We flew – myself and my companion Liz – from Ankara, the capital of Turkey, to Sanliurfa in the south east of the country close to the Syrian border. It is a large town, meaning ‘Glorious Urfa’ because it resisted the French soon after the First World War but local residents still call it Urfa. Urfa was known as Edessa in ancient times. It is mainly famous as the birthplace of Abraham (Ibrahim), a key figure in the Old Testament and an earlier Prophet before Mohammed in Islam.
Islamic pilgrims come from all over Turkey to visit the artificial lakes (Balikli Göl) full of carp and stroll in the surrounding gardens. It is also believed to be the place where Nimrod threw Abraham into the fire: God changed the flames into water and the wood into fish to protect Abraham. It could symbolize the struggle between Evil and Good or polytheism versus monotheism. Be that as it may, we joined the pious pilgrims at this holy place, fed the sacred fish with the others, and bought some thick pomegranate sauce. We were the only Europeans among the throngs of pilgrims there.
Not far away is the ancient town of Harran in the Euphrates Basin which etymologically means ‘crossroads’ and was meeting point of different civilizations. Until recently people lived in beehive or cupola houses made from bricks covered with clay, warm in winter and cool in summer. It is Arab-speaking and only 12 kilometres from the Syrian border; we were offered to be taken there by our guide. The town claims to have the first Islamic university in the world, particularly famous for its philosophy school and its science, with the astronomer Al-Battani, who calculated accurately the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and Jabir ibn Hayyan, an exponent of atomic theory and algebra. There are Roman ruins on Hellenic foundations as well as a madrasa, or Islamic school, on the northern outskirts. It was certainly an ancient centre of great learning.
We travelled north east of Urfa by taxi about 22 kilometres to the site of Köbleki Tepe, at the top of a hill in a field which had been planted with lentils. Locals called the long ridge with a rounded crest ‘Potbelly Hill’, that is to say Köbleki Tepe. Archeologists found large numbers of flint chips on the hill and began to dig. What was unearthed soon excited all those interested in early humanity and their buildings. Inside the mound large limestone slabs were revealed and stone walls arranged in circles. What intrigued the world was their great age, dating from about 12,000 years ago, meaning the chronology of previous prehistory had to be seriously revised.
Until fairly recently it was assumed that the Neolithic Revolution occurred in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq, and then spread to Europe, India and beyond when the warming of the earth at the end of the Ice Age allowed people to settle down, plant crops and domesticate animals. But increasingly the so-called ‘revolution’ is understood to have been carried out by many peoples across a huge area over thousands of years.
As I have shown in Europe’s Lost Civilization: Exploring the Mysteries of the Megaliths, the first settled people in the British Isles seem to have been in Orkney about 4,500 BCE (see the ruins of houses on the island of Papa Westray and about 500 years later at Skara Brae on the mainland). It may well have had a local civilization. Elsewhere, it seems the megalith builders originated in what is today Portugal and travelled by boat to Northern Europe with their skills and their ability to raise huge stones – megaliths- to the sky.
But the extraordinary finds in Turkey put the date back of settled agriculture far earlier. The proto-city settlement of Çatalhüyük near Konya in southern Anatolia (the subject of another blog) existed from approximately 7500 to 5700 BCE, and flourished around 7000 BCE during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Chalcolithic (Copper Age). The settlement not only had metal instruments and comfortable houses one on top of the other but produced many kinds of local goods (suggesting division of labour) and had products from elsewhere (implying trade). They also developed an irrigation system previously thought to have originated in Mesopotamia over a thousand years later.
But here we have Göbekli Tepe, a wonderful complex of dozens of pillars arranged in a set of over 20 rings, built thousand of years earlier. According to radar scans, the site consists of 23 temples. They follow a similar pattern. All are made from limestone pillars shaped like pointed uprights or capital ‘T’ shapes, four to six metres high, five times as wide as they are deep. Standing arm’s length or more apart, they are interconnected by low stone walls. Two tall pillars stand in the middle of each ring or spiral, the thinnest ends set in shallow grooves in the floor. The T-shaped pillars are probably stylized headless humans or deities, with long arms and hands reaching their stomachs.
The carefully carved smooth limestone slabs were decorated in remarkably realistic bas-reliefs of animals and which must have roamed the hills and plains at the time: gazelles, snakes, foxes, wolf heads with open mouths, spiders, scorpions, desert monitors, wild boars, pigs, sheep, lions or panthers, donkeys, oxen and cranes. The animals may have been totems, perhaps guarding the humans or appeasing the spirits of the wild animals around them. Some stones may also have been orientated towards the north star which would have been denep and not polaris as at present because of the procession of the equinoxes.
First there were male statues with exaggerated penises (9500 -8500 BCE) and then in the second phase of building (8500 -8000) a woman giving birth. They were no doubt meant as fertility symbols. They seem to imply a move from male to female worship. The sculptures and carvings are certainly the first known representations of humans.
As the complex was built some 11,500 years ago, it is now recognised as the oldest known temple and monumental architecture in the world. The builders had to cut, shape and transport the ‘T’ stelae weighing 10-14 tons about 500 metres from a quarry without the help of the wheel. There is a remarkable reproduction of temple ‘D’ in the excellent Urfa Archaeological Museum. It has marvellous acoustics; I heard a classical concert given within. Small items found on the site are exhibited nearby: querns for grinding corn, weights for looms, stones for catapults and slings, statues of deities.
These Stone-Age people were clearly not ‘savages’ living in caves but had great architectural and mathematical skills, considerable physical dexterity and a rich interior life. They built a holy centre for social gatherings and religious rituals.
Yet the people at Göbekli Tepe seem to have become dissatisfied with their original buildings for every few decades they buried the pillars and put up new stones and rings. Amazingly, they became worse in their ability to build since the earliest rings are the largest and most sophisticated, both from a technical and aesthetic point of view. Finally, they abandoned the site by 8200 BCE. This may have been because they destroyed the land around them because of overuse – a warning to us of our imminent extinction if we continue our ways and destroy the natural world which sustains us as a species.
The same process of decline can be observed in the development of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It supports the idea that a few people – often dismissed as wacky – came from some lost civilization up the great rivers of the world, the Yangtse, Indus, Euphrates and Nile, to kick start their building of monumental stone architecture.
What it suggests to me is that our ancestors built their original places of worship in a great surge of creative and spiritual energy, as in the building of the Malta temples, the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, Stonehenge in England or the Gothic cathedrals in Europe. They did not have a direct utilitarian use but answered a deep human need to create something beautiful and express a profound sense of the sacred.
It also implies that the people who built the temples in the first phase (and not only in the second)had already settled down and were not nomadic hunter-gatherers as previously thought.But were they? Hunter-gatherers could have built these temples on what had been a sacred site to which they returned in their annual rounds. And settled agriculture may not have been an great advance, as is often alleged, on the way of life of the hunter-gatherers: they were healthier, had more leisure time, had no taxation and conscription,no leaders, no domination or hierarchy, no trading, and no overarching State to forbid or to command them what to do.
I have no doubt that settlements will be found among other mounds near Göbekli Tepe in the future. Indeed,a settlement has recently been unearthed by Japanese archaeologist in the Hasankeyf Mound on the banks of the river Tigris dating back to 9500 BCE.
In the meantime, the extraordinary discovery of the world’s oldest temple means that the whole prehistory of humankind has to be reassessed.