Göbekli Tepe: Discovering the World’s Oldest Religious Site

By Matthew Strebe  

“This is the first human-built holy place,” Klaus Schmidt, the late director of excavation at Göbekli Tepe, once said of the ancient Anatolian site. It is a powerful statement, but belying the grandiose imagery is the reality on the ground.

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Called “Potbelly Hill” by locals for its gently sloping curves, the tawny promontory of Göbekli Tepe was a place of little note for thousands of years compared to its more illustrious neighbor, the city of Urfa. Believed by pious Muslims to be the Ur of the Chaldaeans and thus the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, the geography of Urfa is pregnant with Biblical imagery. A large fishpond serves as a refreshing gathering spot today, but in local lore, it is the place where King Nimrod attempted to burn Abraham on a pyre. His plan was foiled when God turned the fire to water and the coals to fish, and it is believed they remain in place as a reminder of this early miracle and a testament to the power of faith. Göbekli Tepe, by contrast, had been used for agriculture and the pasturing of sheep.

And yet, the tawny earth of the mountaintop has long concealed a secret far older than Urfa, Ur, Nimrod, or Abraham: a ritual site of monumental design, built 6,500 years before the Great Pyramids of Egypt saw their first dawn. From the top of the hill on down, monolithic T-shaped limestone pillars, of variable weight and up to 20 feet in height, were installed into and supported by building walls or inserted into stone pedestals in the ground and supported, perhaps by roofs. Each monolith is carved with reliefs that ranged from the earliest depiction of an individual human ever discovered to dangerous animals, such as carrion birds or jaguars, to pictograms and, perhaps, sacred symbols. Hundreds of them exist, though only five percent of the site has been excavated and much work remains to be done.

The majesty of the site lies not just in its age and complexity. In its refutation of the received wisdom on the origins of civilization, there may be found a new history more mysterious and exciting than that charted before. Before Göbekli Tepe’s significance was discovered, archaeologists believed that the social conditions that prevailed with the emergence of agriculture, namely the division of labor, hierarchical societies, and increasing urbanization, birthed the first religions, which existed in part to legitimize the social order and provide it with a suitable metaphysical foundation. Only then, with the settling effects of village life firmly in place, did the earliest civilizations begin to construct the first humble temples and, when their might waxed greater, the first massive temple complexes. Hunter-gatherers, by contrast, lacked the ability to construct anything much more complicated than a lean-to.

After Göbekli Tepe, however, that wisdom was shown to be, if not wrong, at least wrongheaded.

The transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic lifeways was actually much messier than earlier histories have argued, for the storage of goods and the practice of sedentism, the settled life of non-nomadic peoples, arose in the Epipaleolithic among the Natufian people circa 9,500 BC. Around the same time, circa 8,200 BC, genetic changes have been observed in crop plants indicating their domestication. All these new developments, pre-agricultural though characteristic of the agricultural revolution in nature, took place in the Levant during the construction of Göbekli Tepe, highlighting the ferment of innovation surrounding its rise.

The remarkably early date of Göbekli Tepe’s construction, before the mass advent of agriculture and in the liminal period between man’s condition as a hunter-gatherer and as a settled farmer, suggests that the social pressures of agricultural society did not provide the rationale for ritualistic practices. These new practices themselves provided the grounds for a pre-agricultural, hunter–gatherer culture to band together, divide their labor, procure a steady source of food, and erect a megalithic site of proportions so epic they would not be matched anywhere for several thousand years – all without the use of writing, advanced tools, or even the wheel.

History of the Site

Göbekli Tepe’s significance was not realized right away, for when a joint American–Turkish survey expedition arrived at the top in the 1960s, their discovery of worked limestone and flint artifacts did not arouse any suspicion of the site’s significance or antiquity. Although they recognized it as a pre-historic site, their subsequent field report offered no clues as to its monumental construction. That laid beneath the ground, awaiting discovery.

This was an advantageous state of affairs for the late Klaus Schmidt, the excavator and site director for the German Archaeological Institute’s project at Göbekli Tepe in collaboration with the Museum of Sanliurfa and the Turkish Ministry of Culture. After following the American team’s field notes to the top of the promontory, Schmidt recalls seeing what he deemed a Neolithic-era quarry and flint and limestone scattered everywhere. Instantly, he knew the value of what he saw. “In one minute – in one second – it was clear” he says. For 20 years, Schmidt dedicated his life to excavating the site in the quest to reveal its many hidden secrets.

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