Gobekli Tepe is the site of what appears to be the oldest temple in the world. So far. Its antiquity is staggering, enough to leave you gasping for breath. That it is older than the Pyramids of Egypt (earliest date, Pyramid of Djoser, c. 2630 BCE–2611 BCE ) is not surprising, nor is it all that surprising that it is older than Stonehenge (c. 2400-2200 BC). Yet, that it is as much as 7000 years older than Stonehenge, and of a more sophisticated construction, is enough to cause paroxysms of disbelief. Gobekli Tepe is so old – at least 11,600 years (c. 9500BC) – that it predates agriculture and farming.
Gobekli Tepe, which literally translates as “Potbelly Hill”, sits atop a mountain ridge in south-eastern Anatolia. The site, which was first identified as Neolithic by Professor Dr. Klaus Schmidt in 1994 (initially it had been dismissed as a Byzantine graveyard), consists of a series of dry-stone rings, roughly 20-22, ranging from 10 to 30 metres in diameter, with T-shaped limestone pillars both inset into the walls at regular intervals, or free-standing in the centre of the circles. The stone circles also typically have a walled passageway leading from them, giving them a saucepan-like shape. The pillars, the tallest of which are 6 metres high, have been carefully shaped and decorated with images of animals and insects: snakes, foxes, boars, scorpions and gazelles.
The stone circles cover an extensive area – roughly 300 square metres, much of which is yet to be excavated, but which has been shown, through ground piercing radar and magnetic resonance imaging to contain further structures. Whilst the earliest radio-carbon date is c. 9500 BC, other areas of the site could be considerably older – as much as three to four thousand years older. A great deal of stone and flint tools and animal remains have been found at the site – but no signs of permanent habitation. As yet no burials have been discovered, nor any evidence of wealth or social status differentiation – such as high status ornaments. The archaeological evidence points to this site not as a permanent settlement, but as a place used by hunter-gatherer communities, which most likely served a ritual, communal function, possible as a sort of pilgrimage site for local tribal groups.
What makes this site so fascinating is that it significantly challenges established ideas about the origins of civilization and urban society. Traditionally it had been believed that the domestication and corralling of animals, along with the development of agriculture and farming, led people to settle more permanently in areas and thus to the development of towns.
Not only does Gobekli Tepe predate the earliest archaeological evidence we have for organised farming, but it does so by almost 1500 years, and possible considerably more. This suggests that it was, in effect, ritual practice of some kind – (the role and function of these buildings is still open to speculation, however much they might resemble temples) which initially brought people together in more permanent communities. Some scholars have even suggested that agriculture itself might be an off-shoot of this kind of centralised religious activity. The consumption of wild grain at sites such as Gobekli Tepe may have induced a proliferation of edible grasses around the site, thus sparking an attempt to harvest this resource in a more planned fashion.
The site also challenges ideas about the capacity for people to organise and carry out work on this scale during this period. Traditionally, town or village-based urban civilization has been seen as a prerequisite for this scale of building activity, on account of the need to organise and feed a considerable work-force. In hunter gatherer societies, without grain storage or food surpluses, it was assumed that it was not possible to dedicate the time and labour to something so superfluous to survival. The freeing of people from the need to hunt and gather was understood to be a product of organised town or village life, in which roles were able to diversify and agricultural surpluses could support other activities. The construction of the largest structure at Gobekli Tepe, which is estimated to have required a bare minimum of fifty dedicated labourers, has significantly challenged this established model.
One curious aspect of the site is its historical progression and transformation. Over time the stone rings were buried, with new rings erected over and beside the old, each of which was successively smaller than what came before. This gradual reduction in size might represent either a decline in the capacity to build such structures, or a declining interest in maintaining structures of such magnitude at this particular site, the importance of which might have waned.
This latter point makes more sense when we consider the local context. Lying roughly 30 kilometres north of Gobekli Tepe, and now submerged beneath the dammed waters of the Euphrates River, is the site of Nevalı Çori, a Neolithic village, the earliest radio carbon date for which – somewhat speculatory – is the middle of the 10th millennium BC. More definite dates place Layer II – its second construction phase – in the second half of the 9th millennium BC – more than a thousand years after the earliest known construction phases on Gobekli Tepe, but still within the period known by the acronym PPNB – Pre-Pottery Neolithic B.
