A Serendipitous Adventure: The Belevi Tumlus

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 2.

While scanning for high ground from which to get a better overview pic of the Belevi Monument, my adventure companions and I noticed something odd about the adjacent hilltop. It had a very uniform dome-like summit, as would be expected for a man-made tumulus . . . but tumuli generally are built up on flat ground rather than on top of a natural hill. Yet, it seemed that a ring wall surrounded the uniform summit . . . or was that a natural rock outcropping? Zooming in with photographic technology made it obvious: we had to climb the hill, heat and limited time notwithstanding.

Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument
Belevi Tumulus; View from the Belevi Monument

For background, if you haven’t read it already, see “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time,” for which this post is the promised rejoinder.


A quick review of resources indicated just enough water for the anticipated rigor of the climb and to avoid a time-killing return to the vehicle. Up we went.

Sure enough, a wall surrounded the summit; so well-built that we wondered if it could be modern. But clambering up the last steep bit to the base, we could see that it was ancient and of elegant quality. Climbing over the wall would be difficult and of uncertain gain at that point (on the E side), so we split up and walked around the circuit.

Stacey at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus
Stacey Figueiredo at the circuit wall of the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Tumuli are built so as to obscure the entrance for tombs contained therein, so we were not hopeful. But Shane, who went clockwise, found a tunnel opening on the south, enclosed and originally concealed by the circuit wall but now accessible.

Finding an entrance was very exciting but unexpected. As the Belevi Monument did not require underground exploration equipment, we were without proper lights and, in my case, a good camera for unlit tight spaces. Still, the tunnel beckoned and in we went.

Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage
Stacey and Shane at the Tumulus entrance passage (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Entrance passage to Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The tunnel was constructed, apparently, by cutting down from above and then lining the passage thus made with masonry and roofing it over with large cut slabs before debris was piled and rounded above. This nearly straight and level passage led for about 20 yards (18.3 m) to an anteroom space and two successive burial chambers—the second at approximately the center of the tumulus. Unfortunately, the sides and roof of the tunnel were coated in a greasy black soot, which evidently came from a burned tire. What moron would lug a tire up this hill and then torch it in the tunnel? This can only be explained by Rule One.

Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane and Stacey at the anteroom before the first burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, blackened by the tire fire residue, we arrived at the burial chambers. The first is approximately square with fine stone walls featuring “crown molding” along the tops. The roof is formed by four large blocks laid across the corners as though a second tier of wall masonry was rotated 45 degrees. The effect is somewhat like the recessed ceilings popular in recent American home construction. While it is very interesting in appearance (and hard to photograph) its structural function relieves pressure on the thus-reduced roof space.

An Engineering Digression:

A problem in tumuli, pyramids, cairns, and other big piles over chambers is the resulting pressure on the roof slabs of the latter. The same problem occurs for any spanned space with significant structural loads. The arch is the most common way of dealing with this from the Roman period on.

Another technique is found in the innermost burial chamber of the Belevi Tumulus, which is smaller and more rectangular. It has a “corbelled arch” roof, in which each successive course of masonry is slightly inset to the center. In this inner chamber, a hole in the roof gave access to a relieving chamber above. From it a small tunnel led to another relieving chamber over the outer burial chamber. Relieving chambers are another way of “relieving” roof pressure, as they are slightly smaller and help transfer to the load to the walls rather than the roof of the chamber below. The most famous relieving chambers are those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Such chambers are usually not visible and provide potential hiding places for treasure. It is likely that the holes giving access to the relieving chambers at Belevi were created by treasure hunters, whether ancient or modern.

Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Shane looking up through the hole in the second chamber ceiling; from the relieving chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Access to the relieving chambers through the hole in the center of the inner chamber roof was a challenge—imagine the scene in Moana, where she escapes the cave through such a hole! For us it was only possible by boosting, using each others’ shoulders as a ladder, and wriggling through the tight hole (I split open an elbow and resolved to lose some girth). Given the coating of black tire tar, we did not emerge as deftly or cleanly as Moana. Getting back down was a tad more exciting still. In case anyone wonders, there was no physical treasure, but the exploration itself was a priceless enriching Adventure.1

Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Aftermath of Adventure at the Belevi Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Belevi Tumulus (38.0142° N, 27.4675° E)

True enrichment only comes with learning, so it was incumbent upon the Adventurers to research the site. As it happens, the tumulus was known already in the 19th century and sporadically investigated by Austrian and German archaeologists between 1933 and 1971.2 The date of the tumulus remains uncertain, but the early Hellenistic period seems the most probable. Thus, it is roughly contemporary or slightly earlier than the Belevi Monument below.

