Göbekli Tepe – the World’s First Temple?

Göbekli Tepe by Brian HaughtonLocated in modern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. The discovery of this stunning 10,000 year old site in the 1990s sent shock waves through the archaeological world and beyond, with some researchers even claiming it was the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. The many examples of sculptures and megalithic architecture which make up what is perhaps the world’s earliest temple at Göbekli Tepe predate pottery, metallurgy, the invention of writing, the wheel and the beginning of agriculture. The fact that hunter–gatherer peoples could organize the construction of such a complex site as far back as the 10th or 11th millennium BC not only revolutionizes our understanding of hunter-gatherer culture but poses a serious challenge to the conventional view of the rise of civilization.

A Description of the Göbekli Tepe Site

Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for the hill of the navel) is a 1000 foot diameter mound located at the highest point of a mountain ridge, around 9 miles northeast of the town of Şanlıurfa (Urfa) in southeastern Turkey. Since 1994, excavations conducted by Klaus Schmidt of the Istanbul branch of the German Archaeological Institute, with the cooperation of the Şanlıurfa Museum, have been taking place at the site. Results to date have been astounding; especially bearing in mind the excavators estimate that their work has uncovered a mere 5% of the site.

Göbekli Tepe consists of four arrangements of monolithic pillars linked together by segments of coarsely built dry stone walls to form a series of circular or oval structures. There are two large pillars in the center of each complex which are encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. Archaeologists believe that these pillars could have once supported roofs. The structures vary in size between around 33 and 98 feet in diameter and have floors made of terrazzo (burnt lime).

The Megaliths at Göbekli Tepe

The megaliths themselves, 43 of which have been unearthed so far, are mainly T-shaped pillars of soft limestone up to around 16 feet in height, and were excavated and transported from a stone quarry on the lower southwestern slope of the hill. Geophysical surveys on the hill indicate that there are as many as 250 more megaliths lying buried around the site, suggesting that another 16 complexes once existed at Göbekli Tepe.

Although some of the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe are blank, others display extraordinary artwork in the form of elaborately carved foxes, lions, bulls, scorpions, snakes, wild boars, vultures, water fowl, insects, and arachnids. There are also abstract shapes and one relief of a naked woman, posed frontally in a sitting position. A number of the T-shaped stones have depictions of what appear to be arms at their sides, which could indicate that the stones represent stylized humans or perhaps gods. Although the pictograms at Göbekli Tepe do not represent a form of writing, they may have functioned as sacred symbols whose meanings were implicitly understood by local populations at the time.

The depictions of vultures at Göbekli Tepe have parallels at other Anatolian and Near Eastern sites. The walls of many of the shrines at the large Neolithic settlement of Çatal Höyük (in existence from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC) in southcentral Turkey were adorned with large skeletal representations of vultures.

One theory put forward to explain the prominence of vultures in the early Anatolian Neolithic is in the context of possible excarnation practices suggesting a funerary cult. After death, bodies would have been deliberately left outside and exposed, perhaps on some kind of wooden frame, where their skeletons were stripped of flesh by vultures and other birds of prey. The skeletons would then be interred somewhere else. Perhaps the ritual of excarnation was the focus of a cult of the dead practiced by the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe, as it certainly seems to have been elsewhere in Anatolia and the Near East in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

Curiously, Schmidt and his team have so far found no evidence of settlement at Göbekli Tepe – houses, cooking hearths, and refuse pits are all absent. The archaeologists did, however, find over 100,000 animal bone fragments, many of which exhibited cut marks and splintered edges which indicate that animals were being butchered and cooked somewhere in the area. The bones came from wild game such as gazelle (which accounted for over 60% of the bones), boar, sheep and red deer, and different species of birds such as vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. All of the bones were from wild species; evidence that that the people who inhabited Göbekli Tepe were hunter-gatherers rather than early farmers who kept domesticated animals.

Similar Sites in the Area

Due to the presence of multiple monumental complexes at such an early date Göbekli Tepe is a somewhat unique site. However, there are some parallels with the site at the early Neolithic settlement of Nevalı Çori, on the middle Euphrates River in Eastern Turkey, which lies only 12.5 north west of Göbekli Tepe. The main temple at Nevalı Çori was dated to around 8,000 BC, perhaps a thousand years later than Göbekli Tepe. The cult complexes at the settlement had a number of features in common with Göbekli Tepe, such as a terrazzo-style lime cement floor, monolithic T-shaped pillars built into dry stone walls, and two free-standing pillars in the center of the complex area. The T-shaped pillars show reliefs of what appear to be human hands. Unfortunately, Nevali Çori is now lost, submerged beneath a lake created by the Atatürk Dam in 1992.

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