lunedì 20 agosto 2012

In Hittite lands: Yazilikaya and Alaca Hoyuk

Yazilikaya (the written rocks), National sanctuary of the Hittite Empire

Yazilikaya (Hattusas), a famous rock-cut relief depicting a procession of 12 Gods  in Hittite robes; possibly a representation of the calendar Gods symbolizing the 12 months of the Year - (Photo by Author)
                Located a short distance from Hattusas, Yazilikaya (the “inscribed rocks”) was the official temple and sanctuary of the Hittite empire. It consists of several rock-cut chambers carved around a large rocky outcrop possessing two large alcoves and an open-air sanctuary. Both alcoves contain reliefs of Gods and Goddesses in a parade, all appearing by profile. It is possible that some of the smaller alcoves were used for burial of the deceased Kings, and that the whole sanctuary was therefore a funerary monument built to celebrate some Royal ancestors.

One notable relief depicts a King (perhaps Tudhaliya IV or III) greeted by the God Sharruma. Other depictions include representations of the Sword-God and the 12-Gods believed to symbolize the 12 months of the year. All of the figures portrayed in the sanctuary at Yazilikaya are wearing long robes and a kind of conical headdress somehow similar to priestly head-dresses one finds amongst the Phrygians and the ancient kingdom of Commagene (which only made their appearance many centuries later)

Another of the bas-reliefs decorating the rock-cut temple of Yazilikaya.  The figure portrayed here was probably a king. The style of the reliefs was clearly influenced by neighboring Mesopotamia and Sumer - (Photo by Author)
Alaca Hoyuk, the Riddle of the Sphinx Gate

                Alaça Hoyuk, located some 25 Km from Hattusas, was a major city of Hatti and the Hittite empire. Alaça Hoyuk was apparently settled already in the Neolithic period, with the earliest monumental remains belonging to to a number of “royal” or princely graves dated to 2,350 BC.  Just like nearby Hattusas, the site fell victim to a devastating fire by 1,200 BC, but unlike Hattusas was later resettled in Phrygian times.

The most famous monument is the so-called “Sphinx gate”, built in Egyptian style possibly by 1,450 BC. This was a monumental gateway to the ancient city also consisting of a massive polygonal wall decorated with bas-reliefs on its outer side. Carvings include a king and queen worshipping the sacred bull, priests, jugglers, charioteers and a rather odd depiction of a man climbing a ladder towards a circular ring standing freely in space. On the two orthostats are depictions of human-headed Sphinxes wearing a kind of Egyptian headdress, with the two-headed Eagle to symbolize Royal power. One of the most striking features is however the impressive polygonal wall running on the interior side of the Gate: consisting of huge andesite stones weighing well over 5 tons, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to Inca stone masonry architecture…One wonders whether this wall may actually predate construction of the gate by the Hittites.

The Sphinx gate of Alaca Hoyuk. The two sphinxes which were originally intended to support the gate are reminescent of both Egypt and Mesopotamia. A set of very beautiful reliefs including depictions of sacrifice and religious ceremonies once decorated the outside of the gate (the originals are now in the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara)
A close-up of one of the sphinxes, itself a massive megalith  of some 20 tons and over  3 meters high.  The headdress is typically Egyptian, while the general posture reminds of Mesopotamia - (Photo by Author)
One of the most interesting details is this representation of a two-headed eagle, itself a symbol of royal power - (Photo by Author)
Exact reproductions of the original bas-reliefs decorating the outside of the Sphinx gateway have been put in their original position. One of the most striking and enigmatic scenes depicts a figure climbing a ladder which is apparently suspended in the air - (Photo by Author)
A detail of the massive polygonal wall that can be seen on the inside of the gate of Sphinxes. It bears a striking resemblance to Inca masonry in Cuzco and Sachsaywaman. Also in this case, as with the largest megalithic layers of the Great Temple of Hattusas, the stone used is a kind of igneous rock similar to andesite, which differs significantly both in texture and finishing from any other construction on the site as if belonging to a wholly different epoch. - (Photo by Author)
After bypassing the Sphinx gate, one is led through a large paved road towards the great Temple, still mostly unexcavated. Only a few large megalithic blocks remain, also bearing cup-marks and drill holes as most stones in Hattusas.

