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During a survey in the Tunceli province of the Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, archaeologists uncovered two fortress settlements and identified two new open-air Urartian temples. Source: Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA

Two Incredibly Old Rock-Carved Urartian Temples Identified in Turkey

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Archaeologists carrying out an ongoing survey in Turkey’s Tunceli province in Eastern Anatolia have discovered two open-air Urartian temples inside two fortresses at settlements that date back to the eighth or ninth century BC. Despite unmistakable similarities the two fortress-temple complexes are located relatively far from each other, 55 miles (90 km) apart, near the easternmost and westernmost borders of the province.

These discoveries occurred in 2021 within the context of the “Iron Age and Hellenistic Age Tunceli Survey,” an ambitious historical exploration project launched by Turkish academic institutions in 2016. In an article just published in the Pamukkale University Social Sciences Institute Journal, the individuals responsible for identifying the temples, Dr. Serkan Erdoğan, an archaeologist from Yozgat Bozok University, and Dr. Düzgün Çakırca, an architect from Bolu Abant Izzet Baysal University, discuss their remarkable finds.

“As a result of the observation and documentation studies carried out within the scope of the 2021 season of the survey project, a new archaeological settlement named Masumu-Pak Castle was detected in the Tunceli region, and some archaeological features of the Lower Doluca Castle, which was previously included in the archaeological literature, were examined,” the professors wrote in their journal article. “It has been determined that the form and construction features of the structures of Masumu-Pak Castle and Lower Doluca Castle settlements, which are considered open-air temples, have common characteristics.”

It seems the temples and fortresses were constructed when eastern Anatolia was a part of the powerful and expansive Kingdom of Urartu, which ruled the region from approximately 860 to 590 BC. Estimates are that the newly discovered structures were built approximately 2,700 to 2,800 years ago, at sites located about 200 miles (325 km) to the west of the Kingdom of Urartu’s center of political power the vicinity of Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands.

An Unprecedented Find in Eastern Anatolia

According to their discoverers, the two previously unidentified temples have some unique and unprecedented qualities.

“Two fortress settlements, one in the Hozat-Çemişgezek-Ovacık triangle, Masumu-Pak castle, and the other in Lower Harik (Doluca) on the banks of the Peri Stream east of Nazımiye, are home to a new type of temple that we did not know until now,” Dr. Serkan Erdoğan said.

Despite being separated by some distance; the two temples are very much alike. Each features an outdoor prayer space fronted by an altar carved out of the surrounding rock, with standing platforms located in front of the altars. Since the temples and fortresses have been linked to the Urartians, who worshipped many gods, it is difficult to connect them to a particular deity.

Within each settlement is a new type of open-air Urartian temple that share similar architectural features. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

Within each settlement is a new type of open-air Urartian temple that share similar architectural features. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

“The question of whether these temples, which clearly have local characteristics, were built for the worship of local gods/cults or for the worship of the great gods of an era continues to puzzle our minds,” Dr. Erdoğan confirmed.

Notably, one of the two fortresses and associated temple was constructed on a site long known to be sacred to people living in the region.

 “The Lower Harik Castle and Temple, located in today’s castle hamlet settlement, is also known as a sacred place called Moro Sur (Red Snake),” Dr. Erdoğan said. “Today, those who still want to find healing continue to call out by saying “Ya Moro Sur, Tu esta (You exist, Moro Sur).”

The snake motif was a prominent feature of worship in ancient times, and the connection of this temple to an older mythological tradition highlights the continuity of spiritual traditions in eastern Anatolia during the Iron Age (1,300 to 600 BC) and well beyond, even into the current era.

Rediscovering the Lost Kingdom of Urartu

The builders of these fortress-temple complexes, the Urartians, were a population of people who came from eastern Anatolia’s Armenian Highlands. The origins of the Kingdom of Urartu date back to the mid-ninth century BC, when Urartu’s King Arame consolidated his power and gradually assumed control over a territory that would expand to 200,000 square miles (520,000 sq km) at the height of the kingdom’s prosperity 200 years later.

The temples were constructed during the 7th century, a time when the Urartian kingdom held dominion over the region. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

The temples were constructed during the 7th century, a time when the Urartian kingdom held dominion over the region. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

Spreading out from its base of power around Lake Van, the largest body of water in eastern Anatolia, the Urartians would eventually exert political and economic influence over the lands of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and southern Georgia. Through military action and political alliances, they expanded their borders from northern Mesopotamia to the southern Caucasus Mountains, inevitably coming into conflict with their powerful neighbors to the south, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, at different times throughout their period of expansion.

But despite the preeminence of the Assyrians, the Urartians more than held their own, building a truly dominant kingdom that reached the pinnacle of its success in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Their thriving economy was based on a combination of large-scale agriculture and vigorous trade, and in fact when they weren’t at war with the Assyrians, they freely exchanged goods with their wealthy rivals.

The Kingdom of Urartu ultimately faced the same fate as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, with both falling to the conquering forces of a new power player in the region, the Scythians. Aided by their allies the Medes (Medians), the Scythians overran the Assyrians and the Urartians in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC respectively, ending the hegemony of the Urartians in the region for good.

Urartian Temples Guard their Secrets Well

While they were in a position of dominance, the Urartians created a religious and spiritual belief system that was every bit as expansive as their political ambitions. They constantly enhanced their pantheon of deities by adding gods that were worshipped by the peoples they conquered, and it is this practice that makes it challenging for archaeologists to determine whether specific Urartian temples (like those just discovered in the Tunceli province) were reserved for particular gods.

Dr. Serkan Erdoğan and Dr. Düzgün Çakırca analyzing their finds. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

Dr. Serkan Erdoğan and Dr. Düzgün Çakırca analyzing their finds. (Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA)

The ongoing Tunceli regional survey, with its focus on the lives and lifestyles of the people who lived in eastern Anatolian in the first and second millenniums BC, may uncover more structures or ancient texts that will help answer such questions. But for now, the true cultural and spiritual practices of the Urartians who built the newly identified fortress-temple complexes will have to remain a mystery.

Top image: During a survey in the Tunceli province of the Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, archaeologists uncovered two fortress settlements and identified two new open-air Urartian temples. Source: Erdoğan, S. ve Çakırca, D./IHA

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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