In the cradle of civilization, the forsaken ruins of Göbekli Tepe are said to be the oldest temples ever uncovered in archaeological excavation. The timeworn tell that entombs these mysterious relics is situated within the fertile highlands of Turkey in the southeastern Anatolia region. Göbekli Tepe, which is Turkish for “Potbelly Hill”, is 7 miles away from the city of Şanlıurfa, and 2,490 ft above sea level.
Geophysical surveys have revealed 20 temples consisting of almost 200 pillars submerged around the dig site, 14 of which have yet to be liberated from the plateau. The 6 structures that have been unearthed resemble the antiquated designs of Stonehenge, yet predate it by 7000 years.
The German archaeologist known as Klaus Schmidt used an advanced carbon dating technique to ascertain the age of the temple complex, estimating its creation to have commenced around 10,000 BCE. This discovery established Göbekli Tepe as the earliest example of an erected megalith in human history.
There are four prominent layers of historical significance within the ceremonial grounds. Each layer represents a period of activity in the timeline of Göbekli Tepe’s creation.
The underlying plateau is believed to be where the construction of the complex began. The recumbent expanse is the supposed source for many of the formation’s architectural elements.
The evidence of neolithic quarrying is present at the southern part of the plateau, which exhibits four tremendous hollow channels that may have been the origin of the T-shaped, limestone pillars now prostrated throughout the ruins.
Layer III became the initial grounds through which the first circular compounds emerged between 9600 to 8800 BCE. These roofless rings of limestone ranged from 10 to 30 meters in diameter, each cluster containing two large pillars at the center of their enclosure. The two central pillars frequently displayed human arms carved into the lower half.
“The horizontal stone slab on top is thought by Schmidt to symbolize shoulders, which suggests that the figures were left headless. Whether they were intended to serve as surrogate worshippers, symbolize venerated ancestors, or represent supernatural, anthropomorphic beings is not known.”
To construct the first limestone pillars that ubiquitously lined these compounds, the ancient architects would have had to slowly chip away at the limestone with primitive flint tools and lift massive 50 ton slabs out of the bedrock, carrying them 100 meters (or 330 feet) to their new location. It is possible that the builders of Göbekli Tepe utilized a method of transportation unknown to modern civilization.
The majority of the limestone pillars displayed a vast array of symbolic pictograms holding untold spiritual significance. Among them were a pattern of carved animal reliefs, including depictions of bulls, birds, monkeys, foxes, snakes, insects, and arachnids. The relative placement of these glyphs seemed to express an unfolding narrative that was meant to be shared with future generations.
Over the next 1000 years, Layer II slowly materialized with the creation of new structures, retaining the traditional motif of the T-shaped pillar while trading out the circular open air installations for a rectangular, windowless design, speculated to make more efficient use of the space available on site. The continued presence of the T-shaped pillars lead archaeologists to believe that these new additions were used for the same purpose as their ancestors.
In 2010, a 1.92 meter pillar was discovered in Layer II resembling a North American totem pole. This archaic column featured 3 distinct tiers, but due to structural damage, only two figures have been interpreted; at the apex, a predator and beneath it, a human being.
In roughly 8000 BCE, Göbekli Tepe retired from its purpose as a ceremonial site, and was completely back-filled by the inhabitants of the region. All of the temples were deliberately buried under debris, stone tools, and animal bones. This paved the way for Layer I to emerge at the peak of Potbelly Hill. The function of the land during this period became exclusively agricultural, and its constant operation has caused gradual degradation of the ruins below.
The surviving structures of Göbekli Tepe precede the invention of writing, pottery, and the wheel. They stand as a testament to human ingenuity even in our intellectual infancy, yet also hint at the presence of something far more intelligent than humans.
Many answers about Göbekli Tepe will remain unclear until we have sufficiently advanced in our archaeological process. Until that time comes, we can only rely upon the 5% that has been excavated in order to provide an aperture into the prehistoric era that inspired this magnificent accomplishment.
K. Schmidt, “Göbekli Tepe—the Stone Age Sanctuaries: New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs,” Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII (2010), 239–256: https://web.archive.org/web/20120131114925/http://arheologija.ff.uni-lj.si/documenta/authors37/37_21.pdf