Category Archives: TURKEY

Ancient Lycia in the Middle of Anatolian Traditions

When I now look back over ten years of my archaeological exploration of the world, I distinctly remember my summer travel to Lycian Turkey and its ancient rock-cut tombs encrusting high and steep cliffs. Such monuments of sepulchral architecture are scattered around the whole region of Lycia and partially the neighbouring Caria. They both are located on the south-western coast of Turkey, by the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and their mountainous scenery looking out the blue waters is truly breathtaking.

Beautiful view of Marina in Fethiye, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today, Lycia belongs to the Turkish province of Antalya, and the most frequently visited seaside resorts of the region are definitely tourist Kemer, turquoise Ölüdeniz and peaceful Fethiye, where I stayed in 2008 for over two weeks to explore the region (Miszczak 2009).

Location of Lycia

The area of Lycia occupies the major part of the Teke Peninsula; namely, it is located south of the imagined horizontal line drawn from the town of Köyceğiz to the city of Antalya, where the former is a district of Muğla Province in the Aegean region of Turkey, and the latter – a gateway to Turkey’s southern Mediterranean region (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). The terrain of Lycia is mountainous to the north, and towards the south, it gradually descends and becomes flat in places along the coast (Miszczak 2009). Much of the area is densely forested (Ibid.). The region of Lycia is geographically featured by two vast masses belonging to Akdağ Mountains; the ancient mountain range of Massicytus expanded to the west and the ancient Solyma, (modern Bey Daği) to the east (Bean 1989:19). Accordingly, Lycia’s borders have been delineated from the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and from the east, north and west by three mountain ranges (Miszczak 2009). Two of them are known today as Boncuk Dağları and Baba Daği – the part of the Taurus Mountains, and the third are the Bey Dağları Mountains (Ibid.). The latter reach even three thousand meters above sea level, and caps of snow lie on their highest peaks until the beginning of summer (Ibid.). The most famous peak of this range is Mount Tahtalı (Ibid.). Owing to these mountain ranges, Lycia was practically cut off from the rest of Anatolia (Bean 1989:19-20; Miszczak 2009). As such, it had won its advantageous strategic location and uniqueness of its culture (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

Ölüdeniz Beach in Fethiye District. Photo by Dan Taylor (2004). CC BY 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Fethiye” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Central Lycia consists of many tiny valleys separated by mountains, with the two largest; to the west of Akdağ Mountains, there is the valley of Xanthus, which is a real heart of Lycia, and to the east of Bey Daği is the valley of Alakır (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). Two major rivers flow through them: Xanthos and Limyrus, the former of which, longer and larger, was called Sibros or Sirbis in ancient times and was the main source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Lycia (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009).

People of Lycia

The region was itself unevenly populated due to its mountainous terrain and most people settled either in main cities along the coast, sometimes still interrupted by the mountains descending directly into the sea, or in the in the valley of Xanthos (Bean 1989:19; Miszczak 2009). In Antiquity, the whole population of the region has been estimated at no more than around two hundred thousand (Bean 1989:19).

Location of Lycia (in red) and Caria at its north-eastern border with the city of Caunus (Dalyan), which once belonged to Lycia. Anatolia/Asia Minor in the Greco-Roman period. The classical regions, including Lycia, and their main settlements. Image by Caliniuc (2018). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ancient Lycians had always been very distinctive in the background of other Anatolian peoples (Bean 1989:19). In ancient times, Lycia was adjacent to Caria region with its ancient city of Caunus to the west and northwest, Pamphylia to the east, and Pisidia to the northeast (Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, its geopolitical map had often changed throughout ages (Bean 1989:19-30; Miszczak 2009). Although the region is often studied as a whole, the ancient Lycia had never been a single state organism, but well-established federation of city-states (the Lycian League) that pursued a common foreign policy, dictated by their strong instinct for union (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). That, in turn, built up a sense of a Lycian nation, which differed with a nation understood by contemporary Greeks who saw it just as a unity within individual city-states, being constantly at enmity with each other (Bean 1989:20). Accordingly, locked in their mountainous country,

Lycia, from Travels in Lycia, Milyas, and the Cibyratis, in company with the late Rev. E. T. Daniell (1842). Showing the routes taken by T.A.B. Spratt, the naturalist Professor Edward Forbes and the Reverend E.T. Daniell during their exploration of the region in 1842. By Lieutenant T. Spratt, R.N., uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Lycians diligently guarded their freedom independence, trying to resist an outside domination (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). The region was also the last in Asia Minor to have been incorporated into the Roman Empire, and even then it retained a partial independence in the form of the Lycian League (Miszczak 2009). As such, Lycians had their own language with its peculiar characters, though related to the Hittite and Luwian languages, their own culture, customs and an outstanding style of sepulchral architecture, for which Lycia is interesting today, especially to archaeologists, and tourists making breaks from pleasures offered them by the resorts (Bean 1989:20, 22-23; Miszczak 2009).

At the crossroads of different cultures

By a continuous development of its seaside settlements, ancient Lycia became a major naval power in the region and so it also fully benefited from marine trade (Miszczak 2009). Its coast for centuries had been of great strategic importance for the successive empires ruling over Anatolia, as an important section of the sea route leading from the Aegean Sea eastwards, to the Levant and Egypt (Ibid.). In addition to its military importance, this sea route also greatly contributed to the development of trade and the transmission of civilization achievements (Ibid.). It is worth mentioning that Saint Paul himself came from Greece to Lycia on a merchant ship to spread Christianity in the region (Ibid.). But the history of the Lycian country is much more ancient than the times of Christian apostles, and the land itself is soaked with various legends.

Origins shrouded in mystery

After a Greek tradition recorded by Herodotus (the fifth century BC.), Lycians as a people originated in Crete, where there was a quarrel or fight over the power between two noble brothers, Minos and Sarpedon (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). Finally, defeated Sarpedon was forced to leave his homeland and together with his supporters, he crossed the sea to Asia Minor and settled down in Lycia, at the time called Milyas, being occupied by Solymians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009).

SVG Map of ancient Lycia in Turkey. The map of Lycia showing significant ancient cities and some major mountains and rivers. Red dots are mountain peaks, white dots are ancient cities. Prepared by Erp at English Wikipedia (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The name Lycia itself, as Herodotus claims, comes from Lycus, son of Pandion the Second, the mythological king of Athens, after whose death, Lycus was driven from his domain by his own brother, Aegeus (the famous Theseus’ father) and eventually found the refuge by joining Sarpedon in Asia Minor, where people took from him the name and became called the Lycians (Bean 1989:20; Miszczak 2009). According to Greek myths, it was the time of the mysterious labyrinth at Knossos, its monstrous inhabitant, Minotaur devouring children, and a conflict of Athens with Crete.

Written tradition

More precise, though unreliable dates of these events are provided by the so-called Parian Chronicle (or Parian Marble), a Greek chronology table covering the years from 1582 to 299 BC., inscribed on a stele found on the island of Paros (the Cyclades) (Bean 1989:20). According to the Greek inscription, it was the early thirteenth century BC., when Lycus reached Asia Minor, whereas the fight between Minos and Sarpedon happened in the latter half of the fifteenth century (Ibid.:20). The given chronology is still confused by the fact there was another Minos at the time of Lycus and Aegeus, and another Sarpedon in the time of the Trojan War, that is to say, in the thirteenth century BC. (Ibid.:20). Yet, the dating from Paros cannot be simply rejected as the names could repeat in history. Moreover, ‘Minos’ may have actually stood not for a name but for a title, as much as ‘pharaoh’ in ancient Egypt (see: Castleden 2000).

