English Français

Karatepe-Aslantaş Archaeological Site

Date of Submission: 14/04/2020
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Turkey to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Osmaniye province, Kadirli
Coordinates: N37 15 33 E36 14 9
Ref.: 6470
Word File Word File

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The Karatepe-Aslantaş Archaeological Site consists of a settlement continuum located today on the west bank of the Aslantaş dam lake at its narrowest point and continues further beyond on the opposite bank. The location preserves the original bend of the Ceyhan/Pyramos River flowing through the once fortified hilltops. The archaeological site comprises the Iron Age remains of the Karatepe-Aslantaş citadel (ancient name Azatiwataya) and the earlier Bronze to Neolithic period site sequence on the east bank referred to as Domuztepe. Both areas combined make up the cultural landscape of the site, an area which in its latest phase was host to remains of villa rusticae of the Roman period.

The hilltop citadel towers over the hinterland of urban centers in the Cilician plain to the south. In other words, it is not located in the center of a multi-tiered urban system. As one of the frontier strongholds of the city-state Adanawa, the stronghold of Karatepe-Aslantaş is a solitary installment, a manifestation of regional power marked by monumental fortifications, a prominent feature in a rural landscape. The fortification walls of the fortress are pierced by two major gates, known as the North and the South Gate, on a northeast-southwest axis arranged in line with the flow of the river and the course of the Akyol caravan route. A series of stone orthostats lining the lowest part of the mud-brick wall on the inner face of the passageway were employed in the construction of the two main Gates leading in and out of the castle. These architectural blocks incorporate a program of relief sculpture and a bilingual narrative inscription. In the open precinct beyond the South Gate stood the colossal statue of the Storm-God on a double bull-socle. Karatepe Bilingual, an inscription in the Phoenician alphabet and Hieroglyphic Luwian with the same text, is also carved on the four-sided statue.

At Karatepe-Aslantaş, the construction of the two main gates into the citadel of Azatiwataya is idiosyncratic and betrays Anatolian as well as Syrian architectural practices. Both gates were placed on sloping terrain. The ancient craftsmen dealt with the slope not by cutting terraces into the bedrock, but rather by accommodating changing elevations with a system of ramps and by raising foundations as needed. The walls of the gate structure do not all sit on the same floor level but are adjusted to the rising terrain. This accommodation of topography, as seen in the circuit wall, reflects Hittite architectural practice. The use of regular, rectangular upright stone slabs (that is, orthostats) placed on cut stone bases, on the other hand, betrays Syrian tradition with a twist: between the regular row of slabs, oblique blocks, which reach deep into the matrix of the wall, are inserted at irregular intervals. This type of interlocking seems a local practice.

Domuztepe is situated on the east bank of Ceyhan, opposite and slightly to the southeast of Karatepe across the river. Like Karatepe, it too is set on a natural hill. It was partly excavated and the lower parts of the site are today submerged in the dam lake. Domuztepe has a long sequence of occupation beginning with Neolithic period, 8 Millennium BC. up to the Roman period. Among the significant cultural remains recovered are fortified city of Hittite empire period, Iron age citadel with sculptured remains contemporary with Karatepe Aslantaş, villas and farmsteads of Roman period.

The area of the site is today enveloped by a dense stretch of forest, which was declared in 1958 as a Historic National Park, specifically to preserve the authenticity and integrity of the archaeological site. The proposed site measures 4295 hectares and lies in a zone of 100 ha which already has been declared as a “1st grade Archaeological Conservation Area”. Besides the archaeological remains there is an excavation house designed by architect Turgut Cansever and built in the 1960’s. The house is considered an architectural gem and is also the first raw concrete building attempted in Turkey. This building is registered as “cultural property” by Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A small modern museum has been built next to the main citadel houses for the small finds from the excavations and is open to the public. Visitors have access to the main citadel via a street and pathway built for the site.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The long biography of this complex site consists of a continuity of fortifications over several millennia shifting their locations on the banks of the Pyramos/Ceyhan River. The 8th century BC fortress has two unique features that mark the property to be of outstanding universal value. The monumental gates of the fortress are engraved with (1) bilingual writing and (2) friezes of sculpture. The writing is inscribed in alphabetic Phoenician and Anatolian Hieroglyphic Luwian and displays the earliest known bilingual narrative on an architectural monument in the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean and represents the beginning of a visual genre used in the Graeco-Roman Period and well beyond until modern times. The engraved friezes depict scenes of cult, worship, mythology as well as historical scenes, many of these unparalleled. The images derive from a multitude of traditions and illustrate the cultural milieu of the formative period in which the visual world of the ancient Greeks developed. The reliefs and sculpture found at Karatepe, executed in a mixture of styles and iconographic traditions related to, though sufficiently distinct from, other known monuments of southeast Anatolia and northern Syria, provided an independent picture of the same cultural diversity as was reflected in the two languages of the inscriptions.

