Gobekli Tepe – History and Significance
For centuries, archeologists and historians alike reasoned that the origins of human civilization and settlement communities started primarily with the birth of agriculture and animal husbandry. However, this idea got reviewed upon the discovery of massive T-shaped pillars that were arranged in a circular manner at a site called “Göbekli Tepe” (Turkish for “hills on a navel” or “Potbelly Hill”).
Considering how marvelous and enormous the pillars of Göbekli Tepe are, the question on everyone’s minds is that: how on earth did a culture – a culture that predates the invention of the wheel, pottery and writing – construct Gobekli Tepe? And exactly how old is the site? Besides, what was Göbekli Tepe used for by Stone Age men? Answers to these questions about Göbekli Tepe have been comprehensively answered below.
What is Göbekli Tepe?
Gobekli Tepe is an enormous, prehistoric temple located in Turkey. The complex was constructed in circular format with a number of stones. And on these stone pillars are the carvings of several animals such as vultures, lions, ducks, scorpions, etc.
Archaeologists have estimated that some of those stones weigh up to a whopping 10-16 tons. That is pretty impressive considering the fact that it was constructed by prehistoric humans.
Built by an incredibly religious set of hunter-gatherers, Göbekli Tepe holds the singular honor of being the world’s oldest known temple.
When and where was it discovered?
The sheer age and size of Gobekli Tepe is absolutely mind boggling. This is exactly the reason why the discovery of it in 1994 changed everything that we know about prehistoric civilizations.
The discovery was made close to Orencik Village. This site is about 22 km from Şanlıurfa, which is in turn is located in the multicultural southeastern part of Turkey.
Archeologists and scholars know for a fact that as at the time that the temple was being put up, humans did not even have agriculture. In fact, the construction of the temple is what actually gave rise to agriculture. The culture back then was basically a hunter-gatherer one – a pre-agricultural society. They must have lived in slightly organized communities, conducting their daily activities with tools made out of stones, and their way of life would have been slightly different from any known agrarian historical communities.
Who discovered Gobekli Tepe?
The discovery was made 1994 by a German archaeologist named Klaus Schmidt (from the German Archeological Institute in Istanbul). At first sighting of the site, Klaus knew that he was on to something big – a kind of discovery that would rival momentous ones like the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.
Prior to the German archeologist embarking on what can only be termed as the discovery of the century, a group of archaeologists from the University of Chicago and Istanbul in the 1960s scratched the surface of the site. However, they thought little about it by quickly relegating it to some Dark Ages burial ground. The archaeologists simply disregarded it. Thankfully, three decades later, Klaus Schmidt did the exact opposite by digging farther.
When was Gobekli Tepe Built?
If you thought the pyramids built by the ancient Egyptians are old, wait until you hear how old Gobekli Tepe is. Many estimates from Radiocarbon dating put the construction date of this temple round about the 10th or 11th millennia BCE. At the age of 12,000 years, Gobekli Tepe makes the Great Pyramid of Giza look like a futuristic construction. The Stonehenge, which was built around 3000 BCE, is at least 7000 years younger than Gobekli Tepe.
As at the time that Gobekli Tepe was constructed, humans had yet to invent writing. It would take us (that is the Mesopotamians – the Sumerians) about 9,000 years before we invented the first form of writing – the Cuneiform Writing. Our generation today is much closer to ancient Mesopotamia than Gobekli Tepe is to the Mesopotamians.
The above lead us to next question: How on earth did a prehistoric civilization from about 12,000 years ago manage to put up such massive architectural complex?
How was Göbekli Tepe Constructed?
With obelisks and pillars of about 18 feet tall and weighing 16 tons (in some cases 40 tons), the hunters and gatherers must have required a lot of manpower to put up the Gobekli Tepe.
Another mind boggling thing is the fact that the wheel was not invented by then. Therefore, carrying those pillars would have needed a whole lot of organization and human resources.
To this day, archeologists cannot confidently put a finger on how those stone pillars were carried to the site. Bearing in mind that those workers only had stone tools at their disposal, we cannot help but revel in the sheer magnificence of those structures.
Why was it built?
The archeologist who discovered the site, Klaus Schmidt, proposes that Gobekli Tepe was built primarily as a religious temple. Schmidt believes that the lack of any household items and dwelling on site supports this claim. So far, the consensus is that the nomadic hunter-gatherers used the place as some sort of religious burial grounds, perhaps to offer sacrifices or prayers to their gods.
It is also likely that this cult for dead was a famous meeting place where feasts and religious celebrations took place. For example, the marks on the animal remains at the site suggest that these people ate hunted wild animals such as boar and gazelles. They also survived by feasting on sheep, red deer, ducks, and cranes.
