Carved into the side of mountains are what look to be the entrances to countless temples, but are in fact the ornate facade of ancient Lycian tombs, that are found nowadays in western Anatolia, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and eastern Greek islands. These are the most numerous of all types of Lycian tombs and some are perhaps the most visually striking – elaborate funeral chambers carved directly into the rock face, usually into a cliff.
The most elaborate rock-cut tombs are those carved in the form of Ionic temples, the largest and most famous at Telmessos (Fethiye) – the ‘Tomb of Amyntas’ These rock-cut temple-type tombs usually have two columns (the tomb at Cyanaea only has one), an epistyle and a pediment and usually have elaborate reliefs, such as the ‘Royal Tomb at Pinara’ and the ‘Painted Tomb at Myra’. This temple-style of tomb is not specifically Lycian and can also be seen in Caunos (some impressive examples are in the town of Dalyan) and other parts of Anatolia.
The Lycians believed that their dead were carried to the afterlife by magic siren-like winged creatures and thus they placed their honored dead in geographically high places such as the cliffside to give them a ‘higher’ location and have them closer to ‘heaven’. Dating back to the 4th century, many of the numerous entryways are adorned with tall classical Greek columns and intricate reliefs, a bit duller from centuries of weathering. The older tombs are often no more than unremarked holes dug into the rock. They were built for kings and queens.
Despite the external grandeur, the interior of the tombs are spare chambers cut into the rock with a simple monolith inside to display the body and the rooms, are otherwise empty from hundreds of years worth of looting.
All Anatolian cultures built beautiful monumental tombs associated with some form of ancestor worship. The Lycians developed this form of art to perfection, no doubt facilitated by the soft limestone of the region. The quality of stonemasonry of the Lycian people is noteworthy and is especially significant in the construction of tombs.
Today the entire landscape of Lycia is still dotted with their fascinating funerary monuments. The most recent count has revealed one thousand and eighty-five examples still intact, rock-cut tombs being the most common form. Lycia is famous for the sheer number of tombs and their quality.
The Lycian language became extinct and was replaced by Ancient Greek, some time around 200 BC. One thing that sets Lycian tombs apart from Hellenistic tradition is that whereas in Hellenistic culture the dead were placed outside of liveable areas (often flanking main roads into the cities), Lycian tombs are often integrated right into cities, displaying Lycia’s ties with eastern traditions.
Rock-cut tombs are not exclusive to Lycia, for they have been found in other places in the Mediterranean, in the Palestinian and Nabatean area, Cyrenaica, eastern Anatolian Urartu, in the Kurdish border area between Iran and Iraq, in the surroundings of Persian Persepolis, in Saudi Arabian Hegra and in Egyptian Beni Hassan. These places all have one thing in common: geography, for this type of tomb normally occurs in landscapes with deep ravines and steep cliffs.