Excavations at Historic Doliche, Turkey Reveal Ancient Religious Diversity

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Excavations at Historic Doliche, Turkey Reveal Ancient Religious Diversity

Located in southeastern Turkey just north of the city of Gaziantep, the village of Doliche (Dülük) at first glance seems small and unremarkable. But i

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Located in southeastern Turkey just north of the city of Gaziantep, the village of Doliche (Dülük) at first glance seems small and unremarkable. But it is one of the oldest human settlements in the world, with a history that traces back thousands of years. Archaeologists have been busy performing excavations at Doliche for quite some time, and during the just-completed 2021 archaeological season they uncovered more fascinating ruins that highlight the religious and cultural diversity that defined Doliche’s long and complex history.

A lot of Roman evidence like these mosaics have been found at the Doliche site in Turkey. ( Daily Sabah )

The Roman Presence at Doliche

In cooperation with the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry, archaeologists affiliated with Munster University in Germany have been exploring the territory in and around Doliche since 2015. They have specifically focused on a hill known as Keber Tepe , where the original version of the village (which was known as Doliche even in ancient times) was constructed. This site was occupied until the 10th or 11th centuries AD, and at one time or another was under the authority of several of the most famed empires of ancient times, Rome.

During their yearly excavations, Turkish and German archaeologists have been seeking structures, statues, scripts, and anything else they might find that would reveal more about ancient Doliche’s religious and cultural history . The highlights of this year’s discoveries were presented to the Turkish news service the Anadolu Agency by Dr. Engelbert Winter, an archaeologist and historian from the University of Munster who led the 2021 excavations at the Dülük-Doliche site.

One focus was the continued unearthing of a second-century Roman bathing facility, which the researchers found in 2020 . During the last 11 centuries of its existence, Doliche and the rest of the Anatolian peninsula (modern-day Turkey) was ruled by the Romans, specifically by the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire . Under Roman occupation, it was included as part of the larger Roman province of Syria . The last great building phase at Doliche occurred during the time of Roman control, and public bathing facilities were a common feature in Roman settlements.

The archaeologists were also kept busy excavating another Roman structure found during the 2020 season. This was a large fourth-century Christian church , constructed during the time when Christianity was beginning to make significant advances in the Middle East. Anatolia was one of the first places where Christianity found a secure foothold, and the presence of the Roman-era church in Doliche signifies this success. Previous analyses of written sources had already revealed that first-millennium Doliche was an important center for Christian worship, and the discovery of the large church added more evidence to confirm this truth.

They found an additional, enormous, buried structure as well, although they have not as yet been able to link it to any specific purpose or time period. Dr. Winter and his team do think it was a religious building of some type, however, which is very much in line with many of the structures that have been unearthed at the Doliche site over the years.

One of the Doliche dig teams working on an ancient Roman building. (The Doliche Diaries)

One of the Doliche dig teams working on an ancient Roman building. ( The Doliche Diaries )

Doliche: On the Crossroads Between Mesopotamia and the Med

Located at a crossroads for travelers moving from the Mediterranean Sea to ancient Mesopotamia, Doliche has a complex political and religious history. Its roots go back to the Late Paleolithic period (30,000 to 40,000 BC), but it first became populated in larger numbers in the third millennium BC, when different groups including the Hurrians, Hattians, and Assyrians began to arrive and settle in central and southern Anatolia.

During much of the second millennium BC, Anatolia was occupied by the Hittites, who ultimately built an empire that lasted until the 12th century BC. After that, Anatolia fell under Assyrian control, and remained within the Assyrian orbit until the seventh century BC. At this point they were challenged and supplanted by Iranian invaders known as the Medes people, who sought to expand their territory so they could build their own empire.

Eventually, Anatolia was conquered and occupied by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, in the mid-first millennium BC. This would ultimately make the region an inviting target for the Greeks, the Persians’ long-time rivals.

When Alexander the Great conquered Anatolia in 334 BC, he began a process of Hellenization that would lead to the extinction of older Anatolian cultures and languages. The Roman Republic seized all Greek-Anatolian territory in the first century BC, and the process of Hellenization reached its completion under Roman cultural and political authority. The lands of Anatolia would remain occupied by Greek speakers and dominated by Greek culture for the remainder of the first millennium, and Doliche continued as a Roman village until it was finally abandoned in the 11th century.

Doliche was eventually rebuilt and renamed Dülük after the Turks brought Islam to the region, thus beginning its new history as a sleepy and apparently unremarkable village.

An overview of the Doliche dig site. (Daily Sabah)

An overview of the Doliche dig site. ( Daily Sabah )

Uncovering a Rich and Diverse Religious History

Among archaeologists and ancient historians, the Doliche-Dülük site is known primarily for the richness and diversity of its religious history.

“This was a religious center for thousands of years,” Dr. Winter explained. “Teshup [the Hittite religion], Christianity, Islam, all religions were here and came one after another. We see the flow of our religious history, and we know that all these periods came one after the other and overlap, which is proven by archaeological data.”

While Christianity became ascendant during the Roman years, before the fourth century the Roman Mithraic cult thrived in Doliche. Followers of this mystery religion worshipped the god Mithras, who was essentially an updated version of the Persian god Zoroaster. In honor of Mithras, the Romans built large underground Mithraic temples at Doliche, which archaeologists discovered during previous excavations.

As archaeologists resume their work in future seasons, they will continue to search for ruins and artifacts that will reveal more about Doliche’s complicated religious past.

Top image: Archaeologists at work in the ancient city of Doliche, Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, in October 2021.  Source: Anadolu Agency

By Nathan Falde

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