Visiting Göbekli Tepe: The World’s ‘Earliest Temple,’ Built in a Paradise That Is No More

Around 12,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers made a vast social leap and built monumental public sites. What was different in prehistoric southeast Turkey? And what did they actually create? Reducing these stone circles to ‘temples’ is to underrate them, says head archaeologist Necmi Karul

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'Pool' by one of the main gathering sites at Karahan Tepe, southeast Turkey, featuring what look like giant phalluses, and a head proud of the bedrock
'Pool' by one of the main gathering sites at Karahan Tepe, southeast Turkey, featuring what look like giant phalluses, and a head proud of the bedrockCredit: TurkeyTourism Promotion
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Sanliurfa, Turkey
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Sanliurfa, Turkey

SANLIURFA, Turkey – Around 12,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers living in southeast Turkey created something extraordinary.

Some call Göbekli Tepe, Karahan Tepe and other monumental Neolithic sites here the earliest temples in the world. Others point out that it’s hard to know what prehistoric people were thinking.

Göbekli is one of the biggest, most established, sites for its time. Around 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the city of Sanliurfa, it was in use for about 1,500 years, archaeologists estimate. And I saw it with my own eyes, through tears of emotion, on a press tour of prehistoric southeast Turkey organized by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and guided by Alim Kocabiyik. On the trip to Karahan, we were guided by Prof. Necmi Karul, head of the Department of Prehistory at Istanbul University and the archaeologist leading the exploration of these tells.

Göbekli was the first to be found. Subsequently, 11 more such sites were reported. Karul says there are at least 16 big ones, Gobekli and Karahan both being big, and a lot of small campsites.

The main circle at Karahan, and 'phallic' pillars poolCredit: Courtesy of Prof. Necmi Karul

All the big sites feature T-shaped stone pillars, some of them giant and all like nothing found anywhere else – not then and not later. At Göbekli, the most extensively excavated of these sites, the tallest pillar is 6 meters high. Many are engraved with stylized human and animal reliefs, in contrast to the unembellished menhirs characterizing (much later) European stone circles.

These sites change our understanding of late hunter-gatherer society. They predate agriculture. They predate animal husbandry and pottery. They disprove the hypothesis that agriculture predated settlement.

In southeast Turkey at least, settlement predated agriculture, and religion evidently predated both. If at first Göbekli was thought to be an isolated cultic spot built on the hilltop while the people lived in the valley, it is not so. Adjacent homes of stone have been identified.

But what are these places? Assuming that Göbekli, Karahan and the other monumental prehistoric sites in southeastern Turkey must be “temples” closes the mind, stresses Karul. It underestimates their function. If one must generalize, he prefers calling them “gathering places.”

Seemingly these complexes are non-productive, which begs the question of why hunter-gatherers would invest so much in them. "A new social order is being built, with settled life," Karul says. "This may be as important as productive life, or even more so in terms of social life. These people now have more resources around them and do not have to relocate [for foraging]. They live in the same place in greater numbers and this means a new social order. In other words, ‘special buildings’ are quite decisive in the construction of this new social order."

“The story of temples is just a decontextualization of these structures to fit our own modern context,” explains Prof. Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University, who has studied the architectural design at Göbekli. It would be better to distinguish between domestic and public places; and rituals could take place at both, he says.

"I think most likely that the shelters were used simultaneously with the special buildings," Karul says. "The fact that the pillars are also in the shelters may be related to their own meaning. In special buildings, obelisks have a relationship with architecture: they are used as buttresses, but they also have symbolic meanings. It must be that this symbolic meaning carried into the shelter."

Observance always involves a public level and a home/domestic level, Gopher notes: “Assuming the sculptures are signifiers of some sort – why not at home?” he says. That could shed light on why the homes, or shelters, have little T-monoliths of their own – “not that little,” he points out

Excavating houses in Gobekli Tepe, right by the cultic siteCredit: Valence Levi Schuster
A household T at Karahan Tepe.Credit: Valence Levi Schuster

Foxes on one’s mind

First discovered in 1963 by a Turkish-American archaeological survey directed by Halet Çambel and Robert Braidwood, Göbekli’s excavation would only begin in 1994-95, which is when the pillars were first discovered, by Klaus Schmidt. More sites featuring T-shaped pillars were subsequently discovered, among them Karahan in 1997. It may be centuries older than Göbekli, Kocabiyik notes.

