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A 5,000-year-old sanctuary emerges from beneath Aleppo's medieval citadel


The remains of a Bronze Age temple dedicated to the storm god Adda were discovered beneath Aleppo's Ottoman citadel.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer)

A massive citadel built atop a 150-foot-tall hill of solid rock looms over Aleppo's old quarter. Fortresses have risen above this northern Syrian city since Roman times. But at the heart of the citadel, amid ruins of Ottoman palaces and hidden behind high walls that date to the Crusader era, a team of German and Syrian archaeologists is clearing debris from a large pit that shows this hilltop was significant long before the Romans arrived. Here, amid clouds of dust, a battered basalt sphinx and a lion—both standing seven feet tall—guard the entrance to one of the great religious centers of ancient times, the sanctuary of the storm god Adda.

Kay Kohlmeyer, an archaeologist at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences and the excavation codirector, has spent more than 10 years peeling away the layers of rubble that conceal the rich history of this temple. He's found that it was first constructed by Early Bronze Age peoples, then rebuilt by a succession of cultures, including the Hittites, the Indo-European empire-builders whose domain spread from Anatolia to northern Syria in the 14th century B.C. Through the millennia, as Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian cultures mixed and blurred at this ancient crossroads, Adda was known variously as Addu, Teshup, Tarhunta, and Hadad. But as artistic styles and languages came and went, the storm god's temple endured.

On a hot April morning, Kohlmeyer welcomes me into the shade of the corrugated roof that now covers Adda's sanctuary. As my eyes adjust to the sudden gloom, I spy a row of stone friezes of gods and mythical creatures still standing in a neat row at the far end of the temple. Their modest size (most are no taller than three feet), clear lines, and almost whimsical subjects—human figures in pointy shoes and hats, a bull pulling a chariot—seem more like a series of three-dimensional cartoon panels than a powerful and magical tableau. Yet even in the shadows, the sharply chiseled surfaces are so fresh they look as if the sculptors just laid down their tools for a lunch break.

Kohlmeyer and his team were not the first to uncover the mesmerizing friezes, which were buried when the temple was abandoned in the ninth century B.C. Trenches that date to six centuries later show that Hellenistic people, perhaps digging for valuables, exposed some of the reliefs. Awed by what they found, and possibly fearful of desecrating an ancient holy site, they left the stones intact. Exposed for a century or so until it was swallowed again by debris, the temple may have been an early Near Eastern tourist attraction. And if archaeologists, preservationists, and Syrian government officials have their way, the site will soon offer visitors the rare opportunity to tread the floor of a 5,000-year-old place of worship.

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Among the reliefs excavated at the site are 14th-century B.C. depictions of Adda (right) and fantastical beasts such as a half-man half-bull.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer)

At work since 1996, the team is just now wrapping up excavations and preparing the site for the construction of a museum supported by the World Monuments Fund and the Agha Khan Trust. But the ambitious project actually originated as an offhand joke. While Kohlmeyer was laboring on a gritty salvage dig at a remote Bronze Age site along the Euphrates River, a Syrian official suggested that he find a more civilized spot to excavate—like the Aleppo citadel.

Securing permission from Syria's bureaucracy to dig in the middle of one of the country's most important national monuments—in what many believe is the world's oldest continually inhabited city—was so improbable as to be funny. "It is as if the Chinese wanted to excavate the Tower of London," says Kohlmeyer, who sports a trim mustache and brown hair down to his shoulders. But he took the suggestion seriously and, miraculously, got the permit. Kohlmeyer's sensitivity to later Muslim-era sites may have helped. (His wife Julia Gonnella is an archaeologist who specializes in the Islamic period, and is now responsible for analyzing artifacts from the upper levels of the citadel.) "My friend was astonished to learn that his joke became a reality," says Kohlmeyer.

He already had reason to believe that the temple of the storm god lay under the later Byzantine and Islamic layers. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had long controlled the region, the French occupied Syria under a secret agreement with the British. They made the citadel their key base in Aleppo, and in the 1920s a French scholar noticed a slab with a Hittite-style relief that had been reused in a medieval structure. French archaeologists dug into a nearby storage building, which had filled with trash and rubble over many centuries.

