Archaeological sites of Eastern Turkey

Ancient civilisations, powerful empires and charismatic, if immodest, rulers. In this guest post Margaret Doherty explores Eastern Turkey’s magnificent and varied history.


One of the impressive heads on the east terrace of Nemrut Dag

In 1945 while tracing ancient routes through the Taurus mountains in search of Hittite sites a team of archaeologists reached a small town over 100km from Adana where they heard tales of a great carved lion hidden deep in the forest. Tantalised by such stories they returned early the next year and with the help of local guides they made the long, difficult journey over rough terrain to the place where the lion was said to lie. Today the site isn’t quite so difficult to find, but the uphill walk along a dusty, stony path on a hot day makes me feel slightly intrepid. It is worth the effort. What the archaeologists found was the remains of the eighth century BC fortress-palace of Karatepe-Aslantas built by King Azatiwatis, a neo-Hittite ruler, one of many that emerged from the remnants of the Hittite empire that covered much of Anatolia and beyond and rivalled Egypt, Assyria and Babylon in its day but was destroyed around 1200BC. In a beautiful location high above the Ceyhan river, the walls of the ancient fortress still run along the line of the hilltop. The palace was entered through formal gateways guarded by carved lions and sphinxes. Rows of reliefs, some with written script (bilingual inscriptions in Phoenician and Luwian hieroglyphic were found here), others with detailed carvings of warriors, gods and animals, still line what were once impressive rooms and corridors. The reliefs are in remarkable condition and some of the sphinxes that guard the entrance still have the marble insets in their eyes.


The palace of Karatepe-Aslantas on the hilltop above the Ceyhan river

But it’s not just isolated sites that hold eastern Turkey’s archaeological delights. Gaziantep, a city that in its time has been ruled by Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonian Greeks, Romans, Seljuks and Arabs, is itself a model history lesson. Today it bustles under the shadow of the citadel built by the Mamluk Turks on a huge artificial mound created by centuries of human occupation that probably dates back to the third millenium BC. Local artisans carry on their trades while merchants sell a dizzying array of colourful spices. Abundant vegetables and strange fruits burst out of their sacks and spill onto the street while men take tea in the shade of the haans that look as busy as the day they catered for medieval caravans plying their exotic wares.


The citadel at Gaziantep

Among the region’s great treasures are its museums and like most provincial towns Gaziantep has an archaeological museum which houses an astonishing collection of Roman mosaics from the nearby Roman site at Zeugma. Founded in Hellenistic times on a key east-west route on the banks of the Euphrates, by 31 BC Zeugma was military stronghold directly controlled by Rome under Emperor Augustus. The number and quality of the mosaics and frescoes that have been discovered reflect the wealth and success that had been established. Over 1500 square metres of mosaics, many from the workshops of Antioch, the finest in the Roman Empire, have been salvaged from a site that is now underwater following the construction of the Birecik dam. From The Ones at Breakfast a large mosaic of three figures wearing women’s masks after a play by Menander that is actually signed by its creator, Zosimos, to smaller geometric designs and depictions of rivers gods, hunting scenes and mythical beasts, the scale and variety of the mosaics is astonishing. Don’t miss the museum’s most iconic piece, the ‘Gypsy girl’, from a damaged 2nd century AD floor mosaic where only the dark curly-haired, large ear-ringed head survives. It may not even be a girl at all – other contenders for the figure include Alexander the Great or Mother Earth – but it remains one of the site’s most vivid images.


The iconic mosaic of ‘The Gypsy Girl’ at Gaziantep museum

Travelling further east through a drier, more mountainous landscape is one of eastern Turkey’s most popular and celebrated sites, Nemrut Dag, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. The brainchild of King Antiochus I who reigned over the kingdom of Commagene from 64-36BC, it was raised as a monument to honour himself. Not content with the sizable natural peak, he ordered the summit to be raised by another 150ft. As a result, the man-made pointy peak of loose stone under which Antiochus is thought to be buried is rather precarious making further archaeological examination difficult. A steep twenty-minute climb takes you to a summit with two terraces. The eastern terrace consists of the huge seated figures of Antiochus and the gods with whom he felt in good company. The heads have long since been separated from the bodies and are lined in a row beneath the towering figures. A large altar guarded by lions sits on the edge of the terrace overlooking the dramatic landscape for miles around. On the western terrace the seated figures have tumbled down but the heads are in better condition and some of the reliefs that would have surrounded the complex have also survived.


The heads on the West Terrace of Nemrut Dag

Top tips

Many of eastern Turkey’s archaeological sites are geographically dispersed and not that easily reached by independent travellers so travelling with a specific tour that will visit most of the sites you are interested in is probably the most effective way to explore the region. My 13-day tour from Adana to Van inevitably covered a lot of ground but afforded the opportunity to pass through varying landscapes, from fertile plains producing cotton, watermelons and pistachios to arid desert and dramatic mountains crossing the great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, in the process.

When visiting the museums don’t forget to explore the gardens and outside spaces which can hold anything from huge amphora to well preserved stele.

As only a third of the treasures from Zeugma are currently exhibited, a new museum is currently being built in Gaziantep to house the stunning mosaics which is due to open in 2010.

Whatever your period or area of interest – pre-historic, Roman or classical, from Europe to Asia or the middle East there are many types of archaeological tours available. Most tours will take in a range of sites. My tour of eastern Turkey also included Armenian and Syriac christian churches, monasteries, mosques and medieval haans where merchant caravans rested on their long journeys to trade goods as well as the opportunity to try regional specialities in local restaurants and explore colourful markets. Don’t worry that a specialist tour might be too bookish – expert guides can offer a well-informed yet informal introduction to the sites and the wider historical and cultural context of the areas you visit making your trip that much more rewarding.

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About Karen Bryan

Hello, I'm Karen Bryan, I created Europe a la Carte in 2002 to highlight the best places to visit in Europe with travel tips, photos and no fluff reviews. I’m also an artist; my artworks are often inspired by my travels