The excavated architectural remains at Nevalı Çori consisted of long rectangular houses containing two to three parallel flights of rooms. Attached to these were a similarly rectangular structure subdivided by wall projections, likely residential space. As fascinating as these early pre-agricultural, pre-pottery settlements are in themselves, what is most striking for our understanding of Gobekli Tepe is the presence of what appears to be a temple / cult complex cut into the hillside. This consisted of a square space with monolithic pillars similar to those at Göbekli Tepe built into its dry stone walls, and two free-standing pillars, each three metres tall, in the centre. The pillars were carved with images very similar to those at Gobekli Tepe and appear to be a part of the same cultural milieu. Some archaeologists have speculated that the construction of local temple sites in emerging villages reduced the importance of the site of Gobekli Tepe, with religious practice becoming more focussed on local village structures.
Further excavations will ultimately shed more light on this important period in human development. Gobekli Tepe may yet reveal itself as a settlement, not just a meeting place for ritual. Even its function as a ritual centre is uncertain owing to the difficulty in understanding the beliefs and motivations of people so remote. Were the stone circles at Gobekli Tepe meeting places, schools, markets, dining halls or even an arena of sorts? Professor Schmidt, who has been excavating the site continuously since its discovery, considers Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead. He believes the carved animals were there to protect the dead. Despite the absence of tombs or graves, Schmidt thinks that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls. Either way, whatever their function, they mark the first known attempts at monumental architecture, placing the revolution of “civilization” much closer to the end of the last ice-age then previously thought.
Gobekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori are by no means the only contemporaneous sites in the region. Others include the so-called tower of Jericho – a tall, conical structure with an internal staircase, roughly 11,000 years old; Tell’Abr, a village characterised by central, communal storage buildings, also roughly 11,000 years old,; Jerf el-Ahmar, an 11,200 year old village with large communal buildings and Wadi Faynan, another village with communal buildings dating to roughly 11600 years ago. The emergence of these settlements in the wake of the last ice-age, c. 13000 years ago, is reminiscent of the Cambrian explosion of bio-diversity in the wake of the last Snowball Earth period. It appears that as the environment changed, ever-adaptable humans began to fill available niches and make use of more abundant resources. Perhaps the transition to villages and sites like Gobekli Tepe marks an attempt to recreate the centralised activity of cave-dwelling, though this rather keenly assumes these people were in fact transitioning from cave-dwelling, rather than altering an already open, nomadic lifestyle.
Recent studies in which ancient strains of grain and grass were grown in different levels of carbon dioxide – representing those of the last ice-age, and those of today – produced astonishing results. In the case of wheat and barley, the heads fattened up to and beyond double the size of those in grown in ice-age conditions. Was it as much the availability of this newly rich food source, along with the abundance of animals that drew people to this region in the first place? Was it the sheer abundance of food that allowed them to remain largely in the one area, rather than needing to forage more widely? Whilst we cannot identify evidence of organised farming and agriculture, it is almost certainly the case that people were harvesting wild grains prior to this development. Were Neolithic people storing wild grain in their communal buildings? As mentioned above, perhaps agriculture, and indeed, animal husbandry, came about as an offshoot of other, centralised activity. Whether that activity was religious or otherwise is uncertain, but the nature of sites like Gobekli Tepe certainly suggest a ritual purpose.
Professor Schmidt estimates another fifty years of work are required to unearth most of Gobekli Tepe’s secrets. This ongoing work may push the date back further, and may yet reveal further monumental structures buried beneath the hill. Other sites may yet be discovered, offering further insights into this fascinating period of human history. Whatever the case, it seems civilisation is a lot older than we originally thought, and may be older still – a more direct consequence of the end of the last ice-age than previously believed.
Disclaimer: These images are not my own, but come from various sources freely available on the web