millennia separate us from the birth of ancient Egypt in c.
3100 BC. Add another five millennia and we are in 8100 BC, coincidentally
the start of the Age of Cancer. Add another millennium and a
half, and we have the date when Göbekli Tepe, in the highlands
of Turkey near the Iraqi and Syrian borders, was constructed.
Archaeologically categorised as a site of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic
A period (c. 9600–7300 BC), the world’s oldest temple
sits in the early part of that era and so far has been carbon-dated
to 9500 BC. It is the time-frame when Plato’s Atlantis
civilisation is said to have disappeared. And it was built an
incredible 5,000 years before the rise of what many consider
to be the “oldest civilisation”, Sumer, not too
far south of Göbekli Tepe as one goes down the River Euphrates
and leaves the highlands of the Taurus Mountains in Turkey.
Göbekli Tepe is an incredible site. David Lewis-Williams,
Professor of Archaeology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg,
says that “Göbekli Tepe is the most important archaeological
site in the world”. It is a small hill on the horizon,
15 kilometres northwest of the town of Sanliurfa, more commonly
known as Urfa—which has been linked with the biblical
Abraham (some claim that Urfa was the town of Ur mentioned in
the Bible) and which once hosted the Holy Mandylion, linked
with Christ’s Passion. Once also known as Edessa, Urfa
is on the edge of the rainy area of the Taurus Mountains, source
of the river that runs through the town and joins the Euphrates.
Urfa was (and still is) an oasis, which could explain why Göbekli
Tepe was built nearby. A life-sized statue of limestone that
was found in Urfa, at the pond known as Balikli Göl, has
been carbon-dated to 10,000–9000 BC, making it the earliest-known
stone sculpture ever found. Its eyes are made of obsidian.
An old Kurdish shepherd, Savak Yildiz, discovered the true nature
of Göbekli Tepe in October 1994 when, spotting something,
he brushed away the dust to expose a large oblong-shaped stone.
A survey of the site had been carried out by American archaeologist
Peter Benedict in 1963, but he identified the area as a Byzantine
cemetery. When German archaeologist Harald Hauptmann and Adnan
Misir and Eyüp Bucak of the Museum of Urfa began excavations
in 1995, they soon learned that the site was so much more.
Göbekli Tepe is a series of mainly circular and oval-shaped
structures set in the slopes of a hill, known as Göbekli
Tepe Ziyaret. “Ziyaret” means “visit”,
but this is often left out of the name. And though some translate
“Göbekli Tepe” as “Navel of the World”
and “Gobek” does mean “navel” or “belly”
and “Tepe” means “hill”, the most correct
translation of the site’s name should be “bulged-out
The more sensationalist media have made attempts to link Göbekli
Tepe with the biblical Garden of Eden. Göbekli Tepe is
indeed old, but it is not unique; nor was it a garden. However,
over the past 50 years the time-frame for the beginning of civilisation
has been gently pushed back from the rise of the Sumerian civilisation
to the construction of Göbekli Tepe. Alas, it has been
a voyage that has not received the attention it should have
back the birth of civilisation
discovery of the biblical town of Jericho and its stone walls,
dated to c. 8000 BC, was the first to push back the date of
the birth of “civilisation”. ‘Ain Ghazal is
often seen as a sister site of Jericho and, with its 15-hectare
area, is the largest Neolithic site in the Middle East and four
times as big as Jericho. American Gary O. Rollefson, its principal
archaeologist, was able to date the town to 7250 BC, and there
is evidence of agriculture in the area dating back to c. 6000
BC—later than the establishment of the town itself. In
its heyday, 2,000 people lived at ‘Ain Ghazal. However,
by 5000 BC the town was completely deserted. Thirty statues
have been found there, measuring between 35 and 90 centimetres;
they are human in appearance but may represent deities or the
spirits of ancestors. Jericho’s discovery added weight
to the argument that the Bible is history, not myth. But when
it was next learned that there are even older sites than Jericho,
“unfortunately” not located in Palestine but further
north in Anatolia, southeast Turkey, media interest in these
new discoveries seemed to wane.
The most famous of these sites is Çatal Höyük.
It was discovered in 1958 by British archaeologist James Mellaart,
who began excavations in 1961 and eventually dated the site
to 7500–5700 BC. It is the largest and best-preserved
Neolithic site found to date. Mellaart described it as “a
Neolithic Rome”, and it is indeed worthy of the name “town”.
Its constructions show clear signs that its inhabitants possessed
a religion—labelled by some to be a Mother Goddess cult,
although this theory has been the subject of much controversy.
