The headline says: “Archaeologist Who Changed History Dies”…….. and now the story of Gobekli Tepe

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On July 20, 2014, Klaus Schmidt, a German archaeologist died at age 61.  He will be remembered as the archaeologist who literally changed the way the history has been interpreted.  He was heading one of the greatest archaeological digging in human history: Gobekli Tepe (means “hill with a belly” in Turkish).

I did not have a chance to visit Gobekli Tepe.  It has been on top of my list of places to see, but I did not manage to join a tour there. I just want to write briefly about this ancient place that raised many questions about human settlement, domestication,beer making (!), catastrophes that changed history, Adam & Eve, Garden of Eden, and religion. And this ancient place is about 7000 years older than the Great Pyramid in Egypt and the 6500 years before the Stonehenge in England, 6000 years before the creation of the writing, and 1000 years before the Walls of Jericho.

 gobekli 11 - CopyGobekli Tepe, Sanli Urfa Izmir (courtesy of Fatih Cakaci)

 gobekli 8 - CopyOnly 5% excavated Gobekli Tepe, Sanli (courtesy of Fatih Cakaci)

Since I have not visited this place, Fatih Cakaci, a great guide from HTR Travel in Cappadocia, lent me his photographs that he took when he visited Gobekli Tepe.  And he said “it is an unbelievable place. It is breathtaking.”   That is exactly what National Geographic Magazine, June 2011, writes: “…the visitors straggle up the hill.  When they reach the top, their mouths flop open with amazement, making a line of perfect cartoon O’s. Before them are dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next.” 

gobekli 7A circle of pillars, Gobekli Tepe, Sanli Urfa, Turkey (courtesy of Fatih Cakaci)

Now, I imagine what my reaction would be when I look at this marvelous and very important discovery:  Gobekli Tepe, a mere 10 miles away from the city of Sanli Urfa (very ancient city believed to be the Ur of Chaldeans where the Prophet Abraham was born), and a few miles away from the archaeological sites such as Gurcutepe that dates back to 8000 BCE, is the site for the oldest temple known to the mankind.  

And this temple is believed to be 12,000 years old, the oldest parts are from the 10000 BCE and the newest ones are from the 8600 BCE.  Imagine, stone age people were at this site for about 1400 years and kept building temple after temple, piled up on a heap as the centuries passed and formed this hill waiting to be excavated in 1996.  

Before Schmidt, there were other archaeologists that visited the site and assumed the site was a Byzantine burial grounds.  When Klaus Schmidt heard about this report and other findings of flint shards by a shepherd, he visited the site in 1994 and knew immediately (by the magnitude of the cut limestone pieces scattered around and the shaped flint stones), that he would be at this site for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, his life was cut very short.

Before Gobekli Tepe’s discovery, historians used to think that agriculture and domestication of animals started the settlements which then gave rise to cities and later to religion, art, and writing.   After his initial excavations, Klaus Schmidt started to believe that the neolithic revolution came as a result of the need to feed hundreds of hunter-gatherer people working to build such a great temple and thousands of hunter-gatherer people visiting the temple to worship year after year.  Locally available food sources including wild animals and wild grains probably got depleted quickly.  This forced people to be creative and start domesticating animals and wild grains (especially wheat and rye) which started the human settlement.

At a nearby archaeological site of a prehistoric village, Nevali Cori (now underwater due to a dam built in the area), a mere 20 miles away, genetic evidence of the world’s oldest domesticated strains of wheat were found which dates back to five centuries after Gobekli Tepe’s first temple construction.  

In short, the urge to worship started civilization.

The partial excavation (now about 5% of the 22 acres site) reveals dozens of pillars arranged into a set of rings. The pillars are carved from limestone and covered with bas-reliefs of animals – foxes, wolves, gazelles, hyena, snakes, boars, scorpions, arachnids, cranes, vultures, flamingos, and flightless birds. Some pillars reach 18 feet high and weigh 5 tons. It looked like every few decades, people either buried the existing rings and built new rings or they built smaller rings inside the existing rings.  As the centuries passed, the structures were built with less care and they were smaller. And by 8200 BCE, they stopped building and left the area.

gobekli 3Bas-relief figures on limestone pillars (courtesy of Fatih Cakici)

gobekli 1Gobekli Tepe  pillars around a circle (courtesy of Fatih Cakaci)

“This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,” says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk in Turkey, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. “You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.”” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2008. 

I will write more about Gobekli Tepe in the future. I probably just scratched the surface of what it is, I still have a lot to learn, such as the excavation of the oldest (about 12000 years old) life-size human statue found in Balikli Gol, near Gobekli Tepe, carved from limestone with obsidian eyes.

I will end this post with one more statement: There is evidence of beer brewing at Gobekli Tepe! (Tia Ghose, NBC News, December 31, 2012)


For detailed reading, I definitely recommend:

Stone Age Religion at Gobekli Tepe, by Karl W. Luckert and Klaus Schmidt, 2013.

Gobekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods, The Temple of the Watchers and the Discovery of Eden, by Andrew Collins, 2014.(Collins proposes that Gobekli Tepe was probably built after a global catastrophe of a large comet striking the earth triggering a mini ice age destroying lands and people around 10,900 BCE.)

Also visit: At Phillip Coppens website

The Sanctuary: The world’s oldest temple and the dawn of civilization, by Elif Batuman in The New Yorker Magazine, December 19, 2011

10000 BC Gobekli Tepe on Facebook



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2 thoughts on “The headline says: “Archaeologist Who Changed History Dies”…….. and now the story of Gobekli Tepe

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