Gobekli Tepe, 'The Oldest Temple on Earth?'
published CORNUCOPIA, issue 59, 2019, pages 55-57, Turkey section
The oldest temple on earth is now back in business. The most important, bewitching, intriguing and mysterious archaeological discovery of the 21st century, it's excavations reveal a fragile, maze-like complex of stone walls encircling four ritual spaces in a sunken hollow near the summit of a hill. Each of these circles is dominated by a pair of slender T-shaped menhirs at their centre surrounded by a dozen-or so similar stones. The surface of many of these outer menhirs are covered with enigmatic carvings, some of which seem like a furious recollection of a nightmare: scorpions, serpents, lions, foxes, boars and what appears to be a vulture playing with a human head. By contrast the central pair appear benignly human, and some have been given arms and a cummerbund-like belt. We now know just enough to know how little we know. Some of the answers are still there in the unexcavated earth, so it is important not to hurry. For this is a site of worldwide importance and an opportunity to push back our understanding of human culture.
Not until you have witnessed a local thunder-storm coming over the mountains, splitting rocks and starting a thousand spate streams of blood-coloured earth, do you begin to understand the need for all those Hittite statues raised to the thunder-gods. Nor the importance of protecting the site from the weather. And it needs to be protected from the flood of enthusiastic travellers, some of whom (like myself) are driven by a passion for prehistory that is very close to the emotional needs of a medieval pilgrim.
Until the 1990's, a withered old mulberry tree was the only feature to break the silhouette of Gobekli-tepe – tummy button hill. Prayers and petitions were whispered beneath the tree as fragments of cloth were knotted to its branches, destined eventually to be blown away into the vastness of the Anatolian steppe, towards possible fulfilment on the wind.
The earth on the summit was surprisingly rich and deep, unlike the bare limestone escarpments that spread out like the limbs below it. It was ploughed for an orchard of pistachio to be planted, though the farmer (Mehmet Yildiz) and his family had to laboriously smash one or two projecting boulders in the process. The soil was littered with flint tools, but this is not so unusual in southern Turkey. However Mehmet was so emphatic about the quantity of flints that the place was dutifully logged in a thick register of archaeological sites in 1963. In my garden in Hampshire, I usually find at least one flint tool whenever I open up a new vegetable bed. It gives me a glow to handle these slender fragments, sole evidence of other humans who lived off this land thousands of years before me, but the potatoes need planting, so I push on with the job in hand. And so the temples might have slept, with just the summits of two of its monolithic menhirs exposed, truncated by the farmer's sledge-hammer and chipped by his plough.
But a red-bearded archaeologist from Germany called Klaus Schmidt decided to examine the hill. Klaus was fascinated by this part of Turkey, where the Neolithic agricultural revolution had been born. At the back of his mind he dreamed of stumbling upon a long-forgotten cave beside a spring, or a rock-shelter beside a seasonal pool, where evidence of that historical moment when the hunter-gatherers of the Paleaolithic started becoming farmers and stock-keepers might have been miraculously preserved.
Klaus had been part of the German team (under Harald Hauptmann) which had excavated the ancient Neolithic village of Nevali C(accent)ori before it was submerged for ever under the waters of a dam in 1992. He had handled the distinctive limestone objects found at Nevali Cori, including some of the oddest and oldest carvings that had been found re-used in the making of the back wall of a sanctuary building. He had made polysterene copies of these stones, which allowed him to work out their original form, stacked to create a stone totem-pole. His eyes had been exceptionally well trained for the task of discovering the temples buried under the hill of Gobekli-tepe.
The first time he came to Gobekli tepe was in 1994. He arrived late in the day, but remembered how the light of the setting sun was caught by the flint fragments which glittered like crystals. So he came back, and this time what he saw kept him there until the dusk had turned into night.
That day, amongst the litter of surface stones, he found half a dozen stones that he knew linked Gobekli tepe with the culture at Nevali Cori. These included carvings of a dragon-like gecko, a mysterious limestone ring (looking like a contemporary piece of sculpture by John Maine), a man with a penis but no other limbs and an animal with a savage jaw. He also found a T-shaped stone post. Anyone else looking at it would have classified it as a piece of medieval masonry, possibly something to do with an olive press. But Klaus had handled such things in the firmly dated environment of Nevali Cori, and knew that they came from the earliest period of the Neolithic.
It was a day of pure exhilaration. Later that evening, he feared it might be his last. On his way home from the hill, he was halted by a group of sinister-looking men armed with Kalashnikovs. They turned out to be members of the village militia, come to find out what the suspicious-looking figures were up to on Gobekli-Tepe. It was a memorable meeting for both parties, much cherished and repeated in the telling by Bakir, Sezay, Lamih and Vehbi, who went on to become the dependable core of Klaus Schmidt's excavation team. They worked together for ten years, patiently revealing not just one temple, but four sacred places nestling together. This would be followed by three other excavation grids and a pair of trenches which ultimately took the dig both forward in time (to rectangular structures) and back in time to the first modest round huts.