What is known is that the dead were buried beneath the floors
of the buildings, and that several of these structures contain
depictions of bulls. Some people have gone so far as to suggest
that there is likely a common origin between Çatal Höyük
and the Minoan civilisation on Crete, despite the fact that
3,000 years separate the two.
Çatal Höyük was the first of several discoveries
to slowly unveil the Turkish region’s ancient history.
Göbekli Tepe is but one of several extremely old sites
and is the oldest discovered so far. However, the existence
of these sites has only been reported within the specialised
press, although each site has a wow factor.
The site of Çayönü, located around 96 kilometres
from Göbekli Tepe, conforms to a design that is known as
a “grill plan”, as it looks like a grill. This reveals
that careful planning went into its construction. Americans
Linda and Robert Braidwood, together with Turkish archaeologist
Halet Çambel, began to excavate Çayönü
in 1964 and found that the floors of the buildings were made
of terrazzo (burnt crushed lime and clay), although at the time
of the discovery it was thought that this had first been used
by the Romans. The site also revealed the use of metals and
the earliest evidence of the smelting of copper, though some
nevertheless argue that the copper was originally cold-hammered
rather than smelted. The use of copper should not come as a
total surprise, as the site is within range of copper ore deposits
(as well as obsidian) at Ergani in nearby Diyarbakir Province.
And all of this in a site dated to 7500–6600 BC. Çayönü
is often seen as the site that began the epoch that would culminate
in Çatal Höyük.
Çayönü presented evidence of the first farmyard
pigs, but it also revealed a hoard of human skulls, one found
under an altar-like slab and stained with human blood. Some
have concluded that this is an indication of human sacrifice,
while others have been unwilling to go that far based on a single
type of artefact. Other archaeological evidence suggests that
some people were killed in huge death pits, while children were
buried alive in jars or roasted in large bronze bowls. Çayönü
is therefore civilisation, but perhaps not as we like to know
Another important site is Nevali Çori, in Hilvan Province
between Diyarbakir and Sanliurfa. Here, Harald Hauptmann began
excavations in 1979 and was able to uncover large limestone
statues. In 1991, the site was submerged with the construction
of Lake Atatürk Dam. It shares many parallels with Göbekli
Tepe and is dated to 8400–8000 BC. All the artefacts retrieved
are now in museums, including a life-sized egg-like head with
crude ears and a carved ponytail, found in a niche at the centre
of a north-western wall. Interestingly, the ponytail is actually
a curling serpent that ends in a mushroom-like cap. Whatever
being the figure is meant to represent, German archaeologist
Klaus Schmidt believes it was worshipped as a deity.
Nevali Çori set the stage for Göbekli Tepe: shortly
after its disappearance under the waters, Göbekli Tepe
emerged from the sands. Many people highlight the T-shaped pillars
of Göbekli Tepe as the “signature” of the site.
However, such T-shaped pillars were also found in Nevali Çori.
Site-wise, Nevali Çori is more square than circular in
design, although a square precinct has been found at Göbekli
Tepe, too. Although there are several parallels between the
two sites, Nevali Çori’s pillars are nevertheless
smaller and its shrine is located inside a village.
Tepe site revealed
comparison, the site of Göbekli Tepe is small. British
author Andrew Collins has compared its size to that of “three
tennis courts”. Its principal excavators are Klaus Schmidt
and Harald Hauptmann of the German Archaeological Institute
in Istanbul. All of the complexes in Göbekli Tepe that
they have unearthed so far are typified by structures containing
These pillars were used as “drawing boards” and
many depict animals, with an apparent preference for boars,
foxes, reptiles, lions, crocodiles and birds, as well as insects
and spiders. Most of these were carved out of the flat surfaces
of the pillars. However, some are three-dimensional sculptures,
including one find, made during the 2006 excavation season,
of a reptilian creature descending on the side of a T-pillar,
demonstrating that whoever created this had mastered the art
of stone carving—on a par with much of what we would see
thousands of years later in Sumer and Egypt.
So far, four circular/ovalshaped complexes have been excavated.
The walls are made of unworked dry stone and the floors of terrazzo.
The interior of the walls usually have several T-pillars set
along them in a radiating pattern, the depth of the pillar normally
against or near the wall so that the two main surfaces of the
pillar could be carved and seen by whomever was inside the complex.
A low bench runs along the entire exterior wall of each complex.