A nice quarry from which stones for the tumulus’ construction were taken can be seen near the entrance passage. Great skill went into the design of the circuit wall, as the stones of lower courses have grooves on their upper surface into which bosses on the bottom of the higher courses fit. This feature prevented outward collapse from the force of the tumulus bulk inside and above the wall—another engineering marvel of this well-constructed tomb!3

A scatter of squared blocks on the summit of the mound suggest a monument stood there, high above the local terrain. But to whom? There is no sarcophagus or inscription to identify the owner. Clearly a person of some import, they remain unknown and without even the speculations that accompany the occupant of the Belevi Monument over which their final resting place silently looms.

Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Belevi Monument (the stone massif at lower center-left); from the Tumulus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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1 Shane McInnis, so enthralled by the experience, made a pronouncement claiming the tumulus as his own.

2 See (in German), Sandor Kasper, “Tumulus von Belevi,” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1975): 223-32.

3 See (in English!), George L. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 149-50.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time: The Belevi Monument

You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour, 1.

This is the first true post in my series “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour,” for which one should read my introduction. As noted there, I selected my first site to continue the theme of the introduction and serve as an exemplar of the kind of places I want to feature.

The Background: potentially boring, but necessary to connect to the aforementioned theme

One of the curious things about the Seven Wonders of the ancient world is that, except for the Pyramid(s) of Egypt, all are essentially or completely gone. The sites of most are reasonably well established; but even where vestiges remain, they hardly hint at the structure’s former splendor . . .  and certainly do not evoke wonder. This is especially ironic in the case of the one Wonder (apart from the Great Pyramid) that was built to preserve and amplify the memory of a single person: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. An uninformed modern consideration of the name might create the assumption that this Wonder was a funeral building for some dude named Halicarnassus. That would be fake news.

Actually, Halicarnassus (Greek: Ἁλικαρνᾱσσός) was an ancient Greek city (modern Bodrum) in Caria (SW Turkey). It became the capital of a quasi-independent fourth-century bc kingdom under Mausolus, who was the dude. Mausolus was a “dynast,” nominally the satrap of the region under the Persian king, but with hereditary royal power. He built up his realm, and apparently his ego, through political savy and occasional rebellion. At his death, his sister, wife, and successor Artemisia oversaw construction of his huge and elaborate funerary monument. The structure came to be known—as typically, with the Hellenistic Greek suffix –εῖον—as the Μαυσωλεῖον (“[the shrine] of Mausolus”), normalized through Latin as The Mausoleum. It became the epitome of, and thus the actual word for, an elaborate funeral structure. The irony for Mausolus is that everyone knows his name as a term for a memorial building, but hardly anyone remembers the man. And his monument is no longer there—it was reduced to construction material by the Knights Hospitaller to fortify the castle of St. Peter in Bodrum harbor in the 15th century.

But this post is not about The Mausoleum.1 It is about a similar, smaller, and actually preserved funerary monument some 110 kilometers to the north, not far from ancient Ephesus. It was apparently the second-largest tomb structure in Asia Minor—after The Mausoleum—and thus easily overlooked in compendia of Wonders.

The Belevi Monument

The Belevi Monument, so-called for its proximity to Belevi, a town near Selçuk (ancient Ephesus), is today a hulking mass of cut bedrock, fallen stone masonry, and heaps of marble decorative fragments. Its dilapidated state notwithstanding, the monument remains an impressive sight and ranks as a wondrous site in my book (if you haven’t read the introductory post for this series, do so now for that dichotomy!).

As there are no surviving inscriptions, opinions on the date of the monument rest on analysis of stylistic details of the decorative remains. Most favor a Hellenistic date of the third century bc, and suggest the occupant of the tomb must have been an important ruler after Alexander the Great. The Seleucid king Antiochus II is an intriguing possibility, given that he died in Ephesus in 246 BC. While his body would normally be returned to Syria for burial, political conditions of the day may have prompted burial near Ephesus. His wife Laodice, under suspicion of having poisoned him, also may have felt motivated to make an extravagant show of burying and memorializing Antiochus II. Others suggested a date in the 4th century, during Persian domination,2 in which case a nameless local nabob lay there. The most recent study claims that pottery suggests a date in the early 3rd century,3 perhaps too early for Antiochus II.