Ducking through a narrow passage in a wall on the left side of the temple, just where the line of friezes at the rear of the temple begins, Kohlmeyer takes me into the cellar of the storage building. The French had cleared this space, reaching the temple pavement. But they abandoned their work just shy of the first carved slab, leaving behind a trowel and an empty bottle of champagne gleefully excavated by Kohlmeyer's team. "A half-meter more, and all of these would have been in the Louvre," he says, gesturing at the row of jaunty figures.

By the second season, in 1997, Kohlmeyer had found the first relief, and to his delight was sure he had located a remarkably intact temple that would give him a unique glimpse into the religious architecture, beliefs, and practices of the ancient Near East over a vast span of time. Since then, he and his team have expanded the dig. Most of what is visible today dates to the period around 900 B.C., when small neo-Hittite kingdoms that arose after the collapse of the Hittite empire dotted the region. But the temple has more ancient antecedents as well as astonishing continuity. Kohlmeyer has been able to trace the complicated story of building, destruction, and renovations at the site over two millennia, offering an intimate picture of the great and sometimes subtle changes wrought over time by the storm god's devotees.


Repeatedly rebuilt by Arabs and Ottomans, Aleppo's citadel was ravaged by Mongols in A.D. 1260 and destroyed by Tamerlane in 1401.
(Courtesy Aga Khan Historic CIties Program)


Excavation codirectors Muhammad Miftah (left) and Kay Kohlmeyer began digging in the Aleppo citadel in 1996 and almost immediately discovered a Bronze Age temple that had eluded French archaeologists in the 1920s.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer)

Aleppo's ancient origins still lie hidden under the citadel and surrounding city. But as early as 2400 B.C., the rulers of the prosperous city of Ebla made a 35-mile pilgrimage here to what likely was a modest place of worship where sacrifices were offered to Adda. "The storm god was the archetypal deity in Syria and Anatolia," says Billie Jean Collins, an expert in the ancient Near East at Atlanta's Emory University. Mesopotamians and Egyptians depended primarily on irrigated fields, but those living to the north and west counted on rainfall to sustain their crops. That made the storm god the preeminent deity. The Hebrew god Yawheh was originally considered a storm god, she adds. Whatever his name, this masculine deity was typically depicted carrying a weapon, or a thunderbolt, as a symbol of his power.

Tablets from Ebla describe the rulers' contributions to renovating Adda's temple, which was built on the bedrock of the natural hill. In one corner of the covered area, Kohlmeyer points to rough stones covered with plaster—today all that can be seen of the structure patronized by Ebla's royal family. A curious deposit of small and finely worked bronze ceremonial spearheads—similar to those found by the late-19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Troy—were the only artifacts Kohlmeyer recovered from the early temple.

By 1800 B.C., Aleppo had become the center of the short-lived Yamhad Empire, which was populated largely by Amorites, a Semitic people first mentioned by Mesopotamian scribes in the mid-third millennium B.C. as nomads from the west. Cuneiform texts from Mari, a city far to the southeast on the Euphrates, describe the giant seated figure of the storm god—by then known as Addu—in the place of honor within the sanctuary, with a smaller sun god on his knee. The layout of this renovated temple was the same as the original, offering a suitably impressive home to the esteemed god.

Lebanese cedar spanned the roof of the central hall, which measured about 90 feet by 55 feet. The temple was at least 15 feet high, and the northern wall was 33 feet thick. That thickness, combined with evidence of a wooden staircase, hint at a multi-floored building that may have risen to an even more significant height, says Kohlmeyer. This structure, he adds, may have been similar to a small number of tower temples built in the region during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1570 B.C.). Fire eventually destroyed the building, but patrons again came to its rescue and at least partially restored the temple. The basic shape—nearly square with a northern altar opposite the main entrance to the south—remained unchanged. It, too, may have looked like a tower from a distance.

By the 14th century B.C., the Hittites were expanding from Anatolia into what is now northern Syria and exerting a strong influence over the region. Reconstructing the temple yet again, the new architects seem to have reoriented the building along Hittite lines. That meant shifting the central altar to the eastern wall so that it was not visible from the main entrance. In the new design, worshipers entered the temple and then turned right to see the storm god, now called Teshup. The central hall also was narrowed—either to accommodate that change or because Lebanese cedar was too expensive or not available. The old central altar was covered, and some of the plain stone slabs lining the walls were replaced with figures carved in a vibrant Hittite style.

