Rock-cut architecture is the practice of creating a structure by carving it out of solid natural rock. There are many examples of work of this kind, often done on a grand scale and involving intensive labour. The rock-cut tombs and temples listed here are among the most amazing and beautiful buildings in the world.
The Tombs of the Kings near Paphos in the southwest of Cyprus is a large necropolis dating back to the 4th century BC. The tombs are carved out of the solid rock and decorated with Doric columns. Despite the name there is no evidence of any royalty buried here. Instead the site was the final resting place of Ptolemaic aristocrats and high officials.
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Lycia was a federation of ancient cities situated in what are now the Turkish provinces of Antalya and Muğla. The Lycian tombs are elaborate funeral chambers carved directly into the rock face, usually into a cliff. Most often, the tombs are carved like the facade of timber Lycian houses. The rock-cut tombs of wealthy Lycians were finely worked with elaborate relief carving. On some of the rock-cut tombs the exterior is decorated with reliefs depicting the specific features of the deceased and the main events of the period. The entrance were sealed with a sliding stone door that ran sideways along a groove.
Mada’in Saleh constitutes the Nabatean kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, its capital. The setting, referred to as Hegra among the Nabateans, is notable for its desert landscape, marked by sandstone outcrops of various sizes and heights in Saudi Arabia. Hegra was built around a residential zone and its oasis during the 1st century AD. The sandstone outcrops were carved out to build the necropolis. A total of four necropolis areas have survived, which featured 131 monumental rock-cut tombs spread out over 13.4 km (8.3 mi).
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The Mogao Caves form a system of 492 temples 25 km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a crossroads on the Silk Road. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of about a 1,000 years. Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 AD as places to store scriptures and art. Along with the Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, the Mogao Caves are one of the three most famous ancient rock-cut temples in China.
See also China Guide
The Longmen Grottoes are densely dotted along the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains in the the eastern central part of China. From north to south, the distance covered by grottoes is about one km. There are over 2100 niches, more than 100,000 statues, some 40 pagodas and 3600 tablets and steles in the caves. Construction of the grottoes began in 493 AD. The Longmen area is open to the public, and although the grottoes cannot be entered most of the artwork can be seen from the exterior.
See also China Guide
The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Buddhist temple grottoes in the Chinese province of Shanxi. The grottoes were mainly constructed in the period between 460-525 AD during the Northern Wei dynasty. They are an outstanding example of the Chinese stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. All together the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes.
After a volcanic eruption about 2000 years ago, lava formed soft rocks in the Cappadocia Region, in Turkey. The softer rock was eroded away by wind and water, leaving the hard cap rock on top of pillars, forming the present-day fairy chimneys. People of Göreme, at the heart of the Cappadocia Region, realized that these soft rocks could be easily carved out to form houses, churches and monasteries. These Christian sanctuaries contain many examples of Byzantine frescoes and represent a unique artistic achievement from the post-iconoclastic period.
See also Turkey Guide
Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities, second only to Aksum, and is a center of pilgrimage for much of the country. This rural town is known around the world for its monolithic churches which play an important part in the history of rock-cut architecture. Though the dating of the churches is not well established, most are thought to have been built during the 12th and 13th centuries by a medieval Ethiopian civilization. The Church of St. George is the most well known and last built of the eleven churches. The dimensions of the complex are 25 meters by 25 meters by 30 meters (82x82x98 ft), and there is a small baptismal pool outside the church, which stands in an artificial trench.
Ajanta Caves in the Indian state of Maharashtra, are rock-cut cave monuments dating from the 2th century BC. The monastic complex of Ajanta consists of several viharas (monastic halls of residence) and chaitya-grihas (stupa monument halls) cut into the mountain scarp. By 480 AD the caves at Ajanta were abandoned. During the next 1300 years the jungle grew back and the caves were hidden, unvisited and undisturbed until 1819 when the rock-cut temples were rediscovered by a British officer.
See also India Guide
The Ellora Caves are located 30 km (19 mi) from the city of Aurangabad in India. Ellora represents the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture. The 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rock cut temples and monasteries were built between the 5th century and 10th century. The Buddhist caves were the earliest structures and consist mostly of large, multi-storey buildings carved into the mountain face, including living quarters, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and other rooms. The Kailasa Temple, is the unrivaled centerpiece of Ellora. This gargantuan structure, designed to recall Mount Kailash, was carved out of one single rock, and covers an area double the size of Parthenon in Athens.
The Valley of the Queens, is a place in Egypt where wives of Pharaohs were buried in ancient times. The valley is located near the better known Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes. This barren area in the western hills was chosen due to its relative isolation and proximity to the ancient Egyptian capital. The necropolis holds more than 70 rock-cut tombs, many of which are stylish and lavishly decorated.
See also Egypt Guide
The Valley of the Kings is a valley in Egypt where, for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombs were constructed for the kings and privileged nobles of the New Kingdom. The valley contains 63 tombs and chambers, ranging in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with over 120 chambers. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. All of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity. Only the famous tomb of Tutankhamun was spared from the worst of the tomb depredations.
Abu Simbel is an archaeological site comprising two massive rock-cut temples in southern Egypt on the western bank of Lake Nasser. The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses The Great in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari. The complex was relocated in its entirety in the 1960s to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive artificial water reservoir formed after the building of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. Abu Simbel remains one of Egypt’s top tourist attractions.
Petra, the fabled “rose red city, half as old as time”, was the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom. It is without a doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. A vast, unique city, carved into the side of the Wadi Musa Canyon centuries ago by the Nabataeans, who turned it into an important junction for the silk and spice routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Greece and Rome. The most elaborate building in Petra is Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”), carved out of a sandstone rock face, it’s massive façade dwarfing everything around it.