Archaeology in Turkey - 2017 in review


2017 certainly was a much better year for Turkey than 2016 in many aspects. After a disastrous 2016, Turkish travel industry was slowly recovering, as the number of foreigners visiting the country increased steadily, to reach more than half a million in July only. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism put a lot of investment to make Turkey an even more attractive destination for the visitors interested in archaeology and history. Moreover, many fascinating discoveries were made in the area of Asia Minor in 2017, and several cultural assets of Turkey made it into UNESCO lists. Below, you will find the most interesting pieces of news from 2017.

Life is full of archaeological surprises

One of the most significant archaeological finds of 2017 was the oldest known written document in Anatolia. It was discovered during excavations in Acemhöyük Mound in the Central Anatolia. It is a single-line inscription, carved on a piece of rock crystal, that dates back to 2250 BCE. Another ancient inscription discovered by Turkish researchers in Kayseri province was acclaimed the first diagnosis to determine infertility, made 4,000 years ago.

Another groundbreaking discovery was made at the Tayinat Mound near the Syrian border where a beautifully carved head and upper torso of a female figure was found. The researchers speculated if it was a representation of the mother of the gods of ancient Anatolia - Kubaba, the wife of King Suppiluliuma, or a woman named Kupapiyas who was the wife or mother of Taita, the dynastic founder of ancient Tayinat. The discovery of the statue raised the questions about the role that women played in the political and religious lives of early Iron Age communities.

Continuing the subject of women's position in ancient Anatolia, it's time to move to Antalya province where the oldest olive oil press in Asia Minor was discovered. It was found in the ancient city of Lyrboton, where archaeological works started in 2016 to unearth olive oil ateliers, houses, baths, and churches. When the inscriptions found within the ancient city were studied, they provided information that a woman was a founder of many of the olive oil facilities and the town itself. This woman called Arete built a tower in the settlement and dedicated to Emperor Domitian and Artemis of Perge. Later, the ownership and control over olive oil presses were maintained by three generations of women from the same family.

The prehistory of the area where modern Istanbul is located was rewritten in 2017 when the ruins dating back to 4,000 BCE were unearthed during a metro line construction in Beşiktaş district. Researchers believe that the find will fill the historical gap between 6500 and 3000s BCE in Istanbul's past. Constructing new metro lines in Istanbul brought more discoveries when construction workers discovered human bones and cremated remains from the 8th and 12th centuries BCE, also in Beşiktaş district.

At the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük in Amasya province, an ancient Persian temple was discovered, related to a fire culture. Professor Şevket Dönmez said the discovery had a potential to change long-held notions of religion and culture in Anatolia. The discovery of a temple for fire worship suggests that Zoroastrianism may have had roots not only in Persia but also in Anatolia.

November 2017 brought exciting discovery of a 3,000-year-old Urartu castle during underwater excavations in Lake Van. The fortress is now submerged as the current water level of the lake is higher than it was during the Urartu civilisation.

Sadly, 2017 was the final year of Çatalhöyük Research Project that was carried out from 1993, led by Ian Hodder. Four new replica houses joined the existing Experimental House, offering visitors a chance to walk through recreated Neolithic buildings.

Sümela Monastery in Trabzon province underwent a renovation in 2017. As a result, inactive Hagia Varvara Church on the pathway to the monastery was opened for tourism. The monastery itself also revealed one of its secrets in December, when a previously unknown chapel was discovered, covered with frescoes depicting heaven and hell as well as life and death.

Turkish farmers continued to contribute to archaeological discoveries in 2017. One of them discovered a 10-meter-long mosaic piece depicting different figures and writings which is believed to date back to Roman times in southeastern Adıyaman province. Another one found a 2,000-year-old statuette dating back to the Roman period while working in the field in Çorum province. Finally, in December 2017, a 2,000-year-old terracotta jar was discovered by a farmer in Malatya province.

In the eastern province of Ardahan, a coffin of a Russian army officer of Polish origins was unearthed during foundation excavations for a construction project. Apparently, he died fighting during the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war. Turkey promised to return the remains of colonel Rzepecki to his relatives in Poland.

Depressingly, the preparations for completing the Ilisu Dam project in southeastern Turkey were quickly progressing in 2017, and the destruction of ancient Hasankeyf settlement on the banks of Tigris River seems less avoidable than ever before. The 650-year-old Zeynel Bey Tomb was moved to the new Hasankeyf Cultural Park in April to avoid being inundated with water. Unfortunately, there are many other historical objects in the area that will not be saved. The promises of the authorities that the submerged structures will boost underwater tourism seem to be a rather pathetic excuse. All year, Japanese archaeologists were working feverishly to discover and save as much as possible from the Hasankeyf Mound. In October, the reports announced the finding of a settlement from 11,500 years ago.

New museums to visit

Hatay Archaeology Museum, operating in a new location from 2014, was expanded in 2017, to display the rich coin collection in Antakya, which was one of the few mint centres in the past. New Şanlıurfa Museum Complex, which opened in 2015, was also expanded with the Islamic Era Hall, making it Turkey’s largest museum.

