The Oldest Temple in the World and its Mystery

An ancient temple dated back to 10 000 BC. has been discovered in the Middle East (Conrad 2012). It was built when mankind was still in the Stone Age and before people discovered the so-called first signs of Neolithic human society: the pottery, writing, and the wheel (Ibid.). Consequently, its construction goes back long before the earliest great civilizations, like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Minoans. Then who built it and why? (Ibid.).

Building archaeological recording underway in the southeast hollow (main excavation area) at Göbeklitepe (September 2018). The new permanent shelter provides visitors not only with unprecedented views of the excavated monumental buildings but also allows them to get close to the archaeologists working at the site. The membrane canopy was designed by kleyer.koblitz.letzel.freivogel Architekten (with structural engineering by EiSat GmbH), btw. (see Donna Sink (2020). In: Archinect News). Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI). In: Jens Notroff (2018) “Visitors back at the ruins again”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

This is the story of Göbekli Tepe and its bewildering imagery.

From evolution to revolution

As it has been always taught, human species had evolved very slowly (Conrad 2012). For millennia, people had managed to survive by hunting and gathering their food till around 10 000 BC., when something extraordinary happened: their development strangely speeded up and in a comparatively short period of time people achieved the highlands of their development (Ibid.).

The location of Göbekli Tepe on the map, near the large nearby modern city of Şanlıurfa. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

What was it that made humankind change so drastically? (Conrad 2012). After scholars, the turning point in human history was the Neolithic Revolution, namely having learnt how to farm and produce food instead of gathering or hunting (Ibid.). The theory is that farming allowed people to settle down, then develop religious systems and finally build temples to gods (Ibid.). Subsequently, simple settlements grew to cities and then into powerful civilisations, which developed around 3 000 BC (Ibid.). Without having to hunt or gather for every meal, people  had more time to evolve out of the Stone Age (Ibid.). According to the traditional thinking, such complex structures as Göbekli Tepe could hence be only planned and built by already well-established agricultural communities, according to the following scheme: the Neolithic farming and settlement encouraged religious practices, which in turn led to temples building and a successive development of cities (Ibid.). So much about the theory …

From the theory to archaeological evidence

With the appearance of Göbekli Tepe, the traditional thinking has been turned on its head (Conrad 2012). An American archaeologist, Dr Jeffrey I. Rose, an expert on early human history and stone age technology, admits that “what has been found in [the southern-east Anatolia is] incredible as it puts a whole new spin on human cultural evolution” (Ibid.). As shown by archaeological finds, the builders of the site were not farmers at all but they were still hunter-gatherers (Ibid.). This is why the site is so controversial, and for this reason it upends the conventional view of the growth of civilisation (Ibid.).

Hunter-gatherers. Photo cropped. Source: Archaeology Newsroom (2020) .In: Archaeology & Art.

According to well-established stereotypes, hunter-gatherers are usually seen as a kind of mumbling primitives. Slavishly devoted to their survival and basic instincts, devoid of higher skills, feelings or religion, these people were able to produce artistic, architectural and sacral masterpiece unknown in the academic world before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe. Dr Rose (Conrad 2012) admits his own surprise, saying: “It’s like discovering that a three-year-old child built the Empire State Building out of toy bricks” (Ibid.). The same opinion is shared by Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the Urfa Museum: “They had barely emerged from the most basic way of life” (Scham 2008:23) he says,’ amazed that nomadic peoples were able to organize such a large labour force (Ibid.:23).  

Never-ending studies

The site was first mentioned in 1963, in a survey carried out by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago (Benedict 1980). American archaeologist, Peter Benedict identified lithics collected from the surface of the site as belonging to the Aceramic Neolithic (Schmidt 2011:917) but misidentified the upper parts of the ‘T’-shaped pillars for grave markers, postulating that the prehistoric phase was overlain by a Byzantine cemetery (Batuman 2011; Andrews 2016).

The upper part of the ‘T’ – shaped pillar protruding out of the ground. Source : documentary shot from Kevin Burns (2017) “Return to Gobekli Tepe”. In: Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 16. Prometheus Entertainment.

