I am rarely happier than when traveling in Eastern Turkey. The culture, art, people and history of the region have wooed me, won me over, heart, mind and soul. This past fall trip was even more exciting for me when we as a group visited the ancient site of Gobekli Tepe. I had read, seen images and had imagined what this relatively newly discovered archeological site might hold. Nothing had prepared me for the magnitude and beauty of what is the oldest temple or religious site known to mankind.
Seven thousand years before the ancient pyramids of Egypt; six thousand years before Stone Henge of England; in 9500 BC Gobekli Tepe was erected. Eleven thousand five hundred years ago, before mankind had settled, before the age of pottery and agriculture, this massive centre of religion was raised on the Mesopotamian Plain. The German archeologist, Klaus Schmidt, who has partnered with the Turkish government in this excavation states; “first the temple and then the city”. This perspective is a complete reversal of what has been the popular belief, that religion developed after mankind settled. Gobekli Tepe would suggest that while we were still hunters and gatherers massive energies were expended to build a religious site of extraordinary proportions high on a hill.
We had scheduled a stop at Gobekli Tepe on our itinerary for the very first time. The site is not officially open to the public but as it is a short detour off the road to Sanliurfa we chose to ‘take our chances’ and see if in fact we could gain entry to the site. These minimal efforts were rewarded with a magnificent afternoon viewing the early days of excavation at Gobekli Tepe. The name translates literally to Potbelly Hill and it is here that the oldest megalithic artifact in the world is found. The walls of the biblical city of Jericho (now a part of the Palestinian Territories) were previously believed to hold this record but in fact they postdate this site by 1,000 years. It is estimated that 95% of the site remains covered but what was on view was extraordinary. T- shaped standing stone pillars, with the largest reaching over 5.5m high, stand in a circle with two pillars at the centre of the circle. Some of the pillars are decorated with relief carvings of seemingly totemic sculptures of snakes, rams, foxes, birds and bulls. There are some pillars with with reference to men/gods complete with bas-relief carved arms, hands, articulated fingers, belts and in one case an animal skin loin cloth.
It was fascinating to visit the site while work was underway. Boardwalks around the perimeter had been constructed and the wooden framing for a roof to cover the site was in the process of being built. Quite a number of the tops of the columns were covered with boxes made of wooden slats. Presumably these covers were a protection for reliefs against the elements until a permanent protective roof was in place. A short walk up the mound and we were able to overlook another area that was in the early stages of excavation.
I still get goosebumps looking at the images and trying as hard as I might to turn my mind back to this Neolithic period of our history. It is a profound shift to think of the desire to worship being the catalyst that brought mankind into community.
This article which I highly recommend states:
“Schmidt’s (the German archeologist) thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.”
We are off again to explore Eastern Turkey this fall in October, 2014. We will travel from the Black Sea to the SE corner of the country. If you have itchy feet and a desire to travel meaningfully in a small group consider joining us. Gobekli Tepe awaits – as it has for the past 11,500 years.