The ancient Lycians are probably one of the most enigmatic peoples of history, because there are not many traces of their civilization. However, what has been discovered reveals a fascinating people culturally distinct from the rest of the ancient world at the time. Today there are around twenty important sites to learn about the unusual funerary architecture of the Licyans, including the astonishing rock-cut tombs that dominate the unspoilt land of Lycia.
Lycia occupied the region which is today the provinces of Antalya and Muğla on the southern coast of Turkey, and the Burdur province, which is further inland. The Lycian civilization is mentioned in the historical records of ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire. In the 6th century BC, however, Lycia was annexed to the Achaemenid Empire, although it was allowed to have indigenous governors.
One of the most interesting features of the Licyans is their funerary culture.
There are different types of Lycian tombs, but the most spectacular are those carved into the rock, which made their appearance roughly in the 5th century BC, carved directly into the rock walls, usually in a cliff, a position which makes them an amazing sight to behold. The earliest examples of these can be found in places such as Myra and Amasia. It is said that the Lycians believed that a mythical winged creature would carry them off into the afterlife, which is the reason for the position of their tombs on cliffs.
Another interesting aspect of the Licyans funerary culture is its reflection of domestic life. The tombs are often carved like the façade of Lycian houses, and usually held more than one body, most likely of people who were related to each other. So, it seems that familial ties and kinship were maintained even after death. However, rock-cut tombs are not unique to the Lycians. In fact, similar structures can be found in other parts of the Mediterranean, like Petra in Jordan or Cyrenaica in Libya.
Another form of Lycian tombs is the sarcophagus, and even if this is a common form of burial, they are unique for their great size. Interestingly, the dead were sometimes buried with their slaves and dependents. Most Lycian sarcophagi are free-standing monuments which were exposed to the sky, and other sarcophagi were placed inside tombs as well.
On the mountain there are burials on one side and a tomb, more imposing and not far away, particular because it was built in solitude compared to the other burials.
Amyntas tomb (also known as the Fethiye Tomb) was built in 350 BC and is located on the mountain that dominates the current city of Fethiye, on the site of the Ancient Greek city Telmessos. Its name derives from a Greek inscription in which we read “Armyntou tou Ermagiou”, which translates to “Amyntas, son of Ermagios”.
The spectacular entrance, carved as if it were the portico of an Ionic temple, makes us understand the importance of Amyntas, who had the right to have the largest tomb at the highest point of the cliff, compared to the others carved in the same rocky wall. A long series of steps leads to the Tomb of Amyntas, isolated from the other tombs, further proof of the high rank of this man, of which today only a name remains engraved in the rock.
Even if the Lycians no longer exist, their tombs are able to tell us a lot about them. They tell us about the way the Lycians treated their dead, as well as their skill as craftsmen. So, the funerary monuments of the Lycians are not only able to inform us about the dead, but also are able to inform us about their lives.