“The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation, and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, which may have disturbed the upper layers of the site” (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020). With time, attempts had been made to cut up some of the pillars, likely by farmers who thought they were ordinary large boulders (Curry 2008; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020).

Sites with similar ‘T’-shaped pillars from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN). Photo by Arekrishna (2017). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Although archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe has been carried out since the early 1960s, only in 1994 the site emerged as the world’s first temple with an amazing discovery of  mysterious statues (Conrad 2012).

In 1994, on a nearby hill, a Kurdish shepherd had noticed a strange outline of a stone sticking out of the ground (Burns 2010). He turned out to be more interested in the find than his countrymen who discerned the protruding boulders before him, and began digging around the stone (Ibid.). Soon he discovered below a six-meter shaft (Ibid.). It had a regular structure and there was a relief showing an unknown animal (Ibid.) (see:). Thorough examinations confirmed that the stone was processed by a talented stonemason who used sophisticated tools (Ibid.). When the scholars found out about the accidental discovery, they were sure that the Shepherd had discovered one of the most important structures in the history of archaeology (Ibid.). In the same year, regular excavations began.

The team of archaeologists led by Professor Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute started their regular work at Göbekli Tepe in 1995, in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum, and soon unearthed the first of the huge ‘T’-shaped pillars (Curry 2008; Noren 2020; see “Göbekli Tepe” 2020). Schmidt writes that “as soon as [he] got there and saw the stones, [he] knew that if [he] didn’t walk away immediately [he] would be [tere] for the rest of [his] life” (Knox 2009), which eventually happened. Having found stone structures at Göbekli Tepe similar to those unearthed before at Nevalı Çori (Turkey), Schmidt recognized the possibility that the monuments are prehistoric and culturally related to other archaeological sites in the region (“Göbekli Tepe” 2020; see Noren 2020).

Photo (2016) of Klaus Schmidt (11 December 1953 – 20 July 2014); a German archaeologist who led the regular excavations at Göbekli Tepe from 1995 to 2014. Photo source: Oliver Dietrich (2016) “Göbekli Tepe – The first 20 Years of Research”. In: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Since then, there have been multitude of various studies carried out at the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe, which became extremely famous for its unique megalithic constructions. As such, it has attracted an international attention of scholars and researchers keen to discover its well-hidden secrets, especially by means of research on the iconography of the Neolithic in the Southeastern Anatolia. Yet before Göbekli Tepe was uncovered, scholars from around the world had become very attracted to the Neolithic period of the region, especially with broad excavations started at the site of Çatalhöyük in 1960s.

Hill of the Navel

The site of Göbekli Tepe is situated on top of a hill that is the highest point of the Urfa Plain in Turkey, with the Taurus Mountains to the north and east, and the Harrain Plain to the south. Turkey itself is an ancient land that bridges Europe and Asia (Conrad 2012). It is also a part of the Fertile Crescent – a swathe of the Middle East and Africa that includes modern Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq (Ibid.). In this green belt humans are believed to have first settled and the world’s earliest civilizations to have arisen around 3 000 BC.

Area of the Fertile Crescent, circa 7500 BCE, with main sites. Göbekli Tepe is one of the important sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. The area of Mesopotamia proper at this time was not yet settled by humans. Photo by GFDL (2019). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In Turkish, the name Göbekli Tepe means ‘hill of the navel’ and to the anthropologists, such as Sandra Scham (2008:27), this is “the metaphor of a human birth to describe the creation of the world.” After her interpretation, the name of the site seems significant itself as by its name it refers to such sacred ‘navels’ as Cusco in Peru, Easter Island and Delphi in Greece (Ibid.:27). Local people believe the hill to be sacred as well (Conrad 2012).