H. Theodor Bossert began excavations at Karatepe-Aslantaş in 1947 and decided to end the project in 1952. Halet Çambel, at the time a junior member of the team, argued against deserting the site without any protection. She considered that what had been already exposed was too important and fragile to be left unprotected and that more intensive and systematic survey of the site would reveal several hitherto unrecovered inscribed and sculptured pieces. The conventional practice during those years was to transport most important pieces to the museum and to abandon the rest of the site without any concern. Çambel insisted that the presence of Karatepe-Aslantaş depended on its natural setting and all that had been exposed should be protected in its authentic natural and cultural environment. Karatepe-Aslantaş at that time was in complete isolation with the exception of villagers who made their living from the forest. As early as 1952 Çambel realized that the protection of the site would only be possible with active cooperation of the local population. Thus, she insisted that all cultural heritage deserves to be viewed in a humanist perspective that is integrated in the life of the local communities. In the following years she developed the village not only in terms of education by installing school but also ensured sustainable economic development by initiating abandoned traditional crafts and introducing new ones such as carpentry. Thus, thorough time the local community became the active and volunteer custodian of the site. This mutual interaction of Çambel with the local community not only safeguarded the future of the site but also provided her a local team of volunteers who brought in fragments of the inscriptions and sculptured pieces that had been scattered all around the valley due to natural events. This local contribution almost doubled what had been found during Bosserts excavations. Çambels vision was to protect ancient remains in their natural environment provided by sustainable management made possible by cooperation with local communities, intuition decades ahead of her time. In this respect, she already laid out the basic principles of ICOMOS 40 years before they were officially formulated. Thus, the prospect of Çambels approach is an outstanding universal value being one of the earliest successful implementations of the principles of cultural heritage management, by developing local awareness, sustainable development thereby linking the natural and cultural landscape.

Criterion (ii): The long bilingual text inscribed alongside hundreds of engraved images in form of a continuous frieze built into the walls of two monumental gates of an Iron Age fortification, the property bears witness to a cultural dialogue in Cilicia, which was foundational to the development of ancient Greek visual and writing culture.

The text is a 75 clauses long first person historical narrative in monumental form. This is one of the earliest versions of a monumental literary genre which continues in later periods and cultures as in the well-known Bisutun Inscription of Darius I dating to the Persian Period (Kermanşah, Iran) or the deeds or res gestae of Augustus preserved in the Temple of Augustus (Ankara, Turkey) dating to the Roman Period. The Karatepe res gestae is recorded in two different scripts and languages. One version of the inscription is in alphabetic writing and in Semitic Phoenician, to date the longest preserved text in the early from of this language between the Levant to Iberia. The other version is in one of the earliest recorded Indo-European languages, Luwian, and was written in Anatolian Hieroglyphs, a script developed to record this language. The Karatepe bilingual text was pivotal, in the sense of a Rosetta Stone, to conclude the decipherment of Anatolian Hieroglyphic writing after its discovery in the 1940’s. Karatepe alphabetic Phoenician was composed in times when Greek speakers began to adopt alphabetic writing via their encounter with alphabetic Phoenician as a writing culture.

The images depict human figures interpreted as deities, mixed beings, and humans in scenes of worship, cult and funerary rites. Text and images together make up the memorial monument of a historical dynasty where script, language and selected visual narratives are combined to define and delineate local identity. This is the only preserved monumental art and inscription in situ that portrays the cultural encounters and diversity characterizing the Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean world, otherwise mainly recognized through the mobility of material culture in form of portable luxury goods such as ivory objects or silver vessels.

Along with its ancient remains, the Karatepe-Aslantaş project exemplifies one of the earliest cases of a mutual interaction between an archaeological team and local communities. The successful running of the Karatepe-Aslantaş project that lasted for decades resulted in an interchange of human values among the local and the archaeological community, solely based on Çambels vision.

Halet Çambel convinced locals of the utmost importance of the site not only as a single archaeological monument but with its surrounding natural habitat. She inspired village women to carry on their traditional crafts such as weaving kilims by using natural dyes and men to develop their wooden craftsmanship. Within a decade, Karatepe kilims and wooden artefacts produced a stable income and Çambel organized local villagers to participate in tourism fairs. At present, the Karatepe kilim has become a brand name. To save the forest Çambel convinced the local community to abandon keeping goats and to rather turn to keeping sheep with the added benefit of producing good quality wool for weaving. Furthermore, Çambel organized school and craftsmen workshops. In the final analysis, the villagers of Karatepe benefited both in economic and social ways from their interaction with the site and its environment without having to change their traditional way of living. This is not only a first in the concept of sustainable cultural heritage, but a first in its implementation on a universal level.

