Göbekli Tepe and why it is so important

Gobekli TepeThere is a lot of buzz these days about Göbekli Tepe… Visitors to Turkey are increasingly interested in seeing it if their program permits, but what is Göbekli Tepe, and why is it so important?

Located in South Eastern Turkey, near the city of Şanlıurfa, Göbekli Tepe is an active archaeological site located on top of a hill and consisting of a number of circular and oval-shaped structures. In the middle of each one are two pillars made in the shape of a ‘T’, and with carvings of animals such as snakes, wild boars, cranes and ducks on them. At first, the site seems fairly unassuming, but once you understand the significance of these structures you can’t fail to be impressed.

Believed to have been built around 10,000 BC, it has been under excavation by a team of Turkish and German post-graduate archaeology students for the last 20 years, with the help of the German Archaeological Institute.  The site is incredibly well preserved, and the way that the site of each structure has been covered over using lots of material which has prevented significant damage to the structures, suggests that it was deliberately well preserved.  The really interesting thing is that there are multiple layers of the structures – it seems that the first layer was filled in and then a new structure built on top of it, and so on, a pattern repeated every few decades until around 8200BC. Interestingly, the original structures at the bottom are the most sophisticated – the quality of workmanship deteriorates in the more recent layers.

So what makes the discovery of Göbekli Tepe so significant?

    • Gobeklitepe excavation siteFirstly, it’s OLD, really, really old – the pillars were built more than 11,600 years ago – this is seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Gaza.
    • Secondly, it is the oldest known temple in the world – believed to be the first place of worship as the evidence uncovered shows that it was used for ritual and ceremonial purposes rather than for domestic use.  Apart from achieving the “world’s first temple” badge this is significant on another front – prior to its discovery we believed that organised worship did not exist during that period, and that religion and worship did not come into being until later periods when humans began to organise themselves into an agricultural society. The archaeologists working on site believe that it is most likely that Göbekli Tepe was used for burial ceremonies as well as other feasts, and although they have not unearthed any graves yet, they believe that it is just a matter of time before some graves are found.
    • It is difficult to even imagine how they managed to make such an impressive structure… When Göbekli Tepe was constructed, people still lived as nomads. They hunted and gathered their food, yet somehow the people who built the temples cut the stones, shaped them, then moved them into place without any wheels or equipment, all in a time when even a simple hand tool was a rarity.  Each pillar weighs between 40 and 60 tonnes, so how on earth did they move them into place?  The archaeologists on site believe that around 500 people would have been needed to move each pillar into place.Who organised them? And where did they live?  There is no water source close to the site, and no archaeological evidence of homes or habitation. No trace of agriculture has been found, nor has evidence of fires or cooking equipment been uncovered.  To date, we still don’t have a solid answer to these questions, and it is hoped that further excavation will reveal more.
    • Pillar with animal carving at Gobekli Tepe, TurkeyThe discovery of Göbekli Tepe has also turned the archaeological world upside down. Before it was discovered we thought we knew the sequence of the Neolithic Revolution – the transition of humans from hunter-gatherers to the birth of an agricultural society which lead to greater organisation such as the development of villages and a social hierarchy.  The fact that so many people would have been needed to move each pillar suggests that the society who built the pillars may have been much more organised than we thought, because significant organisation would have been required to achieve this feat. People would have planned the task, others would have had the task of organising the move, others would have been expert in stonemasonry / quarrying.  The society who built Göbekli Tepe would already have had to have been a very organised society, so this has forced archaeologists and anthropologists back to the drawing board to rethink what we know about early civilizations and the development of human societies.



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