Rock Cut

On May 8, 2016 · 5 Comments

Architectural styles sometimes make it onto the pages of Twelve Mile Circle, with Pueblo Deco and Egyptian Revival coming quickly to mind. I stumbled across another noteworthy example recently. I considered structures I’d wondered about before, carved directly from their stony landscapes. I didn’t realize that it had a name though, Rock Cut Architecture. This style came to prominence during ancient times although it continued to exist even during the present in isolated instances. Many ancient cultures from all parts of the world carved buildings from stone during its heyday. I picked a few favorites to explore further for this and a follow-on article.

It seems like I’ve done a lot of multi-part articles lately. I’m not so sure that’s become truly a "thing" on 12MC as much as it’s a reflection of encountering a number of topics with an overabundance of material lately.

Petra, Jordan

ad-Deir, Petra, Jordan
ad-Deir, Petra, Jordan by yeowatzup on Flickr (cc)

Petra was the classic example and probably the place that most people knew about (map). It certainly made appearances in popular culture including movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Those were rather trite references though. The real deal was much more impressive.

Classic structures within the complex including Al Deir ("The Monastery") and Al Khazneh ("The Treasury") dating back to about the time of Christ. Petra, then known as Raqmu, was a trading center for a civilization of Arabs called the Nabataeans. Camel caravans traveled across deserts from faraway places to this important crossroads. The people of the Nabataean kingdom made their city there, "half-built, half-carved into the rock" and "surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges." That was a mighty fine place until the Roman emperor Trajan conquered Nabataea in the first century. Eventually it became lost to the Western world until "rediscovered" in the Nineteenth Century. Now it’s the most important tourist site in Jordan.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela by Wojtek Ogrodowczyk on Flickr (cc)

It was actually Lalibela that brought this topic to my mind as I took a walk the other day (map). I used to go to an Ethiopian restaurant called Lalibela and I wondered whatever happened to it, which took me down a mental tangent to the holy city of the same name. Bedrock plains formed a canvas for Lalibela, made of an unusual and highly porous form of limestone called tufa. "The metabolism of algae, bacteria and mosses is important for tufa formation due to consumption of CO2 (causing CaCO3 [calcium carbonate] supersaturation)."

Unlike many other places with Rock Cut Architecture, structures at Lalibela such as the Church of St. George (Biete Ghiorgis) weren’t cut from the side of mountains, they were cut directly from the ground. Structures here dated to the Middle Ages.

In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a "New Jerusalem", after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land.

It remained one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, still a gathering point for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians even today.

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Temple of Ramesses II
Temple of Ramesses II by Don McCrady on Flickr (cc)

The temples at Abu Simbel went way back to the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II who commissioned these structures circa 1250 BC (map). He meant to send a message, a symbol of his power at the far southern fringes of his empire. These magnificent structures carved into cliffs along the Nile River confronted all who passed, a grandeur that could not be replicated by any other civilization of the time.

Abu Simbel continued to impress in modern times. The site had been lost beneath desert sands for centuries, completely forgotten until about two hundred years ago when they were uncovered once again. More recently, in the 1960’s, Egypt built the Aswan Dam and created Lake Nassar. This offered many benefits to a desert nation including flood control on the fickle Nile, water for irrigation, and abundant hydroelectric power. It also would have drowned Abu Simbel below the surface of the lake. Instead, the Egyptian government lovingly moved the structures uphill and reconstructed them piece-by-piece into artificial hillsides specially constructed for this purpose.

Göreme, Turkey

Göreme by David on Flickr (cc)

Structures at Göreme arose in a much more haphazard fashion (map). The local landscape contained geological features known as hoodoos or "fairy chimneys" caused by erosion. People first moved into the area prior to 1000 BC, possibly for safety. This area of Turkey traded hands frequently as empires rose and fell. The inhospitable hoodoo formations repelled outsiders while offering attractive formations for local inhabitants to dig into and build their homes, businesses and places of worship. The town continues to have a population of about 2,000 residents.

On May 8, 2016 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Rock Cut”

  1. Scott Surgent says:

    Although not as grand as the places cited in the above article, the town of Coober Pedy in South Australia has many of its homes dug directly into the soft rock in the region. I was there in 1985 and barely remember it, except for one brief tour of one man’s home. He encouraged the ladies to sign their names onto a wall using paints. The men were not allowed to sign at all.

    The exteriors are nothing to marvel at, but the interiors of these “dugout” homes are very impressive.

  2. Akubra says:

    Years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Especially Ellora is one of the most impressive rock cut architecture I have ever seen.

    Near Göreme there are also a number of underground cities like Kaymakl? and Derinkuyu. Also fascinating and worth a visit.

    @ Scott Surgent: any chance that the character in Coober Pedy you mentioned was a certain “Crocodile Harry”? I met him in 1996 and visited his underground “crocodile’s nest” as he called it. The ladies were not only invited to leave their signature, but also certain pieces of clothing. He showed off his collection by hanging them from the walls and ceilings. apparently he passed away in 2006.

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