Gobekli Tepe

The World’s oldest temple

Gobekli Tepe is an amazing site — the oldest known Neolithic site in the world, dating back to around 10,000 BC. It is not like Catal Huyuk, a domestic site or proto-city, but a ritual site with fantastic carvings of wild animals.

However it is situated in the south eastern Turkey and at first I thought it would be inaccessible. However when I met the excavator Klaus Schmidt after a splendid lecture here in London, he said it was quite easy to get to. Just fly down to Urfa, he said, rent a car and it is a short drive out of the city. So that is just what we did. We flew down to Urfa, rented a car and drove out the 15 miles to Gobekli Tepe.

The modern town of Urfa is not well-known to tourists. It is now known officially as Sanliurfa, or Glorious Urfa (it’s the place where Abraham was born). It is only 20 miles north of the modern border with Syria and lies just 30 miles east of the River Euphrates.

Here is a grand panoramic shot — click on the photo to see it in its full glory. (It is the same as the header, but it deserves to be seen properly).

At the centre by the excavations showing the new walkway to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors. Top left is the solitary tree which is still an object of veneration among the local population. Bottom right is the other slightly later site we will deal with lower down. And top right is the plain of Harran,  with Syria just beyond the horizon. The Euphrates lies 20 miles off the photo to the right.

And here is a close-up of the walkway. Circles A and B,  the first to be excavated, are centre right

And in the foreground bottom left are the two great uprights of the circle D. Note their support — we will be discussing later how they were supported in antiquity.



Here is another panoramic view, but the main feature to see here are the circles A and B in the right-hand corner. These were the first to be excavated but are not as spectacular as Circles C and D in the background


And here is the most spectacular circle — Circle C. British archaeologists will recognise the type immediately — it is a henge monument. It is a circular structure and round the outside there are uprights in a typical T-shaped form, with the top half being broader than the bottom half.

In the centre there are two large uprights which one might almost call Trilithons. Here the right-hand upright has been boarded up to preserve it.

Sometime after the site had been abandoned, but still within the Neolithic, around 8000 BC, a pit was done in the middle of the circle and the two uprights were smashed.  Clearly even though these sites had long been abandoned, it was still known to be to have magic power and it was felt necessary to dig  down and smash the uprights in order to destroy the magic power

However the excavators have been able to re-assemble the smash uprights.

Plan of Gobekli Tepe in 2002. The earliest excavations were enclosures A and B in green bottom left. The most complex enclosure is enclosure C in the centre. while enclosure D at the top has the two largest uprights at its centre.

The most interesting aspect of these circles were the two upright pillars at the centre. These were similar to the pillars are set into the surrounding walls but were mostly rather bigger.

The big question is how they were anchored to remain upright. As can be seen here, and even better in the photo below, they were set into the ground in extremely shallow sockets, many of them only 20 cm (10 inches) deep which would not have supported such tall pillars with any security. As can be seen here,  the excavators had to erect a sturdy framework of steel posts to keep them upright.

Were they only erected for a very short time — perhaps only a couple of hours each time they were used? Or was there perhaps in a lintel across the top – which must have been of wood that has not survived. This would have made them look very much like Stonehenge.


Here we see a shot of the base of the pillar to show some of the carvings.  At the foot of the pillar is a strange carving showing the rear two legs of an animal with its tail hanging down between — or is it a man with an enlarged penis?

Note the row of ducks carved on the edge of the concrete slab on which the pillar is set.

But the feature for which Gobekli tepe is best know are the carvings – mostly of  animals. All of them are wild animals suggesting that this was a time very early in the Neolithic, before the domestication of animals had got under way.

This is one of the best carvings showing at the top a wild cow, then a fox,  and below that a bird, apparently a  crane.




Here is another highly carved pillar, showing three birds appaently caught in a net, then at the bottom a wild boar, and beneath that,  the snout of a fox.






And here is an enigmatic carving of a creature with a long tail apparently upside down


It would seem there each circle belonged to a different tribe. The animals were not carved  randomly but each circle seemed to have carvings of a particular animal. Thus circle A had lots of carvings of snakes while in circle C, wild boars predominate. Does this mean that each circle belong to a particular tribe, and that each tribe carved its own particular emblem in their circles?It may even be possible to determine where the various groups came from, for  a number of stone tools are found with each circle and many of these tools were of obsidian. Obsidian is  sharper than flint, but it only occurs rarely, and it can be traced very accurately to its origin. There are a number of outcrops in this area of Turkey and these can be distinguished, and some of the tools come from sources up to 100 km away,  suggesting that they were brought to Gobekli Tepe from the area in which the obsidian naturally outcrops.

On to the later part of the site

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