Göbekli Tepe and neolithic Turkey

In January 2018 I travelled with publisher Barnaby Rogerson and writer Jason Goodwin – distinguished Turkophiles both, savvy winter dressers neither – to Urfa in southeast Turkey.   This Kurdish/Arabic/Turkish region, where the Anatolian uplands meet the Syrian plain on the northern fringes of the Fertile Crescent, is astonishingly rich in Biblical, Roman, early Islamic and Crusader history.  But as it is truly exceptional for its pre-history, our main objective was the neolithic site at Göbekli Tepe.

The hilltop site dates from about 10,000BC – two and a half times the age, then, of the Great Pyramid at Giza or our own Stonehenge.  Old to a giddying degree, then, the oldest of all human structures, predating pottery, written language and agriculture, and packing into the site’s extent, about the size of a pair of tennis courts, wonder beyond measure.

T-shaped megaliths are arranged in circular precincts, like miniature Stonehenges.  Exquisitely carved with details of belts and hands to suggest human ideograms, the stones also bear reliefs of the diverse birds and animals – among them ibises, lizards, foxes and pigs – which presumably figured in these people’s diets or their dreams.

But it is the implications of this mysterious ritual site, as we take it to be, which truly amazes in inviting us to – insisting that we – reconsider basic presumptions about mankind’s emergence, not least in relation to the first settlements and the development of agriculture.

For if, as is commonly supposed, we were hunter gatherers at the time under consideration, yet to develop the technologies which only the advent of settled civilisation is supposed to have spawned – engineering, architecture and construction, sophisticated sculptural and organisational knowhow – how are we to begin to account for Göbekli Tepe?   Little wonder, then, that the site has rapidly established itself as a major cultural draw, with UNESCO World Heritage status.

Nor does the story end there.  For decades other neolithic sites have been known of across the region; megaliths from Nevali Cori, rescued from the rising waters behind a dam, one of many that Turkey has built on the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are on display at Urfa’s new museum along with a statue, the world’s oldest, retrieved from a site in the city of Urfa.   At the time of our visit we were alerted to the existence of another such site called Karahan Tepe which we visited in a storm.  The driving rain not only soaked my companions but confused our driver, as did his ignorance of the unsigned site’s remote location close to the Syrian border.  When we finally arrived, it was to a desolate hillside where the only evidence of archaeological interest were a few driven stakes which initially seemed designed merely to prevent us from tripping over the random rocks protruding there; rocks which on closer inspection turned out to be tops of T-stones similar to the ones at Göbekli Tepe.

Four years on, and Karahan Tepe has been extensively excavated; and, if anything, to even more spectacular effect than Göbekli Tepe.  Not only is the site larger but contains areas for dwelling as well as for ritual use, implying that settlement may have begun, however tentatively, thousands of years earlier than was previously believed.   What there is at Karahan Tepe also appears more diverse than at Göbekli Tepe, not least an astonishing chamber from whose walls and floor protrude giant carved phalluses much as you might find, I suppose, in a Berlin sex club.

A dozen or so such sites, all contemporaneous and all carefully buried for reasons and by neolithic persons unknown, have now been identified within 100 kilometres of each other.  Dubbed Taş Tepeler, or Stone Hills, by the tourism authorities’ marketing wonks, they look certain to cause huge interest and yield remarkable revelations from our deep past.  In our own excitement Barnaby, Jason and I will be returning to the area in anticipation of the tour I am planning to run there in May.  I daresay they will dress with more care.  For more information about the May tour, email or text me on 07757 703604.