The archaeological site of Tilmen Höyük, located in the Gaziantep Province in southeastern Turkey, is an excellent example of a Bronze Age urban settlement. Even the travellers who are usually not much interested in history should be satisfied with a visit to Tilmen. It is picturesquely situated in the bend of Karasu River, among vast wetlands that are home to many species of birds. The peaks of the Amanus and Kurt mountain ranges are visible far away, on the horizon. A walk on the mound is even more pleasant because of lush vegetation, including wild olive trees and oaks. Photography enthusiasts have the opportunity of capturing the species of local flora and fauna, including friendly crabs, in addition to taking photos of the ruins.
Thanks to the intensive work of Italian and Turkish archaeologists, the visit to Tilmen Höyük is also an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the appearance of the settlement of the 2nd millennium BCE. There are numerous information boards, photographs, plans and illustrations placed along the prepared sightseeing path. It is very tempting to compare this place with another archaeological site, located in western Turkey - the famous city of Troy. Moreover, the subjective comparison of the attractiveness of these two sites seems to indicate the advantage of Tilmen Höyük. This virtually unknown place had a lot of luck, as it was not chaotically dug by amateur archaeologists such as Heinrich Schliemann. Thanks to the systematic research work, an easy-to-see and enjoy site has been created, allowing the visitors to understand the layout of the buildings and their chronology.
Geography and geology
Tilmen Höyük is located in the İslahiye Valley. This valley is a section of the tectonic fault between the ranges of Amanus and Kurt mountains, known as the East Anatolian Fault. It continues southward, as the Dead Sea Transform, through Syria, Lebanon, and Israel to the Red Sea. The main river of the İslahiye Valley is Karasu, flowing southward, towards the Amuq Plain.
The İslahiye Valley is located in the area known as the Amanus Mountains region. In ancient times, the passage through this range was via two main roads, leading through the mountain passes. The first was the Beylân Pass in the southwest and the second one was the Arsanlı Bel Pass in the northeast. These routes provided the connection between Cilicia and Syria.
The Tilmen Mound is located on the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent. It was the area where, 12,000 years ago, the first agricultural settlements in the world appeared. The first cereals grown by the ancient farmers were barley and wheat. Later, figs, olive trees, and vines were planted. The wild species of these plants can still be found today on Tilmen Höyük.
The mound rises 20 meters above the vast marshes. Karasu River flows on its eastern and northern edges. The diameter of the mound is about 225 meters. The primary building material in the settlement was basalt, widely available in the area.
Tilmen Höyük is not a natural hill as it was created by the accumulation of the material from successive settlements. The history of the mound goes back more than 5,000 years back, and the newest layer is from the 19th century CE. Professor Bahadır Alkım - the first researcher who conducted excavations in Tilmen Höyük - proposed the following chronology for the discovered layers of the settlement:
- Level A - stone foundations of a Turkish village abandoned at the end of the 19th century
- Level B - walls from the Byzantine and Late Roman periods, covered with a layer of ash
- Level C - foundations from the Roman period, under another conflagration level
- Levels Ia and Ib - two architectural phases from the Iron Age
- Levels II, IIIa, and IIIb - the second millennium BCE, i.e. the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age
- Levels from IIIc to IIIh - the Early Bronze Age
- Level IV - the Chalcolithic period
The oldest traces of human presence found in Tilmen Höyük are from the Chalcolithic period. During excavations conducted in the north-eastern area of the mound, researchers discovered numerous fragments of the Ubaid pottery. It represents the last period of prehistory in Mesopotamia, from 6200 to 3800 BCE. It was characterised by the painted monochromatic ceramics, and such fragments were found in Tilmen Höyük.
The Bronze Age in the Middle East is divided by the researchers into three periods: the Early Bronze Age (EBA, 3100-2000 BCE), the Middle Bronze Age (MBA, 2000-1600 BCE), and the Late Bronze Age (LBA, 1600-1175 BCE). Tilmen Höyük was inhabited during all of these periods, but the time of its greatest prosperity was in the Middle Bronze Age.
