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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
The east
Rock-cut architecture
     Excavated interiors
     Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta
     Cappadocia and Lalibela

Early Christian churches
Middle Ages
15th - 16th century
17th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

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Excavated interiors: from the 1st century BC

Just as human beings have always sheltered in caves, so they have often hollowed out more comfortable or impressive chambers where the rock is sufficiently soft. There are many examples of work of this kind, often done on a grand scale and involving intensive labour - though none has ever matched the earliest and most impressive of all, at Abu Simbel.

Religious devotion has been the main motive. Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities have created temples or churches within the surrounding fabric of solid rock. They have even carved them with conventional architectural details, making them look as much as possible as if they have been built up in the normal way in stone.


Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta: 1st c. BC - 13th c. AD

India is the country with the greatest tradition of rock-cut temples, and all the region's three indigenous religions are involved. The earliest site is Ajanta, where elaborate pillared halls are carved into the rock - from an almost vertical cliff face - from about the 1st century BC to the 8th century AD.

The Ajanta caves are chiefly famous for their Buddhist murals, surviving from at least the 5th century AD. But the chaityas or meeting places are equally impressive, with their rows of carved columns and vaulted ceilings. Apart from the lack of any normal light (arriving, as it does, only from one end), the effect is that of a normal building.


Ajanta is entirely Buddhist. The great columned cave temple of Elephanta, on an island near Bombay and dating from the 5th to 8th century AD, is exclusively Hindu - devoted to Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. But the many cave temples of Ellora, spanning a longer period (from the 4th to 13th century), include shrines sacred to Buddhists, to Hindus and to Jains.

Ellora is a sloping site, which offers the opportunity for another architectural element. Open forecourts are carved here from the rock, with gateways and stone elephants and free-standing temples of two or three storeys in addition to the enclosed inner shrines.


Cappadocia and Lalibela: 4th - 14th century AD

The two outstanding groups of rock-cut Christian churches are in Cappadocia (now part of Turkey) and at Lalibela, in Ethiopia.

The landscape in parts of Cappadocia is like something from another planet. Pinnacles of soft yellow rock rise sheer and pointed from an arid plain. Each is like a sandcastle large enough to contain a three-storey house. The mystery of the place is of a kind to excite any holy man, offering an irresistible temptation to burrow in. The region, particularly around Göreme, has been a place of monasteries from the early centuries of Christianity.


As many as 150 churches are carved into the Cappadocian rock, carefully formed (though on a tiny scale) with arches and columns, domes and apses, and painted in traditional Byzantine style. They continue to be built until the 13th century, when the region falls to Islam.

Also in an area surrounded by Islam, and dating from some time after the 13th century, are the eleven rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia. The creation of these is an even more extraordinary undertaking, for the roofs of most of them are at ground level. A trench is excavated down into the rock, enabling the carvers to work sideways from it until they have excavated a functioning building.


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