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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.

karatepe2.jpg (8220 bytes)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 Anatolia’s history. Comparison of the two texts, one in Phoenician and one in hieroglyphic Luwian, enabled the latter to be deciphered for the first time.

karatepe1.jpg (8759 bytes)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 summer heat.

Skylife 05/2000
By Mustafa Çetinkaya, photographer
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