Relief with the twelve gods of the underworld at Yazılıkaya Rock Temple in Turkey (photo by Klaus-Peter Simon via Wikimedia Commons)

An intriguing group of limestone carvings at the Yazilikaya Rock Temple in Turkey may hold the secret to the afterlife — at least as the people of the Hittite kingdom understood it. The 3,200-year-old rock-cut reliefs include over 90 figures of gods, animals, and chimeras whose significance had long eluded art historians until now.

Nearly 200 years since the temple was rediscovered in modern times by the French archaeologist Charles Texier in 1834, researchers may have finally deciphered the elaborate carvings. A new study published this month in the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology suggests that the rock sanctuary depicts a symbolic cosmos, representing the earth, sky, and underworld and parallel cycles of renewal, temporary death, and rebirth.

The highest deities of the Hittite pantheon are pictured on a central panel of Chamber A, a section of the shrine representing the terrestrial and heavenly spheres, with the remaining figures marching toward them on the two flanking panels. Because it is due north, the researchers believe this area references the northern celestial realm, which hosts the circumpolar constellations — stars that always reside above the horizon, never rising nor setting.

“The north celestial pole is the unmoving spot around which the sky, and so the entire universe, seems to turn. In traditional cosmology, it stabilises the cosmos and governs its behaviour,” write the study’s authors, Serkan Demirel, Rita Gautschy, E. C. Krupp, and Eberhard Zangger.

Chamber B, which looks southwest, contains reliefs of a dozen male figures thought to illustrate the gods of the underworld, including an 11-foot-high figure carving of Nergal, the lord of the subterranean space. “The iconography of Chamber B reflects death, but it is a temporary death — the dying of the Sun at night, the time the Sun spends in the south during the winter and the temporary vanishing of the Pleiades and other stars after heliacal setting,” the study says.

The Hittites were an ancient people of Anatolia (present-day Turkey), and the Yazilikaya temple in the capital of Hattusa was considered one of the holiest places in the kingdom. In addition to its religious and ceremonial functions, the sanctuary likely served as an astronomical calendar, with several reliefs marking days, lunar months, and solar years. The Hittite calendric system was so sophisticated that it could still be used today, according to the Luwian Studies Foundation.

While the impact of celestial knowledge on culture and ritual has been well-documented in the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, there is a relative dearth of information about the Hittites’s use of astral phenomena. If the researchers’ new interpretations of the Yazilikaya sanctuary can be confirmed by additional observations and evidence, they write, “a new approach to understanding Hittite religion may be opened.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...