The 10 best Hittite sites in Turkey
Hattuşa (PHOTO AA,ESMA AYGUN)
In the 1930s when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, was trying to construct a history of Turkey that would suit its new status as a republic, he hit upon the idea that the Hittites, who had once governed much of Central Anatolia, could have been proto-Turks.
Consequently, he encouraged the excavation of known Hittite archaeological sites, intending the finds to end up in the new Museum of Anatolian Civilizations that had been established on the slopes of Ankara’s main hillside in 1921.
Interestingly, the very existence of the Hittites had been forgotten for centuries. There were references to them in the Bible but in contexts that left it unclear who exactly they were. It was only in 1834 that the tireless French explorer, Charles Texier, stumbled upon the remains of Hattuşa, the city that was for many years the capital of a Hittite Empire extending as far south as Lebanon and that is now one of Turkey’s UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites.
Today, considerably more is known about the Hittites, although much still remains unclear. They are now believed to have been an Indo-European people who invaded Central Anatolia some time in the 18th century B.C. (the Bronze Age) and appear to have displaced the indigenous Hatti people whose name they seem to have taken for themselves. Their empire reached its greatest extent in the 14th century B.C. when Hattuşa was its capital. Then c. 1180 B.C. they seem to have succumbed to pressure from new invaders, usually called the Sea Peoples. The Hittites were driven south where they created a series of Neo-Hittite city-states north and east of Adana. Some of these lived on into the seventh century B.C. before vanishing from the pages of history.
For visitors wanting to see the most impressive Hittite remains there are two particular areas on which to focus: the first around Çorum and Sungurlu, northeast of Ankara, and the second around Gaziantep. In 2011 a Hittite Trail linking some of the northerly sites was also established (www.cultureroutesinturkey.com/c/hittite-trail/).
For detailed information on all the Hittite sites pick up a copy of “Anatolia: On the Trail of the Hittite Civilization” by Ali Kılıçkaya and Erdal Yazıcı. It’s on sale at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations where, despite ongoing restoration work, visitors can still see the finds from Aslantepe, Karkamış, Alaca Höyük and Sakçagözü. Otherwise, finds from Sam’al (Zincirli Höyük) can be seen in the İstanbul Archaeological Museum.
If you only have time to visit one Hittite site it should probably be Hattuşa, the sprawling, walled city that was, from c.1375 B.C., the beating heart of the empire. Like many very ancient sites, Hattuşa used to be rather hard for a non-archaeologist to appreciate since only the foundations of its buildings survive. However, that situation has been much improved by the recreation of a section of the wall and its towers.
The main monuments to inspect include the Büyük Mabet (Great Temple) that was dedicated to the storm god Teshuba and the sun goddess Hebut, the Sphinx Gate and a 70-meter-long tunnel sliced through the walls and the Büyük Kale (Great Castle), the citadel that once protected the city. Near here an archive of 3,000 cuneiform tablets were found, one of them containing the Kadesh Treaty, a peace treaty signed between the Hittite king and the Egyptian pharaoh c.1259 B.C. and the earliest such treaty in existence. It can be seen today in the İstanbul Archaeological Museum.
Three kilometers from Hattuşa lies a double gully whose walls are covered with carvings of some of the thousand gods that made up the Hittite pantheon. It’s the images that attract attention here, although there are also scant remains of a temple dating back to the 13th century B.C. The Hittites are thought to have come here to celebrate their new year at the start of spring, but the discovery of some cremated remains strongly suggests that some of the Hittite monarchs may also have been buried here.
Although visitors to Hattuşa and Yazılıkaya are usually sold nearby Alaca Höyük as another Hittite site, in truth it is just as important as an even older Hatti settlement. Excavations here uncovered 13 tombs belonging to the Hatti kings who went to their graves surrounded by impressive metal standards carved in the shape of sun discs, bulls and stags. Çorum Museum contains a reconstruction of one of these graves that is well worth seeing.
Once they’d expelled the Hattis, the Hittites rebuilt the town for themselves. What you see here is typical of almost all Hittite sites in that there is a vast gate guarded by huge stone sphinx monuments, while the lower walls of the most important buildings are densely carved with scenes from local life. The Sphinx Gate still stands in situ although the other carvings are copies of the originals that are now in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
Walkers can strike out from Çorum or Hattuşa to visit Şapinuva, a smaller Hittite site that was only rediscovered in 2003 despite apparently having served as the capital for a short period. Here you can see the remains of a palace made from huge stones that interlock with each other without the need for cement as well as an impressive bazaar area with some huge storage jars still in situ. The storm god Teshuba crops up again here too, although sadly the statue of him that guards one of the entrances lost its head at some time in the past.
Eight kilometers north of Kayseri the Kaniş area of Kültepe was, as Nesa, the first capital of the Hittites before the move to Hattuşa. Outside its walls stood Karum, a vast Assyrian trading colony that seems to have been abandoned even before Kaniş fell from favor. Today, those with vivid imaginations will be able to picture the huge palace that once dominated Kaniş and conjure up the hubbub of the market on the far side of the modern road that now separates the two towns. Some of the cuneiform tablets found here can be seen in Kayseri’s Archaeological Museum.
Many of the fine Hittite carvings that dot Turkey are in very hard-to-reach locations. The one at İvriz, near Ereğli, however, makes a reasonable excursion destination from Karaman. Dating from the eighth century B.C., it depicts the giant god Tarhundas handing grapes and corn to a much smaller King Warpalawas of Tuwanna, a Hittite town near modern Niğde.
If you’re driving from Beyşehir to Eğridir along the east coast of Beyşehir Gölü (Lake Beyşehir), you might want to divert to the edge of a small pool in the village of Eflatunpınar to inspect what is believed to be a 13th-century B.C. shrine decorated with carvings of sun discs, gods and monsters. At nearby Fasıllar, an unfinished monument to the thunder god still lying in a field may have been intended to go on top of the shrine. There’s a replica on the grounds of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
Four kilometers east of Malatya, the site of Aslantepe is home to a palace complex dating back to c. 4000 B.C. where some Hittite wall paintings have been discovered. Excavations at the site are ongoing; although signboards identify the main features of the site, your best bet is to visit during the summer digging season when Italian archaeologists will be on hand to explain.
Near the small town of Islahiye, itself near Gaziantep, Yesemek is home to the remains of a Hittite quarry where around 300 half-completed gateposts, many of them in the form of lions, sphinxes or mountain gods, stand abandoned on the hillside. The quarry is believed to have been used both during the height of the Hittite Empire and during the later neo-Hittite period.
Arguably, the most impressive of all Hittite sites for the non-archaeologist is Karatepe, near Osmaniye, where, on a hillside overlooking a lake formed by the Aslantaş Dam, the remains of Aslantaş still stand where they were found. Known in its heyday as Azatiwadya, the town here was founded in the eighth century B.C. by the little-known King Asatiwas who appears in some of the incredibly detailed stone carvings preserved in situ alongside a huge statue of the storm god. It’s worth coming here for the beauty and tranquility of the site alone.