The clay bulla found in the area of the mound, from the 14th century BCE, was made in the Akkadian style. According to Bahadir Alkıma, its discovery allows for linking the history of Tilmen Höyük with the figure of King Naram-Sin of Akad. During one of his military campaigns, he defeated the tribes from the Amanus Mountains. In addition, the text devoted to this ruler, found in Hattusas, mentions a king from Amanus region. It was Isqippu, King of the Cedar Mountain. Since the İslahiye Valley is still famous for its forests, it seems likely that cedar trees were growing there in the past. Tilmen Höyük could have been one of the major cities or even the capital of the Kingdom of the Cedar Mountain.
Historical information about the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE in southeastern Anatolia are abundant. We owe their existence to the location of this region on the route of Assyrian merchants. They travelled from Ashur to Kaneš, trading cloth and tin imported from Assyria for silver and copper mined in Asia Minor. The records found in the archives of the Assyrian merchant colony in Kaneš provided valuable insights into the independent kingdoms of southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria.
Around 1780 BC, Anumkhirbi, King of Khashum, Zalwar, and Mama, sent a letter to Warshama, the King of Kaneš. He described the political crisis in the region. Anumkhirbi is also mentioned in texts from Mari, the archaeological site of Tall Hariri in Syria. Nicolò Marchetti, the head of Tilmen Höyük excavations in the first decade of the 21st century, hypothesised that the city of Khashum, which was ruled by King Anumkhirbi, is represented by the Tilmen mound. Unfortunately, no written evidence has been found so far to confirm this theory.
Bahadir Alkım, in turn, hypothesised that Tilmen Höyük was the capital of one of the twenty small states that together formed the kingdom of Yamhad. It was the most powerful state in Syria, with the capital in Halab, the present-day Aleppo. It was founded in the late 19th century BCE by Semitic Canaanites. The domination of Yamhad over northern Syria continued until the invasion of Hittites in the mid-17th century BCE. When the Hittite king Hattusili I invaded this area, the settlement in Tilmen Höyük was destroyed by fire.
The settlement was rebuilt and flourished again from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. It was divided into a citadel and a lower city. In the lower city, surrounded by a line of fortifications, there were craft districts and a temple. The city was accessed through a gate decorated with carved lions. A monumental staircase led into the inner citadel. The royal palace (building A), Temple E and Fortress H stood in its area. There are some traces that suggest the existence of the second palace (Building C). The buildings and city walls in Tilmen Höyük were erected from basalt blocks. Rectangular basalt blocks were also laid along the interior walls of many buildings as orthostats.
The massive Cyclopean walls surrounding Tilmen Höyük were erected at the turn of the 2nd and the 1st millennium BCE. The eastern gate and the defensive tower were built with the technique similar to the one used by the Hittites in the fortifications from the imperial period, for example in Hattusas or Alacahöyük. The gate was guarded two stone lions, preserved in very poor condition. One of them was later used as a pavement block.
The Iron Age is represented relatively poorly in Tilmen because its later inhabitants used the material from this layer to erect their buildings. The researchers have managed to identify six circular storage buildings from this period. There are also fragments of ceramics dating back to the 8th century BCE.
Until the 1950s, the Amanus Mountains region remained virtually unexplored by archaeologists. At the end of the 19th century, the German research expedition led by Felix von Luschan carried out excavations in Zincirli i.e. the ancient Sam'al. In their reports, the researchers mentioned the existence of just five other archaeological sites in the region. They were Coba (Sakçagözü), Gerçin, Karabulu, Elbistan Höyük, and Ördekburnu. The British archaeological expedition that worked on the Sakkagözü Plain between 1908 and 1911 added to this brief list four other mounds: Songurus, Keferdiz, Kuskun, and Karahöyük.
In 1955, Professor Uluğ Bahadır Alkım from the University of Istanbul started a research project in the İslahiye Valley. Initially, he worked mainly in the Hittite sculpture workshop in Yesemek. However, from 1958, extensive surveys were conducted in the central area of the Amanus Range and on the small plains below the eastern slopes of these mountains. In the period from 1958 to 1960, researchers systematically investigated six such plains between the ranges of Amanus and Kurt.
