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Middle East Monica Dispatch

Now, THAT's Old! Remains of the City of Çatalhöyük
February 12, 2000

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Heading up the mound of Catal Hoyuk
Screee!!!! Scuuuu-reeeee! The engine revs and roars as the driver tries to maneuver out of the icy, snowy mud. This is the second time I've had vehicle trouble visiting ancient ruins: the first was at Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City. While those pyramids still stand and provide a record of Aztec life, the ruins I'm visiting today in southern Turkey are no longer standing. Instead, they're buried under layers and layers of mud-the same mud in which our car is stuck!

I'm at Çatalhöyük, (pronounced CHAT-tall HOO-yuck), one of the oldest human settlements in the known world.

The ruins, buried in a mound at the top of a hill overlooking the Konya plain, date to the Neolithic Era. When you think old, like really old -- as in the beginning of humankind -- you probably think of southern Africa.

Expert Fact

Expert Photo Did you know that Çatalhöyük (pronounced cha-TAL hoo-YUUK) is one of the earliest known examples of an agricultural settlement?

EXPERT: Rusty Rook, Assistant Director Center for Mid East Studies
Bet you didn't know that Anatolia is the runner-up. Some of the oldest human remains ever found were in Turkey! Human remains a million years old were found just 20 miles away from Istanbul. Hunters and gatherers were hunting and gathering all throughout Anatolia, and the earliest towns were also created here, as early humans spread north and east from southern Africa.

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Monica looking down at ruins
World's oldest saltshaker
While Çatalhöyük wasn't the world's first city (Jericho is the world's first city, and we just visited that still-existing city during the Israel/Palestine stage), it is one of the best-preserved. The denizens of Çatalhöyük are believed to have lived there sometime between 8000 and 6250 BCE. However, after a thousand years of living there and building and rebuilding their houses on top of each other (making a mound 20m (sixty-six feet high), the people upped and left, for unknown reasons. This meant that the town remained in good condition, buried under dirt and untouched until the first excavation by James Mellaart in 1960. Mellaart continued with more digs from 1961-1965 with the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, then Ian Hodder started the present excavation in 1993, with the University of Cambridge.

Archaeologists have found that Çatalhöyük was a city of "firsts". It was the first to have irrigation. The inhabitants grew barley, lentils, peas, and two kinds of cultivated wheat. They also collected apples, hackberries, almonds, and pistachios. Sounds yummy! Maybe the food was a good reason for them to create the world's earliest known ceramic salt-shaker.

denizens - inhabitant
irrigation - a system of bringing water to land that would otherwise be dry; like plumbing for fields

Çatalhöyük was also the first city with domesticated animals: they kept dogs, goats, sheep, cattle, and also hunted aurochs (wild oxen), pigs, and 3 kinds of deer. They found honey and wax from bees.

What is most fascinating to me is how the people of Çatalhöyük lived. They were sophisticated in ways that I didn't think Stone Age people could be. The 5000 people here lived in houses, set close to each other, and they entered through holes in the roofs. They had shrines with Bucrania (plaster-covered bull skulls) and statuettes, like a fertility goddess figure that's preserved in the museum on-site. They painted on the walls: they drew figures of men and women, bulls, rams, and deer. Later on, they drew geometric figures and pictures of birds like vultures and herons. To paint, they used natural dyes, like red, yellow, and brown from iron oxides, blue from azurite and green from malachite. They also plastered their walls to create a nice surface. They buried their dead, sometimes underneath the houses, with necklaces, pendants and rings for the children. They were the first people in Anatolia to make and use fired-clay pottery. They also worked with materials like obsidian and flint and even made textiles out of plant fibers and hides. Maybe my images of a bunch of cavemen grunting are out-of-date. While Çatalhöyük today looks like little more than a big mound of dirt with some walls inside, the remains of this older-than-old city give us clues into the ways the earliest human societies developed.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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