Epiphany effect in the temple of Yazılıkaya during the summer solstice 1250 BC. (© Oliver Bruderer/Luwian Studies)
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The rock sanctuary Yazılıkaya could work as lunisolar calender – even today!

The astronomer and archaeologist Rita Gautschy from the University of Basel and Eberhard Zangger, president of Luwian Studies, have presented a completely novel interpretation of the Hittite rock sanctuary Yazılıkaya. Accordingly, it seems to have been a facility to keep the calendar. The results of their five-year investigation have just been published in the Journal of Skyscape Archeology – in time for the summer solstice 2019.

The paper entitled “Celestial Aspects of Hittite Religion: An Investigation of the Rock Sanctuary Yazılıkaya” is available for free download as a PDF in both English and Turkish.

In addition, a popular science background report about how this project was approached has been published on news portals in Germany, the US, and Turkey for people who have an interest in archaeology.

Accordingly, Yazılıkaya was the place where the Hittite priests maintained the calendar. They may have indicated the day, the lunar month and the year with portable markers in the form of stone or wood columns beneath the reliefs. Thus, the most important times of the year could be determined: the solstices, the equinoxes, New Year and the Festival of the Month.

A functioning calendar was indispensable to the Hittites. It determined the timing of sowing and harvesting, but above all the dates of up to 165 annual religious festivals.
A new perspective in the study of Hittite and Luwian religion

Yazilikaya Sunset

“This new interpretation will by no means put an end to the search for an explanation of Yazılıkaya”, writes Eberhard Zangger. “It is more likely to turn out to be a first step in a new direction. After more than a hundred years of systematic exploration of Hittite culture, in many ways we still seem to be at the very beginning.”

A one-hour talk on the latest research in Yazılıkaya is available on YouTube. There is also a video created by the astrophotographer Bernd Pröschold showing time-lapse photographs of the starry sky and the light and shadow effects in the sancuaty.

The archeo-astronomer Clive Ruggles (2015) lists three characteristics that are relevant for assessing the astronomical significance of archaeological sites: alignment of structures, light and shadow effects, and symbolic numbers (Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, vol. 1, 376-382). All three factors are exceedingly well preserved in Yazılıkaya.

A few years ago, the astrophysicists Juan Antonio Belmonte and A. César González-García employed scientific methods to determine astral aspects in the Hittite religion. They measured the alignments of temples, gates and chambers in Hattuša and found that they are astronomically oriented with high statistical probability. At Yazılıkaya, they saw that the northern wall of the gatehouse faces the sunset at summer solstice. The most recent study by Zangger and Gautschy finds even more references to celestial concerns. As a result, all 66 figures in the rock sanctuary’s Chamber A can now be explained.

What are the indications for astronomical/astrological concerns in Yazılıkaya and Hattusa?
  • The entire sanctuary was walled off from the outside, but not roofed over, even though this would have been easy to achieve. This means the reliefs were exposed to sunlight, rain, and weathering. This may imply that the movements of the Sun, shadows, and/or the Moon and stars were a component of the sanctuary’s function.
  • The northern wall of the gatehouse, the first structure erected at the sanctuary, is aligned with the sunset at the summer solstice.
  • The sanctuary was built in a single phase of construction, suggesting a technical purpose. Later it was renovated and renewed in two distinct phases.
  • The prominent western wall in Chamber B runs almost exactly north-south. Its flat bedrock face was even extended using ashlar building stones, indicating that the wall itself may have had a function that required a large surface.
  • Sunlight falls on the relief (64) of Great King Tudḫaliya IV in Chamber A in the afternoon for a few days around the summer solstice in mid-June, which may imply that the most distinctive spot was reserved for the storm god’s highest mortal representative.
  • Chambers A and B exhibit reliefs with 12 uniform male gods, possibly indicating the 12 gods of the lunar year – and thus the months.
  • The temples in front of the sanctuary may have been used for seasonal celebrations, including the New Year’s festival.
  • A connection to celestial bodies is indicated by the presence of the Sun God, the Moon God and the goddess Sauska (Istar/Venus) who is represented and named both in the male row of gods (as morning star and god of war) and in the female row (as evening star and goddess of fertility).
  • For reasons that have so far remained unexplained, the Bronze Age stonemasons left a column of carefully shaped natural rock protruding from the wall between Reliefs 54 and 55; this column may imply a technical function.
  • A statistically significant number of building foundations, chambers and gates in Hattusa are astronomically aligned.
  • Yerkapı in the highest part of Hattusa’s Upper City is exactly facing north. The southwest corner of its pyramidal base points at the sunset during the winter solstice.

Almost all these characteristics were known for some time. The new study by Zangger and Gautschy adds to this – among other things – the idea that the reliefs in Chamber A are arranged in groups of 12, 30, 8, and 19 figures. These are exactly the numbers required to operate a perpetual lunisolar calendar. In fact, Yazılıkaya could still be used as such today.