The year is 7500 BC. In the remote plains of the region now called Central Anatolia, a fairly large group of people (for that time) decide upon settling down on a wetland, where opportunities to obtain food and water are plentiful, and the presence of fish, birds, cattle and even areas of dry land that allow for agriculture create an ideal environment in which to build shelters of mud bricks and begin the world’s first known settlement – a drastic contrast to the hunter–gatherer lifestyle humans had heretofore followed. Here, they learned to cultivate plants for food, herd cattle for meat and milk, and, not much later, even to make pottery and clay implements, such as ovens, to aid them in their daily lives. Wall paintings and figurative art allowed these early settlers to express themselves and document their lives without knowing they were doing so. The houses they built, generation after generation, were mounded upon each other in their unique styles, and jammed together without any doors or windows, only opening through the roofs to allow for entry and exit. Clean and tidy, these people dumped their garbage in areas outside the city and kept their homes impeccable, although, in a rather morbidly contrasting practice, they buried their dead within their houses, one upon another. Everything about these people was unique and beyond their time, not only in comparison to other humans of that period, but also given the lack of general development and knowledge of the world back then.
If you haven’t already guessed what I’m talking about, it is none other than Çatalhöyük – the oldest known settlement in the world. The immaculate preservation of this site is largely due to its being buried beneath a mound. Though it does not resemble most Greek or Hittite sites – which remain visually preserved, still giving the gist of their original forms and colors – the site at Çatalhöyük, which in some ways resembles a giant ant colony, is nonetheless unbelievably well preserved for something that existed at a time so far in the past. The art, architecture and by-products of everyday activities to be found there give us a strikingly vivid idea of how these ancestral people lived.
When I walked upon the site, now laden with labels and numerical tags left behind by the archeologists who excavated there, I received a surreal sense of how small we are as humans, and how far back life, development, and progress have stretched before us; of how nearly all the things we take for granted would have been inconceivable at a time so distant, yet so near to ours as well. Among the walls of the same mound I now walk upon, over 9,500 years ago men and women, children and elders went about their daily lives. On the plains that I see from on top of the mound, a river flowed, from where the thirsty would get their water; men would hunt and women gather, and together they would herd cattle and grow food. Children would play and paint on the walls, as did the adults, who would also often spend time within these walls making tools and implements to improve the success of their hunting and gathering expeditions. It is a feeling difficult to describe in words, and is more easily felt when you realize that you’re standing on the very spot where someone went about their lives unaware of the future, in contrast to our knowledge of the past; or when you hold a small piece of broken pottery or obsidian in your hand and realize that most likely, this was last held all those thousands of years ago by someone who is a stranger to you, as you would have been to them.
Not many people come to Konya for the purpose of visiting Çatalhöyük. Indeed, it’s not an easy place to get to if you don’t have your own car, as I learned from experience as well as from the caretaker of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, who told us how, to his disappointment, no buses are available at any time of year for tourists who’d like to come to Çatalhöyük. Their best bet is to come by car or hitchhike, as I did. And that too, I would have never done had I not been in the company of my boyfriend, since Çumra, the closest town to Çatalhöyük, is quite small, and even hitchhiking proved difficult since the road to Çatalhöyük is little traveled.
It was, regardless, an experience that I’ll always remember as one of my favorite visits to a historic site, and an exciting one as that. Arriving early afternoon in Konya via the fast train from Ankara, we then took a minibus to Çumra, where within about 40 minutes we found ourselves in the car of a kind stranger who drove us all the way to Çatalhöyük. And after two hours of satisfactory exploration there, we found ourselves in the company of another kind stranger who not only took us back to Çumra, but also got us bus tickets back to Konya and recommended a wonderful place to eat that city’s famous etli ekmek (bread with meat), which was a delicious treat to end a thrilling and memorable day. From Konya, it was back to Ankara in a matter of two hours, taking with us a memory of 9,500 years’ worth of history. For anyone seeking a one-day escape from Ankara, I would urge you to see Çatalhöyük, difficult as that may be, for it isn’t a site to miss.