There isn’t any easy way to get there. You take a flight from Istanbul to Konya in the central South East of the country, centre of the Sufis and of the whirling dervishes, their spinning designed to induce a vertigo by which the Absolute can be accessed — and which now forms part of dinner and a show.
Konya is the conservative centre of the country, quiet solid Islam, city of a million with about three places you can buy a beer, and not one woman without a headscarf. City of mosques, muezzins and funfairs in the park. You need to get a dolmush — a minibus, a ‘stuffed’ as the term literally translates — from there going somewhere else. But it’s better to take a taxi, one of the old sprawling Mercedes, dumped here in the ’70s, when Germany and Turkey were tight like that.
We got a white one with smudged cream seats, like a minor gangster’s ride, old magazines and ayran cartons jammed above the dash. Still didn’t know where to ask to go, and the driver had the thunderous face of a lot of Turks, a perpetual mild anger, like they all lived in athe New York of a Scorsese film from the ’70s.
We got in and he fishtailed away: “Do you know a place called Shatal Huyyuk?’. In the rear-view mirror his face broke out in a broad smile. And then we were off speeding down the highway. We never stopped, and neither did he for the hour there, rabbiting on in Turkish. Andy, my translator, getting one sentence in three.
In 9000 BC, thousands of people, lived, were born and died here, for thousands of years then on. And here it still was.
There was across the plains, out of the city, past the raw concrete breezeblock outskirts and farms, past the farms, the olive and pistachio groves, bundled hay small flocks of sheep and lamb. There was close to the dead centre of Turkey now, Asia Minor as has been, countless names before that, known and lost, there would have once risen from the plain we were coming across as an extraordinary site, welcoming and forbidding and both. There was where almost all of us are from. There is where it all began.
Shatal Huyyuk, Catal Huyuk, Fork Hill in Turkish, though it was never called that or anything like it, a pyramidal hill, shielded now by vast screens against the weather and the wind. Fork Hill, because for the locals that’s all it was for hundreds of years;: an odd-shaped rise, grass-covered, with unusually sharp edges.
Too sharp once you looked at it, once you really looked it. James Melleart did, in the late 1950s. An archaeologist, having spent years working on the temples cities and ziggurats in Mesoptomia, he took a look at Fork Hill, grass covered, and wondered if there wasn’t more to it. In 1961 he began digging and found there was. Beyond what anyone could have hoped.
The mounds of grass, turf and mud yielded the sharp lines of a step pyramid. Then more than a pyramid because each unit within it was a room. Several rooms actually concatenated. Hundreds of them, piled one of top of each in a regular pattern. They could only be described as apartments.
Fork Hill was no religious artefact, no hallowed site, no village settlement. It was a small city, one which had not yet developed the concept of the corridor of the street. The ‘pyramid’ really has an extensive flat roof, beneath which three or four layers contained hundreds of apartments interlocked. Portals accessed the place from the top. Later researches revealed a moat. Material dating was done. It was initially thought to be 9000 years old. This was in error. Later researches showed it to be 11,000 years old. In 9000 BC, thousands of people, lived, were born and died here, for thousands of years then on. And here it still was. As we drove in, my breath caught. The cab driver became even more effusive. “He says ‘he always loves coming here’, ” said Andy.
Shattalhuyyuk was burrowed into old skool by Melleart pushing an enormous hole into the side of it. The Turkish government promptly shut it down and threw him out (for other reasons), for which they were much criticised. But their instincts were right. They were worried about antiquities robbers, about Jesus-freaks looking for Noah’s ark, but they also had an instinct that this was out of control.
They were vindicated 30 years later, when digging resumed under new archaelogical doctrines, which was: do it very, very slow. Since then, Turkish and international teams have been working a layer at a time, an apartment at a time, uncovering, dusting away, revealing.
When you go in, it’s all changed from what it was, because at some time in the 7,000 years after it was abandoned, the centre fell in, and with the debris cleared away it has become reversed, a gallery of open apartments on a central atrium that was never there. You have to remember it was never like this because it’s breathtaking.
There’s a type of excitement around Catal Huyuk. Everyone feels it, archaeologists, tourist staff, custodians, tourists themselves.
You see into dozens of these places, where people cooked, bickered, bedded down, woke up millennia and millennia ago. Outside the complex, they’ve recreated an apartment as it looked when the place was whole: whitewashed walls, a raised platform for the stuffed mattress, a wooden thatch ladder leading down into the living area, a hearth/stove dug into the wall.
The effect is staggering, because you realise, in an instant, that all this room needs is a Bang and Olufsen multimedia player in the corner, and it’s a cool loft of any of a hundred hip cities across the planet now. Nothing has changed. Nothing. To live in a room, with walls, to have neighbours and family, to negotiate and live together. The city precedes the village. Eleven thousand years later we are where we always were.
There’s a type of excitement around Catal Huyuk. Everyone feels it, archaeologists, tourist staff, custodians, tourists themselves. There is none of the difficult relations of tourism, the servility, the passive-aggresiveness, the dissatisfaction that attends thousands of people trooping round something alien to their lives that deep down, they couldn’t give a shit about.
Here, this matters. It matters to all of us. It matters to the people who attend and protect it, it matters to the people who visit it, wanting to see something, wanting to find something out. Why? Because, at the end of the day, at the end of the millennia, we know nothing about these people. Nothing at all. Whoever the Catalites were, they weren’t Turkic, Indo-European, Semitic or Sumerian. They came before. They may have come before agriculture. They may have been placed at the centre of ancient trade routes, particularly of obsidian, the dark stone that, when polished to a high sheen, becomes a mirror of sorts.
