Archaeology in Turkey - 2020 in review

2020 was the year of Patara archaeological site, photo (c) Michel Gybels
2020 was the year of Patara archaeological site, photo (c) Michel Gybels

2020 was the year lived under the shadow of the world pandemic and many major plans failed to come into fruition. The same can be said about the situation in Turkish archaeology and travel industry. While some of the excavation projects were continued, others came to a halt as the foreign archaeological teams did not manage to arrive to Turkey. This was the situation, for instance, in Didyma and Ephesus.

On the other hand, the changed realities of travel encouraged the development of virtual tours of archaeological sites and museums. In the case of Turkey, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism established Sanal Muze website that offers a 3D experience of some of the best-known state-run archaeological sites and museums. Since its launch, the project has been systematically expanded and now offers the tours of 33 locations, described in our article. So far, around 11.5 million people visited the museums and historical sites in Turkey through the government's digital platform.

The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported that more than 6,000 artifacts found during excavations and research in 2020 were included in the museum inventories. This year, 118 Turkish and 21 foreign excavations were carried out in Anatolia, plus 44 studies under the direction of the Museum Directorates.

When it comes to the number of visitors to Turkey's most important sights and archaological sites, there was a great drop compared to 2019, due to the imposed travel restrictions. For instance, in 2020, the Hierapolis-Pamukkale UNESCO World Heritage Site was visited by 625 thousand guests, in contrast to 2.6 million people who had come there in 2019.

While 2019 was the year of Göbeklitepe, 2020 brought the sensational discoveries that may overshadow the fame of this site, known as "the world's first temple". Karahantepe is another archaeological site in Şanlıurfa Province and the recent evidence suggests it may be older than Göbekli Tepe. Archaeologists have also uncovered T-shaped stele there. According to Daily Sabah, "the excavations have uncovered 250 obelisks featuring animal figures to date."

What made the year 2020 surprising was the fact that again no new archaeological site from the area of Turkey was inscribed into UNESCO World Heritage List. This must seem astonishing as there are now 83 such sites awaiting on the Tentative List to be promoted to the status of the World Heritage Site. In 2020, five new entries were added to this waiting room: historical town of Beypazarı in Ankara Province, the historical harbour city of Izmir on the Aegean coast, Karatepe-Arslantaş archaeological site in Osmaniye Province, Koramaz Valley in Kayseri Province, and the Zerzevan Castle and Mithraeum in Diyarbakır Province. Moreover, the list of Fortifications on Genoese Trade Routes from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, first registered in 2013 was extended by the addition of two places: Güvercinada Fortress in Kuşadası and Çeşme Fortress.

Moreover, in 2020, the Art of Miniature was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as the shared heritage of Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Another such addition was the traditional intelligence and strategy game, known as Togyzqumalaq, Toguz Korgool, or Mangala/Göçürme, and added by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.

The year 2020 will be most possibly remembered as the year when two major monuments of the Byzantine architecture of Constantinople were turned into mosques. These are Hagia Sophia and Chora Church, both included into the Historic Areas of Istanbul list protected by UNESCO's World Heritage Status. First, on the 10th of July 2020, the decision of the Council of Ministers to transform the Hagia Sophia into a museum was cancelled by the Council of State, decreeing that Hagia Sophia can be used only as a mosque. Despite secular and global criticism, President Erdoğan signed a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia's museum status, reverting it to a mosque, now called the Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque. This change shook the international community and UNESCO made the following statement: "UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved".

Then, on Friday the 30th of October 2020, Muslim prayers were held for the first time after 72 years in the former Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora of Constantinople, now called the Kariye Mosque. This conversion also changed the status of the museum into the mosque and provoked another wave of criticism from the Greek Orthodox and other Christian communities in Turkey and abroad. As of December 2020, UNESCO is still conducting a review of "the potential implications of this change in status, and their impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. This review, which covers several components of the property Historic Areas of Istanbul, in particular Hagia Sophia and Chora, is still ongoing." Moreover, the results of the ongoing reviews will be submitted to the World Heritage Committee at its next session, scheduled for June/July 2021.