As a result, archaeologists identified over forty archaeological sites from different periods of antiquity. Some of them were mounds i.e. artificial hills formed by successive layers of a settlement. Others were the sites with ruins visible above the surface of the earth. The researchers collected fragments of ceramics at these sites and dated them on the basis of the style of their decoration and technique. In this way, it was determined that many of the archaeological sites dated back to the 3rd and 1st millennium BCE, and some - to the 2nd millennium BCE. It is worth mentioning that now archaeologists know about over 50 archaeological sites worthy of investigation in the İslahiye Valley area.
The next step in the research of the region was an attempt to establish the stratigraphy of these sites and reconstruct the history of settlement and cultural patterns in this part of Amanus region. Therefore it was necessary to carry out systematic excavation works. The researchers selected three sites for this purpose: Tilmen Höyük, Gedikli (Karahöyük), and Kırışkal. In addition, the work continued in Yesemek.
Tilmen Höyük excavations began in 1959 under the auspices of the Istanbul University, the Turkish Historical Society, and the Ministry of Culture, with Bahadır Alkım as the director. The excavations lasted until 1972, with a break between 1964 and 1967, when Bahadır Alkım was conducting research in Gedikli-Karahöyük. The aim of the work at Karahöyük was to confirm the chronology of the layers of the settlement discovered in Tilmen Höyük.
During the first archaeological campaign in Tilmen Höyük, four settlement layers were uncovered, with the oldest one dating back to the late Copper Age. The most important discovery was a town from the 19th century BCE with the magnificent royal palace. Many interesting small objects were also found, including a Syrian-style bulla from the 18th century BCE and flat female figurines (so-called idols) from the Early Bronze Age.
After a 30-year break, the work at Tilmen Höyük was resumed by Professor Refik Duru. He was Bahadir Alkım's assistant during the 1960s campaign. In 2002, he started preliminary restoration works at the Tilmen mound. The research work intensified the following year when a research consortium was established, with Nicolò Marchetti from the University of Bologna as the leader. Initially, there was a collaboration project with the Gaziantep Museum only. In subsequent years, archaeological and restoration projects in Tilmen Höyük were supported by other research institutions, including the Istanbul University, the University of Genoa, the Marmara University of Istanbul, and the Çukurova University of Adana.
During the campaigns, extensive excavation and renovation works were carried out. The main area of research interest was the Middle Bronze Age. The studies also confirmed the existence of human settlements on the Tilmen Mound during the Late Bronze Age, as well as Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.
As a result, the Tilmen Höyük Archaeological and Environmental Park was created. The site was well prepared for visitors. A sightseeing path was established, with bridges, walkways, and many information boards along the way. There was also a parking lot and a ticket office.
The project was completed in 2008. Since then Tilmen Höyük Park has fallen into oblivion. During our visit in 2013, we found that some of the bridges and walkways had collapsed, making access to the site difficult. One could see the partially excavated fragments of the ancient settlement, covered with tarpaulins and abandoned some years earlier.
Many of the findings from Tilmen Höyük are currently in the Gaziantep Archaeological Museum tr. Gaziantep Arkeoloji Müzesi). This venue is located in the city centre, at the crossroad of Kamil Ocak Caddesi and İstasyon Caddesi.
When visiting Tilmen Höyük, it is best to follow the prepared sightseeing route. It makes a loop and allows visitors to see the most impressive structures discovered on the site. There is also one additional path, with a higher difficulty level. It leads to the so-called Area L.
Most of the structures currently visible in the area of the Tilmen Mound date back to the 2nd millennium BCE. It was the period of the biggest prosperity of the settlement. The sightseeing tour starts at the architectural complex of the Main City Gate. It consists of an outer, smaller gate (K-6), just above the river, and the main gate. The smaller gate was guarded by two basalt lions. It is possible to see one of them nearby. These sculptures are the earliest stone guardian lions from this region known to the researchers. In later times, the statues of lions guarded the gates in many settlements, for example in Hattussas. The main gate (K-1) was connected by walls with a smaller gate. At its sides stood two massive towers, delimiting a chamber with double doors. Similar constructions are known from nearby Alalakh or Ebla in Syria.
