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Is Göbekli Tepe the Oldest Temple in the World?

Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

Reconstructed circular portion of Göbekli Tepe

Reconstructed circular portion of Göbekli Tepe

Current view of excavations at Göbekli Tepe

Current view of excavations at Göbekli Tepe

Aerial view of one circular portion of Göbekli Tepe

Aerial view of one circular portion of Göbekli Tepe

These ruins in Turkey could be 11,000 years old!

It seems that civilization keeps getting older and older. Göbekli Tepe, a Mesolithic archaeological site in southeastern Turkey, is at present the world’s oldest ceremonial center, its numerous T-shaped megaliths predating iconic Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. In fact, the site may even be centuries older than Jericho, located in Palestine near the Dead Sea, one of the world’s earliest settlements. “Göbekli Tepe is one of the most important monuments in the world,” said Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of Turkey’s Urfa Museum, in an article of the November/December 2008 issue of Archaeology magazine.

The site’s location is hardly a surprise since Turkey is the northern arc of civilization’s Fertile Crescent, where cities sprang up some 5,000 years ago. But the antiquity of Göbekli Tepe boggles the mind. This temple, ceremonial center or shrine, goes all the way back to the post-glacial period, when metal tools and pottery had not yet been developed. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and the development of writing, three skills important to the development of civilization, hadn’t come about either. Thus the people who built Göbekli Tepe were probably nomadic hunter-gatherers dressed in animal skins who were just learning to wield stone stools for making stone-built monuments or shelters. “They had barely emerged from the most basic way of life,” Karabulut said.

However, couldn’t the creation of Göbekli Tepe mark the beginning of civilization? Webster’s II New College Dictionary describes civilization as “An advanced stage of development in the arts and sciences accompanied by corresponding political, social and cultural complexity.” This site shows complexity and artistry on a grand scale indeed. Even today, the construction of the site would require a great deal of skilled, organized and expensive work.

In the November 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Klaus Schmidt, an archaeologist who has recently excavated at the site, said that some 11,000 years ago “this area was like a paradise.” Schmidt theorized that prehistoric hunter-gatherers assembled at the site—perhaps as many as 500 of them supervised by a priestly caste—built the sacred monuments, and then later founded villages in the surrounding area and began planting crops and domesticating animals, the opposite of the standard version of civilization’s early days found in text books. Simply put, most scholars think that settlements and cities were constructed before temples or shrines.


Göbekli Tepe at night with Urfa in the background

Göbekli Tepe at night with Urfa in the background

One of many T-shaped megaliths at Göbekli Tepe

One of many T-shaped megaliths at Göbekli Tepe

One of many animal figures on standing stones

One of many animal figures on standing stones

gobekli-tepe-the-dawn-of-civilization
gobekli-tepe-the-dawn-of-civilization
Map of site in Turkey

Map of site in Turkey

Workman at the site

Workman at the site

The Hill of the Navel

Göbekli Tepe (meaning the “hill of the navel” in Turkish) covers some 25 acres, where circles of T-shaped stone pillars, some of which of 18 feet high and weighing between seven and 10 tons, stretch across a hillside, with nearby city of Urfa in the background. The Neolithic people at the site carved the local limestone into numerous depictions of humans and animals, including a bare human cranium with a snake crawling up the back of it. Other depictions show boars accompanied by ostrich-like birds, a crocodile-like creature and vultures flying above a scorpion.

But why were such humans and animals incised on these megaliths? Schmidt and his team have found at the site bones of wild animals such as red deer, goats, sheep, oxen, gazelles and many species of birds. Numerous flint spearpoints have also been discovered at the site. Schmidt emphasized that we know nothing of the religious practices at Göbekli Tepe. The animal images “probably illustrate stories of hunter-gatherer religion and beliefs,” he said, “though we don’t know at the moment.”

And what about those T-shaped pillars? Schmidt likened them to human bodies with the upper part of the “T” resembling a head in profile. The pillars could have represented a meeting of stone beings.

But, given the limitations of archaeology without any kind of written record, we may never know for sure why Göbekli Tepe was constructed.

Then the site was covered with sand and abandoned about 10,000 years ago, about the time agriculture developed in the area. Schmidt hypothesized that the beginning of agriculture may have diminished the significance of the site’s importance, so that pilgrims stopped coming to the area.

Scholars have been fascinated with the Neolithic period in Turkey, or Anatolia as it is also known, since the early 1960s, when excavations at the famous location of Catalhöyük, the world’s most extensive Neolithic site, showed painted shrines built some 9,500 years ago; and a nearby contemporaneous settlement showed evidence of some of the earliest animal domestication and copper metallurgy.

