Lycian Tombs

Rock-cut temple-type tomb, CyaneaeAll pre-Greek people of Anatolia 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.

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.  This is very noticeable, for instance, at Patara, where monumental tombs are proudly placed right alongside the harbor.  A monumental temple-tomb is even located beside the huge imperial granary and the main trade center. The Lycians, in effect, were always living with their departed ones.

The Lycians seem to have held a belief that the souls of their dead would be transported from the tombs to the afterworld by a sort of winged siren-like creature, and so often placed their tombs along the coast or at the top of cliffs when they were not integrated into the liveable areas of the cities.

The originality of Lycian art is special among that of ancient Anatolia, expressed especially in its funeral architecture, reliefs and sculpture.  Though is was impacted by a variety of foreign influences, it retained a typically Lycian character.  Bas reliefs and engraved drawing have been found on 36 Lycian rock tombs; mythological scenes, funerary feasts, battles and animal and figural motifs are some of the themes of the reliefs which are found on tombs dated to the first quarter of the 4th century BC.  They have Greek and Persian elements as well as those of Lycian styles (Lycia had contact with the Greek world and was under Persain control for many years during the BC centuries).  This is usually expressed (and is especially seen in the dynastic tombs of Xanthos) as a mixture of Persian iconography and Greek style overlaying the Lycian architectural core.  For example, scenes depicting funerary feasts, banquet scenes, the inclusion of an audience and hunt and battle scenes are a direct Persian influence and were widespread in the funerary art of Achaemenid Anatolia.  (The Harpy Tomb and Nereid Monument of Xanthos are two such examples) Persian influence can also be seen in the smallest details, such as the manner in which a horse is conducted. The clothing and headgear of warriors is often another Persian influence. Greek influence is apparent in mythological scenes and style.  Lions, a favorite Lycian royal symbol, are often seen in their funerary art, especially at Cibyra, which had a "resting lion" motif as its symbol.

Round shaped altars decorated with inscriptions or ornamentation were sometimes placed near tombs, such as a necropolis at Patara, and these were used to make sacrificial offerings for the dead.  Buried offerings for the dead were varied.  Tombs have been found with tear collection bottles, terra-cotta statuettes and people were buried with their jewellery.  Coins were placed in the mouths of the dead for payment to Charon.  It is sometimes possible to determine the social standing of the person within a tomb, a writer might be buried with a plume and inkbottle.  Unfortunately, most tombs have been looted by robbers.  This must have been a problem even in the ancient times, since so many tomb insriptions are curses against desecrators (see below 'care of the tombs').


Early Burials

An Anatolian belief that became a Lycian tradition, was of using the strength of the rocks around them to represent the strength of the gods.  Dr. Fahri Işık, head excavator at Patara, believes that this was probably transferred to the Lycian via the Phrygirans, from the Urartians.  This belief seems to have influenced early burials - in early years Lycians at Patara would be buried in rock formations on the Tepecik Acropolis, very much like the Hittites.  Rock altars and niches cut into the living rock are nearby, as are bowls, believed to have been used to make liquid offerings during religious and funeral ceremonies.

Pillar Tombs

Pillar tombs, XanthosPillar tombs are the oldest form of tomb and were used mainly for important dynasts. They are the least common type of tomb and seem to be confined to western Lycia.

Pillar tombs consists of a monolith which tapers towards the top and stands either directly on the rock or on a stepped base. The pillar usually has two chambers, one of which is square and carved out of the upper part of the pillar.  The stone plate forming the lid of the pillar tomb can be of various shapes.  Sometimes the pilllar tombs are decorated with reliefs, but only on the grave-chamber at the top, as seen at on the Harpy Tomb at Xanthos.

Photo at right: pillar tombs of Xanthos - Harpy Tomb is on the right with casts of its reliefs, originals in the British Museum.  The tomb on the left is an interesting hybrid of a pillar tomb and a sarcophagus. 



