The practice of creating buildings, sculptures or monuments by carving natural rock is called ‘Rock-cut architecture,’ a tradition with over 5000 years.Some famous, others little known, meet some of the most breathtaking works created from the ‘living rock.’
1Great Sphinx of Giza (Egypt)
A reclining lion with a human head that stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile, near modern-day Cairo, is the largest monolith statue in the world.Standing 73.5 m (241 ft) long, 6 m (20 ft) wide, and 20 m (65 ft) high, the Great Sphinx of Giza is also the oldest known monumental sculpture, and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians in the third millennium BCE. The Great Sphinx faces due east and houses a small temple between its paws.
Famously described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” by John William Burgon, UNESCO has described Petra as one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage. In 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site, and recently designated as one of the “new wonders” of the world.
Located in Arabah, Ma’an Governorate, Jordan, lying on the slope of Mount Hor in a basin among the mountains, the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba is renowned for its rock-cut architecture. The Nabateans constructed it as their capital city around 100 BCE, after their decline, the site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced to the West by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
The picturesque site was featured in various films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
3Mount Rushmore (USA)
A famous monumental granite sculpture created by Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore is located within the United States Presidential Memorial that represents the first 150 years of the history of the United States of America with 60-foot (18 m) sculptures of the heads of former United States presidents (left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The entire memorial covers 1,278.45 acres (5.17 km2) and is 5,725 feet (1,745 m) above sea level. The memorial attracts approximately two million people annually.
4Leshan Giant Buddha (China)
Built during the Tang Dynasty, the Leshan Giant Buddha is carved out of a cliff face that lies at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers in the southern part of Sichuan province in China, near the city of Leshan. The sculpture, which is seventy one meters (about 230 hundred feet) tall dwarfs the tourists that flock to see it. It is positioned so that it faces Mount Emei and stands at the meeting place of three rivers. Although the Government of China has promised a restoration program, the statue has suffered from the effects of pollution, particularly over the last twenty years. Fortunately, the statue was not damaged in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
5Mahabalipuram Shore Temple (India)
Built on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Mahabalipuram (India) in the early 8th century by the Pallava King Rajasimha. The shore temple actually consists of 2 back to back shrines, one facing the east (the Bay), and the smaller one facing west.
It stands on the edge of the Bay of Bengal. At high tide, the waves sweep into its compounds. The walls and their sculptures have been battered and eroded by the winds and waves for thirteen hundred years. Yet they stand intact.
Mahabalipuram was a flourishing sea port in the times of Periplus and Ptolemy (140 AD). There is an old legend here that originally there were seven temples; of these, six have been swallowed by the sea and only one temple -the Shore Temple- remained. There are evidences of submerged structures under the waves and sporadic excavations are going on, but it is too early to say whether there really was a glorious city and six more temples which now lie submerged under the waves off the coast off Mahabalipuram.
6Abu Simbel (Egypt)
A set of two temples near the border of Egypt with Sudan, Abu Simbel was constructed for the pharaoh Ramesses II who reigned for 67 years during the 13th century BC (19th Dynasty). The temples were cut from the rock and shifted to higher ground in the 1960s as the waters of Lake Nasser began to rise following completion of the Aswan High Dam.
The Great Temple is dedicated to Ramesses II and a statue of him is seated with three other gods within the innermost part of the rock-cut temple (the sanctuary). The temple’s facade is dominated by four enormous seated statues of the Pharaoh (each over 20 metres or 67 feet high), although one has been damaged since ancient times. The Small Temple was probably completed ahead of the Great Temple and is dedicated to Ramesses’ favorite wife, Nefertari. At the entrance stand six 10-metre-high (33 feet) rock-cut statues – two of Ramesses and one of Nefertari on either side of the doorway.
7Dazu Rock Carvings (China)
The Dazu rock carvings in Chongqing, China are hewn from the cliffside, featuring more than 5,000 statues and over 100,000 Chinese characters of inscriptions or epigraphs. It is reputed as ‘the county of rock carving’ and it’s located at the southeast of Sichuan province. The Dazu Rock Carvings was built from 650 in the Tang Dynasty and continued to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).Among the rock carvings, there are more than 5,000 statues and over 100,000 Chinese characters of inscriptions and epigraphs.
8Church of St. George (Ethiopia)
The Church of St. George is a monolithic church in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia. It is the most well known and last built (early thirteenth century) of the eleven churches in the Lalibela area, and has been referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. The dimensions of the complex are 25 meters by 25 meters by 30 meters, and there is a small baptismal pool outside the church, which stands in an artificial trench.According to Ethiopian cultural history, Bete Giyorgis was built after King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty had a vision in which he was instructed to construct the church; Saint George and God have both been referred to as the one who gave him the instructions.
