On Visiting Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe stands on the top of a high limestone hill in the bleak countryside near the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, or more commonly Urfa, in South Eastern Turkey, 40km from the Syrian border. Situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates, it lies roughly in the middle of the “fertile crescent” – though the immediate countryside does not present the appearance of much fertility, a topic I’ll come back to in a later post. It is the oldest built temple that we know of. Dating from the very beginning of the Neolithic, about 11,500 years ago, the people who built it were hunter-gatherers who had neither pottery, agriculture, or animal husbandry. By the time they left the site, perhaps 2000 years later, all three of these practices were in place, and humans had embarked on the path that would lead to civilisation.

It has been partly excavated by teams of German and Turkish archaeologists for the last 16 years or so. Only a small portion of the site has been excavated so far. What has been revealed by these excavations is staggering: A series of stone circles (four have been excavated and there may be as many as twenty more underground) dominated by large, sometimes elaborately carved, T-shaped stone pillars or monoliths, up to 5m tall.

These stone circles are in an excellent state of preservation because, for unknown reasons, the builders of Göbekli Tepe covered the entire site over with hundreds of tons of mixed rubble before departing. For 9 500-odd years nothing was exposed to the weather, nothing was plundered for building material or turned over by the plough. This means that, paradoxically, its stones are better preserved than those of some much more recent sites elsewhere – even Roman or Byzantine.

We visited in December 2012. Unless they are locals, visitors to Göbekli Tepe are investing considerable resources in getting there. But they’re likely to be disappointed unless they have made a parallel journey of knowledge. In other words, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you might not see anything much.

In prospect, the site is awesome – one learns about it from articles on the internet, most of which point back to an article in National Geographic, where huge stone monoliths loom over the camera, which comes close to the dramatically-lit stone carvings.

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A view of Gobekli Tepe from the National Geographic article.

Who wouldn’t want to stand in the oldest built room, surrounded by pillars that are clearly also beings, and re-experience the spatial dimension of what the builders of the place experience? Well, you can’t. And it’s not that simple anyway.

For perfectly good reasons to do with conservation, the stone circles are not directly accessible to the public. One can see, beyond the excavation on the stone plateau, the initials and graffiti left by contemporary visitors. Other reasons are architectural. The people of 11500 years ago weren’t really great architects, and their structural methods were simplistic, even though their masonry was not crude. The structures revealed by removing the rubble are not stable, the stone pillars standing precariously in their prepared slots in the floor, some having toppled over. The public simply should not go in there.

So we look down on the structures from boardwalks erected around the pits of the excavations. In the winter, some of the pillars are covered with wooden boxes – seemingly to protect them from the weather.

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Stone circle with boxed pillars: Göbekli Tepe

There is no dramatic lighting. Everything is wet or drying out – there has been recent winter rain.

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Boardwalk above the Gobekli Tepe excavation.

Many of the pillars, down at foot level, need help to stay upright.

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The pillars were slotted into keyhole slots in the stone base, and I winced to see how almost-aligned this pillar is. You’ll have to click on the picture to see it. The scaffolding is clearly necessary, but visually intrusive. You can see the rubble exposed in section. In the cut-away hillside in the background shows more, and patches that may indicate structures rather than random stones.

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Pillar base carved into bedrock: Göbekli Tepe.

I felt great sympathy for the archaeologists involved in the dig. Basically, everything is an artefact, deliberately put there – the whole of the Gobekli Tepe mound having been put there by people. So some of the artefacts – stone pillars, walls, floors – needs must be privileged, while others – fist-sized rocks of the local limestone, bones of birds and animals, needs to be carefully sifted, labelled and put aside in order to expose the structure: the walls, seats, floors and circles or ovals of pillars that are exposed.

The rubble blurs things. It appears that the entire site was subject to continuous or intermittent deposition of rubble. People kept bringing it in, either at a fairly steady pace or in surges, as, say, to bury a particular stone circle. This means that circles were built on the site on top of one another as the rubble got higher. It presents considerable problems to the excavator. To get at the lower strata, one would have to destroy the equally interesting upper layers.

Nobody knows why any of this stuff was done, nor what the meaning of the stone pillars may be, nor do we have any idea at all what the people who built the stone circles were thinking. Anyone who says otherwise should be taken with the utmost scepticism, especially if they are promoting an agenda.

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Pillars at Göbekli Tepe in their winter warmers

These things are huge and impressive but they are diminished by perspective and the fact that you are looking down on them. I surmise that much of purpose of the labour of cutting and transporting the stones to the site was to give the intended viewer something seriously big to look up to.

It all sounds a little disappointing, but it wasn’t. In my next post I’ll write about why.

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