Gobekli Tepe – Worship in the Neolithic Era

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.

Bas relief carving on the face of a pillar.  A fox?

Bas relief carving on the face of a pillar. A fox?

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.

Arial photo from infomation board at the site

Arial photo from infomation board at the site

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.

Bas relief carving of a bull on a pillar

Bas relief carving of a bull on a pillar

Supported pillar with diagonal arm with fingers wrapped around the side and a belt.

Supported pillar with diagonal arm with fingers wrapped around the side and a belt.

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.

Walking to the top of the mound.

Walking to the top of the mound.

Overlooking new excavations nearby.

Overlooking new excavations nearby.

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.

Counstructing the framework for the covering for the site

Counstructing the framework for the covering for the site

 

Boardwalks and beginnings of a cover of the site

Boardwalks and beginnings of a cover of the site

 

Wooden boxes protecting the standing stones from the elements

Wooden boxes protecting the standing stones from the elements

 

Standing stones supported at the site.

Standing stones supported at the site.

 

Steel anchors for the supporting cables for the stones

Steel anchors for the supporting cables for the stones


5 Responses

  1. Karekin says:

    While I find your interest in this fascinating part of the world to be a positive, you really need to be a lot more honest and historically accurate with your readers. At the least, you need to be clear that this site has absolutely nothing to do with Turks or with Turkey, as it preceded the arrival of the Turks by about 8500 years! Yet, you don’t mention this anywhere. Neglecting to mention this is unacceptable to anyone who knows anything about history, as it conveys the notion that these artifacts were created by the Turks – which they were not! Thank you.

  2. Karekin says:

    Very sorry, I meant to say by about 10,500 years’. My mistake!

  3. Catherine Mortensen says:

    @Karekin
    I am glad that we share an interest in this part of the world. I feel that this site only is connected to Turkey as it is situated on Turkish soil. In 9.500 BC none of the historical regional dynasties existed including the Turks. I in no way meant to link this site to the Turks (present day Turks or the Turkic tribes of Central Asia) other than the fact that Gobekli Tepe exists within the borders of Turkey. Any chance that you have had a opportunity to visit the site? If so, what did you think?

  4. Doug says:

    Catherine, thank you for bringing this forward. I am greatly ignorant of ancient history, but it pre-dates anything of which I am aware. I’ll have to be on the lookout for more information.

    • Catherine Mortensen says:

      It is amazing to have a site that dates back to this time. Here are some more images from National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text There is also a video online from National Geographic as well. Give it a Google,there is a growing interest in this site. It did give me goosebumps to stand there viewing the beautiful reliefs and trying to get my mind around the date of the artifacts.

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