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A tomb with a view: the rock-cut cemetery at Alahan in Isauria
Emma L. Baysal – Hugh Elton
The rock cut cemetery of Alahan, located on the Karaman-Mut road in central Isauria was surveyed in 2005 as part of the Göksu Archaeological Project. The cemetery consists of 150 tombs cut into rock outcrops that overlook the Geçimli Plain and the Göksu river valley. The tombs date from the late Hellenistic to late Roman eras (1st century BC to 7th century AD). The tombs fall into four main types, with some variations, arcosolia, chambers, sarcophagi and chamosoria. Early in the survey it was realized that a number of the arcosolia were arranged in pairs and oriented towards the valley rather than towards the road as is more usual in Roman cemeteries. This apparent desire to construct ‘tombs with a view’ led us to question the motivation for the design of the cemetery and to confirm our impression that there was a hierarchy of burial relating to both tomb design, location within the tomb blocks and orientation with respect to the surrounding landscape.

The survey was carried out according to the stipulations of the permit issued by the Ministry of Culture; tombs were recorded by a team of students using standard recording forms, each tomb was drawn and photographed and GPS points taken. A limited amount of ceramic material was collected from the ground surface around the tomb blocks, although no specific dating of individual tombs was facilitated.

The tomb types were found to be fairly standardized, particularly the arcosolia and chamosoria. Chamber tombs are the most varied, with different numbers of burial slots, and various other internal design variations, their intended multiple usage is indicated by the use of hinged wooden doors. Sarcophagi are rare, although very varied in design, sometimes on account of natural rock formations and in other cases due to the decoration that was added.

The views from the tombs showed that pairs of arcosolia are always oriented towards the Geçimli plain, while only around 50% of single examples and 35% of chambers fall within the same orientation range.

Alahan cemetery fits well with other examples from central Isauria, being of comparable size to those at Adrassus, Dağpazarı, Gökçeseki (İmsiören) and Sinobuç. Analysis of patterns within these examples shows that choice of tomb type relied heavily on the nature of the available rock. Cliffs are a more common choice for tomb location than outcrops such as those at Alahan, two other such local examples are Güneyyurt and Feriske. Overall tomb decoration in central Isauria is rare, examples of decorated sarcophagi have often been moved or vandalized. A known decorative phenomenon is the lion lid, examples of which are found widely. An example was reported from Alahan but has now been lost.

Overall the Alahan cemetery seems to have been an austere place, characteristic of the central Isaurian region but in great contrast to the southern coastal sites. We suggest that colourful paint probably enlivened the otherwise stark cemetery area. There is social differentiation in the cemetery, the most clear of which is between the pairs large, well-finished, arcosolia located high up on rock outcrops and oriented towards the Geçimli plain and other, less prominently positioned single examples. Differentiation in quality is also seen in chamber tombs, which vary in size, workmanship and degree of elaboration. It is also clear that only a tiny proportion of the population of the settlement of Alahan was ever buried in the rock cut cemetery, and particularly in a tomb with a view.

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