As of 2006, Lalibela is still a pilgrimage site for members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church; the church itself is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela”.
Officially, Borobudur is a ninth-century Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. Actually, it is much older than that. The monument complex comprises six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 statues of Rama citizens. Each wall has a story that relates to the stories of the birth of Buddha and other Buddha figures. A main dome, located at the center of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Rama citizens seated inside perforated stupa. (Photo bySimon Kennedy)
Cappadocia lies in the mid-western part of Turkey. An extraordinary landscape formed millions of years ago by the combined work of lava spitting volcanoes, wind and water, there is culture too: the inhabitants of the area hew rooms, chapels, even whole villages out of the rocks. Religious Byzantine paintings can be found on the walls of the churches and monasteries.
11Bingling Temple (China)
The Bingling Temple is a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River. It lies just north of where the Yellow River empties into the Liujiaxia Reservoir created by the Liujiaxia Dam at Yongjing, about 80km from Lanzhou. The caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 CE at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty. Work continued and more grottoes were added during several dynasties. The style of each grottoe can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.
Over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery.
The sculptures, carvings, and frescoes that remain are outstanding examples of Buddhist artwork and draw visitors from around the world.
12Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni (Malta)
The Hypogeum in Hal-Saflieni, Paola, Malta, is a subterranean structure dating to the Saflieni phase in Maltese prehistory. Thought to be originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times. It is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. The Hypogeum was depicted on a 2 cents 5 mils stamp issued in the Maltese Islands in 1980 to commemorate the acceptance by UNESCO of this unique structure in the World Heritage Site list. It was closed to visitors between 1992 and 1996 for restoration works; since it reopened only 80 people per day are allowed entry and there can be a 2-3 weeks wait to get a ticket.
It was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers cutting cisterns for a new housing development broke through its roof. The workers tried to hide the temple at first, but eventually it was found. The study of the structure was first entrusted to Father Manuel Magri of the Society of Jesus, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Museums Committee.
13Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan)
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, situated 230 km (143 miles) northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2500 meters (8,202 ft). Built during the sixth century, the statues represented the classic blended style of Indo-Greek art.
The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco.
They were intentionally dynamited and destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were “idols” (which are forbidden under Sharia law). International opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas, which was viewed as an example of the intolerance of the Taliban and of fundamentalist Islam. Japan and Switzerland, among others, have pledged support for the rebuilding of the statues.
14Mada’in Saleh (Saudi Arabia)
Located in northern Hejaz (modern day Saudi Arabia), Mada’in Saleh –also called Al-Hijr (“rocky place”)– is an ancient city that was inhabited by Thamudis and Nabateans and was then known as Hegra.Some of the inscriptions found in the area date back to the 2nd millennium BC. However, all the remaining architectural elements are dated to the period of the Thamudi, Lihyan and Nabatean civilizations, between the 1st millennium BC and the second century AD.Mada’in Saleh is not only Saudi Arabia’s most spectacular touristic site; it is also one of the greatest historic sites in the world. The rock tombs in this early morning light are of such an extraordinary beauty, consisting of different shapes and sizes, that gives Mada’in Salih a truly charming feeling. This historic sister city, Petra the former capital of Nabataean Kingdom, is located only 150 miles away to the north across the border with Jordan.
15Naqsh-e Rustam (Iran)
Naqsh-e Rostam is a site believed by archaeologists to have been a cemetery for Persepolis, where Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid royalty were laid to rest.Located about 3-4 kilometers northwest of Persepolis in Iran’s Fars province, the site contains funerary related works belonging to the Elamite (second millennium BCE), Achaemenid (550-330 BCE) and Sassanid (226-651 CE) eras.
The only surviving monument from the pre-Achaemenid period is a relief which was almost completely obliterated when the court scene of Bahram II (276-293 CE) was carved over it.The Naqsh-e Rostam structures have been built from white and grey Limestone without the use of mortar.
It is believed that Persians were the first to use colors to decorate stone carvings. A particularly striking feature of Naqsh-e Rostam stone carvings is the use of color; many of the site’s inscriptions and carvings are covered with Lapis lazuli.Evidence shows that the carving of Darius had a lazuline beard and mustache, black hair and eyeliner, red eyes, lips and shoes as well as colorful robes, although the passage of time has left the colors at Naqsh-e Rostam unstable.