Situated 160 km east of Ankara in the central Anatolian plains – a region where few tourists venture – is a largely ignored yet highly significant ancient site. Alaca Höyük was inhabited for thousands of years, but the most interesting findings come from the Hittites and the mysterious Hattian culture.
Originally settled in the Chalcolithic Period (6000–3000 BC), Alaca Höyük peaked in the early Bronze Age. The Hattians, who made Alaca Höyük their capital, lived here between 2500-1700 BC, during which they produced some of Anatolia’s most remarkable artwork.
Later, when the Hittite Empire took over Anatolia, they took great inspiration from the Hattians. They designated Hattusa, about 25 km away from Alaca Höyük, as their capital. And they occupied this site as well, leaving behind the iconic Sphinx Gate.
After the fall of the Hittites and a 300-year ‘dark period,’ during which the site seems to have been continually occupied, the Phrygians arrived in 900 BC.
Controlling the area for the next four centuries, many of their interesting artifacts can be seen at the on-site museum.
In modern times, Alaca Höyük was discovered by W.G. Hamilton in 1835, and it was excavated throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, it became the country’s very first archaeological site, with major excavations taking place throughout the 1930s.
Though you’ll need to hire a private driver, Alaca Höyük can easily be visited on your way to Boğazkale, the town in Çorum Province next to the Hattusa ruins. Learn more about arranging a visit below.
Exploring Alaca Höyük
Before or after your tour around the ruins, be sure to visit the on-site Alaca Höyük museum. Opened in 1982, it contains lots of detailed information in English, along with pottery and art from the Chalcolithic, Hattian, Hittite and Phrygian eras.
Just outside, meanwhile, are the original light rail cars used to carry off soil during the 1930s excavations. They were dedicated by President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself, who took a great interest in the site and in Hittite culture in general.
All in all, the archaeological site of Alaca Höyük is quite small. Together with the museum, your visit should only take around 60-90 minutes.
The Sphinx Gate
Arriving at Alaca Höyük, the first thing you’ll notice is the Sphinx Gate – easily the visual highlight of the entire site. It was added by the Hittites and it closely resembles the Sphinx Gate of nearby Hattusa.
But unlike at Hattusa, the sphinxes here are the originals, and both are in a great state of preservation.
The sphinxes, carved in the 14th century BC, stand at two meters high. And they originally stood beneath a large arched entryway.
On the inside of the right sphinx, notice the well-preserved carving of the double-headed eagle, a symbol considered to be sacred. While now faded, the image of a queen was probably depicted above it, though only the hemline of her dress remains.
But don’t step through the gate just yet, as there are plenty of details to admire along the outer walls.
Alaca Höyük is the only Hittite-era site discovered with its orthostats, or decorative carvings which adorned the bases of walls, still left in place.
While various later ‘Neo-Hittite’ sites from centuries after the Hittite Empire’s dissolution contained their orthostats intact (many of which can be seen at the Gaziantep Archaeological Museum), the ones here are Turkey’s very oldest.
The carvings are rich in symbolism and give us a clear picture of some of the Hittites’ festivals and religious rites. We see libations being poured as offering to the gods, as well as goats and rams being prepared for sacrifice.
The carving at the edge of the lefthand wall shows the king and queen praying in front of an altar, next to which is a bull. The bull represented the Hittite storm god which they took directly from the Hattians.
Elsewhere, we see an interesting scene of musicians playing music next to a ladder.
Many of these orthostats and more are on display at Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. But given how many of them are exact duplicates, it’s not entirely clear which site possesses the originals.
While it seems like the originals are those in Ankara, the museum contains models of the sphinxes which are clearly replicas (though not labeled as such), further adding to the confusion.
Be that as it may, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations also contains additional sculptures from Alaca Höyük that can’t be seen at the site.
One example is a lion-shaped cornerstone which features carvings of a bull and a winged sun disk. It was originally discovered to the right of the sphinx gate.
