Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park is one of those wonderful places of a great historical importance in Turkey that are visited by very few travellers. Therefore they can be explored in thoughtful silence to appreciate the charm of the former Hittite citadel fully. It is picturesquely located on a forested hill, over an artificial reservoir formed by the Aslantaş Dam.
Karatepe is a fortified hill rising above the Ceyhan River in the northeastern part of Cilicia. Formerly, it served as a border post on the trade route crossing the Taurus Mountains and linking the Anatolian Highlands with the southern lands. The route was used by Hittites, Crusaders, and recently by the Yörüks. The area is now forested, and its appearance has been strongly altered by the creation of the Aslantaş Dam on the Ceyhan River.
The date of the construction of the Karatepe-Aslantaş fortress has been the subject of debate among scientists for a long time. Currently, most of them date it back to the late 8th or early 7th century BCE, on the basis of the known inscriptions. It means that Karatepe-Aslantaş is one of the latest archaeological sites where the Luwian language inscriptions have been discovered. By the 8th century, the Hittite Empire with the capital in Hattusas, had collapsed, in the turmoil of the so-called Sea Peoples invasion. It left behind a series of smaller kingdoms, scattered in the area of southeastern Asia Minor, mainly around Gaziantep, Malatya, and Osmaniye.
Understanding the texts from Karatepe shed much light on the political conditions prevailing in Cilicia at the turn of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. These were the times when the old Hittite traditions slowly faded away. The texts were most probably written on the orders of Azatiwas, the king of Quwê, a Neo-Hittite kingdom. He built a fort in Karatepe for defense against invaders from the north and gave it a name derived from his own - Azatiwataya. Azatiwas himself received this land from Awariku, the king of Adana, and exercised regent power in his name.
The inscriptions mention the peace treaties made with various rebels and describe the increasing prosperity of the land. Azatiwas is described as “the servant of the Storm God”. However, there are no signs left in Karatepe by successive rulers of the land. It might indicate that the fortress was abandoned shortly after the death of Azatiwas. The area where Azatiwataya fortress is situated was later conquered by the Assyrian Empire, at the turn of the 8th and the 7th century BCE.
Surprisingly, the existence of Karatepe fortress was forgotten until mid-forties of the 20th century. It was accidentally discovered by shepherds from Saimbeyli who informed Ekrem Kuşçu, the village school teacher. Ekrem Kuşçu, in turn, notified Naci Kum, the director of Adana Museum. In the summer of 1945, a German scholar, Professor Helmuth Theodor Bossert, the professor of archaeology at Istanbul University, and his assistants set out on an exploration journey by horse carriage. Their main aim was to find the site known among the locals as Aslantaş - that is the Lion Stone. When they finally located the site, in February 1946, they found a sculpture of a bull and not a lion they expected.
After a brief survey in the spring of 1947, the archaeological excavations in Karatepe-Aslantaş started in the autumn of the same year. Initially, the work was conducted by Professor Helmuth Theodor Bossert and his then-student Halet Çambel. Bossert was commissioned to conduct the excavations by the Turkish government. He directed the archaeological works in Karatepe from 1947 to 1951. Another famous archaeologists - Bahadır Alkım, Franz Steinherr and Heinz Anstock - later joined the excavations.
In the early stages of archaeological excavations, the highest priority was given to work conducted at two gates - northern and southern - in the outer line of the ramparts. Both gates are decorated with statues depicting lions and sphinxes. They are also covered with orthostats - large decorative stone blocks that supported the lower part of the wall.
One of the most prominent archaeologists and influential scholars connected to the history of Karatepe excavations is Halet Çambel. She became the head of Karatepe-Aslantaş excavations in 1952. She devoted most of her scientific career to Karatepe. Even in the late 1990s, she continued to lead a team of archaeologists who studied the remnants of the Karatepe palace.
About a half of the sculptures, reliefs and inscriptions had been broken into pieces. They were dispersed on the surface and below the ground. Thousands of fragments were collected and later assembles and stuck together.
Halet Çambel's biography is a separate story that could inspire many filmmakers. She was born in Berlin, where her grandfather, İbrahim Hakkı Pasha, was an ambassador of the Ottoman Empire. Çambel's father - Hasan Cemil Çambel - was a close associate of the father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Halet Çambel studied archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris and received a doctorate in this field at the University of Istanbul in 1940. However, while studying, she was not only an archaeologist, she was also an athlete. Her passion developed with excellent results: in 1936 she took part in the Summer Olympics, in the fencing tournament as a florist. She became the first Muslim woman to participate in the Olympics. As the Olympic Games of 1936 took place in Berlin, Adolf Hitler reportedly expressed his desire to meet with Çambel, but she refused for political reasons.
After returning from the Games to Istanbul, Halet Çambel started a relationship with Nail Çakırhan, a poet with communist beliefs. He later became a well-known architect and designed the wooden houses that now adorn Gökova and Dalyan. Halet Çambel and Nail Çakırhan remained married for 70 years until the death of Nail in 2008. Professor Halet Çambel died at the age of 98 on January 14, 2014, and was buried with great honours.
In addition to many archaeological discoveries, Professor Çambel was actively involved in numerous initiatives aimed at the preservation of the cultural heritage of Asia Minor. In the 50s of the 20th century, she resisted the attempts of the Turkish government to move the most important Karatepe finds to a distant museum. Eventually, the government yielded, and an open-air museum was established in Karatepe-Aslantaş in 1960. There it is possible to see the most famous reliefs and inscriptions in situ, and some of the exhibits are in museum building at the foot of the fortress. The building was designed by her husband, Nail Çakırhan.
