Çatal Höyük, located 52 km southeast of Konya, was a Neolithic settlement founded over 9,000 years ago. Inhabited continuously for over a millennium, it was one of the largest settlements of its time.
Çatal Höyük’s unique layout isn’t what most people imagine when picturing ancient settlements. It was a surprisingly dense and crowded place, not unlike our modern apartment complexes.
First discovered in 1958, Çatal Höyük was big news throughout the 1960s as the first excavations were taking place. But now, since the discovery of sites like Göbekli Tepe, it’s gotten lost in the shuffle from a touristic standpoint.
Furthermore, as far as we know, Çatal Höyük only contains settlements – no monolithic temples. Be that as it may, it’s absolutely worth visiting for those spending time in Konya, as it’s a relatively easy trip you can do in a few hours.
After an overview of the main site, we’ll also be covering the most significant art and artifacts uncovered there, most of which are being kept in Ankara and Konya. And check the very end of the article for tips on getting there from Konya.
What was Çatal Höyük?
Çatal Höyük was a densely pack settlement inhabited from 7400–6000 BC. And throughout its long history, archaeologists estimate that between 5000 and 8000 people lived there at any given time.
In Neolithic times, the settlement would’ve been situated right along the Çarşamba River. There would’ve marshlands nearby, along with lots more trees than we see today.
The convenient location allowed people to gather all they needed from their surroundings, such as clay, firewood, reeds and other building materials. There also would’ve been an abundance of fish.
But one of Çatal Höyük’s most peculiar aspects is that it contained no open courtyards or even walking paths between its structures. Archaeologists, therefore, hypothesize that residents got from place to place by walking along the rooftops! As uncomfortable as it may seem, the community put up with it for centuries.
The North Shelter
The earliest inhabitants lived in what’s now called the East Mound. The mound is home to two main shelters – North and South. But eventually, for some reason, Çatal Höyük residents moved over to the West Mound around 6000 BC. This area, however, remains inaccessible to the public.
Near the Çatal Höyük’s entrance, you’ll encounter a collection of model houses and a museum. But we’ll cover those further down below. If you have limited time, it’s worth spending most of it on the real thing.
Leaving the entrance area, the North Shelter, built to protect the ancient foundations from the elements, is the first structure you’ll see.
Even with the roofs missing, the surviving mudbrick foundations reveal how densely packed the settlement was. And as Çatal Höyük’s houses aged, residents built new structures atop preexisting ones instead of extending further outward.
Therefore, what you’re looking at from the viewing terrace is a mix of multiple construction layers spanning centuries.
One of the most striking facts about life at Çatal Höyük is that residents simply buried their dead within the floors of their own homes. Presumably, they felt compelled to remain close to their ancestors at all times.
Skeletons were often buried in a crouched position, often tied up. Younger people and babies who died prematurely were often buried with various artifacts and jewelry. The graves of adults, meanwhile, contained just a few basic items.
Another interesting feature is the small, narrow spaces between adjacent buildings. Residents used these as rubbish dumps! While waste in those days was entirely organic, it couldn’t have smelled very pleasant.
The walls of these houses were heavily covered in multiple layers of plaster. Some walls contained as many as 120 plaster layers, which was likely an accumulation of decades of centuries of constant use.
Many houses contained bull horns, while inhabitants decorated the walls with detailed reliefs. But as of yet, no larger communal temple has been discovered nearby. No known public buildings have been discovered, either.
Presently around the site, you’ll see large piles of sandbags, which have been placed to prevent further erosion and weathering.
As mentioned above, Çatal Höyük’s inhabitants likely walked from one place to another via the rooftops. With buildings constructed at varying heights, there was likely a complex network of ladders for easier access.
The ancient citizens likely spent most of their time outside above the city. Presumably, they also built things like shaded huts atop their roofs for relaxing and socializing, with the houses being reserved for cooking and sleeping.
In modern times, with so many people living in cramped, noisy apartments, it’s easy to romanticize the lifestyle of this era. But Çatal Höyük reveals that not all people in Neolithic times lived so simply or quietly.
