Archaeologists have discovered rare ancient carvings of Assyrian deities in an underground complex in southeastern Turkey. This unprecedented finding may indicate that “soft politics” were being conducted in a border region of what was the most powerful empire in the world nearly 3,000 years ago.
The carved scene represents at least six gods, including Hadad, the Mesopotamian storm god, the moon god Sîn, the sun god Šamaš, and Atargatis, the local fertility goddess. The discovery is described in a paper recently published in the journal antique†
The nature of the discovery is also unusual. For example, in 2017, police found the underground complex after following a secret passage to it from a modern two-storey house in the village of Başbük, about 50 kilometers from the town of Şanlıurfa.
Selim Ferruh Adalı, co-author of the paper and philologist at the University of Social Sciences in Ankara, says the complex appears to have been first discovered during the construction of the house several years earlier. However, the discovery was not reported to the authorities as required by Turkish law. Instead, tunneled loot from the house to the underground passages. The looters were eventually captured. It does not appear that they have damaged the notches.
Mehmet Önal, the paper’s lead author and head of archeology at Harran University in Şanlıurfa, first saw the underground sections by the flickering light from a lamp.
“It felt like I was participating in a ritual,” he recalls. “When I saw the very expressive eyes of the storm-god Hadad and his majestic, solemn face, a slight shudder went through me.”
Imperial style, local symbolism
The underground complex consists of hundreds of meters of corridors, stairs and galleries carved out of the rock. Both the complex and the sections seem unfinished. Scientists speculate that construction was stopped unexpectedly, probably in the early eighth century BC.
An inscription next to the sections shows a partial name. The researchers believe that it says ‘Mukīn-abūa’. It is possibly Mukīn-abūa who was mentioned in Assyrian records from about 2700 years ago as governor of the provincial capital Tušhan. This place is located about one hundred and fifty kilometers east of the modern village of Başbük.
Adalı suggests that if this reading is correct, it could mean that Mukīn-abūa got the underground complex and carvings made. He would have resigned as he was no longer governor.
The ancient gods are depicted in procession on a nearly four meter wide rock wall. Six faces can be seen and four of the gods are recognizable. For example, the storm god Hadad holds three thunders. Each delicately sculpted portrait, the largest of which is over three feet in height, shows the head and torso of a god. The lines of the pictures are applied with black paint. These may have served as a guide for the artists when they carved stones away to depict the figures in relief.
Adalı notes that while some features of the gods are clearly Assyrian, such as their rigid posture and the particular style of their hair and beard, many details in the carvings show strong influences from the local Aramaic culture. Aramaeans had lived in the region for centuries before falling under the rapidly growing Assyrian empire in the ninth century. They came under the control of kings who lived far east in northern Mesopotamia.
Adalı also notes that the inscriptions next to the carvings are written in Aramaic and the gods are called by their Aramaic names instead of their Assyrian names. ‘It’s primarily about Aramaic symbolism, mixed with Assyrian style,’ he says. He adds that the deliberate mixing may have been an attempt by the distant Assyrian rulers to integrate with the local rulers rather than to rule by force.
Archaeologist Davide Nadali of Sapienza University in Rome agrees that the carvings’ unique artistic mix of Assyrian and Aramaic elements sheds interesting political light on the relationship between the mighty empire and one of its most important territories.
“The Aramaic inscriptions emphasize the intention to engage in dialogue with local communities, and the use of the Assyrian figurative style demonstrates the need to interact with Assyrian political power,” he wrote in an email.
This article was originally published in English on nationalgeographic.com