Genesis Secret: Gobekli Tepe
The best way of giving you this information is to reprint the original article I wrote, for the excellent magazine Fortean Times, when I first returned from my visit to Kurdish Turkey.
Photos mainly by me, as indicated. Thanks to DAINST for the images of the frieze and the “reptile”.
I’m in a rusty Turkish taxi. Ahead of me, the brown hills roll endlessly towards Syria; from my car I can see a little village, of mud houses and open drains.
It’s not the most auspicious of places. Yet if reports are correct, I am heading for the most amazing archaeological dig in the world.
Finally my swearing cabbie scrapes us round another corner, and I see a solitary mulberry tree, stark against the cloudless sky.
I climb out of the car, and a genial, fifty-something German approaches. His name is Klaus Schmidt. He is the chief archaeologist here: at Gobekli Tepe.
The modern history of Gobekli Tepe (the second word is pronounced tepp-ay; the phrase means the “hill of the navel” in Turkish) begins in 1964, when a team of American archaeologists were combing this remote province of southeast Turkey.
Three decades after the Americans’ near miss, a local shepherd…….
The ‘rediscovery’ of the site reached the ears of the museum curators, in the city of Sanliurfa, fifty kilometres away. The museum authorities contacted the relevant government ministry, who in turn got in touch with the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul.
Then Schmidt got out the cab and had a closer look. ‘Within the first minute, I knew that if I didn’t walk away immediately, I would be here the rest of my life.’
Schmidt stayed. And what he has since uncovered is quite extraordinary.
The eerie stones turned out to be the flat oblong tops of awesome megaliths. These T-shaped ochre stones loom abruptly from the exhausted earth. Most of the stones are carved with bizarre and delicate images – mainly of animals and birds. One image shows a pornographic representation of a woman. Sinuous serpents are another common motif. The stones themselves seem to represent men – some have stylised “arms”, which angle down the sides of the stones.
So far, 43 stones have been dug out. They are arranged in circles from five to ten metres across. Around the circles are benches of rock, smallish niches, and walls of mud brick. The unearthed megaliths stand between one and four metres high.
|There are indications that more is to come. A few years ago Schmidt and his team found a very weathered, half-quarried, T shaped stone, lying in a limestone bed, a kilometre from the main site. This enormous stone is nine metres long, and was, it seems, designed to join the other pillars at Gobekli . ‘The stone is cracked, so it must have broken’, Schmidt explains, ‘when this happened the builders probably left it and started on another.’|
|All of which means there may be other stones, as yet undiscovered, that are this big. Indeed, geomagnetic surveys, of the various artificial hills at Gobekli Tepe, imply that there are at least 250 more standing stones waiting to be excavated.
So far, so remarkable. If Gobekli Tepe was simply this, it would already be a dazzling site – a Turkish Stonehenge, or a Kurdish Carnac. But Gobekli Tepe isn’t just this. One unique factor puts Gobekli Tepe in the archaeological stratosphere.
|Gobekli Tepe is staggeringly ancient. Carbon-dating of organic matter adhering to the megaliths show that the complex is 12,000 years old. That is to say, it was built around 10,000-9000BC. For a comparison, Stonehenge was built around 2000BC. Prior to the discovery and dating of Gobekli Tepe, the most ancient megalithic complex was thought to be in Malta – dated around 3500BC.
Gobekli Tepe is thus the oldest such site in the world, by a great margin. Gobekli Tepe is so stupefyingly old it actually predates settled human life. It is also pre-pottery. Gobekli Tepe hails from a part of human history that is unimaginably distant, right back in our hunter gatherer past.
How did “cavemen” manage to build something so ambitious? Klaus Schmidt speculates that bands of hunters would have gathered sporadically at the site, through the decades of construction. During the building season, the hunters may have lived in animal-skin tents, slaughtering the local game for sustenance. The many flint arrowheads found around Gobekli support this thesis; they also support the dating of the site.
|This revelation: that hunter gatherers, early Neolithic people, could have built something like Gobekli, is world-changing. Hitherto it was presumed that agriculture necessarily preceded civilisation, that complex art, society and architecture depended on the reliable food supplies derived from farming. Gobekli Tepe shows that the old hunter-gatherer life, in this region of Turkey, was far more advanced than we ever conceived.|
|Nonetheless, even for the most resourceful and organised of pre-farming societies, constructing something as refined as Gobekli must have been a powerful challenge, and a serious drain on manpower. These guys must have had a very good reason to build Gobekli. What was it all for?
Schmidt thinks he knows. ‘Gobekli Tepe is not a house or a domestic building. Evidence of any domestic use is entirely lacking. No remains of settled human habitation have been found nearby. That leaves one purpose – religion. Gobekli Tepe is the oldest temple in the world. And it isn’t just a temple; I think it is probably a funerary complex.’
Schmidt’s thesis has supporting data. In the latest season of digging his team have found human bones, in soils that once filled the niches behind the megaliths. ‘I believe the ancient hunters brought the corpses of relatives here, and installed them in the open niches by the stones. The corpses were then excarnated: picked clean by wild animals.’
There is more evidence that Gobekli had a religious purpose: the circular arrangement of the stones echoes much later Neolithic temples, like Stonehenge and Avebury. The many rock carvings on the stones also appear much more ritualistic than domestic.
|Sipping his tea, Schmidt elaborates: ‘So many of the carvings seem to celebrate the chase – we have found many images of prey, of boars, foxes and gazelles. Also images of ducks being hunted with nets. Gobekli Tepe was probably a site for funerals, but it was also a place to celebrate the life of the hunter, and the hunt itself.’|
|But before we get there, an obvious question is posed. What happened to the landscape? Why is the region now so eroded and barren, if it was once so lush and Edenic?
