Overlooking the Konya Plain of Turkey, which sprawls out over hundreds of square miles of remote, desolate wilderness, and just about 30 miles from the regional capital of Konya near a river that dried up millennia ago is a mysterious ancient settlement called Çatalhöyük. Long vanished from the face of known history, it was unearthed in 1958 when archeologist James Mellaart and his team began investigating two foothills that seemed to show promise of archeological finds, but when they began digging it would turn out to be far older and more bizarre than they had ever imagined, their excavation slowly bringing into the light one of the most ancient, unusual, and indeed mysterious cities on the face of the earth, challenging our ideas on prehistoric people in the process.
The first intriguing aspect of this forgotten city is its incredible age, which dates back to at an estimated roughly 7500 B.C., making it around 9,500 years old and making the other Roman ruins of the region seem positively modern by comparison. It is so old, in fact, that Çatalhöyük is believed to be one of the oldest known organized settlements in the world, earning it the nickname “The World’s Oldest City,” in an era when humanity was still largely nomadic wanderers. Outside of the city limits was found evidence of agriculture, which would have been a revolutionary concept for these hunter-gatherers and very experimental in nature, as well as millions of bones from sheep, cattle, goats, horses, dogs, boar, fox, deer, hare, and many other species that suggest they were practicing herding and keeping livestock rather than hunting.
All of this is not even the most unique thing about this mysterious city. Mellaart and other archeologists over the years have found that it follows a very unusual lay out, in that it had no roads, with the mud brick and plaster windowless houses arranged in tight clusters right up against each other with no footpaths between them and holes in the roofs of the dwellings instead of doors. It is thought that there was once a network of ladders that spanned the honeycomb-like structure of the place and that the residents would navigate this web to access buildings and enter through the roof, although no one is really quite sure why this should be. It is all a very unique organization and construction style that hasn’t been seen before or since, and it is not understood why it should have been built this way.
There are other oddities as well. The houses are adorned with various paintings and the skulls of bulls prominently displayed, the significance of these skulls still a mystery, as well as littered with various objects fashioned of obsidian and numerous figurines of advanced craftsmanship. There have been some rather anomalous objects found here as well, such as a mural which is believed to show an overhead view of the village and the Hasan Daği volcano 80 miles away, making it what is believed to be the world’s oldest map, as well as a head fashioned out of plaster and adorned with inscrutable obsidian eyes that had been set up near a storehouse almost as if it were watching over it.
Most of the homes were equipped with a sort of crude hearth used for warmth, ventilation, and cooking, and the dead were buried not in a communal cemetery, but beneath the hard-packed earth of the homes themselves. Again, why the dead should be buried like this is, like much of the rest of this fascinating place, unknown. In some cases, the bodies were found to have had skulls that had been removed and then reburied for reasons unknown, possibly for ritualistic purposes, skulls that had been hit with rocks but not fatally, and most of the bodies held evidence that they had been kept out in the open air for a time before burial. Why? Who knows? There is also the oddity that in many cases the remains buried within a single house are not biologically related, making it even more bizarre. Despite this odd burial method, the houses and indeed the city itself all demonstrate an unusual level of cleanliness, with waste burned and buried and the buildings constantly re-plastered to a smooth finish to maintain a new look, and it is believed that the residents were remarkably healthy for the era due to this cleanliness, making it all the more impressive for that period of history.
At its peak, the ancient city of Çatalhöyük is estimated to have had around 10,000 residents, making it not only one of the oldest cities, but also the largest for the era. For the time this would have been a bustling urban metropolis, and just as amazing is that it had extreme longevity, with the city believed to have been inhabited over a span of 2,000 years and covering 18 layers of dwellings as it evolved and was built up over the millennia. Also rather impressive is the structure of the society itself. Although there are no written records here, study of the remains shows very little difference in quality of life or workloads between men and women, and the homes are all nearly identical, with no obvious societal gaps, all of this suggesting that this was a remarkably egalitarian society. There doesn’t even seem to be a base for any type of leading government. Everyone seems to have had the same quality of life, the same access to goods, and the same level of health, and it would have been almost a utopia. However, there might have been some drawbacks to this, as current chief archeologist Ian Hodder has said:
We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in. Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.
It is perhaps this emerging inequality that led to this civilization’s doom. It has long been a mystery as to what happened to the city of Çatalhöyük, as it was continuously inhabited for 2,000 years and then seemingly overnight it was just abandoned. Theories have ranged from some pestilence to an invasion, to a volcanic eruption, but there is no real evidence for any of this. More likely is that the growing social divide and rise of different classes in their previously egalitarian society caused rifts between the people and unrest, causing it all to deteriorate and crumble. There is a chance that we will eventually learn more about this once great city that was well ahead of its time. Only a small fraction of it has been unearthed to date, so it is quite possible we will uncover answers lying there under the earth. However at the moment no one really knows, and the fall of Çatalhöyük, and almost everything else about it, remains just as shrouded in mystery as ever.