The Storm God’s City

May/June 2024

Konya Plain, Turkey
Türkmen-Karahöyük, Turkey
(Michele Massa)

By the early thirteenth century B.C., the rulers of the Hittite Empire (ca. 1650–1200 B.C.) controlled most of central Anatolia and had expanded their territory by conquering new lands in western Anatolia and Syria. King Muwatalli II (reigned ca. 1295–1272 B.C.) moved royal operations from the original Hittite capital of Hattusha to Tarhuntasha, a city in southern Anatolia he named after the storm god Tarhunta. Cuneiform records from Muwatalli’s reign suggest that his motivation for the shift was religious reform. “Tarhunta had little prominence before Muwatalli,” says archaeologist Michele Massa of Bilkent University. “But the king decided to make this god the new head of the Hittite pantheon.” Scholars, however, believe there were likely other geopolitical factors that influenced the establishment of a new capital dedicated to Tarhunta. At the time, Muwatalli was enmeshed in a conflict with Egypt over Syria and Lebanon. “Hattusha was quite far north in Anatolia,” says archaeologist James Osborne of the University of Chicago, “and was a pretty inconvenient base from which to be campaigning when battles took place in the Levant.”

Muwatalli II sealing
Muwatalli II sealing

Tarhuntasha’s time at the center of the empire was brief—after Muwatalli’s death, the Hittite royal court moved back to Hattusha, but Tarhuntasha remained a province of the empire. Although Muwatalli’s son Kurunta was the legitimate royal heir, Muwatalli’s brother Hattushili III (reigned ca. 1267–1237 B.C.) ultimately seized the throne. He appeased his young nephew by naming him ruler of Tarhuntasha. Under Kurunta, Tarhuntasha became its own independent kingdom, but the precise extent of its territory—and the exact location of the capital city—are unknown. The most significant clues to Tarhuntasha’s location are found in treaties made with Kurunta by Hattushili and his son Tudhaliya IV (reigned ca. 1237–1209 B.C.). These treaties defined the borders separating Tarhuntasha and the Hittite Empire as somewhere between southern Turkey’s Konya Plain and the Mediterranean coast. “Because the treaties don’t mention where the city of Tarhuntasha is, pinpointing its location involves many different strands of evidence and a lot of detective work,” says Massa. New archaeological surveys and analysis of tablets and clay sealings unearthed at Hattusha may give Massa and Osborne’s team a chance to conclusively identify the site of the Hittite Empire’s elusive second capital.

While studying satellite images of the Konya Plain, the team spotted the extensive mound site of Türkmen-Karahöyük. Because of its size and prominent location, they thought it could be an ancient political center—perhaps even Tarhuntasha itself. Massa and Osborne conducted a surface survey of the site and found ceramics that indicate the city there drastically expanded during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200 B.C.), a period that includes Muwatalli’s transfer of the capital to Tarhuntasha. They also found a stone stela likely dating to the eighth century B.C. that records the achievements of a king named Hartapu, who styled himself as a “Great King,” a title also used by Kurunta, the only known ruler of the Kingdom of Tarhuntasha. More definitive evidence may soon be coming. The team has collected clay samples from Türkmen-Karahöyük and is comparing their geological signatures with those of clay tablets and sealings from Hattusha that are known to have originated in Tarhuntasha. Their work could finally put Tarhuntasha back on the map of the Hittite Empire.