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Çatalhöyük and Boncuklu: some of the oldest towns in the world (Archaeology Sites around Konya)

I think one of the most fascinating things about living in Turkey is finally understanding the complex mix of civilizations that existed on this land over the millennia.  Before I moved here, I only understood Turkey in the modern sense, and I knew it was formerly home to the Ottoman Empire.  Then, once I started touring around the country, its past as part of Rome (and Byzantine) and, before that Greece, finally dawned on me.  Now I’m to the point where I have a rough idea of who ruled each corner of Anatolia (the Asian part of current Turkey) over the centuries.  Still, I frequently visit a new place and learn about another civilization that came and went over a short span of a few centuries.

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In November, on a trip with Friends of American Research in Turkey (FARIT) to the archaeological sites around Konya, once again my mind was blown.  The highlight of our trip was a visit to Çatalhöyük, a settlement that is possibly the oldest town in the world.  The general consensus is that it is the largest and best preserved neolithic site found so far.  As a refresher, because I tend to forget these things too, neolithic means the New Stone Age, or the last segment of the Stone Age, and dates roughly from 10,000 B.C. to about 4500 B.C.  Çatalhöyük, the site I visited, was around from about 7500 to 5700 B.C.  In general, the neolithic period started at the end of the Ice Ages, as people started moving further north following animal migration.  Eventually, with the development of cereal, farming and animal domestication began.

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around Çatalhöyük – the river used to run between the two mounds

The site contains a couple of mounds (höyük) of several domestic buildings.  Interestingly, the homes were entered from above, so that the floor of the town structure was actually the roofs of the homes.  The archaeologists think this design was for fire prevention.  If a fire broke out, the roof could be collapsed to smother it.  In addition, this could prevent the spread of fire to nearby houses.  The pictures below are a modern mockup of the house style. Remember, the living spaces were climbed down into.

Most interesting about Çatalhöyük was the burial of its dead, with its reasoning still unclear to archaeologists.  Skeletons were found under several homes during the excavation.  Some skeletons were complete; others lacked heads, and other complete skeletons were holding genetically unrelated skulls.  Other skulls were found buried separately.  What’s with the skull love?  They also had several murals painted on their walls, and sometimes more than 100 layers of paint, with countless unfound murals underneath.  Most of the paintings were red animals of some kind.  Again, the meaning and or significance is still unknown.

Our next stop was Boncuklu, which means beaded, named after the old beads found here dating back to 8500 B.C.  Unfortunately the site is at the beginning of excavation, and when we visited in November it was a covered mound, waiting for archaeologists and summer.  I remembered to write this post when I saw some beads and a placard mentioning these sites at the Louvre a few weeks ago!

Our next stop was some Hittite ruins.  Hittites are considered the first civilization in Anatolia.  If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry; I  hadn’t either until I moved to Turkey.  First we walked through a village to see a carved statue that’s been sitting on a hillside forever!  No one knows what the statue was intended for, or exactly why it was made, or why it’s currently on this hill.  Possibly, it was from a quarry nearby, and then carved here.  The size is immense, and larger than those found at the Hittite capital in Hattusha.

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I really enjoyed the walk through the village, and the scenes of daily life in the area.  Across the hill from the stone above, there’s an ancient Lycian tomb decorated with a horse.  Seriously, these ruins are everywhere in Turkey!!!

Our last stop was the ruins of Eflatunpinar, another Hittite ruin.  It’s a temple built on a spring during the Hittite era, although its exact timing is unknown.  On the spring, the figures represented are gods and goddesses of mountains, the skies, and the underworld.

Finally, we visited the Konya Archaeological Museum.  Most of its items are early Roman ruins.  For me, the most interesting was this sarcophagus, on which our archaeologist said was the earliest known use of the Christian cross on a tomb, dating from the 2nd century.

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Here’s a gallery of some other tombs found in the area:

Archaeological Sites Around Antalya, Day 2

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Our second day of sightseeing with an archaeologist specializing in Roman and Greek ruins in the Antalya region was just as fascinating.  We visited two old sites, Termessos and Sagalassos.

Arriving at Termessos is a treat simply because you have to work to get there – it is located at over 1000 m of altitude on Gulluk Mountain.  After the bus climbed and climbed, we had to hike an additional 30 minutes or so up the mountain to reach the outskirts of the city.  Although the site is still mostly a pile of rocks, there are a few standout ruins to reward your aching muscles and knees.

The city pre-dates Greek civilizations, and thanks to its position at the top of a mountain, defied conquest by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.  It’s referenced by Homer as Bellerophon.  The archaeologists think that the rich citizens who lived inside the city were supported by networks of agriculture and slaves who lived in the valley below.  The city maintained its independence through Roman times, but was abandoned after an earthquake collapsed its aqueduct.

I liked Termessos because of its relativiely untouched nature.  The ruins are slowly being buried by natural plants, and I think it shows in reverse how so many of these great cities were lost for centuries.

The first sight at the top of the hike is the Gymnasium, which was both a school, gym, and social club for the young men of the city.  Amidst the wild plants and shrubs, some walls and arches remain.

Next we walked out to the edge of the mountain for the most impressive theater I’ve ever seen – who needs a show with a view like this!

Before descending, we wandered through the remains of the agora and some homes scattered around the area.