A reconstruction of the Belevi Monument, based on one done by the original investigators in the 1930s, which heavily influenced subsequent reconstruction of the Mausoleum; origin of this version unknown (a search produced it on Pinterest, where there was no attribution)

In the final analysis, we cannot be sure who occupied this now most-fabulous, but relatively unappreciated, ancient tomb of Asia Minor. I cannot help but find more irony in that fact. But that is one of the things that makes the site intriguing.

The Site (38.0147° N, 27.4722° E)

The Belevi Monument is visible, if you know where to look, from the O-31 Izmir-Aydin Otoyol (Turkey has fantastic limited-access motorways). But to visit the site, one must exit at the Belevi interchange, drive through the town, cross under the O-31, turn through a tunnel back under the O-31 and arrive via a decent gravel road. The ruins are obvious and are surrounded by a rather effective fence. Before 2015, the gate was generally open but the site is now apparently closed and the official gate locked. There is another somewhat-official access (not involving climbing the fence!) which I used on my two most recent visits.

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The Belevi Monument today: Taken from the hill (looking NNW) from which the central core was cut; the burial chamber is discernible at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr; Latitude/Longitude: 38.014550/27.472482)

The monument itself is impressive for a tomb in its sheer bulk. The central rock block, created by cutting away the hillside, is almost 30 meters square and over 11 meters high. It was faced with marble blocks on a stepped base with a Doric frieze at the top—from which numerous triglyphs lie strewn about. The facing covered and concealed the burial chamber, cut in the central core opposite the remaining hill face.

Belevi Monument
The funerary chamber on the N side; taken as a panorama in order to avoid the pesky tree (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Above the solid block core was a built (faux-burial?) chamber surrounded by a marble colonnade and topped by pairs of winged lions and urns. The roof was probably pyramidal in shape, but this is not certain. Some of the winged lions and the sarcophagus from the burial chamber are in the Selçuk museum, but a myriad of column, capital, frieze, and other decorative fragments remain scattered about the site for inspection.

Belevi Monument
The Belevi Monument from the NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

It is possible, but rather precarious and probably imprudent, to climb to the top of the ruins. Folks apparently have been doing so for some time, however, as there is an ancient mancala (game) board carved into the highest remaining masonry stone on the NE corner. Mancala (and other game) boards can be found on ancient ruins and streets around the eastern Mediterranean, but this one has perhaps the best setting of any I have seen.

Belevi Monument
View from the atop the Belevi Monument: the corner stone at left center has the mancala board (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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The mancala board; left far corner of stone (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A Digital Sight on a Site You Must Check Out:

Owing to the proximity of the hill from which the base was cut away and some large trees just opposite the burial chamber, the Belevi Monument is surprisingly difficult to photograph from the ground, so the following may compensate for my attempts.

I serendipitously stumbled upon a spectacular 3D photogrammetric model of the Belevi Monument ruins by a group in Istanbul. Presumably they used drone-produced pictures for this, as evidenced by the problematic trees and lack of detail of the burial chamber. In any case, it is awesome. If you look carefully and use my pic as a guide, you can even see the mancala board on the top stone at the NE corner! Go here to see it: https://www.oddviz.com/portfolio/the-belevi-mausoleum/.

While looking around for better photo angles in June 2016, my companions and I noticed an odd shape on top of the adjacent hill . . . and, of course, decided to investigate (if it involves a steep uphill climb in the heat, it must be good, right?). What we found will be the subject of a follow-up post—next time, on “You Won’t Get This on the Bus Tour!”

Thanks for reading!

-Ancient Dan

1 For The Mausoleum, see John and Elizabeth Romer, The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination (London: Seven Dials, 1995), 77-106; or Peter Clayton and Martin J. Price, eds., The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1990), 100-123.

2 See the overview in George E. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 148-49 (unfortunately, now out of print).

3 See the online summary of research by Austrian Academy of Sciences, “The Mausoleum of Belevi,” https://www.oeaw.ac.at/en/ancient/research/research-archive/ancient-cults-and-burials/belevi/.