In addition, Professor Çambel contributed to the preservation of many archaeological sites threatened by the construction of a dam on the Ceyhan River. Thanks to her efforts, the proposed level of water in the reservoir was reduced so that it does not jeopardise the existence of these memorabilia from the distant past.
The significance of the Karatepe-Aslantaş site for the development of the knowledge about the history of Asia Minor results mainly from the inscriptions found on its territory. They form a body of bilingual texts that allowed researchers to read the Hieroglyphic Luwian script. Before the discovery of Karatepe-Aslantaş, scientists did not have enough data to understand it, because they recognised only single symbols, meaning "king" or "land". Through the discovery of bilingual texts in which the Luwian hieroglyphs are adjacent to the Phoenician language, it became possible to understand the Luwian syntax and the meaning of whole sentences.
Azatiwataya Fortress is located on a forested Karatepe Hill, which now forms a peninsula overlooking the artificial Aslantaş Lake. The fortress consists of double fortification walls that surround the area at the top of the hill. The walls are 4–6 meters high and 2–4 meters thick. They were originally reinforced with 34 defensive towers on a rectangular plan, located at regular intervals, every 18–20 meters. Only 28 of these bastions have been identified. The lower part of the wall was erected with boulders, and their upper part was constructed with sun-burned bricks. The inside of the walls was filled with rubble and soil. The current appearance of the walls in the east-western area is the result of the modern restoration. The outer walls on the side overlooking the Ceyhan River have been covered by the waters of Aslantaş Lake.
Two monumental gates, located on the northern and southern sides, lead inside the fort. There is an additional, smaller exit from the fortress area on the western side. The southern gate leads to a vast courtyard. The inside walls of two guardhouses flanking the gate were lined with orthostats. Some of these basalt blocks are covered with hieroglyphs and reliefs. They depict the scene of Azatiwas's banquet, hunting, animals and demons, people and gods. It is worth to pay attention to the style of representation of characters, reminiscent of the Egyptian style. Faces are shown from the profile and the rest of the body from the front.
Right next to the gate, a statue of the bearded Storm God, known as Baal or Tarhunzas, stands on a plinth with a double bull. The famous Karatepe Bilingual, an inscription in the Phoenician alphabet and Hieroglyphic Luwian with the same text, is also situated there.
From the south gate, a path takes visitors through the forest to the northern gate. This gate is decorated with equally beautiful reliefs. There are also two stone statues of sphinxes, mythical creatures with the head of a human and the body of a lion. The guardrooms flanking the gate also contain several reliefs and another Karatepe Bilingual. These sculptures of sphinxes and lions from Karatepe were executed in two styles, both different from imperial Hittite models. Some researchers suggested that one stylistic group of sculptures had originally decorated the 9th century BCE site of Domuztepe, situated across the river.
At the entrance to Karatepe, there is a small museum presenting both the Azatiwataya fortress exhibits as well as the objects found on the nearby Domuztepe hill. Among the Domuztepe finds, it is worth to notice large statues of lions. Near the museum, there is the bust of Professor Çambel.
The most interesting exhibits of Domuztepe are stone carvings and bas-reliefs depicting lions, sphinxes, the tree of life, and the deities of the local pantheon. The collection of Domuztepe/Kumkale exhibits also consists of pottery from different periods of history - from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The showcases contain miniature models of interiors of residential homes. Domuztepe was home to a basalt mine, and fragments of this rock are also exhibited at the museum.
The exhibition devoted to Karatepe includes information boards explaining the meaning of the Luwian hieroglyphs and the translation of particular inscriptions. There are also stone vessels, tools, and bronze weapons. The museum also displays photographs of archaeological excavations in Karatepe and the transport of stone lions from Domuztepe. For reference purposes, it is worth paying attention to the Karatepe fortress model, reproducing the original appearance of the fortifications.
The ticket to the Karatepe-Aslantaş area costs 5 TL in 2017. It entitles the visitors to see the fortress and the local museum. Karatepe-Aslantaş is open to the public every day between 9:00 am and 7:00 pm. In the winter months (from November to March), the opening hours are shorter as the site closes at 5:00 pm.
According to information boards, Karatepe-Aslantaş can be visited only in the company of a guide, but when we purchased the tickets no one of the numerous staff offered their services. They did not protest when we left without supervision.
A car park is located at the foot of the hill, so it is necessary to walk the distance of 200 meters uphill. There is a picnic area in front of the gate leading to the Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park, but picnicking in the forest in the park itself is strictly forbidden.
By car: Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park is located slightly off the main routes of this region of Turkey. The easiest way to get there is by taking the E90 motorway linking Adana with Şanliurfa. Exit the motorway in Osmaniye. Unfortunately, the route to Karatepe is poorly signposted. The distance from Osmaniye to Karatepe is approximately 26 km northward. On the way to Karatepe, it is worth visiting the ruins of an ancient city known as Castabala or Hierapolis.
By taxi: for travellers without a car, the only option to get to Karatepe is to rent a taxi in Osmaniye. A taxi trip to Karatepe, combined with a stopover at Castabala, should cost around 120 TL.
The nearest accommodation options are available in Osmaniye, 26 km to the south.