Lycia coin, c. 520–470 BC. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the other hand, the Hittite records also mention a nation of the Lukka, which is their own name for Lycia (Ibid.:20). They say that Lukka became subject to the Hittite ruler, Suppiluliumas, in the mid-fourteenth century BC. but the lands were continuously rebellious against his domination (Ibid.:20). Nevertheless, it did not discourage Lycian forces to fight later on the side of the Hittites against Egypt in the Battle of Kadesh (1295 BC.) (Miszczak 2009). According to George E. Bean (1989:21), the Hittite records about ‘Lukka’ must have concerned the lands to the west or south-west of the Hittite capital of Hattusa. Also contemporary tablets found in Tell el-Amarna (the mid fourteenth century BC.) records some ‘Lukki’ among the sea riders plundering Cypriot settlements, which would locate them in the region of Caria and Lycia (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). As far as Greek literature is concerned, Homer (the eight century BC.) often mentions the Lycians in the Iliad as allies of Troy (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). According to the author, the Lycian military contingent was commanded by two famous Lycian warriors and heroes, Sarpedon and Glaucus, whose role in the famous war was not undistinguished. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24). And it is commonly accepted the Trojan war took place in the thirteenth century BC. (Miszczak 2009; Bean 1989:24).

More evidence provided

In the Hittite accounts, there also appear the names of the cities conquered by the king Suppiluliumas in Lukka in the fourteenth century, namely Dalawa and Hinduwa (Bean 1989:21). Whereas the latter may be identical with Lycian Candyba or Kandyba (district of Kaş), Dalawa may be the same as the Lycian Tlawa (Tlos), located in the valley of Xanthus (Ibid.:21). If such assumptions are correct, then it can be accepted that Lycia had already been established in the fourteenth century, which also acknowledges the information given by the stele of Paros that the Cretans under Sarpedon reached Asia Minor around 1400 BC. (Ibid.:20-21).

The Greek historian Ephorus of Cyme (the furth century BC.) adds that Sarpedon came first to Caria, the region to the west of actual Lycia, and founded the city of Miletus, renamed after a place in Crete (Bean 1989:21). Alternative sources assert that the first city of the future Lycians was actually Idrias (later Stratoniceia), still situated in Caria but further south-eastwards, towards the Peninsula of Tepe (Ibid.:21). If the provided records are reliable, such a settlement would mark the way of Sarpedon southward, from the Aegean Coast to the lands of Lycia (Ibid.:21).

Greek name for a foreign country

Speaking of the name itself, the terms ‘Lycia’ or ‘Lycians’ were used only by Greeks, as much as the Hittite described the same peoples the Lukka, and ancient Egyptians, the Lukki (Bean 1989:20-21; Miszczak 2009). The inhabitants of Lycia, however, called themselves Termilae or Trmmili, and their land, Trmmisa, which is confirmed by their native inscriptions (Bean 1989:22; Miszczak 2009). For this reason, Herodotus’ account that Lycia adopted the name of the Athenian Lycus should be debunked (Bean 1989:22). Possibly, the historian tried to explain the etymology of the name used by the Greeks to describe their neighbours, which was yet adopted, though, slightly modified, by other contemporary civilization. The Greeks had never used their proper name, which actually often has happened throughout history (Ibid.:22). It is enough to provide an example of the people commonly known as Minoans who had created a civilization on Crete; their name was, however, taken by Sir Arthur Evans from the Greek myth mentioning the king of Minos, and has nothing to do with their proper name. Yet, there exist ancient sources describing the same people as Keftiu (Egypt) or Caphtorites (the Hebrew Bible).

Back to legends

The origin of the word Lycia can be rather found in Greek myths, namely in the story of Leto, the goddess from the generation of giants (Titans), who also was the guardian of the entire Lycian people, their homes and tombs (Miszczak 2009).

Lycian dignitary in Achaemenid style, at the Karaburun tomb near Elmalı, Lycia, c. 475 BC. Unknown author (2018). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the legend, the Greek god Zeus fell in love with her but his jealous wife, Hera, chased her husband’s mistress to Asia Minor, exactly to Patara, where the goddess gave birth to the divine twins, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). According to alternative story, however, the twins were born later on the island of Delos or Ortygia (near ancient Ephesus in ancient Turkey) (Cartwright 2019). However, yet before giving birth, the persecuted Leto was accompanied on her way through the country by wolves, who guided her across the Xanthos River (Miszczak 2009). To commemorate their help, the goddess called the whole region Lycia, because lycos stands for a wolf in Greek (Ibid.).

More Greek deities

The main deities worshiped in Lycia were therefore Leto and her children, Apollo and Artemis (Miszczak 2009). The most important religious sanctuary of Lycia, dedicated to Leto was located in the Xanthos valley (Ibid.). Some historians believe that the cult of Leto was one of the manifestations of the mother-goddess worship widespread throughout Anatolia, while others believe that the two cults developed in parallel and only later did Leton and the mother-goddess, known in Lycia as Eni Mahanahi, mingled into one divinity (Ibid.).

Dynasts of Lycia: Perikles. Circa 380-360 BC. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2018). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apollo and Artemis were also widely worshiped throughout the region; the ancient Carian Telmessus (another Telmessus was in Lycia, at modern Fethiye) was known in antiquity for soothsayers who referred to Apollo in their divinations (Miszczak 2009). On the other side, the main centre of the cult of Artemis was Myra, where the daughter of Leto was considered the next incarnation of the mother goddess (Ibid). In addition, the Lycians also worshiped other figures in the Greek pantheon, including Athena, Zeus, Hephaestus, and Ares (Ibid.). An interesting fact, however, are the traces of the cult of Mithras, a deity most likely from Persia, who was worshiped in Olympus by local pirates (Ibid.). Apparently, the Romans inherited the cult of Mithras just from them (Ibid.).

Rebellious nation who loved independence

The history of Lycia is to a large extent the history, mainly of struggles for maintaining independence, fought for with a fluctuating success (Miszczak 2009).

By the sixth century BC, almost the whole western Asia Minor had fallen under the rule of the kings of Lydia, except for the Cilicians and Lycians (Bean 1989:24). Yet in 546 BC., the kingdom of Lydia passed to Persia (Ibid.:24). The Persian invasion under the command of Harpagus, one of the generals of Cyrus the Great, is considered the first attempt at the conquest of Lycia (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). About 540 BC., the Persians attacked Xanthos, the inhabitants of which made a heroic attempt to resist (Miszczak 2009). Eventually, they committed mass suicide, setting their city on fire, including women and children gathered in the acropolis (Ibid.) Lycian men, on the other hand, fought to the last fighter (Ibid.). Archaeological excavations confirm this tragic story, as a thick layer of ash from this period of history has been unearthed in the city (Ibid.).

