Gobekli Tepe, near Sanliurfa, Turkey.

We drove east through the old city of Sanliurfa, passed beside Bey Kapisi and a section of the city wall, and emerged in an ugly mixture of houses, apartment blocks, car sale rooms, factories and warehouses. Once on the Mardin road we made good progress for a few kilometres before taking a smaller asphalt road north and then east. The smaller road led to a dirt and gravel track and Gobekli Tepe itself. Gobekli Tepe stands among gently undulating hills covered in grass and wheat. The wheat was almost ready to harvest (it was mid-June), and the grass was turning brown in the unusually high early summer temperatures.

The taxi parked beside a portacabin, the temporary home for two men assigned to act as guards to protect the site. The portacabin had beds, cooking facilities, a TV and a fridge. Amazingly, it cost nothing to visit what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. Two German men and their Turkish guide were the only other people who visited at the same time as us. We walked along a dirt and gravel path toward the best-known part of the site where the largest T-shaped stones exist. To the south the hills give way to the northern edge of the plain which merges into the Syrian Desert.

Gobekli Tepe is astounding, so much so that I will quote at length from the Gobekli Tepe website. Although written with a non-specialist audience in mind, the text confirms the site’s importance:

“Welcome to the presentation of the world’s oldest known temple, Gobekli Tepe, a prehistoric site about 15 kms from the city of Sanliurfa in south-east Turkey. What makes Gobekli Tepe unique in its class is the date it was built, which is roughly 12,000 years ago, or 10,000BCE.

“Archaeologically categorised as a site of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Period (9,600 to 7,300BCE), Göbekli Tepe is a series of mainly circular and oval-shaped structures set on the top of a hill. Excavations led by Professor Klaus Schmidt began in 1995 with the help of the German Archaeological Institute. There is archaeological proof that these installations were not for domestic use, but predominantly for ritual or religious purposes. Subsequently it became apparent that Gobekli Tepe consists of not one but many such Stone Age temples. Furthermore, excavations and geomagnetic surveys reveal that there are at least twenty installations, which in archaeological terms can be called a temple. Based on what has been unearthed so far, the pattern principle seems to be that there are two huge monumental pillars in the centre of each installation, surrounded by enclosures and walls, and the outer enclosures feature more pillars.

“All pillars are T-shaped with heights ranging from 3 to 6 metres. Archaeologists interpret the T-shaped pillars as stylized human beings, mainly because of the depiction of human extremities that appear on some of the pillars. What also appear on these rocks are carvings of animals as well as abstract symbols, sometimes picturing a combination of scenes.

“Foxes, snakes, wild boars, cranes and wild ducks are most common. Most of these were carved into the flat surfaces of the pillars. Then again, we also come across some three dimensional sculptures, in the shape of a predatory lion, descending on the side of a T-pillar…

“Tests have shown that three of the temples belong to the same time period, which is around 10,000BCE. One thing became clear from the start: these monumental stone circles had never been roofed, but had served as open-air installations, with not just enclosures, but also several layers of walls surrounding the central pillars.

“Evidently the walls were concentric in nature, but the chances are that there was a spiral path or stairway leading inside. Although still unclear, at temple C this seems to be the case. Other temples were built much later than the original structures, roughly a thousand years later…

“The planners and builders of Gobekli Tepe still remain a mystery and so far no one has been able to crack the code (about their identity). Archaeologists believe that the tail-end of hunter-gatherer societies were organized in a shamanic way, suggesting that some individuals were more influential than others and, perhaps, possessed a higher intellect or powers limited to only a few people. Perhaps this minority developed a calling for contact with the hereafter (or magical powers?) and, as such, became religious leaders. Such people may have presided over and organized their tribal, clan and/or social groups. But the question is this: ‘Did they maintain their shamanic characteristics, or were they propelled to the divine and powerful level of a priesthood, as seen later in other parts of the Middle East and Egypt?’

“Some hypothesise that Gobekli Tepe is a burial site. The excavations have not dug as far as any actual graves yet, but archaeologists expect to find them under the floor or behind the walls so far untouched. It is also surmised that, while Gobekli Tepe’s main function was probably for ritual burials, it could also have been used for big feasts and social gatherings.

“Only time will tell, but, as more and more of this fascinating discovery is unearthed, and layer upon layer of mystery is peeled away, perhaps we will have to readjust – or even be forced to change – our way of thinking about our ancestors and human history in general.

“Pre-dating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, Turkey’s stunning Gobekli Tepe upends the conventional view of the rise of civilization…

“The oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered, Gobekli Tepe is ‘one of the most important monuments in the world,’ says Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the nearby Sanliurfa Museum…

“Schmidt believes the people who created these massive and enigmatic structures came from great distances. It seems certain that once ‘pilgrims’ reached Gobekli Tepe they made animal sacrifices. Schmidt and his team have found the bones of wild animals, including gazelles, red deer, boars, goats, sheep and oxen, plus a dozen different bird species such as vultures and ducks, scattered around the site. Most of these creatures are depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.

“’There is still much that we don’t understand about religious practices at Gobekli Tepe,’ Schmidt cautions. But, broadly speaking, the animal images ‘probably illustrate stories of hunter-gatherer religion and beliefs,’ he says, ‘though we don’t know for certain at the moment.’ The sculptors of Gobekli Tepe may have simply wanted to depict the animals they saw, or perhaps create symbolic representations of the animals to use in rituals to ensure hunting success…

“To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

“The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces this view. Schmidt says that the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of  seven tonne stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. ‘This shows socio-cultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,’ says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. ‘You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.’”

Very close to the most important excavated part of the site, on a low hill slightly above most of the surrounding area, a tree stands in splendid isolation. Strips of paper and plastic have been tied to the tree’s branches as votive offerings, in all likelihood by visiting Alevi or Sufi Muslims. As such, Muslims of certain persuasions regard the tree as a sacred site. It is interesting to reflect that people still engage in religious rituals at Gobekli Tepe.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

Given that Gobekli Tepe is, by quite a few thousand years, the oldest confirmed site anywhere in the world at which religious rituals were once undertaken, anyone who wishes to provide a context for the religion they are studying with pupils or students (whether in school or university) will probably refer to this archaeological site in south-east Turkey.  Moreover, common sense suggests that some of the religions which emerged in the Middle East after Gobekli Tepe was abandoned may have been influenced by the faith which existed in what is now the Sanliurfa region about 12,000 years ago. Fascinating though all this inevitably is, to me the most remarkable thing about Gobekli Tepe is how it transforms our understanding of how religions emerged in the first place. Until the discovery of Gobekli Tepe it was assumed that religions emerged only after humankind had progressed from its hunter-gatherer stage to live in more settled communities in which different people were assigned different tasks, and life was more predictable and secure because of the emergence of basic agricultural practices. To put it another way, religions emerged only when humankind had sufficient time or leisure to invent them. But Gobekli Tepe suggests the reality is the other way around. As it says above:

“the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.”

This theory suggests that, due to humankind’s desire to create religious centres such as Gobekli Tepe, it became necessary for humankind to develop more substantial and complex societies in which people were assigned different roles. Consequently, crop production and animal husbandry did not precede the creation of sites such as Gobelki Tepe; they were a product of such sites.

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