A Provincial Place

The mound emerges through the haze.

View to Sultantepe from the highway.

“There it is!” I shout to my companions. They respond with the kind of noises that men make when they have seen one site too many. They know where this is going.

“Now if we can just find the road to get there.”

More than 60 years ago the British archaeologist Seton Lloyd explored Sultantepe. He and co-director Nuri Gokçe wrote of it in their report: The site is “too conspicuous a landmark to have escaped the notice of travelling scholars in the past; but no record of their visits has ever been published” (Anatolian Studies 3 [1953]: 27).

“It certainly is conspicuous,” I think, eyeing “Sultan’s Hill” for the first time. Actually, anything with a vertical character on this plain would be conspicuous.

The border region between Turkey and Syria. Note the path of the Euphrates River on the left, including Lake Al-Asad (south of Kargamiş or Carchemish). Note also the Al-Balīkh drainage system that extends from Şanlıurfa in modern Turkey to Ar-Raqqah in modern Syria. From north to south the system is about 80 miles long.

I take in the view. It is hot. It is hazy. It is flat. Everyone is groggy. We travel an open road in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Şanlıurfa is our temporary home. Harran is our immediate goal. Of course, if one happens to pass other archaeological sites along the way, the opportunity should not be missed.

The Al-Balīkh basin is heavily canalized. The water extends farming opportunities in this chronically poor region.

The driver finds a road and we try it. Immediately we cross a engineered canal. It is a part of the GAP project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi), a controversial governmental initiative designed to raise the standard of living in this corner of Turkey. By damming the Euphrates (and other rivers in the region), energy is produced, water is redistributed, and agricultural productivity is extended into the steppes. The environmental consequences of this action has yet to be realized.

Still, cotton fields surround the highway and are one measure of the success of the project. Another measure is more immediate (or intimate!). A man clad only in white briefs stands on the edge of the canal as we drive by. He grins, waves grandly, and dives into the water. He surfaces. We laugh, wave back. It is a human moment. Before us, the road turns from asphalt to gravel and then to packed earth.

We enter the village. The mound rises behind the houses.

A village spreads before us like Sultantepe’s apron. The houses are low-slung affairs of unpainted concrete block. Mounds of manure dry in the sun. Tractors, wagons, and other mechanical equipment (or parts) are scattered about. Waste water drains through ruts.

Brad spots some John Deere equipment and hollers for a stop. As a tractor aficionado, he cannot miss the opportunity. He jumps out and heads over for a look. I angle in other direction, toward the tell. The others hang around the van and engage the local kids who magically appear. Mothers linger in the doorways and monitor the engagement from a distance. It is a conversation without words.

Keith remembers the chocolates in his pack and digs them out. Tommy does the same. The children appear grateful, but do not eat the treats. They stuff them into pockets.

Tanner, Keith, and the village kids.

I eye the mound where Seton Lloyd and Nuri Gokçe dug in the early 1950s. It is relatively small; its footprint is about the size of a soccer field. It rises 40 meters above the surrounding plain.

Taking levels. From Anatolian Studies 3 (1953): Plate III.

On the top, Lloyd and Gokçe investigated an Assyrian sanctuary from the late 7th century BC. An occupational gap followed. Resettlement occurred in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The top plan of Sultantepe. From Anatolian Studies 3 (1953): 29.

Most significant was a the discovery of library of clay tablets in the 1951 field season. The collection appears to have belonged to one Qurdi Nergal, a priest of the moon-god. Sumerian and Assyrian were the vehicles of communication here. Medical, astronomical, and literary texts were found in stacks. Most famous among these was a copy of the Mesopotamian flood-story, the Gilgamesh Epic. Given that Sultantepe was likely as provincial in antiquity as it is today, the presence of a library on this open plain is striking.