade in marble sarcophagi was a flourishing one from Hellenistic times onwards, most people could not afford such expensive luxuries, even when the quarries were not far distant. The living rock is a much more convenient and freely available material for tomb excavation than expensive marble sarcophagi. Although most rock tombs are indeed excavated from a vertical rock face (and sometimes so "safe" from the ground that mountaineering gear would be needed to reach them, as at Pinara), others are made by cutting away horizontally to make the result look like a sarcophagus. Some clients, perhaps wishing to ape the "sarcophagus manner" on the cheap, were able, were able to commission ersatz vessels cut out of the living rock in suitable areas.


At Elaiussa-Sebaste, for example, the whole site lies on a rocky limestone slope. This is good building stone: across the modern road from the fortress of Kizkalesi, a great bed of limestone has had squared blocks cut from it, just as if it were a large block of cheese or a flight of giant steps. The same bed, higher up the ridge, has also been cut away to make sarcophagi which are part of the living rock (SB7.3). There are free-standing sarcophagi on the site - indeed, there is a whole street of them - but the rock-cut tombs are the more impressive because of their great size. What is more, as well as ground-level tomb slabs, there are several sarcophagi the vessel of which is cut from the living rock, with the lid the only totally free piece of stone. For the more splendid tombs, a whole enclosure has been carved, and that same rock incised and bossed to give the impression of individual blocks heaved together by levering on the protruding bosses left for this purpose. For such "enclosure" tombs, whole limestone outcrops must have been cut away. Even two of the imposing two-storey mausolea at Demircili (on the road between Silifke and Olba) are partly rock-cut (9). One of them has its base cut completely from the rock, as is clearly visible from both sides and from the rear. In another, the whole of the lower storey (including the tomb chamber with its columns in antis) is cut from the rock, with laid stone starting only at the lower of the two entablatures

Walking along the ridges of Elaiussa-Sebaste brings home just how much planning went into such a necropolis. For a very noticeable feature of the site is the careful terracing which has maintained the tombs plots in neat rows, and in stepped terraces parallel to the line of the hillside. Equally noticeable is the existence of two large and imposing Christian basilicas, both with their walls standing almost to full height. Clearly, the sarcophagi clustered around the lower basilica, and along the road leading to it, were for Christian burial. But how does one distinguish a pagan from a Christian vessel? There might of course be a cross (or, as in one example here, a cross between opposed peacocks, signifying eternal life); or the inscription might be apropriately Christian; but the type of tomb, and its basic shape, remained the same for pagans and Christians, probably through at least three centuries. At Elaiussa-Sebaste, this means an enormous cubic vessel, a sloping roof, occasionally with roof-tiles ("imbrication") indicated, and "horns" or acroteria at the corners. The source of such "house" vessels goes back to Hellenistic times: a good example is the marble vessel in the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, found in the same chamber as the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, the fine grain of which allows exquisite and suave detailing. At Elaiussa (and at many other sites), the limestone simply will not take intricate detail, so any motifs have to be large, simple and obvious - cartouches, swags, the occasional lion-head, or sometimes a lion couchant for the lid. Perhaps such vessels were originally plastered and painted to make them look better (as marble vessels were sometimes painted); but, if so, over a millenium in the open has erased all traces.

House tombs

Just as some sarcophagi were arranged internally like beds, to resemble what the deceased would have known in life, so large rock-cut tombs were often made to resemble houses, with doors and detailing to mimic wooden originals (comparanda illustrated in Mueller-Wiener 1988, 66). Many tombs are cut out of vertical rock-faces, which might seem strange to those travellers unused to trogloditic living; but the idea is perfectly natural, especially when many have several rooms, just like a house. The work involved in such tomb construction, depending on the rock, would not necessarily be great; structural problems would be small and (as with cave-houses), if more space were needed, another chamber would be excavated. The usual arrangement for such tombs was for the corpse/s to lie on rock-cut beds. In the more sumptuous tombs, the facade would be decorated to resemble a house for the living.

The best place to view a complete system of trogloditic living is of course Cappadocia, which has whole underground cities, as well as rock-cut churches, houses and Christian tombs. For tombs, however, Lycia is more exciting to visit, with whole cities of them which, in their heyday with paint and gilding and even fresco and incised and basrelief decoration intact, must have looked even more impressive than the cities of the living. The region offers a grand selection of rock-face tombs, as at Myra (where the "Painted Tomb" retains a few traces of paint on its life-size figures), but also of "house-tombs" where the rock has been completely cut away, as at Xanthos (SB7.2) (or, indeed, much further east, at Demircili). A few tombs at all these locations are completely excavated out of the rock, and therefore free-standing. In the Lycian ones of this kind, the roof-beams and tiles are clearly delineated. At Demircili, it is only the lower storey that is rock-cut, whilst the piano nobile resembles a temple rather than a house. At Kaunos, the "temple tombs" cut from the vertical rockface are detached in the sense that there is a passageway around their rear - they are in effect freestanding structures.

Stone doors

False doors may often be seen in place, decorated with panels as if they were made from wood; the body would have been got into the chamber by another route, but robbers have broken through most such doors. Another type of door moved sideways in grooves, although all that usually remains is the groove, as at the famous Tomb of Amyntas at Fethiye. In Pinara's southern necropolis, however, at least one tomb has its sliding stone door surviving, if fragmentary; it has a notch at the bottom to help crowbar it into place. Yet another, still of stone, was hinged, with the hinges monolithic with the door itself. A fine example is in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul (7): its residual decoration represents not only the construction details of a frame and panel wooden door, but also the gilded bronze nails used to hold the parts together. Other tombs in Lycia have a "vaulted" roof, again presumably from boat-like wooden constructions (12).

The rock-cut Tomb of Amyntas at Fethiye (ancient Telmessos) is special not for what it is, namely a temple tomb in the Greek not local manner - there are dozens just like it throughout Lycia - but rather for its size. Whereas most such tombs are scarcely bigger than the height of an ordinary room (i.e. less than 2 metres internal, and less than 3 metres external, including any pediment), this tomb, its columns flush with the rock face and its "cella" set well back, is the height of a full-size temple.

Such tombs, the Rolls Royces of the genre, are always exceptions, for the majority were vastly more humble. Clients of the various varieties of rock-cut tombs did not need to forgo the sculptural decoration which helped make the sarcophagi of their betters so prestigious, because a rock which could be cut would also take reliefs. There are numerous examples of relief decoration around Myra, and these of high quality. But impoverished people could not afford quality sculptors, and some of the most charming tombs are amongst the most naive. For example, near to Kanytelleis there is a valley of rock cut tombs decorated by some antique Grandma Moses: the motifs of funerary meals, guardian soldiers and the like clearly derive from more sophisticated patterns. It is in beautiful locations like this, far from the madding crowd, that the qualitative differences between metropolitan and countryside artistic traditions strike home.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey