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Osmaniye’s sunny Karatepe: Home to 2800-year old neo-Hittite remains

The Karatepe hilltop where 1,800-year-old remains can be found. There are imposing ancient sites scattered across Turkey, bursting with things to see. Your self-imposed sightseeing program leaves you rushing from temple to theater, struggling to choose between Byzantine church and Roman aqueduct.

In the hurry, you see much but appreciate little. You fail to absorb the atmosphere of the site and, as a consequence, are unable to “feel” its history. Then there are those sites where the remains are scant. They do not figure on the tour itineraries of the big companies. As you wander around, most likely youll do so alone, the silence broken only by the insistent chirruping of cicadas or a calling bird. These places resonate with history, with the people who built, lived, worked, played, loved and died in them. One such site is Karatepe, the Black Hill, in the forested foothills of the Toros Mountains northeast of Adana.

Karatepe’s history

Sometimes known as Aslantaş, the Lion Stone, Karatepe has another advantage for the visitor over many of the larger, more frequented sites. Troy, for example, is famously complex. The earliest remains date back to 3600 B.C., but it was a thriving city and part of the Roman Empire as late as A.D. 300. This breadth of history is fascinating but bewildering — is this section of city wall Im looking at Bronze Age, Hellenistic, Classical Greek — or Roman? Karatepes delight is that its history is so succinct. Confined to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., archaeologists have found nothing either pre or post dating this brief period. Before you visit Karatepe, you may well know next to nothing about the so-called Neo-Hittite people who built and occupied this beautiful, wooded hilltop 1,800 years ago. But the sites very simplicity gently draws you and insistently tugs you to find out more.

So, who were the Neo-Hittites? The “golden age” of the Hittite Empire, centered around the imperial “capital” at Hattuşa, on the Anatolian plateau east of Ankara, lasted from around 1800 to 1200 B.C. On its collapse, the lands of the former empire dissolved into a number of independent city-states. These smaller entities are now termed Neo-Hittite. One of these was centered on the fertile Çukurova Plain around Adana. In the eighth century, its ruler was a king called Azatiwatas. He clearly thought he was special, as an inscription carved into the back of a statue found on the site reveals:

I am indeed Azitawatas,

The blessed of the sun, the servant of the Storm-God….

The Storm-God made me father and mother to the city of Adanawa,

And I developed the city of Adanawa,

And I enlarged the land of Adanawa, both to the west and to the east,

And in my days the city of Adanawa had prosperity,

Satiety and comfort, and I filled the arsenals of Pahara,

I added horse upon horse, shield upon shield,

Army upon army, all for the Storm-God and the Gods….

I brought prosperity to my race….

I built mighty fortresses on all my borders…

The last line quoted above is pertinent to the site. It seems Karatepe was one of the outlying fortresses built by the rulers of Adanawa (Adana) to protect their borders. Although formidable, the wall of the Toros Mountains to the north was not impregnable. From that direction wild people, such as the Scythians, posed a threat. Ironically, though, it was the Assyrians from the southeast who brought about the end the Neo-Hittite kingdoms around 700 B.C.

Karatepe then, was a citadel. Around a kilometer in circumference, its walls ran in an irregular oval around the top of a hill, which dominated the valley of the Ceyhan River. The lower courses of wall were stone, the upper mud brick. The citadel was entered by one of two T-shaped gates piercing, respectively, the southwestern and northeastern walls. Both were reached by sloping ramps and protected by flanking towers. The walk up to the southwest gate from the parking lot half a kilometer below is delightful, with the rough track dappled by sunlight, birds chattering away in the mixed woodland and the fierce heat of this part of Turkey tempered by altitude, shade and breeze. Occasional views across the soft, undulating foothills and the blue waters of the Aslantaş reservoir are beautiful.