The lower town was connected to the acropolis by the Great Staircase made of stone. These stairs ran up through three levels of buildings. On the left side of these stairs, a section of the drainage system is visible. The system of stone pipes drained rainwater from the mound, running under the floors of the buildings and through the walls.
There was a gate at the top of the monumental staircase. Behind it, the road turns left, next to the guardhouse. From this point, a wide, stone-paved street leads to Residence K-5, then turns right, going uphill to the palace.
Residence K-5 was an important residential home in the acropolis area. It has only been partially preserved because it was badly damaged by fire and erosion. It consisted of buildings that surrounded three courtyards. The smallest of them led to a hall with a staircase as the building had the second floor. The other two courtyards were the working areas with an oven, a grinding installation and two large food containers. The buildings were erected on stone foundations, and the walls were made of mudbricks.
The remains of Residence C stand in the neighbourhood. It was erected on the acropolis after the destruction of the royal palace. It consisted of three parallel wings and also had the second floor. Outside walls are decorated with basalt orthostats. The residence stands at an earlier underground tomb from the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE.
The most important building in Tilmen Höyük is the huge Royal Palace erected around 1800 BCE. The researchers assume that it was the residence of the Tilmen Höyük kings, including the famous Anumkhirbi and later rulers, the vassals of Yamhad. Unfortunately, a half of this monumental building has been preserved only to the foundations level. It was erected according to a technique typical for the palaces of this period, with mudbricks. The walls were then reinforced with flat basalt slabs - orthostats. The building also had an upper storey.
In front of the palace, there was an open square, lined with stones and equipped with a drainage system. The palace gate is strikingly similar to the palace gate of Alalakh. It leads to the reception hall and also has a monumental staircase.
The Throne Room is located in the centre of the palace. It is the largest room in its area, measuring 16.5 by 9 meters. On one of the shorter walls, there is a monumental buttress, erected from orthostats larger than others in this building. It marked the place where the royal throne stood. From the throne room, the doors led to a three-room apartment. Based on an analogy with the palace in Alalakh, the researchers assume that this could be an archive. Unfortunately, only one document was found in the Tilmen Höyük palace - a bulla with the inscription "compensation payment".
In the north-western corner of the royal palace, there is an area designated by archaeologists as Area G. In this place, in the 1960s, the researchers conducted survey excavations. They reached the layers of the late Copper Age, that is the 4th millennium BCE. The upper, later layers identified there originate from the Early Bronze Age. They suggest that Tilmen Höyük settlement acquired an urban character in this period. At the beginning of the 21st century, the layers from the Middle and Late Bronze Age and from the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods were examined in the same area.
To the south of the throne room are the remains of the mighty Fortress H. It protected the south-eastern corner of the acropolis, and its walls were nearly 3 meters wide. This building, on a square layout, connects with the defensive walls. It consisted of two small and two large rooms. Interestingly, these rooms did not have doors, so most likely they were accessed via a wooden staircase from the upper storey. The height of the fortress was at least 12 meters. After the destruction of the settlement at the turn of the 17th and 16th centuries BCE, this building served as a private mansion.
The temple of the ruling dynasty was most likely located near the palace, as was the case in Kaneš or Alalakh. The researchers identify it with Building E. Its traces are preserved in the south-western part of the palace complex. The origins of this building date back to 2000 BCE, but it was rebuilt around 1800 BCC. After the destruction of the palace around 1600 BCE, Building E was rebuilt on a smaller scale and used until around 1400 BCE. In the Hellenistic and Roman times, furnaces were installed in this building. The resulting damage causes many difficulties in interpreting the meaning of this structure, and its role as a temple is attributed only because of the analogies with other archaeological sites.
An alternative sightseeing path starts in the vicinity of the royal palace. It leads to the north, to the so-called Area L. On the way, it is possible to admire lush vegetation, including oaks and wild barley.
In Area L, the researchers obtained the most visible sequence of settlement layers from the Middle Bronze Age in Tilmen Höyük. The well-visible main building had three main building phases, the oldest of which dates back to 2000 BCE. A rich collection of undamaged vases was found in this layer. The second and third phases, covering the remainder of the Middle Bronze Age, provided excellent examples of the development of Syro-Cilician ceramics. The long trench connects the main building to the northern casemates. In the north direction runs a wide street from the 2nd millennium BCE, paved with pebbles and fragments of ceramics. There is also a residential building from the Hellenistic period visible in this area.
