SANLIURFA, Turkey – It is 8:30 a.m. and the June sun is already high in the sky, beating furiously over the brown, arid landscape of southeastern Turkey. We don’t notice the heat or the ineffective air conditioning of our rental car. We are too excited about where we are headed: Göbekli Tepe, the oldest temple on earth.
A smiling receptionist at our Sanliurfa hotel assured us Göbekli Tepe was only 18 kilometers away, “a 20-minute drive.” We have been on the road for more than an hour and still haven’t found it.
The problem, my husband helpfully points out, is that people seem to know the distance to Göbekli Tepe, but no one is sure of its direction. Wikipedia says it is northwest of Sanliurfa; other websites say north or northeast; our smiling receptionist said, “Go out of the hotel. Turn right, then right again.” Our car GPS and Google maps don’t have Göbekli Tepe. We first drove north, then northwest. Now we are driving northeast.
The minor road we are on becomes a dirt track, and I begin preparing my “we couldn’t find it” speech for family and friends back in the United States. And, suddenly, there it is — Göbekli Tepe (literally “potbellied hill”), rising above knolls dotting the landscape. When we are close, we notice a fence around the site, a security guard at the gate, and a surprising absence of tourists. (Later, we find out that June is not the best of seasons for tourism in these parts and, more importantly, most of the world has not yet heard of Göbekli Tepe.) A plaque in front reads, “Stone Age Sanctuary, 10th and 9th millennium BC.”
Archeologists came across Göbekli Tepe in the 1960s, dismissing it as a knoll or Byzantine cemetery. More than three decades later, German archeologist Klaus Schmidt, while on a foot-expedition, recognized it as a manmade knoll. “And even from this distance it was clear at once that it was not at all a natural hill,” Schmidt writes in his book, “Göbekli Tepe, A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia.” A closer look revealed thousands of flintstones in the knoll’s topsoil, “glittering like snow in the winter sun.” When Schmidt first saw it, Göbekli Tepe was being used as farmland. Local farmers routinely removed “rocks” that were an impediment to farming, little knowing that some of the rocks were from the oldest temple built by humans.
Schmidt began excavations in 1995. So far 60 pillars have been unearthed, some 12,000 years old, carved at a time when we were hunter-gatherers, with no knowledge of metal and pottery. The builders are likely to have worked on the soft limestone with flint tools.
Armed with Schmidt’s book and a particularly helpful guard who knows the site well, we climb the knoll. It is hardly an arduous climb but the temperature is creeping toward a midday high of 120 degrees, and we are hot and sweaty. Our discomfort vanishes at our first sighting of the pillars, almost at the knoll’s peak. It is truly magnificent, more so because it was built 6,000 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza, 7,000 years before Stonehenge.
The pillars are arranged in “enclosures” on this 22-acre site and, so far, six have been unearthed by Schmidt’s group. (Schmidt died in July at 61.) Each enclosure has two central, T-shaped pillars surrounded by two, sometimes three, concentric rings of pillars. On average the pillars are 4 feet high, weighing seven to 10 tons. The guard tells us the foundations of the pillars are not “very solid” perhaps because of a lack of engineering knowledge or perhaps it was done intentionally so that the pillars moved, “humming” in the wind.
A protective roof now covers the enclosures, and it takes some effort to see some poorly-lighted pillar engravings, but we are determined to see it all. After all, we have come to Turkey with the sole aim of visiting Göbekli Tepe.
The surfaces of the pillars are adorned with reliefs of wild animals — snakes, wild boar, gazelles, vultures, and scorpions. Some of the pillars have arms, legs, and animal-skin loincloths carved on their surfaces, and archeologists believe they might be stylized humans. The wild-animal carvings may have been a way for our ancestors to tame their own fear of them. Or it might have been some sort of communication, since the invention of writing was 6,000 years in the future.
Interestingly, there are no habitation signs at the site such as water sources, agriculture, house remains. Researchers, however, have found wild animal remains — leopards, foxes, vultures. The remains and the complete absence of domestic animals in the bas-reliefs are added proof that Göbekli Tepe was built by our hunting, gathering, foraging ancestors.
Göbekli Tepe’s discovery has overturned an important belief, that humans first settled into sedentary agriculture, organized themselves into complex societies, and then started worshiping. But Göbekli Tepe predates agriculture, suggesting that the need to worship might be innate in us and that our Stone Age ancestors built this site for cult and ritual.
After completing a pillar enclosure, the builders did something astounding. They buried the whole thing and resumed building higher up the knoll. The reason for this remains a mystery, but as time went by the building became progressively worse, finally tapering off in 8000 BC. Strangely enough the people who built Göbekli Tepe were not wiped out by a catastrophe. They simply moved on, went elsewhere, settled into agriculture. And the knoll of Göbekli Tepe stood silently for 10,000 years, waiting to be discovered.
Past the enclosures, at the knoll’s peak stands a lone mulberry tree visible from the plains below. Trees like this, called Wishing Trees, are common in Turkey. Cloth pieces of different colors are tied to the branches of the tree, fluttering in the breeze, each representing a believer’s wish. From the tree there is a vast view of the landscape. The Taurus Mountains stretch on the horizon and from their base, the Harran Plains fan out southward disappearing into the Syrian desert. Now the region looks arid, but thousands of years ago it was verdant, the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent where civilization began and from where it spread to the rest of the world.
Excavations continue and there are still more questions than answers about Göbekli Tepe. But as the sun sets and we leave the site, I turn around for a last look at the oldest temple. I wonder what the people who built it looked like. I wonder how they dressed, lived, communicated. I wonder how, 10,000 years from now, people will look at churches, mosques, and temples.Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.