Owing to their hunter-gathering lifestyle, they did not rear any of those wild animals. And perhaps those animals or their bones were used during their religious rituals.
Archeologists also discovered big stone jars – jars capable of storing some form of liquid (up to 40 gallons), intoxicating liquid perhaps. Therefore, one might not be wrong to suggest that this nomadic prehistoric culture must have had quite huge feats with lots of drinking and merry making.
What was its significance?
Another possible usage of the place might have been as a pilgrimage site. Some archeologists suggest that Gobekli Tepe was perhaps the most famous destination for pilgrims from surrounding areas, as well as from places across present-day Syria, Iraq and Iran. Schmidt believes that prehistoric and pre-dynastic dwellers from Egypt most likely visited the site to conduct a host of religious rituals. These prehistoric societies would most probable have engaged in one form of knowledge sharing or the other. Therefore, not only was Gobeklitepe a religious hub, it was also an epicenter for the dissemination of Stone Age cultural, scientific and architectural ideas.
The depiction of the gods with hands and arms got Schmidt thinking. The archeologist believes that Göbekli Tepe offers a rare glimpse into how the cave dwellers of the Stone Age perceived their gods. They must have viewed their gods as makers and doers, hence the apparent lack of faces or eyes on the images carved into the stones.
How Important is Gobekli Tepe today?
The significance of the discovery is huge. As a result of the discovery archeologist can now confidently say so many things about the beginning of human civilizations. The site offers a rich glimpse into how life was like during the Stone Age. Based on such insights, as well as more that are yet to come, we can now confidently say that beginning of human civilizations did not start with agriculture.
Gobekli Tepe shows us that we have for a long period gravely underestimated the capabilities of prehistoric men. Until its discovery, very few people would have had the idea that cave men were capable of organizing themselves into a primitive community and accomplish such massive architectural feat.
At the end of the day, Gobekli Tepe teaches us that spirituality lies deep in the genetic makeup of our being. It was spirituality that ultimately gave rise to the construction of religious temples, then primitive groups, then communities, and finally, well-functioning agriculture societies such as the ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
What are some peculiar features of Gobekli Tepe?
First and foremost, the site sits on a 1,000-foot diameter mound. Then, there are a number of monolithic pillars linked in a circular format by dry stone walls. This forms the oval structure of the complex. In the middle of the complex are two very large pillars.
The floors of the complex are believed to have been made from terrazzo, i.e. burnt lime. So are the T-shaped pillars. Those pillars are about 16 feet tall.
With regard to the artworks, the carvings on those pillars feature a number of animals such as vultures, foxes, lions, bulls, gazelles, scorpions, snakes, wild boars, etc. There are also bas reliefs of abstract shapes. Some of these shapes are faceless and eyeless images believed to be the gods of the people. Considering it was a religious site, the temple abounds with religious symbols that are still yet to be interpreted. For example, archeologists are scratching their heads as to what the naked women on the carvings symbolized.
Another interesting thing about Göbekli Tepe is that there is an abnormally large number of vulture carvings and skeletal remains of vultures. Why were these people so fascinated with vultures?
Why were there large depictions of vultures at Gobekli Tepe?
To begin, we must state emphatically that vulture depictions and carvings were quite common in many Anatolian cultural sites. Most notable site has to be the settlement at Çatal Höyük – built about 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE in south-central Turkey.
The fascination with vulture stems from the animal’s association with death and decay. One must remember that Gobekli Tepe was in fact a religious site – a site perhaps devoted to funerary activities and rituals. It makes so much sense for the people to select vultures as the predominant symbol of the place.
Some scholars believe that the people of those times would leave the dead bodies to the elements, as well as the attacks of vultures; and once the flesh had been consumed by the vultures, the skeletons were then buried at another site.
Why was it abandoned over the millennia?
There is no particular reason why the temple was abandoned over the millennia. However, the dominant view states that Gobekli Tepe fell into obscurity after several buildings sprang up close to the temple. The inhabitants most likely cut down the trees in the surrounding area. And with the invention of farming, the people may have started dumping waste on the site.
The complete disregard for the site was because the new inhabitants in the area probably outgrew the religious practices of their ancestors. A new religion must have sprung up and thereby led to the abandonment of Gobekli Tepe. Over the centuries debris and waste accumulated over the site, burying it deep beneath the earth. New structures were also built on top of the site.
The good thing is that the complex was submerged under a pile of dirt. Had that not occurred, the site would probably not have been preserved up to this day. Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to the ancient folks for dumping their waste and mud over the site!