Rock-cut tomb at Telmessus (modern Fethiye). Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 – Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 380. Uploaded in 2012. Public domain. Photo source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Persian occupation of Lycia turned out to be quite mild and was reduced to the collection of tribute, leaving the management of the land to the Lycian hands (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). The period of relative calm was conducive to economic growth, as it is supported by the large number of Lycian coins minted at that time (Bean 1989:24; Miszczak 2009). It was also the time of the creation of the first monumental sepulchral art and the heyday of literature (Miszczak 2009).

Still feeling free, though under occupation

After the Persian wars (480-479 BC.), in which the Lycians contributed on the side of the defeated Persians, the Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy (the maritime league), together with the cities on the western coast of Asia Minor; about 468 BC., the Athenian general Cimon, with a fleet of three hundred ships, drove the Persians out of Lycia and Caria, who were, in turn, to join the Delian Confederacy and pay the tribute to the Athenian league (Bean 1989:24-25; Miszczak 2009). When the Lycians refused, their lands were plundered and the tribute possibly imposed (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, when the Athenians became defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (404 BC.), the Delian Confederacy ended and Lycia again found itself under the Persian domination (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). Yet, the Lycians did not stop to issue their own coinage or fight for their freedom. Finally, in the early fourth century, they found themselves under the rule of a famous Persian satrap of Caria, Mausolus. Although Lycia resisted under its native dynast Pericles, it became an area under occupation, and military garrisons were located on its territory at strategic points (Bean 1989:25; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the rulers of Caria began to suppress the indigenous Lycian culture and impose in its place the Hellenic-Carian culture (Miszczak 2009).

Alexander the Great in Lycia

Any pretentions to Lycia made by Mausolus’s successors eventually was put to an end by the appearance of Alexander the Great in Asia Minor, who arrived there between 334 and 333 BC. (Bean 1989:25-26; Miszczak 2009). The Lycians had been already tired with the Carian domination and friendly welcomed the Macedonians, even including brave and rebellious Xanthus (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After the death of Alexander the Great, in 309 BC., one of his generals and the Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy, took control of Lycia (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). The Ptolemy dynasty that derived from him lasted in Lycia for over a hundred years (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009).

Silver Drachm of Trajan from Lycia, 98–99 AD, minted during Roman rule. Photo by Ancientcoincollector (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, it was the time when Lycia began to lose its linguistic and cultural identity, which was gradually replaced with the Greek one (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). Greek influences are also very evident in Lycian art from this period of history (Miszczak 2009). An example is the growing popularity of sarcophagi, which began to replace the typical Lycian tombs carved in the rocks (Ibid.). The Lycian League had its beginnings at that time as well (Ibid.).

From hands to hands

In 197 BC. Lycia was passed from the Ptolemies to Antiochus III the Great, a Greek Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). After he was defeated by the Romans in 192 BC., at the battle of Magnesia, Lycia was handed over to the Rhodians, who were in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:26; Miszczak 2009). As a result, the Lycians, rebellious as always, spent the following years fighting for independence and writing petitions to the Roman Senate, which, exhausted by problems with Lycia, finally declared it and Caria free in 167 BC., after which they enjoyed a long time of freedom. Also the Lycian League became more prominent. In the second century BC., the Lycian League acted twice in defence of its independence against usurpers, first in the event of their attempt to gain control over the Xanthos, and then over Tlos (Bean 1989:26-27; Miszczak 2009). Facing such a fierce determination of the Lycians, the Roman Empire left the country untouched during the creation of its province of Asia (129 BC.) (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009).

The growth of the Lycian League

The first century BC. was the period of the greatest splendour and power of the Lycian League, which at that time included as many as thirty-six Lycian city-states on democratic principles (Bean 1989:27-28; Miszczak 2009). During the invasion of the Pontic ruler, Mithridates, on the western part of Asia Minor, in 88 BC., Lycia, unlike other lands that welcomed him as a liberator from Roman occupation, persisted in favour of Rome (Bean 1989:28; Miszczak 2009). Eventually, the Pontic king was defeated in 84 BC. by the Romans, who renewed the guarantees of independence for Lycia as a reward for its loyalty (Bean 1989:28-29; Miszczak 2009). Nevertheless, during the Roman civil war (the first century BC.), Lycia suffered again from the hands of Brutus’ troops till the time it was liberated by the Roman army under Octavian and Mark Antony (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The latter granted its independence in 42 BC. and Lycia was the only area of Asia Minor that was not included in the Roman Empire. It was again a time of prosperity and peace for the land (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009).

Saint Nicholas of Myra. Painting by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 – 1878). Uploaded by Galerie Art Praha (2016). Public domain. Photo source: “Saint Nicholas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The independence of the Lycian Federation ended in 43 AD. during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who joined it to neighbouring Pamphylia as a Roman province (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). The Lycian freedom was granted back by Nero (54-68 AD.) and had lasted till the reign of Vespasian (69-79AD.) (Bean 1989:29). Moreover, even as a part of the Roman Empire, the Lycian League continued to exist, and the region itself was rich and prosperous (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). As the Greek geographer, Strabo (the first century AD.) notices, although Rome was still responsible for the matters of war or peace on the terrain of Lycia, its internal affairs were left in the hands of the League (Bean 1989:29; Miszczak 2009). Furthermore, when, in the early fourth century BC., the Emperor Diocletian divided the Lycia and Pamphylia province into two separate lands, the boundary of the former was extended north-westwards and so included Caunus in Caria (modern area of Daylan) and then also the Carian city of Calynda (Bean 1989:29-30; Miszczak 2009). During the Roman Empire, Lycia went through a far-reaching process of romanization, both in the area of its culture and art, and in everyday life (Miszczak 2009).

Santa Clause in Lycia

After two major earthquakes between the second and the third centuries AD, some Lycian cities were turned into ruins (Miszczak 2009). In the third century, Christianity came to the Lycian region and brought significant social and cultural changes (Ibid.). Until the fourth century AD., Christians were persecuted in Lycia, as much as in other parts of the Roman Empire; a few contemporary  Lycian martyrs have gone down into history, together with performed by them miracles (Ibid.). The most famous Christian figure from Lycia is undoubtedly the bishop of the city of Myra, called Nicholas (Ibid.). Yes! Santa Claus comes from Turkey! (Ibid.). He lived in the years 270 – 346 AD. and became well known as a miracle maker, a zealous preacher, converting to Christianity, and a patron of the local population (Ibid.).

And the ancient glory came to an end

The end of Lycian glory was the result of the Plague that blew out between 542 and 745 AD. and increasing acts of piracy in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea; flourishing cities and Lycian ports were abandoned or diminished to the size of villages, which were additionally surrounded by walls protecting them against continuous attacks (Miszczak 2009).