Modern Karatepe

Today, Karatepe is an extremely pleasant place. It is only an hours drive from Adana. In the national park below the site, day-trippers picnic beneath the pines by the lakeshore. Although little visited, the site has toilets, a small museum and even a souvenir stall selling handmade wooden bowls and postcards. It is hard to imagine now just how wild and remote it was in 1945, when an expedition sponsored by İstanbul University arrived in the area.

The expedition had a broad mission: to find traces of ancient Anatolian civilizations. Team leader Helmuth T. Bossert had fought for Germany in World War I, but later incurred the wrath of the Nazis. His books burnt, he fled his homeland. Given sanctuary by Turkey, Bossert initially worked on deciphering Hittite inscriptions at Hattuşa. Three female Turkish assistants accompanied Bossert. They must have made quite an impact in the area, a foreign man and three sophisticated, educated ladies from the big city, tramping around what was then wild country, inhabited by conservative villagers and nomadic yörük tribes. The yörüks told Bosset about a “lion stone” in the nearby hills. Bossert was excited — lions were a symbol of the people who were his passion — the Hittites. Unfortunately, out of time, he departed — reluctantly — to İstanbul.

In February 1946 Bossert and one of the ladies, Halet Çambel, returned. Bossert was now a Turkish citizen and had been appointed professor at İstanbul University. The pair set off for the area the yörüks had told them about in a horse drawn carriage. This got bogged down in the mud and they were forced to walk to the village of Kadırlı, finally arriving well after dark. The muhtar (village headman) hosted this unlikely pair. A foreign man, accompanied by a Turkish woman who was neither wife nor relative — scandalous! Nevertheless, Bossert was introduced to a local schoolteacher who knew where the lion stone was. Next day the three of them set off on horseback up the Black Hill — Karatepe. The teacher soon located the lion stone, much to Bossert and Çambels amazement. It was unmistakably a Hittite lion. Or was it? Closer examination revealed it to be covered with a Semitic script, completely different to the cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts used by the Hittites. Scrabbling around the litter of stone fragments around the lion stone, Bossert found Hittite hieroglyphs carved into some. For an archaeologist this was, potentially, an earth-shattering discovery. Scholars had been unable to decipher Hittite hieroglyphics. Here, Bossert appeared to have a bi-lingual inscription, the key to the hieroglyphic code. Now the Semitic script (a form of Phoenician) could be read and used to work out what the hieroglyphics meant.

Once again they returned to İstanbul, but in 1947 excavations commenced. Over the next few years the wonders of Karatepe were slowly revealed — the walls, the gateways, statues of a sphinx, lions and the magnificent statue of the Hittite storm-god Tarhunzas, astride a pair of bulls. Perhaps most evocative are the relief carvings which show scenes from mythology, war and everyday life. Thanks to the dedication of Çambel, all these statues and carvings have remained in situ, as they were in the days of Azatiwatas, and not carted off to the museum in Ankara. Turkeys first female archaeologist has had an extraordinary life. Born in Berlin, educated at the University of the Sorbonne, fencing for Turkey at the 1936 Olympics — and mastermind of Turkeys first open-air museum — Karatepe. Derided by some as crude and primitive, the relief carvings have a charm and vibrancy, which helps us to imagine the people who lived here as ordinary human beings. The relief of a man on a chair is the king, but he is touchingly ordinary, sitting there with a meat patty in one hand, reaching out greedily for more. One relief shows a woman suckling a child beneath a date palm, others show musicians, sailors and warriors, hunters and servants.

It will probably only take you a couple of hours to wander around Karatepe, but everything you see is remarkable. The Semitic and hieroglyphic “writing,” liberally scrawled over the carvings, enabled linguists to crack the Hittite code — making them Turkeys own Rosetta Stone. Germanys loss was Turkeys gain, and thanks to the energy of Bossert and the perseverance of Çambel, Karatepe is a unique site. Youll find it hard to come away unmoved by the obscure wonders of the Neo-Hittite civilization.

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