Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe, Urfa

Ritual site from the dawn of Man

(For information on our forthcoming tour to Gobekli Tepe, here).

Gobekli Tepe, or Belly Hill, is probably the most significant archaeological site currently under excavation anywhere in the world; foot for foot – the exposed site is barely the size of a tennis court – it’s certainly the most thought-provoking, even for the general visitor.

No man-made structure, with the exception of the walls at Jericho, is anything like the age of the megaliths at Gobekli Tepe; they have been dated to 10,000BC, which makes them more than twice as old as the Pyramids or Stonehenge. Gobekli Tepe predates pottery, writing or agriculture – and, it has long been assumed, settlements.

This hill-top arrangement of stone circles draws initial comparisons with Stonehenge. The major difference is that these megaliths are shaped like capitalised Ts and carved in some cases with loincloths, belts andstylised arms to suggest the human form. Others bear etched reliefs of creatures. But where dwellers in caves like Lascaux tended to paint the animals they liked to eat, antelope and wild cattle among them, the people at Gobekli Tepe instead went for creatures liable to eat, bite or otherwise disquiet them: wolves and reptiles, spiders and scorpions. Something dark and atavistic stalks this place.

Beneath the protective roof a raised walkway winds among the stones. These are arranged as five precincts, partially excavated, the T-stones standing on bedrock and enclosed by rubble wallsThe presumption is that these precincts were roofed with timber; precisely what their function was – as tombs or temples – remains thrillingly obscure.  

It now seems clear, however, that these precincts were surrounded by settlements, if only seasonal ones: it can be bitter up here in the winter.  It was previously thought that these structures were built by hunter gatherers; it now seems that humankind had already made forays, however tentative, into settlement.  Even so, the technical and organisational skills on show here is far more sophisticated than anything yet discovered in domestic contexts.  It seems, then, that men prioritized building for their gods, or in the service of their superstitions, before learning to build for themselves; the religious instinct apparently predated the civic one.

It is no surprise that such discoveries have caused quite a stir.  Gobekli Tepe has become extremely busy in recent years.  It’s adopted the arrangement at Stonehenge, with tiresome waits for shuttle buses.  Even so, this is a place of compelling wonder.  Nor does it stand alone.  Other discoveries in the region, not least at Karahan Tepe and (now submerged) Nevali Çori , point to the existence of a neolithic civilisation of quite extraordinary technical and intellectual sophistication.    

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