Sarcophagus at CyaneaeSarcophagi are a common form of burial all over the world, however Lycian sarcophagi are distinctive - especially for their great size.  These sarcophagi usually consist of three parts: a base, a grave-chamber and a crested 'Gothic' (pointed) lid. In some sarcophagi deceased slaves and dependents were held in a hyposorion under the main grave-chamber.  Lycian sarcophagi are often decorated with reliefs, usually on the sides and crest of the lid, but sometimes on the grave-chamber.  Most of the intact Lycian sarcophagi belong to the Roman Age.  These are generally smaller and simpler than those preceding them, though still with a crest and rounded lid.  Some, however, have gable-shaped lids with acroteria at the lower corners (many of these can be seen at Sidyma).  Most Lycian sarcophagi are free-standing, open to the sky, but others are placed inside of monumental tombs.

Examples of Lycian Sarcophagi

Some impressive Lycian sarcophagi:

The tomb of Payava, a Lycian aristocrat (British Museum)

Monumental "Lycian Tomb" Views 1, Views 2, Views 3 
A spectacular sarcophagus
at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.  This tomb was found in Sidon, Lebanon, believed to have been carved by a sculptor from the Peloponnese who successfully combined an understanding of Peloponnesian art with traditional Lycian style (as seen in the form of the sarcophagus).  Certain elements, such as the figures' attire, depth gained from overlapping figures and placing chariots in three-quarter pose and the traditional classical position of the griffons come from Greek art while the subject matter of the scenes depicted on the sarcophagus' sides comes is taken from Near Eastern motifs.  The surface was once completely painted with vivid shades of red, blue and brown.

Rock-Cut Tombs 

MyraThese 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. Most often, the tombs are carved like the facade of timber Lycian houses with protruding beams (house-type tombs), usually with one or two stories, sometimes three. The imitation of wood is sometimes even carried to the copying of pegs to join the different beams and the tombs resemble the frontage of houses built solidly of timber with ceilings of unhewn trunks of trees. There is normally a row of round or square beam ends above the door.  Later these developed into a dentil frieze.  Sometimes there is a pediment above, in a few cases in the shape of a Gothic (pointed) arch.  It is believed that the first house-type rock-cut tombs were carved in the 5th century BC.

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.

Rock-cut tomb,PinaraRock-cut tombs often held more than one body - many tombs have several stone couches inside upon which gifts were left and the dead were laid, often families.  The entrance was sealed with a sliding stone door that ran sideways along a groove.  At Pinara's southern necropolis, there is one tomb with a surviving fragment of a sliding door, it has a notch at the bottom to help crowbar the door into place.

The tombs of wealthy Lycians were finely worked with elaborate relief carving.  On some of the rock tombs the exterior is decorated with reliefs depicting the specific features of the deceased and the main events of the period. Symposium scenes relating to the funeral feast are frequently included in the reliefs.  Othertimes, mythological scenes are depicted.  These reliefs were once brightly painted.  Myra's "Painted Tomb" still has some traces of paint on its life-sized figures.

The tombs of the poor and less wealthy were plain, without relief carving. A good example of these simple tombs can be seen at Pinara - they are also the oldest form of the rock-cut tombs, hundreds of roughly-hewn pigeon-hole caves honeycombing a cliff face.  These tombs were usually bricked-up to a small access hole, which was then locked with a stone plate.

Click here to see another way in which poor may have been buried in Lycia.

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.

Examples of Lycian rock-cut tombs

Examples of Lycian temple-type rock-cut tombs

Influence of Lycian House Construction on
Architecture in Lycia Today


Monumental Tombs

Monumental tombs were built by the rich and were grand and some were in the form of temples.  Such a tomb could confer prestige, make a political statement, or illustrate the biography of the dead person.

There are only a few "heroon" in Lycia - these were the grandest monumental tombs of all and were ususally built by important rulers. The earliest examples, at Lymra and Apollonia, may not have been actual tombs, but rather hero-cult centers. The remaining four of these tombs of fourth century BC were most likely genuine ‘ruler-tombs? the earliest being the beautiful ?b>Nereid Monument?/a> from Xanthos (now in the British Museum).

