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The Oldest Temple on Earth?

Barnaby Rogerson marvels at the mysteries of Göbekli Tepe

Six millennia before Stonehenge, the dawn of the agrarian revolution came to the now arid Anatolian steppe – and with it came Göbekli Tepe, perhaps the first place of worship built by man. With its T-shaped columns and menacing animal carvings, it is an unacknowledged wonder of the ancient world. But who built it? And what went on here? By Barnaby Rogerson

  • The first of Göbekli Tepe’s four monumental circles has been excavated to ground level, revealing raised pediments provided for two central T-shaped menhirs and an encircling high ‘bench’. A dozen or so side columns would have supported a roof (photo: Barnaby Rogerson)

The oldest temple on earth is now back in business. The most important, bewitching, intriguing and mysterious archaeological discovery of the 21st century, its excavations reveal a fragile, maze-like complex of stone walls encircling four ritual spaces in a sunken hollow near the summit of a hill. Each of these ritual circles is dominated by a pair of slender T-shaped menhirs at their centre, surrounded by a dozen or so similar stones. The surface of many of these menhirs is covered with enigmatic carvings, some of which seem like a furious recollection of a nightmare: scorpions, serpents, lions, foxes, boars and what appears to be a vulture playing with a human head. Others appear benignly human, and have been given arms and a cummerbund-like belt. We now know just enough to know how little we know. Some of the answers are still there in the unexcavated earth, so it is important not to hurry. For this is a site of worldwide importance and an opportunity to push back our understanding of human culture.

Not until you have witnessed a local thunderstorm coming over the mountains, splitting rocks and starting a thousand spate streams of blood-coloured earth, do you begin to understand the need for all those Hittite statues raised to the thunder gods. Nor the importance of protecting the site from the weather. And it needs to be protected from the flood of enthusiastic travellers, some of whom (like myself) are driven by a passion for prehistory that is very close to the emotional needs of a medieval pilgrim.

Until the 1990s a withered old mulberry tree was the only feature to break the silhouette of Göbekli Tepe – tummy button hill. Prayers and petitions were whispered beneath the tree as fragments of cloth were knotted to its branches, destined eventually to be blown away into the vastness of the Anatolian steppe, towards possible fulfilment on the wind.

The earth on the summit was surprisingly rich and deep, unlike the bare limestone escarpments that spread out like limbs below it. It was ploughed for an orchard of pistachio to be planted, though the farmer, Mehmet Yıldız, and his family had to laboriously smash one or two projecting boulders in the process. The soil was littered with flint tools, but this is not so unusual in southern Turkey. However, Mehmet was so emphatic about the quantity of flints that the place was dutifully logged in a thick register of archaeological sites in 1963. In my garden in Hampshire, I usually find at least one flint tool whenever I open up a new vegetable bed. It gives me a glow to handle these slender fragments, sole evidence of other humans who lived off this land thousands of years before me, but the potatoes need planting, so I push on with the job in hand. And so the temple might have slept, with just the summits of two of its monolithic columns exposed, truncated by the farmer’s sledgehammer and chipped by his plough.

But a red-bearded archaeologist from Germany named Klaus Schmidt decided to examine the hill. Schmidt was fascinated by this part of Turkey, where the Neolithic agricultural revolution had been born. At the back of his mind he dreamed of stumbling upon a long-forgotten cave beside a spring, or a rock shelter beside a seasonal pool, where evidence of that historical moment when the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era started becoming farmers and stock-keepers might have been miraculously preserved.

Schmidt had been part of the German team (under Harald Hauptmann) which had excavated the ancient Neolithic village of Nevali Çori before it was submerged for ever under the waters of a dam in 1992. He had handled the distinctive limestone objects found at Nevali Çori, including some of the oddest and oldest carvings that had been reused in the making of the back wall of a sanctuary building. He had made polysterene copies of these stones, which allowed him to work out their original form, stacked to create a stone totem pole. His eyes had been exceptionally well trained for the task of discovering the temples buried under the hill of Göbekli Tepe.

The first time he went there was in 1994. He arrived late in the day, but remembered how the light of the setting sun was caught by flint fragments which glittered like crystals. So he came back, and this time what he saw kept him there until dusk had turned into night. That day, among the litter of surface stones, he found half a dozen that he knew linked Göbekli Tepe with the culture at Nevali Çori. These included carvings of a dragon-like gecko, a mysterious limestone ring (looking like a contemporary piece of sculpture by John Maine), a man with a penis but no limbs and an animal with a savage jaw. He also found a T-shaped stone post. Anyone else looking at it would have classified it as a piece of medieval masonry, possibly something to do with an olive press. But Klaus had handled such things in the firmly dated environment of Nevali Çori, and knew that they came from the earliest period of the Neolithic…

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Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 59
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  • Thoroughly Modern Mihri

    Fascinated by the many faces of Mihri Rasim, Jamie Leptien asks how and why this unique artist has been ignored for so long

  • Secret Chambers of the Black Eunuchs

    As the Topkapi prepares to open up parts of the palace long kept hidden, we recall the time Cornucopia was granted rare access to what remains the most secret section of all – the quarters of the Black Agas. These powerful African eunuchs guarded the Harem and controlled the finances of the hugely wealthy Queen Mother. Text by Berrin Torolsan. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Eye of the Beholder

    Yildiz Moran abandoned photography for lexicography at the age of 30. But her decade behind the lens left an astonishing body of work, celebrated this year at Istanbul Modern. By Jamie Leptien

Buy the issue
Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
£12.00 / $15.27 / 491.74 TL
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