The year 2020 was officially announced to be the year of Patara. This ancient town is best known as the birthplace of St. Nicholas, who lived most of his life in the nearby town of Myra. What happened in Patara over this year? The archaeologists led by Havva Işkan Işık unearthed a kitchen and a "women's room," believed to be 2,400 years old and an inscription honouring the Roman senator Tiberius Claudius Flavianus Titianus Celer. The team launched many important restoration projects in partnership with the Culture and Tourism Ministry and the Antalya Governorship, including the works at the theatre and the colonnaded street. Moreover, the restoration of Patara Nero Lighthouse, which was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Nero in 54 CE as a "prestige project" in Patara, began in August.

Turkish Archaeological News published three books in 2020. The first one was "The Secrets of Ephesus". The aim of this book is not only to take the visitors from one location to another, but also to provide them with more information and question the truth of some commonly repeated statements. Was the small building on Curetes Street really the Temple of Hadrian? Did St. John write the Book of Revelation during his stay in Ephesus? Are the statues adorning the Library of Celsus the portraits of the four virtues of the founder? Who lived in the famous Terrace Houses? Finally, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, live her final years in the city?

The second published book was "The Secrets of Troy", taking its readers to the site where the legendary Trojan War was supposed to take place. This guidebook offers a tour of the archaeological site that is, admittedly, quite difficult to understand with its multiple layers. All significant locations are described in great detail to add more satisfaction to the experience. Finally, the newly opened Troy Museum, located not far from the site, has been thoroughly presented in this book, and you might want to visit it before taking a tour of the site.

"The Secrets of Pamukkale and Hierapolis" guidebook takes us to the glistening snow-white travertine terraces of Pamukkale and the extensive ruins of the ancient city known as Hierapolis. By using this book as a handy travel guide, travellers are able to tour the whole site and see all the spectacular sights, such as a grand Roman theatre, a splendid Gate of Domitian, and a spacious agora. Moreover, the book takes them to the less-known but equally fascinating structures related with the cult of St. Philip the Apostle, who, according to one legend was martyred by beheading in the city of Hierapolis.

Finally, let us also take a look at the most important archaeological discoveries in monthly reviews for 2020. For more details, please check out section 2020 in Turkish archaeology.

January of 2020 was a rather quiet month for the archaeologists in Turkey. Some interesting discoveries were made, such as ancient baby bottles dating back to 2500 BCE found during excavations at Norik Mound in eastern Bingöl province or an intricate stone floor that indicates that Usakli Hoyuk may have been the lost Hittite city of Zippalanda. The real bomb was only dropped at the end of the month when an amazing find was published: a Polish researcher discovered a human-like figurine in one of the oldest cities in the world, Çatalhöyük in Turkey. This is the first such object made of bone known from this place.

Perhaps the most thrilling news in February of 2020 was the discovery announced by the archaeologists from the Oriental Institute in Chicago. They have discovered a lost ancient kingdom dating to 1400 BCE to 600 BCE which may have defeated Phrygia, the kingdom ruled by King Midas, in battle. Other projects concerned the renovations and reconstructions, for instance within a project titled the Roman Theater and Archaeology Park in Ankara. According to a written statement made by the municipality, works have been initiated to unearth the Roman Theater, which is one of the historical heritages in the Turkish capital.

For well-known reasons, March of 2020 was a slow month in many ways, as the world almost stopped. The archaeological activities were also very limited in the past month, with the most impressive discovery announced by Italian archaeologist Vittoria Dall'Armellina, who discovered that a mislabelled sword in the Venetian Saint Lazarus Monastery is actually 5,000 years old. The chemical composition of the sword matches that of other specimens found in the Royal Palace of Arslantepe, an archaeological site in Eastern Anatolia, and the sword found in the Tokat Museum in Turkey, originating in the Sivas region. Their shapes are also remarkably similar.

Possibly the biggest discovery of April of 2020 was made by Israeli archaeologists who had found a hidden pattern at Göbekli Tepe - an equilateral triangle, underlying the entire architectural plan of the complex. Moreover, five new entries of the sites from Turkey were made into UNESCO Tentative List, for better or worse, as it has been demonstrated in our publication. Meanwhile, one of the most precious historical heritage sites in the country - Hasankeyf - continued to disappear under the waters of Tigris River. The archaeologist went literally underground in Safranbolu and Kayseri where underground tunnels and rooms had been found. Finally, a rather sensational discovery was made in the Ottoman archives, revealing the evidence of the first person ever killed by a meteorite.

