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TURKEY'S 10 BEST HITTITE SITES

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 archeological sites, intending the finds to end up in the new Museum of Anatolian Civilisations 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 BC (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 BC when Hattuşa was its capital. Then c. 1180 BC 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 BC 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, north-east of Ankara, and the second around Gaziantep. In 2011 a Hitit Yolu (Hittite Way) 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 Civilisation by Ali Kılıçkaya and Erdal Yazıcı. It’s on sale at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations where, despite ongoing restoration work, visitors can still see the finds from Aslantepe, Karkamış, Alacahöyük and Sakçagözü. Otherwise, finds from Sam’al (Zincirli Höyük) can be seen in the İstanbul Archeological Museum. 

Hattuşa

If you only have time to visit one Hittite site it should probably be Hattuşa at Boğazkale, the sprawling, walled city that was, from c.1375 BC, 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-metre-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 pharoah c.1259 BC, and the earliest such treaty in existence. It can be seen today in the İstanbul Archaeological Museum.

Yazılıkaya

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 the attention here although there are also scant remains of a temple dating back to the 13th century BC. 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.

Alacahöyük

Although visitors to Hattuşa and Yazılıkaya are usually sold nearby Alacahöyük 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 which are now in the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations.

In 2013 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced plans to undertake major new interpretation work at what has been, until now, a rather neglected site.

Şapinuva

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.

Kültepe (Kaniş-Karum)

Eight kilometres 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 favour. 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 Archeological Museum.

İvriz

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 BC, it depicts the giant god Tarhundas handing grapes and corn to a much smaller King Warpalawas of Tuwanna, a Hittite town near modern Niğde.

Eflatunpınar

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 BC 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 in the grounds of the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations.

Aslantepe

Four kilometres east of Malatya, the site of Aslantepe is home to a palace complex dating back to c. 4000 BC 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 archeologists will be on hand to explain.

Yesemek

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.

Karatepe-Aslantaş

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 BC 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. 

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