Klaus Schmidt was an inspirational speaker. His enthusiasm shared awareness of the site among well-heeled metropolitan audiences, be they in Stuttgart, Istanbul, New York, Ankara, Berlin or London. And the audiences came back, for he was that rare thing, a funny and humane scholar who could lift his eyes above the stratigraphy in the excavation trench and dream of the far horizons. And he was inextricably associated with the discovery Gobekli-tepe, which year after year dazzled the world with new finds, new stories, new mysteries. He acquired a courtyard house in old Urfa which became home to visiting professors, student excavators and an extravagant number of feral cats who adopted the hospitable German professor and his wife.
In 2005, he published a book on Gobekli Tepe - a book in two halves. It began with a masterly review of the background story of the earliest Neolithic cultures in the Near East, and was followed by a meditation on the possibilities emerging out of Gobekli-tepe. He amended his book, after the 2005 and 2006 seasons. But his first theories were in danger of being undermined by the pace of new discoveries, especially after the north-west section was dug in 2009. He was aware of the acutely critical tradition within his profession, and could quote Sir Mortimer Wheeler with relish: “Archaeology is not a science but a vendetta.” He knew how the reputations of such past heroes as Dame Kathleen Kenyon (the excavator of Jericho) and James Keelart (the discoverer of Catal Hoyuk) had been savaged by their heirs. So Klaus's death in 2014 not only left the excavations without their charismatic leader, interpreter and orchestrator, but left him vulnerable as a scholar, for he had never published a revised account of Gobekli-tepe.
With his death, the curtains were literally pulled on the site. Gobekli-tepe went into hibernation, awaiting a new team and a new purpose. It was time to consolidate the scholarship and the excavations. “Conservation, analysis, publication and preservation” were the new watch-words. Ultimate control of the site was given to the regional director of the Urfa museum, who continued to make use of Klaus's team which had always been funded by a long-established network of German archaeological institutes involved in southern Turkey. Dr Lee Clare was appointed the Co-ordinator for all future scientific work. The charitable foundation of a big Turkish corporation, the Dogus Group, also emerged as a crucial new member of this diverse team. They recognized that the museum collection in Urfa was the intellectual centre of the region, but they were determined to create a visitors' centre at the site, worthy of the worldwide importance of Gobekli-tepe.
Geographically Gobekli-Tepe the site fits like a glove into a historical tour of southern Turkey. It is just a half days' eastward travel from the Zeugma mosaic museum at Gaziantepe and only half an hour away from the multiple fascinations of Urfa, embellished by a vast new museum built to house the recent archaeological discoveries. But now it needed the infrastructure to support and protect it. That job has been done with imagination and style; its' an ancient jewel given a most elegant modern setting.
Out of sight of the excavation, the visitor now halts at a pair of intriguing, low circular halls, built out of rammed local earth. This is the Dogus-built visitor's centre. It detoxes visitors from the speed of modern travel and seamlessly introduces them to the Anatolian landscape, leading them past a series of display boards and through a rather intense audio-visual experience (which will be popular with younger visitors felt more like a clip from a rave-dance than a scholarly interpretation). A café-terrace frames a view of the farmed landscape to the south. Once the self-important bustle has been taken out of you, a newly made track of limestone cobbles allows you to approach Gobeklitepe either by a ten-minute stroll or in a shuttle bus. I could not fault this slow unfolding, this careful dampening down of the speed at which we all operate. It is also necessary for another reason. Like a beautiful fashion model the carvings of Gobeklitepe have been so artfully photographed for us that in real life they first appear less impressive than on the pages of a glossy magazine. The confused nature of the excavation trenches and the encircling walls takes some time to sort out, and need to take time to focus, especially as most of us will come here during the strong light of the middle of the day. Fortunately the centre of the site is now shaded by a great canvas dome, which the architects have artfully clipped at the lowest level into small sails which allows the landscape in. Not only does the wind play across your face but the good, sharp, defining light of the morning and evening is free to naturally illuminate the surface of the stones. Lessons from other boxed-in archaeological sites have clearly been learned. Gobekli-tepe has been protected but not bottled. It remains alive, and the high circular walkway fulfils all objectives. It protects the site, offer's spectacular bird's eye views (assisted by a series of detailed site maps) and allows the archaeological team to continue their work.
And this has been achieved with commendable despatch. Think of comparable prehistoric sites in England - Stonehenge and Avebury – both of which are still caught in a decade-old quagmire of plans and counter-proposals, and remain dissected by tarmac roads.
