North Cyprus Travel | The Oldest Brick-Built Houses in the World

DSC00068 North Cyprus Travel | The Oldest Brick-Built Houses in the World

Having suggested you cross the strip of the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey, to see the oldest known town in the World, the oldest religious temple and the Earth’s oldest statue, you may also wish to visit some of the world’s first brick-built domestic dwellings.

The first time our hunting and gathering ancestors decided to settle down and give up their nomadic lifestyles, for at least part of the year, was between fifteen thousand and fourteen thousand years ago. No doubt they called themselves whatever their word was for ‘the people’ but, today, archaeologists have dubbed them ‘Natufians’. They lived in small groups, each of perhaps one or two extended families, and the first place where evolution led them to become semi-sedentary was the Levant. That is the cul-de-sac end of the Mediterranean, to the east of Cyprus, running up from the Jordanian port of Aqaba, through Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria to the south-eastern region of  Turkey. One of the first of their settlements to be discovered was in Wadi Al Natuf (the Natuf valley), which is not far from Ramallah – the administrative centre of the Palestinian Authority, and this gave them their present title.

Our hominid forebears, who had become recognisably human from about two and a half million years ago, lived on Earth during the continual coolings and warmings we call the Ice Ages. Their ancestors had diverged from other ape relatives in Africa (most probably in an area of East Africa between the Rift Valley and the Red Sea). They stayed on this continent for some hundreds of thousands of years because it was cut off by the sea or the world’s weather. However, every time it became possible, because of climatic change, there were migrations out of Africa to other parts of the world. Some of these migrant groups will have become extinct in various regions on Earth while others survived. For example, if we take the Aborigines. We now know that they have been in their home country for at least fifty thousand years, but when did their antecedents leave Africa? It may have been sometime between sixty-five and ninety-five thousand years in the past. DNA research shows that they are distantly related to Indians and Europeans, but we can only guess how long it took them to reach Australia. It is thought that the earlier human migrants from the African continent crossed the narrow sea gap to Asia, between present day Eritrea and Yemen, at the southern end of the Red Sea. Later migrations went through the Levant.

The Ice Age we are in now, reached its coldest peak about twenty thousand years ago. By about fourteen and a half thousand years before today it had become warm enough to survive in the Levant, especially in the milder coastal strip. In present times this area (forgetting more modern irrigation farming) is rather dry and arid but, in the Natufian’s day, it was temperate, wooded and filled with herds of Gazelle providing these people with the predominant item on their menu. As the hunters did not have to go far to find dinner they were able to settle in the same place. Although they had not yet learnt to sow and grow their own crops they made the first flint sickles, which enabled them to harvest wild seed from the progenitors of wheat and barley. Doing so, they added to their menu that main staple of our diet today – bread. There were not enough caves, ‘lean-tos’ were not ideal for long occupation, so the first mud-brick houses were built. They dug out earth, to give floors below ground level, and used to earth to make mud-bricks which they discovered they could strengthen with straw. This was the left over product, after they had garnered wild seeds to make flour. The very first houses were small, round, and would have had low entrance openings. There were no gaps for windows but there would have been a little hole in the roof, for the smoke to exit from their hearths. Here they cooked their meals and huddled around to keep themselves warm at night. A few of these first houses appear to have had small storage pits. These may have been the world’s first larders. The Natufians had started the practice of saving things for rainy days.

These were the first ‘Beehive’ houses and that very same design, although now possibly a little larger, has persisted until today – over fourteen thousand years later. One of the best places where they can still be seen is in Syria, especially in the vicinity of Aleppo. Sadly that destination is off limits at the present time because of the civil war. However there are also beehive houses in south-east Turkey, in the small town of Harran about 25 miles south of Sanliurfa and a dozen or so miles north of the Syrian border. Parts of these may be thousands of years old (an advantage with a mud-brick building is that you are able to repair decaying parts of the walls ‘ad infinitum’ with new mud-bricks!) and, amazingly, a number of them were still in occupation up to thirty years ago. This means that some of the older people you may meet in Harran today were brought up in them.

Harran, now little more than a straggling and very poor dirt-road village, was once a very important ancient city, ruled over, in turn, by Assyrians, Hittites, Persians and Seleucids. It was not only the place where the Parthians destroyed a large Roman army in 53 BCE, but where a Crusade army 1,137 years later (1,104) was routed by the Seljuks. The Bible has it as the birthplace of Abraham’s father and the place where the prophet lived with his wife Sarah and grandson Lot before moving on to Canaan. It was the home of Isaac’s wife Rebecca and the place where their son Jacob spent twenty years working for his uncle. At one time Harran was the seat of government of an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Central Asia. It was the city of Islam’s oldest university and the site of the first mosque in Anatolia (some ruins still stand). It was also the birthplace of the Mandean religion.

If you go to Sanliurfa, do also visit Harran. The builders of Göbekli Tepe are now considered, by some archaeologists, to have been ‘late’ Natufians.

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