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What Is Çatalhöyük?

Read Time: 5 minutes

Thought to be one of the first major urban centers in human civilization, Çatalhöyük was a Neolithic settlement that, at its height, reached a population of close to 10,000 at a time when most humans still lived in small hunter-gatherer bands of several hundred people.

Also known as a "proto-city," Çatalhöyük is located on the Konya Plain in present-day Turkey. It was rediscovered in 1958 by David French, Alan Hall, and James Mellaart. Mellaart went on to lead excavations of the site until 1965. Archaeological evidence shows that the area was continuously occupied between 7,100 BCE and 5,700 BCE, providing a valuable window into the early days of urban agglomerations and the evolution of sedentary human settlements over time. While its original name is lost, the city's modern name means "forked mound," a reference to the two mounds that make up the site. 

The 91-acre site contains an array of "densely clustered groups of mudbrick buildings arranged around open unroofed open courtyard areas," accessed from the roof. The wedge-shaped, back-to-back dwellings are clustered together in honeycomb-like structures with no streets or footpaths. Most buildings have one to three separate rooms, with at least one believed to serve as a storeroom. The people of Çatalhöyük buried their dead in "burial benches" that included some personal grave goods and are usually the most highly decorated areas of the buildings, indicating the growing significance of death rituals at the dawn of urban civilization. The interior walls feature paintings and reliefs, particularly near the burial benches. 

Although the settlement at Çatalhöyük was, without a doubt, impressively large for its time, some scholars dispute its status as a "city" due to its apparent lack of civic buildings or other public infrastructure.

History and People

Humans first settled at Çatalhöyük around 7,400 BCE, when the area was a wetland. The site shows evidence of rapid development of construction techniques and tools, as well as the domestication of animals. The site features two mounds, each containing layers of evidence of human occupation. The layout demonstrates "a clear spatial order aligned on cardinal directions." The occupants practiced a "diverse agro-ecology" that "enabled generations of cultivators to maintain flexible cropping strategies," avoiding the pitfalls of monocropping.

The West Mound was settled first. Although evidence shows overlap between the two sites, it appears that residents started moving from the West Mound to the East Mound as the climate changed from humid to more dry conditions. The East Mound shows 18 layers of occupation, dated roughly 7,400-6,200 BCE, and the West mound shows occupation from 6,200-5,200 BCE, with some overlap between the two. "The top of the East mound towers some 70 ft (21 mt) above the Neolithic ground surface on which it was founded, a huge stack made up of centuries of building and rebuilding structures in the same location." The smaller West Mound is a roughly circular area of 3.2 acres and around 35 feet in height.

Significance for Urban Planning

As one of the earliest examples of a large-scale human settlement, Çatalhöyük is significant for showing a largely uninterrupted portrait of the shift from small villages to large-scale sedentary settlements and the earliest signs of urban agglomeration over 2,000 years. 

Notably absent are any obvious public buildings. Evidence seems to show that all the buildings were residential, with no larger, central civic or religious structures. According to UNESCO, "The comparable sizes of the dwellings throughout the city illustrate an early type of urban layout based on community and egalitarian ideals." It appears there was no division of labor among the people of Çatalhöyük, with each household producing what it needed to be essentially self-sufficient. Although there is little evidence of social distinction or hierarchy between classes or genders, this may have been changing as the city became larger and more organized. 

The site inspired Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist and thinker whose work continues to influence planning, to challenge the "longstanding archaeological consensus that cities developed only after agriculture appeared in both the Old and New Worlds." While archaeologists refute her "Cities First" theory, the idea that urban agglomeration was necessary for "the creative innovations that led to agriculture" has influenced other urban thinkers like Edward Soja and Peter Taylor.

In his 2016 book Killing Civilization, University of Toronto anthropologist Justin Jennings theorizes about the growth and decline of Çatalhöyük, speculating about the reasons why the site was eventually abandoned. According to Jennings, "its demise came at the hands of two problems facing modern cities: climate change and inequality." In its earlier phases, the city was a "house-centered society," with inward-focused households that reduced social friction. "But the collective primacy of the private home wasn’t enough to address all the challenges of urban growth in Çatalhöyük — particularly when it came to food." As the settlement grew, according to Jennings, "more people meant more homes to maintain, more food to compete over, more space to share, more waste to dispose of, more need to cooperate — in short, more of the growth issues cities still face today."

With growth came the need for more organized efforts at creating collective infrastructure. "Together, Çatalhöyük residents created a network of subsistence that stretched 'dozens of kilometers.' They built dams to manage river flooding and grow crops. They penned in herds. They hunted wild animals and organized feasts to share in the conquests." Like today's urban residents, the people of Çatalhöyük had to balance the benefits of a large, dense population with the problems of scarcity and shared resources. "Çatalhöyük therefore survived in large part because its residents found a way to live both separately and together," Jennings writes. 

As the community grew, the relationships between households and families grew more distant and less intertwined. "With ties across Catalhoyuk weakening, it appears that the dominant households may have tried to position themselves as the most important brokers to the outside world." Some homes got larger, undermining the tight density of the settlement. Jennings theorizes that as the city became more hierarchical, people who found themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy lost interest and left. In the absence of written records, archaeologists still have much to learn about the ancient city, how its inhabitants lived, and why they eventually abandoned it. 

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