So what was Gobekli-tepe? What purpose did it serve? The stones have already been linked with aliens, refugees from the drowned island of Atlantis, Noah's flood, the lost paradise of Eden and more plausibly as places of astronomical observation.
This fluency of speculation is based on a simple, astounding fact. Gobekli-tepe is the oldest manmade structure yet discovered on this earth. It has been dated to at least 9,000 BC so it is seven thousand years older than such otherwise unimaginably ancient buildings as the Pyramids or Stonehenge. It's astonishing to think that we are closer in time to the Sumerian civilization, than the builders of Gobekli tepe were. It's much too early to have any possible direct relationship to any of the other mysterious prehistoric sites you have ever visited, be it New Grange beside the river Boyne in Ireland, the megalithic temples in Malta, or the village of Skara Brae on the Orkney coast. It is also equally removed in time from cave paintings at such places as Lascaux, which are around 10,000 years older. Our whole monumental tradition of integrated art history suddenly falls silent. Gobekli tepe stood alone, unconnected to anything in our ken. It can only be understood in relationship to itself and its immediate hinterland. It baffles even the experts, so it is not surprising that visitors flounder in the vast immensity of prehistory, and instead of remaining silent and in awe, clutch at infantile straws.
The earliest building level on the site has now been dated to 9,600 BC, due to the recent discovery of a very early level of modest hut circles. This dates look secure, based on stylistic analysis of the flint tools backed up by carbon dating of organic matter found in wall plaster and mud-mortar. The end of the period of occupation seems to be around 8,370 BC for some reason which we do not yet understand. Climate change and earthquakes have been postulated as well as a simple shift towards a better source of water. The nearest good spring is 5 kilometres to the north-east.
Gobekli-tepe existed before the invention of pottery (so it is labelled PPNA, pre-pottery Neolithic), and many thousands of years before the use of any metals or scripts. Yet the builders of Gobekli tepe could make terrazzo floors (an early form of concrete from pounded lime), quarry and carve stone and bond their stone walls with an early form of mud-cement that was carried around in baskets. At first it was imagined that the quarries were some distance away but it is now thought that they cut the limestone blocks (which can be peeled off in reasonably neat bedding levels) from the immediate bedrock. They were probably immaculate craftsmen in leather and wood, which dominated their craft-work but which has now all perished. A five metre high larch trunk, carved with eight faces (the Shigir idol) that was discovered in the late 19th century by gold miners at Jekatarinburg, north of the Urals, has very recently been dated to 9,600 BC and so provides a very distant but tantalising example of wood-working skills from this period.
Agriculture (in the sense of ploughing and sewing their own land) had not yet been invented but they were farmers of a kind. They harvested the natural grasses of the region with hand-held sickles, a set of cutting flints set into a bone or wooden shaft, to gather in vast quantities of seed. Ten thousand grinding stones have so far been unearthed from Gobekli-tepe and some impressive looking stone troughs – one of which has a 160- litre capacity. Whether they were used to make bread or beer or porridge or an alcoholic gruel is one of those arcane points of detail which can divide a room of archaeologists into rival factions - ever since the “Beer or Bread” debate at the Braidwood symposium of 1953.
The hills and mountains around Gobekli-tepe are the indigenous homeland of einkorn wheat, the essential starting block, the literal seed, of the worldwide Neolithic Revolution. They also harvested herds of wild sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and donkeys. It is thought they may have been hunted in well-organized hunting campaigns that had two purposes: keeping the wild herds of animals away from the steppe-land regions of wild ripening wheat, but also to driving them towards killing grounds such as a river crossing or a gorge. There were also other succulent animals on offer (which would not become successfully domesticated) such as gazelle and deer. Vast quantities of animal bones have been found, which alongside the evidence of all those millstones, suggest that Gobekli-tepe was a place of great feasting. To add to the cornucopia of good things, there were also wild groves of olive, oak and pistachio as well as the vegetable ancestors of barley and rye. Truly Anatolia is the world's motherland.
Initially, Klaus Schmidt suggested that the circular temple enclosures of Gobekli tepe were open to the air. He suggested that they might have functioned as places of ritual excarnation. Each is enclosed within its own circuit of labryinthine walls and accessible only through a narrow crawl space. Klaus Schmidt postulated that the human dead could have been reverently placed between the two central menhirs and picked clean by vultures, crows and foxes, leaving just the clean bones and the skulls. The finds of vast quantities of crow bones (50% of all bird bones found on the site) and the imagery carved on the stones all seemed to support this scenario. It was also first thought that Gobekli-tepe was a place entirely dedicated to ritual, and not inhabited. It was an exciting concept, suggesting that early humankind built the Cathedral before the city.
