Living Rock – Massive Monuments Carved In Situ

31 March 2018

Most buildings and sculptures are made out of stone which is quarried and then taken somewhere else to be carved or used in construction. Not so these places, where the sculpting took place on site to give us some of the most remarkable sites in the world.

The Giant Buddha, Leshan
China has many a Buddha dotted throughout its extraordinary landscapes but the Giant Buddha of Leshan is unique in that it was carved directly out of the cliff face. The sculpture, which is seventy one meters (or over three hundred feet) tall dwarfs the tourists that flock to see it. It is positioned so that it faces Mount Emei and stands at the meeting place of three rivers.


Although the Government of China has promised a restoration program, the statue has suffered from the effects of pollution, particularly over the last twenty years. Fortunately, the statue was not damaged in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.


The Church of Saint George, Lalibela
Lalibela in Ethiopia is the home of eleven churches, hewn from the rock. The most famous is that of Saint George, which was built in the thirteenth century. As demonstrable a point as you can get that Africa was not the ‘dark continent’ many suppose until the arrival of Europeans, it shows that technology there was virtually on a par with that of the western world. The site is a UNESCO world heritage center and has often been referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Its dimensions – 25 times 25 times 30 give it is rectangular shape.


Somapura Mahavihara, Parhapur
Bangladesh has a long and vibrant history and is dotted with religious sites that simply take the breath away. Among them is the Somapura Mahavihara, which was a Buddhist monastery (otherwise known as a vihara). It is thought that it was carved at the end of the eight century CE. The site covers twenty seven acres and was an important academic center for people of three religions (showing that we can all get along when we have to, surely). You could think of it as a kind of contemplative university. Monks from as far afield as Tibet regularly visited it in its heyday.


Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
Although the USA is a comparative newcomer to massive sculptures which have been carved in situ, Mount Rushmore is among the most famous statues in the world and will no doubt withstand the millennia as it was designed to do.

hen finished, however, the Crazy Horse Memorial should be the largest sculpture in the world and stand over one hundred and seventy two meters (that’s five hundred and sixty three feet). In other words, it will be almost ten times taller than each of the President’s heads at Rushmore. Started in 1948, it remains unfinished and there is no date which has been fixed for its completion either. The face, however, was completed in 1998.


Naqsh-e Rustam, Persepolis
Iran is not exactly out of bounds to western tourists but is not as such in the top fifty destinations. This is a shame as the country holds some astonishing archaeological secrets. One of these is the Naqsh-e Rustam, dating from the sixth century BCE.

They are all carved at great heights and the technology and manpower needed for such tasks must have been unimaginable then as they are still astonishing today. They are known as the Persian Crosses by local people as the facades are carved in such a shape. The center of each of the crosses leads to a small chamber where the king would have been laid in a sarcophagus.


Kuriositas has a much longer feature on Naqsh-e Rustam. To read it, click HERE.

The Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra
Built in the second century BCE, it could be joked that these caves were created while most of the population of Europe was simply living in them; these are one of the masterpieces of pictorial art. For many centuries these temples were built under the rule of Hindu Kings, many of whom contributed to their construction.

They were built in a horseshoe shape, keeping the lines of the ravine from which they were hewn. If you think that this counts as a cave system rather than a sculpture, you may be right from the outside. Take a look at the inside though. If that isn’t sculpture, what is?


Kuriositas has a longer feature on the Ajanta Caves. To read it, click HERE.

Decebalus, Orşova
The world never stands still and gigantic sculptures are still being teased from the rock. The former communist country of Romania is no exception and here they have chosen to honor Decebalus. Translating as “The Brave One” was a king of the Dacians and fought many a war against the Roman Empire.

It is thought that the far more famous Spartacus was himself a Dacian, so you know now how tough these people were! The historian Iosif Constantin Drăgan funded twelve sculptors to the tune of over a million dollars. After ten years of hard graft it was completed in 2004. It stands opposite an almost two thousand year old plaque commemorating Roman victories against the Dacians. How is that for unequivocal defiance millennia later?


Kailash, Ellora
Back to India and the Kailash temple is part of a complex of over thirty that cover over two kilometers. The amazing thing about this is that the temples were excavated vertically. That is, the workers started at the top and went downwards.

The temple was literally exhumed from the rock face over a period of many years. Kailash was built in the eight century CE and it is believed that two hundred thousand tones of rock were removed during its construction. It is a traditional temple to Shiva in most other respects but stands proud as the biggest monolithic temple in the world.

Mada'in Saleh, Hejaz
Again, not exactly on the tourist map of many, Saudi Arabia had its first UNESCO World Heritage Site announced in 2008. This is the ancient city known as Negra. Some of the inscriptions found here date back almost three thousand years. It is mentioned many times in Quran.

However, this site comes with a warning sign. Many Saudi Arabians consider the place to be cursed and although the government encourages tourism here many of the local people will not go and advise visitors not to either. To quote from the holy book, “So the earthquake seized them, and they lay (dead), prostrate in their homes.”

Note from author. There are many, much better known, place I could have chose to write about here, the most obvious being Mount Rushmore and a variety of monuments in Egypt. However, I felt that these had been somewhat overdone, in whichever medium you care to name. These sites, I thought, were lesser known and so deserved attention. However, if you would like to submit your own suggestions, please use the comment box below and I will start a Reader's Favorites section. Remember, though, the monument must have been carved in situ.


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