8 Stunning Examples of Ancient, Rock-Cut Architecture

Front view of The Treasury or Al-Khazneh, an ancient structure carved into sandstone under a blue sky
Jordan’s Al-Khazneh has a massive façade that measures over 127 feet tall and 81 feet wide.

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The ingenuity and capability of ancient civilizations is evident in some of the architecture that has survived. The rock-cut technique, a building practice where humans excavate solid rock in place to form structures hewn from stone, is particularly impressive. Instead of bringing materials to a site, skilled artisans worked with what they had to build dwellings, temples, and tombs on the sides of mountains and cliffs.

Here are eight examples of rock-cut architecture that are a testament to the resourcefulness of humankind.

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Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Aerial view of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings beneath a blue sky and tall green trees

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Nestled in a picturesque canyon within Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, these intricate sandstone and mud structures were built in the 12th century by the Ancestral Puebloan people. Built under overhanging cliffs, most of the dwellings include fewer than five rooms. However, the Cliff Palace, possibly built as a social space, has 150 rooms. The original dwellers were forced to desert the settlement sometime in the 13th century due to decades of drought.

With 600 dwellings and several thousand other intricate structures, Mesa Verde, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has important historical and engineering significance.

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Rock Sites of Cappadocia

Uchisar under a blue sky with white clouds

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The volcanic hoodoo-filled landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey was carved into dwellings during the fourth century. These rock pillars, or “fairy chimneys,'' provide evidence of ancient civilizations and unique examples of Byzantine art. Years of erosion has given some of the hoodoos a mushroom-like shape. 

The area, which includes carved villages, churches, and entire cities built underground, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical significance.

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Ellora Caves

Aerial view of the Ellora cave temple surrounded by green foliage

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Ellora Caves is an exquisite archaeological site featuring a collection of 34 temple caves. The rock-cut structures, built by followers of various religions, were excavated between the sixth and 12th centuries. Located in Maharashtra, India, Ellora includes 17 Hindu caves, 12 Buddhist caves, and five Jain caves.

The structures that encompass this UNESCO World Heritage site extend for more than one mile and were all built alongside each other.  Carved into a basalt cliff, each temple's design varies by faith.

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Lycian Tombs

Lycian rock-cut cliff tombs surrounded by lush green plants beneath a vibrant blue sky

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Embedded into steep cliff faces on the side of a mountain, these rock-cut tombs date back to the fourth century B.C.E. Carved in soft limestone, the front of the tombs look like Hellenistic temples with columns on each side. 

Found on the southern coast of Turkey, the Lycian tombs were often built to face the city or the sea.

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Church of Saint George

Church of Saint George under a bright blue sky with white clouds

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The Church of Saint George is a cross-shaped church carved out of a single rock. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century, the church, also known as Bete Giyorgis, was carved beginning at the top down to the base.

One of 11 medieval churches in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, the Church of Saint George was the last to be built. It is connected to the other churches by a series of trenches. This monolithic church is a pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Orthodox members and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila cliff dwellings under a blue sky in the desert

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About 400 miles due south of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park is yet another remarkable example of ancient cave dwelling architecture. Protected as a national monument, New Mexico's Gila Cliff Dwellings were built by the Mongollon people in the 1200s. 

The five caves constructed from slabs of rock and mortar each hold about 40 rooms.

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Ajanta Caves

Ajanta caves surrounded by rich, green trees and foliage

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Nestled into the cliff face of a U-shaped gorge, the Ajanta caves were constructed over the course of a few hundred years beginning around the second century B.C.E. The 30 temples of Ajanta were cut into a wall of rock. They are filled with paintings and sculptures that are dedicated to Buddhism. 

Due to its historical significance, the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, India were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

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The front of Al Khazneh (The Treasury) carved into sandstone rock face with blue sky above

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Petra's Al-Khazneh ("The Treasury") is one of the most well-known examples of rock-cut architecture. Carved into a sandstone rock face, this archaeological site in Jordan has appeared in several movies

Constructed from prehistoric through medieval periods, structures in Petra include temples, tombs, and an extensive water management system. Situated along several major trade routes, the area served as a pivotal trading hub in the region. The property, located within Petra National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.