The discovery of the ruins of the Hittite city of Şapinuwa was a huge surprise for the researchers of this period of the history of Asia Minor. Although archaeological work has been conducted on this site since 1990, many of the issues associated with the importance and the role Şapinuwa played during the period of Hittite domination remain a mystery. The researchers conducting excavations in Şapinuwa claim that it was the second capital of the Hittites or the royal residence of the rulers of this country. The most valuable discovery made so far in Şapinuwa is a collection of over three thousand pieces of clay tablets from the second millennium BCE. Unfortunately, not all of them have already been read, and many researchers eagerly await the full publication of their contents.
In order to clarify who were the founders of Şapinuwa settlement, researchers refer to the linguistic arguments. The word "Şapinuwa" seems to be of Hattic origin, and it most probably means "the land of the gods." Moreover, many tablets found in Şapinuwa were in the Hattic language. In addition, Şapinuwa is situated between Hattusas and Nerik - the cities, where inhabitants initially also used the Hattic language before the Hittite conquest. All these premises indicate that Şapinuwa was founded by the Hattians, and then it was conquered by the Hittites, in the 17th century BCE.
Şapinuwa was founded in a place of great strategic importance. The mountains surrounding the city and the fortifications stretching for many kilometres made the city was easily defendable. The slopes of the mountains provided wood and spring water in the days of the Hittites.
According to the records from the Hittite archives, unearthed so far in the ruins of Şapinuwa, the city can be dated back to the period of the Middle Kingdom and the early period of the Hittite Empire that is the period from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. The researchers have identified at least two phases of the city development. It possibly played the role of the Hittite capital city in the 15th century BCE, during the Middle Kingdom that is at the time of transition between the Old Kingdom and the Hittite Empire.
Şapinuwa was certainly an important Hittite city, but also played a significant role as a religious centre. The archaeologists working on this site discovered the sacred district nearby. The ritual cleansing took place there, with water playing the key role. Interestingly, the modern city of Ortaköy, located very close to Şapinuwa, has very limited water resources, but in the second millennium BCE, the area was abundant in water sources.
The city was destroyed by fire in the 14th century BCE. The fire was most likely caused by the Kaskas. They were the people inhabiting the mountainous area between the Black Sea and the central state of the Hittites. They were the main opponent of the Hittites in this area and the reason for which the Hittite state was never extended to the north to reach the shores of the Black Sea.
The fire, which destroyed Şapinuwa, baked the clay tablets from the local archives, thus enabling their preservation for over three thousand years. Unfortunately, most of the discovered tablets broke into pieces. It means that before reading them, they must be put together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
The references to the royal palace in Şapinuwa have been known to researchers for a long time, from several texts found in Hattusas. Şapinuwa also appeared in the text discovered near the city of Tokat, which contains the command to send warriors from Ishapitta to Şapinuwa. However, until the 80-ties of the 20th century, the location of the Hittite city of Şapinuwa remained a mystery for archaeologists. This problem was solved accidentally. One day a farmer walked into the building of the Çorum Museum, bringing two clay cuneiform tablets. He explained that he found them while ploughing his fields. The researchers made the identification of this place as the Hittite city Şapinuwa on the basis of a reconnaissance survey conducted in the field in 1989.
Ankara University quickly obtained a permit from the Ministry of Culture to conduct excavations. They started in 1990, under the leadership of Aygül and Mustafa Süel, and have been continued since then. Unfortunately, no comprehensive topographic plan have been created to demonstrate the layout of the site. It would allow the examination of the relationships between individual buildings. So far, only aerial photographs and publicly accessible satellite images are available to researchers. The archaeologists working at the Şapinuwa put forward the suggestion that the city had an area of nine square kilometres, but the area covered by the excavations is much smaller. Moreover, no convincing arguments to support this thesis have been provided.
Archaeological work in Şapinuwa is focussed on individual buildings. For ease of identification, they are referred to by the consecutive letters of the alphabet. At the beginning of the excavations, the remains of Building A were discovered. In the area of this structure, three separate archives consisting of more than three thousand tablets were found. Most of the tablets are written in the Hittite language. Interestingly, some tablets are covered with texts in Hurrian, Akkadian, and Hattian languages.The most valuable texts are bilingual, in various combinations of languages. There are also vocabulary lists in Hittite, Sumerian, and Akkadian. The texts in Hittite include many letters, and the Hurrian texts provide mainly the descriptions of ritual purification (i.e. itkalzi).
Building A is a monumental structure with a unique plan. The researchers found that two floors, made of blocks of limestone and sandstone, rose above the currently visible foundations. These blocks were carefully carved and matched to each other. The building had a rectangular plan and occupied an area of up to 2,500 square meters. The building has not yet been fully excavated, and the largest visible fragment is its south-western wing, extending over a distance of nearly 80 meters. There are symmetrically arranged premises, bringing the association with palace chambers. It is not certain whether an open courtyard existed inside the building. Due to the enormous size and excellent quality of the structure, the researchers speculate that it served as a government building or a palace.
The Hittites erected fortification walls not only around entire cities but also around some neighbourhoods and the particularly important buildings. It was also the case in Şapinuwa, where Building A was surrounded by two lines of massive walls. The space between them could have served as living quarters. Within the walls, there was a gate leading to the courtyard of Building A. The building was also surrounded by a well-paved walkway and a ramp led into its interior.
In 1995, the remains of another structure were discovered. It was given the unoriginal name - Building B. It is located 150 meters south-east of Building A, at Kadılar Höyük mound. It is a building on an irregular plan that occupies the area of 1,250 square meters. Inside, the researchers found around 30 pithoi (a pithos is a huge clay food storage container). Therefore, it is believed that Building B served as a warehouse or a storehouse.
Building C, situated about 120 meters to the south from the warehouse, has been initially identified as a religious structure. The most recent discovery is Building D, located about 250 meters south-east of Building A. It was built on a square plan with the sides 20 meters long. It is distinguished by an unusual entrance, decorated with an ornate orthostat. An orthostat is a four-sided stone slab decorated with reliefs. Only the lower half of the orthostat from Building D has been preserved. It depicts the lower part of the human body, which probably represented a king as a warrior. It reminds of King Tudhaliya IV relief from the Hittite sanctuary of Yazılıkaya.
Since 2000, archaeological work in Şapinuwa has been conducted within the sacred area known under the Turkish name of Ağılönü. Within the sanctuary, the researchers uncovered a stone platform with an area up to 1,700 square meters. Pits used for sacrifices and water cisterns were also identified. Therefore, it has been established that the rituals of purification (itkalzi) were performed in this area.
The latest archaeological discovery is a 10-kilometer long stretch of road, dating back to the period when Şapinuwa was the capital of the Hittite Empire. The road was made of crushed rocks, river gravel and a special mortar. The detected section has a width of 2.3 meters. Şapinuwa is located in a long valley between Alaca and Amasya plains, which were connected by this road. It was used to transport materials between the cities and to patrol the area by armed troops.
Admission to the archaeological site of Şapinuwa is free of charge. There is a guard to protect the site from vandalism.
Michel Gybels is the author of all photographs illustrating this article.
With public transport: irregular minibuses connect Ortaköy with Çorum (55 km). To get to Şapinuwa site Ortaköy it is possible to take a taxi (for around 10 TL) or walk 3 km in the southern direction.
By car: Ortaköy is situated near the D190 route that connects Sungurlu (90 km to the west) with Tokat (140 km to the east).