The archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe has changed the way archaeologists think about the beginnings of civilization. The site is considered the oldest known man-made cult center, estimated to be 12,000 years old. What was Göbekli Tepe? That's what archaeologists, astronomers and geologists are trying to find out together.
It is located iin the city of Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey, near the border with Syria.
City was known as Edessa in ancient times and was the center of Syrian Christianity. Sanliurfa is known, among other things, for a particular image of Christ - the Mandylion (a kind of acheiropoietos, an image of a figure created in a supernatural, miraculous way rather than by human hand), and for the theological school of Ephrem the Syrian - saint, preacher, poet and commentator on the Holy Scriptures.
Gobekli Tepe is one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries.
The name of this site translated from Turkish means "bulging hill." The entire area where the excavations are located is hilly, but only one of the hills has been considered sacred for generations.
As early as 1964, during an archeological survey, American researchers realized that this mound did not form naturally.
Traces of construction work were found on the top of the hill, thought to be the remains of a military post from Byzantine times. Pieces of broken limestone blocks lying nearby were considered to be elements of tombstones. The mound was believed to hide a Byzantine or Islamic cemetery.
The excavations began in 1995 and were directed by Klaus Schmidt, a student of the archeologist Harald Hauptmann, who initiated the excavations at the prehistoric site of Gobekli Tepe.
Although Klaus Schmidt had spent many years in Turkey working at various archeological sites, the discovery of Gobekli Tepe exceeded his wildest expectations. He discovered an enormous number of flint fragments around the area. This was only a top of an iceberg. Carefully hewn stones and a circle of standing columns were found beneath the surface. The findings made Schmidt realize that dozens or even hundreds of people had worked at the site thousands of years ago. Schmidt continued the excavation until his death in 2014 when his team took over. The excavations are supervised by experts from the German Archeological Institute in cooperation with the Sanliurfa Museum.
The hill, 15 meters (49 feet) high and 300x300 meters (984 x 984 feet) in size, was used for agricultural purposes for many years.
Numerous stones were moved from the site when farmers subdivided the land for cultivation according to their needs. The archeological value of the site has undoubtedly suffered some damage.
During the first years of archaeological work, only 5% of archaeological interest was investigated.
Many ancient flint tools were discovered on the mound's surface - neolithic knives, axes, arrows, or spear blades. Then the circles of pillars were uncovered - geomagnetic soundings showed that at least 20 circles, grouped in one place still need to be unearthed. The work continues and will probably take at least another couple of decades. Archaeologists have had to remove vast amounts of soil to expose the structures underneath and try to answer the question, who built this and why?
Gobekli Tepe was built during the Neolithic period. Megalithic structures there are the oldest known to archeology.
Hunter-gatherer people constructed all the enormous objects at Gobekli Tepe. Such engineering required technical and organizational skills that were unusual at the time.
The excavated area comprises a cluster of stone circles, each surrounded by a high wall intersected by pillars.
The circles are arranged in the same pattern. They are made of limestone columns in the shape of giant beams or a capital letter T. The columns have sharp edges.
In the center of the circles are two monolithic columns, five meters high, covered with mysterious reliefs depicting animal silhouettes.
It is believed that they had a symbolic role as guardians. The reliefs depict scorpions, charging boars or lions. The reliefs vary in style, some are quite simple, others carefully executed, sophisticated. Six stone troughs with a capacity of up to 160 liters were discovered within the temple walls. Sediment containing oxalates, which precipitates when water combines with cereal grains, was found at their bottom - perhaps prehistoric people brewed beer there. According to the Museum of Archeology and Mosaics director in Sanliurfa, such architecture and symbols cannot be seen in any other place.
Neolithic hunter-gatherer people appeared in Gobekli Tepe about 11,500 years ago.
These people nomadized in small tribal groups that subsisted by gathering plants and hunting. To build such a structure, neolithic people would have to gather in large numbers there. The builders of Gobekli Tepe were able to hew and sculpt boulders weighing about 16 tons and transport them over a distance of hundreds of meters - without wheeled vehicles or draft animals.
It seems that individual circles, for reasons unexplained, periodically lost their power and attractiveness and were replenished.
A new circle, a smaller one, was established within the first or even a third circle within the second. Eventually, the whole set of circles was filled, and a new ring of circles had to be built nearby.
The earliest constructed circles were the largest and technically and artistically sound.
With time the subsequent constructions erected on Gobekli Tepe were of lower quality. The columns were smaller, simpler, and erected with less and less care.
Around 8200 BC, work at Gobekli Tepe stopped, and the site fell into decay.
Archaeologists found no traces of the inhabitants there (hearths, houses, graves), only thousands of gazelle and tortoise bones, which the builders must have eaten. It seems to have been a place of some cult, a ceremonial center.
We do not know what the social organization and hierarchy were in those times, but it seems that such a large enterprise had to be supervised by someone.
No traces of living quarters for the elite have been found, no graves with luxury goods, and no traces indicating differences in food quality.
Professor Klaus Schmidt was sure that Gobekli Tepe was a temple where ritual ceremonies took place.
The Italian astrophysicist Giulio Magliego claims that the temple practiced worship of Sirius, the brightest and one of the nearest stars in the southern sky, located in the constellation Canis Major. It is indicated by the construction of rings of stone pillars, through which the position of Sirius could be determined.
According to other researchers, there was no organized community and religion in the Neolithic world.
There was no separation between the sacred and the profane, and therefore one cannot speak of a temple in the modern sense of the word. Professor Schmidt assumes, however, that in the case of Gobekli Tepe an organized religion may have arisen before the invention of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. Gatherers began to establish settlements - a grouping of houses with hundreds of inhabitants - so that together they could more easily obtain food and protect themselves from the dangers of the outside world. Religion emerged to relieve the tensions that arose when hunter-gatherers settled down and formed large communities.
One of the latest theories claims that groups of hunter-gatherers gathered in Gobekli Tepe when the wild grains were ripening.
They built new temple elements (circles) during the harvest and prayed. When all goods were collected, people dispersed, taking the harvested goods to their settlements.
In 2018, Gobekli Tepe was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The year 2019 has been declared the "Year of Gobekli Tepe" in Turkey. Turkish authorities want to encourage tourists to visit this special place of human history. The war in nearby Syria and the refugee problem have strongly discouraged people from visiting this part of Turkey.