Yesemek quarry and workshop complex is truly a unique place on a global scale. In the old days, it served as a quarry and a workshop of monumental sculptures that decorated the Hittite sanctuaries in the south-eastern Anatolia. Today, it is the largest place of its kind, known to researchers of the Middle East. The travellers who arrive there can admire hundreds of Hittite sculptures in various stages of completion.
It is now known that the quarries in Yesemek were first used during the period of the Hittite Empire that is between the 14th and the 12th century BCE. It was most probably opened by Suppiluliuma I, the Hittite Emperor who reigned from 1380 to 1345 BCE. At the time, the workshop was run by the Hurrian craftsmen. The reason Yesemek was chosen as the location of the quarry was its proximity to dolerite deposits. Dolerite is a volcanic rock with a composition similar to basalt, but coarser. This rock found nearby Yesemek has attractive colours of grey and purple, and is ideal for carving.
Yesemek quarries were also active in the times of neo-Hittite states, from the 9th to the 8th century BCE. It this later period, Yesemek belonged to the kingdom of Sam'al and the craftsmen were joined by the Arameans. The quarry was closed when the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Sam'al. They conquerors took all the artisans hostage and abandoned the local quarry and workshops.
Yesemek is situated on a hillside, now known as Aslanlıtepe i.e. the Lions Hill. Near the summit, there are the remains of quarries, where dolerite was obtained, and below - the workshops of sculptors. Finished sculptures were transported to the nearby sanctuaries and cities. Researchers have been intrigued by the lack of sculptors' tools in Yesemek. They proposed a theory to explain this puzzle that suggests the statues were transported in an unfinished state to their destinations, and there they were refined with the details.
The workshop in Yesemek was discovered by the Austrian anthropologist and archaeologist Felix von Luschan in the 90s of the 19th century. Von Luschan made numerous expeditions in the Middle East. He accompanied many other travellers, including Karol Lanckoroński during his expedition to Pamphylia and Pisidia. He also joined the journey of Carl Humann to study on the peak of Mount Nemrut. In 1888, he discovered the ruins of the city known as Sam'al, the capital of the small, neo-Hittite kingdom. It was hidden inside Zincirli Höyük mound. Von Luschan, along with Robert Koldewey, carefully excavated and studied this mound on behalf of the German Oriental Society. During these excavations, they discovered the nearby workshop in Yesemek, but they did not start digging there.
The first systematic excavations in Yesemek were made in the years 1958-1961, by Professor Bahadır Alkım. His team identified about 200 monumental, unfinished statues. The second round of work was carried out in the years 1988-1991, under the direction of İlhan Temizsoy. This time, even more sculptures were discovered. Currently, there are over 300 statues visible, and the researchers believe that many more pieces are still underground, waiting to be excavated.
During a visit to Yesemek, the visitors are most surprised by the huge, almost industrial scale of the entire project. The vast area and the overwhelming number of sculptures give us an excellent idea of the power of the Hittite where there was the need for so many decorative statues.
The site of Yesemek has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List since 2012. The reason it was registered there is a wealth of information that investigators obtained thanks to work carried out in Yesemek. They recognised the process of processing massive stone blocks that weighed from 500 kg to 15 tonnes. In addition, Yesemek is the largest ancient sculpture workshop in the Middle East, and sculptures made there were not only the works of art, but also represented the religious beliefs of this period of the history of the region.
More recently (since 2005), Yesemek has been an open-air museum. The necessary work has been done on behalf of the Archaeological Museum in Gaziantep. The area prepared for visitors covers only the lower part of the slope. There are alleys with the examples of the most impressive statues. Most of them show lions, sphinxes, and bearded gods of the mountains. They were to be used as pillars of the city and fortress gates. The attention of visitors is attracted to the statue of a man-bear, and a relief with a chariot.
However, do not limit yourself to visiting this part of Yesemek. The local guardian will show you a path leading up the hill. There, on a vast meadow, lie hundreds of monumental sculptures, still partially buried in the ground. Strolling around this meadow is the highlight of the visit to Yesemek. The sculptures depict monumental gate lions, winged lions, sphinxes of different kinds, mountain god reliefs, and many architectural pieces.
Admission to Yesemek is free of charge, but there is the possibility of buying information materials offered by a guardian at a reasonable price. He is a very kind and warm-hearted person who shows the most impressive sculptures and also starts a small, artificial waterfall that adds even more charming ambience to the site. Unfortunately, he only speaks Turkish, which somewhat limits the ability to understand his story and his knowledge that is impressive. He knows the site inside out as he participated in the organisation of the Yesemek open-air museum.
Opposite Yesemek, there is another hill with a viewing platform that enables to see Yesemek in all its glory. There is also an art exhibition prepared by the students who created sculptures inspired by the original monuments of Yesemek.
When visiting Yesemek, make sure not to miss the nearby archaeological site of Tilmen Höyük, situated on the way from İslahiye to Yesemek.
The findings from the nearby site of Zincirli Höyük, including ready-made sculptures from Yesemek, are on display in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.
The site is located in the vicinity of Yesemek village, about 23 km south-east of the city of İslahiye.
By public transport: there are regular minibuses from Gaziantep to İslahiye. There is a minibus from İslahiye to Yesemek, but it may be necessary to hire a taxi in Yesemek to get back.
By taxi: it is possible to hire a taxi in İslahiye to get to Yesemek, with an additional stop at Tilmen Höyük on the way.
By car: there is a road from İslahiye to Yesemek, going in the south-eastern direction. Just 8 km from İslahiye, there is Tilmen Höyük mound, and then the road takes you through the villages of Karapolat and Akınyolu to Yesemek.
The nearest accommodation options are in İslahiye. A much wider hotel base is available in Gaziantep and Adana.