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Published: June 2011

Göbekli Tepe

Pillars at the temple of Göbekli Tepe

The Birth of Religion

We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.

By Charles C. Mann
Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Every now and then the dawn of civilization is reenacted on a remote hilltop in southern Turkey.

The reenactors are busloads of tourists—usually Turkish, sometimes European. The buses (white, air-conditioned, equipped with televisions) blunder over the winding, indifferently paved road to the ridge and dock like dreadnoughts before a stone portal. Visitors flood out, fumbling with water bottles and MP3 players. Guides call out instructions and explanations. Paying no attention, the visitors straggle up the hill. When they reach the top, their mouths flop open with amazement, making a line of perfect cartoon O's.

Before them are dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

At the time of Göbekli Tepe's construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple's builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.

Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species' deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution—the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.

At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event—a sudden flash of genius—that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the "revolution" was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

After a moment of stunned quiet, tourists at the site busily snap pictures with cameras and cell phones. Eleven millennia ago nobody had digital imaging equipment, of course. Yet things have changed less than one might think. Most of the world's great religious centers, past and present, have been destinations for pilgrimages—think of the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis). They are monuments for spiritual travelers, who often came great distances, to gawk at and be stirred by. Göbekli Tepe may be the first of all of them, the beginning of a pattern. What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.

Klaus Schmidt knew almost instantly that he was going to be spending a lot of time at Göbekli Tepe. Now a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), Schmidt had spent the autumn of 1994 trundling across southeastern Turkey. He had been working at a site there for a few years and was looking for another place to excavate. The biggest city in the area is Şanlıurfa (pronounced shan-LYOOR-fa). By the standards of a brash newcomer like London, Şanlıurfa is incredibly old—the place where the Prophet Abraham supposedly was born. Schmidt was in the city to find a place that would help him understand the Neolithic, a place that would make Şanlıurfa look young. North of Şanlıurfa the ground ripples into the first foothills of the mountains that run across southern Turkey, source of the famous Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nine miles outside of town is a long ridge with a rounded crest that locals call Potbelly Hill—Göbekli Tepe.

In the 1960s archaeologists from the University of Chicago had surveyed the region and concluded that Göbekli Tepe was of little interest. Disturbance was evident at the top of the hill, but they attributed it to the activities of a Byzantine-era military outpost. Here and there were broken pieces of limestone they thought were gravestones. Schmidt had come across the Chicago researchers' brief description of the hilltop and decided to check it out. On the ground he saw flint chips—huge numbers of them. "Within minutes of getting there," Schmidt says, he realized that he was looking at a place where scores or even hundreds of people had worked in millennia past. The limestone slabs were not Byzantine graves but something much older. In collaboration with the DAI and the Şanlıurfa Museum, he set to work the next year.

Inches below the surface the team struck an elaborately fashioned stone. Then another, and another—a ring of standing pillars. As the months and years went by, Schmidt's team, a shifting crew of German and Turkish graduate students and 50 or more local villagers, found a second circle of stones, then a third, and then more. Geomagnetic surveys in 2003 revealed at least 20 rings piled together, higgledy-piggledy, under the earth.

The pillars were big—the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art. Other parts of the hill were littered with the greatest store of ancient flint tools Schmidt had ever seen—a Neolithic warehouse of knives, choppers, and projectile points. Even though the stone had to be lugged from neighboring valleys, Schmidt says, "there were more flints in one little area here, a square meter or two, than many archaeologists find in entire sites."

The circles follow a common design. All are made from limestone pillars shaped like giant spikes or capital T's. Bladelike, the pillars are easily five times as wide as they are deep. They stand an arm span or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls. In the middle of each ring are two taller pillars, their thin ends mounted in shallow grooves cut into the floor. I asked German architect and civil engineer Eduard Knoll, who works with Schmidt to preserve the site, how well designed the mounting system was for the central pillars. "Not," he said, shaking his head. "They hadn't yet mastered engineering." Knoll speculated that the pillars may have been propped up, perhaps by wooden posts.

To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the "shoulders" of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle—as at "a meeting or dance," Schmidt says—a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.

Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.

Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.

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