Also in Alaça Hoyuk one finds a vaulted underground tunnel of unknown function (it has been suggested it also was used as a poterne in case of siege), which is almost L-shaped and cannot therefore have served any astronomic purpose.   

This giant collapsed trilithon is almost all that remains of what was probably a door to the main Temple of Halaca Hoyuk, which must have been similar to the Great Temple of Hattusas - (Photo by Author)
Mysterious cup-marks cover the upper surface of the trilithon and most of the sorrounding stones. These are larger and cruder than those found in Hattusas and were most likely the product of chiselling rather than drilling - (Photo by Author)
The inner entrance to the underground tunnel in Alaca Hoyuk. After a few meters, the tunnel makes an abrupt L-turn and deviates to the left towards a long vaulted corridor ending at some point beneath the walls. The main access to the tunnel is through a cross-shaped room which was originally covered by a vault - (Photo by Author)
Another interesting feature of the site are several early-bronze age tombs, taking the shape of large rectangular pits which have been remarkably reconstructed and preserved in-situ, including remains of sacrificed bulls and cattle. These tombs have yielded a number of artifacts and funerary objects, including several bronze and copper “standards” and “Sun-disks” with an intricate geometric carving and figures of stags (whose ultimate function also remains unknown, even though they were probably used in processions or at the top of a pole as a kind of standards)

There is also a small, yet fascinating museum on the site (the originals of the Hittite bas-reliefs carved on the outside of the Sphinx gate are now on exhibit in the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara, with the exception of the two Sphinx statues which are still in their original position). 

Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, late-Hittite reliefs depicting a procession of dignitaries and soldiers  (originally from Karkemish, near present day Syria) - (Photo by Author)
Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, one of the mysterious hittite Sun-disks (originally from Alaca Hoyuk) with a typical grid-like pattern and stags ornamentations - (Photo by Author)
Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, a hittite ceremonial standard (originally from Alaca Hoyuk) depicting stags with innaturally long horns - (Photo by Author)
Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations , one of very few hittite golden objects.  This small gold vessel contains an elaborate ornamentation, including triangles and a swastika - (Photo by Author)
Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations , original bas relief  from Hattusas' King's gate depicting a marching God or King (probably Tudhaliya) wearing a kilt and a helm or ceremonial headdress - (Photo by Author)
Ankara, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, large hittite boundary stone with hieroglyphic inscription in Luwian characters - (Photo by Author)
Bogazkoy (Hattusas), Archaeological Museum, one of the two sphinx-statues decorating the Sphinx gate on top of the Yerkapi pyramid in Hattusas. The style of sculpture is also closely reminescent of Mesopotamia and Egypt - (Photo by Author)

The Hittites, mysterious people of a Thousand Gods

Hattusas, Turkey - The Lion's gate of Hattusas, flanked by two colossal lion statues - (Photo by Author)

Until no more than one century ago, very little was known of the Hittites, a people shrouded in mystery. Still, the Hittites were no minor civilization in antiquity: the Hittite empire stretched as far as the Bosphorus and what is today’s Syria. It was a major super-power of the ancient Near East, which frequently clashed with the other super-powers of the area, most notably Egypt. A large number of letters are known from various sites in Turkey and Egypt which prove intense diplomatic relationships between Egypt and the Hittites. The first peace treaty in History (of which we possess both copies) was signed between the Hittite King Muwattali II and Ramses II of Egypt after the battle of Kadesh in Syria.