Abandoned Greek city of Kayaköy. Photo by the User Wmck (2011). CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain. Photo and caption source: “Lycia” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The collapse of the region was also visible by the re-use of the stone from ancient tombs and columns to build city fortifications, as it can be observed in Tlos (Miszczak 2009). Lycia had remained almost uninhabited for several centuries, until the thirteenth century, when the Turks, led by the Teke dynasty, settled on its territory (Miszczak 2009). Hence the name of the Peninsula. The Turks yet stayed away from the coast, which was constantly tormented by pirates who had also established their own settlements there till the eighteenth century (Ibid.). In the early nineteenth century, the rulers of the Ottoman dynasty began to re-populate Lycia, settling in its area the Greek population of the Aegean islands (Ibid.). The few descendants of the ancient Lycians most likely mingled then with the Greek settlers by marriages. After all, they were connected with the Greeks by both, the religion, namely the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a common language, Greek. However, people of the Greek origins were displaced from Lycia again following the peace agreements following the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 (Ibid.). Together with the Greeks, the descendants of Lycia were thus relocated to Greece; just abandoned villages remain after that time on the Tepe Peninsula (Ibid.). The most famous of them is Kayaköy, the so-called Stone Village, which is now a tourist attraction for holidaymakers visiting the region of Fethiye (Ibid.).

When we finally arrived to our hotel from the airport in Antalya, it turned out to be a real heaven, beautifully located in a pine forest, near a narrow path leading to the beach. At last we could take a refuge from insistent rays of the sun and rest from its heat in the shade of wide trees. In the hotel’s open courtyard, a few guests were sitting languidly by the swimming pool, while the waiters were making tables for the upcoming dinner. I sat nearby in the greenery and closed my eyes. Despite my tiredness after the trip, I was looking forward to travelling around the region and discovering monuments of ancient Lycia.

Featured image: Marine of Fethiye, the town situated on the coast of ancient land of Lycian Turkey. Photo by fikret kabay (2017). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Bean G. E. (1989). Lycian Turkey. An Archaeological Guide, Vol. 4. London: John Murray Publishers.

Cartwright M. (2019). “Artemis”. In: World History Encyclopedia. Available at <>. [Accessed on 10th March, 2021].

Castleden R. (2000) The Knossos Labyrinth. A New View of the Palace of Minos’ at Knossos. London; New York: Routledge.

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The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery

An ancient temple dated back to 10 000 BC. has been discovered in the Middle East (Conrad 2012). It was built when mankind was still in the Stone Age and before people discovered the so-called first signs of Neolithic human society: the pottery, writing, and the wheel (Ibid.). Consequently, its construction goes back long before the earliest great civilizations, like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Minoans. Then who built it and why? (Ibid.).

Building archaeological recording underway in the southeast hollow (main excavation area) at Göbeklitepe (September 2018). The new permanent shelter provides visitors not only with unprecedented views of the excavated monumental buildings but also allows them to get close to the archaeologists working at the site. The membrane canopy was designed by kleyer.koblitz.letzel.freivogel Architekten (with structural engineering by EiSat GmbH), btw. (see Donna Sink (2020). In: Archinect News). Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI). In: Jens Notroff (2018) “Visitors back at the ruins again”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

This is the story of Göbekli Tepe and its bewildering imagery.

From evolution to revolution

As it has been always taught, human species had evolved very slowly (Conrad 2012). For millennia, people had managed to survive by hunting and gathering their food till around 10 000 BC., when something extraordinary happened: their development strangely speeded up and in a comparatively short period of time people achieved the highlands of their development (Ibid.).

The location of Göbekli Tepe on the map, near the large nearby modern city of Şanlıurfa. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

What was it that made humankind change so drastically? (Conrad 2012). After scholars, the turning point in human history was the Neolithic Revolution, namely having learnt how to farm and produce food instead of gathering or hunting (Ibid.). The theory is that farming allowed people to settle down, then develop religious systems and finally build temples to gods (Ibid.). Subsequently, simple settlements grew to cities and then into powerful civilisations, which developed around 3 000 BC (Ibid.). Without having to hunt or gather for every meal, people  had more time to evolve out of the Stone Age (Ibid.). According to the traditional thinking, such complex structures as Göbekli Tepe could hence be only planned and built by already well-established agricultural communities, according to the following scheme: the Neolithic farming and settlement encouraged religious practices, which in turn led to temples building and a successive development of cities (Ibid.). So much about the theory …

From the theory to archaeological evidence

With the appearance of Göbekli Tepe, the traditional thinking has been turned on its head (Conrad 2012). An American archaeologist, Dr Jeffrey I. Rose, an expert on early human history and stone age technology, admits that “what has been found in [the southern-east Anatolia is] incredible as it puts a whole new spin on human cultural evolution” (Ibid.). As shown by archaeological finds, the builders of the site were not farmers at all but they were still hunter-gatherers (Ibid.). This is why the site is so controversial, and for this reason it upends the conventional view of the growth of civilisation (Ibid.).

Hunter-gatherers. Photo cropped. Source: Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .In: Archaeology & Art.

According to well-established stereotypes, hunter-gatherers are usually seen as a kind of mumbling primitives. Slavishly devoted to their survival and basic instincts, devoid of higher skills, feelings or religion, these people were able to produce artistic, architectural and sacral masterpiece unknown in the academic world before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe. Dr Rose (Conrad 2012) admits his own surprise, saying: “It’s like discovering that a three-year-old child built the Empire State Building out of toy bricks” (Ibid.). The same opinion is shared by Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the Urfa Museum: “They had barely emerged from the most basic way of life” (Scham 2008:23) he says,’ amazed that nomadic peoples were able to organize such a large labour force (Ibid.:23).  

Never-ending studies

The site was first mentioned in 1963, in a survey carried out by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago (Benedict 1980). American archaeologist, Peter Benedict identified lithics collected from the surface of the site as belonging to the Aceramic Neolithic (Schmidt 2011:917) but misidentified the upper parts of the ‘T’-shaped pillars for grave markers, postulating that the prehistoric phase was overlain by a Byzantine cemetery (Batuman 2011; Andrews 2016).

The upper part of the ‘T’ – shaped pillar protruding out of the ground. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

“The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation, and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, which may have disturbed the upper layers of the site” (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020). With time, attempts had been made to cut up some of the pillars, likely by farmers who thought they were ordinary large boulders (Curry 2008; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020).

Sites with similar ‘T’-shaped pillars from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN). Photo by Arekrishna (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe has been carried out since the early 1960s, only in 1994 the site emerged as the world’s first temple with an amazing discovery of  mysterious statues (Conrad 2012).

In 1994, on a nearby hill, a Kurdish shepherd had noticed a strange outline of a stone sticking out of the ground (Burns 2010). He turned out to be more interested in the find than his countrymen who discerned the protruding boulders before him, and began digging around the stone (Ibid.). Soon he discovered below a six-meter shaft (Ibid.). It had a regular structure and there was a relief showing an unknown animal (Ibid.) (see:). Thorough examinations confirmed that the stone was processed by a talented stonemason who used sophisticated tools (Ibid.). When the scholars found out about the accidental discovery, they were sure that the Shepherd had discovered one of the most important structures in the history of archaeology (Ibid.). In the same year, regular excavations began.

The team of archaeologists led by Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute started their regular work at Göbekli Tepe in 1995, in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum, and soon unearthed the first of the huge ‘T’-shaped pillars (Curry 2008; Noren 2020; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020). Schmidt writes that “as soon as [he] got there and saw the stones, [he] knew that if [he] didn’t walk away immediately [he] would be [tere] for the rest of [his] life” (Knox 2009), which eventually happened. Having found stone structures at Göbekli Tepe similar to those unearthed before at Nevalı Çori (Turkey), Schmidt recognized the possibility that the monuments are prehistoric and culturally related to other archaeological sites in the region (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020; see Noren 2020).

