Gobekli Tepe in Turkey is one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in the world. It is so unusual that it has turned the archaeological world on its head. Gobekli Tepe is actually a 12,000 year old temple complex, built by a hunter-gatherer culture (or perhaps by the first Stone Age farmers?) and they are the oldest temples in the world. Until this complex was discovered, it had been thought that temples had only been built by agrarian cultures. The complex has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2018. Gobekli Tepe lies approximately 15 kilometre from the town of Sanliurfa in Southeast Turkey.

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The hill of Gobekli Tepe. Photo: German-Archaeological-Institute-Klaus-Schmidt.jpg

Gobekli Tepe, a constant stream of new discoveries

Before the complex was discovered by researchers the site was a farming area. The farmers regularly found ‘annoying’ stones in their fields and dug them out, piling them up in heaps without realising they were destroying very valuable finds. All that changed in 1963 when the Universities of Istanbul and Chicago began to carry out research in the area. The excavations have been going on now for a quarter of a century.

At the moment archaeologists are very busy as more and more finds come to light, including temples, T-shaped pillars and stone images. In 2017 geophysical surveys revealed that a further 15 temples and more than 200 obelisks lie under the ground. The largest temple excavated so far is 30 metres long. Inside the temples stand large T-shaped pillars weighing 40 to 60 tons engraved with images of wild animals. Many smaller stones with carved images have also been found. So far only a small part of the site has been excavated. Archaeologists recently discovered an area with various ceremonial structures. At the moment research is continuing into the daily lives of the people who lived here, carried out jointly by the Berlin German Archaeological Institute and the Sanliurfa Museum. It is estimated that research in this richly rewarding area could take another 150 years. One thing is certain. At present Göbekli Tepe raises more questions for archaeology and prehistory than it answers.

On YouTube is a short film describing the latest developments and the granting of UNESCO status.

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View of the most important excavation site at Gobekli Tepe. Photo-German-Archaeological-Institute-Nico-Becker.jpg
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View of the excavations at one of the temples in Enlosure C. Photo-German-Archaeological-Institute-Nico-Becker.jpg
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Pillar 56 in Gobekli Tepe (Enclosure H) Photo-Nico-Becker-DAI.jpg

Interpreting Gobekli Tepe   (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

Göbekli Tepe is regarded as the most important archaeological discovery of the millennium. However, interpretations of the finds vary significantly.

The German archaeologist and pre-historian Klaus Schmidt (1953 – 2014) led the excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1996 to 2014. Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere. Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers from up to 150 km away. Butchered bones from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been found in large numbers and identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the pilgrims.

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the walls of the sacred circles. In 2017, discovery of human crania with incisions was reported, interpreted as providing evidence for a new form of Neolithic skull cult.

Schmidt also interpreted the site in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains such as Einkorn. Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.

With its mountains catching the rain and a calcareous, porous bedrock creating lots of springs, creeks and rivers,  the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris was a refuge during the dry and cold Younger Dryas climatic event (10,800 – 9,500 BC). Crowded conditions could have led these people to develop common rituals strengthened by monumental gathering places to reduce tensions and conflicts over resources and probably to mark territorial claims.

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain of Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic. It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favour of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders and scorpions.

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Detail of pillar 27 in Enclosure C Photo-Dieter-Johannes-DAI.jpg

Parts of the site have recently been opened to tourists, with one area covered by a roof. Four temples can be visited but this is likely to be increased now that the site is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

If you’d like to learn more, there is a National Geographic documentary film on YouTube.

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Aerial photo of Göbekli-Tepe Photo-German-Archaeological-Institute-Erhan-Kücük.jpg
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A half-formed T-pillar still lying in the quarry near Gobekli Tepe. In the background is the hill of Göbekli-Tepe Photo-German-Archaeological-Institute-Nico-Becker.jpg
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Pillar 6 at Göbekli-Tepe, found in Enclosure-B. Photo-German-Archaeological-Institute-Irmgard-Wagner.jpg
Vorig artikelThe Talaiotic Culture in Majorca
Volgend artikelSammallahdenmäki, a burial site in Finland with World Heritage status
Harrie Wolters is algemeen directeur van het Hunebedcentrum.

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