A natural stronghold situated atop an impregnable area of steep rocky terrain, Hattusas had been inhabited as far back as the 3rd millennium B.C. The Hatti, an Anatolian people of unknown origin, settled here as early as 2500 B.C. Later, around 1800 B.C., King Anitta of Kushara (an ancient kingdom of similarly undetermined origins and whereabouts) invaded and set fire to the city, pronouncing it accursed, before moving on.

King Labarnas, a descendant of Anitta of Kushara, returned several generations later to reconquer and rebuild the city. Labarnas called the city Hattusas, or "Land of the Hatti," and changed his name to Hattusilis. Hattusilis I is accepted as the true founder of the Hittite kingdom.

From 1650 to 1200 B.C., the Hittites ruled most of Anatolia, succeeding in spreading out as far as northern Syria -- much to the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian pharaohs. Tensions came to a head at the historic Battle of Kadesh, pitting the Hittite king Muwatalli II against Egypt's Ramses II. The battle essentially ended in a stalemate (with both sides claiming victory); nevertheless, for the first time in the history of mankind, a written treaty was drawn up between two warring factions. A copy of this landmark treaty was discovered in the Hattusas Palace Archives and is now in the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul.

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The Hittites were the undisputed power in western Asia from 1400 to 1200 B.C., but a period of struggle over the ascendancy left the empire weak and vulnerable. Around 1200 B.C. the city was burned and razed by the Phrygians, who sometime between the 9th and 7th centuries B.C. established much of the fortified city that stands today. Minor settlements were later set up by the Galatians, Romans, and Byzantines.

The city was accessible through several monumental stone gates carved with reliefs of lions, sphinxes, and gods, which stand now in various states of erosion. Many of these original reliefs and statues have been moved to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, and today there is one main entrance to the site. The first set of ruins you pass is the Büyük Tapinak. Located at the center of the Lower City and surrounded by a wall, this temple was the most important, consecrated to the Storm God and the Sun Goddess of Arinna, who were identified with their Hurrian equivalents, Tesup and Hepatu. The temple was constructed during the reign of the last great Hittite king, Hattusilis III (1275-1250 B.C.). The ruins of the foundations show an ample presence of storerooms, offices, and workshops; this indicates the temple was an important public building in addition to a sacred one. In some of the corners, you can still find the remains of large pottery receptacles. The actual temple is in the center, isolated from the outer sections; only the king and queen, in their roles as high priest and priestess, could enter it.

From the Büyük Tapinak, follow the road up and take the left fork where you will encounter the Büyükkale (Great Fortress). The royal residence occupies the highest point of a naturally rocky crest enclosed by a network of defensive walls. The palace also housed the high guard, with public rooms for the state archives, a large reception hall, and some sacred areas. Not much detail can be discerned from the remaining foundations -- invisible from a lower elevation amid the grassy terraces -- but a stopover at this point can provide a visual overview of the invincible position of the city.

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Farther up the path on the right is Nisantepe, an artificially smoothed rock outcropping that bears an almost 9m-long (30-ft.) inscription. Badly weathered and only partially deciphered, the inscription is most likely an accounting of the deeds of Suppiliumus II, last of the Hattusas kings. Across the road to the left is a path leading to Hieroglyphic Chamber no. 1 and the Southern Fort, erected several centuries after the collapse of the Hittite Empire. The Hieroglyphic Chamber dates to 1200 B.C. and is built into the side of an artificial dam. (The other end is part of the fortress.) On the back wall is the figure of a man in a long cloak. The figure, probably a god, carries a sign similar to the Egyptian ankh ("life") and is possibly representative of an entrance into the underworld. Few remains were found in Hieroglyphic Chamber no. 2, which is visible from the road but was inaccessible as this book went to press.

The best-preserved city gate at Hattusas is the Kralkapi, or King's Gate, flanked by two towers with both an inner and outer portal. To the left of the inner doorway is a replica of the famous relief of the Hittite God of War. It's a stunning sight to see the relief in situ, even if the original is in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

On the road up to Yerkapi, over 28 temples have been uncovered. Yerkapi, which means "Earth Gate," or "Gate in the Ground," is better known as the Sphinx Gate and is the highest elevation in the area. You can either climb the stone steps to the top of the 15m-high (49-ft.) artificial bank or access the exterior of the city via the 69m (226-ft.) alternate access tunnel. The gate was named for four great sphinxes that guarded the inner gate, two of which were reconstructed from fragments and reinstalled on-site. The two remaining great sphinxes are keeping watch over the Museum of the Ancient Orient (part of Istanbul's Archaeological Museum) and a museum in Berlin. The four additional bas-relief sphinxes that were carved into the portal of the outer embankment were unfortunately not spared this end; all that remains of the originals is one badly chipped and almost indistinguishable image on the western wall.

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The Aslanlikapi (Lion's Gate) displays one of the best-preserved artifacts remaining on-site at Hattusas -- symbolically warding off evil spirits. There's a hieroglyphic inscription above the head of the one on the left, but unless the sun stands at high noon, the inscription is invisible.

About 1km (2/3 mile) to the northeast (accessible by backtracking out of the entry/exit road to Hattusas and heading right and up the road) is the shrine of Yazilikaya, formed out of the convergence of two natural ravines and the largest known Hittite rock sanctuary. The purpose of the shrine remains a mystery, although we can speculate that it was used for annual cult celebrations or even as a royal funerary site.

In the large rock-enclosed court of Chamber A are some of the most incredible treasures of the Hittite architectural legacy. Hewn from one end of the rock enclosure to the other is a representation of a sacred procession of deities, all of which are of Hurrian origin. Hurrian gods were given prominence by the Hittite Queen Puduhepa, wife of Hattusilis III, who was herself of noble Hurrian or Eastern origin. The cylindrical domed headdress is a symbol of divinity of Mesopotamian influence. The deities are oriented to the main scene on the back wall where the Storm God Tesup and the Sun Goddess Hepatu meet. The Storm God Tesup and Sun Goddess Hepatu, also of Hurrian origin, became the two most important deities in the Hittite pantheon, the accepted counterparts of the Hittite Storm God and the Sun Goddess of Arinna. Towering above the main scene and standing over 3.5m (11 ft.) high is a large relief of King Tudhaliya IV, son of Hattusilis III and Puduhepa.

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To the right passing through a narrow rock crevice is Chamber B, probably a memorial chapel to King Tudhaliya IV. Because the reliefs in this chamber were buried until the end of the 19th century, they are better preserved than the ones in Chamber A. The largest relief is of King Tudhaliya IV, on the main wall next to a puzzling depiction of a large sword formed by two extended lions with a divine human head for a handle. This possibly represents the God of Swords, or Nergal of the underworld. The relief on the right wall depicts a row of 12 gods bearing sickles similar to the ones in the other chamber. The number 12 as a sacred number is first seen here and repeated many times in subsequent civilizations -- there were 12 gods of Olympus, 12 apostles, 12 imams of Islamic mysticism, 12 months in a year, 12 days of Christmas, and 12 to a dozen. The three niches carved into the far end of the chamber are believed to have contained the cremated remains of Hittite royalty.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.