Oddly enough, the Hittites were frequently mentioned in the Bible and even credited as the original founders of Jerusalem (Ezekiel, 16:1). It is also said in Genesis (23:2) that Abraham bought a cave in Hebron (in what is today’s Palestine) to bury his wife Sarah from the Hittites. Even though it is doubtful whether the Biblical Hittites were the same as the Anatolian people called by the same name, This however led to a historical misrepresentation of the Hittites as a people somehow ancestor to the more recent Canaanites.

When the first European travelers of the early XIX Century found the strange and monumental ruins near Bogazkőy, in central Turkey, they were puzzled as to the identity of their mysterious builders, which also appeared to possess a hieroglyphic writing unlike any other known from antiquity. It was only towards the end of the XIX Century that the ruins of Bogazkőy were finally identified with those of Hattusas, the ancient capital of the Hittites which had until then only been known from epigraphic writings.

Perhaps one of the reasons why so little was known of the Hittites in modern times was the sudden and catastrophic destruction which befell their Empire as most of the ancient Near East towards the end of the Bronze Age, about 1,200 BC.  The fall of Hattusas, which was never rebuilt, also marked the end of the Hittite empire.
It seems that Hattusas and all its inhabitants perished in a great catastrophe whose exact nature is still the subject of much speculation. Consider this description of the ruins as reported after the 1931-1939 excavations by its excavator:

Wherever we set our spades, we found unmistakable signs of a devastating fire that had consumed everything that would burn, reduced brickwork to reddened masses of slag, and made limestone blocks explode in fragments. Sometimes one got the impression that the materials that happened to be in the buildings could never have been enough to raise such a blaze, such a heat; no thing, not a house, not a temple, not a hut escaped the work of destruction” [1]

Hattusas was not the only city to be destroyed by fire, as other cities of Central Anatolia appeared to have met the same fate: Alaça Hoyuk, some 25 Km to the North, also perished in a fiery catastrophe; Hittite palaces at Masat and Fraktin, as well as the fortified citadel of Karaogan, near present day Ankara, were also burnt to the ground in a catastrophic fire [2]
The End of the great Hittite empire was complete: there is no sign of Hittite re-occupation at Hattusas after its destruction, and the site remained a desolate ruin until its re-discovery in modern times. It is perhaps no chance that about the same time the great centers of the Near East were abruptly incinerated: Burnt in great flames were the ancient cities of Palestine and the fortresses of Syria,  and even the Egyptian cities of the delta succumbed and were turned to smoking ruins.
It is difficult to imagine what invading army could have overthrown in a space of years (or perhaps even less) an empire so powerful as to compete with Egypt for control over the near East at its height, less than one Century before.  And even more difficult it is to imagine what enemy could have so easily penetrated into that city of Hattusas, defended as it was by the strongest defensive walls of any bronze age city in the Near East or elsewhere in the ancient world, in such a manner as to lay complete destruction over the whole of the Hittite empire.
There are even those, among historians, who suggest it was no invading army to engulf all of the ancient Near East in flames, but rather a “fire from Heaven”, perhaps a large meteorite or a comet.

A paved road in  the "Lower City". Roads in Hattusas were unusually large and spacious, probably to allow  transit to large chariots and carriages - (Photo by Author)
Only the scattered foundations of buildings remain of what were probably storage rooms or  royal archives adjacent to the Great Temple in the Lower City. The first excavators of Hattusas were surprised by the thick layer of vitrified bricks and calcinated stones which were clearly left over by a fire so violent as to make limestone explode in fragments - (Photo by Author)
                This is however not the only mystery of Hittite civilization. The Hittites were a Indo-European people which first moved into Anatolia in the 17th or 18th Century BC. However, there is proof Hattusas was already a major city in the area by that time. Already before 2,000 BC, Hattusas (whose original name was probably Hattush), had been settled by an indigenous people called the Hatti, of which very little is known except they spoke a probably non-Indo-European language. The first Hittite king who is known to have reigned on Hattusas was Hattusili I, which was then followed by a royal line of 27 Great Hittite Kings.

