3200-year-old shrine in Turkey may be an ancient view of the cosmos

The ancient Hittite site of Yazılıkaya

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A shrine built more than 3000 years ago in what is now Turkey may be a symbolic representation of the cosmos, according to a new interpretation.

It has now been suggested that the elite of the Hittite society, an empire that dominated what is now Turkey between 1700 1100 BC until it was destroyed, created the Yazılıkaya shrine to embody their ideas about how the universe was organised.

Yazılıkaya contains many images in rock relief, the researchers behind the new interpretation argue that these have symbolic meanings relating to the underworld, earth sky, as well as to cycles of nature like the seasons.

“There are many connotations with the names of the deities the arrangements groups, so in retrospect it’s pretty easy to figure it out,” says Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, an international non-profit foundation. “But we worked on it for seven years.”

“They may be onto something,” says Ian Rutherford at the University of Reading in the UK. “I’m not convinced of all the details, but very interested in the whole thing.”

Yazılıkaya is an open-air shrine was one of the most important sites of the Hittite Empire. The remains of the Hittite capital Ḫattuša can be found near the modern village of Boğazkale in central Turkey. Yazılıkaya is within walking distance of the ancient capital.

At Yazılıkaya, the Hittites carved modified natural rock outcrops to create two roofless spaces, decorated with rock relief images of their deities. They used the site for centuries; its present form dates from about 1230 BC.

It isn’t clear why the Hittites built Yazılıkaya or what they used it for. Many ideas have been proposed – for instance, that one of the spaces was used in new year ceremonies, that the other was a mausoleum for a Hittite king.

In 2019, Zangger his colleague Rita Gautschy at the University of Basel in Switzerlsuggested that some of the carvings of gods might be a calendar, able to track both solar years lunar months. Such a calendar would have been centuries ahead of its time, the interpretation was greeted with scepticism.

Now, the pair their colleagues have taken a new tack. Instead of focusing on the possible uses of the carvings, the researchers have considered what these might have meant to the Hittites.

“They had a certain image of how creation happened,” says Zangger. He says the Hittites imagined that the world began in chaos, which became organised into three levels: “the underworld, then the earth on which we walk, then the sky”.

As part of this, Zangger says the Hittites would have highlighted the circumpolar stars, which never sink below the horizon. He argues that one prominent group of deities in Yazılıkaya represents the circumpolar stars. “There are images like that in Egypt,” he says, the Hittites were influenced by many neighbouring societies, including Egypt. Other carvings may have links to the earth the underworld.

The second aspect of Hittite cosmology was “recurrent renewal of life”, says Zangger – for instance, day following night, the dark moon turning into a full moon winter becoming summer. The calendar-like carvings reflect this cyclical view of nature, he argues.

“As an idea, it’s not far-fetched,” says Efrosyni Boutsikas at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Other cultures, ranging from nearby Mesopotamia to distant Mesoamerica, used religious monuments to link terrestrial life with the wider universe. “Obviously that makes sense, because that’s exactly what religion does. It addresses universal concerns the place of the people in the world,” she says.

However, Boutsikas is concerned that many of the team’s interpretations of the images aren’t based on Hittite texts, which say little about astronomy. Instead, the researchers have often used texts from Mesopotamian societies, which influenced the Hittites but were also distinct. She says the evidence would be stronger if similar links between gods astronomy could be found at other Hittite sites.

Journal reference: Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, DOI: 10.1558/jsa.17829

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