Four stone circles

Ground penetrating radar has allowed to estimate the size of Göbekli Tepe to 300 by 300 metres (Conrad 2012). Professor Schmid and his team have so far excavated four huge stone circles, labelled as A, B, C, and D (Conrad 2012; Busacca 2017). They measure roughly from 10 to 30 metres in diameter (Ibid.). Each one is surrounded by a high stone wall, broken by intervals by large ‘T’-shaped pillars (Ibid.). In the middle of each, there are two massive monoliths up to five and a half metres tall (Ibid.). These enclosures are not analogous to any other existing archaeological structures in the world (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. The main excavation area in the southeastern area of the mound in an aerial photograph by Erhan Kucuk and a schematic map with pillar numbering. Courtesy of the German Archaeological Institute, DAI. Source: Gesualdo Busacca (2017:317). “Places of Encounter: Relational Ontologies, Animal Depiction and Ritual Performance at Göbekli Tepe”. In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, v. 27, issue 2, pp. 313-330.

Professor Schmid knew that the site has covered many more enclosures than just the unearthed four (Conrad 2012). The map generated from the ground penetrating radar survey reveals that there are at least other sixteen circular structures still buried beneath the hill, and some of them are situated much deeper than the uncovered four (Ibid.). These are hence the oldest enclosures of all, dated back to as far as 13 000 BC, which is the end of the last Ice Age (Ibid.).

Although only a small part of  Göbekli Tepe has been unearthed, it can be concluded that it was built in two successive stages (Busacca 2017:316). The first structures excavated there were erected as early as 10 000 B.C., that is to say in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (Ibid.:316). Whereas the later remains are dated back to the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, and strangely they are much less sophisticated than the earliest structures which contain most of ‘T’ shaped pillars covered in zoomorphic sculpture (Ibid.:316). The earliest enclosures were built on the bedrock into slots only about ten centimetres deep (Conrad 2012). The builders set two central monoliths up to five and a half metres tall and carved from a single piece of stone, weighing up to fourteen and a half of tons (Ibid.).

Enclosure D of Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

Around the two monoliths, the masons then built a wall of stones and mortar, nearly two metres tall (Ibid.). Set into the wall, there are smaller ‘T’ – shaped pillars between three and five metres high and weighing up to ten tons (Ibid.). Now disintegrated, there is the portal stone and apparently it was an entrance to the enclosure (Ibid.). Once incorporated vertically into the wall, it was carved from a single piece of stone, like pillars, and weighs several tons (Ibid.). Carving these huge sown blocks would have required considerable skills and some knowledge of geology as well (Ibid.).

More advanced technically than later constructions …?

Göbekli Tepe is a much more elaborated structure than Stonehenge, even if it apparently predates the British megaliths by about 6 500 years (Scham 2008:23; Conrad 2012). To build a place like this, Stone Age people would have required a pretty sophisticated level of organization, especially a well-coordinated workforce of stonemasons, diggers, quarry-men, and hundreds of people to drag the stones up and set them in place (Conrad 2012). Together with his colleagues, Klaus Schmidt estimates “that at least 500 people were required to hew the ten to fifty ton stone pillars from local queries, move then from as far as a quarter-mile [over four hundred metres] away, and erect them” (Scham 2008:26). Moreover, according to the theory of the Neolithic Revolution, people had not yet domesticated packed animals at that time to make them assist and so speed up the construction of the stone circles (Conrad 2012). So how did they manage to build something so monumental before they even discovered how to make a clay pot? (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Main excavation area with monumental Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) A enclosures. Photo by Nico Becker, DAI. Photo and caption source: German Archaeological Institute (DAI) (2020). “The Site” In: The Tepe Telegrams. News & Notes from the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff.

In the quarry from where the stone was acquired, there is apparently one unfinished monolith of seven metres long (Conrad 2012). It is believed that by using granite picks, the Stone Age masons roughly carved it out as it is still in the bedrock (Ibid.). To remove it, they were likely to use primitive levers and a fulcrum (the point against which a lever is placed, on which it turns or is supported) They may have positioned the fulcrum at the front, and then the levers went over it. By these means, the masons were prying the boulder up (Ibid.). A crack on the stone, which is visible today, would suggest the monolith was broken while being lifted up (Ibid.). Having separated the blocks of stone from the bedrock, the builders may have transported them up to the hill by the method described as “rowing on land”; one can imagine people, instead of sitting inside the boat, standing outside it, and pushing down on the leaver and then pulling back on it and so the boulder would be moved forward (Ibid.). Around fifty people would be possibly needed to complete the task (Ibid.). Has this method been ever tried out with a real fourteen-ton (or heavier) block of stone? Is the number of fifty men able to crowd at once around the boulder, which is 15 metres long?