Now however it is thought that the great T-shaped limestone menhirs had an additional structural cause. They could have supported a web of beams (probably fashioned from poplar or pistachio trees) over which branches covered with a roof of pounded earth and small stones were laid. Similarly the many mysterious stones (some carved with heads) found on the site are now known to have been inserted into the walls and were not battlements. Last year a few tantalising fragments of human skull were found: scraped clean with flint blades and fashioned so they could be suspended by a rope from a rafter. Other, simpler projecting stones have been found in the walls, and possibly held simple lamps (fuelled with animal fat) that we already know were widely used in the paleolithic era. A high upper bench has also been identified running around the inner face of the circle. This could have provided a formal (if slightly impractical area for seating) or could have been used as a shelf for ritual objects, such as totems or the honoured skulls of ancestors. The formal entrance way was along a complicated tunnel-like passage, guarded by gate stones which were into full circles or U-shaped portals.
This new way of looking at the structure of the temple enclosures has also brought new interpretations. Instead of being open to the night sky, we can better imagine them as secretive halls where both the living and the honoured ancestors drunk beer (or were libated with it) and listened to mythic stories. They may also have framed initiation ceremonies for it was vital that young men be bound into a lifelong sense of responsibility to the whole clan. There is a suggestion (at the moment based on two tiny find spots of ochre) that the carvings on the stones might have been picked out in colour. The central menhirs may have been dressed in skins, to match the observable details carved into the stone of fox pelts hanging on cummerbund-like belts. This new story-line imagines a scenario where bands of hunters (all drawn to this incredibly rich feeding zone at certain times of year) organised themselves into clans. Each temple enclosure could seat about sixty, which after you have taken out the old and the young, would have yielded a band of twenty fit adults, the optimum number for a hunting party. The season of plenty - whether it be of bread, beer or gazelle flesh (or all three) might have been a time of feasting, story-telling and rituals, with enough surplus energy available for some clan-bonding collective construction projects.
This doesn't take us any closer to what meaning was associated with all those fascinating carved animals on the circles of stones. The savage-looking boars, the scorpions, the sea of serpents, crane-like birds and the very feral foxes. Humans by comparison look weak and vulnerable if not disfigured. We have not yet found any depictions of heroic hunters or shaman-like fusions of man and beast that would link these carvings to the paintings of the caves and rock shelters. I imagine that the stone carvings are elements of a story cycle, which follows the journey of the dead through torments of the earth and then through the heavenly constellations. An equally plausible idea is that they tell the adventurous story of the heroic founder of the clan, perhaps also picking up elements of the circular passage of the seasons as reflected in the mystery of the stars, told and chanted as the clan wove a figure of eight-like dance progression. We almost certainly will never know. They may just have been carved as frightening figures that would help protect the place when the clan moved on and left the enclosure empty until their annual migration route brought them back here next year.
Klaus Schmidt also announced that the temples had been buried, or possibly even deliberately backfilled. At first it was conjectured that this might have been a ritual action, maybe connected to the end of an astrological era (in something of the manner of the 19 and 76 years required for the completion of a lunar and solar cycle). Now, however, there is a much simpler explanation. For the temples would have been filled with earth after the collapse of their rooves, especially as it has long been recognized that the narrow T-shaped menhirs were structurally unstable.
So the picture of Gobekli-tepe has shifted considerably. Professor Schmidt sketched out an image of a hunter-gatherer Eden, centred on circular ritual enclosures, mysterious places ornamented with fearful figures that were set aside for the final journey of the hunter. He also suggested that they existed in a near constant state of construction and burial. We no longer think of Gobekli-tepe as a unique place, but something that slowly emerged from one of the seasonal camping grounds of a band of transhumant hunter-gatherers. It slowly emerged as a seasonal village where the clan came together to feast, to perform their collective rituals, to become part of something bigger than themselves.
In recent years half a dozen other sites with T-shaped menhirs have been located in the surrounding hills. Escorted by two experienced Turkophile travel writers, Jason Goodwin and Jeremy Seal, I went to find one of these. The unexcavated site of Karahan tepe (which looks to be of the same age as Gobekli-tepe) is hidden in the Tek Tek hills close to the Syrian frontier. It was an adventure getting there. Our local guide got lost, we were hit by a thunderstorm and the car broke down. It was a memorable day, saved by a kindly family who warmed us by their stove and fed us tea, and by a reverend old farmer who gave us a lift back into town, as both his plough and his television needed mending. That evening we recovered in a hammam in Urfa and went out to toast the memory of Klaus Schmidt. I now know enough to hesitate as to whether I should call them temples or ritual enclosures for the veneration of clan ancestors, or join the archaeologists who now cautiously refer to them as ‘the earliest human-made monumental building in the world.” What I do know is that I have seen one of the wonders of the world, which will always more questions about our distant origins than it will provide answers.
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by Barnaby Rogerson