Meanwhile, Göbekli has been developed into a tourism center complete with small museum and gift shop featuring Göbekli tchotchkes. Entrance (as of writing) costs 55 Turkish lira ($3.30); kids under 8 get in free. From the car park one can climb a few hundred meters up the hill or take a shuttle.

Taking a bus felt somehow wrong. We walked. As one ascends, one sees only the roof protecting the antiquities from the elements. One sweats under the Mesopotamian sun.

Then one arrives. And there it is.

You cannot go inside. You cannot approach the monoliths. You cannot leave the elevated circular path built for tourists around the site. The path is solid but vibrates as hundreds of feet walk on it at the same time, and it is commensurately hard to take photographs.

Tourists visiting GobekliCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

You cannot get a panorama shot of the place without people in it. You cannot figure out how Stone Age people, albeit late Stone Age ones, achieved this. You cannot be unmoved.

Multiple, concentric stone circles of giant decorated T-pillars. The central two pillars, facing one another, are the tallest – a pattern repeated in other circles, and at other sites.

For reasons unclear, periodically throughout this culture’s lifetime, it seems the active stone enclosures would be buried deliberately or by forces of nature and a new one erected. This is how the art at Göbekli has survived. It’s been buried for 10,000 years.

The pillars bear reliefs of humanoid forms wearing belts, necklaces and loincloths seemingly fashioned of pelts. Kocabiyik points out that the reliefs of the groin covering look like fox.

The humanoids have strange numbers of fingers – never five, Karul says. We see animal images: a vulture, lizards, boars, maybe that’s a spider, a scorpion. A lot of foxes. They seem to have had a thing about foxes. Leopards. Crocodiles. These monoliths predate Stonehenge and Rujm el-Hiri in Israel by as much as 6,000 to 7,000 years and seem vastly more sophisticated.

Leopard (?) head from Gobekli, at the Sanliurfa MuseumCredit: Valence Levi Schuster
The central pillars at Gobekli main circle: Note the depressions atop the pillar, which could have held a binding for roofing. Pigeons roost on the scaffolding.Credit: Andrew Califf

Once, heaven

Standing before them, they evoke awe. Though if these great standing T-shapes represent gods, they are gone; if they represent ancestors, they are forgotten; if they are stylized mirrors of the world around them – a Neolithic version of Andy Warhol – then their world is long gone too.
The hills, once forested and teeming with wild animals, are eroded. Some soil clings to the hilltops: these remnants are archaeological deposits, Karul says. The rest was washed downhill into the valleys and plain.

The region had been wetter in the Neolithic. Now the land isn’t crossed by bubbling brooks and rivers but irrigation canals, bringing water from the Euphrates River. No trace remains of the trees that had thrived when this land had been a post-Ice Age paradise.

The eroded landscape around Karahan TepeCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

Nowhere else has anything like these sites. Why? How was this place different from all others?
“It was fertile,” Karul says – which means many things. Other places were fertile, but southeast Turkey was a seam between two climate zones. It teemed with animals and plants flourished; the hunter-gatherers didn’t need to forage far. Their economy had “grown beyond its natural hunter-gatherer context,” as Gopher says.

In this junction in southeast Turkey, peoples would have encountered one another, gaining new worldviews, technologies, traditions, beliefs and ideas; though they were still foragers and hunters, possessions may have grown in status.

Prof. Necmi KarulCredit: Ruth Schuster

In fact, agriculture was just starting to bud when these villages arose, leading to the fun if futile competition over “we did it first” between the nations around the Mediterranean. We will address the dawn of agronomy in a separate article. Meanwhile, these weren’t gathering places to exchange farming tips.

Karul’s problem with calling the structures temples is that the description is too confining. “Temple means people go in and pray. These were places where people gathered. It doesn’t have to mean they were praying. These buildings were multifunctional,” he says.

In any case, he argues, the definition doesn’t matter – what matters is what they did there. Key to his proposal: engraved pillars typically have more than one image.

Reproduction of Gobekli's "vulture" pillar, Sanliurfa MuseumCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

“They come together and create a stage. Maybe they were telling mythological stories, and using these pillars as props to tell a story,” Karul suggests. Mythology indicates collective memory and identity, and as the hunter-gatherers embarked on a new type of society, they needed the functions of storytellers, and artists, who created the symbols.

