Story of The Rock-Cut Tombs of Ancient Telmessus

Lycian Turkey is just one of numerous parts of the world, where monumental tombs were carved out of the rock to satisfy religious needs of contemporaries, who by all means wished their dead kings, rulers and relatives to find the right way to the afterlife. As it seems, the more large and intricate a tomb was, the more privileged the dead was and the more direct and straight was their journey to the next world.

Worldwide phenomenon

The idea of making rock-cut tombs is a very ancient one (Ching et al. 2010:173). The oldest known examples come from Egyptian Thebes as they date back to the sixteenth or fifteenth century BC. (the Middle Kingdom) (Ibid.:173). There are also Hittite rock-hewn sanctuaries, which were made in 1250 BC. (Ibid.:173). Examples of such sepulchral architecture can be also found in Italy and they belong to the so called Etruscan culture (from the eight to the third centuries BC.) (Ibid.:173). A huge necropolis of rock-cut tombs is also present near the town of Paphos, in Cyprus, where several tombs are designed in the form of an impluvium (Ibid.:173). The roc-cut tombs in Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey date back to the end of the fifth century BC. (Ibid.:173).

Nowadays, some of the tombs are largely damaged. In the time of their construction, there was a financial fine for any violation of the tombs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The custom of cutting the tombs out of the rock was brought further eastwards by Darius the First (522-486 BC.), whose own tomb was carved out of the cliffs (Ching et al. 2010:173:173). It is actually one of the four rock-cut tombs of Achaemenid kings at the site of Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis, in modern-day Iran (“Tomb of Darius the Great” 2020). “They are all at a considerable height above the ground” (Ibid.), as much as the tombs in Lycia. One of the most impressive site with rock-hewn tombs of strikingly similar character are located in the lost city of the Nabateans, which is Petra, in Jordan (Ching et al. 2010:173; see: Markoe ed. 2003). They are said to have been built between 300 BC. and 200 AD. (Ching et al. 2010:173).  

Common but outstanding

Although rock-cut tombs were often made in imitation of traditional buildings, their construction techniques are very different (Ching et al. 2010:173).

The “Harpy Tomb” of Kybernis, a solid sandstone pillar with the sarcophagus of Kybernis on top (c. 480 BC). One of the best preserved examples of a typical Lycian pillar-tomb. Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter (2010). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Masons building such sepulchral monuments must have started from the top of cliffs and continue downwards so that the discarded stones did fall down to destroy the new building elements (Ching et al. 2010:173). Working from the top down required a different type of planning and engineering (Ibid.:173). It is also significant to remember that such a technique was used not only for sepulchral architecture but also for temples (Ibid.:173). Buddhist chaityas or viharas in China and India, and Hindu caves (Ellora, Ajanta) probably go back to the third century BC. and were continued throughout the first millennium AD. (Ibid.:173). The same technique was equally applied for rock-carved churches in Cappadocia, Turkey (around 900 AD.), and in Lalibela, Ethiopia (around 1200 AD.) (Ibid.:173). What is unique is the fact that the same technique was also used in secular architecture, namely, in the case of urban buildings, like houses, carved out in solid rock at a mysterious ancient site of Tiermes, located on the edge of the Duero valley in modern-day Spain (Ibid.:173). The dating of the fortress, as it is referred to, is questionable (Kosmiczne opowieści 2017). Nevertheless, it is believed to have been carved either at the Celtiberian or Roman times, probably between the first century BC. and the first century AD. (Ibid.).

Tombs commemorating ancestors

Veneration, or even, worship for ancestors, was undoubtedly universal in the ancient world (Bean 1989:31).

One of the most impressive temple-tombs in Fethiye sepulchral complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All peoples inhabiting Anatolia before the Greek colonization built beautiful, monumental tombs in commemoration of their ancestors; the Lycians developed this art to perfection, which was undoubtedly easy for them thanks to the soft sandstones found in their land (Miszczak 2009). Although early Lycian buildings were mostly overbuilt, as elsewhere in Asia Minor, first by Hellenistic and then Roman constructions, Lycia remains one of the best places in Anatolia, where the native culture of the region is still visible and can be admired at each step (Bean 1989:30). Although various foreign influences are visible in the Lycian monuments, they have yet retained its unique character (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Transporter of the souls

Many examples of the sepulchral art shows a high quality of still well-preserved mason work and are covered in tell-tale sculptures adorning the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Reliefs depict, among others, mythological scenes, funeral feasts, battles and animals (Miszczak 2009).