                Under Hittite rule, the city of Hattuas took the shape of one of the major capitals of the ancient Near East, comparable to ancient Assur and Ninevah. The city consisted of a “lower town”, where the main temple was located, and an “upper town” or fortified citadel of some 1 square Km surrounded by massive walls. Modern estimates for the population of Hattusas are in the 40,000 – 50,000 range.

Hattusas lies amidst barren and desolate landscape, on a wind-swept plateau which seems nowhere suitable to any permanent human habitation (the above picture was taken in early April). Still, it was one of the largest cities in the ancient world and the largest fortified settlement of the Bronze age throughout the entire Near East - Photo by Author
A small section of the walls of Hattusas was reconstructed by German archaeologists to recreate their original aspect.  The walls consisted mostly of mudbrick, resting on stone foundations - (Photo by Author)
What is striking about Hattusas is that the site chosen for its construction seems nowhere fit for a large capital, being covered by rugged terrain amidst steep rock formations: to give you an idea of how steep and unsuitable the terrain is, suffice to say that the difference in elevation between the “lower city” and the “upper city” was well in the range of 300 meters!
Hattusas itself sits on top of barren and wind-swept plateau at 1,200 meters above sea level, which enjoys what is possibly the worst weather conditions in central Anatolia. Even in April the site is mostly covered by snow. 

The main entrance to the Great Temple of Hattusas, in the "Lower City". Notice the huge limestone foundation walls - (Photo by Author)
A secondary entrance to the Great Temple. The giant blocks of stone, some of which as heavy as 50 tons, still bear the marks and the cracks of a devastating fire that laid complete distruction on Hattusas - (Photo by Author)
Looking towards the reconstructed gateway and walls, one can appreciate the full extension of the "Lower City".  The large megalithic wall in the foreground is part of the Great Temple, while the structures immediately beneath were likely used as warehouses or storerooms - (Photo by Author)
             The great temple occupies a privileged position in the “lower City”. It was probably built by Hattusili III (1265-1235 BC), although the exact date of its construction is not known. It consists of a massive precint of some 14,000 square meters, with the temple itself measuring 42x65 meters. The area eventually included several smaller shrines, storerooms, and paved streets connecting the various buildings.
The temple, which was likely dedicated to the local Hittite version of the Storm God, is notable for its distinct megalithic construction: the base courses consist of huge ashlars of dark green andesite stone (unlike most buildings at Hattusas, which are built of local gray limestone), some of which as large as 6-8 meters long and weighing over 40 tons. The temple has three cultic chambers, which are slightly off-set from the general axis of the temple. The main altar room also possessed a couple of “windows” oriented towards some point to the horizon which bear an uncanny resemblance to Inca masonry and the great Sun Temple of Qorikancha in ancient Cuzco.

The inner courtyard of the Great Temple was occupied by several smaller structures and shrines, of which only the massive stone foundations remain - (Photo by Author)
The main altar of the Great Temple was located in a large oblong room, where the bases of two windows can be seen on each side of the altar. These were likely astronomically oriented towards the rising of specific stars and constellations - (Photo by Author) 
Here one can fully appreciate the megalithic character of the Great Temple construction. The large stone in the background is over 6 meters (18 feet) long, 2 meters tall by 2 meters thick, which account for an exstimated weight of over 60 tons. Unlike the white limestone which is commonly found elsewhere at the site, these giant megaliths are made of a very hard igneous rock called andesite and bear trace of a much more intense erosion - (Photo by Author)
Another enigmatic feature of the temple, which one also finds almost everywhere amidst the ancient ruins of  Hattusas, is a large number of perfectly circular drill-holes cut deep into the rock as if by means of some tube drill capable of drilling perfectly clear holes in a stone as hard as granite. There is no conclusive explanation as to the real purpose of this holes. There are hundreds of them and they are in some cases so closely fitted together as to almost entirely cover the surface of a stone block. It has been suggested these holes served to hold the bronze pins required to support the wooden frame of buildings, which were then filled with mudbrick. I think this is a somehow unsatisfactory explanation: why take such a gigantic effort as to cut huge monoliths of stone, all neatly fitted and joined together, only to make foundations for buildings which consisted of no more than a timber frame filled with mudbricks? This is even more mysterious if one considers the apparently random pattern of holes one finds on certain large stones. The Hittites were amongst the first civilizations to use iron, which allowed them to craft strong tools to drill round holes into the stone. The question is Why?