An array of fantastical gods—and even carvings that imitate windows and shutters typical of a Hittite place of worship—decorated the temple in this era. Some of the new panels show bull-men with tails, similar to depictions found near the Hittite capital of Hattusa in north-central Turkey. But, with their curly hair, they bear a striking resemblance to an ivory plaque found in Megiddo far to the south in modern-day Israel—a hint of the extent of the cultural and political connections during this period. And the new masters of Aleppo added the magnificent basalt lion and sphinx in front of the temple doors. Similar statues guard the entrances to Hittite temples and city gates far to the north.


A 14th-century B.C. relief depicts a "fish-man" carrying a pinecone and bucket, symbols of purification. The head of a sphinx from the same period resembles those found in the Hittite cities Hattusa and Alaca Höyük in north-central Turkey.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer)

Those two figures are imposing, but the strange and delightful carving of a fish-man that sits nearby steals the show. Just over six feet tall, he holds a pinecone and bucket—symbols of purification that are found in reliefs that decorate later Assyrian palaces. His feet poke out from his scaled tail. The subject and quality of this frieze hints at an artist familiar with the latest Mesopotamian styles, so different from the smaller and more cartoonish Hittite approach to wall decoration.

With its revamped floor plan, substantial statues, and array of styles, the new structure was the product of a cosmopolitan period, when the old northern Syrian traditions absorbed Anatolian and Mesopotamian influences. But by the 11th century B.C., the Hittites were history. And, yet again, the temple at Aleppo reflects the ever-changing Middle East. The Hittite temple was destroyed and a new sanctuary arose in its place. The central altar was restored to the position it had in the original plan and a king's image placed next to that of the storm god. Adjacent to the ruler's image is an inscription that gives important insight into an era largely shrouded in mystery.

When the long-powerful Hittite Empire crumbled around 1190 B.C., after a series of civil wars, a complicated tapestry of peoples and languages emerged in the region. But it is hard to discern what took place in this transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Trade collapsed, major cities were abandoned, and small villages predominated. The Near East appears to have suffered through a dark age from the collapse of the Hittite Empire until 1000 B.C. "It is dark because we have so few inscriptions," says London University's David Hawkins, one of the few specialists fluent in Luwian, a language related to Hittite and used in southern Anatolia and northern Syria during this period.

Scholars long blamed invasions by the so-called "Sea Peoples" mentioned in Egyptian chronicles for the disruption and chaos across the Near East. But archaeological evidence for such an invasion is scanty. Hawkins suspected that a contraction of trade set off migrations of peoples in the Mediterranean basin that didn't necessarily devastate the region or its ancient traditions. He has already traced a link between the names of old Hittite kings and those of the lords of Iron Age towns in the area, including the ruler of Carchemish, an important site that straddles the border between Turkey and Syria. The so-called dark age, it appears, may not have been so dark after all, and could have been a time of continuity rather than widespread disruption.


Inscriptions found next to this relief identify the figure as "Taita," ruler of the Patasatini, who may be the Philistines, often associated with the "Sea Peoples" who ravaged the Mediterranean world in the 12th century B.C.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer)

Eager to find inscriptions, Hawkins visited Aleppo in 2003, but returned to Britain disappointed. Ten days later, Kohlmeyer uncovered the king's inscription. "I called Hawkins, and he arrived the day after," Kohlmeyer recalls. Incised in Luwian hieroglyphics, the text is a set of cult instructions focused on the storm god and mentioning the king's name. The discovery confirmed that this was indeed the storm god's sanctuary. But what caught Hawkins's eye was the mention of Taita, ruler of a people called the Patasatini. He contends that the proper translation is Palestin. That would make the king of the Philistines responsible for restoring the storm god's temple to its former glory.

The Philistines (whose name survived as a geographical term describing "Palestine") are probably the Peleset, one of the Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt in 1180 B.C. They made pottery similar to that produced by Mycenaeans and other peoples in the Aegean Sea, and settled the eastern Mediterranean coast from Gaza to Turkey. The new inscription complements two found decades ago near the major Syrian city of Hama, south of Aleppo, which reference both Taita and his queen. The king, Hawkins says, likely ruled over a substantial part of Syria.

