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Discovering the World’s Oldest Architecture: Göbekli Tepe

The mysterious ruins of Southeast Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe are considered the world’s oldest architecture


By Şerif Yenen (images courtesy of Şerif Yenen)

Arial view of the 10,000 BCE temple of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. So far six Gobeklitepe temples have been unearthed but geomagnetic research says there are at least 18 more installations.

Göbekli Tepe, located in south-east Turkey, is a new archaeological discovery which can be likened to Stonehenge. However, at 12,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe is 6,500 years older than Stonehenge. While Stonehenge is one circle of megaliths, Göbekli Tepe consists of more than 20 circles. Another distinguishing feature is that the megaliths of Göbekli Tepe have an abundant number of stylized animal reliefs. 


Klaus Schmidt (1953 – 2014), a German archaeologist and pre-historian had been excavating at Nevalı Çori. That site was dug until 1991 in the context of rescue excavations during the construction of the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates. However, later it submerged.


In 1994, Schmidt was looking for another site to excavate. He reviewed the archaeological literature on the surrounding area, found some researchers’ descriptions of Göbekli Tepe, and decided to look into the site. Having found similar structures at Nevalı Çori, he recognized the possibility that the rocks and slabs of Göbekli Tepe could be prehistoric. The next year, he started excavating Göbekli Tepe in collaboration with the Şanlıurfa Museum. Then he started earthing T-shaped megaliths. Thanks to the enormous size of these discoveries, he drew significant attention from all around the world. Excavations continued until 2014, at which time, Schmidt passed away from a heart attack.


The fact that this area is already filled with many other Neolithic settlements  is not a coincidence. It was in this area that wild ancestors of wheat, barley, and, lentils grew. Later, seeds would have been obtained from these wild plants within 1,000 years. Farming and domestication of animals were possible after this.


As excavations continued in Göbekli Tepe, it was understood that this was not a settlement, thus no houses nor burials have been found here.


Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (dating to the tenth millennium BC) and smaller buildings identified as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (dating from the ninth millennium BC) have both been unearthed.


What Schmidt found here were T-shaped rock pillars placed in circles. The whole site has not been excavated yet, but from geophysical surveys, it is understood that there are more than 20 circles in total, and probably more than 200 pillars forming these circles. Each pillar has a height of up to six m (20 ft) and weighs up to 20 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. These are widely accepted as the world’s oldest known megaliths. These stones were shaped thousands of years before the use of bronze or iron. They were likely quarried and shaped by harder pieces of rocks, like flint.


In the middle of each circle, two taller pillars facing each other. There are many animal reliefs on these stone pillars. Rather than mythological animals, the figures depicted are simple, everyday animals like bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, donkeys, birds, vultures, ducks, snakes, reptiles, and insects. 


Some of the T-shaped pillars have human arms. The horizontal part on top of the T-shaped pillars can be thought of  like a human head.


Some floors are made of burnt lime, others are bedrock from which pedestals to hold the large pair of central pillars were carved in high relief.


Around the beginning of the eighth millennium BC Göbekli Tepe lost its importance. But the complex was not simply abandoned and forgotten. Instead, each enclosure was deliberately buried under refuse consisting mainly of small limestone fragments, stone vessels, and stone tools. Many animal, and even human bones have also been identified in the fill. Why the enclosures were buried is unknown - they might have wanted to preserve the sacred.


It is not only its large dimensions but the side-by-side existence of multiple pillar circles that makes the location unique. There are no comparable monumental complexes from its time. Rather than answering earlier questions to its existence, the more it has been excavated, the more questions it has raised.


This site is thought of more like a gathering and also a bartering place. The distinctive architecture in Göbekli Tepe allows us to think about gigantic public buildings. To classify these buildings as temples is not entirely plausible, as these enclosures cannot be regarded as places dedicated to gods and goddesses.


The T-shaped pillars might be monumental statues. One of the most important pieces of information that we can gather from Göbekli Tepe is that there was a division of labour, coordination, and organization between groups of hunter-gatherer people of the Neolithic Age. Obviously, they needed and invested in these gigantic sized public buildings. 


Abundant amounts of butchered meat and alcoholic residue found in 160-litre capacity stone containers imply festivities for the gatherings of people, either religious or social, or both.


The making of gigantic sized stones would have required hundreds of workers. This implies different groups of people rather than socially equal groups were involved in its construction. As domestication of animals and seed were made possible, we see migration from these areas in which people felt under pressure.


To visit Göbekli Tepe, you can fly to Şanlıurfa, which is worth an overnight stay. Finds from the site are exhibited at the Şanlıurfa Archaeological Museum. Visitors can also explore the Mosaic museum and the beehive houses of Harran, sample the local cuisine of Şanlıurfa, and discover the sites of Abrahamic religions.


A version of this article was first published on  Şerif Yenen's blog. We appreciate the opportunity to republish this piece with his permission. Şerif Yenen, organizes tours to Göbekli Tepe in addition to tours in Istanbul and all over Turkey. More information is available at www.serifyenen.com

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