The ancient Lycians and their spectacular rock-cut tombs
The ancient Lycians are among the most enigmatic people of antiquity because little historical record has been left behind them. But what has been discovered reveals a fascinating people culturally distinct from the rest of the ancient world at the time. Around twenty major sites remain today with the Lycians' unusual funerary architecture, including incredible rock-cut tombs carved into cliff faces dominating the breathtaking unspoiled land of Lycia.
Lycia is situated in the region which is today the provinces of Antalya and Muğla on the southern coast of Turkey, and the Burdur province, which is further inland. The Lycian civilisation is mentioned in the historical records of ancient Egypt as well as the Hittite Empire. By the 6 th century BC, however, the Lycians were incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire. One of the most interesting features of the Lycians is their funerary culture, as seen in the incredible tombs that they built.
Ancient Lycian Myra Rock Tomb. Source: BigStockPhoto
There are several types of Lycian tombs, the most common of which is the rock-cut tomb. The earliest examples of these are said to have been carved in the 5 th century BC, and can be found in places such as Myra and Amasia. These tombs were carved directly into the rock face, usually into a cliff, which makes them an amazing sight to behold. It is said that the Lycians believed that a mythical winged creature would carry them off into the afterlife, which is the reason for the position of their tombs on cliffs.
Another interesting aspect of these tombs is its reflection of domestic life. The tombs are often carved like the façade of Lycian houses, and usually have one or two levels, but sometimes even three. In addition, the tombs usually held more than one body, most likely of people who were related to each other. Thus, it seems that familial ties and kinship were maintained even after death. Nevertheless, rock-cut tombs are not unique to the Lycians, as similar structures can be found in other parts of the Mediterranean, such as Petra in Jordan and Cyrenaica in Libya.
Lycian Tomb of Amyntas. Source: BigStockPhoto
Another form of Lycian tombs is the sarcophagus. Although this is a common form of burial, Lycian sarcophagi are unique for their great size. These structures consist of three parts: a base, a grave-chamber, and a pointed lid. Most of the intact sarcophagi have been dated to the Roman Age, and are reported to be smaller and less ornate than earlier ones. Interestingly, the dead were sometimes buried with their slaves and dependents. These people were held in a hyposorion under the main grave-chamber. Most Lycian sarcophagi are free-standing monuments which were exposed to the sky. Nevertheless, there are other sarcophagi which were placed inside tombs as well.
Lycian Sarcophagus Tomb. Source: BigStockPhoto
The least common form of Lycian tombs is the pillar tomb. These are the oldest form of Lycian tombs, and were used primarily for important dynasts. In addition, these tombs are only known to exist in western Lycia. The pillar tombs consist of a monolith which narrows towards the top, and stands directly on the ground or a stepped base. These structures normally have two chambers. On the upper part of the tomb is the grave chamber, which is sometimes decorated with reliefs. The most well-known pillar tomb is perhaps the Harpy Tomb at Xanthos. Interestingly, the reliefs on the tomb itself are plaster casts, while the original ones are being displayed in the British Museum.
Lycian Pillar Tomb. Source: BigStockPhoto
Although the Lycians no longer exist, their tombs are able to tell us a lot about them. They tell us about the way the Lycians treated their dead, as well as their skill as craftsmen. It is also through these funerary monuments that we may be able to learn something about the way they lived. For instance, some reliefs on the rock-cut tombs depict mythological scenes, and this may give us some understanding of the belief system of the Lycians. Hence, the funerary monuments of the Lycians are not only able to inform us about the dead, but also shed light on their lives.
Featured image: Lycian tombs, Turkey . Source: BigStockPhoto
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You commit a lot of labor to turn the cliffs into livable grottos. A lot more than, say, building a funeral pyre as was custom for those times. But if a grotto civilization is wiped out, and the cliffs lay idle for a long time, along with some bones of the long dead, we shouldn’t call them tombs. We should call it a crime scene.
Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.
I love the interesting crosses carved into these gorgeous BC rock cut tombs. Makes you wonder.
Fascinated and a little spooked to find this article appearing on the same day I was storytelling a part of a novel I wrote all about this. Who were the Lycians? Where did they come from? Why were they so oddly different from their neighbours? Just how matriarchal were they? Why did they refuse to join the Greeks, even though they were likely the first democratic state in the world? People who visit Lycia, generally never forget it. But it's when you touch those rocks that their stories start spilling out. A hidden historical gem in Turkey.
I have not heard of the Lycians before but have noticed some similarities to Petra, I would appreciate any knowledge regarding history as I am in constant awe of their lives & ancient knowledge they must of had .. thank you for such incredible insight.. I have many theories that need pieces to my jigsaw ..