Yes, they likely also had proto-priests organizing the rituals. “We can most probably talk about hierarchy in their societies, but the hierarchy doesn’t mean vertical, it means horizontal – sharing the knowledge. Not egalitarianism, but not like societies today,” Karul says, And knowledge-sharing could have been fertile ground for agriculture to start sprouting.

Were they worshipping? We don’t know what that might have meant back then. Religion? Some, including Gopher and his colleague at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Ran Barkai, suspect that religious behaviors go as far back as the deep Paleolithic, far predating the rise of We.
Out of breath at Karahan

Karahan has yet to be developed for tourism purposes. Excavation there is less advanced than at Göbekli. It may turn out to be even larger, we are told. Again, the site remains coyly hidden until you finish panting up the hill.

Climbing the slope, led by Karul, we came across what he assures us was a fresh fox burrow. The animal itself, we did not see. That is sad. And having reached the hilltop, cooled by the late afternoon winds blowing over the Mesopotamian plain – there it is.

Only a fraction of it has been excavated so far. One can see the weathered heads of hundreds of standing stones peeping from the unexplored land all around. About 250 of them, Karul says; excavation found dozens more that had been totally buried. Like Göbekli, Karahan had been huge as Neolithic settlements go, he says.

Unexcavated pillars peeping out of the ground. The hidden part could be meters tallCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

Arrowheads too. The Karahan hilltop is littered with flint arrowheads. What does that mean? Nothing. It was the Stone Age and as the megafauna dwindled, including because of being hunted to extinction, human beings developed ever more efficacious ways to hunt ever smaller animals. Arrows are a good way to hunt the wee and speedy.

The archaeologists also found numerous tiny animalistic and human figurines, which like movable artifacts from these sites are kept at the Sanliurfa Museum. It also has reconstructions of Göbekli that are worth seeing.

Karahan makes Karul’s point about calling these “gathering places” clearer, with two tiers of stone benches carved into the bedrock.

The benches are split into sections by pillars hewn out of bedrock and standing stones quarried from the limestone hilltop and lugged over. Once pointed out by Karul, the quarrying scars on the hill are obvious. Note that cone-shaped stone mounds atop Karahan are tumuli from Roman times, he says.

Quarrying at KarahanCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

One of Karahan’s mysteries is a “pool” with phallus-like pillars. It connects by a channel to a central gathering area. Around one side of this pool, a snake is carved into the rock. A realistic human head thrusts proud of the stone. To some minds, this constellation suggests a male rite of passage, but who knows? The snake brings to mind a local legend from a later time that, following the serpent’s mischief, Adam and Eve are exiled down from heaven to the Harran plain – in other words, this very area. Evidently, snakes have been on people’s minds for some time.

Also, Karahan features more than one gathering area. Karul says this begs the question: which was the temple?

And we must wonder, fruitlessly: Do the giant (and smaller) Ts represent humans, ancestors, gods? What do the boars, what do the foxes and birds and cats and arachnids and reptiles signify? Does that iconic pillar at Gobekli really show a vulture assisting a decapitated head into the sky, and could that indicate “sky burial” (consumption by scavenging avians) in southeast Turkey 12,000 years ago?

By the monoliths are flattened areas of bedrock where people may have gathered for feasts, eaten from stone platters and bowls. They ate animals caught in giant traps in valleys about 5 kilometers from Karahan. The archaeologists have identified several small campsites in that vicinity too.

Possibly this is how domestication began: once trapped, some animals could be tamed. Goats and sheep could; aurochs we do not know; gazelles definitely could not.

Stone plates from Gobekli at the Sanliurfa MuseumCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

Where they came from, who the ancestors of the Göbekli culture were, we do not know. Maybe their ancestors hailed from the Black Sea area, which had highly advanced prehistoric societies, Karul speculates. That extraordinary culture persisted for about 1,500 years, and then it was gone.
And in that time, dwarfed by their own works, the people would gather. Maybe they tried to connect with gods, spirits or ancestors. Perhaps these monumental circles served as prehistoric parliaments, where the leaders of the clan would hear testimonials and hand down decrees. Maybe this was just a place where the clan would meet, swap stories and chat over a deer dinner, eaten from their stone bowls and plates. Or maybe it was something else entirely.

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