The South Shelter
After a pleasant short walk through the open plain, you’ll encounter the South Shelter. The shelter has two entrances, with the first one situated at the upper level, overlooking the settlement from above.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the pit in the center, now protected by wooden beams. At 3 meters below the surrounding area, it’s the lowest part of Çatal Höyük discovered thus far.
It’s also where the oldest archaeological findings were discovered, dating back to 7250 BC.
The dramatic height difference reveals how much the settlement grew throughout its 1400 years of occupancy.
One problem which archaeologists now face is figuring out how to explore more of the bottom levels without destroying the surviving structures above.
After enjoying the view from the upper area, be sure to walk out and around the side, where you’ll find the other entrance.
From this vantage point, you’ll notice a large signboard indicating where an important painting was found. The original is now kept at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.
Don’t feel like you’re missing out on too much, though. The faded shapes can hardly be made out on the original, while the modern recreations are much more clear. But even then, it’s too abstract to determine what the painting really depicts.
Archaeologists believe it could be an overhead view of the town, with the shape above representing nearby Mount Hasan. That would make the image the first known city plan in the world!
On the other hand, some believe the shape at the top represents leopard skin. After all, many of the human figures in Çatal Höyük’s art are depicted wearing it.
Check further below to see the remainder of the art on display at the museum in Ankara.
Though difficult to see clearly, on the far end you can make out what seems to be original white plaster on the walls. Close to the central pit, meanwhile, is where another significant painting was discovered.
Known as the vulture painting, it’s also on display in Ankara. But through the glass case, the faint lines of the red ochre paint can’t be made out at all. Thankfully, you’ll find much clearer recreations at Çatal Höyük’s model houses.
The scene depicts a vulture next to a headless man. This suggests that residents practiced excarnation, or the practice of letting vultures pick clean the flesh of the deceased.
Fascinatingly, the image mirrors a significant carving at Göbekli Tepe, which also shows a vulture near a headless man. In addition to the physical practice of excarnation, both images may represent the spiritual transmigration of the soul. In many cultures, birds often symbolize the soul’s ascent to heaven.
It’s also worth noting that some bodies were found buried without their skulls! But other bodies were found completely intact, with no evidence of excarnation. Quite possibly, the practice was a privilege reserved for the elite.
The Model Houses
Back near the entrance, be sure to explore the museum and model houses. The museum contains excellent information on Çatal Höyük’s history and excavations. But little in the way of artifacts. For that, you’ll need to visit the museums in Ankara and Konya (more below).
Just next to it, the collection of model houses are very nicely done. They really help visitors picture what the dilapidated houses beneath the shelters once looked like.
The model houses, added in 2017, weren’t solely built for visitors, but for the archaeologists themselves. They were seen as an experimental way to test out the hypothesized construction techniques of the ancients.
For the project, they constructed the houses solely out of mudbrick and then plastered the walls white. They also used the same type of red ochre paint they believed Çatal Höyük’s residents used.
Furthermore, they even built and tested a real hearth within the structure, seeing how the smoke would’ve escaped. But the doors we see now are only for modern visitors, as houses in Çatal Höyük had none.
As mentioned earlier, inhabitants liked to decorate their walls with detailed murals, while they also dug burial pits right in their living rooms!
The presence of paintings, artifacts and skeletons suggest that they likely performed some type of ritual worship within the home.
Other things on display include storage bins for grain, and of course, multiple ladders leading to the rooftop.
Given the dark, smoky homes, the dead bodies beneath the floor, and the constant sound of neighbors walking on the roofs, life in Çatal Höyük seems to have been uncomfortable, to say the least.
But people lived this way for 1400 years straight. So either they didn’t mind, or there’s a key element we’re still missing.
Outside the museum, there’s an interesting massive recreation of the famous ‘Mother Goddess’ statue that’s now on display in Ankara.
And to get the full picture of Çatal Höyük, that’s where you’ll have to travel. But for those who can’t make it, enjoy the pictures below.
Art From the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, ANkara
While Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations mostly specializes in Hittite artifacts, a surprisingly large portion of it is dedicated to Çatal Höyük. And among the most well-known pieces on display is that of the ‘Mother Goddess’ figurine.
While a lack of writing means we’ll never know its true significance, the piece being a representation of the Cosmic Mother seems likely.
