The archaeological site of Kerkenes can be identified with the city of Pteria, a capital of the Medes, mentioned by Herodotus (Histories, I,76) whose testimony is worth quoting in full:
“Croesus, when he had crossed [the Halys river] with his army, came in Cappadocian territory, to what is called Pteria. Pteria is the strongest part of all that country and lies in a line with the city of Sinope, on the Euxine Sea. There he encamped, destroying the farms of the Syrians and he captured the city of the Pterians and made slaves of the people, and he captured all the neighbouring towns; moreover he drove the Syrians from their homes, though they had done him no manner of harm. Cyrus, on his side, gathered his own army, and took on, as well, all the peoples who lived between him and Croesus. (Before he set out to march at all, he sent heralds to the Ionians and tried to make them desert Croesus. But the Ionians would not listen to him). So when Cyrus came and encamped over against Croesus, then and there in that land of Pteria they fought against one another with might and main. The battle was fierce, and many fell on both sides. At last they broke off at the onset of night, without either having the victory; so hard did the two armies fight. “
The historical background to the Battle of Pteria begins with the Median attack on the Neo-Assyrian city of Nimrud in 614 BC, their subsequent alliance with the Babylonians and sack of Nineveh to the combined forces two years later. Sources for the following period of Median expansion are few and much debated, being Greek and Babylonian rather than Median and mostly somewhat later than events themselves. By 590-589 BC the Medes were fighting the Lydians in Central Anatolia. The power of Urartu must have been spent because the Median king Cyaxares could not have campaigned towards the Halys River without security in the rear. The Medio-Lydian war, a series of annual campaigns lasted into a sixth year when on the afternoon of 28 May 585 BC, it seemingly came to an end with the Battle of the Eclipse.
War subsequently broke out between the two countries and lasted for five years, during which both Lydians and Medes won a number of victories. One battle was fought at night. But then, after five years of indecisive warfare, a battle took place in which the armies had already engaged when day suddenly turned into night. This change from daylight into darkness had been foretold to the Ionians by Thales of Miletus, who fixed the date for it for the year in which it did, in fact, take place. Both the Lydians and the Medes broke off the engagement when they saw this darkening of the day: they were more anxious than they had been to conclude peace, and a reconciliation was brought about by Syennesis of Cilicia and Labynetus of Babylon, who were the men responsible both for the pact to keep the peace and for the exchange of marriages between the two kingdoms. They persuaded Alyattes to give his daughter Aryenis to Astyages, son of Cyaxares - knowing that treaties seldom remain intact without powerful sanctions.
The next part of the story begins with the overthrow of Astyages and the establishment of the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus the Great. By this time Alyattes was dead and his son Croesus, brother-in-law of Astyages, was on the Lydian throne. Turmoil in the Iranian court provided Croesus with an opportunity. Using the convenient, if not genuine, excuse of the murder of his brother-in-law, and having sent envoys to various oracular temples from which he received what he could only interpret as a favorable answer he took his forces across the Halys River and sacked Pteria, as recounted in the passage from Herodotus quoted above. After the inconclusive Battle of Pteria between Croesus and Cyrus, Croesus retreated to Sardis for the winter from where he summoned his allies in the natural expectation that Cyrus too would withdraw for the winter and that the confrontation would be renewed in the following spring. Cyrus, however, went in immediate pursuit. The oracle at Delphi had been correct. An empire was destroyed as a consequence of Croesus’s action but not, as he had so confidently expected, that of the Persians but rather his own.
The brief period of occupation at Kerkenes fits with the historical record: perhaps founded as the capital of an Anatolian polity towards the middle of the seventh century BC, falling under the control of the Medes by 585 BC and destroyed by Croesus some forty years later. The site would be consistent with the need of Astyages for a strong base east of the Halys River, and the lack of later occupation can easily be understood because once Cyrus had exerted control over Lydia, the very reason for a strong base east of the Halys River no longer existed.
It is striking that Croesus treated the inhabitants of Pteria differently from the "Syrians" in the surrounding villages who, in contrast to the Pterians, had done no wrong. It can thus be argued that the phraseology of Herodotus implies that the inhabitants of Pteria were not the same as the rural population, an implication that can easily be understood if the occupants of the city were Medes and their allies: a foreign occupying power. A much later author, Stephanos of Byzantium, as Przeworski noted, lists both Pteria near Sinop, and Pterion (alternatively Pteria), a city of the Medes. David French has suggested that the association of the name Pterion/Pteria with the Medes supports the identification of the Median city on the Kerkenes Dag with Herodotus’ Pteria.
The site of Kerkenes is situated near the city of Sorgun in Central Anatolia particularly near the village of Sahmuratli. The archaeological site is well signposted but only reachable by 4x4 vehicle from the village. When you approach the site one can see the remains of a huge city wall who extend about seven kilometers around the whole site. During the excavation project under Geoffrey and Françoise Summers they excavated and restored the so-called Cappadocian Gate, the south gate of the city.
This sophisticated military architecture is utterly different from that of Late Bronze Age, and indeed from the Iron Age gates of Neo-Hittite cities. However, the ninth-century citadel at Gordion and, contemporaneous with our gate, the city gate at Lydian Sardis, bear some resemblance that again demonstrates west Anatolian characteristics at Kerkenes. Although the Cappadocia Gate was destroyed by fire when the city was put to the torch, there is no evidence that the gate was taken by force when the city was captured.
At the start of the 2011 season the remains of a person, crushed to death by falling masonry while attempting to flee through the burning gate, were lifted. This skeleton, revealed in 2010 but reburied because of the danger of working beneath the tall walls of the gate in wet weather, is now in the anthropology laboratory at Hacettepe University. This brings the number of victims killed when the gate collapsed to two. Excavation and recording of the gate rear passage proceeded in June.
The slots in which the two façades that held large double doors controlling the entrance to the city were fully uncovered. It was subsequently understood that under the base of these two partitions there was a series of horizontal timbers. Three iron straps that most probably held the door planks together were found amongst the burnt debris. Then came the discovery of an antithetical pair of crouching sphinxes, largely complete, carved on the front of a large sandstone plinth. A socket in the top of the plinth secured the tenon of an extraordinary sculpture carved from soft limestone, elements of which were covered with compass-cut scales. Only a portion of this statue survives, and that was smashed into pieces. This discovery was made in the north corner of the rear section of the gate. The back corners were trimmed away so that the plinth fitted across the corner of the room leaving only a small triangular void behind, the waste fragments being packed under the plinth to level it. At some stage before the fire this sculpture was closed off by a wall that was of very poor construction, comprising footings of small stones below mudbrick and incorporating wooden uprights to support a flimsy roof. There seems to have been a narrow doorway in the northwestern end of this wall. Why should the sculpture have been hidden from view in this manner? It will not be possible to address that crucial question before the slow and arduous task of putting together enough of the incomplete three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle has revealed exactly what was represented.
Fragments of the plinth and statue were carefully packed and labelled. It would have been impossible to drag the plinth out of the trench had it not been split into smaller sections as a result of the fire and collapse. Finally, in the closing days of the excavation in September, an exquisite gold and electrum ornament was found. This unique piece lay directly beneath the burnt doors of the rear façade in the centre of the entrance. Surely it was lost in the panic of flight as escapees dashed through the burning gate. Whether it was dropped by one or other of the two whose remains we found in the destruction, or by someone more fortunate, we shall never know.
The site of Kerkenes is situated at the small hamlet of Sahmuratli near the city of Sorgun. The site of Kerkenes is well signposted on the main road in Sorgun.
The hamlet of Sahmuratli lies in a mountainous region and is only reachable by car. The archaeological site of Kerkenes lies extended spread on a steep hill above Sahmuratli which is only reachable by all terrain (4x4) vehicle like Land Rover Defender, Nissan Patrol, Toyota Landcruiser or equivalent.
Text: Michel Gybels & Geoffrey Summers
Source: excavation reports Geoffrey & Françoise Summers
Photographs: Michel Gybels (buildings & landscape)