Lycian Journals - Rock Cut Tombs

  By Sam Edwards, 14 August 2007; Revised

One of the most interesting and rewarding experiences for anyone who visits Lycia is clambering around in its many rock cut tombs. These tombs literally cover the country of Lycia in their thousands from Telemessos to Chimera, but are particularly prominent in the Islamli valley, the cities of Tlos and Xanthos and the area around the vastly overrated Saklikent gorge. These tombs combine the architectural style and dimensions of a Hellenistic civilization with the exoticism and mysticism of the empires of the east. These constructions represent eastern Greek multiculturalism at its finest, and even the barest of them can betray their eastern influences that are one of the hallmarks of the mysterious Lycian civilization. As a rule, Lycian burials (any many eastern Greek burials for that matter) seem to be far more extravagant in origin and show a much more rich burial culture for the time than their true Hellenic cousins. Firstly, there is the symbolism on Lycian gravestones, grave decorations and sarcophagi themselves. A carved door is usually a prominent feature on most of the tombs, which could have two connotations - firstly, there is the Egyptian reference to a door to allow the deified spirit of the Pharaoh or “Ka” to escape to the field of reeds (The Ancient Egyptian afterlife), and secondly, there is the Sumerian mythological reference to the door and tunnel in Mesopotamian religious beliefs in the Zagros mountains (at least probably…) that lead to the Sumerian underworld, through which the sun rose and set. These both probably have some significance in this context, because Ptolemaic, Hittite and Persian forces (the Persians to a smaller extent because of fierce Lycian resistance) all had their period of dominance over the “Land of the Lukka”. Indeed, there are many other references to earlier burial practices that are quite eastern in their form and function. One of the locals in the hills above Kalkan told me that they had recently found “Jar burials with bodies burnt inside”, discovered when a well several metres deep was being dug. This clearly sounds like a Hittite burial practice and is mentioned in Homer as the primary method of burial. They also mentioned that there were what could be possibly bronze-age jar burials in this area, which could place back this eastern influence even further into the 4th Millennium BC. It’s therefore not surprising that so many eastern motifs and images should appear on the tombs of a civilization that appears to be, at a glance, Hellenistic.

Representation of Animals is also a reoccurring feature on some Lycian tombs, notably of the “Harpy” Sarcophagus type. Animals usually appear only on male graves, female graves being denoted by traditional feminine items such as mirrors, Pyxis or perfume and jewellery jars, looms and combs. The animals on male graves almost all have an eastern connotation, which are the bull, the eagle and the lion. Firstly, there is the bull, which has a primarily Hittite connotation with Teshub, the storm god of Hatti, who rode on a chariot drawn by them. It was primarily the Hittites who had control of this area and not the Minoans, who in any case were involved in other areas, so it’s unlikely that the bull-cult of Minos was responsible for such an influence, and Lycia is mentioned in many Hittite texts as “The land of the Lukka”, even having recruited men from the Lycian area to serve in Kadesh against the Pharaoh of Egypt, Ramses II. The eagle had an ancient symbolism in eastern lands such as Egypt and in Syria, where it brought the souls of the dead to the underworld. The final masculine animal is the lion - this was a symbol of regal power in both Assyria and Hatti, and when considering the proximity of these empires to Lycia, it’s no surprise that such motifs featured on Lycian tombs. All of these symbols are multi-cultural and have many more connotations. They show the fundamentally eastern traditions of this unique people. Other decorations that occur on both male and female coffins and tombs are floral decorations (another eastern tradition, no doubt) and female heads around the side which are reminiscent of Ishtar or perhaps, more likely, Kybele - the Anatolian mother goddess who was later worshipped in the guise of Letö- the mother of the divine twins Apollo and Artemis. Many of these extravagant tombs also have (at least on the house tombs- ones which mimic an architectural style in their carving) architectural features that are quite similar of many Egyptian temples - the slotted, stepping inwards grooves, small nooks and pillars all show this influence. In a few tombs, in the south in particular, I saw a blatant give-away, which was none other than the star of Ishtar (or at least what it appeared to be!).

…However, all these pieces of evidence come from the most extravagantly decorated rock-cut tombs, which obviously cannot have been large in number when considering the disproportionably large number of tombs that were made for multiple occupants. These tombs have hardly any decoration, hardly any space for sarcophagi (unless they were made of some perishable material like bronze or wood) and it must be concluded that these were more common than those famously decorated ones, which must have been reserved for those of some wealth, such as a citizen of the Lycian league, a Persian or Ptolemaic satrap or perhaps even a Lyciarch of the league (who was in effect it’s annual chief magistrate, like an Archon of Athens or a Consul of Rome).These tombs are, frankly, some of the most fascinating pieces of live archaeology that I have ever managed to have the fortune to visit. The only problem is…the height of them. The author almost literally fell to his death trying to reach some of these exquisite tombs (and was saved by grabbing a handful of brambles…), so to any member of All Empires (or indeed anyone for that matter) who wants to visit them, be a good climber! I know I wasn’t…