Additionally, the first stage of the Adana Museum Complex, the Archaeology Museum, which is home to archaeological and ethnographical works as well as agricultural and industrial tools and machines, opened in May.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum opened a new section in summer 2017. The new three-storey section displays mainly the mosaics from the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

Restoration in progress

Ministry of Culture and Tourism, local authorities, as well as Directorate General of Foundations, carried out numerous restorations in 2017. Among the historical buildings that were renovated, it is worth mentioning Hereke Castle in Kocaeli, Hagia Yorgi Church, the historic Seljuk graveyard in Ahlat, and Anatolia's biggest caravanserai, Sultan Han.

Comprehensive restoration also started in the historic Yerebatan Cistern, the third most visited spot in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. Staying in Istanbul, the roof of the iconic Grand Bazaar, known from the scene of a high-speed motorbike chase in James Bond film "Skyfall", began to be renovated. Moreover, the most comprehensive restoration project in its history started in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace Museum. It resulted in the discovery of a Turkish hammam used by five Ottoman Sultans. The decision was also made to turn the iconic building of the former Kuleli Military High School located on Istanbul's Asian side of the Bosporus strait, into a museum.

Smugglers, thiefs and legal issues

Numerous appeals to foreign institutions were made by Turkish authorities, requesting the return of archaeological and historical objects smuggled from Turkey. Among the stolen items, there are 12 Zeugma mosaics, dating back to the 2nd century CE, currently exhibited at the Wolfe Art Center in the U.S. Meanwhile, one of the artifacts stolen from the Kocaeli Archaeology Museum in 2009 was found at an auction in Germany. A rare handwriting dating back to the Seljuk era was prevented from being sold illegally in an auction in Britain in May. A rare 16th-century copy of the Quran, put on sale in a London auction house in October, is another item that Turkey is seeking to have repatriated.

On the bright side, 4,500-year-old jug, taken over to the UK nearly 60 years ago, was returned to Turkey. It was one of 44 ancient artifacts returned to Turkey in past year, according to Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş. The Roman sarcophagus of Hercules, returned from Switzerland in September, was another one of them.

New inscriptions on UNESCO lists

In 2017, the number of Turkish sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List increased to 17 as the ancient city of Aphrodisias, famous in the ancient times from its sculpture workshops, was inscribed into the list. Also, three Turkish cities joined UNESCO Creative Cities Network: Istanbul - in the field of Design, Hatay - in the field of Gastronomy, and Kütahya - in the category of Crafts and Folk Art. Moreover, the spring festival of Hıdırellez was added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Finally, whistled language from the Black Sea region of Turkey was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Also in 2017, three more sites were included in UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage: the archaeological site of Assos, Ayvalık industrial landscape, and Ivriz cultural landscape. This move brought the total number of Turkish properties on the list up to 72. All these sites may expect the increased numbers of visitors, as the example of Ani shows. The ancient city of Ani, located on the Turkish-Armenian border and called the cradle of civilisations, doubled the number of visitors in 2017, after its registry in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016.

To be open soon... or what to expect in 2018

Taking into account early booking figures from abroad, hopeful tourism industry workers expect 2018 to be a year when Turkish tourism industry will recoup 2014 levels, which saw 36 million foreign visitors. Moreover, 2018 is supposed to be the year when the UK tourists return to Turkey, generating an increase of 69 percent in arrivals, according to the Association of British Travel Agents.

What will be the central theme for archaeology tourism in 2018? Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared it as the “Year of Troy” to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the site's inscription on UNESCO World Heritage List. The main attraction of the year will be opening of the new museum, next to Troy archaeological site, housing many of the key collections and archaeological findings. Turkish Archaeological News team is planning to revisit the Aegean region of Turkey next summer and bring back multiple photos from this new venue.

Moreover, the famous Göbeklitepe archaeological site in Turkey’s southeast prepares to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage list in 2018. Home to the world's oldest temple, Göbeklitepe has been on UNESCO's Tentative list since 2012. The Patara Monument of Roads, 46 blocks of which were unearthed after a fire in the ancient in 1993, is set to be restored and become a nominee to join the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Uzunköprü Bridge, which crosses over the Ergene River in western Turkey, is also expected to be included on UNESCO Cultural Heritage List soon. The authorities applied to the Guinness Book of World Records to register the same bridge as the longest stone bridge in the world.

The renovation plans for 2018 include the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, located in Bodrum and listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Numerous controversial issues will undoubtedly arise in the context of ancient Ephesus where a new project was launched, aiming to revive its ancient harbour. The project will enable easier access to the ancient city and boost the number of tourists visiting Ephesus.

Finally, a very promising news from Trabzon was announced in December, where the local Hagia Sofia, erected as a church and turned into a mosque will undergo a restoration. It will reveal the frescoes and mosaics covered behind wooden shutters.