The Nereid Monument from Xanthos, British Museum


Care of the Tombs 

The Lycians' had a large ancestor cult and so tombs were very well-cared for.  Veneration for ancestors, amounting even to ancestor worship, was almost universal in the ancient world. A few tombs have inscriptions which reveal that most tombs were prepared while their owners were living. At Olympus there are two tombs which carry letter-oracles where the response was conceived as given by the ancestor. 

In general, much care was given to protect the tombs from damage or misuse. Inscriptions on the tombs commonly end with a curse or the price of a fine should the tomb be violated, it is believed that looting and other disruption of tombs must have been widespread. Athena, or Malija in the Lycian language, was the goddess responsible for punishing the violaters of tombs.  Leto was worshiped partly as the guardian of the tomb.

From Lycian inscriptions, It is certain that a certain amount of money was paid by the tomb's owner either to buy a "burial right" or to obtain a guarantee for the future protection of his tomb, from a committee called the miñti (mindis in Greek).  It is not clear if this was a body of relatives of the deceased or a community institution.  Punishment against desecrators of tombs or those who disregarded the wishes of the tomb's owner changed over time.  Lycian inscriptions tell us that punishment was of a moral nature; the guilty faced punishment from the gods and had to atone with expensive sacrifices.  Perhaps this system did not work because by Hellenistic times the violators faced judicial punishment from an ius sepulchrorum and were obligated to pay a fine, part of which went to the informer and the other to either the family of the deceased or to the city.  Later, in Roman times, fines were paid to the Imperial chest, the amount of the fine and the informer's reward being fixed by the tomb's owner (see the inscription below).  A certain percentage of the sum of the fine would be paid to city officials who would have the responsibility of convicting the offender and collecting the fine.

Since the disappearance of these systems, thousands of Lycian tombs have been looted for their treasures and metal pieces throughout the centuries, yet their structures remain largely intact.


Interesting Inscriptions on a Tomb

The following inscriptions (translated by H. Engelmann) were found on the Marcia temple-tomb at Patara (I will soon be including information on this page about monumental temple-tombs).  They are interesting as they tell us something about the Lycians and their tombs in the Roman period and the possible strong position of women in Lycian society.

"I, the third daughter of Alchimos III, a Lyciarch, the citizen of Patara and Sydyma, mother and woman, Marcia Aurelia Chryion, Iasonis, which is my second name, who lived only with her husband, had this entire heroon and the entire temenos built completely and with my own money for myself and for the sake of all the people that I loved: for Alchimos III, who was in the past my father and Lychiarch, and Dionysios, his son, the Archiphlax of the Lycians and for my husband Alchimos who was the grandchild of Alchimos II and for the god Apollo.  No one is allowed to place their dead ones in my two sarcphagi that I had the workers build under any circumstance.  The sarcophagus across the one holding my husband Alchimos is reserved for me alone, in the second are the bodies of Alchimos, my father, and Alchimos his son, and my brother Iason whose nickname is Dionysios.  May those who wish to place another sarcophagus in the naos, those who will be tempted to pillage my sarcophagus and those who attempt to do so be subject to the anger and the wrath of of the powers of the gods under the ground and above, may they be given as sacrifice to the birds and the fish in the sea and may this be true for every single person in their generation for all times.  They shall also pay five thousand denariis to the treasury of the empire; one third shall be for the informer.  If my dear daughters, daughters of Alchimos son of Dionysios, Malate (?) and Nemeso and Alchimias whose second name is Asonis wish to put a sarcophagus in the pronaos in front of the naos or in the woods, they may only do so after the construction of the temenos.  However, there can not be more than one for each person and the sarcophagi cannot be any different and they should be done under the same conditions.  If these rules are not obeyed, let them pay five thousand denariis to the treasury of the empire and let one third be paid to the informer."

The second inscription reads:

"The people, men and women, who have been freed and their children and my male and female tomb slaves and their children shall be buried inside the temenos.  I left five hundred denariis per year for the well-being of the tomb slaves and their children.  Let those people whom I have favored in particular be buried here."