What was the site used for?

The site does not have its counterpart elsewhere, which makes it the oldest man-made construction yet discovered in the world (Conrad 2012). As such it constitutes highly significant monument to be studied (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “the site could not definitely have served for a daily life” (Ibid.). He has worked on other prehistoric sites in Turkey and he says that the structures of Göbekli Tepe do not resemble any kind of clustered dwellings that Stone Age people built (Ibid.). The temple sits on the hill with no direct access to water so people had to carry their food and drink up there, which means they could not stay at the site very long (Ibid.). They had to live elsewhere, possibly on the place of the modern city of Şanlıurfa (ancient Edessa), around fifteen kilometres away (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe site during excaviations. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Most archaeologists believe that if the monumental sculpted pillars of Göbekli Tepe show the representations of gods, it is likely to consider the site as some kind of a sanctuary (Ibid.). If so, it would have been the oldest temple in the world (Conrad 2012).

Shrinking temple

Despite various studies, Göbekli Tepe’s function and the meaning behind its imagery still remain unknown (Conrad 2012). The mystery deepens by the fact that after the huge effort to build this extraordinary structure, the people who used it, then subsequently buried it (Ibid.).

The downfall of the oldest temple in the world is as mysterious as the religion it once served (Conrad 2012). For over a thousand years, the temple had occupied the central place in the cultural life of the region (Ibid.). People from hundreds kilometres away may have gathered there and used it as a ritual space (Ibid.). However, as the importance of agriculture grew in time, the temple’s role must have diminished (Ibid.). Thousands years after the large circular spaces with the massive monoliths were built, they were filled in and covered over (Ibid.). Instead, smaller structures were built on top of it (Ibid.). Consequently, it looks like Göbekli Tepe was being downsized: the enclosures had got smaller, the pillars progressively shorter and their number in the surrounding wall had dwindled until there were none (Ibid.). Finally, Göbekli Tepe disappeared in around 8 000 BC, buried beneath man-made hill (Ibid.).

Following the star

Each built circle of stones had been used for several hundred years and then filled in to be replaced by another one (Burns 2017). In total, the builders of Göbekli Tepe constructed twenty such circles – temples, which were different in size (Ibid.). Schmid claims that “it was a part of the program to erect such a circle to use it for some time but later to backfill it completely” (Conrad 2012). Hence the modern appearance of the site, which looks like a mount (Ibid.). It was because eventually all these mounds with covered temples became one big hill (Ibid.).

Cygnus constellation with the brightest star Deneb. Photo by Star Walk (2017).“A Gorgeous Quarter Moon meets Saturn, and the Swan’s Wings bear its Best Features!”. In: Medium.

An author, Andrew Collins, proposes an alternative, yet controversial, theory, according to which the builders constructed the successive temples for astronomical purposes (Burns 2017). Namely, the reason of the multiple rebuilding of the site would be to follow a particular celestial body (Ibid.).

Göbekli Tepe. Photo by Zhengan (2012). CC BY-SA 4.0. Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Archaeoastronomy survey has shown that 11 500 years ago, the twin central pillars of the most impressive of so far unearthed circles, the Enclosure D, faced the Denab in the sky, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus (Burns 2017). When the alignments of other twin pillars of Göbekli Tepe were studied in reference to the same star, it turned out that the Stone Age builders apparently kept following the Denab by building successive enclosures as the star slowly moved along the local horizon (Ibid.). Hence the twin pillars within successive enclosures were deliberately aligned according to the star that the people of Göbekli Tepe were observing (Ibid.). As in the process of Precession, the position of stars change overtime in the sky, the builders also had to re-align their temple periodically, each several hundred years (Ibid.).

