Göbekli Tepe, Urfa
Ritual site from dawn of Man
Göbekli 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 Göbekli Tepe; they have been dated to 10,000BC, which makes them more than twice as old as the Pyramids or Stonehenge. Göbekli Tepe predates pottery, written language or agriculture; it takes us back to pre-settlement humankind.
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 some are carved with humanising details like loincloths, belts and stylised arms. 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 Göbekli 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.
They have installed a protective timber roof at Göbekli Tepe and are also working on a visitors’ centre; a newly laid path of sleepers leads to the site where a raised walkway winds among the stones. Looking down at the partially excavated site, one realises with a start that the circles were built on top of each other, and that the entire hill is therefore an edifice created out of these buried, perhaps because they had been deemed redundant, structures. The initial presumption, that this must be some kind of temple site, now shifts towards highly ritualised entombment, though the archaeologists are yet to find human remains on the site.
What seems clear is that people did not live here but visited for unspecified purposes; at that time, as far as we know, they were hunter gatherers who were yet to settle. The technical and organisational skills which were previously presumed to have been developed in the course of settlement are clearly evidenced here; men, that is, learned to build for their gods, or in the service of their superstitions, before learning to build for themselves; the religious instinct apparently predated the civic one.
Visit this extraordinary place in its touristic infancy, and let its ancient mystery go to work on you.