Persian influence on the tombs is evident in the way scenes of feasts, battles and hunts are depicted, for example in the tombs of Xanthos, while he Greek influence is most clearly manifested in mythological scenes, for example, in the original Lycian representations of lions, the favourite royal symbol in this land (Ibid.). On the other side, the distinctive feature that distinguishes the Lycian tombs from the classical Greece and Rome is their location (Ibid.). While in the Greek and Roman cultures, the burial places of the dead were customarily located outside residential areas, often along the roads leading to cities, the Lycians made the tombs an integral part of the urban landscape, which is evidence of their relationship with contemporary cultures of the East (Ibid.). A good example is Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly presented along the port (Ibid.).

House-tombs in Fethiye. As their name indicate, they were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Accordingly, the Lycians interacted with the ghosts of their past by inviting them to their everyday life (Miszczak 2009). The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures (Ibid.). Round altars decorated with inscriptions or ornaments were often placed near the tombs (Ibid.). They were used to make offerings to the deceased (Ibid.). The offerings to the ancestors varied greatly, as can be seen from the finds from the tombs (Ibid.). Often these were terracotta statues and jewellery (Ibid.). After the Greek custom, the Lycian also put a coin in the mouths of the deceased, as a fee for Charon – the carrier (Ibid.). Sometimes it is even possible to determine the social status and profession of the dead, by means of a character of objects buried along them (Ibid.).

Cult of the dead and its legal protection

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great (before 334-333 BC.) (Bean 1989:30; Miszczak 2009). Rock-hewn tombs and those of masonry are typical of the whole Asia Minor but they do not appear in such an abundance as in Lycia (Bean 1989:31). According to the latest research, there have remained one thousand eighty-five tombs carved in the rock in the land of Lycia, and partially also at its western border with Caria (Miszczak 2009).

Owing to the rich legends and history of these lands, the landscape of all of Lycia is decorated with fascinating monuments of the past; the Lycian tombs scattered around the region mostly date back to the times before Alexander the Great. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

An opportunity to see them all in our times should be at least partially ascribed to the fact that already in the times of ancient Lycians, the tombs had been carefully preserved from any damage of profanation, sometimes by a special committee, called the mindis (Bean 1989:31). Also epitaphs inscribed on Lycian tombs often end with a warning of uttering a curse or imposing  financial fine for any violation of the tombs (Ibid.:31). Later, the responsibility for the protection of the Lycian tombs was taken over by the city (Ibid.:31). Such efforts visibly show how important for the ancient was the cult of the dead and the places of their final rest (Ibid.:31).

The tombs of Lycia

The tombs of Lycia are usually divided into four separate categories, according to their distinctive features, namely pillar-tombs, temple-tombs, house-tombs and sarcophagi (Bean 1989:30).

The Lycians seem to have believed that the souls of their dead relatives were transported from their tombs to the afterlife by winged mermaid-like creatures, represented as hybrid birds, so they often placed tombs along the coast or on top of steep cliffs to facilitate the task to the flying creatures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most typical of Lycia are the pillar-tombs, which are also believed the earliest preserved of all (Ibid.:30). They mostly appear in the western part of the region and feature a huge rectangular pillar situated on the stone base, whereas at the top of it, there is a grave-chamber, additionally crowned with a massive cap-stone (Ibid.:30). Their sculptured surfaces are limited to the top sides of the grave-chamber, if such carved decoration appears at all (Ibid.:30-31). Temple-tombs present on their front temple facades in miniature, which is the Hellenistic influence having appeared since the fourth century BC. and therefore they are not exactly in Lycian artistic character, though they definitely used to express Lycian beliefs of the afterlife, as much as the previous category of the tombs (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Temple-tombs are also typical of Caria (Caunus) and other parts of Anatolia (Bean 1989:30; see Bean, v.3 1989:139-151). However, those from Lycia slightly vary from the former; the façade of a temple is adorned with two columns in antis (two columns between antae) which are usually in Ionic order (Bean 1989:30). Such a façade also has an epistyle and a pediment (frontispiece) (Ibid.:30). A grave-chamber, which is a plain room with stone benches for the corpses, can be reached through the door from the porch (Ibid.:30). Similar interiors are characteristic of the third category, though its exteriors differ (Ibid.:30). House-tombs, as their name indicate, were built in a way imitating the wooden architecture of Lycia, namely one, two or three-storeys wooden houses, including the projecting square or round beam-ends above the door opening, which later developed into a dentil frieze (Bean 1989:30; Ching et al. 2010:173).

Numerous examples of different tomb types are encrusted together in the cliff-face in Fethiye; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type. The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Sometimes, their façades feature a pediment that can be in the form of a pointed arch, similar to the one in the Gothic style (Bean 1989:30). The walls of this type of Lycian tombs usually are carved in relief, which also appear in the pediment, and occasionally on the adjacent rocks (Ibid.:30-31). When it comes to the last category, it was very common in the contemporary world, however, the early Lycian sarcophagi vary from typical forms of generally known tombs (Ibid.:30). Firstly, the Lycian version is much higher and is composed of the three successive parts: a base, which played the role of hyposorion (a second grave-chamber for the owner’s dependants), an actual grave-chamber, and a crested, ‘Gothic’-like massive lid, which are both frequently in reliefs (Ibid.:30-31). In the Roman times, the Lycian sarcophagi diminished in size and intricacy, and the corner of their lids, yet still with the crest, became rounded (Ibid.:31). Apart from those four major categories of the Lycian tombs, there also exist their different variations (Ibid.:31).

