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Payava's tomb from Xanthos, now in the British Museum.

Culturally Mixed Messages in the Tomb of Payava: Is it Greek or Persian?

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The Tomb of Payava is a decorative rectangular tomb that was transported in the 19th century from a site in Turkey to England is one of the most remarkable artifacts related to Lycian culture exhibited at the British Museum. The carvings which create a unique symbolic message from ancient times, is a key piece to the puzzle of the city of Xanthos and its ruler.

It belongs to the Greek period of the history of the city of Xanthos and often is dated back to circa 375-362 BC. However, some researchers suggest that it was made around 360 BC. The rare tomb belonged to the ruler of Xanthos, a city that has a very rich ancient history. Details related to his personality and government have been lost. The only known thing is his name – Payava. The transcription of the inscription says: “Payava, son of Ad[…], secretary of A[…]rah, by race a Lydian…”. However, researchers have made many attempts to find out some serious information about this mysterious ruler. The source of the investigation is the unique ancient tomb that is now in the collection in London.

The tomb of Payava, a Lykian aristocrat, about 375-360 BC, from Xanthos, British Museum.

The tomb of Payava, a Lykian aristocrat, about 375-360 BC, from Xanthos, British Museum. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Tomb of the Lycian Ruler

The tomb was unearthed in 1838, during a period of amateur exploration fever, by British Sir Charles Fellows. In 1844, he took three parts of it to England. The lowest section stayed in Turkey and now it is corroded. Originally, Fellows, who had no idea what he had found, described the Tomb of Payava as a ''Gothic-formed Horse Tomb''. He didn't know that the rectangular barrel-vaulted stone ''chest'' was a sarcophagus made for an ancient ruler. Although the team who worked with him was unaware of the significance of the discovery, fortunately the artifact was considered important, probably due to the rich decoration of the tomb's walls.

The size of the sarcophagus is impressive. It is now about 3.5 m (11.5 ft) tall, but the original tomb reached higher than 7 meters (22.97 ft.). Millennia ago, the bodies were usually cremated or inhumated. In many cultures, including the Lycians, bodies weren't mummified like in Egypt. Therefore, the tombs of the rulers from Lycia don't provide us with human remains that could be analyzed by researchers in the laboratory.

Lycian Monumental tombs, Xanthos.

Lycian Monumental tombs, Xanthos. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Culturally Mixed Symbolism

The carvings on the tomb are fascinating - of particular interest is the fact that ancient artists put symbols that come from both Greek and Persian traditions in a single place.

The motif of the lion is, similar to Persian and many other civilizations, the traditional symbol of Lycian royalty. The remarkable sphinx carved on the tomb has various interpretations. Similar to lions, they were a popular detail on Persian carvings, but also Lycian carvings and those of many other cultures. The sphinx is usually a guard, a remarkable creature that protects a site, tomb, or whichever place he is dedicated to. Thus, the motif of the sphinx is usually considered the guardian of the dead.

The east side of the tomb is decorated with the theme of a battle, including cavalry and other soldiers, a typical presentation of the military power of the ruler.

Greek motifs were also richly used among carvings on the tomb. We can notice them in the presentation of Payava and his companion. They are dressed in cloaks and cuirasses. On the other side, is a fit Greek athlete, perhaps in the company of his trainer. There is also a Greek satrap, Autophradates, who is meeting Payava. The carvings of horse heads facing in different directions also relate to the Greek culture. Moreover, the roof was also decorated like other elements of the tomb. The hunting scene that adorns the roof of the tomb has no particular style, but in some parts it is a mixture. The only thing that is possible to conclude about this element is that it cannot be identified as belonging to any specific culture.

The Land of the Ruler Buried in the Tomb

The city of Xanthos has a rich history. Now it is known as Kinik and it is located in Antalya Province in Turkey. The beautiful landscape there is the same as it would have been seen by Alexander the Great when he came to conquer Persian territory. The site has been protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 1988.

The ruins of the ancient city of Xanthos, Turkey.

The ruins of the ancient city of Xanthos, Turkey. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Herodotus of Halicarnassus:

''The Persian Army entered the plain of Xanthos under the command of Harpagos, and did battle with the Xanthians. The Xanthians fought with small numbers against the superior Persians forces, with legendary bravery. They resisted the endless Persian forces with great courage, but were finally beaten, their womenfolk, children, slaves and treasures put into the fortress. This was then set on fire from below and around the walls, until destroyed by conflagration. Then the warriors of Xanthos made their final attack on the Persians, their voices raised in calls of war, until every last man from Xanthos was killed.''

Herodotus visited Xanthos a long time before the ruler whose flesh and bones were buried in the tomb was even born. The times of Payava took place before the arrival of Alexander the Great, whose army turned this site into a part of his legendary empire.

Where is the Rightful Home of the Tomb?

The Payava Tomb is one of the artifacts that stirs up debate about the ownership of artifacts removed from the country where they were discovered before the 20th century. According to museums from countries like, for example, Turkey, the heritage of their lands should be sent back to the homeland. Currently, the remarkable tomb is still a part of the London collection of Greek and Lycian artifacts dating back to 400 – 326 BC and there is no suggestion that its location is going to change in the near future.

Top Image: Payava's tomb from Xanthos, now in the British Museum. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak


British Museum's Lycian Collection, available at:

Xanthus, Tomb of Payava, available at:

Ian Jenkins, Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture, 2006.

Lycian history, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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