Schmidt picks up a knapped piece of flint from the weary earth. There are thousands of flint pieces – man-made – littering these hills. He says: ‘To build such a place as this, the hunters must have joined together, in great numbers. After they finished building, they probably congregated for worship, and for funerals. But then they found that they couldn’t feed so many people with the game. So I think they began cultivating the grasses on the hills. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of domestic wheat, grows wild here. So they domesticated it.’ Schmidt looks at the solitary mulberry tree on the hill. ‘In other words, they began farming to support their religious community. But it was the farming that maybe caused their downfall.’
|According to Schmidt, it seems that agriculture began here, in the province immediately surrounding Gobekli, sometime around 8000BC. (This indeed was one of the very first places in the world where men farmed). We know roughly when and where farming began, because of the archaeological evidence: domestication is a shock to the physiology of man and beast. The skeletons of people change, they temporarily grow smaller and less healthy, as the human body adapts to a protein-poorer diet, and a more arduous lifestyle. Likewise, newly domesticated animals get scrawnier – at first.
But 8000BC, it seems, was also the time when the local landscape began to alter. As the trees were chopped down, and the soil leached away, the area became arid and bare. What was once a glorious pastoral region – of forests and meadows, rich with game and wild grasses – became a toilsome place that had to be worked ever harder.
Schmidt and I descend a ladder to the floor of the dig, where the ancient dust is banked against the T-stones.
|Schmidt goes on:
‘The really strange thing is that, in 8000BC, during the shift to agriculture, Gobekli Tepe was buried. I mean deliberately – not in a mudslide. For some reason the hunters, the ex hunters, decided to entomb the entire site in soil. The earth we are removing from the stones was put here by man himself, all these hills are artificial.’
The link is becoming irresistible. A lost paradise, a forsaken lifestyle, a terrible “mistake”, even a solitary tree. Could there really be a connection between Gobekli Tepe and the Garden of Eden story?
|I have more investigation to do, before I reach a conclusion. Promising Klaus that I will return in a day or so, I climb back in the cab, and head off down the dusty road.
On the way, I consult my notes. The idea that the Eden narrative in the Bible is an allegory, for the transition from hunter-gathering to farming, is not a new one. Several writers and thinkers – like Hugh Brody – have canvassed the idea in the past. What is new is the accumulation of data that locates this allegory precisely in the Gobekli Tepe region.
One strand of evidence relates to early farming. Finds in neighbouring Turkish digs show that all Eurasian agriculture might have started around here. For instance, the very first pigs were domesticated at Cayonu, ninety kilometres away. Likewise, worldwide wheat species seem to descend from einkorn wheat – first cultivated on these same brown hills.
|Tucked inside the first gallery, under the stairs and hard by the fire extinguisher, is a weird, life-size, creamy-grey limestone statue of a man. This statue was exhumed in the ancient heart of Sanliurfa, when foundations were being laid for a bank.
Recent carbon dating of the Neolithic temple, wherein the statue was found, confirm that this bizarre effigy dates from 10,000-9000BC. This makes it probably the oldest life-size statue of a human ever discovered: the oldest self portrait in stone. And here it is, right by the fire extinguisher. The stare of its obsidian eyes is shockingly sad: it seems to be looking across the aeons with anguished regret, foreseeing the tragic mistakes of mankind.
Another quick car ride brings me to the site of the statue’s discovery. It is a local beauty spot known as Balikli Gol, a long and limpid fishpond, surrounded by golden stoned mosques, and tea houses, even a converted Crusader church. Tourists like to feed the fat and excitable fish in the ponds.
|The legend is that the fish were put here by the Prophet Abraham. The locals also believe that Sanliurfa is the Ur of the first books of the Bible.
These are just legends, of course. Yet we now know – because of the strange statue in the Sanliurfa museum – that Sanliurfa is incredibly old. There has been human activity here for twelve thousand years, perhaps continuously. Is it so unlikely that the Book of Genesis would refer to this ancient region, this fons et origo of civilisation?
Not unlikely at all, because we know that some places, near Sanliurfa, are definitely mentioned in Genesis.
|The next morning I take a longer cab ride, across the brown flatlands, into the desert wastes further south. The fields are being tilled by Kurdish women in their typical lavender-coloured headscarves. The women look weary from the heat. This region is so sultry people sleep outside their houses on raised metal platforms.
Eventually we reach Harran, where a ruined tower rises from the roadside. This was once the oldest Islamic University in the world. It dates from the 9th century AD. But Harran’s ancestry is even nobler than that. Harran is the same Harran as is mentioned, twice, in the Book of Genesis. This is where Abraham once lived, according to the Bible.
Back in the taxi I make my final journey to Gobekli. On the way I put all the jigsaw pieces together. Taking into account the Biblical links, the history and topography of the region, the evidence of very early domestication hereabouts, and the data from the site itself, Gobekli Tepe is arguably a temple located “within the Garden of Eden”.
Put it another way: the story of Eden is a folk-memory, and an allegory: and it tells us of our glorious hunter-gatherer past, in this once-fertile corner of Anatolia, before our own activities cast us into a harsher world. Gobekli Tepe celebrates and remembers a wonderful time of plenty, when we had leisure enough to learn the arts, and to cultivate a complex religion, even if we didn’t know how to make pots. And then we fell into farming.