The structures are situated on the southern slope of the hill,
orientated roughly north–south with their entrances to
the south. All the T-pillars were excavated from a stone quarry
on the lower southwestern slope of the hill. One pillar remains
in situ in the quarry; it is seven metres long and three metres
wide, and if fully excavated would have weighed around 50 tonnes,
underlining that building with stones that weigh tonnes did
not begin in Egypt or in England with Stonehenge.
Complex A, the first circular structure to be excavated, is
nicknamed “the snake column building” because depictions
of the snake somewhat dominate the carvings on the T-pillars.
One is of a “net” containing snakes. Another pillar,
however, depicts a “triad” of bull, fox and crane,
positioned one above the other. Some pillars only feature a
bull, others only a fox, and so on.
Complex B measures nine metres in diameter when measured from
east to west, and 10 to 15 metres north to south (part of it
is still to be excavated). It is nevertheless the only complex
dug to floor level, revealing the terrazzo floor surface. Two
central pillars have a large fox depicted on them. One central
pillar, no. 9, is 3.4 m high; pillar no. 10 is 3.6 m high; their
weight is 7.1 and 7.2 tonnes respectively. The complex was clearly
built to “house” these monolithic pillars, which
prove how well-versed our ancestors were in working with gigantic
stones, not merely in quarrying them but in shaping and decorating
them as well. Archaeologists believe that 200 T-pillars originally
stood at Göbekli Tepe. If each weighed “only”
five tonnes, it would still mean that 1,000 tonnes of pillars
were excavated and decorated, and it highlights the importance
of the site and the effort that went into creating it.
Complex C is nicknamed “the circle of the boar”,
as it depicts various wild pigs. There remain nine pillars around
the wall, but several were removed at some point in the past.
One pillar shows a net of birds. As later cultures are known
to have caught migratory cranes in nets, could this be a custom
that was practised much earlier than assumed? Complex C is also
of interest because a U-shaped stone has been found there which
is deemed to have been the access stone. This stone has a central
passage of 70 centimetres in width, and one side of the U is
topped with a depiction of a boar; the other side unfortunately
is missing. Again, the U shape and the boar underline the craftsmen’s
technical expertise in carving, which is shown even more so
on pillar no. 27, featuring the earlier-mentioned three-dimensional
reptilian creature. This intricate sculpture could be regarded
as being on a par with Michelangelo’s statue of David.
Complex D is nicknamed “the Stone Age zoo”. Pillar
no. 43 has scorpions, and some pillars are indeed so profusely
decorated—much more intensively than in the other complexes—that
“zoo” is quite an apt description. Once again, there
are two central pillars (nos 18 and 31), though other pillars
reveal symbols, like one in the shape of the letter H as well
as one with an H turned 90 degrees. The site has revealed other
symbols, specifically a cross, a resting half-moon and horizontal
bars—evidence that the origin of writing is likely to
be much older than is currently assumed. Pillar no. 33 is the
“star” of the complex. Schmidt states that the shapes
on this pillar come close to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, hence
he posits the existence of a pictographic language in the 10th
Combined, these four complexes—and others, still unexcavated—are
a series of ovals and resemble the layout of the oval-shaped
Stone Age complexes found on Malta. This is all the more remarkable
as Malta’s oval shapes were considered unique, though
some of the megaliths on Sardinia also display some oval-like
tendencies but not as profoundly as at Göbekli Tepe.
A “rock temple” lower down on the slope is equally
oval in shape and has an opening to the “burial chamber”.
Whereas at other sites these openings are so narrow that a human
could not navigate to the interior, here it is wide enough to
Elsewhere on the site, on the northern slope of the hill, there
is a rectangular complex named “the lion column building”.
Its four pillars have depictions of leonine creatures, which
could also be tigers or leopards. One pillar has a 30-cm-high
graffito of a squatting woman who appears to be giving birth.
on Göbekli Tepe
at Göbekli Tepe are still ongoing; only a quarter of the
suspected 200 T-pillars have been discovered so far, and not
all the structures have been unearthed. In short, further surprises
may be in store. It is therefore early days to draw major conclusions,
but what could it all mean? The site definitely demonstrates
that things which we thought were much more recent are far older—and
all present in one site, sitting in a region which shows that
a civilisation worthy of that name existed there in the 10th
millennium BC, millennia before anyone would have dared to guess
a few decades ago.
Klaus Schmidt has labelled Göbekli Tepe “the first
temple” and “a sanctuary of the Stone Age hunter”.
He sees the site as part of a death cult, not specifically linked
with a sedentary group but a type of central sanctuary for several
of the tribes living in the region. The carved animals are believed
to have been there to protect the dead. At Çayönü,
as previously described, one structure has a cellar that was
found to contain human skulls and bones. So far, though, Göbekli
Tepe has no evidence of habitation and therefore appears to
have been purely a religious centre.
