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walkers approaching a reconstructed section of the mudbrick-on-stone city walls at Hattusha, capital of the Hittite Empire in Turkey

Walkers approaching a reconstructed section of the mudbrick-on-stone city walls at Hattusha (photograph: Ersin Demirel)

Hidden in what appears to be the furthest reaches of a vast and arid region in Central Anatolia, some 150km (95mi) east of Ankara in Central Anatolia, lies the archaeological revelation that is Hattusha (Turkish: Hattuşaş). This unrivalled archaeological site, the great Hittite capital, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, covers an area of 2.1 by 1.3km (1.3 by 0.8mi). It was enclosed by a series of defensive walls with a total length of over 8km (5mi)! Its ruins are all that remains of what once was the beating heart of the large and powerful Hittite Empire, which vanished from history around 1200 BC, after about 500 years of existence. In its heyday, the empire occupied a vast territory, especially in what is now Eastern and Central Turkey and in Syria. It was one of the great powers of its time, fighting as an equal against the army of the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II to the South, while the Babylonians and Assyrians challenged its eastern borders. At that time, Hattusha itself must have had a large population, sometimes estimated near 40,000.

Hittite Empire

The Hittite Empire (in blue) in the 14th century BC (Alexikoua, Wikimedia)

Referred to fleetingly and obliquely in the Bible for its fearsome warriors, this civilization lay undiscovered until the middle of the 19th century. Tantalising evidence of this lost nation finally started to emerge as a few intrepid archaeologists travelled on horseback through the uncharted regions of the Ottoman Empire.

One of the key archaeologists who went in search of the Hittites was Professor John Garstang who first travelled the region in 1907, speaking with the locals and recording what evidence he came across in his diaries, taking photographs and paper squeezes. He published his discoveries in his seminal work 'The Hittite Empire' in 1910. At about the same time, German and Turkish archaeologists began excavations at Hattusha, a project that is still ongoing.

The Lower City of Hattusha

The Lower City of Hattusha (Rita1234, Wikimedia)

Visitors today approach the city of Hattusha from the northern side, following the road from the modern village of Boğazköy. This area is known as the ‘Lower City’ and consisted of a large temple complex, dedicated to weather and sun deities, as well as a residential settlement. This ‘Lower City’, measuring around 1.25 by 0.5 kilometres (0.8 by 0.3mi) , is identified as being the oldest part of the Hittite city and was established by king Hattusili I around 1650 BC. It was protected by mighty walls of mudbrick on a stone foundation, a section of which has recently been reconstructed for purposes of both research and tourism. Recent excavations show that the area had previously been settled by people referred to as Hattus (or Hattians), who were not linked with those we now recognise as the Hittites.

To the southeast of this area, visitors climb up towards a steep rocky outcrop which held aloft the royal acropolis and the remarkable Temple of the Storm God (Temple I). From its great vantage point, the site commands an impressive view over the valley below, but nevertheless had to be surrounded by extensive citadel walls after a devastating attack from the north in about 1360 BC. Following many years of military campaigns and inter-state warfare Hattusha was expanded and redeveloped into a truly great imperial capital city under the rule of its kings Hattusili III (ruled c. 1267–1237 BC) and his successor Tudhaliya IV (c. 1237–1209 BC).

Entering Hattusha's extraordinary Lion Gate

Entering Hattusha's extraordinary Lion Gate (photograph: Ersin Demirel)

As one climbs ever upwards and southwards, one reaches the ‘Upper City’, which makes up the other two thirds of the site. Its vast fortification are still mostly visible. Originally they stood 8 to 10m (36 to 33ft) in height, incorporated towers at 20m (66ft) intervals, and were pierced by a number of gateways, each of them embellished with monumental relief sculpture. Taking their modern conventional names from the sculptures that frame these gates, they are known as the Lion’s Gate, the Sphinx Gate and the King’s Gates. In several places, visitors can still admire the original sculptures in situ, although some key pieces have been removed for safekeeping to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and replaced with copies. The sculptures of the Lion Gate were created about a century earlier than those found in the citadel of Agamemnon at Mycenae in Greece.

