Monday, June 6, 2011
Ankara's Sun Disk
Let me tell you the story of a monument that has intrigued me since I arrived in Ankara. This story starts 4,000 years ago.
Once upon a time, the Hittites established a kingdom in Anatolia, becoming one of the great powers of the ancient world. They conquered Babylon and challenged Rameses II’s Egypt, as well as Greece and Troy. The Hittites were referred to in the Old Testament as well as Egyptian and Assyrian records, but unlike other major civilizations of the ancient world, these brief references made up the only knowledge of the Hittites until relatively recently. In the 20th century, the cuneiform script of the Hittites’ Indo-European language was “cracked,” leading to the confirmation of both the extent and importance of this empire.
Hittite sites have since been discovered throughout Anatolia and northern Syria, the capital being Boğazköy (also known as Hattusas) 240km east of Ankara. Ankara is right in the middle of the Hittite’s old stomping ground.
In the 1930s, in Alacahöyük, a town near Boğazköy, 13 Royal Tombs were excavated, uncovering a vast collection of gold, silver, bronze, copper, and iron artifacts which date back to the early Bronze Age. These included figurines of bulls and stags. In the nearby city of Beycesultan, once a Hittite religious center, archaeologists uncovered shrines containing altars in the form of rams’ horns and bulls’ heads. I have viewed all these Hittite artifacts at the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ulus, Ankara several times.
But according to me, the most intriguing find in all these digs were the "sun disks," which were also found in the Royal Tombs.
Mystery surrounds these artifacts. We know not why they were placed in tombs, sometimes more than one in each. The majority of the sun disks are made of bronze, but two striking examples are in silver. Several of the sun disks are adorned with figures of stags and bulls and framed with bulls' horns. Due to the spiritual beliefs surrounding these animals, archeologists conjecture that the sun disks had some sort of ritual significance.
In the Hittite mythology, the stag was a protective deity. Other Hittite gods were often depicted standing on the back of a stag. The bull was equally revered. Tilla was a bull-god in both the Hurrian (the civilization preceding the Hittites) and Hittite pantheons. He is the attendant of the weather god, Teshub.
Archaeologists also conjecture that the disk shape is a representation of the sun. Also, many of the sun disks have projections coming out of the bottom as they were probably attached to the top of wooden poles for carrying. Poles with handles made of gold or silver were also found. Some of the decorative elements (animal figures and flower buds) are firmly attached to the disks, while others are left to make a jingling noise if paraded through rituals or festivals.
To me, these tiny sculptures and figurines on display at the museum seem potent and full of stories and wisdom. But these Hittite symbols have also become important symbols for the city Ankara.
The sun disk was adopted as Ankara’s official emblem when Vedat Dalokay was mayor in 1978. It was, and remains today, a controversial issue that arose from the new city’s desire to adopt an identity or a history. A Hittite symbol as Ankara’s official emblem suggests the country’s roots preceding Ottoman times, and refers to an ancient civilization which represents some of the first Turkic peoples who immigrated to Anatolia. Despite the emblem’s adoption, however, the nationalists did not like the idea of a Pre-Turkish symbol and the Islamists did not like the idea of a pre-Muslim symbol.
In Sihhiye, a mid-point between the northern region of the poor and the richer southern region of Ankara, a likeness of one of these Hittite artifacts has been sculpted into a monument. Traffic has been diverted around it, making the monument and its square an island surrounded by several urban motorways.
The initial controversy over the Hittite symbol bore its head again in the mid-90s when the symbol was finally changed. In 1995, Ankara’s official emblem was changed by Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek –a pro-Islamic mayor still in office today. The new emblem, which can be found all over Ankara, consists of a white silhouette of a mosque combined with Atakule Tower, the first shopping mall in Ankara, on a dark blue background. The mosque is not only reminiscent of ‘old Ankara’, the Islamic-Ottoman past, but also of the then recently completed Kocatepe Mosque, the largest one built in Ankara since the country became a secular republic.
Despite the official emblem being changed, the Hittite monument still stands in Sihhiye, and will forever be an icon of Ankara. It’s also worth noting that both Lausanne square where the monument is located and Abdi Ipekci Park are two places where many protests have taken place in Ankara. Consequently, the monument now contains some of the essence or connotation of “protest.”
So that sums up the four thousand years since the icon was created. But today, I sit on a narrow medium of green grass, a few scraggly rose bushes around me, surrounding by major roads on both sides. It is a quiet Sunday morning, and I am here to sketch the monument that has always caught my eye. I am not alone. A few public service employees surround me. Their job is to landscape the small square and medians surrounding the monument. They stop by one by one to look over my shoulder, and comment in Turkish, “Very nice,” and “Take it easy.” When I asked one of these men how to spell Sihhiye, he said, “I don’t know. Ask my friend.” And when I wrote down several possible spellings, his friend looked at all three and said, “Yes, that is where we are.” I found it endearing that despite their probably living and working in the city center their whole lives, and even adding beauty to it with their rose bushes and green grass, none of them knew how to spell the name of the area in which we were. One even asked if when I was done, I would give it to him. It seems that no matter what you know of it, everyone is a bit intrigued by this Hittite symbol.