Once again, it appears that, just as the ancient Egyptians did,
the civilisation that constructed Göbekli Tepe had far
greater regard for their religious buildings than for any structures
of a “practical” or more materialistic nature. Still,
with only Complex B excavated to floor level, no tombs or graves
have been found to date.
Some have voiced criticism as to whether hunter-gatherers could
have created such a structure as Göbekli Tepe. The many
flint arrowheads (and the lack of construction tools) found
around the site would seem to support this criticism, and one
could even see these artefacts as part of sacred hunts rather
than as part of the daily activities to put food on the table—if
indeed tables even existed then.
Schmidt maintains that the hunter-gatherers convened at the
site at certain times of the year. Whether these meetings were
determined by solar or lunar cycles is anyone’s guess,
but it is nevertheless an interesting question to ponder. Equally,
one could logically conclude that those who constructed the
site lived there and were a dedicated resource supported by
others who sustained them in dietary and housing needs. Archaeologists
have estimated that up to 500 persons would have been required
to extract the 10- to 20-tonne pillars and move them from the
quarry to their destination, a distance ranging from 100 to
500 metres. However, Schmidt actually believes that maintaining
the community of builders was the real reason behind why our
ancestors “invented” agriculture: they began to
cultivate the wild grasses on the hills to sustain this sedentary
population. In short, he believes that “religion motivated
people to take up farming”.
As well as appearing to have ritual significance, Göbekli
Tepe, with its large and exquisitely decorated stone blocks,
reveals that its creators had an extraordinary ability and familiarity
with stone masonry and carving. That our ancestors in 10,000
BC were so skilled is an archaeological discovery that is wiping
out long-cherished beliefs about the origin of civilisation.
As for the carvings, why were some and not other animals chosen?
Why do the depictions seem to have no clear or apparent organisation
but appear to be a rather random collection? Truth is, we don’t
know. In later civilisations, all of these animals were given
divine attributes. Some cultures chose to depict snakes because
these animals shed their skin, which they saw as a symbol of
rebirth. Others opted for the same animal for different reasons.
So far, there is no way of knowing what beliefs the creators
and users of Göbekli Tepe held.
Some observers have pointed out that some of the cranes are
depicted with human-like knees and have suggested that a form
of shamanism was practised inside this temple. Sister sites
have revealed sculptures of a mixture of animal and human, specifically
that of the body of a bird with a human head. As it happened,
thousands of years later the ancient Egyptians used this symbol
as a hieroglyph to depict the ba, the human soul freed from
the body at death or during shamanic flight.
Andrew Collins has specifically underlined the shamanic potential
of these sites in modern-day Turkey. The image of the previously
mentioned naked woman depicts her hair in the shape of a hemispherical
mushroom cap. The side of one pillar at Göbekli Tepe features
a series of serpents with mushroom-shaped heads, four winding
their way downwards and a fifth one climbing up to meet them,
while the other side shows several interwoven serpents wearing
mushroom-like caps, eight emerging at the top and nine at the
bottom. Is this evidence of a ritual involving hallucinogenic
mushrooms or similar mind-altering substances?
The bones of vultures have been found at Nevali Çori,
Göbekli Tepe and Jerf el-Ahmar (in Syria). A communal cave
site, Shanidar, in the Upper Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq,
contained a series of severed birds’ wings covered with
red ochre. The remains have been dated to c. 8870 BC. The wings
are believed to have been used in some ceremony, but precisely
in what manner remains unknown. However, it is known that, in
the distant past, the people of this region placed the bodies
of the dead on high constructions and let vultures eat the flesh
of the dead. Depictions of such a Neolithic excarnation tower
have been found on a mural in Çatal Höyük.
Interestingly, human bones have recently been found in the soil
that once filled the niches behind the megaliths at Göbekli
Tepe. Schmidt argues: “...the ancient hunters brought
the corpses of relatives here, and installed them in the open
niches by the stones. The corpses were then excarnated.”
Not just vultures but wild animals seem to have taken part in
this ritual. This may explain why so many animals are depicted
on the T-pillars: perhaps the people who constructed these sites
felt that “something” of the dead lived on in these
is known is that Göbekli Tepe and its sister sites have
pushed back the age of monolithic building much further in time.
Previously, we looked to the likes of Stonehenge and the Egyptian
pyramids, but now we find that our ancestors were hauling massive
stones to build their constructions around 12,000 years ago.
