Kültepe, an archeological site near Kayseri, was a large Assyrian trade city founded around 2000 BC. The ancient city, named Kanesh, was the central city of Assyria’s extensive trade network in Anatolia. The archeological discoveries, including 20,000 cuneiform clay tablets, provide significant historical insights about life in ancient Near East civilizations.
This area has various names. Kültepe (“ash hill”) is the Turkish name for the archeological mound. The nearby Turkish village is Karahöyük (“black tell”); this name usually appears on maps. Kanesh is the ancient name for this city, and now refers to the large mound at the site. Karum is the Akkadian word meaning trade colony or port, and now refers to the lower settlement at the site.
Ancient Trading: The Socio-Historical Context
The world’s first imperial cities began forming in ancient Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, modern day Iraq) around 2500 BC. The mastery of agriculture allowed for economic specialization and advanced political orders. Mesopotamian kingdoms traveled northwards into Asia Minor to find raw materials and trade their goods. In 2050 BC, a new political dynasty founded the Assyrian kingdom in Assur. Political stability and peace allowed for expanded trade into Anatolia. Around 2000 BC, King Erishum I reformed the economy by ending the government monopolies and privatizing trade.
To facilitate and expedite regional trade, the Assyrians founded a network of trade colonies (Akkadian, karum) throughout Anatolia. The city of Kanesh was the central Assyrian trading town in Anatolia. Assyrians never established political control nor directly controlled mining, but only developed their trade interests in Kanesh.
Kanesh became the main trade colony because of its central location along natural trade routes. Roads from Mesopotamia converged onto this area, and then continued out from there, making Kanesh an international trade center. This geographical advantage has ensured Kanesh/Kayseri’s strategic importance throughout history, even in modern day Turkey.
The city of Kanesh experienced great prosperity in the 1900’s and 1800’s BC, but then the city was burned and destroyed. Hittites from northern Anatolia traded with the Assyrians. But as their political ambitions expanded, they conquered and burned this Assyrian city in 1740 BC. The rise of the Hittite Kingdom ended the network of Assyrian trade colonies. Hittites and Romans continued to inhabit the city for another 2,000 years, but few archeological remain have been discovered from these latter times. In Roman times, nearby Kayseri became the provincial capital, and Kanesh was abandoned.
The Ancient Trade Process
The principle goods brought from Assyria were woven textiles and tin (an essential element for making bronze). To purchase goods, traders would gather money, usually by borrowing from relatives. Then they would scour the region for the finest textiles, which would often came from southern regions of Mesopotamia. Rolls of fabric and blocks of mined tin were loaded onto donkeys and began their journey. Traders followed the Euphrates River northward, crossed over the Taurus Mountains, then into the Anatolian plain.
Traders traveled with several donkeys, each carrying about 80 kilograms of goods. The travelers covered the 1,000-kilometer trip from Assur to Kanesh in 2-3 months, averaging 10-15 km/day. When traders arrived in Kanesh, they would first appear before the royal family. The kings selected his choice of textiles and gathered taxes. The Assyrian merchant families had united together and made a treaty agreement with and the Kanesh king. The Anatolian king would also insure their travel to other trade colonies, offering to pay for any stolen goods. And traders agreed to pay a 10% tax on all goods. Traders then went to their family’s house in the karum to sell their goods. Extended families lived in the homes year around, with certain members coming and going for trade purposes.
Traders received payment in raw silver, the main medium of exchange in ancient Assyria. Since this was far lighter, he might sell his donkeys to travel home faster. Sometimes traders brought back raw materials from Anatolia, such as wool and leather from animals, or grains unique to the Anatolian plateau. Once home in Assur, the trader would pay his business expenses and buy another shipment of goods. This cycle continued for over 100 years and made Kanesh Karum one of history’s most important commercial centers.
Kanesh—The Palace Mound
Kanesh is the ancient city situated at the massive mound (550m long, 500m wide, and 21m tall). The Turkish name for this archeological site is Kültepe, which means “ash hill” since the city was leveled twice by fire.
This was the imperial area where government and religious buildings were located. Significant monumental architecture has been uncovered. Kanesh follows the pattern of other Assyrian trading colonies by having a large protection wall. On the southern edge of the mound, there is a large entrance gate where officials collected custom taxes. A wide stone-paved street runs from the gate, through the city, to the palace structure.
The hill in the middle of the mound was the imperial palace. This area has several large halls made with brick walls. These rooms have central fireplaces and wood or stone floors. Around the base of the imperial buildings, there are hundreds of storage rooms.
Karum—The Residential Area
The settlement below the palace mound was the karum (Assyrian, trade center). This was a suburb of the city where traders and merchants lived and conducted their business. This residential area extends one kilometer in all directions from the Kanesh mound. Most of the clay tablets with cuneiform writing have been discovered in this area.