Kohlmeyer also found a fragment of an inscription on a lion statue that mentions Carchemish and Egyptian horses, hinting that this ruler was more than simply a local leader. "This brings Aleppo into the international sphere," says Hawkins. "And there seems to be continuity after the fall of the Hittites." Archaeologists have found ceramics in northern Syria that appear to have been influenced by styles popular along the Mediterranean coast in this period. But Kohlmeyer, aware of the find's political implications in a country with 400,000 Palestinian refugees, downplays the inscription's significance. "I worry that this could become a pilgrimage site for Palestinians," he says.

There was one last temple restoration around 900 B.C. by an unknown patron. This time, slabs portraying demons, monsters, and gods were added. A warrior-goddess, perhaps Ishtar, is dressed like a man. Eerie half-scorpion, half-human creatures stride by. And, in a long relief, the storm god himself, clean shaven, wearing a conical cap with horns, and clad in a kilt with a dagger, carries a pointed club as he mounts an old-fashioned Hittite chariot drawn by a bull. Protective winged figures—perhaps resembling the cherubim that decorated Solomon's temple in Jerusalem, which was built at this time—flank the altar. Depictions of winged creatures at Solomon's temple may have been decorated in gold, and though no gold has been found at Aleppo, these reliefs could have once been sheathed in it.


A half-man, half-bird frieze from Aleppo dating to 900 B.C. (left) could have been a model for artists working 30 years later on the famous reliefs at the Assyrian city of Nimrud.
(Courtesy Kay Kohlmeyer; age fotostock/SuperStock)

An international array of styles is apparent on the final reliefs, and the artists may have spoken a polyglot of Luwian, Phoenician, and Aramaic as they chiseled away. Some of their innovations turn up later in the palaces of the great Assyrian rulers. "We still think of Mesopotamia as the center of civilization," says Kohlmeyer. "That is wrong—influence went in both directions. These sculptures show that what originated in northern Syria eventually appears in Assyria."

But before a new temple floor could be laid, a disastrous fire struck. Some of the reliefs were still unfinished, and remains of posts hint at scaffolding that was in place in the final days. There would be no reconstruction. In Hellenistic times, probably around 300 B.C., the Hittite altar was uncovered but not touched. Standing by the east wall, Kohlmeyer points out the ancient trench dug by the Greeks, which the modern team re-excavated. A people who believed in the storm god named Zeus—who like his Eastern cousin was chief of the pantheon and often depicted wielding a weapon—may have respected the site as sacred. There was a political angle to that consideration as well, says Collins, since showing respect for local gods was a smart way for newcomers to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with the locals. Over time, however, the trench was filled in and the friezes were forgotten. "This is one of the few places in Syria you can see such clear stratigraphy," says Kohlmeyer, pointing up at the innumerable layers that begin with the time of Alexander the Great and stack up until the final days of the Ottoman Empire.

There is still more to discover. Kohlmeyer guides me to a deep trench behind the old central altar. A couple of local workers remove the plywood and sandbags that cover the 16-foot-deep excavations. Below are blank stone slabs—perhaps part of a corridor running around the temple. "This may have been part of the outer facade in the early second millennium B.C.," he says, as I back away from the crumbling edge of the hole.

The trench offers tantalizing hints at what remains to be found. Kohlmeyer is hopeful that once he clears the edges of the site, further clues to the temple's outer precincts will emerge. Officials in Damascus, however, want work completed so that a museum can be built. Construction is slated to begin next year. A steel roof will protect the fragile temple remains, and the number of visitors will be strictly controlled.

As we climb out of the temple area and make our way through the gate to a stone-paved lane, we're immersed in a sea of Syrian children in blue-and-white uniforms. "I like working out in the open air in the countryside," he says wistfully. An archaeologist digging in the center of a city whose citizens firmly believe is the oldest continuously inhabited one, he's a prize guest at dinner parties, and the necessary socializing distracts him from his work. But there are advantages. He and his wife and daughter live in small century-old house on the citadel, far above the noise and dust of town. And late at night, when the tourists are gone and the citadel's gates are locked up, silence descends. Then it is just Kohlmeyer, his family, and the storm god.

Andrew Lawler is a staff writer for Science.