S¸ANLIURFA Göbekli Tepe Nevalı Çori
Religion’s early dawn
Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia is the world’s oldest man-made structure. It dates to the 10th millennium BC – and the first glimmerings of the Neolithic, when huntergatherer societies became sedentary farming communities. But, say Klaus Schmidt, Oliver Dietrich, and Jens Notroff, this is no settlement. It is a vast monumental sanctuary.
Could it be, then, that religion was the catalyst that ignited the ‘Neolithic Revolution’?
Towering over the vast Harran plain on the highest point of the Germus mountain range in south-eastern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe dominates the surrounding landscape. This mound is no natural phenomenon, but a man-made tell with sediments deposited over millennia.
It is clear, too, that this is no ordinary settlement. Massive monolithic blocks – carefully aligned to form circular enclosures, and exquisitely carved with detailed animal reliefs – lie deliberately concealed beneath the mound. The subtlety and sophistication of the finely fashioned shapes that emerge from the recovered stone pillars belie the early Neolithic society responsible for the sanctuary’s construction.
The site was first recorded in the 1960s, when it was written off as Byzantine – the carved stones lying around on the surface were thought to be gravestones. It was not until 1995 that Klaus Schmidt, scientific advisor to the German Archaeological Institute, surveying in the area, noticed the flint arrowheads and tools lying scattered on the surface. Then he looked at the ‘gravestones’ and compared them with the carved stones of the nearby Neolithic site of Nevalı Çori, which was disappearing under the waters of the Atatürk Dam. He knew immediately that he had found a very early Neolithic site indeed. Yet, even now, he did not expect quite what awaited him here at Göbekli Tepe.
Göbekli Tepe literally translates from the Turkish as ‘potbelly hill’. It is a vast site. Standing 15m (49ft) high and about 300m (328yds) in diameter, it covers 9ha of an area that lay in the western part of what was considered the ‘Fertile Crescent’ in ancient times.
Monumental megaliths Schmidt and his team have reached the oldest and most impressive level. This is Layer III, which dates to the earliest phases of Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN A) in the 10th millennium BC – before pottery was invented.
Significantly, they found absolutely no sign of any domestic activity, such as rubbish pits or cooking hearths, and no domestic architecture. Instead, the archaeologists uncovered carefully formed concentric rings, ranging from 10m to 30m in diameter, made up of huge, distinctive T-shaped pillars.
These pillars, standing up to 4m (13ft) in height, are set at equal distances into walls that are lined with benches, and that define the inner and outer spaces of the enclosures. The huge megaliths point towards the middle where two, even larger,