May of 2020 was the month of many restoration projects. The restoration of the 800-year-old Obruk Han in Konya Province, built by the Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I, was continued. Meanwhile, restoration work was resumed on the historical Sümela Monastery, in the northern Trabzon province. The restoration work had been suspended due to adverse weather conditions and as part of measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, Mor Kiryakus Monastery, built on a 2,500 square meter area in Batman in the 5th century, is planned to be restored in three stages. Finally, it was announced that a historical clock tower in Antalya, one of the landmarks of the touristic Mediterranean province, will return to its original state after undergoing restoration.

June of 2020 saw a gradual revival of cultural tourism in Turkey. Archaeological sites, such as Sagalassos and Ephesus as well as Sümela Monastery, were re-opened, even if on a limited scale. Moreover, several restoration projects were announced, including the beautiful and unique theatre-stadium complex in Aizanoi.

July of 2020 was marked as the month when one of the most precious world heritage assets of Turkey, the former church of Hagia Sophia, was transformed from the museum to the mosque. This highly controversial political move causing an outcry on both domestic and international forums, and raised questions about the future of the building and its wonderful frescoes and mosaics. In other news, the archaeological discoveries in Pergamon pushed back the history of the city by several centuries while excavations resumed in Oylum Höyük on the Syrian border. Finally, Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea region reopened after restoration.

August of 2020 brought the conversion of yet another museum (and previously a historical Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora) into a mosque in Turkey's biggest city, Istanbul. The archaeological excavations revealed a Byzantine granary in the ancient city of Amorium and a statue in Perge, believed to have belonged to a female benefactor from one of the aristocratic families of this ancient city. Moreover, the excavation teams reached the inner walls of a memorial tomb of the ancient Greek didactic poet Aratus in Soli (Pompeiopolis) and a Roman bathhouse and gymnasium in Smyrna.

September of 2020 brought some amazing archaeological discoveries from the area of Turkey. The excavations continued at Hadrian's Temple in Kyzikos, in the ancient city of Satala, and Dara in the southeastern province of Mardin where a water cistern was discovered. Moreover, 2,000-year-old rock tombs were found in the Kizilkoyun Necropolis area of Şanlıurfa while a terracotta mask dating back nearly 2,400 years was found during the excavations in Daskyleion. Sadly, the installation of air conditioners on the walls of the 1300-year-old Hirami Ahmed Pasha mosque in Istanbul rose much controversy and bad news reached us from Nilüfer district of the northwestern province of Bursa where St. Georgios Church collapsed down due to lack of care for the last seven years.

October of 2020 brought many archaeological discoveries in the area of Turkey, as an ancient temple dating back to the Stone Age, between 7,000 and 12,000 years ago, was found at Kahin Tepe while the memorial tomb of the famous Greek astronomer and poet Aratus was excavated at Soli (Pompeiopolis). Moreover, the sensational discovery of a Minoan-era harbour was announced in Didim and the earliest heating system of southern Anatolia was found in heart of Diyarbakır (ancient Amida).

November of 2020 was definitely a month of many fascinating archaeological finds in the area of Turkey. Certainly, the most attention was drawn to the spectacular works at Karahan Tepe in Şanlıurfa Province where the discovered settlement that may be older than the prehistoric site of Göbeklitepe. However, many more great artefacts were found, including a bronze statue weighing 300 kg, drawn out of the water by fishermen from Marmaris. Meanwhile, burial chambers were found in Amida Mound situated at the heart of Diyarbakır along with a 1,800-year-old sewer system. Finally, the police forces were busy catching 2428 pieces of historical artefacts in Adana and uncovering an illegal dig at Aphrodisias where two 2,500-year-old sarcophagi were unearthed.

In December 2020, archaeologists continued the works in ancient Prusias ad Hypium where the grave of a baby and a number of statues were found. The ongoing restoration works at the Topkapı Palace revealed decorations with simurg and dragon motifs. Moreover, the preparations began for the 3,000-year-old Şamran Irrigation Channel, which was built during the Urartu Kingdom period, to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry brought back a statue of Kybele, pre-historic goddess of fertility, which was smuggled to Israel in 1960s and sold there.

The year 2021 was announced as the year of the Turkish national anthem. In 2021, all public institutions will hold events explaining the meaning of the Istiklal Marsi, or Independence March, and the importance of the War of Independence, as well as commemorating the national anthem's writer, Mehmet Akif Ersoy.