A close-up of one of the perfectly circular drill holes that can be found in large numbers all over the site.  The internal contours of the holes are extremely neat and smooth to the touch as if dug by some precision instrument - (Photo by Author)
Another stone with holes, located some way up from the lower citadel. Each stone contains as much as 20 holes, which in this case were carefully arranged in rows - (Photo by Author)
Within the great Temple precinct one also finds a large green-stone boulder (probably nephrite or jadeite) which has been the subject of much speculation (it is believed it was a gift by Ramses II to the Hittites following the peace treaty of Kadesh, although the claim cannot be proven). The stone has a perfectly smooth touch and an almost mirror-polish. It was certainly the object of some cult, but one wonders how it came there in the first place…

One of the entrances to the Lower City of Hattusas, which was likely part of the large Temple precint (or temenos). Notice the enormous size of the blocks used and the heavy stone erosion - (Photo by Author)
The strange green stone lying in one of the side chambers of the Great Temple complex. It is a cube of almost 1 meter by side, perfectly polished to achieve mirror-like surfaces. The origins of this stone, as well as its real purpose are a complete mystery - (Photo by Author)
These huge monolithic door thresholds once separated a set of large oblong rooms which were likely  used as storerooms for cultic objects - (Photo by Author)
Another enigmatic monolith in the "Lower City", close to the outer temenos wall of the Great Temple. Because of its shape and position, it was likely an ablution basis used in temple ceremonies. One can also see the hole made for the drainage channel on the short side - (Photo by Author)
                Also the citadel of Buyűkkaya and the outer city walls were built using large megalithic stones (the ancient walls of Hattusas extend over a length of some 6,5 Km, among the largest of any Bronze-age site). The city gates are especially remarkable as they show a polygonal style of masonry not unlike that of Mycenaean bronze-age walls. The most famous gates are the “Gate of the Lions” and the “Gate of the King”, which took their name after the bas-reliefs decorating the frames.

One of the lower gateways of the citadel. Notice the parabolic-shaped door frames  and the distinctively megalithic character of double-door walls construction. At this point the walls were over 12 meters thick (while elsewhere they are usually 5-to-6 meters thick - (Photo by Author)
The Gate of the King, so called for a bas-relief depicting a marching King (or God?) on the inner door frame  (now in the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara). Notice also here the parabolic doorway frames and the double-door system. No doubt Hattusas was amongst the most heavily fortified citadels of the Bronze Age - (Photo by Author)
Another view of the polygonal walls and towers next to the Gate of the King. The huge boulders of stone comprising the bulk of the walls are over 2 to 3 tons in weight - (Photo by Author)
There is also another gate called the “Gateway of Sphinxes” resting upon a platform which is itself known as the “Gate of the Earth” (Yerkapi). This is truly the most remarkable monument of the “Upper city”, consisting of a large oblong pyramid some 250 by 70 meters wide and 30 meters high. A kind of rampart was built on top of this platform, consisting of a single line of walls with several towers and two gateways decorated by sphinxes (now in the Istanbul and Bogazkoy Museum, after they were returned by the German government to Turkey). This enigmatic structure is usually called a “fortress” or a “rampart” (perhaps to avoid calling it a pyramid, that is, what it actually looks like). One wonders what defensive purpose could it serve: not only would an invading enemy find very conveniently located stairways leading up to the summit of the “rampart”, but even a large tunnel piercing it from side to side over a length of 69 meters (which would have of course led the enemy right in the middle of the “citadel”, entirely bypassing the supposed “rampart”). Some archaeologists of course claim the tunnel would have been a deadly trap to any invader, like some sort of “death’s corridor”, but there is no proof the tunnel was ever blocked.  Also, one wonders why one would build a “rampart” with a side larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza and then cut a comfortable tunnel throughout its width for any invader to simply bypass it. To me it is plain non-sense. The only reasonable explanation is that the Yerkapi served some yet obscure cultic purpose (perhaps with the supposed “towers” on top marking some calendrically relevant points?), which was perhaps linked to Sun or Star observation. I must admit the tunnel crossing the “pyramid” of Yerkapi over its entire width closely reminded me of a giant telescope pointing to some distant star (which star?).

