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Exploring the Hittite heartlands along the Hittite Way

In 2003 archaeologists started digging in farmland three kilometers outside the village of Ortaköy, which lies 55 kilometers southeast of Çorum in an area that was once the heart of the Hittite Empire. 

The Sphinx Gate entrance of the Hittite Way [Credit: Today's Zamman]
There they slowly uncovered the site of Şapinuva (Sapinuwa), whose existence was already known from a letter in cuneiform discovered near Tokat, which translated reads: “When you receive this tablet immediately send 1701 soldiers from Ishapitta to the city of Şapinuva. Be in front of his majesty in two days.” 

Excavations at the site revealed the ruins of a palace, a commercial area, a temple and a long stretch of wall, with much more no doubt still waiting to be uncovered in the surrounding fields. Tablets discovered at the site make it clear that kings and queens lived at Şapinuva, an important administrative and trading center. Unfortunately, only the foundations of their palace now survive, making it hard to conjure up the days when a grand three-story building towered over the site. Today visitors will probably be most impressed by the inventive way in which the stones were cut so that they would lock together without the use of concrete or nails. 

More exciting are the remains of the trading area where a warren of lanes cobbled with pebbles run between what must once have been shops, their wares stored in enormous pots embedded up to their rims in the ground. Enough survive in situ to make it possible to imagine what the scene here might have been like in Hittite times, although the silence of the 21st century contrasts sharply with what must once have been the noisy hubbub of a busy bazaar. 

Not far from here visitors can inspect the uncovered remains of the city wall and then, nearby, the foundations of a temple to the storm god Teshub complete with a fine carving of a figure right beside the entrance. Unfortunately, its head is missing, perhaps lost to agricultural work or reused long ago in the building of a local house. 

Until recently Şapinuva went little noticed, with all the attention focused on the better-known and UNESCO world heritage-listed sites at Hattuşa/Yazılıkaya and Alaca Höyük. All that is likely to change with the recent opening of the Hitit Yolu (Hittite Way,, a 236-kilometer-long waymarked walking and cycling route that will connect all three sites to each other and to Çorum, whose museum makes the perfect starting point for finding out about the civilization that flourished here some 3,500 years ago. 

Hattuşa is, of course, the most important site along the way, especially since the rebuilding of one stretch of the outer wall of this ancient city makes it easier for visitors to appreciate what it might have looked like in its heyday. Hard though it is to believe now when everything Hittite is all the rage in the region, but in 1834 when the French traveler Charles Texier stumbled upon Hattuşa the Hittites had been completely forgotten. Not surprisingly, Texier did not realize what he had found, and it was only in the 20th century that the story began to be pieced together. 

Some 4,500 years ago this part of Central Anatolia appears to have been occupied by the Hattis, probably indigenous Anatolians who buried their dead clothed and huddled up in giant pots. Gradually their place was taken by the Indo-European Hittites who pushed the Hattis aside under a succession of rulers with unpronounceable names until eventually Anitta, the son of Pithana, made Hattuşa the capital of a new empire in 1665 B.C. 

In its glory days Hattuşa was surrounded by high adobe walls on a stone base that extended in a circle for six kilometers. The walls were broken up by 200 towers and a series of gates; today some of the most interesting remains are those of the Lion Gate, with its cheery-looking lions, the King's Gate and the Sphinx Gate, beyond which you can walk through a stone-lined tunnel to the outside that dates right back to Hittite times. Inside these walls the kings governed from the area now known as Büyükkale (Great Castle), where the discovery of thousands of cuneiform tablets made it possible to understand not just the history but also the lifestyle of the Hittites. 

Like the Romans who came after them, the Hittites tended to absorb local deities into their own pantheon so that they became known as the “people of 1000 divinities.” Although several temple sites have been uncovered at Hattuşa itself it is well worth diverting two kilometers away from the main site to visit Yazılıkaya, a rocky sanctuary, whose walls are carved with images of their gods, including the storm god and the sun goddess Hepatu. Impressive as they are, these images apparently suffered damage during ill-thought-out attempts to make copies of them in 1976, and the fear is that they may eventually fade away. 

Both Hattuşa and Yazılıkaya are easily visited from the pretty little village of Boğazköy (also called Boğazkale), where a new museum opened last week. The site of Alaca Höyük is more difficult to get to without your own transport; you will almost certainly have to take a taxi either from Boğazköy or from the small town of Alaca, which is accessible from Çorum. Alaca Höyük was occupied long before Hattuşa, and it was here that archaeologists uncovered the graves of a series of Hatti kings and queens who were buried here between 2300 and 2000 B.C. in rectangular plots covered with wood and soil in apparent imitation of houses. A model of one of these tombs in the Çorum Museum shows that the dead were buried with silver or bronze sun disc ornaments. These would have been carried in processions and made a sound when shaken, suggesting that they were the precursors of the curious çevgens carried by members of the Ottoman Mehter bands. 

Alaca Höyük was discovered in 1835 by the British traveler W.G. Hamilton. Although the mound was first excavated in 1907, Atatürk took a particular interest in it as he tried to piece together a suitably heroic history for the new Turkish Republic; consequently in 1937 it was the first site to be systematically excavated on his orders. Although there's a small museum on site, the best of the finds are on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. 

Keen trekkers will relish the opportunity to visit all these ancient sites by following the Hitit Yolu. For the time being there's no accommodation in the villages along the way, so you will need to bring your own tent, and be sure to carry adequate supplies to get you from place to place. At least one person has already completed the walk. Follow him soon if you enjoy being a pioneer, especially as this is the time of year when the surrounding fields are full of colorful wild flowers. 

Author: Pat Yale | Source: Todays Zaman [May 22, 2011]


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