I have a great fondness for Turkey. No, not because it is like Indonesia, a young democracy with a large Muslim population where you could find lots of women with headscarves but also those wearing tank tops and tight jeans. Although in many ways the country is superior to ours. There the streets are clean and the public transportation works beautifully. While the lengths they go to when it comes to promoting their country and their tourism are something this country could certainly emulate. But these are modern, pedestrian stuff.
It is Turkey’s past that fascinates me. Not the past of Ataturk and the Young Turks, but further back, before present-day Turkey was born, beyond the glory of the Ottoman Empire and the diamonds and rubies the size of chicken eggs that you could ogle at Top Kapi Palace. Even beyond the ages of the prophets of the Holy Books whose relics are displayed at the same palace a few rooms down those displaying the Ottoman Caliph’s treasures. (Let’s see. There is the footprint of the Prophet Muhammad: A few hairs from his venerable beard encased in glass tubes: The staff of Moses – smaller than I thought. The chopped off arm of Prophet John still inside the armour: Prophet Abraham’s cooking pot. Imagine that!)
Indeed in Turkey we could trace back the time to the ages of the Seljuks, the Byzantine, the Romans and the Greeks where their remnants in the form of well-preserved ruins, restored artefacts and works of art, bring to life those stories we’ve only read in history books and mythologies. This is the home of Troy of the Trojan Horse and Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships and the era when people wore togas and went to open-air theatres to watch gladiators fight and Christians thrown to the lions. But Turkey allows me to go back even further in time
Further still, into the depths of our origin that even our most ancient history is unable to reach. And this could only be found in Turkey.
At a place called Catalhoyuk, thirty miles from the town of Konya - the place where the great poet and scholar Jalaluddin Rumi found divine inspiration through the pangs of love and longings to merge with the Universal Being and manifested in his poetry and his dizzying and constant whirling that is still practiced by Sufis until today.
A few decades ago, archaeologists unearthed in these rolling plains, remnants of human settlement that, according to carbon dating, went back as old as 9000 years ago! That’s even older than the ages of the patricians, of Abraham and Noah and probably even witnessed the great deluge that marked the end of the ice age. The Neolithic settlement was not a rudimentary collection of dwellings but consisted of sophisticated and structured buildings that were obviously well planned and could even pass as a prototype for a civilized city.
Findings rescued from the site could be seen at the Museum of Civilization in Ankara, that include skeleton remains of a buried person, household objects and objects of veneration, mainly fat female figures, most likely fertility goddesses as well as ritual objects in the form of horned skulls of bulls.
Each of the adobe house in Catalhoyuk (a small percentage of which is kept open by archaeologists and available for public viewing) is an identical space consisting of a room having a closed oven, presumably to prevent too much cooking smoke from filling the room, a store room at the back and raised levels on either side of the room for sleeping and below which they buried their dead. Ochre paintings have been found on the walls depicting hunting rituals and animals.
Although each house is a unique space with its own walls, constantly re-plastered as the thick layers showed, there is no space between each dwelling and its neighbours, so that the whole settlement somewhat resembles a honeycomb made up of identical square spaces.
There are no doors or windows to these houses, at least not in the normal sense. Instead there are steps leading up to an opening in the roof (whose shape and material was unclear but presumably flat and sturdy enough to carry the weights of people walking up and down it) that acts as entrance way and ventilation for the living space below.
So who were the people of Catalhoyuk? Well, obviously a pretty well organized and ordered society of more or less equal in social standing – every household had the same sized dwelling. Sociable, in that they lived close to one another and probably had lively interactions on the roofs of their houses that also doubled up as their main streets and public activities areas. They were attached to their dead as evidenced by the home burials and carried out some kind of spiritual rites involving sacred animals and fertility figures. They were not only hunters but also practiced agriculture and enjoyed cooked meals.
Moreover, they seemed to be quite aware of their surrounding - there is even a wall painting that looks like a map of the city with a nearby volcano - and thrived in thousands, living a life sheltered from the threat of wild animals (hence the roof entrance) and in harmony with one another, shown in the way they lovingly buried their dead and their proximity with their neighbours.
Being able to travel back in time to the earliest recorded findings of human civilization over nine thousand years ago, that’s the main reason why I find Turkey fascinating.
(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)