Even if a structure like the Sphinx were suddenly found to be
10,000 years old, the immediate reaction might now perhaps be:
“So what? It is not that unique.” Furthermore, if
the dates for some of these sites in Turkey pre-date the assumed
time-frame for such events as the disappearance of Atlantis
or the Great Flood, it means that these ancient ancestors cannot
be neatly placed as “survivors from a deluge”.
Our ancient history has grown much more interesting and complex.
The cultures that followed the establishment of Göbekli
Tepe had domesticated pigs, sheep, cattle and goats and cultivated
wheat species such as einkorn. Indeed, recent analysis has shown
that the first cultivation of domesticated wheat occurred at
Karacadag, a mountain 32 kilometres from Göbekli Tepe.
Other domesticated cereals such as rye and oats also originated
here. According to Schmidt, this adventure began c. 8000 BC.
It is easy and tempting to label this region as “the cradle
of civilisation”, but the fact of the matter is that it
has already been proven that corn (maize) was engineered in
Mexico at the same time, only underlining how the frontiers
of “civilisation” are being pushed back on both
continents. In fact, there is evidence of Barbary sheep being
cultivated by our ancestors in North Africa as early as 18,000
BC. Furthermore, several grains of emmer wheat have been found
at the Palestinian site of Nahal Oren, suggesting cultivation
of this crop occurred there as early as 14,000 BC.
In any case, it is clear that Göbekli Tepe is not alone.
It may be receiving much of the focus, but another site, Karahan
Tepe, 63 kilometres east of Urfa in the Tektek Mountains, deserves
attention. Discovered in 1997 and investigated by archaeologist
Bahattin Çelik of the Turkish Historical Society, it
has been dated to c. 9500–9000 BC. It has a number of
T-pillars as well as high reliefs of a winding snake and other
carvings similar to those at Göbekli Tepe. Covering an
area of 325,000 m2, Karahan Tepe is much bigger than Göbekli
Tepe. The stone pillars are spaced 1.5 to 2.0 metres apart and
protrude above ground level, waiting for an archaeologist to
expose them fully. Other carved stones include a battered torso
of a naked man and polished rock with forms of goats, gazelles
It is too early to draw any extraordinary conclusions from these
sites, apart from the fact that our history is no longer as
we know it. But just as Jericho proved in part that the Bible
contains historical facts, these sites may yet substantiate
some of the Sumerian myths which claimed that agriculture, animal
husbandry and weaving had been brought to mankind from the sacred
mountain Du-Ku, which was inhabited by the Anunna deities. Though
it’s unlikely that this mountain was Göbekli Tepe,
we are probably in the correct general vicinity here at the
frontier of the Taurus Mountains.
Around 8000 BC, descendants of the creators of Göbekli
Tepe turned on their forefathers’ achievements and entombed
their temple under thousands of tonnes of earth, creating the
artificial hill—a “belly”—that we see
today. Why they did this is unknown, though it was a decision
that preserved the monument for posterity but also involved
an extraordinary amount of time and effort. Schmidt argues that
the local landscape began to change around that time: as the
trees were chopped down, the soil began to lose its fertility;
the area became arid and bare, and the people were forced to
move elsewhere. Could it be that they began to make their descent
and, millennia later, established what is known as the Sumerian
civilisation? Such a scenario is just one possibility.
Even in ancient Egypt, religious constructions were often abandoned
if not dismantled after a while because they belonged to a particular
“cycle” of time that had since passed. If that were
the case with Göbekli Tepe, it would mean that knowledge
of astronomy is older by millennia. The past five decades have
so radically reshaped our understanding of the period 10,000–4000
BC, specifically the level of “civilisation” our
ancestors had achieved in those days, that this shouldn’t
at all come as a surprise. And it seems that it’s a given
that somewhere, even older towns are waiting to be uncovered.
However, it is equally clear that entering into the mindset
of these hunter-gatherers—how they saw these animals and
what they believed happened to the dead—is a difficult
subject which will require years of study. Alas, it is an area
where few archaeologists dare to tread, and in all likelihood
they will hop from one site to the next, as they’ve done
for several decades, and will “only” uncover the
fact that civilisation is much older than we’ve assumed.
Already, other sites are vying for Göbekli Tepe’s
fame. The previously mentioned site of Jerf el-Ahmar, located
along the Euphrates in Syria, has been dated to 9600–8500
BC. Other sites will certainly soon submit their applications.
It’s likely they will all reveal that they are part of
our history, but not as we know it.
article appeared in Nexus Magazine, Volume 16, Number 4 (June-July
2009) and Darklore (Volume 4).