Heading southeast from the village of Yelliburun, follow the winding road for 13 km, with the fields full of famous İslahiye peppers all around you, and eventually you will arrive at the Yesemek Open Air Museum and Sculpture Workshop, the site of an ancient artistic centre.
Yesemek Open Air Museum and Sculpture Workshop lies 23 km to the southeast of the district of İslahiye, on the hillside of Karatepe hill in the village of Yesemek. A tarmac road runs from İslahiye to the museum, which is located 129 km from the centre of Gaziantep.
A sphinx waits at the entrance of the museum, performing its protective duties like the door lions of ancient times, which stood at city gates because they were believed to have protective powers. As you pass to the right of the sphinx and over the bridge, you begin the climb to the top of the hill. Either side of the steps are rough sculptures which were excavated from the area.
Surrounded by pine trees, this fertile oasis displays almost every possible shade of green that nature can offer. The local people justifiably compare the area to a sculpture field, as if the rough sculptures have sprung up from the soil.
As the largest open air sculpture workshop in the Near East, Yesemek has a place on the temporary list of Unesco World Heritage sites. At this art centre of the ancient world, not only have numerous rough sculptures been found, but the workshop has provided information and knowledge about many stages of the sculpting process, from how the stone blocks were cut from the quarry, to how different types of sculptures were formed.
The quarry produces a fine-grained, violet-grey basalt stone known as dolerite. The Sculpture Workshop, covering an area of 300 x 400 m, rises from a streambed to a height of 90 m, housing more than 300 basalt rough statues at various stages of production and orthostats with relief ornamentation.
Approximately 3.5 tons of rough sculpture remains have been found at Tilmen Höyük and Zincirli. As the largest sculpture workshop of the Near East, it is thought that rough sculptures were sent to the capital Hattusa and to the other Hittite cities.
The sheer size of the workshop and the number of sculptors who worked there show that during that period, the people of this area gave great importance to art.
From Seyir Hill, directly opposite the museum, the view that greets you is of the houses of Yesemek village nestling around the Tahtaköprü barrage lake.
In 2007, 16 modern sculptures, created by sculptors from different parts of the world, were exhibited on Seyir Hill. The sculptures show a variety of subjects including a key, a musical instrument sporting a cowboy hat, a car, an eye socket, ram’s horns, a finger, a snail, the bow of a ship, the sun god and a human leg.
At the entrance to the museum there is a gift stand selling souvenirs of Yesemek, such as pen holders, key rings and miniature sculptures inspired by the sphinx, door lions and other sculptures from within the museum. There are plans to develop more of the area in the near future, and these will include a cafeteria and visitors’ toilets.
Yesemek Open Air Museum is open all year, every day except Mondays, from 08.30 until sunset.
Between the period of the 14th century BC to the 7th century BC, Yesemek was the largest stone quarry and sculpture workshop in the Near East. The workshop began operating when the region came under Hittite rule in the second half of the year 2000 BC, during the reign of the Emperor Suppilluma I. Local Hurrite stonemasons worked on the sculptures. After raids by the Sea People who were active in the 13th century BC, production at the workshop slowed, but in the 9th century BC, work picked up again with the Late Hittite Kingdom. During this period in particular, components of Hittite, Syrian, Aramaic and Assyrian art gained much importance. This style, known as Orientalism, when mixed with the Aegean art culture which was just beginning to develop in the west, became the heart of Greek art. In the last quarter of the 8th century BC, when the Assyrians brought an end to production at the workshop, everything just stopped in its tracks, as if time had frozen.
Yesemek was discovered in 1890 by Felix von Luschan, who was excavating nearby at Zincirli (Sam’al), and he introduced his findings to the science world. Excavations were carried out by Prof. Dr. Bahadır Alkım from 1957 to 1961, and were continued by the archaeologist İlhan Temizsoy from 1989 to 1991.
In the sculpture workshop, which sits in an area of 110,000 m2, it is possible to see today how the sculptures were created. The first step is to make holes in the basalt blocks, and then dry tree branches are slotted into the holes. When covered with water, the wet branches expand, and the resulting pressure cracks the basalt block. This crack is then widened using a wedge and hammer, and eventually the piece breaks off, away from the bedrock. After the splitting process, the blocks are then pushed down to the work area on the hillside with the help of a sledge. The Yesemek sculptors would first chisel the blocks into a rough sculpture, then determine the outline of the shape required, and finally they would apply some of the detail of the sculpture using hammer and chisel. The third step was to work the detail of the sculpture more carefully. The final touches were always done at the place of display to prevent any damage to the sculpture during transportation.
It is clear that the Yesemek Stone Quarry and Sculpture Workshop is a big organization. From the extraction of stone from the quarry, to the preparation of the rough sculptures, and to the final product, it has all the qualities of a unique school of sculpture, where you can see examples of each stage of the production.
The Open Air Museum has a display of more than 300 rough sculptures that have been extracted from the ground, and most of these are door lion statues. It was believed that the figure of a roaring lion had the power to protect from, and scare away, enemies. Lion statues were always placed in pairs, one facing the other, particularly on city walls. Other items include sphinxes, reliefs of mountain gods that represented the Amanos Mountains, reliefs depicting war chariots and other architectural pieces.