Telmessus or Fethiye?

The finest specimens of the Lycian tombs are at the ancient site of Telmessus or Telmessos, located by the Aegean Sea, in Lycia (Bean 1989:40). The city’s name was only changed in the eighth century to Anastasioupolis, in order to commemorate Anastasios the Second, the Byzantine Emperor, who ruled from 713 to 715 (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021).

View of Fethiye Marina. The modern city of Fethiye was once known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

That name, however, had been forgotten till the tenth century, when the city was commonly known as Makre or Makri, which in Greek means ‘long one’, referring to the name of the island at the entrance to the harbour (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). Finally, in the twentieth century, the city was renamed as Fethiye and it is called so in present (Bean 1989:39; “Telmessos” 2021). The town and its district, incorporating a long beach, Çaliş Plaji (Beach), with an extensive promenade along the coast, on which a row of hotels are based, remain today one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Turkish Riviera (“Fethiye” 2021). Fethiye is slipped away in the south corner of the gulf, and although it is quite hot in summer there, a fresh breeze coming from the sea makes the heat tolerable (Bean 1989:38), which is contrary to Alanya in the Mediterranean region, where the humidity reaches in summer 100%, and at around 40 degrees one feels boiling hot.

During our three-week stay in Fethiye, I visited the city a few times to enjoy its ancient remains and silent atmosphere of its streets. At that time I was spending my holidays with my little sister, Agnieszka, and my aunt’s large family (see: Island of the Sun in Favour of Gods). As my uncle is a university lecturer of Fine Arts and a real devotee of antique art, he seizes any occasion to sightsee, even though his family prefers to spend their time in a slightly different manner. Once we all headed off to Fethiye for the best döner kebab in the area. Afterwards, we decided to wander around the town in search of its ancient remains, which are scattered within its modern boundaries.

Little known site with monumental architecture

Unfortunately, very little is known about the origins of the ancient site of Fethiye (Bean 1989:38). Although its monuments feature Lycian inscriptions, it does not appear as Lycian at first in history (Ibid.:38). After some records, in the fourth century BC., the Lycian dynast, Pericles, fought against the Telmessians and besieged their city (Ibid.:38). Since then, Telmessus had become a part of Lycia, as it is attested by a contemporary historian, known as Scylax (Ibid.:38).

Historic map of Fethiye by Piri Reis (c. 1465 – 1553). Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Hayk using CommonsHelper (2006). Public domain. Photo cropped. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Naturally, it had also been a member of the Lycian League till the time Lycia stayed under the Roman Empire (Ibid.:38). The Telmessians held then a peaceful agreement with Alexander the Great (334-333 BC.), and at the time of by Ptolemy the Third, in 240 BC., the city was offered to Ptolemy, son of Lysimachus (Ibid.:38-39). After the battle of Magnesia, in 189 BC., it was handed over by the Romans to Eumenes of Pergamum and it stayed within the Pergamene kingdom till its end, in 133 BC. (Ibid.:39). Consequently, it was then included to the Roman province of Asia (Ibid.:39). Yet in the first century BC. the city possibly did not belong to Lycia anymore (Ibid.:38).

Treasure is either underground or high-up

First, we decided to take a closer look of the famous Lycian rock-hewn tombs; so far we had just had an occasion to catch a tantalising glimpse of their façades and mysterious openings in the hillsides, from the distance, while we were travelling by bus through the region. The major group of the tombs of Telmessus are located on the east, just outside the modern town (Bean 1989:40). Numerous examples of different types are encrusted together in the cliff-face; two of them belong to the category of temple-tombs, whereas the lowest ones are of house-type, in two or three storeys, and are much smaller than those of the previous group (Ibid.:40). The rest of the tombs resemble pigeon-holes (Ibid.:40). They are all cut in the rock, encrusting the hillside, which looks out on to the east and west (Ibid.:40). Some of them may be reached by a stone staircase or by the strength of one’s own muscles, while climbing up the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, others are more or less inaccessible without special equipment (Ibid.:40).

Who was Amyntas?

The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors (Bean 1989:40).