Our second site was Sagalassos, another ancient southwestern Anatolian town.  It was another Pisidian town, with settlement in this location as far back as 8000 B.C.!  The history took the standard tour of civilizations, from stone age to Hittite to Psidian to Greek to Roman.  After Alexander the Great failed to conquer Termessos, the site we visited in the morning, he attacked Sagalassos with fury, and it became a Hellenistic city.  Although it successfully recovered from a few earthquakes over the centuries, eventually the hillside location was abandoned and the people resettled to the valley below.  The buildings that remain are mostly Roman.

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view from the city center

The center of the square held an impressive fountain, with several statues.  You can see them covered in thermal bags right now to protect from the cold.  Recently huge statues of Hadrian, Sabine (his courtesan) and Aurelius have all been found at the site.

The town also boast an old library with impressive mosaics.

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Other buildings include a statue to Dionysus (god of wine and fun!), a stadium, and some fountains.  Remember, the Romans were always building water features to handle the extra water flowing in to the cities from their aqueducts!

Archaeological Sites Around Antalya, Day I

Since moving to Turkey, I’ve taken several trips with an organization that supports Archaeological research in Turkey, Friends of American Research in Turkey (FARIT). These trips are especially enlightening because an archaeologist comes along as the tour guide, and along with the history of the sites that we visit we are entertained with stories of the struggles and intrigue of the archaeological community, as well as anecdotes about the civilization behind whatever ruin we happen to be viewing. I have yet to meet an archaeologist who doesn’t like to talk, or who is short on stories to share. My favorite from the weekend was an explanation of the entomology of the word fornication. Roman arches were called fornix, and ladies could be found working there at night. They were, simply due to location, fornicators, and their work, fornication.
In February we did a trip to Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. We stayed on the old city, or Kaleici (inside the castle) and journeyed each day to explore the Greek and Roman ruins in the area.

A typical boat anchored in Side's harbor

A typical boat anchored in Side’s harbor

Our first stop was Side, one of the original port towns on the coast. It has two harbors, which made it ideal for cargo operations no matter which way the wind was blowing. Now it’s an ideal spot for tourists.

Everybody enjoys a walk on the jetty

Everybody enjoys a walk on the jetty

Side was originally known in Hellenistic times as Pamphylia, or the land of many tribes. The town’s name has two meanings: one, pomegranate, and the other is of a goddess who was a wife of Orion but was sent to the underworld by Zeus and subsisted on pomegranates. Ruins date back to the 7th century B.C., at the end of the Bronze Age. The town was surrendered to Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. – yeah, that guy got around! Like many settlements of its kind, Side was abandoned over the 7th century A.D. as a result of Arab attacks.

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Today Side is a mix of ruins and a tourist economy. Restaurants and shops are right in the middle of crumbling temples and ancient walls.

The most important, and well-preserved part of the Side ruins is the theater. The first archaeological lesson that we learned is the difference between Greek and Roman theaters. Greek theater was all about the chorus, so theaters were usually perfect circles designed so that all seats could hear the singers. Roman theater was more visual and generally used a stage, so you see more of a D-shape and a pronounced stage. The theater in Side applies a combination of the designs, with an original Greek shape but with lots of Roman modifications, including an enhanced stage and signs that a soundboard was used to reflect the actors’ voices to the audience. Later additions to allow for gladiator shows are evident, mostly by a stone wall around the lowest seats. I thought it was to keep the lions and whatnot from attacking the audience, but apparently its main purpose was to keep the gladiators themselves from escaping! I haven’t written about it yet, and will save the details for my report on Rome, but if you want to learn more about gladiators and their shows, the audio guide at the Coliseum explains it wonderfully.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many fountains and baths and other waterworks in Roman civilizations? If you remember nothing else about Roman civ, you probably remember that Romans greatest contribution to the world was engineering, and especially the aqueducts. The thing about bringing a flow of fresh water to your sites around the globe, however, is that you can’t turn it off. So many water features we consider great art today, like the Fountains that grace every Roman city, were actually engineered as water sinks – you’ve got to put it somewhere!
Sometimes Romans had to improvise on their standard aqueduct design. Generally they used natural springs in the mountains and the force provided by height to deliver water to cities located at a distance from the source. As in the example shown below however, the Romans had to build the height with an aqueduct to provide the head to force the water to flow.

Our next stop was Aspendos, another theater from the days of Panphylia. It’s under renovation, and probably will be forever since the city uses the theater for rock concerts and other civic events with huge amplifiers and noise vibrations that the theater was not designed to handle. It’s considered the best-preserved Roman theater in Anatolia. It was built under Marcus Aurelius in the mid 100s, after Aspendos, as part of Pergamon, fell to Rome. In the 11th century it was renovated by a Selcuk and served as a castle, and then used in the 14th century as a caravansary. In the 20th century Aspendos was one of the first archaeological renovations sponsored by Ataturk, who usually favored working on Hittite sites.

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Today you can see the statue ledges of the ornate stage and most of the original shape of the theater. Lines from the soundboard are deeply etched onto the upper sides of the stage structure.  Also, ancient theater guests had better accommodations than the tourists who visit the sites today. Sailors operated huge shade rigs, usually constructed of sail materials, over the entire audience!


Our next stop was Perge, another ancient Greco-Roman city, with findings dating as early as the 5th millennium B.C. and was ruled by everybody and his brother.  Today most of the ruins are from the Roman period.

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We got there so late that the gate guard actually started chasing us off the site. During the run out, we saw the remains of the stadium, one of few in Anatolia, and the agora, the main shopping area.

The most interesting part for me was the old city defensive towers that was later turned into a city gate honoring one of the richest families, complete with statues, inscriptions, and fountains.

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