Photo (2016) of Klaus Schmidt (11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014); a German archaeologist who led the regular excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1995 to 2014. Photo source: Oliver Dietrich (2016) “Göbekli Tepe – The first 20 Years of Research”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Since then, there have been multitude of various studies carried out at the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe, which became extremely famous for its unique megalithic constructions. As such, it has attracted an international attention of scholars and researchers keen to discover its well-hidden secrets, especially by means of research on the iconography of the Neolithic in the Southeastern Anatolia. Yet before Göbekli Tepe was uncovered, scholars from around the world had become very attracted to the Neolithic period of the region, especially with broad excavations started at the site of Çatalhöyük in 1960s.

Hill of the Navel

The site of Göbekli Tepe is situated on top of a hill that is the highest point of the Urfa Plain in Turkey, with the Taurus Mountains to the north and east, and the Harrain Plain to the south. Turkey itself is an ancient land that bridges Europe and Asia (Conrad 2012). It is also a part of the Fertile Crescent – a swathe of the Middle East and Africa that includes modern Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq (Ibid.). In this green belt humans are believed to have first settled and the world’s earliest civilizations to have arisen around 3 000 BC.

Area of the Fertile Crescent, circa 7500 BCE, with main sites. Göbekli Tepe is one of the important sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. The area of Mesopotamia proper at this time was not yet settled by humans. Photo by GFDL (2019). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Turkish, the name Göbekli Tepe means ‘hill of the navel’ and to the anthropologists, such as Sandra Scham (2008:27), this is “the metaphor of a human birth to describe the creation of the world.” After her interpretation, the name of the site seems significant itself as by its name it refers to such sacred ‘navels’ as Cusco in Peru, Easter Island and Delphi in Greece (Ibid.:27). Local people believe the hill to be sacred as well (Conrad 2012).

Four stone circles

Ground penetrating radar has allowed to estimate the size of Göbekli Tepe to 300 by 300 metres (Conrad 2012). Professor Schmid and his team have so far excavated four huge stone circles, labelled as A, B, C, and D (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). They measure roughly from 10 to 30 metres in diameter (Ibid.). Each one is surrounded by a high stone wall, broken by intervals by large ‘T’-shaped pillars (Ibid.). In the middle of each, there are two massive monoliths up to five and a half metres tall (Ibid.). These enclosures are not analogous to any other existing archaeological structures in the world (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. The main excavation area in the southeastern area of the mound in an aerial photograph by Erhan Kucuk and a schematic map with pillar numbering. Courtesy of the German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:317). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

Professor Schmid knew that the site has covered many more enclosures than just the unearthed four (Conrad 2012). The map generated from the ground penetrating radar survey reveals that there are at least other sixteen circular structures still buried beneath the hill, and some of them are situated much deeper than the uncovered four (Ibid.). These are hence the oldest enclosures of all, dated back to as far as 13 000 BC, which is the end of the last Ice Age (Ibid.).

Although only a small part of  Göbekli Tepe has been unearthed, it can be concluded that it was built in two successive stages (Busacca 2017:316). The first structures excavated there were erected as early as 10 000 B.C., that is to say in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (Ibid.:316). Whereas the later remains are dated back to the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, and strangely they are much less sophisticated than the earliest structures which contain most of ‘T’ shaped pillars covered in zoomorphic sculpture (Ibid.:316). The earliest enclosures were built on the bedrock into slots only about ten centimetres deep (Conrad 2012). The builders set two central monoliths up to five and a half metres tall and carved from a single piece of stone, weighing up to fourteen and a half of tons (Ibid.).

Enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Around the two monoliths, the masons then built a wall of stones and mortar, nearly two metres tall (Ibid.). Set into the wall, there are smaller ‘T’ – shaped pillars between three and five metres high and weighing up to ten tons (Ibid.). Now disintegrated, there is the portal stone and apparently it was an entrance to the enclosure (Ibid.). Once incorporated vertically into the wall, it was carved from a single piece of stone, like pillars, and weighs several tons (Ibid.). Carving these huge sown blocks would have required considerable skills and some knowledge of geology as well (Ibid.).

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

Göbekli Tepe is a much more elaborated structure than Stonehenge, even if it apparently predates the British megaliths by about 6 500 years (Scham 2008:23; Conrad 2012). To build a place like this, Stone Age people would have required a pretty sophisticated level of organization, especially a well-coordinated workforce of stonemasons, diggers, quarry-men, and hundreds of people to drag the stones up and set them in place (Conrad 2012). Together with his colleagues, Klaus Schmidt estimates “that at least 500 people were required to hew the ten to fifty ton stone pillars from local queries, move then from as far as a quarter-mile [over four hundred metres] away, and erect them” (Scham 2008:26). Moreover, according to the theory of the Neolithic Revolution, people had not yet domesticated packed animals at that time to make them assist and so speed up the construction of the stone circles (Conrad 2012). So how did they manage to build something so monumental before they even discovered how to make a clay pot? (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Main excavation area with monumental Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A enclosures. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

In the quarry from where the stone was acquired, there is apparently one unfinished monolith of seven metres long (Conrad 2012). It is believed that by using granite picks, the Stone Age masons roughly carved it out as it is still in the bedrock (Ibid.). To remove it, they were likely to use primitive levers and a fulcrum (the point against which a lever is placed, on which it turns or is supported) They may have positioned the fulcrum at the front, and then the levers went over it. By these means, the masons were prying the boulder up (Ibid.). A crack on the stone, which is visible today, would suggest the monolith was broken while being lifted up (Ibid.). Having separated the blocks of stone from the bedrock, the builders may have transported them up to the hill by the method described as “rowing on land”; one can imagine people, instead of sitting inside the boat, standing outside it, and pushing down on the leaver and then pulling back on it and so the boulder would be moved forward (Ibid.). Around fifty people would be possibly needed to complete the task (Ibid.). Has this method been ever tried out with a real fourteen-ton (or heavier) block of stone? Is the number of fifty men able to crowd at once around the boulder, which is 15 metres long?

What was the site used for?

The site does not have its counterpart elsewhere, which makes it the oldest man-made construction yet discovered in the world (Conrad 2012). As such it constitutes highly significant monument to be studied (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “the site could not definitely have served for a daily life” (Ibid.). He has worked on other prehistoric sites in Turkey and he says that the structures of Göbekli Tepe do not resemble any kind of clustered dwellings that Stone Age people built (Ibid.). The temple sits on the hill with no direct access to water so people had to carry their food and drink up there, which means they could not stay at the site very long (Ibid.). They had to live elsewhere, possibly on the place of the modern city of Şanlıurfa (ancient Edessa), around fifteen kilometres away (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe site during excaviations. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Most archaeologists believe that if the monumental sculpted pillars of Göbekli Tepe show the representations of gods, it is likely to consider the site as some kind of a sanctuary (Ibid.). If so, it would have been the oldest temple in the world (Conrad 2012).