The Temple District in the Upper Town of Hattusha

The Temple District in the Upper Town of Hattusha (Rita1234, Wikimedia)

The foundations of another 30 temples can be easily discerned across the ‘Upper City’, justifying the site being called the ‘City of a Thousand Gods’. Following the visitor route, the gateways lead upwards through this temple area, until one reaches the highest outcrop, the stunning view from the Sphinx Gate and the Yerkapı rampart and tunnel.

The layout of Hittite temples typically features an off-centre sanctuary with a ‘cella’, or sacred chamber, dug beneath it. It is here that the most telling finds were preserved for us to piece together as clues to this ancient culture. Finds included stamp seals, seal impressions and countless clay tablets inscribed in the characteristic Hittite cuneiform script, derived from the old Assyrian script. They record donations, ritual procedures and oracle enquiries were found. A Hittite version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was also located within this temple complex.

The Hittite Cuneiform script

The Hittite Cuneiform script

Visitors exploring the temple remains soon begin to realise that these complex establishments also served more than a purely religious function, simultaneously acting as administrative and economic centres and also as industrial hubs for the various workshops and ‘offices’ surrounding these buildings. It is apparent that the Hittites happily mixed their cultic duties with more prosaic activities.

These practices are borne out by the large amount of textual evidence uncovered in the Büyükkale (Temple I) complex. Here, around 30,000 tablets were uncovered and their study has led to the discovery of several ancient Indo-European languages that were previously entirely unknown, such as Hurrian, Luwian and Hittite. To our benefit, they were recorded in conjunction with the known ancient language of Assyrian. Their decipherment and translation has contributed a vast new archive of Hittite mythology, history, law and ritual to the global knowledge of the human past. Examples of these tablets can be seen at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (you can see them on our Exploring Istanbul tour).

Hittite writing is also on display at the United Nations building in New York, since Hattusha is the site where the world’s oldest known peace treaty was found! That tablet recorded the battle and subsequent peace treaty of Kadesh (Qadesh). It is considered the earliest extant document of its type, exchanged in 1259 BC. The Egyptian army of Rameses II and the Hittite troops of King Muwatalli II had evidently clashed on the Kadesh Delta (now in Syria) with no clear victor. The documents tell of over 47,000 Hittite soldiers as well as the highly feared chariotry which numbered over 3,000.

relief carvings in Suppiluliuma's Shrine in the Upper City of Hattusha

Relief carvings in Suppiluliuma's Shrine in the Upper City of Hattusha (Source=

The archives also tell of the last days of this empire. Various uprisings, tribal warfare, famines and defeats at the hands of the Assyrians on the southeastern boarders and the marauding ‘Sea Peoples’ in the unstable Lukka lands (now thought to be part of the area later known as Lycia) resulted in the last king Suppiluliuma II (c. 1207–1178 BC) begging Egypt for supplies and ships to alleviate Hattusha’s suffering. Eventually, his efforts were in vain. Hattusha suffered a fiery destruction at the end of his reign, during a period when violent upheavals affected many of the great Bronze Age civilizations around the Eastern Mediterranean.

He repeatedly turned to his gods in desperation, building many sanctuaries and monuments to his ancestors throughout his territories. One of these shrines is situated in the ‘Upper City’ at Hattusha, just beneath the highest rocky outcrop where the visitor path curves round this end of the ancient city. This is an atmospheric subterranean vaulted stone chamber engraved with sculpted relief scenes depicting the Sun God and the king. Apparently, it represents a ‘gateway to the underworld’ where petitioners could appeal to the gods directly.

Hattusha, Yerkapi tunnel

The Yerkapı tunnel (Source=

At the highest and southernmost point of the site, visitors find themselves standing upon the Yerkapı fortification, with the remnants of the Sphinx Gate perched on a man-made promontory. What is most impressive and mysterious here is the Yerkapı tunnel. It is about 83m (272ft) long and leads from the bottom of the 10m (33ft) high rampart into the heart of the city. Since the exit could not have been disguised, it can only be understood to have held a ceremonial function rather than a military one, as had been suggested during earlier research.