They may have herded, they may have not. They may have simply gone out to hunt and gather, and come back in the evening. They had mirrors, they had make-up, they had god knows what else that has rotted away without trace. They got rich on the fact that, 11,000 years ago, it was more important to people to perceive themselves through a stone glass darkly, than to grow food. Everything you were taught about our journey is wrong beyond wrong.
In every apartment there was art. Red and blue mosaics, sweeping across the wall. When I first saw them, I had one thought: ’70s.
They are so old, the Catalites, they predate the cow. They may have herded; if they herded it was the auroch, the lean, stringy, wild beast that became, through thousands of years, the soft meat machine known as the cow. The auroch had sharp horns like a steer. They appear to have worshipped it, or at least venerated it, because it appeared in all their art.
Oh, did I not mention the art? In every apartment there was art. Red and blue mosaics, sweeping across the wall. When I first saw them, I had one thought: ’70s. They have the air of ’70s art, of a cutting edge Greek restaurant in Armadale/Mosman/New Farm. The Turkish government took one look at them when the site was opened, ripped them out and put them in the National Museum at Ankara. Once again, quite wisely. They wouldn’t have survived the culture-capital revolution. Had they been ripped out, they would have been on the global art market gone beyond gone a decade ago. Now you can see a mock-up here and the real ones in the museum. Especially the bulls’ heads.
Did I not mention the bulls’ heads? The worship of the auroch expressed itself in a bull cult, not uncommon across the whole swathe of middle Asia. The broad shouldered bull font of strength, font of semen, featured big in whatever it was they believed. Everyone of these apartments — and , what is truly remarkable, everyone of the apartments has the exact same floorplan — had a bull’s head staring out at them. So every evening, as you went to sleep, the bull watched over you. You had come back to your apartment by way of other people’s apartments, go through all the twists and turns of the city to get to your bed, to sleep, to dream.
The visitors’ book of the mocked-up apartment made clear that everyone else felt the same awe as I did at Catal Huyuk.
And what would visit you in your dreams? The twists and turns of a city on a city, and the head of a bull, chasing you throughout. Yes, this is where, this must be where, Crete and all that came from. The minotaur, the escape, Ariadne’s thread. What young pair of lovers in this city, must not have felt they were being watched, did not long for escape? Did people lay down coloured thread to find their way back to where they lived in the evening? As hospitals now paint on the floor coloured pathways through their labyrinthes, emergency, outpatient, oncology, x-ray? Is the labyrinth prior to the city? Does the film noir of the ’40s, which figures the city as a lost maze of neon lights — a reflection of the mass population movements of WW2, millions of village boys thrown into the big city — join us to that ancient obsession? In our end, as the man said, is our beginning.
The visitors’ book of the mocked-up apartment made clear that everyone else felt the same awe as I did at Catal Huyuk. A lot of it was New Age junk — ‘we are all one under the great Osiris’ someone, German inevitably, had written anachronistically, unable to comprehend what a modern, modish variant Osiris was — but it was all heartfelt.
Our personal guide was a pudgy man in his late 20s who knew as much about stone/bronze age stuff as a professor, jabbering on, as we walked around. His kid, ten years old, was around doing small jobs, and will most likely, in turn, become a guide here. Everyone felt the importance of what was among them.
Finally we went back into the main dig itself, walked along the edge they were working, slowly slowly, spending years on one apartment. There were two rope lines green and yellow, the first to stop tourists clambering around, the second, the green to stop even archaeologists who werent on that section clodhopping through.
We stopped where the sole archaelogist that day was working, a young mid-20s woman, brown-skinned in khaki shorts, instantly desirable, very friendly. Andy talked to her in perfect Turkish, she let us beyond the yellow rope line to a metre from where she was working. She was poised over a floor pod, a stone recess, filled with hardened resin, dusting back and forth with a brush, slowly taking layers of the resin — but leaving the main prize, emerging slowly now, the shoulder and curved skull of an infant skeleton.
The Catalites were a skull culture, buried their dead beheaded, their skulls sitting in their lap. Stillborns and dead newborns got a different treatment, curled up as if in sleep, whole and entire, buried in the floor of the apartment, so they could stay with the family. Dust, dust, dust she went back and forth. She would be on this one skeleton for weeks. No-one had seen it since someone had laid it down in flesh seven, eight, nine thousand years ago with …what? With a prayer? With tears? We know nothing at all except that it was done with care. Care then, care now. Love then, love now.
And in that moment, in 2007, my life divided, the past from the future. At 40, I felt a gratitude to the universe that I had lived long enough for this moment. Things fell away, useless stuff, ambitions and envies, self-reproach and all the rest. I felt the human project in me, beyond differentiation, the spirit of purpose on the earth. I felt glad to be….I felt glad to be….. on this earth, to be there then now, witness to a people we know nothing about, people who can be claimed by no-one except humanity, people who fucked quietly to not wake the kids, who ate breakfast and banged the walls to stop the neighbours’ noise, people for whom life was a thing before them, as it is a thing before us, to make the best of, in all its crappy circumstances.
Much has recrudesced since then, grown over the obsidian mirror, but that gift has never departed, that perfect trade across the millennia. Tourism, difference, the pseudo-exoticism that gripped in the ’60s, has always bored me. What has enthralled is the points at which we find ourselves in common. Were millennia ago, and will be again.
For Ben and Katie, on their wedding.
This story was first published in Daily Review on July 15, 2015