Designing from Bones ~ Stories Hewn From Rock: Tombs and Temples

Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.

This week continues a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Raw rock is to sculptors what a blank page is to writers – art awaiting the life-giving touch of creative thought. Today we take a look at two extraordinary examples of what can be done with the nameless hills and stark cliff sides of your world.

Built into the side of a cliff, the tombs of the Lycian Kings keep watch on the Dalyan River.

Kaunos, Turkey

Kaunos has a history stretching nearly two and a half millennium. It served as its own city-state, and as a major port for the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Turks. This mixture of cultures over such a long period of time gives the location a rare amalgamation of art and architecture. However, today, we will focus on a single feature, left by the Hellenized Lycians – temple-faced tombs.

As was common among the Greek and Roman cultures, the dead were buried outside of the city, preferably far from the homes of any influencial citizens. While this practice was partially done for reasons of superstition is had practical reasons as well, such as reducing smell and ensuring that carrion eaters didn’t wander into someones yard and eat their children.

Set in alcoves of stone the Hellenized facades, in smaller size, would make a nice shelf display.

Kaunos features large rocky hills with shear cut cliffs, a chiseled natural beauty. To honor their kings, the Lycians carved their tombs directly from and into the cliff sides. There are six tombs in all bearing the exterior facade of a Hellenized temple including Ionian pillars and palm leaf shaped embellishments known as acroterions.

The tombs are clustered together on a single long cliff face overlooking the

Examples of the palm-style Acroterion

Dalyan river. One will notice another fun feature by looking at the photo of the tombs – each is given the appearance of having been built into a natural alcove as if a giant had carved out a handful of rock with its mighty hands and then gently placed the temple face within it.

Wonder is always found in the details and after two millennium of existence the Lycian tombs of Kaunos retain their appeal. What interesting features can be placed on the barren cliff sides of your world? Tombs? Actual temples? Could they act as a curio cabinet for the treasures of a real giant? Or perhaps as a decoratively sculpted landing bay door for a space port?

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Carved out of the rocky ground this monolithic church at Lalibela was built in its own protective enclosure.

Lalibela is a small community situated in the volcanic barrens of Ethiopia and thanks to some creative sculpting serves as one of its top religious and tourist centers. In the late 12th century, King Gabre Lalibela, responding to what legend says was a vision from God, ordered the creation of a New Jerusalem in response to the Muslim capture of Old Jerusalem. His plan – create eleven churches carved directly from the red volcanic rock. The churches would split into two groups separated by a river with the half on one side representing physical Jerusalem and the half on the other the heavenly kingdom.

Top view of the church above. From a distance at ground level this would appear to be a small structure, belying its true nature.

All of the churches are connected by tunnels and carved directly out of the rocky landscape and connected to each other by tunnels. The structures are monolithic, carved as a single piece from the existing rock rather than constructed in parts, thus making them statues, of a kind. One will notice that the act of carving the churches left them sitting in pits, quite similar to the housing at Matmata that we visited a few weeks ago, but with a far more lofty motivation.

Four of the churches are free standing (attached only at the base) while the rest are either partially attached to a wall of the pit or are a facade carving similar to the temple tombs at Kaunos. The achievement is stunning regardless.

The front of this church at Lalibela was carved as a single piece into the cliff face similarly to the tombs of the Lycian Kings at Kaunos.

Imagine entering a deserted area and stumbling on a free standing monolithic church staring up at you from a smooth quarried pit. Would you climb down to find out what was inside? What would you expect to find? What might be in there that wouldn’t be expected?

What if traveling the underground connections through the tunnels acted as a magical path? Would it transport the sojourner to another world? Dimension? Cleanse and heal them? Or perhaps even grant them access to a special treasure or magical power?

No one really knows what compelled Lalibela to create this grouping of unique churches. Was it just devotion? A way to seal his legacy in stone? Or was it a cover for some other activity that is now lost to history? The choices are many.

Only you can decide.

As a bonus – for the readers that made it this far *grins* – here are two more fun places I found while doing research for this post.

This Sufi shrine at Surla, Goa is shrouded in mystery but one will have to get past the bats to discover them.

The first is in Surla Goa. An ancient Sufi temple, carved into a hillside and now fallen into disuse features a large central chamber with a massive phallic-shaped “obelisk” in the middle (no, I couldn’t find a picture of the interior). The temples function remains a mystery (mmhmm) and it now serves as a home to a healthy population of bats.

The second one most readers will be familiar with – Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, U.S. Like the temple tombs and other grand cliff sculptures of history, Rushmore is likely to live longer than the United States. Imagine how a future culture that knew nothing about the U.S. would view the carvings at Rushmore. Who would they think the four faces belong to? Would they worship them? Add a fifth face? Or use them for target practice as someone likely did the Great Sphinx in Egypt?

Without attached meaning or context, perception is left to its own devices which represents an excellent playground for the fiction writing mind.

When we become the ancients – what will those that do not know of us think of the faces of Rushmore?

Join me next week when we take a look at a few interesting palaces with stories to tell.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
This entry was posted in Designing from Bones and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Stories Hewn From Rock: Tombs and Temples

  1. prudencemacleod says:

    Hi Gene. Once again a well researched and fun post that inspires a thousand ideas. This DfB of yours could keep me in book ideas for generations. Love it.

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    Gene, I love how you are always opening up great new ideas for me! Thanks a million. 😀

  3. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Another fascinating DfB post, Gene. I’d love to see what the inside of those churches look like and check out the tunnels that connect them. You come up with awesome writing prompts. How cool that you added Mt. Rushmore. Yes, what will they make of it when we become the ancients? Great food for thought!

  4. Once again your blog post has transported me far from my desk in SoCal to magical places where my imagination can run free. The engineering feats of these builders always staggers my mind. What they accomplished without explosives, wow! I would totally want to climb down and explore these temples (after all the bats had flown out, thankyouverymuch). I’ve never really thought about Mt. Rushmore like that, but yeah I guess future visitors to Earth would be so confused who those men are! Heck, I bet visitors from Europe scratch their chins in wonder…

  5. “Raw rock is to sculptors what a blank page is to writers . . .” It’s amazing that we’ve come so far as a society and as human beings, since those ancient crafters built those amazing places, yet what remains constant is our inner creativity. All cultures and by-gone eras of the human race have been creative in one form or another. I find that curiously amazing.

    Maybe we haven’t evolved as much as we think we have.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. Marcia says:

    Okay, so now I’m REALLY interested in the Sufi Temple. There MUST be a photo of the interior somewhere. Where, in the world, is this located? I may just need to go there…for research, you know. I could definitely add something like that to one of my future books!
    Another amazing post from you and your DfB blog!

  7. Pingback: Ambrosius the Warlord 10: Catch Me if You Can « Neither Here nor There….

  8. Pingback: Blog Treasures 5~19 | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

  9. Pingback: Mind Sieve 5/21/12 « Gloria Oliver

I'd love to chat with you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s