Shrinking temple

Despite various studies, Göbekli Tepe’s function and the meaning behind its imagery still remain unknown (Conrad 2012). The mystery deepens by the fact that after the huge effort to build this extraordinary structure, the people who used it, then subsequently buried it (Ibid.).

The downfall of the oldest temple in the world is as mysterious as the religion it once served (Conrad 2012). For over a thousand years, the temple had occupied the central place in the cultural life of the region (Ibid.). People from hundreds kilometres away may have gathered there and used it as a ritual space (Ibid.). However, as the importance of agriculture grew in time, the temple’s role must have diminished (Ibid.). Thousands years after the large circular spaces with the massive monoliths were built, they were filled in and covered over (Ibid.). Instead, smaller structures were built on top of it (Ibid.). Consequently, it looks like Göbekli Tepe was being downsized: the enclosures had got smaller, the pillars progressively shorter and their number in the surrounding wall had dwindled until there were none (Ibid.). Finally, Göbekli Tepe disappeared in around 8 000 BC, buried beneath man-made hill (Ibid.).

Following the star

Each built circle of stones had been used for several hundred years and then filled in to be replaced by another one (Burns 2017). In total, the builders of Göbekli Tepe constructed twenty such circles – temples, which were different in size (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “it was a part of the program to erect such a circle to use it for some time but later to backfill it completely” (Conrad 2012). Hence the modern appearance of the site, which looks like a mount (Ibid.). It was because eventually all these mounds with covered temples became one big hill (Ibid.).

Cygnus constellation with the brightest star Deneb. Photo by Star Walk (2017).“A Gorgeous Quarter Moon meets Saturn, and the Swan’s Wings bear its Best Features!”. In: Medium.

An author, Andrew Collins, proposes an alternative, yet controversial, theory, according to which the builders constructed the successive temples for astronomical purposes (Burns 2017). Namely, the reason of the multiple rebuilding of the site would be to follow a particular celestial body (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Archaeoastronomy survey has shown that 11 500 years ago, the twin central pillars of the most impressive of so far unearthed circles, the Enclosure D, faced the Denab in the sky, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus (Burns 2017). When the alignments of other twin pillars of Göbekli Tepe were studied in reference to the same star, it turned out that the Stone Age builders apparently kept following the Denab by building successive enclosures as the star slowly moved along the local horizon (Ibid.). Hence the twin pillars within successive enclosures were deliberately aligned according to the star that the people of Göbekli Tepe were observing (Ibid.). As in the process of Precession, the position of stars change overtime in the sky, the builders also had to re-align their temple periodically, each several hundred years (Ibid.).

The downfall of the temple

Some scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, put forward a controversial thesis explaining why Göbekli Tepe eventually ceased to exist. Namely, the Stone Age site is believed to have been destroyed by the Great Flood, recorded not only by the Bible but also dozens of other ancient sources coming from different corners of the world (Burns 2014-2015). Robert Schoch, PhD. (Burns 2014-2015) believes that there is enough evidence supporting the thesis that a great disaster had taken place at the end of the period that marked the end of the Ice Age; as a result, the great pillars of Göbekli Tepe were overthrown and the damage to the temple must have been large and extensive. Attempts surely were made to rebuild it, but people eventually gave up and buried the whole place (Ibid.). Perhaps they wanted to return there one day or leave it for posterity (Ibid.). Or else the temple was naturally covered with earth yet during the Flood, the waters of which had carried huge amounts of soil and organic materials into and over the temple complex.

After Dr. Rose, the reason why the site ultimately disappeared may be possibly explained by the appearance of a sanctuary within the now flooded archaeological site of Nevalı Çori, which was situated around thirty kilometres away from Göbekli Tepe (Conrad 2012). It was a Stone-Age village with a small temple from around 8 000 BC. (Ibid.). A small square enclosure had similar architectural elements as Göbekli Tepe: thirteen stone pillars in its walls and two faceless monoliths in its centre, with arms and hands carved on (Ibid.). In this context, it is a smaller and localized version of the Stone Age cathedral at Göbekli Tepe, looking more like a village church (Ibid.). Dr. Rose says that sacred spaces showing up at that time coincided with the downfall of the Göbekli Tepe so local communities had started to build their own sacred spaces, when the central temple stared losing its importance (Ibid.).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another explanation of the abandonment of the site is that the descendants of Göbekli Tepe builders were no longer hunter-gatherers (Conrad 2012). They were farmers and they did not follow the religion of their ancestors per se but rather the ideas it represented (Ibid.). Their traces can be found at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük (Turkey) – which is said to be one of the oldest cities, developed between 8 000 and 7 000 BC. (Ibid.). In a restored house of Çatalhöyük, there are the bull heads sticking out of the wall as much as zoomorphic representations carved on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (Ibid.). Bulls must have meant large, scary and killing beasts for the society of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.). Bringing that animal power and violence inside the house was probably an attempt to tam it and to domesticate (Ibid.). It could be also a celebration of the animal’s strength or the hunt and prowess of the individuals (Ibid.). On the other side, the respect the Stone Age people had for wild and powerful beasts also hid their desire to conquer them (Ibid.). Accordingly, it seems that spiritual and physical story of Göbekli Tepe was spread far and wide (Ibid.).

Whatever the meaning of its symbolism was, the visible links to its imagery can be found at later sites throughout the region (Ibid.), which signifies it was truly important.

Many myths and legends claim that sophisticated cultures already existed at the very beginning of human civilization (Burns 2010). Robert Schoch, PhD. claims that there are various signs from all over the world that advanced societies had developed much earlier than previously thought (Ibid.). The discovery of Göbekli Tepe is hence completely contradictory to the current view of the slow evolution of civilization (Ibid.). Interestingly, since the archaeological digs started on site, neither a single tool for stone processing nor human remains have been found (Burns 2010; 2017). The former lack contradicts the sophisticated carving created on site, whereas the latter excludes Professor Schmid’s theory of Göbekli Tepe as a burial complex (Burns 2017). It was not either a domestic settlement (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., claims that when something in archaeology is incomprehensible, given finds are usually assigned ritual significance but these are pure speculations (Ibid.). Taking into account such facts, will the discovery of Göbekli Tepe radically change the world view of the beginning of human civilization? (Ibid.) Is the find of Göbekli Tepe the missing evidence that mankind’s strangest myths about lost civilizations can be based on facts? (Ibid.)

Featured image: “Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa”. Photo by Teomancimit (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. (Image cropped). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Documentary shots: Burns K. (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

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Land of Fairy Chimneys in the Heartland of Anatolia

While working as a teacher I always used my summer holidays for study trips, and when my colleagues brought their families by the seaside or up to the mountains to relax after the whole school year, I usually went digging, measuring a church or cataloging its inventory. Always non-profit. Anyway, it was my choice and the only chance I could entirely dedicate my time to my passion.

One trip after another

After one week trip to Tri-City (Pomerania, Poland) in July, organised by Wrocław University, some of my school mates prolonged their stay on Hel Peninsula to enjoy its long sandy beaches (see: Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary). Contrary to others, I decided to grasp another opportunity for getting closer to archaeology and I left for … Turkey.