Criterion (iii): The settlement complex of Karatepe-Astantaş/Domuztepe located on the banks of a major Taurus stream bears testimony to a continuum of a tradition connecting resource rich highlands with urban centers of the lowlands, and the Mediterranean harbours of the latter connected all involved to the open sea and the world beyond. The settlement has an exceptional location linking overland routes, most prominently the Akyol, with mobility on and along the ancient Pyramos River. The remains of the 8th century BC fortress of Karatepe-Aslantaş exemplify one moment in time of the stratified continuity where in the monumental writing and images we witness how this tradition contributed to the identity of one particular Iron Age city-state. The languages and civilizations of the region have changed and disappeared in time, yet this way of life still persists in the rural area surrounding the site in spite of changes in mobility due to modern technology.

Criterion (iv): Karatepe-Aslantaş castle settlement, ancient Azatiwataya, is an outstanding example of the architectural and technological development in Late Hittite Period with its site selection and architectural design. In particular, its northern and southern fortification gates, still standing in situ, with sculptures and inscriptions are rare examples of their kind.

In order to consolidate and sustain the values of the site, in 1952 Halet Çambel made three decisions to guide her in future: protecting the site, protecting the environment and respecting the local community. Çambels vision considered that the Karatepe-Aslantaş area is more than the sum of archeological remains. She conceived its location in a particular landscape as its defining feature. She also recognized that the local community was well adopted to that specific environment and had developed a culture particular to that specific region. The initial step to actualize her vision was to find means for preserving what had been exposed, at that time near impossible to achieve. She brought in experts from Italy for conservation and to plan a protective shelter which in spite of all odds was built in 1962. The conservation and restoration of inscribed and engraved basalt blocks in situ stands as the earliest practice in an open air environment and the shelter is the earliest example not only in Turkey but in the world. Thus, both the consolidation and reintegration of the archaeological remains as well as  the protective shelter combined stands as one of the earliest outstanding examples of sustainable cultural heritage preservation and management, before even this current terminology for such practices was developed.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The excavated area of Karatepe-Aslantaş signifies the remains of a short-lived citadel. After being used for several generations the fortress was abandoned and nature took over. Thus, the excavated area has preserved its authentic architectural identity. The excavations started as an archaeological research and have evolved into a project including in situ conservation of the architectural remains, their presentation within the natural and historical context and preservation of the natural and man-made environment. The stone conservation works carried out in the field by the Central Restoration Institute of Rome in the 1950s and were implemented with utmost respect for the authenticity of the remains. The protective shelter, which was built in the same period, is a special design that takes into consideration the picturesque appearance of the area, the aesthetics of the ruin and values the surrounding cultural landscape. There is no intervention in the archaeological site, which disrupts the authenticity. Quite to the contrary, the authenticity of the site is protected and enhanced by sensible and sensitive practice.

Karatepe-Aslantaş with its exposed and managed architectural remains reveals an exceptional picture of an Iron Age citadel in integrity. There is no threat to the integrity of the site. The area is under the protection of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as it is a registered open-air museum. Moreover, Çambel as part of her long-term vision had initiated and succeeded that the site together with its surrounding natural forest area was registered as a historic natural park, and thus is party to strict regulations of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Comparison with other similar properties

There are a number of comparable Eastern Mediterranean Iron Age fortified remains of settlements with monumental sculpture and inscriptions in Southeast Anatolia and North Syria. These are known as Syro-Hittite sites. Prominent examples would be Karkamish, Zincirli/Sam’al, Sakçegözü, Tell Tayinat/Unqi. Their monumental art reflects usually the culture of one dynasty and one region, the imagery is homogenous until in time they submit to the most important power of their time, the Assyrian Empire, which then is also reflected in the imagery, as well. These sites also have monumental inscriptions but they are always in a single language and script at a given time. The Karatepe-Aslantaş/Azatiwataya fortress stands out among these with regards to the bilingual inscription engraved in both gates. This text in two languages and scripts reflects a crucial moment during a major change in the Eastern Mediterranean where in administration and trade alike a shift from syllabic writing, whether cuneiform or hieroglyphic, to alphabetic writing, first spread by Phoenician then adopted by Greek speakers, occurred. Karatepe exhibits the legacy of a cultural encounter during a major shift in writing culture that is of global interest and universal value, for which there are no similar comparable properties. Also, the site is unparalleled in its visual heterogeneity where imagery from Anatolia, Syria, the Levant, Cyprus, the Aegean and Iran are brought together for display. This too is unparalleled in comparable sites and makes this property unique and outstanding.

The Karatepe-Aslantaş/Domuztepe archaeological zone stands one of the earliest examples of an archaeological site protected and preserved in its natural environment. As early as 1950’s it stands out as the first pre-classical site where sculptured and inscribed remains have not been transported to museums but conserved and restored in their original location. In almost every site in Anatolia and beyond when sculptured and inscribed remains were encountered, the pieces deemed most significant have been transferred to and reconstructed in museums with no regards to their original setting. Thus, Karatepe-Aslantaş succeeded as an open-air site in its original location as early as the 1950’s and thereby defined the principles of site management respectful of the archaeological remains, nature and the cultural landscape.