Since only about 10 percent of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated, more enlightening finds are almost guaranteed in the coming years. The digging at the site could last as long as 50 years, similar to other long-term digs such the one at Olympia in Greece.

Artist's depiction of every day life at Göbekli Tepe

Artist's depiction of every day life at Göbekli Tepe

Recent Discoveries at Göbekli Tepe

According to the article “Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers?” in the May/June 2021 issue of Archaeology, recent excavations at Göbekli Tepe have revealed that the site was abandoned about 8200 B.C.E., when the Neolithic Revolution was underway in that part of the world, though recent evidence seems to show that the site did not provide an integral view of the Neolithic way of life.

“I don’t agree with the idea of Göbekli Tepe as the smoking gun of the Neolithic,” said Lee Clare of the German Archaeological Institute. Clare, who excavated at the site for 10 years, thinks the site represents one of the last places where hunter gatherers erected monuments that espoused a much more wild way of life, rather than that of the coming agrarian revolution. The animals depicted on the T-pillars at the site were that of fierce animals such as foxes, wild boars, cougars, scorpions, spiders and vultures, not domesticated ones such as cows, sheep and goats; moreover, the animals all seemed be males, which are generally more dangerous than females ones.

The circular buildings at the site were probably covered in some way as well. Perhaps shown at night with lighted torches, they would have presented an impressive and frightening spectacle. The threatening imagery was intended to keep Göbekli Tepe residents in line. “Narratives are very important in keeping groups together and providing identity,” Clare said. “This is about the promotion of a group identity in the face of advancing Neolithization.”

It seems the images in this site emphasized the advantages of the hunter-gatherer way of life, as opposed to a more sedentary way of life, which may have introduced overcrowding, more disease and worse nutrition. But some researchers think the images of fierce animals may have been designed to protect the sanctuary; and though domestication probably wasn’t practiced by the people at the site, grinding tools were used to process and cook wild grains and perhaps they were grown in the surrounding area as well, so agriculture may have been underway in some fashion.

At present, only about 10 per cent of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated, so more discoveries are probably forthcoming. Be that as it may, it seems obvious that the builders of the site were complex beings capable of erecting artistic displays of startling realism!

Notes:

The sources for this article were the November/December 2008 issue of Archaeology magazine, Webster’s II New College Dictionary, the November 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine and the article “Last Stand of the Hunter-Gatherers?” in the May/June 2021 issue of Archaeology.

© 2008 Kelley Marks

Comments

Reyn on April 27, 2012:

@gsmonks

What is it about the Left (where I sit) and the Right -- and most scientists and supposed scholars and theologians on both sides that they simply HAVE to "know" and that things HAVE to fit into their models or get discarded? Do people like you go out of your way to find new ways to be arrogant, snobbish and know-it-all?

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on November 16, 2011:

I'll bet few archaeologists suggest that Gobekli Tepe simply popped into being. Where did you get such a notion? Only pseudoscientists make such ridiculous assertions. Anyway, thanks for the intellectual comment. Later!

gsmonks on November 16, 2011:

There is no evidence to suggest that Göbekli Tepe is a temple. In fact, piles of refuse indicate that it was a settlement, not a shrine.

Depicting the inhabitants as skin-wearing, pre-language, primitive, nomadic hunting/gathering primates is likewise not substantiated by the evidence.

Civilisations never exist in a vacuum. Anyone with a background in taxonomy knows that ideas, knowledge and skill-sets must come together in order for settlements like this to exist.

There is no reason to believe that Ice-Age people weren't simply transferring skills previously used on perishable media (wood, bone, skins, ice) to stone as the Ice-Age ended. Perishable media leave no trace, of course, but their existence can be inferred by transferred skills. Regardless, the assumption that Göbekli Tepe simply popped into being is patently ridiculous.

culinarycaveman from Dem Woods, Sussex, England on January 04, 2010:

Your hubs are hitting the hot spots dude, love 'em. Gonna read some more.

My gut feeling is that Africa holds much much more than has come to light thus far, partly due to the outrageous racism of the Victorian archaeologists who would never have accepted a black man as possessing even intelligence, let alone founding civilization. Then we've got China and all the flooded parts off NE India to come also.

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on September 23, 2009:

Wow -- thanks. I love it when you here about something so interesting, and you never heard of it before.

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