Startrails over Hattusa emphasizing the cosmic axis. (© Bernd Pröschold/Luwian Studies)
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The Hittite rock sanctuary Yazılıkaya can be explained in its entirety for the first time

After almost two hundred years of scientific research, it is for the first time possible to present a model that explains all of the more than 90 reliefs of the deities in the Hittite rock sanctuary of Yazılıkaya. An international and interdisciplinary team consisting of archaeologists and astronomers presents a model according to which the sanctuary is a symbolic representation of the cosmic order as the Hittites imagined it. The artistic reliefs represent on the one hand the static levels of the cosmos – underworld, earth, heaven and the most important deities at the top of the cosmic axis. On the other hand, they also reflect the cyclical processes of renewal and rebirth, including day and night, the phases of the moon and the seasons. Each of the figures adheres to this system. The corresponding scientific publication is entitled “Celestial Aspects of Hittite Religion, Part 2: Cosmic Symbolism at Yazılıkaya” and has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Skyscape Archeology.

The investigation was carried out by the geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger, President of Luwian Studies, E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, Serkan Demirel, ancient historian at Karadeniz Technical University in Turkey, and Rita Gautschy, archaeologist and astronomer at the Institute for Archeology at the University of Basel.

Static levels and celestial cyclicities are emphasized throughout the sanctuary – every single relief relates to this system.
A new perspective in the study of Hittite and Luwian religion

Cosmic Symbolism at Yazilikaya

The reliefs in Yazılıkaya illustrate the three main elements of cosmic order: the earth, the sky and the underworld. They show how these levels and thus all portions of the cosmos were populated by deities. In the Ancient Near Eastern belief system, the cosmic order was stabilized through constant renewal, with celestial regularities setting the pace. Renewal occurs when after a dark and cold night the sun rises to bring a bright and warm day, when from a dark moon a full moon gradually grows, and when the withering away of vegetation and the inhospitable winter months are succeeded by the spring and summer season bringing a blooming plant cover. Yazılıkaya reflects these cosmic cycles so systematically that the sanctuary could still be used as an accurate calendar today.

 

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.