Touring the Site
Alaca Höyük is not very large and the order in which you visit the landmarks isn’t that important. The site is shaped like an oval, with the longest path taking you around the outer periphery.
There are also a couple of paths leading from inside the Sphinx Gate to the center, where you’ll find the main temple and tombs. I decided to first take a right, touring the site in a counter-clockwise direction, before visiting the central areas at the end.
From the eastern edge of the outer trail, you’ll be overlooking various nondescript building foundations. Thankfully, the helpful informational signage provides some clarification.
Some of these buildings functioned as grain silos. They date from the era of the Hittites, who grew things like wheat, barley, beans, spices and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Nearby, archaeologists have also discovered a metal workshop. The Hittites used furnaces, kilns and blowpipes to smelt various metals, including copper, silver, gold and iron. They’d then pour them into molds made of stone or terracotta.
As we’ll cover below, the Hattians had already mastered working with various metals, and many amazing metal artifacts were found within Alaca Höyük’s tombs.
After admiring the scenery from the viewing platform to the north, walk over to the western edge of the circle where you’ll find one of the most interesting sections of Alaca Höyük.
It’s an underground tunnel, known as the Postern, that visitors are free to walk through.
The short tunnel has amazingly been kept in place for at least 3,000 years. But while one might think it was some sort of secret passageway, it actually functioned as one of Alaca Höyük’s official entrances.
This entrance was meant for pedestrians only, while chariots or large ensembles had to use the main Sphinx Gate at the front.
The arrangement makes more sense if you picture the city as having been entirely fortified, as can be seen in the model on display at the local museum. With the walls mostly missing, this tunnel is the only section of the site that looks and feels exactly how it did in the Bronze Age.
The Small Temple
Getting closer to the entrance, you’ll pass by the Small Temple in the southwest section of the site. While little remains, one can clearly make out some of the large foundation stones which were also adorned with orthostats.
Information is lacking, but some of the pieces on display in Ankara may have been taken from here as well.
Despite its name, the Small Temple once consisted of no less than 11 different rooms. It’s unclear, though, which specific Hittite deities were worshipped here.
Moving on, it’s time to visit the series of tombs in the center.
From an archaeological perspective, this set of thirteen tombs is the most significant part of Alaca Höyük. They date from the Early Bronze Age period when this settlement served as the capital of the Hattian Kingdom.
The Hattians were one of Anatolia’s most dominant cultures before the emergence of the Hittite Empire, ruling central Anatolia from 2500-1700 BC. They spoke their own language, which the Hittites understood and later used in many of their rituals.
While we know little about them, they were so dominant that ancient Akkadian and Assyrian records referred to Anatolia as the ‘Land of the Hatti.’ In fact, even once the Hittites gained control over the region, they continued calling it the ‘Land of the Hatti’ themselves!
Occupied by kings, queens, monks and nuns, the rectangular tombs were built of stone before being covered by wooden planks and then buried in soil.
Interestingly, all of the bodies were found buried in fetal positions and placed in the northwest part of each pit
In addition to the amber, onyx, clay and various metal artifacts, bullheads were placed within the tombs as well.
As evidenced from these tomb findings, Hattian culture was both artistically rich and technologically advanced for its time. Even as early as 2500 BC, the Hattians were very adept at metallurgy, working with bronze, copper, electrum, iron and gold.
Most of the significant pieces are now on display at Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. And the findings are so numerous that quite a big portion of the museum, arguably Turkey’s most famous, is dedicated to Alaca Höyük alone.
The most interesting findings that have since become a symbol of Hattian culture are the bronze Sun Disks. Notice how some of them have bull horns attached, which probably represented their storm god Taru. The sun, meanwhile, surely represented the sun goddess, his mythological wife.
Scholars believe that the disks would’ve been attached to sticks and carried around in ceremonies, possibly even making a sound.
Also within the tombs were numerous bull and deer figurines, along with a few small figurines of humans.
