The Hittite site at Karatepe
In the autumn of 1945 a research team from Istanbul University traced the ancient
caravan routes through the passes of the Toros Mountains in search of Hittite sites. The
team was led by Professor Dr Helmut Th. Bossert and included Dr Halet Çambel.
At Feke, a small town
in the Toros over a hundred kilometres northeast of Adana, the
team were told of a relief carving of a lion which had been seen in the forest east of
Kadirli to the south. However, poor weather conditions prevented the team from pursuing
the search. A few months later, in February 1946, the same team traveled first from Adana
to Feke, the last leg of the journey hampered by a snowstorm. At Feke the team divided
into two. Prof. Bossert, Dr Halet Çambel, and Adana Museum Director Naci Kum drove by
horse carriage south again to Kadirli in the province of Osmaniye, and from there
continued on horseback to the village of Kızyusuflu 22 kilometres away. Guided by local
people who had seen the carving, they reached the foot of Ayrıca Tepesi, where they left
their horses and climbed to the summit. To the east they could see the Ceyhan river
flowing between a broad forested terrace and Domuztepe, and beyond a series of valleys and
ridges. To the south were the wooded slopes of Mount Karatepe. They found the lion on the
summit here, broken and tipped over on its side. Next to it was a figure which had fallen
on its face and had its head and arms missing. On the back of the figure extending to
below the waist was a 20-line Phoenician inscription, and scattered around were fragments
of stone carved with hieroglyphics, suggesting the exciting possibility that this might be
a bilingual inscription.
The next year (1947) excavations of this Late Hittite fort were led by Bossert and U.
Bahadır Alkım. They discovered that the lion carved in relief was not actually a lion,
but a bull - an animal held sacred by the Hittites - and that there were two of them. The
figure which had stood upon the sacred bulls turned out to be the Storm God. But the
bilingual inscription overshadowed all the other finds, and was to throw light on a little
known period of Anatolias history. Comparison of the two texts, one in Phoenician and
one in hieroglyphic Luwian, enabled the latter to be deciphered for the first time.
The site at
Karatepe known today as Aslantaş, Lion Stone, was a frontier fort of the Late Hittites.
It was built in the 7th century BC as a defense against tribal inroads from the north by
the ruler of Adana Plain, Asativatas, and called Asativadaya. The site lies between the
ancient caravan route to the west linking the tablelands of central Anatolia with the
southern plains, and the Aslantaş Dam on the Ceyhan river to the east. The fort has two
T-shaped monumental portals with high towers. Between the two towers an open passageway
leads to a gallery giving access to two chambers at either side and into the fort. In the
sanctuary on the inner side of the south portal is the statue of the Storm God resting on
the pair of bulls. The statue has been restored and set upright in its original position.
The interior walls of the portals are built of basalt block carved with lions,
sphinxes, inscriptions, and scenes from mythology and daily life. The bilingual
inscription is the longest ever discovered in Phoenician and Luwian hieroglyphs. The text
is repeated in both languages on each portal, and the Phoenician for a third time on the
statue. This was the key which made it possible to decipher the Hittite Luwian
hieroglyphs, whose earliest examples in Anatolia date back to 2000 BC. As a result the
Aslantaş inscription is as important as the celebrated Rosetta Stone which enabled
palaeographers to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Excavations continued here until 1951, when Prof. Bossert declared that no work
remained for archaeologists, that it was now up to the museums, and left for a new
excavation at the Hittite site of Mopsuhestiya (Misis, today known as Yaylapınar),
Asativatas capital. Halet Çambel, however, believed that there was still much to be
done at Aslantaş, and devoted most of the next 45 years to the site, where she founded
the Karatepe-Aslantaş Openair Museum. In June 1999, at the venerable age of 83, Halet
Çambel was still leading the excavations and restoration work here despite the blazing
- Skylife 05/2000
By Mustafa Çetinkaya, photographer