The homes were built with stone foundations, mud-brick walls, and wooden support beams. The walls of the houses were plastered and painted. Houses were generally two stories tall. To make the ceiling and second floor, builders lined up tree trunks, then covered them with mud.
Most homes had only two rooms–a family living space upstairs and a downstairs food area, with a kitchen space and storage room. Larger homes had up to six rooms, but those were rare. Houses were constructed side-by-side in close proximity. There are paved streets wide enough for carts and with an advanced sewage system constructed underneath.
The homes combined residential and commercial purposes. Residents produced goods at their home. For example, some houses had pottery wheels and large kilns for producing the ornate clay vessels found at the site. Some residents archived clay tablets at home, thus forming some of the first “home-offices” in history. Residents carefully arranged these “business receipts” in clay pots or wooden chests. Some homes have produced over 200 records. Other people operated small cafes and taverns out of their home.
The settlement includes several small round graves with stone covers. The dead were buried in their own homes under the floor. Their graves had two sections—one for the body, and another for funerary gifts like alabaster idols or jewelry made of precious metals.
The peoples who lived in the Karum trade settlement were mostly Assyrians from Mesopotamia. They were permanent members of society, not just migrant traders. They adopted many parts of Anatolian culture, such as home architecture and pottery techniques, and even married local Anatolian women. In fact, the only indication that foreigners lived in this neighborhood is the presence of Akkadian writing. The Assyrians settled in Kanesh without any violence, a remarkable fact for that time in history. They local Anatolians welcomed them because they brought desired goods, along with valuable tax revenues.
The clay writings provide a window into their ancient social life and gender relationships. Women in Kanesh enjoyed rights unique in the ancient world. One Assyrian husband promised to have a monogamous relationship. Another marriage contract says the couples owned property jointly and the wife would receive the children in the event of divorce. Women also participated in trade activities and helped run the business.
Arts at Kanesh also thrived. Excavations have producing an amazing array of cultural objects. Ornate clay drinking vessels were shaped like slippers, human bodies, and various animals; some are richly decorated with multiple colors. The most significant archeological discovery has been over 20,000 clay tablets with cuneiform writing.
The Clay Tablets
The 23,000 clay tablets found at Kültepe provide rich insights into ancient Near Eastern cultures. The people of Kanesh wrote on clay tablets in Akkadian—the Semitic language of ancient Mesopotamia, which later became Aramaic. Their script is known as cuneiform—the world’s first writing system, invented by Sumerians around 2500 BC, using wedge shapes. Here is a list of the tablets’ historical significance.
The cuneiform tablets from Kültepe provide the main source of information about ancient Assyria, the world’s first great empire. The ancient Assyrian empire was located in modern Iraq and Syria. Because of political instability there in the last 100 years, archeologists have recovered relatively little from Assyrian sites.
These tablets are the oldest written documents from ancient Anatolia. Assyrian traders introduced writing to the peoples of Anatolia, and thus brought the Anatolians into the historical period. Before these traders, writing did not exist outside of Mesopotamia.
The collection of tablets represents the largest group of private texts from the entire ancient Near East. The tablets are not from the royal or religious palaces of the city, but from private homes in the lower section of town. For this reason, the tablets reveal everyday aspects of life, such as family, business, trade, and relationships. People used these clay tablets to record their transactions and contracts.
The tablets also provide the first writing of any Indo-European language. The Semitic language of Akkadian is the principle language used in the tablets, but many loanwords from the Indo-European language of the Hittites appear in the texts.
The site became famous around 1870 when these “Cappadocia Tablets” began appearing in European museums and among antiquity traders. Excavations during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire (1890–1925) sought to extract goods for antiquities markets in Europe, not research history. The site remained untouched during the early decades of the Turkish Republic.
The Turkish archeologist Professor Dr. Tahsin Özgüç oversaw excavations from 1948–2005 and published several books about the site. Early efforts at Kanesh uncovered few tablets. Then local villagers told them the secret—the clay tablets were located in the lower karum area, not on the upper mound. This information helped archeologists find the thousands of clay tablets.
In recent years, Professor Dr. Fikri Kulakoğlu of Ankara University has overseen the work. Excavations continue every year, from spring through the fall. In 2014, this archeological site was placed on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most of the archeological finds from Kanesh-Karum are housed at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Ankara) or the Kayseri Museum.
Archeology is a (painfully) slow process. Only a tiny fraction—perhaps 2-3%—of Kültepe has been excavated. And few of the 20,000 clay tablets have been researched and translated. So, while Kültepe has produced significant insights into ancient history, we can expect many more historical discoveries in the future.
To reach the site of Kültepe, travel northeast from Kayseri towards Sivas. The site is two kilometers from the main highway with well-marked signs. Here is the location on Google Maps.
The archeological site is free to visit, though the excavated areas are fenced off. Spring is the ideal time to visit so you can enjoy the beautiful green valley and snow-covered Mt. Ergiyes. The site is entirely open and exposed, so a summer visit would be unbearably hot.