The downfall of the temple

Some scholars, including archaeologists and geologists, put forward a controversial thesis explaining why Göbekli Tepe eventually ceased to exist. Namely, the Stone Age site is believed to have been destroyed by the Great Flood, recorded not only by the Bible but also dozens of other ancient sources coming from different corners of the world (Burns 2014-2015). Robert Schoch, PhD. (Burns 2014-2015) believes that there is enough evidence supporting the thesis that a great disaster had taken place at the end of the period that marked the end of the Ice Age; as a result, the great pillars of Göbekli Tepe were overthrown and the damage to the temple must have been large and extensive. Attempts surely were made to rebuild it, but people eventually gave up and buried the whole place (Ibid.). Perhaps they wanted to return there one day or leave it for posterity (Ibid.). Or else the temple was naturally covered with earth yet during the Flood, the waters of which had carried huge amounts of soil and organic materials into and over the temple complex.

After Dr. Rose, the reason why the site ultimately disappeared may be possibly explained by the appearance of a sanctuary within the now flooded archaeological site of Nevalı Çori, which was situated around thirty kilometres away from Göbekli Tepe (Conrad 2012). It was a Stone-Age village with a small temple from around 8 000 BC. (Ibid.). A small square enclosure had similar architectural elements as Göbekli Tepe: thirteen stone pillars in its walls and two faceless monoliths in its centre, with arms and hands carved on (Ibid.). In this context, it is a smaller and localized version of the Stone Age cathedral at Göbekli Tepe, looking more like a village church (Ibid.). Dr. Rose says that sacred spaces showing up at that time coincided with the downfall of the Göbekli Tepe so local communities had started to build their own sacred spaces, when the central temple stared losing its importance (Ibid.).

Restoration of a typical interior of Catal Höyük dwelling. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Another explanation of the abandonment of the site is that the descendants of Göbekli Tepe builders were no longer hunter-gatherers (Conrad 2012). They were farmers and they did not follow the religion of their ancestors per se but rather the ideas it represented (Ibid.). Their traces can be found at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük (Turkey) – which is said to be one of the oldest cities, developed between 8 000 and 7 000 BC. (Ibid.). In a restored house of Çatalhöyük, there are the bull heads sticking out of the wall as much as zoomorphic representations carved on the pillars of Göbekli Tepe (Ibid.). Bulls must have meant large, scary and killing beasts for the society of Çatalhöyük (Ibid.). Bringing that animal power and violence inside the house was probably an attempt to tam it and to domesticate (Ibid.). It could be also a celebration of the animal’s strength or the hunt and prowess of the individuals (Ibid.). On the other side, the respect the Stone Age people had for wild and powerful beasts also hid their desire to conquer them (Ibid.). Accordingly, it seems that spiritual and physical story of Göbekli Tepe was spread far and wide (Ibid.).

Whatever the meaning of its symbolism was, the visible links to its imagery can be found at later sites throughout the region (Ibid.), which signifies it was truly important.

Many myths and legends claim that sophisticated cultures already existed at the very beginning of human civilization (Burns 2010). Robert Schoch, PhD. claims that there are various signs from all over the world that advanced societies had developed much earlier than previously thought (Ibid.). The discovery of Göbekli Tepe is hence completely contradictory to the current view of the slow evolution of civilization (Ibid.). Interestingly, since the archaeological digs started on site, neither a single tool for stone processing nor human remains have been found (Burns 2010; 2017). The former lack contradicts the sophisticated carving created on site, whereas the latter excludes Professor Schmid’s theory of Göbekli Tepe as a burial complex (Burns 2017). It was not either a domestic settlement (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Paul Bahn, PhD., claims that when something in archaeology is incomprehensible, given finds are usually assigned ritual significance but these are pure speculations (Ibid.). Taking into account such facts, will the discovery of Göbekli Tepe radically change the world view of the beginning of human civilization? (Ibid.) Is the find of Göbekli Tepe the missing evidence that mankind’s strangest myths about lost civilizations can be based on facts? (Ibid.)

Featured image: “Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa”. Photo by Teomancimit (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. (Image cropped). Source: “Göbekli Tepe” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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