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Volume 35, Number 2March/April 1984

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The Petroglyphs of Anatolia

Written by Aysen Akpinar
Photographed by Ersin Alok

In the book Petroglyphs of Southeastern Anatolia, Muvaffak Uyanik, a Turkish expert on prehistoric art, says flatly that Anatolia's Tirisin Plateau and the Gevaruk Valley in southeastern Turkey contain the most extensive prehistoric rock drawings in the world.

According to Professor Uyanik, the Anatolian petroglyphs are exceptionally well preserved - thanks partly to a climate and terrain so harsh that it discourages the kind of destructive visitor who ruined some of the great cave paintings in France and Algeria.

Wild and mountainous, southeastern Anatolia is divided into two mountain ranges - their peaks shrouded in cloaks of ice and snow - by a stream called Rubare Sin. On the west stand the Cilo Mountains and, extending eastward, the Tirisin Plateau - meaning "Green Arrow." On the east there are the Sat Mountains, a region of contorted columns of rocks and sharp cliffs, and, amid glaciers and subpolar ice fields, a lovely valley called Gevaruk. This valley is one of the most marvelous sights in the entire southeastern Anatolia, according to explorers who managed to get there.

The first person to see the Anatolian rock art, apparently, was a Turkish administrative officer called Halil Özdündar who climbed through that area in 1937. Not long afterwards, local and foreign mountaineering groups also began to report sightings of petroglyphs, and to say that southeast Anatolia was a center of petroglyphs.

Despite such reports, not many Westerners have managed to explore the area. As late as 1969, for example, when Uyanik, with Ersin Alok, a mountaineer and art photographer, visited the region for the third time, Alok was still able to say that reaching there, "was one of the most difficult but marvelous feats in the world."

While exploring the Tirisin and its environs, Uyanik and his team discovered that the prehistoric inhabitants of the region left engravings on scattered rocks almost anywhere they found a favorable spot, most of them on smooth large blocks of rocks at the highest point of the plateau: about 2,800 meters (9,190 feet). It is actually an outdoor museum, Alok says, which contains a most unusual collection of prehistoric art, the most impressive of which is the so-called "Bison Rock."

Occupying a dominant position in the middle of this great "picture gallery," it is a large rock 2.2 meters high (7 feet) with the outline of bison sketched across it.

"The Tirisin petroglyphs," Alok adds, "are remarkable for their differences in style and the variety of subjects. Most of the drawings are depictions of various animals engraved in the stone: bison, fallow-deer, elk, mountain goat, antelope, fox, dog, gazelle, giraffe ... Man is either not depicted at all, or shown vaguely."

In his book, Uyanik postulated that the most ancient paintings - going back perhaps 10,000 years - consisted of realistic animal figures with schematic bodies, engraved on green slate by hammering with pieces of quartz which, oxidized in the course of time, form a brown patina in different shapes. It was not until much later, he wrote, that Tirisin and Gevaruk artists began to engrave symbolic and abstract figures: evil spirits, demons and witch-doctors as well as human figures.

In his book Uyanik has also noted that drawings in the Gevaruk Valley and on the Sat Mountains are different from Tirisin petroglyphs. "In the valley," he wrote, "the ancient artists drew symbolic figures on gneiss, a banded, multi-colored rock in old glacier beds, using the 'pecking' or intaglio technique."

During three years of continual visits to the region, Uyanik and his associates examined about 30,000 rocks and discovered thousands of petroglyphs on the plateau and in the valley. But they also found examples in caves called "Put" and "Pagan" - plus some colored paintings in light pink, possibly blood mixed with water.

On completion of his journey, says Alok, "I looked out over the valley and thought how people lived and worked thousands of years ago when the region was green and fertile, and herds of wild animals ran free by the flowing rivers." Today their former presence is recorded in the drawings, a magnificent cultural heritage of primitive man in the timeless tranquil lity of Southeast Anatolia.

Dr Aysen Akpinar earned her Ph.D. in architecture from the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, and has worked as a coordinator on housing projects in Turkey and as an architectural consultant in the United States. She is a professor at the University of Sinan.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the March/April 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1984 images.