It’s a strikingly detailed portrayal of an obese woman – complete with fat folds and all. It’s almost as if they used a live model, but it’s hard to think of someone of that size living in Neolithic times.
She’s seated in between two leopards – or perhaps another type of large feline. And while her head was found missing, it’s since been recreated.
Unearthed in 1961, it dates to around 6000 BC, meaning it was crafted not long before Çatal Höyük’s abandonment.
While the piece mentioned above is the most famous by far, the museum also features numerous other rotund female figurines. The likely represented not just human fertility, but the cosmic womb – i.e., the physical creation of the universe.
Notably, thousands of years later, Egypt’s Karnak Temple would be consecrated to creation itself. But its official name also references Ipet, a pregnant hippo goddess.
Goddess worship in ancient cultures isn’t hard evidence that they functioned as matriarchal societies. Rather, returning to the cosmic womb was commonly considered the ultimate goal of each soul after death.
Elsewhere at the museum, you’ll find figurines of male humans and various animals.
All along the walls, meanwhile, are various paintings discovered at Çatal Höyük. The most detailed and impressive (at least as seen today) is the plaster relief of two sets of twin leopards.
Archaeologists believe the residents repeatedly added new layers of plaster and paint over the years, eventually resulting in its three-dimensional appearance.
We already mentioned the ‘city plan’ painting and the vulture painting above. But another significant painting is that of a large bull – the first painting discovered at Çatal Höyük. In fact, it was found on only the second day of excavations!
There are numerous smaller figures surrounding the bull, and it likely represents a hunting scene.
Other interesting paintings include geometric patterns, a scene of waterfowl, a deer hunting scene and images of a boar. One wonders if these were purely scenes from everyday life, or if they also had a double meaning – particularly astronomical.
But that’s not all. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations also contains various pieces of terracotta pottery. As the Pottery Neolithic Age didn’t begin until around 6400 BC, they’re among the world’s very oldest examples.
There are also many tools and pieces of jewelry made from bone, in addition to obsidian spearheads. Many clay balls were also discovered throughout the settlement, but nobody’s quite sure what they were used for.
And in the 2005 excavation season, a set of what appear to be small clay stamps were uncovered.
More From The Konya Archaeology Museum
While the main findings from Çatal Höyük are currently located in Ankara, there are a number of interesting artifacts on display at the Konya Archaeology Museum.
The museum is free to enter, while most visitors to Çatal Höyük use Konya as their base. So a visit really shouldn’t be missed.
The Konya museum contains a couple of different paintings, one of which is a long piece discovered in 2011 in the South Shelter area. Experts still can’t tell if it’s an abstract pattern or if it represented something tangible. It may even be a map of routes across the rooftops!
On the wall inside the case, meanwhile, is another fragment of a geometrical pattern, also discovered in the southern area.
Additionally, you’ll find a couple more Mother Goddess figurines like those on display in Ankara. And one of the most interesting items is a set of obsidian mirrors!
Interestingly, the nearest natural source of obsidian was Cappadocia, meaning Çatal Höyük was likely part of a larger trading network.
But the most striking items of all are original skeletons dug up on-site. One of them, sadly, belonged to a one-year-old infant. Discovered in 1999, the skeleton was found wearing beads on its wrists and ankles. It was just one of nine burials in the building where it was found.
Elsewhere is a plastered skull and jawbone discovered in 2004 – one of the most unique items ever discovered at Çatal Höyük. The skull’s face and eyes were painted red, while an artificial nose was recreated in plaster. And mysteriously, it was discovered in the arms of another buried woman.
While we don’t know for sure, this may have been related to a form of ancestor worship. And while it’s the only plastered skull discovered at Çatal Höyük thus far, similar findings have been made at other Neolithic sites in Turkey and the Near East.
If you’re staying in Konya and hoping to get to Çatal Höyük independently, it’s not too terribly difficult or expensive. You’ll need to arrange a taxi there, but it’s much cheaper if you first take a bus to the town of Çumra.
In central Konya, find the Karatay Otobus Terminal (not the main bus terminal) marked on the map above. From here, there are hourly buses departing for Çumra.