… ruins of some great and ancient city … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After travelling across the whole Poland, I finally reached my hometown, where I repacked my stuff from my backpack in a suitcase, and two days later I was already at the airport.

Land full of archaeological treasures

Turkey is famous for its archaeological treasures. I joined there my friends who had chosen Anatolia for their holidays. After visiting together Istanbul and Ankara, “we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock … like the ruins of some great and ancient city” (W.F. Ainsworth in Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). We had just reached Cappadocia …

Abstract art of Cappadocia

Lying southeast of Ankara, it is one of the most remarkable area in Turkey and most frequently visited places in the whole world.

Caves and corridors … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since the early eighteen century, its magical moonscape landscapes have astonished travellers and writers – so unusual are its rock patterns (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Cappadocia looks like “a phantasmagorical world where rocks shaped like stepped ziggurats, towers, spires, minarets and cones jut upward into the blue sky” (Ibid:58). Some of these formations grow out of the ground individually or in a few and are characterized by more erosion-resistant basalt caps in the upper part, which gives them the shape of cones imposed on slender like chimneys trunks of soft tufa. Some even compare the latter to penis heads (Pyrgies 2015:31). Clustered together, the rocks sometimes look like an army of crouching dwarfs wearing pointed hats, others – hill-like formations – resemble more “sandcastles melted by an incoming tide” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Such a diversity of shapes became an inspiration for Bronze Age discs – an excellent exemplum of abstract forms of a human body in art (Pyrgies 2015:31; see Noble 2003:40-42).

Grotesquery of the region

Geologically, Cappadocia is millions years old. It was formed as a result of eruptions of the volcanoes: Hasan Dağı and Erciyes Dağı.

Their lava mixed with thick layers of ash changed with time into soft rock, called tufa (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58). Then an artist came and sculpted a grotesquery of the region. Its name was natural erosion. A painter – natural light – added the pink flush of dawn or dusk and magnified natural colours of stone valleys, vibrating under its subtle touch (Ibid:58). Then people appeared in the valleys, especially in the area of today towns of Göreme, Ürgüp, Nevşehir, Zelve and Avanos. They gauged and “hollowed out the tufa [formations] into honeycombs of rooms for everyday living […]” (Ibid:58), and with the fourth century, hermitages and monasteries for worship (Ibid:58).

Place for religious retreat

Greek Christians who chose Cappadocia for their retreat followed the monastic idea promoted by Basil, the Great, a hermit and the bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58).

Russet-coloured Christian symbols. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Considered the father of monasticism of the Byzantine Church, Saint Basil (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58), likewise the Fathers of the Egyptian desert, believed that a monk’s life should be filled with work and contemplation. Nevertheless, Cappadocian monasticism was based primarily on coenobitic life (community life), which Saint Basil considered the only proper monastic way, unlike the Egyptian anchoritism (recluse) (Telepneff 2001:24-26, 36; Rops 1968:606-607; Zarzeczny 2013:39-40).

Rock-cut Christian churches

With Christian communities’ grow in the Middle Ages, rock-cut Cappadocian churches developed out of early monastic dwellings and there had been over 300 of them by the end of the thirteenth century (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60).

The so-called Dark Church as very little light reaches its interior. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The internal architecture of freestanding churches was copied by carving out all the features out of soft rock: “domes, apses, barrel-vault ceilings, and columns, arches and even tables and benches” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58-60). Supporting functions of such elements as columns seem so realistic that it is still surprising to see a stalactite-like column hanging from the ceiling since its base “has been worn out completely away” (Ibid:60). The churches, especially their interiors, are also richly adorned with Byzantine wall paintings representing Christian symbols: from early russet-coloured various patterns drawn directly on the rock to more elaborated and colourful biblical depictions and portraits of saints (Ibid:60). The latter had appeared in Cappadocia since the tenth century onward and were made already on dry plaster (secco) (Ibid:60).

Open air museum

Most famous churches are still visible in Göreme, known for this reason as an “open air museum” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Most famous are the Elmalı Kilise (Church of the Apple), the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church – because of the looking like a snake, dragon being killed by Saint George), and the Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) (Ibid:60).

In the course of the fourteenth century, when Cappadocia was already under Turks, the range of Christianity began to shrink and eventually, in 1922, the Greek were expelled from the country (Harpur, Westwood 1997:60). Nevertheless, Cappadocian “houses” have continued to be used by local communities (Ibid:60).

Going underground

Apart from Christian dwellings, archaeologists encountered other earlier constructions but deep underground (Kosmiczne opowieści 2019). In total there are 36 known subterranean cities in central Anatolia but only four of them are open to the public, like Kaymakli and Derinkuyu (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). The most extensive and intriguing of all is definitely Derinkuyu, which means in Turkish a deep well (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Likewise the Hypogeum in Malta, it was uncovered by accident in 1963, at the occasion of refurbishing one of local houses. A demolition of one wall opened the entrance to the tunnel going deep down to the underground, and branching into multiple corridors and chambers (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). After wide excavations, it turned out it was just a part of a huge honeycomb city located on more than eight successive levels and reaching underground up to sixty metres down. Underground cities could once have been connected as one of the tunnels inside Derinkuyu (nine km long and extremely narrow) is said to lead to another underground complex (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The deeper, the narrower the tunnels become. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock. They seemed to lead a typical life but underground. In their mysterious city, there were spaces of different everyday conveniences: dining rooms, wine presses, cellars, warehouses, animal enclosures, schools and places of worship (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019). For lighting, in some parts people are believed to have used olive lamps, which could have been placed in special niches (Kosmiczne … 2019). Still such niches are missing elsewhere, and on deeper levels torches or lamps would not work due to limited air sources and so the question of the lighting system inside the city has not been entirely answered. It Is obvious, however, that without any artificial light the underground would be just pitch-dark (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The access to fresh water was provided by the well built under the lowest level and taking water from the river flowing under the surface of the city. In order to prevent the water being poisoned, the river’s flow was checked at the level of the lower floors and in the event of danger, the access of water to the upper floors was cut off (Kosmiczne … 2019). Moreover, the city was constructed in such a way that it was impossible to force people to leave it either by means of fire or water (ibid). There were three main entrances to the underground, which in case of danger could be closed only from the inside with round basalt boulders (one meter in diameter, up to 500 kg in weight) (Ibid.). Such megalithic doors were placed on rollers and also led to subsequent levels, thanks to which each of them could be closed separately (Ibid).

Cappadocia is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a must-see for every explorer. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

City residents could also communicate with each other at a distance, using miniature shafts with a section of 10 cm (Kosmiczne … 2019). The entire ventilation system consisted of thousands of long vertical shafts (52 known in total) that supplied air to the deepest and most distant rooms (Ibid). What is quite interesting, the shaft chimneys sticking out on the ground resemble the shape of bull’s horns (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The builders (whoever they were) also took care of the air conditioning: in the summer, there was about 15 °C in the inside, and in the winter the temperature did not fall below 7 °C (Kosmiczne … 2019).

Nobody knows who built this intricate subterranean complex, why and how.

Who and when?

This matter is still very controversial and there are many hypotheses about who was the author of Derinkuyu (Kosmiczne … 2019). As other stone structures, Derinkuyu cannot be dated, which is why archaeologists usually attribute similar structures to cultures having inhabited a given area (Ibid).

