Ancient Lycians: A Glimpse into their Unique Funerary Culture


The ancient Lycians, a people of antiquity shrouded in mystery, have left behind a tantalizingly enigmatic legacy. Despite the scarcity of historical records about them, the fragments of their civilization that have been uncovered reveal a remarkable cultural distinctiveness from the rest of the ancient world. Spread across approximately twenty major sites, their distinctive funerary architecture, characterized by awe-inspiring rock-cut tombs etched into the faces of cliffs, continues to command attention in the pristine landscapes of Lycia.

Lycia: A Glimpse into the Past

Nestled in what is now the provinces of Antalya, Muğla, and Burdur in southern Turkey, Lycia once flourished as a civilization that left an indelible mark on history. Its historical presence is acknowledged in records from ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire. However, by the 6th century BC, the Ancient Lycians found themselves assimilated into the vast Achaemenid Empire. A captivating facet of their culture comes to light in the form of their elaborate tombs that endure as captivating artifacts of a bygone era.

The Rock-Cut Tombs: A Testament to Myth and Faith

Ancient Lycians
Ancient rock tombs of Myra, characterized by Lycian architectural style.

Among the array of Lycian tombs, the rock-cut tombs stand out as the most prevalent. Originating as far back as the 5th century BC, these tombs can be witnessed in locations like Myra and Amasia. Remarkably, these tombs are hewn directly into the rugged cliffs, a breathtaking spectacle that stems from the belief that winged mythical creatures would ferry the deceased into the afterlife. The placement of the tombs on cliffs thus carries a profound symbolism.

Insights into Domestic Life: Carvings that Transcend Time

Ancient Lycians
Tomb of Amyntas, an example of Lycian tomb architecture.

The rock-cut tombs not only celebrate the journey into the afterlife but also provide intriguing insights into domestic life. Mirroring the façades of Lycian houses, these tombs often feature multiple levels, occasionally reaching three. These multi-level structures hint at the interconnection of family, preserving kinship even beyond the veil of death. While these rock-cut tombs are distinctively Lycian, analogous structures grace other Mediterranean regions such as Petra in Jordan and Cyrenaica in Libya.

The Grandeur of the Lycian Sarcophagi

Ancient Lycians
Tomb with a Lycian sarcophagus design.

The Lycian tombs also include the distinctive sarcophagi, notable for their grand proportions. Consisting of three components – a base, a grave-chamber, and a pointed lid – these sarcophagi predominantly belong to the Roman Age. Unlike their earlier counterparts, the Roman-era sarcophagi are smaller and less ornate. Intriguingly, some sarcophagi house not just the departed but also their slaves and dependents, interred in hyposoria beneath the primary grave-chamber. Serving as standalone monuments open to the sky, some sarcophagi also find their place within larger tombs.

Pillar Tombs: A Tribute to Dynastic Importance

Ancient Lycians
Tomb featuring a Lycian pillar style.

The pillar tombs, relatively rare in Lycia, represent the oldest form of Ancient Lycians tombs. Associated with significant dynasts, these tombs exist primarily in western Lycia. The hallmark of these tombs is the monolithic structure that tapers towards its apex, standing on the ground or atop a stepped base. Often featuring two chambers, the upper section houses the grave chamber, occasionally adorned with intricate reliefs. The renowned Harpy Tomb at Xanthos, renowned for its reliefs, showcases plaster casts on the tomb itself while the originals are displayed in the British Museum.

Unlocking the Past: The Legacy of Lycian Tombs

Although the Lycians have faded into history, their tombs persist as captivating storytellers. These monumental structures illuminate the Lycian reverence for their departed and their remarkable craftsmanship. Furthermore, these funerary monuments offer a glimpse into the lives of these ancient people. The depictions of mythological scenes on the rock-cut tombs provide insights into the Lycian belief system, allowing us to peer into their worldview. Consequently, the funerary monuments of the Lycians transcend mortality, serving as conduits of both the departed and the living.

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