No other element on the planet conveys strength and solidity like a towering rock formation. The inherent power of mounds, hills, and mountains have meant many things to craftsmen and settlers throughout the world. Some have used rock formations as a means of protection, others as a means of making their mark on the world. For millennia, rock formations have served as the location of temples, monuments, and even cities. Here, for your consideration, are some of the most enduring and incredible. From Jordan to China and beyond, here are the most incredible landmarks carved into rock.
1. Petra, Jordan
You might know this Jordanian landmark best as the place where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail. This massive collection of temples are carved from the pink stone that lies between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. The natural color of the stone once earned Petra the nickname, “Rose City.” Though it is now primarily a tourist attraction, the city of Petra — which dates to about 300 BCE — was once the capital of the thriving Nabatean Kingdom.
2. Mesa Verde National Park, United States
Though the expansive tribe of Pueblo Indians created several unique dwellings throughout the American Southwest, perhaps their most impressive work happened in the mountains of Mesa Verde. The area of Mesa Verde has been populated by Native Americans since 7500 BCE. Over the course of time, the people developed advanced crafting techniques that allowed them to carve permanent domiciles in the rock. Their accomplishment was first recognized in 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt selected Mesa Verde as one of the nation’s first national parks (it’s number 7, in fact). Today, Mesa Verde National Park is home to the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.
3. Sassi di Matera, Italy
Settled more than 9,000 years ago, the Sassi di Matera in Italy represents the nation’s first inhabited settlements. The collection of caverns were carved into the rock by the area’s indigenous troglodytes. These same hovels were inhabited for millennia until the Italian government forcibly removed the residents in the late 1980s. Today, the popular destination is home to a thriving tourist industry.
4. Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
When Muslims seized control of the holy land in the 12th century, Ethiopia’s devoutly religious King Lalibela was determined to build a new, safe place for Christians to visit and worship. Thus began the construction of ‘New Jerusalem,’ a complex of churches that were not constructed, but carved from monolithic outcroppings in the remote mountains. Among them is Biete Medhani Alem, the biggest monolithic church in the world.
5. Göreme National Park, Turkey
For centuries, people have sought refuge in the rock formations of the Göreme. The area was settled before 1200 BCE, and its central location in the region made it incredibly valuable among ancient feuding warlords. To escape the conflict, residents dug tunnels into the rocks that protruded from the ground in mound-like formations. Centuries later, Christians fleeing persecution in Rome used these inlets to hide. Though most of the formations in Göreme National Park are humble, several contain amazing examples of Byzantine art.
6. Dazu Rock Carvings, China
Though China is home to several beautiful examples of art featuring Buddhist teachings, examples of Taoist or Confucian idols are remarkably rare. That’s a part of what makes the Dazu rock carvings so unique. Originally begun in 650 CE, the work demonstrated was continued for the next millennium.
7. Goa Gajah, Bali
Also known as the Elephant Cave Temple, Goa Gajah was originally constructed as a religious site on the island of Bali in the 11th century. Unfortunately, a natural disaster obscured the extensive site for centuries; as a result, it wasn’t properly excavated until the 1920s. Two bathing pools at the site were thought to contain magical powers capable of warding off evil spirits.
8. Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt
Few ancient people could build a monument like the Egyptians. Even among those legendary builders, one pharaoh stands apart: Ramesses II, known to the Greeks as Ozymandias. He is considered the most powerful pharaoh of ancient Egypt, and there are plenty of statues and monuments to point to that fact. One of the most enduring, however, are the twin temples at Abu Simbel just shy of the border between Egypt and the Sudan. Constructed in the 13th century BC to honor victory in battle, the looming statues have become synonymous with Egyptian power and the legacy of Ramesses II.
9. Po Win Daung Caves, Myanmar
Beginning in the 14th century, a line of craftsmen leant their vision to the Po Win Daung Caves in Myanmar. Over the course of four centuries, nearly a thousand caves were carved into the sandstone. The assembled statues and paintings (most of which focus on Buddhist teachings) represent some of the most intricately-carved ancient art in the history of the world.
10. Ellora Caves, India
India’s Ellora Caves are home to a vast array of temples honoring Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain beliefs. More than 100 caves dot the site, however, most visitors flock toward the modestly-named Cave 16. While the name alone may not sound like much, within Cave 16 is the Kailasha Temple, the largest monolithic rock excavation in the world. In their prime, the Ellora Caves served not only as a religious site, but as a prominent trade stop, as well.
11. Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan cave complex has been inhabited for the past 22 centuries, though it maintains its allure thanks to the lovingly carved 157 Buddhist statues carved into the rocks around 90 years before the Common Era. Though more than 80 caves dot the region, the Golden Temple of Dambulla is located through five caves which feature statues and paintings that celebrate the life of Buddha.
12. Longmen Grottoes, China
The craftsmen behind the Longmen Grottoes in Hénán Province, China has something of an artistic fixation. Beginning in 493 AD, a series of wealthy Chinese patrons commissioned a series of paintings, statues, and caves devoted to Buddha. Today, more than 2,300 artificial limestone caves house around 100,000 statues of Buddha ranging in height from 1 inch to 57 feet.