Derinkuyu was inhabited in the past by thousands of people (possibly up to 20.000) and their livestock (Photo posted by Jackson Groves, 2019)

Academics generally claim the construction of Derinkuyu was built either by the Phrygians (the twelfth – seventh century BC) or by an earlier culture – the Hittites (1600 BC – the twelfth century) (Ibid). Although the Phrygians are mostly considered as the authors of the city, and the construction itself dated back to the eighth century, the finds of Hittite artefacts (the thirteenth – twelfth century) in the city’s tunnels leave this question still open (Ibid).

Cappadocia’s honeycombs of chambers. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, there are also much older Palaeolith tools excavated that date back to around 10 000-12 000 (History 2018). Irrespective of these finds, some scholars suggest that some part of the complex was just started by one of these ancient cultures but then widely expanded only by Christians who were forced to protect themselves underground in great numbers (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Such an explanation is, however, less possible as the whole complex is architecturally consistent. And even if Christians had found there their long time refuge and adapted it to their use by creating (or just modifying) rock-cut spaces, such as the so-called “cathedral”, they could not expand the city to such a degree as it is known today (Ibid). The oldest identified account of underground cities in Cappadocia comes from 370 BC and was written by a Greek historian from Athens, Xenophon (Kosmiczne … 2019). His account comes from the work of Anabaza, where the author mentions people living in large, underground houses, along with their livestock (Ibid). After historians, the city was already used during the Roman Empire, and then by Christians as a place of refuge during invasions of Mongols and Arabs (Ibid). According to an alternative theory, the builders of Derinkuyu were representatives of a lost, highly developed civilization, which was destroyed about 12,000 years ago by a huge cataclysm (Dunning, Ogun 2018; Kosmiczne … 2019; see Hancock 2016).


Derinkuyu, like other similar constructions in Cappadocia, is believed to have been built as a war shelter for thousands of people looking for a shelter from Arab invaders (Kosmiczne … 2019; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:253). However, these are only speculations, not facts.

The primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, Avasta (in the Wendidad part), mentions the first king of mankind who was warned by the god Ahura Mazda of the coming catastrophe of long-time and evil winters (Kosmiczne … 2019; see: Hancock 2016).

Basalt caps on top of tufa cones. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Thus, the god recommends building a great Vara (in Persian mythology an underground shelter) and let in a pair of seeds from each animal and plant on earth, as well as a number of carefully selected people who would re-populate the land when winter passes away (Kosmiczne … 2019; see: Hancock 2016). With some exceptions, the story is remarkably similar to the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, and other myths about a great cataclysm and a god saving the earthly life (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). Supporters of the theory of the lost ancient civilization relate the description of harsh winters to the last Ice Age (younger dryas lasting from around 10 850 B.C. to around 9700 B.C.) and associate Derinkuyu with the ancient Vara  (Ibid; see Hancock 2016). For these reasons Persians claim such multi-stored subterranean cities were built by their ancient ancestors (Dunning, Ogun 2018).


First of all, Derinkuyu construction amazes with its craftsmanship and highly functional, architectural elements. Like other structures in Cappadocia, the city was made of soft volcanic rock – tuff (Kosmiczne … 2019).

Beauty of central Anatolia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Therefore, builders had to be very careful while building the underground chambers and had to make sure they would carve out strong and well-balanced columns to maintain the pressure of the upper floors (Kosmiczne … 2019). One structural engineering mistake would be enough to cause a collapse of the entire city (Ibid). Secondly, it is noticed that to construct such functional elements as wells and ventilation shafts, the builders would need a special machinery or tooling to drill deeply and precisely in the rock (by the way, no tools have been there found there so far) (Dunning, Ogun 2018). Next, It is estimated that over million and half square metres of rock was removed to construct the whole complex (History 2018). However, there is no trace of the extracted material in the area (Ibid). Finally, in Turkey there are multiple fault lines (a line on a rock surface or the ground that traces a geological fault) generating earthquakes, except for one region, which is in central Anatolia, especially around Cappadocia (Dunning, Ogun 2018). It is not surprising then that such elaborate and deep subterranean complexes were carved out just in the area that has not posed a threat of earthquakes which can easily destroy the underground warrens of tunnels and chambers. The most important question is how their builders knew about that phenomenon (Ibid).

One of the creepiest places

Without doubt, Derinkuyu belongs to most fascinating but also creepiest sites I have ever been. The deeper you go down, the more uncomfortable you feel. It’s an amazing place to get in but it is not proper for asthmatics, people with heart deceases and claustrophobic issues or those with limited mobility (Dunning, Ogun 2018). While walking down to deeper levels, it is more difficult to breathe and passages getting more and more narrower (Ibid).

Homes, Christian dwellings and ancient underground complexes. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The tunnels of the city measure approximately 160 cm high (Kosmiczne … 2019) and if you are taller you need to constantly bend over to pass through from one chamber to the other (Dunning, Ogun 2018). So far archaeologists have excavated the city reaching down to its eight floor but there are possibly even eighteen in total (Ibid). However, no archaeologist has explored it yet directly or indirectly by means of robotic probes (Ibid).

Here comes a fairy tale …

Now goes the part I like most: an oral tradition. Local people usually describe the region of Cappadocia as the land of fairy chimneys (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58; Dunning, Ogun 2018).

All around there are fairy like shapes of nature. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a name may refer to “fairy” natural formations of Cappadocia – according to tour books (Harpur, Westwood 1997:58) or, as villagers believe, to the underground constructions, which were actually built by fairies (Dunning, Ogun 2018). The latter are usually describe as very tiny people resembling Tolkien’s hobbits but with fiery red eyes (Ibid). Some local villagers claim they caught a glimpse of such a creature underground (Ibid). Still such beings could only work by night as they suffered from the daylight (Ibid). This is why, the fairies once lived (or still live) in the deepest and narrowest levels of the subterranean cities (Ibid). According to the same source, the complexes were actually built from the bottom upwards, first by the fairies from the Inner Earth and then, at the higher levels, by people who consecutively adapted them to their use and widely enlarged (Ibid).

The dead end

Is it a fairy tale? Most people in answer would shrug or call it an old wives’ tale. A more scientific theory than that states Derinkuyu was built from the top to bottom (Dunning, Ogun 2018).

The case is, however, the same theory goes to the dead end while archaeologists are trying to localize the “bottom” (Dunning, Ogun 2018). We know the deeper the city goes down, the narrower its chambers and tunnels become but nobody yet has reached their final end, still hidden deep down …

Anatolian night

It was already late when we all were sitting in one of numerous pubs filled with typical of Cappadocia atmosphere of small villages lost among tufa rocks and their multiple shapes. At that time I was not sure anymore if all of these stories I heard were just made-up or maybe I had drunk too much beer … Still I trusted Lord Richard Croft’s words: “Well, all myths have foundation in reality” (Tomb Raider 2018).

It was a wonderful adventure …. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Anatolian night was flickering to me with its stars. Tomorrow was going to bring another mystery.

Featured image: Imaginative expressions of nature in Cappadocia. Copyright©Archaeotravel.


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