From Area L it is possible to take an alternate route east to the exit. Another branch of this route leads to the north and then to the west, connecting with the main route in the vicinity of the K-2 mansion and the outer casemates.
Following the main sightseeing tour, the visitors walk from the royal palace to Temple M in the north-west. Temple M is a building erected of huge stones, which on the back wall were matched in the style resembling the cyclopean walls of Mycenae. The temple plan represents the classic old-Syrian style: the building faces south, and its front is adorned with two towers that form the vestibule. A staircase was added to one of these towers to allow access to the roof, where religious ceremonies were held.
However, the primary place where such ceremonies were organised was the cella of the temple. A rounded stone basin on high foot was found there, suggesting purification rites. The most interesting find from this room is a stone stele, dated to 1700-1600 BCE. It depicts the storm god and a praying dignitary. The researchers concluded that it was not the king himself because several seals of that period represent the ruler in the company of a similarly dressed official.
The holy quarter of this temple had an entrance on the west side. Most likely, it was linked to the royal palace with the procession street. On the western side of this district, foundry tools and moulds were found, indicating metallurgical activities.
From the temple, the tour route leads to the north-west, to the Postern K-3 It is one of the side gates in the defensive walls surrounding the mound. This narrow room was erected between two casemates in the western fortifications. It had stairs leading to the roof. In this area, wild fig trees and vines still grow.
Following the path to the north, the visitors reach further fortifications in Tilmen Höyük. These are Fortresses P and P2. The western fortifications of the lower town were erected on a gentle slope towards the river. To allow for the construction of defensive walls here, the slope was transformed into artificial terraces, strengthened with layers of huge boulders.
Fortress P is the main defensive tower, standing where the fortifications turn eastwards, towards the acropolis. It has the same plan as the previously presented Fortress H near the royal palace. The smaller Fortress P2 is located slightly further to the south. It has two rooms, and it is known that it also had stairs leading to the roof.
At Fortress P, the path turns east, returning to the starting point of the tour. On the way, it is possible to see the Northern Casemates. It was a system of fortifications of the lower city, composed of separate blocks with rooms, the back wall of which represented the real defensive wall. Researchers have identified four types of such buildings, depending on their connection to one another in larger systems.
The key element of the fortification system was the point where the defensive walls of the lower city and the acropolis walls intersected. This place is located in the north-eastern sector of the lower town. Unfortunately, the exceptionally mighty casemates that were erected there were lost when an artificial lake was created in the neighbourhood. Currently, there is only one block with three rooms above the water surface.
Postern K-2 is the second side gate in Tilmen Höyük. It led to the lower city. From its dimensions, it can be concluded that it only served the pedestrians, because neither the carts nor the loaded donkeys would be able to squeeze through it. Postern K-2 is the last point of a visit in Tilmen Höyük. The exiting from the archaeological site is located to the east of it.
In addition to the bibliography available at the bottom of this text, excellent information source about Tilmen Höyük are the information boards located in this archaeological site. Their authors are Nicolò Marchetti, B. Panciroli, P. Rossi, M. Speranza, S.F. Musso, G. Franco, and C. Davite.
Despite the seriously sounding name - the Tilmen Höyük Archaeological and Environmental Park - the place is now deserted and is rapidly falling into oblivion. Even in 2013, there was no need to purchase admission tickets, nor were there official opening hours.
It is worth visiting Tilmen Höyük on the way to Yesemek. It lies 16 km to the south of Tilmen Höyük.
The only real option to get to Tilmen Höyük is by car or taxi. If you are renting a taxi, the final price of the service must be set before commencing the tour. Allegedly, local travel agencies are organising trips to Tilmen Höyük, but now their offer seems unrealistic, due to the political situation in the region and to the insufficient number of tourists.
By car: take Ömer Seyfettin street from İslahiye to the east. The directions are marked with brown signposts. The distance is 8.5 km.
The wide selection of accommodation options is available in Gaziantep. There is also a Teacher's House in the nearby town of İslahiye.