But despite the proliferation of temples within the city's confines, the Hittite capital’s greatest sanctuary lies some 30 minutes’ walk to the northeast at a place now known in Turkish as Yazılıkaya (‘Inscribed Bedrock’). Visitors approaching that site today look up towards an impressive complex carved out of natural rock looming up from behind the pine trees surrounding the site. As one climbs further, the majesty of this ancient sacred site becomes increasingly apparent.

Entrance to the Yaz?l?kaya shrine complex

Entrance to the Yazılıkaya shrine complex (Rita1234, Wikimedia)

The complex comprises two rock chambers, open to the sky and enclosed by natural limestone rock faces up to 12m (39ft) in height. A spring of fresh water once flowed here, and it has been argued that it had been a place of worship for many generations before the rise of the Hittite Empire, which held its New Year’s festival here since the 15th century BC. Two centuries later, as the ‘Upper City’ was being developed, elaborate scenes in carved relief were engraved into the chamber walls just above head-height. A temple was built at the entrance, featuring a stepped gateway leading to a courtyard with an altar. Once through here, modern visitors, just like those worshippers of the past find themselves in the main chamber. On either side, images of gods and goddesses belonging to the pre-Hittite Hurrian pantheon pass in a long procession while narrow ledges for votive offerings are still evident.

Hittite relief of the 12 Gods at Yazilkaya (Klaus-Peter Simon, Wikimedia)

Hittite relief of the 12 Gods at Yazılıkaya (Klaus-Peter Simon, Wikimedia)

The relief sculpture is remarkably well preserved, its details revealing images of double-headed eagles, leopards, bulls, and sinister winged lion-demons. King Tudhaliya IV (c. 1237–1209 BC) observes the divine procession from the opposing rock face dressed in his Hittite finery with skull cap, royal crook, curled-up slippers and identified by the royal cartouche (a symbol containing his name)that accompanies any image of Hittite royalty. A narrow passage behind him leads the visitor to what may once have been the Hittites’ holiest-of-holies. Here, in a smaller enclosed chamber, is an even more colossal relief of Tudhaliya. Facing this appear a group of twelve solider-like deities wielding sickle-swords and marching across the walls.

British archaeologist Professor John Garstang of the University of Liverpool took dozens of photographs and paper squeezes of these sculptures during his travels across Anatolia in 1907. From the paper squeezes he produced, an important collection of perfect plaster cast copies was put on public view for the first time in Europe in 1931, at the then Public Museum of Liverpool. Sadly, this original collection was completely destroyed by German bombing in May 1941.

Garstang's 1907 photograph of the Lion gate, then not fully excavated (University of Liverpool)

Garstang's 1907 photograph of the Lion gate, then not fully excavated (Copyright: University of Liverpool)

For those who cannot wait to visit these sites, many of the casts have been reproduced from moulds made from Garstang’s original paper squeezes and were recently on currently on display within the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool. The exhibition, "The Hittites are Coming", open until the 20th of December 2013, also features various other Hittite casts on loan from the British Museum. On display are Hittite artefacts which tell of this civilization, some of Garstang’s personal effects, a digitised display of his photographs taken during his travels in the Near East and a fully immersive audio/visual experience of an Edwardian archaeologist seeking a lost ancient empire in Ottoman Anatolia. In 2014, the exhibit will begin a tour of museums in the United Kingdom, starting in Blackburn, Lancashire from the 25th of January to the 24th of May, 2014.

And if you want to see Hattusha and Yazılıkaya, as well as the impressive Hittite exhibits at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara, and in conjunction with the geological and art-historical marvels of Cappadocia, join us on Walking and Exploring Cappdocia and the land of the Hittites next October!


One response to “Hattusha, Capital of the Hittite Empire in Turkey”

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve been there a couple of times now, absolutely stunning place!

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