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Rock-cut architecture is the creation of structures like buildings by excavating solid rock where it naturally occurs. In India the term 'cave' is often applied, and in China 'cavern,' but one must differentiate natural caves, even if tidied and extended by man, from rock-cut architecture which is wholly man-made and so in every respect a part of architecture and its history. Though rock-cut architecture differs from traditional architecture in many obvious ways, many rock-cut structures are often made to replicate traditional architectural forms in the facades and even in their interiors. The interiors were usually carved out by starting at the roof of the planned space and then working downward, for the obvious reason that stones would not be falling on one's head. The three main uses of rock-cut architecture were temples (like those in India), tombs (like those in Petra, Jordan) and cave dwellings (like those in Cappadocia, Turkey).
Some rock-cut architecture, mostly for tombs, is excavated entirely in chambers under the surface of relatively level rock. If the excavation is instead made into the side of a cliff or steep slope there can be an impressive facade, as found in Lycian tombs, Petra, Ajanta and elsewhere. The most laborious and impressive rock-cut architecture is the excavation of tall free-standing monolithic structures entirely below the surface level of the surrounding rock, in a large excavated hole around the structure. Ellora in India and Lalibela in Ethiopia provide the most spectacular and famous examples of such structures.
Rock-cut architecture, though intensely laborious with ancient tools and methods, was presumably combined with quarrying the rock for use elsewhere; the huge amounts of stone removed have normally vanished from the site. Rock-cut architecture is also said to be cut, hewn, etc., "from the living rock". Another term sometimes associated with rock-cut architecture is monolithic architecture, which is rather applied to free-standing structures made of a single piece of material. Monolithic architecture is often rock-cut architecture (e.g. Ellora Kailasanathar Temple) but monolithic structures might be also cast of artificial material, e.g. concrete.
Ancient monuments of rock-cut architecture are widespread in several regions of world. Some of the most ancient known examples are located on several Mediterranean islands e.g. Malta (Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni), Sardinia (Anghelu Ruju, built in 3,000 - 1,500 BCE) and others.
Large scale rock-cut structures were built in Ancient Egypt and among important monuments could be mentioned the Great Temple of Ramesses II, known as Abu Simbel, located along the Nile in Nubia, near the borders of Sudan about 300 kilometers from Aswan in Egypt. It dates from about 1280 BCE, and consists of a monumentally scaled facade carved out of the cliff and a set of interior chambers that form its sanctuary. In the 5th century BCE, the Lycians, who inhabited southern Anatolia (now Turkey) built hundreds of rock-cut tombs of a similar type, but smaller in scale. Excellent examples are to be found near Dalyan, a town in Muğla Province, along the sheer cliffs that faces a river. Since these served as tombs rather than as religious sites, the interiors were usually small and unassuming. The ancient Etruscans of central Italy also left an important legacy of rock-cut architecture, mostly tombs, as those near the cities of Tarquinia and Vulci.
The creation of rock-cut tombs in ancient Israel began in the 8th-century BCE and continued through the Byzantine period.
The Nabataeans in their city of Petra, now in Jordan, extended this tradition, carving their temples and tombs into the yellowish-orange rock that defines the canyons and gullies of the region. These structures, dating from 600 BCE to about 300 CE, are particularly important in the history of architecture given their experimental forms. Here too, because the structrures served as tombs, the interiors were rather perfunctory. In Petra one even finds a theater where the seats are cut out of the rock.
Rock-cut architecture occupies a particularly important place in the history of Indian Architecture.
The earliest instances of Indian rock-cut architecture, the Barabar caves date from about the 3rd to the 2nd century BCE. They were built by the Buddhist monks and consisted mostly of multi-storey buildings carved into the mountain face to contain living and sleeping quarters, kitchens, and monastic spaces. Some of these monastic caves had shrines in them of Buddha, bodhisattvas and saints. As time progressed, the interiors became more elaborate and systemitized; surfaces were often decorated with paintings, such as those at Ajanta. At the beginning of the 7th century Hindu rock-cut temples began to be constructed at Ellora. Unlike most previous examples of rock-cut architecture which consisted of a facade plus an interior, these temples were complete three-dimensional buildings created by carving away the hillside. They required several generations of planning and coordination to complete. Other major examples of rock-cut architecture in India are at Ajanta and Pataleshwar.
The technological skills associated with making these complex structures moved into China along the trade routes. The Longmen Grottoes, the Mogao Caves and the Yungang Grottoes consist of hundreds of caves many with statues of Buddha in them. Most were built between 460–525 AD. There are extensive rock-cut buildings, including houses and churches in Cappadocia, Turkey. They were built over a span of hundreds of years prior to the 5th century CE. Emphasis here was more on the interiors than the exteriors.
Another extensive site of rock-cut architecture is in Lalibela, a town in northern Ethiopia, where numerous churches, in three dimensions as at Ellora, were carved out of the rock. These structures, which date from the 12th and 13th centuries CE and which are the last significant examples of this architectural form, ranks as among the most magnificent examples of rock-cut architecture in the world, with both interior and exterior brought to fruition.
Ancient rock cut tombs, temples and monasteries often have been adorned with frescoes and reliefs. The high resistance of natural cliff, skilled use of plaster and constant microclimate often have helped to preserve this art in better condition than in conventional buildings. Such exceptional examples are the ancient and early medieval frescoes in such locations as Bamyan Caves in Afghanistan with the most ancient known oil paintings in the world from 8th century AD, Ajanta Caves in India with well preserved tempera paintings from 2nd century BCE, Christian frescoes on Churches of Göreme, Turkey and numerous other monuments in Asia, Europe and Africa.
- Monolithic church and monolithic architecture
- Dugout (shelter)
- Cave monastery
- Ostrog monastery
- List of archaeological sites sorted by country
- List of colossal sculpture in situ
- List of megalithic sites
- Indian rock-cut architecture
- Rock-cut tombs
- Francis Ching, Mark Jarzombek, Vikramaditya Prakash, A Global History of Architecture (Wiley, 2006)
- Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, under "living".
- "Rock cut architecture and sculptures". Wondermondo.
- Aidan Dodson. Egyptian Rock-Cut Tombs. Shire Publications 1999.
- Lycian tombs
- Rababeh, Shaher M. Rababeh, ’’How Petra was Built: an Analysis of the Construction Techniques of the Nabataean Freestanding Buildings and Rock-cut Monuments in Petra, Jordan (Oxford, England: Archaeopress), 2005.
- S. Nagaraju Buddhist Architecture of Western India, c. 250 BC – AD 300 (Agam Kala Prakashan, 1981)
- Vidya Dehejia, Early Buddhist Rock Temples; a Chronology. (Cornell University Press, 1972)
- Spiro Kostof, Caves of God: the Monastic Environment of Byzantine Cappadocia (MIT Press, 1972). Vidya Dehejia, (Cornell University Press, 1972)
- "Ancient and medieval Indian cave paintings - Internet encyclopedia". Wondermondo.
- Burgess, James and Fergusson J. Cave Temples of India. (London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1880. Delhi: Munshiram Manohar Lal Publishers Pvt Ltd., Delhi, 2005).