An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster of the tomb, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Obviously, I was to climb the hill to see the details of the ancient grave. Together with my uncle, we quickly left behind other members of our family, who were walking lazily up towards the monument. From the foot of the hill, we were led up there by a modern stepped zig-zag path, which directs straight to the most famous and magnificent of all the tombs (Ibid.:40). It clearly manifests its temple façade, which is already very easily seen for those who look at it from below the hill (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, only at closer look, this temple-tomb fully demonstrates its monumental size (Ibid.:40). At the foot of the tomb, there are yet four steps to reach the porch in the Ionic order, characterized by two columns in antis (Ibid.:40), of which the left-hand is broken at its base. Each pilaster features a row of three rosettes at their top (Ibid.:40). They are surmounted by a pediment (fronton) with three acroteria, mounted at its apex and its two corners; unfortunately, two of them bear the traces of large damage (Ibid.:40). Below the pediment, there is a dentil frieze, also known as a teethed cornice, which in this category of the tombs exchanged the wooden ornamental elements carrying the roofs in Lycian houses (Bean 1989:30, 40; Dosseman 2019).

Fethiye Rock graves Amyntas tomb. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These were in turn also imitated in stone by the Lycian house-tombs (Bean 1989:30; Dosseman 2019). An inscription from the fourth century BC. on the left-hand pilaster, reveals the name of “Amyntou tou Ermagiou”, which stands for Amyntas son of Hermapias (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019). Although, such a name is unknown in history, it could have been a person of importance due to the size and masonic mastery of his tomb (Ibid.:40).

Robbers and vandals have already done their job

From the space of the porch (the narthex), I could see in detail the massive double doors to the grave chamber, which in Greek architecture, were hidden from the outside view by a portico; the door of the tomb is believed to be the most ancient and best preserved in Greek art, which greatly influenced this type of the Lycian tombs (Bean 1989:40; Dosseman 2019).

Amyntas Tomb among Fethiye rock – cut tombs. Photo by Dosseman (2019). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Tomb of Amyntas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

My uncle had already stayed in front of it, analyzing its particular components. The imitated doorway opening of the grave-chamber is squared and framed by mouldings; additionally, above it, there is a protruding moulded cornice supported on console brackets in the form of volutes. The stone surface of the door is divided into four panels, which are additionally covered in decorations imitating iron studs (Bean 1989:40). It was possible to enter the chamber through the bottom right panel, initially sealed with a sliding stone slab (Ibid.:40). It the recent past, it has been damaged by grave robbers who broke into the chamber; as a result, the entrance now remains open (Ibid.:40). When we both came through the broken panel, we found ourselves inside a single chamber with a flat ceiling and three separate benches hewn in the rock along the sides of the walls, where the dead used to be deposited (Ibid.:40). Some modern ‘vandals’ had decided the grave chamber would have been the best place to confess their love, as the walls have been covered in graffiti inscriptions in black and red paint (Dosseman 2019).

When we finally decided to come back, we realised we were alone in front of the tomb, and our family had been lost somewhere on the way up. After a while, we clearly discerned colourful figures on descend the hill; they were sitting down or impatiently looking in our direction. Deeply engaged in studying the tomb, we only now understood they had never climbed up the hill with us.

Sarcophagus outside the city centre

Apart from the visited site, there are many more tombs of different types within and around Fethiye (Bean 1989:40). Possibly, the best preserved and the most excellent in all Lycia is the tomb of sarcophagus category, which now stands beside the municipal building of the town (Ibid.:40). Like the Tomb of Amyntas, the sarcophagus dates back to the fourth century BC. (“Telmessos” 2021).  Its façade imitates two-storey wooden building with protruding house-beams (Bean 1989:40). However, the most interesting is its ‘Gothic’ arched lid that, along with the surmounting crest, is richly covered in reliefs, representing warriors (Ibid.:40-41). The ends of the lid, likewise the ends of the main chamber, are divided into four squared panels (Ibid.:40-41).

My sister and cousins resting at the stones of the Theater, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Telmessos Theater

Our sightseeing of Fethiye finished just behind the city harbour, where there are remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia (Bean 1989:41; TripHobo 2021). The so-called Telmessos Theatre is actually dated back to the Late Hellenistic, which is supported by the sign on the site, and it was reused by the Romans who added the stage in the second century BC. (Fethiye 2021). What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. (TripHobo 2021; Fethiye 2021). We were resting there for a while, in the shadow of massive blocks of stairs and surrounded by dispersed remains of decorated architectural elements.

The remains of one of the two theaters of Telmessus that remind today a trace of the Roman times of Lycia. What has been preserved are seating stairs and reddish walls surrounding a huge space of the amphitheater, which was once designed for six thousand spectators on twenty-eight rows. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the late afternoon, full of excitement after experiencing the Lycian past, I finally left the hot city of Fethiye, and with the rest of the tired group we went back to the sandy shores, washed by the refreshing sea waves.

Featured image: The most impressive of all the tombs of Telmessus is situated to the right of the major group and can be easily reached by visitors. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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