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Yazilikaya, Hittite sanctuary and astronomical observatory

Yazılıkaya: 3200-Year-Old Temple Reflects Hittite Views on Time and the Cosmos


Yazılıkaya is a 3,200-year-old building that was known to have been central in religious ceremonies in the capital city of the ancient Hittite Empire. But according to a team of researchers, it might have also served as a working calendar, a sacred clock, and a symbolic reflection of the cosmos.

In Turkish, Yazılıkaya means “inscribed rock" and while this expansive Bronze Age site with its incredible incised carvings has been studied for several decades, a team of experts now proposes that it was a functional tool serving as a time keeping device. A massive 3D shadow-clock, if you will. Researchers have also just published an article in the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, in which they explore the cosmic symbolism present at the site.

French archaeologist Charles Texier explored this site in 1834 and it is known that a few decades before the fall of the Hittite Kingdom (around 1190 BC), stonemasons created around 100 reliefs of people, animals, and mythical chimeras in the rock massif’s two natural courtyards. Charles Texier’s drawings of these carvings gripped the imaginations of people in central Europe as such distinctive art was never expected to have emerged from remote central Anatolia.

Main scene of the Hittite sanctuary of Yazilikaya, Central Turkey, drawn by Charles Texier. (Kpisimon / Public Domain)

Main scene of the Hittite sanctuary of Yazilikaya, Central Turkey, drawn by Charles Texier. (Public Domain)

New Astronomical Horizons

In 2019, Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, an international non-profit foundation, and his colleague Rita Gautschy from the University of Basel, published a research paper, the gist of which is published on Popular-Archaeology, which states that in 1990 Juan Antonio Belmonte proposed that 12 uniform male deities discovered in Chamber B corresponded with the 12 lunar months in a solar year . Also, American astronomer Edwin C. Krupp recognized “signs of celestial elements” and a “cosmic narrative” attempting “to keep track of something”.

Following these clues, the scientists read numerous scientific treatises on Hittite religion and Babylonian astronomy and discovered “more than 33,000 documents and fragments” in Hattuša, “at least 50 deal with astronomical or astrological subjects” which they believe the Hittites received from Mesopotamian astronomer -priests some 3000 years ago.

Relief in the ancient astronomical observatory. (Valery Rokhin /Adobe Stock)

A particular carving, they believe, depicts the 30 days of a month and they propose that ancient people marked beneath the first of the 30 deities at the start of the month and then moved backwards to keep track of time passing time. Expanding on their astronomical research they then observed that the Hittite structures were orientated and aligned to mark the solar solstice and equinox events.

Solstice Walls Gates of Light

“Soon we realized that the north wall of the last building (IV), to be constructed at Yazılıkaya, was aligned with the sunset at winter solstice” said Eberhard Zangger, and this claim was based on the “oblique arrangement of the temple buildings, erected during at least three distinct construction phases”. The earliest building, according to the researchers, “was oriented to the summer solstice” and they found that the most recent building was orientated “to the winter solstice”.

The summer solstice would have brought the king and his direct family, their high-priests (and their entourage) to the temple court in the afternoon where they would have assembled, ritually, while the gatehouse provided a framed entrance for the sun goddess Arinna to enter the sacred area. Around sunset, her rays would have spilled through the gatehouse illuminating what the scientist think would have been “a gold-plated statue of the goddess”. And they suggest that in the second chamber would have been an illuminated effigy of the Great King, symbolically uniting with the sun goddess, receiving her earthly powers of fertility and growth, as the kings destiny was inseparable from the destiny of the land and the people.

Rock carving in Chamber B of the ancient astronomical observatory, depicting god and king. (trofotodesign /Adobe Stock)

Divine Feminine Powers of Fertility

While the scientists had found ‘plausible’ explanations for the arrangement of deities on the western side of Chamber A, they admit to having been “clueless as to the function of the climactic scene and the procession of female deities on the chamber’s eastern side”. They closed in on a procession of “19 female deities” and a column of natural stone separating “a subset of eight of the female figures”. It will already be obvious to the astronomers and astrologers out there that ‘nineteen’ and ‘eight’ years synchronize solar years and lunar months, cycles known by ancient Greek astronomers as octaeteris and enneadecaeteris.

Knowing that after 19 solar years (235 lunar months, or 6,940 days) the sun and moon unite in the same constellation in the night sky, the scientists calculated that the female deities must symbolize solar years. In conclusion the scientists say “Yazılıkaya appears to be the place where the Hittite priests kept their calendar” and by recording the day, month, and year with simple moving markers (like they did at Stonehenge in England); the New Year, the solstices and the equinoxes could all be calculated to determine the most important agricultural, civic, and ritual dates of the year.

And one of the greatest inspirations for recording time was to correctly pin down festival days, for the Hittites never missed a chance to honor any of their countless deities, and according to Zangger “the priests had the challenge of setting the dates for as many as 165 festivals per year”.

Yazılıkaya site of the ancient astronomical observatory. (nejdetduzen /Adobe Stock)

Digging Deeper

Now, Zangger, Gautschy, and their colleagues have proposed that the Hittite complex is also a representation of the cosmos. In their paper in the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology they write that “the sanctuary in its entirety represents a symbolic image of the cosmos, including its static levels (earth, sky, underworld) and the cyclical processes of renewal and rebirth (day/night, lunar phases, summer/winter).”

Zangger recently told New Scientist that the Hittites “had a certain image of how creation happened.” The world began in chaos then was organized into the aforementioned static levels. He says that the circumpolar stars, which never sink below the horizon, would have been especially important to the Hittites and that they are represented by a prominent group of deities at Yazılıkaya.

Relief at the ancient rock sanctuary Yazilikaya in Hattusa, ancient capital of the Hittite Civilization - Corum, Turkey. (Pecold /Adobe Stock)

He also noted, “There are images like that in Egypt” – a culture which likely influenced the Hittite’s as well, and the researcher has identified other carvings as possibly being connected to Hittite views on the earth and underworld.

Finally, Zangger believes that the Hittite’s views on the “recurrent renewal of life” and the cyclical view of nature are reflected in the calendar-like carvings seen at Yazılıkaya.

Top image: Yazilikaya, Hittite sanctuary and astronomical observatory. Source: attraction art /Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Updated on June 17, 2021.



Aruvqan Myers1's picture

And I quote:
Charles Texier’s drawings of these carvings gripped the imaginations of people in central Europe as such distinctive art was never expected to have emerged from remote central Anatolia.

What the hell, anybody not in western Europe were cave dwelling, mouth breathing ug and grunt cavemen with no talent or tools, or inclination to create art? How Eurocentric of them....

Peel the skin off someone, in general there is no indication where they are from and unless they are one of the other hominid chains, what millenia they are from. We are all tool users who can appreciate art and have an urge to create something. Sheesh.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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