In addition to some beautiful jewelry, one of the most remarkable pieces found here is a dagger comprised of gold, bronze and iron. In fact, it’s the oldest iron object ever discovered in Anatolia!
As most people visiting Boğazkale will end up passing through Ankara at some point, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations should not be missed. There are, however, a few interesting tomb findings on display at Alaca Höyük’s on-site museum as well.
And while I didn’t get a chance to visit, those passing through the city of Çorum will find even more artifacts at the Çorum Museum.
Currently at the tombs themselves, you’ll find some replicas of the Sun Disks and other art pieces lying about. Also notice the animal bones and skulls, which were found placed atop the wooden roofs rather than inside the pits.
Animal sacrifices likely took place within the pits before they were covered over. And archaeologists believe that funeral attendees probably consumed the meat as part of the funeral rites.
The Main Temple
The Main Temple, just to the north of the Sphinx Gate, once covered an area of 5000 m2. It originally featured a central courtyard in the middle, lined with galleries on either side.
Archaeologists believe that it was the area to the temple’s northwest that once housed the primary cult image. Around the temple, meanwhile, were private residences, most likely for the royal family and high priests.
While not on the level of grandeur as nearby Hattusa, Alaca Höyük is well worth the effort to visit for those coming out to this part of Turkey. And as mentioned above, a visit here is greatly complimented by a trip to Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
For those coming from Ankara, you will first need to take a bus headed to Çorum, the provincial capital. But before the final stop, get off at a town called Sungurlu. The ride takes just a couple of hours from Ankara.
I took a Kamil Koç bus which departed from Ankara’s main bus terminal at 11:00.
There is no public transport to Alaca Höyük, so you will need to take a taxi. And at the time of my visit, there was no public transport to Boğazkale, the location of Hattusa and many hotels, either.
Luckily, taxi drivers are waiting in the Sungurlu bus terminal parking lot. And while they don’t speak much English, they’ll immediately understand that you want to see Hittite stuff.
You should be able to arrange a ride from Sungurlu to Alaca Höyük and then onto Boğazkale for around 200-250 TL (though this price may keep getting higher due to inflation). This includes roughly 60-70 km of driving and waiting time at Alaca Höyük.
While you may be able to haggle it down for less, these guys know you have no other options in a small town like Sungurlu.
There are a surprising number of hotels in Boğazkale. But if you’re a budget traveler, you’ll notice that prices are higher than many other parts of Turkey.
I ended up choosing Baskent Demiralan Hotel which I’d recommend to other travelers. It was one of the cheaper hotels in town, and I paid 140 TL (about $18) for one night, which included breakfast.
The room was spacious and clean, but the wifi did not work at all.
While not exactly in the town center, the location is the best one can hope for when it comes to touring the ruins, as it’s easily walkable from both Yazılıkaya and Hattusa.
The staff didn’t speak much English, but they were friendly and helpful when it came to booking a taxi back to Sungurlu the following day.
For those who want to see all of the Hittite ruins in the area of Boğazkale without spending more time than necessary, two days and one night should suffice.
Arriving at Sungurlu from Ankara, arrange for a taxi driver to take you to Alaca Höyük and then onto Boğazkale from there. Then upon checking into your hotel, walk to the center of town to see the Boğazkale Museum before it closes in the evening (19:00 at the time of my visit, though this may vary by season).
Boğazkale features two archaeological sites: Hattusa, the large capital city area, and Yazılıkaya, an open-air temple area featuring rock carvings. Hattusa opens from 10:00 am while Yazılıkaya is open earlier in the morning, so that’s where you should start.
You can then walk a few kilometers over to Hattusa and begin exploring. While most Turkish visitors get around the site by car, it’s all walkable if you’re reasonably fit.
Finishing up with the site in the afternoon, you can have your hotel arrange a taxi back to Sungurlu, upon which you can catch a bus back to Ankara, arriving by evening.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.