Ten Precariously Situated Cliffside Constructions from the Ancient World
Over the centuries, ancient people all over the world have built incredible structures on the sides of cliff faces. Some had a desire to be closer to the heavens and were searching for a sacred location, others sought a defensive outlook and protection from enemies, and still more found these locations to be ideal sites for the eternal resting of their deceased. The impressive structures used to achieve these goals include precariously hanging monasteries, giant statues, cliff-side tombs, and even entire villages that have been carved into cliffs.
Hengshan, or Mount Heng, which is located in Shanxi province, is one of China’s Five Great Mountains. Pinned to the side of its cliff face is the Xuan Kong Si, also known as the Hanging Monastery. The monastery is dedicated to three religious systems – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, all of which co-exist harmoniously in the building and served to enable almost all travelers to rest there.
The Hanging Monastery was built in 491 AD, during the late Northern Wei Dynasty. It is commonly believed that the building of the monastery was initiated by a single individual, a monk by the name of Liao Ran, who later received help from Taoist builders. The site was perfect for those engaged in meditation, as noises from the ground did not reach such lofty heights. In addition, its height ensured that the monastery was safe from floods. The Hanging Monastery is also protected from rain, snow and sun as it is sheltered by the mountain’s peak. This is one of the reasons for the monastery’s continual existence over the centuries.
In order to provide support for the monastery, holes were first drilled into the side of the cliff. Wooden pillars were then half inserted into the rock as the foundation. The monastery was then built on top of these pillars, with additional support from the rock at the back of the building. It was subsequently enlarged over the centuries, and was also restored in 1900 during the Qing Dynasty.
The Sumela Monastery is one of the oldest and most historic monasteries in the Christian world. There are no exact records about when it was built or by who, but it is estimated that its history dates back some one thousand years and that the locals who constructed it did so to escape enemy attacks. This incredible feat of architecture is located high up on the steep cliffs above the surrounding forest in Trabzon, Turkey. Over the centuries, Sumela thrived and became an important location not only for monks, but for pilgrims. It changed hands many times over the course of its existence, until it was finally abandoned in 1923.
The structure appears almost glued to the mountainside and has an entrance that is reached by climbing a long and narrow stairway where there is a large aqueduct at the top with many arches, which has mostly been restored. The main buildings of the Monastery complex are its Rock Church (which is covered both inside and out with biblical frescoes), chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, library and a fountain used to collect spring water from the mountain, which was revered by the Greeks.
One popular legend says that two monks from Athens, St Barnabas and his nephew St. Sophronios, saw an image of the virgin in a cave (now the Rock Church) and decided to build the monastery on that spot in 386 AD. However, many historians maintain that the monastery was in existence long before this.
Paro Taktsang is located in the Himalayan mountains in Bhutan. It is one of the most revered places of pilgrimage, with a founding shrouded in strange tales and legend. Built in the late 17th century, it withstood the test of time until several years ago when it was nearly destroyed by fire. Today, it is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Bhutan as well as a cultural icon that is open only once a year in a special ceremony. The monastery also has an ancient history of occupation by monks, and monks who arrive here often stay for at least for three years, seldom leaving it.
The name “Taktsang" literally means Tiger's Lair and was derived when the people in the locality came across a tigress residing in one of the caves. The building of Paro Taktsang Monastery began in 1692, by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, Bhutan’s leader at the time. He is believed to have been the reincarnation of Rinpoche (a Brahmin royal who spread Tantric Buddhism throughout Bhutan and Tibet in the 700s) and founded the monastery by planting its first stone during a visit to the holy caves. Legend says that when the temple was built, it was anchored to the cliff by the hairs of female celestial beings known as khandroma.