Unusually, despite the short ride, they’re large coach buses rather than minibuses. And you need to buy a ticket from the ticket booth inside.
The ride from Konya to Çumra takes about 40 minutes. And once at the Çumra bus terminal, walk out back to find the local taxi stand.
Seeing a foreigner, the driver will assume you want to go to Çatal Höyük. I arranged a price of 100 TL for the return journey and one full hour at the site. (Note: These are 2020 prices. If the value of the lira further declines, expect to pay a bit more.)
I originally thought I’d need more time, but the driver insisted that one hour was plenty. This turned out to be correct. Despite the language barrier, the negotiation went smoothly. The driver was polite and didn’t give me any hassle.
Arriving back in Çumra, simply buy a return ticket to Konya and wait for the bus.
(I’d only later learn that there’s an additional site to see around the area called Boncuklu Höyük. Had I known, I would’ve negotiated to include it in the journey. See below for more info.)
What NOT to Do:
Before trying the route outlined above, I made a failed attempt the previous day to reach Çatal Höyük via another method.
Just next to the Karatay Bus Terminal is something called the Eski Garaj. It’s also a large parking lot full of vehicles – mainly minibuses and local city buses.
I was advised by a woman at Konya’s official tourism office to go to the Eski Garaj and find a bus for the town of Karkın. The bus to Karkın is supposed to pass by Çatal Höyük on the way, and the woman assured me it would be easy to tell the driver to pick me up again on his journey back.
There is supposed to be only one such Karkın bus per day departing at noon. But walking all around the Eski Garaj area, I never found it. And upon asking several different people about it, they all pointed me toward the coach bus to Çumra.
I waited around until noon, thinking it might show up just beforehand. But the bus never appeared, and I’m sure I didn’t overlook it. Not only did I check every corner of the Eski Garaj, but bus drivers in Turkey typically call out the destination in hopes of getting as many passengers as possible.
I ended up wasting nearly an hour waiting for the non-existent bus. And once I realized it wouldn’t come, I’d also have to wait an additional hour for the next Çumra bus to depart. I gave up and decided to try the following day instead.
The Karkın bus is also recommended by Wikivoyage, but I’d advise everyone to follow the Çumra/taxi method mentioned above.
About 10 km to the north of Çatal Höyük is an additional site called Boncuklu Höyük. Amazingly, it’s even older than Çatal Höyük!
No mention of Boncuklu Höyük had come up in my prior research, so I didn’t even learn of it until seeing it mentioned at the Çatal Höyük museum.
According to reviews, not a whole lot has been uncovered yet, as archaeological excavations are still in their early phase.
I would’ve liked to go there anyway, but I’d already struck a deal with a taxi driver in Çumra for one hour at Çatal Höyük.
Boncuklu Höyük is in the opposite direction from Çumra. And considering the language barrier, I didn’t want to greatly complicate the situation and have to renegotiate a brand new arrangement.
But now that you know, I’d recommend you try to negotiate both sites from Çumra for a total of 90 minutes for around 150 TL.
Konya can be reached by plane from many other Turkish cities, and the airport is just about 13 km from the center. It’s even directly connected with several cities in Europe.
As one of Turkey’s larger cities, Konya is very well connected by bus. If you’re coming from either Cappadocia or Antalya, it’s an easy 4-5 hour ride from either.
To buy an onward bus ticket, you don’t need to go all the way to the otogar (bus terminal). Most of the major bus companies have ticket offices around Alaeddin Hill.
Konya is also accessible by rail, with the train from Ankara only taking around 75 minutes.
I stayed at the Aziziye Hotel. As the name suggests, it’s just in front of the Aziziye Mosque.
While it’s about a 10-15 minute walk from Alaeddin Hill, it was quite close to the Mevlana Museum and other attractions. Furthermore, it’s within walking distance of the Mevlana Cultural Center.
Additionally, for those visiting Çatal Höyük, Aziziye Hotel is within walking distance of the local bus terminal needed to get there.
The staff hardly spoke English, but they were friendly and helpful nonetheless. Breakfast was not included, but they charged a reasonable 10 TL for it. Anyway, you’ll have access to tons of restaurants and eateries as soon as you step outside.
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.