The perfectly rectilinear tunnel crossing the "Pyramid" of Yerkapi over its entire width.  The style of corbel-vault construction is closely reminescent of Mycenean bronze-age architecture - (Photo by Author)
The entrance to the tunnel (also called Gate of the Earth) on the long side of the Yerkapi Pyramid. Hardly something that could have gone unnoticed, especially to an invading army... - (Photo by Author)
One of the corners of the Yerkapi pyramid. The outer casing is arranged on two terraces and was lined with  large white limestone boulders - (Photo by Author)
Another view of the outer casing of the Yerkapi pyramid. One can also see the large and spacious stairway conveniently located on one of the sides. It would be a complete non-sense to build such a stairway on a supposed military rampart - (Photo by Author)
Looking down from the top of the Yerkapi pyramid  towards the bottom of the large stairway.  Everywhere around is barren and desolate landscape - (Photo by Author)
                Another notable feature of the ancient site is the so called “Temple district” occupying a vast area of the “Upper city” of Hattusas. So far, the remains of over 30 temples have been identified. These were likely shrines to the Gods of the nations conquered by the Hittites, which were thus controlled and kept under Hittite power. The larger temples are as large as 1,200 to 1,500 square meters, often surrounded by a temenos wall which often consists of large polygonal stones very finely fitted together and dressed.

Large megalithic walls in the "Temple district", still mostly covered by snow. The building and masonry style is closely reminescent of Inca construction techniques - (Photo by Author)

Other views of the megalithic walls of the Upper Temple district. The stones are very neatly fitted together and often have complex interlocking joints as in the picture above. Almost nothing survives of the large temples that must have stood on these platforms, except few fragments of a blackish basalt stone - (Photo by Author)
                Finally, the site of Hattusas also boasts a number of hieroglyphic inscriptions bearing trace of the so-called “Luwian” script (still mostly undeciphred). The “Hieroglyph chamber”, located in the Eastern part of the Upper citadel contains lengthy inscriptions and depictions of the Sun-God and King Shupiluliuma II within two monumental vaulted chambers.

A large rock was clearly cut along its entire width to built a shrine and a temple to the Mountain Gods. Similarly to the Phrygians, the Hittites also worshipped Mountains and rocks of unusual shape as abodes of the Gods - (Photo by Author)
Another rock-cut trench in the lower town, open to the winds, which is closely reminescent of altars and observation platforms - (Photo by Author)
On this rock one can still see a faint hieroglyphic inscription on many lines, which is the longest Hittite inscription known, dating to the last years of Hattusas - (Photo by Author)
One of the hieroglyphic chambers in the Upper citadel. These likely served some cultic purpose related to the Underworld deities. Also note the massive corble vault made of finely fitted boulders - (Photo by Author)

[1] N. Bittel, R. Neumann, Bogazkoy-Hattuas, Excavations results of the German Archaeological Institute and the German Oriental Society in the Years 1931-1939, vol. 1 (1952)
[2] L. Robbins, Collapse of the Bronze Age: the story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt and the People of the Sea, iUniverse, (2001)
For a detailed description of the site and high-quality reconstructions see: