Ever Nearer the Past

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The rocky, rutted path seems to lead nowhere as it ascends a sun-bleached hill in the moonscape of southeastern Turkey. Ahead, to the north, the Taurus Mountains loom in the distant haze. Behind, the village of Ogrencik ekes out what life it can from this exhausted land on the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, 1,300 km southeast of Istanbul. Suddenly, a single mulberry tree appears atop the next hill, and before it an array of colorful tents--the field camp of a German-Turkish archaeological team. Beyond the tents, in the parched and dusty middle of nowhere, 40 km from the Syrian border, lies Gobekli Tepe, one of the world's most illuminating and rare discoveries from the late Stone Age.

An ancient place of worship--a cult site carbon-dated to the second half of the 9th millennium B.C.--Gobekli Tepe is as good a point as any to begin a diverse archaeological tour of Turkey, a country astonishingly rich with the remains of scores of civilizations and empires stretching from caveman days to the early 20th century. Put simply, Gobekli Tepe--older than the renowned Anatolian city of Catalhoyuk--is where some of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (who were just starting to settle down and organize into societies) first created sophisticated art for ritual purposes.

"This place is as important as the discovery of 14,000 B.C. cave art in France," says Harald Hauptmann, the team leader and director of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. Gobekli Tepe reflects what the experts say is a turning point from the Epipaleolithic to the Early Neolithic era in upper Mesopotamia--that is, the time when early man was just beginning to control nature, before the advent of food production, until the first domestication of plants and animals. "In this site and the one at Nevali Cori, 45 km northeast of here," says Hauptmann, "we have found an art we never knew before--not on cave walls but in public buildings, with sculpture and painted haut-reliefs [sculpted stone panels]. What we have ascertained is that art is not something someone just invented one day, like the wheel or fire. It has always been an active part of the human psyche, since the very beginning."

In each archaeological digging season, hundreds if not thousands of new and often startling discoveries are made by Turkish and international teams at scores of excavations, providing insights into the earliest days of humanity. "Anatolian Turkey is perhaps the most richly diverse archaeological site anywhere. It reaches from Paleolithic [early Stone Age] to Ottoman," says Oscar White Muscarella, a senior conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who has been assisting a Turkish team excavating a 9th to 7th century B.C. site once inhabited by Urartians--Bronze Age people who lived near Lake Van, close to the Iranian frontier.

Archaeology today, on the cusp of the 21st century, is not a treasure hunt. It is a painstaking search for cultural context. Sometimes, too, it is a race against time as aspects of modern life--the growing demand for energy and food by an expanding population, and the avarice of private art collectors willing to break the law--put new pressures on old sites. Uncovering clues to how ordinary people lived and how societies developed--what Marie-Henriette Gates, an American professor of archaeology and Bronze Age specialist at Bilkent University in Ankara calls "blue-collar archaeology"--now takes precedence over "golden bowls." The experts' focus has evolved from treasure hunting to people hunting, from the bowls themselves to what was eaten from them, and why. Their findings are prompting revision of the idea that Anatolia was simply a corridor for migrant peoples, rather than a font of civilization in its own right, populated by locals knowledgeable about the wheel, communication, art, agriculture, metallurgy and much more. The bounty is rich in Turkey, and any summary of the Anatolian cornucopia of truly significant discoveries barely scratches the surface. In recent years, for example, the soil has yielded the following:

At Gobekli Tepe, 15 km northeast of the city of Sanliurfa, stand four megalithic limestone pillars, 7 m tall and weighing perhaps 50 tons each. Two of them bear the image of a snarling lion defending what Hauptmann believes to be a cult sanctuary or shrine. Erected without the aid of domesticated animals 6,000 years before giant structures were built in Pharaonic Egypt, the pillars suggest that early Neolithic workers knew how to use poles, boards and pulleys to handle huge stones. Hauptmann's site also features a unique floor relief of a squatting woman--perhaps giving birth--reliefs of a variety of animals, and a field of flint chips, indicating the site also hosted a fairly sophisticated tool- and weapon-producing operation.

A rich collection of small limestone sculptures and clay figures was found at Nevali Cori, as well as life-size limestone figures, providing for the first time an idea of how people in the area worshiped 8,000 years before the birth of Christ. The larger work is animistic, some of it featuring humans and animals in carvings resembling totem poles. The masterpiece of the site is a sculpture of a female head grasped in the talons of a bird. Another, male, head is shaved, with a snake positioned at the back like a braid.

On each side of the green, gently flowing Euphrates River at Belkis, southwest of Sanliurfa, lie the twin towns of Seleucia and Apamea. Jointly known as Zeugma ("bridge" in Greek), they are believed to be the site of the only river crossing between the eastern Taurus Mountains and ancient Babylonia. "We are trying to understand the link between the two sides," says French archaeologist Catherine Abadie-Reynal of the University of Nantes, who with Rifat Ergec, director of Turkey's Gazientep Museum, leads the Zeugma inquiry. In Apamea, on the right bank--once a prosperous Hellenistic city in northern Mesopotamia and now a dusty, stony spot where little more than pistachio trees grow--excavators found stunning mosaics and surgical tools in rooms of a Roman house that apparently belonged to a doctor. On the more fertile Seleucia side of the river, tile markings indicate that a Roman military unit was garrisoned there.

The sprawling ruins of Aphrodisias lie in the Meander Valley in southwestern Turkey. Considered the jewel of the Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey and dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, the site possesses all the features by which Rome measured civilization: ornamental aqueducts, public baths, a 30,000-capacity stadium, an open-air theater seating several thousand, two city squares, fountains and hundreds of monumental statues. Rich in agricultural and mineral wealth in its glory days from 700 to 30 B.C., Aphrodisias was one of perhaps 400 Hellenistic cities that flourished in the Roman Empire's eastern province of Asia Minor. It is the best preserved, however, because successive earthquakes covered Aphrodisias in mud. Now, says project leader Bert Smith, a professor of classical archaeology at Oxford University, it is home to "the greatest collection of architectural sculpture left in Turkey."

A 5,000-year-old administrative palace at Arslantepe, near Malatya in eastern Turkey, is complete with religious temples, a royal tomb containing a fortune in copper and silver and weapons--including what is probably the world's first ceremonial sword. With the discovery of two types of pottery--wheel-crafted Mesopotamian wares and hand-fashioned, trans-Caucasian black-polished items--the Italian archaeologist Marcella Frangipane, professor of prehistory at the University of Rome, concludes that the dead ruler was a nomad. "The tomb marks a watershed: this is the first proof of the movement of trans-Caucasian people from the northeast to the west, which finally gave rise to Hittite civilization in central Anatolia," she says. "From the time of the tomb, history changed ... There developed a purely Anatolian culture." Frangipane and her team established the beginnings of a state at Arslantepe in the 4th millennium B.C.. "The discovery of this site changed our ideas of development," she says.

Two larger-than-life white marble statues of Dionysius, made in Aphrodisias in 120 A.D., were found in the vast Greco-Roman city of Sagalassos, 260 km to the east. The terraced city built of huge stone blocks, says Belgian archaeologist Marc Waelkens of Louvain's Catholic University, achieved--with its huge public buildings--"a heroic grandeur to match the immutable vastness of the natural surroundings" of the Pisidian highlands of the western slopes of the Taurus. Isolated at 1,700 m above sea level, Sagalassos was first settled in the 2nd millennium B.C. by Anatolian Pisidians, redoubtable warriors who fought Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. on a flat hill below the city--and lost. "It is a prime example of an Asian population being Hellenized," says Waelkens. "In 25 B.C., Caesar Augustus incorporated Sagalassos as part of Galatia and it was Romanized. He was the first to subdue the tough, Pisidian mountain men." As Greece began to deteriorate in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., Waelkens adds, Greco-Anatolian cities like Sagalassos, with its pottery exports and agricultural wealth, thrived. "These towns were the Texas and California of the Roman Empire," he says. Indeed, among the ostentatious findings in a 6th century A.D. house are a mosaic-decorated dressing room and a hot tub with marble stairs.

An Anatolian flat seal, made of bone and in the form of a lion, was found at Hacinebi Tepe, east of Sanliurfa. It was discovered in the study of the world's oldest state and colonial system, set up by the Uruks of southern Mesopotamia in about 3700 B.C. Seals were used in business transactions before the development of cuneiform writing. It was the Uruks who invented the wheel and, with their complex cities of 40,000 people, devised in 3100 B.C. the world's first known system of writing.

The world's first and perhaps finest furniture inlay work, dating from 800 B.C., was initially recovered as bits of blackened, twisted wood at the Phrygian tomb at Gordion, southwest of Ankara. (The Phrygians, artisans and geometricians, inhabited a powerful kingdom from 1200 to 695 B.C.--one of their rulers being Midas of the legendary golden touch.) Working in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara every summer for nearly two decades, Elizabeth Simpson of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania did the reconstruction drawings that helped unravel the Iron Age puzzles. Using four rotating, intricate designs, the Phrygian craftsmen inlaid boxwood, yew, juniper and walnut, rendering an abstract representation of the mother goddess Matar (Kybele) in mathematical form.

In the Mediterranean port of Kelenderis, Anatolia's closest link to Cyprus, a large and colorful landscape mosaic of the harbor, showing its waterfront buildings and three caiques under full triangular sail, was uncovered. "Not only is it one of the very few landscape mosaics ever found, but it was found next to the harbor it depicts," says Professor Levent Zoroglu of Turkey's Selcuk University in Konya, who dug up the late Antique-early Byzantine piece--some 1,500 years old--in the garden of an Ottoman inn.

Part of the great Byzantine palace built by Emperor Constantine was discovered by Alpay Pasinli, director of Istanbul's Archaeological Museum, around the corner from his office--in the exercise yard of a former prison now converted into the luxury Four Seasons Hotel. What remains are vast corridors and narrow state rooms dating to perhaps the 6th century A.D., with colorful frescoes.

At Gobekli Tepe, Hauptmann and his crew, led by field director Klaus Schmidt--as well as his Turkish partners at the Urfa Museum--seek to solve an older mystery. They are working to understand the pre-pottery society that existed there some 10,000 years ago, says Angela von den Driesch, a professor of zoology at Munich University, and "to determine the exact moment of the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist." What prompted these ancient people to spearhead mankind's first revolution--the so-called Neolithic miracle--turning from the upland forests that had long provided sustenance to the very beginnings of lowland settlement and agriculture, the domestication of plants and animals? "Humans always react to problems and catastrophic events," says von den Driesch. "They are survivors, and adversity is usually a catalyst for change." Perhaps, she suggests, climatic shifts at the time gave them no choice.

The climate in Turkey is still changing today--politically and demographically--and some land, villages and archaeological sites in the southeast are being transformed into lakes. More than 38% of Turkey's energy needs in 1998 were met by hydroelectric power, followed by coal and gas. The energy situation may ease in the future, when broader geopolitical squabbles over gas pipelines from the Caucasus and Central Asia are resolved.

For now, though, Turkey is harnessing the power of its mightiest river, the Euphrates, and its Mesopotamian sister, the Tigris, in the massive 22-dam Southeast Anatolia Project (G.A.P.). While the G.A.P. has brought undeniable benefits to Turkey's long-neglected southeast, the lakes have destroyed some archaeological sites and barely explored ancient cities--though nothing truly extraordinary, most scientists agree. Among those gone is Samosata, once a Roman fortress along the upper Euphrates. It now lies under 120 m of water trapped behind the huge Ataturk Dam 20 km downriver. Nevali Cori was submerged a year later by the Ataturk project. Hauptmann is confident, however, that the most valuable artifacts, including cult statues found hidden and preserved inside stone benches, were retrieved.

Some 100 km farther down the Euphrates and about 60 km east of the city of Gazientep, the Birecik Dam is under construction. When the dam eventually goes into operation, it will drown Zeugma under a 40-m-deep lake. With it will vanish a nearby early Bronze Age burial site, on the right bank of the Euphrates, that France's Abadie-Reynal says is "probably the richest necropolis in the whole area." In it are the westernmost Syriac inscriptions ever found. A Turkish team from the Gazientep Museum excavated 400 limestone tombs, recovering not just bones but jewelry, vases and other objects. Abadie-Reynal believes there could be as many as 3,000 tombs at the 5,000-year-old site. No one will ever know for sure. A construction crane has clawed at the arid ground, now off-limits to archaeologists, loosening earth that has been hauled away to help fill the Birecik Dam. What of the tombs? "The stones will stay and be submerged," says Abadie-Reynal.

Elements of past civilizations are also being lost in a more sinister and less public way. Turkey is so rich in antique remains that it is the victim of some of the greatest art thefts on earth. Perhaps billions of dollars worth of archaeological treasure disappears annually into private collections and is rarely ever recovered. "We can't even estimate it," says Bilkent University's Gates. "It is a very big business." Often, she says, farmers come upon objects, or know about excavations near where they live. "The rewards can be so big and the risk of punishment so small that many people will take the chance." But when cultural objects end up in wealthy, private hands as objets d'art or collectibles, "they've lost their value as a piece of data--the minute they're removed from the site at which they're found."

Legal purchases by museums can also be harmful, according to Muscarella of the Metropolitan in New York. He believes that Turkey has been too generous in this regard and that "the country is still being plundered," adding: "There are orders from museums all over the world for Turkish antiquities. The U.S., Germany, Britain and Japan are the main destroyers of these precious historical time capsules. An antique object on a wooden stand in a foreign museum is forever out of context."

For modern archaeologists with no interest in plunder, however, Turkey is "a great country to work in," thanks to the government's generosity toward foreign scholars, says Muscarella. Turkey has long been used to multiethnicity and welcomed outside expertise, notes Hauptmann. As Engin Ozgen, a former chief of the Ministry of Culture's Antiquities Service, explains: "Turkey is an open-air museum, and we want to share our rich heritage with the rest of the world ... We want to preserve our riches for future generations and these foreign countries are helping us do just that." All foreign excavations are carried out in partnership with the ministry, and loose objects are promptly transported to the nearest museum.

Still, Gates believes, mutual benefit to state and collector could result if some objects that are not unique--such as mass quantities of plates--were sold to help fund research and improve museums. "There's a human element at play," she acknowledges. "Intact objects are kept for museums, even if they're plentiful." A human element is surely what gets people interested in the past in the first place, and what keeps all the projects going. The scientists' work, says Roger Matthews, director of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara, is about "filling out the picture of human existence" and the record of that development is "highly biased in favor of things that survive--the rubbish left behind."

To extend the limits of what today's scientists can understand about the far-distant past--its cultures, its great events, its historical cycles, its infinite mysteries--and to put it all in a coherent context, archaeologists are combining old tools with new. Along with shovels, picks, chisels and brushes, they are using computer models, DNA analysis, remote sensory equipment, underwater gear, satellite photography and a host of high-tech gadgetry. Cutting-edge genetic science, for example, can provide data on how bodies in graves are related to each other, or the nutrition problems experienced in centuries-old societies, while marine archaeology can shed light on ancient trade routes.

"In this kind of work," says Hauptmann, "we come nearer the people before us. The art helps, and the sculpture." Gazing at the field of flint at Gobekli Tepe--and looking back 10,000 years--the German scientist notes the dryness of the surface stone and its unsuitability for toolmaking. The ancient hunter-gatherers, he postulates, probably mined flint containing water from the limestone bedrock, then heated it to make their tools. This, Hauptmann adds, was quite a sophisticated technique. "In this period, mankind learned to deal with different materials for the first time. It was a real revolution in technology--a step forward, a step to new ways of life."

Some things, though, will never be known. "Without writing, there is no proof. We have to hypothesize," says Toni Cross, director of the Ankara branch of the American Research Institute in Turkey. "It's impossible to try to interpret [ancient societies] without bringing in your own cultural heritage. We assume they were more superstitious and that this permeated their lives." Notes Britain's Matthews: "From a social point of view, it's interesting to see what laws existed, the social patterns, what their relevance is today, the variety of ways that humans can live. It adds a new dimension." Belgian archaeologist Waelkens shares the sentiment as he trudges up a steep mountainside at Sagalassos. His dream is simply put, though not very easy to realize: "To record everything that happened here for the past 10,000 years." Marking three decades of excavation in Turkey, he says: "I told my father when I was six that I would be an archaeologist working in Turkey ... Sagalassos is my wife, my child, my life."

Erica Friedland, a graduate architect from New York, has also been captivated by the magic of an excavation. On her first dig--at Aphrodisias--she sketched stones for eight weeks, nine hours a day, under a blazing sun. Why? "Because I shall never forget jogging at dawn around that ancient stadium with the sun rising up from behind distant Babadag Mountain and turning the marble first blue, then rose." Havva Avci, a restorer at the Ankara museum, understands the feeling. Avci, who worked on the extraordinary paintings and other treasures of Catalhoyuk, recalls: "While we restored the city plan we knew that we were touching distant limits of history."

Across Turkey--and some day in China's Yangtze and India's Indus Valleys, where scientists believe equally remarkable discoveries lie in wait--ancient peoples are indeed, paradoxically, being drawn nearer as time recedes. As the puzzles of their lives and their societies are painstakingly pieced together, one fact becomes increasingly clear: the past is not such a foreign country after all.

With reporting by James Wilde/Arslentepe