Göbekli Tepe, Early Cult Center in Turkey

Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh and meaning roughly "Potbelly Hill") is a remarkably early, completely human-built cultic center, first used by residents of the Fertile Crescent in Turkey and Syria some 11,600 years ago. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic (abbreviated PPN) site is located on the top of a limestone ridge (2600 feet or 800 meters above sea level) in the Harran Plain of southeastern Anatolia, in the southern Euphrates river drainage approximately 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of the city of Sanliurfa, Turkey. It is an enormous site, with accumulated deposits of up to 20 meters (~65 feet) high within an area of approximately 22 acres (or 9 hectares).

The site overlooks the Harran Plain, the springs at Sanliurfa, the Taurus mountains and the Karaca Dag mountains: all of these areas were important to Neolithic cultures, cultures who would within a thousand years begin to domesticate many of the plants and animals that we rely on today. Between 9500 and 8100 calendar years ago (cal BC), two major building episodes occurred at the site (roughly assigned to PPNA and PPNB); the earlier buildings were purposefully buried before the later buildings were constructed.

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Gobekli Tepe: Background and Context

Gobekli Tepe - Overview of the Site Excavations in Turkey
Gobekli Tepe - Overview of the Site Excavations in Turkey. rolfcosar

The June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine featured Göbekli Tepe, including The Birth of Religion, written by science writer Charles Mann and numerous photographs by Vincent Muni. This photo essay includes information derived from recent archaeological studies at the site, and is intended as archaeology-heavy context to Mann's article. A bibliography is provided at the end. Mann's article includes an interview with excavator Klaus Schmidt and a discussion of V.G. Childe's role in understanding Göbekli.

Alternative Interpretations

A 2011 article in Current Anthropology written by E.B. Banning, countered Klaus's argument, insisting that Gobekli was not simply a cultic center. Since that time, 

Banning EB. 2011. So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East. Current Anthropology 52(5):619-660. Commentary from Peter Akkermans, Douglas Baird, Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen, Harald Hauptmann, Ian Hodder, Ian Kuijt, Lynn Meskell, Mehmet Özdogan, Michael Rosenberg, Marc Verhoeven and a reply from Banning.

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Architecture at Göbekli Tepe

Pre-Pottery Neolithic Cult Enclosure at Gobekli Tepe
It's likely no one lived at Göbekli Tepe, a religious sanctuary built by hunter-gatherers. Scientists have excavated less than a tenth of the site—enough to convey the awe it must have inspired 7,000 years before Stonehenge. Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic

In 1995, Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) began excavating Göbekli Tepe. Since his death in 2014, research has continued, and so far they have discovered eight four circular enclosures, built during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period. A geomagnetic survey in 2003 identified perhaps as many as sixteen more round or oval enclosures at the site.

The earliest buildings at Göbekli Tepe were circular rooms each with a diameter of over 65 ft (20 m) and constructed of stone quarried from nearby sources. The buildings are made up of a mortared stone wall or bench, interrupted by 12 stone pillars each 10–16 ft (3–5 m) high and weighing up to 10 tons each. The pillars are T-shaped, pecked out of a single stone; some of the surfaces are carefully smoothed. Some have pockmarks on the top.

Differences between the four PPNA enclosures have been identified, and the excavators believe that Göbekli Tepe was used by four different cultural groups: the building form and overall design of each group are the same, but the iconography is different in each one.

Alternative Explanations

In his Current Anthropology article, Banning points out that the main argument that these buildings are cultic structures are that they lacked roofs. If indeed these buildings lacked covering, that would make them unsuitable for being lived in: but Banning believes that the T-Top pillars were roof supports. If the terrazzo floors had been exposed to the weather, they would not be as well-preserved as they are currently. Plant remains recovered from Göbekli Tepe also hint at roof coverings, including the charcoal of ash, oak, poplar, and almond, all of which grow sufficiently large enough to be used as crossbeams for roofs.

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Gobekli Tepe in Context

Gobekli Tepe and Other Pre-Pottery Neolithic Sites in Turkey and Syria
Gobekli Tepe and Other Pre-Pottery Neolithic Sites in Turkey and Syria. Kris Hirst. Base map: CIA 2004, site data from Peters 2004 and Willcox 2005. 2011

Cult Buildings in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic

Cult buildings in the Fertile Crescent are known from several sites assigned to the PPNA: for example Hallan Çemi, dated to the last few centuries of the 9th millennium BC (uncalibrated) has two rooms built into a settlement and mixed in with domestic buildings. These stone-built circular rooms contained sheep and auroch skulls, along with special constructions such as stone benches. Jerf el-Ahmar, Tell 'Abr 3 and Mureybet in Syria also have round, stone-built buildings or rooms with auroch skulls and benches, again as part of a larger settlement. These structures were generally shared by the entire community; but some were clearly symbolically and geographically set aside, at the edges of the residential communities.

By the late PPNA period, when Göbekli Tepe was built, more sites such as Nevali Çori, Çayönü Tepesi and Dja'de el-Mughara had created ritual structures in their living communities, structures that had similar characteristics: semi-subterranean construction, massive stone benches, labor-intensive floor preparation (terrazzo-mosaic or tile-paved floors), colored plaster, engraved pictures and reliefs, monolithic stelae, decorated pillars and sculptured objects, and a channel built into the floor. Some features in the buildings were found to contain human and animal blood; none of them contained evidence of everyday living.

By contrast, Göbekli Tepe was apparently only used as a ritual center: at one point domestic rubbish was used as fill to bury the PPNA structures, but otherwise there is no evidence that people lived here. Göbekli Tepe was a mountain sanctuary; the rooms are larger, more complex and more varied in the planning and design than cult rooms at PPN settlements.

Banning's Interpretation

In his 2011 article in Current Anthropology, Banning argues that what have been considered "ordinary houses" found throughout the PPN share some characteristics with "cultic houses," in that that they also have subfloor burials and human skulls placed on pedestals. Some evidence exists for polychrome paintings and colored plaster (preservation of these elements is generally poor). Caches of groupings of cattle scapula and skulls have been found; other caches which turn up in "ordinary houses" include celts and grinders, bladelets and figurines. Some houses appear to have been ritually burned. Banning isn't arguing that there is no sacred connotation to any of the buildings: he believes that the dichotomy of "sacred/mundane" is arbitrary and should be reconsidered.

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Animal Carvings at Gobekli Tepe

T-Top Pillar at Gobekli Tepe
This T-Top pillar has a relief sculpture of a reptile carved onto it. Erkcan

On the faces of many of the T-Top pillars are relief carvings representing a wide variety of animals: foxes, wild boars, gazelles, cranes. Occasionally the lower portions of the pillars are illustrated with a pair of arms and hands. Some abstract parallel grooves are seen on some lower portions as well, and the excavators suggest that these lines represent stylized clothing. Some of the scholars looking at the pillars think that they represent some kind of deity or shaman.

In the center of each of the enclosures are two free-standing huge monoliths, up to 18 meters tall, better shaped and decorated than the wall pillars. The image on the next page is of one of those monoliths.

If it was shared, and that seems to be the case, Göbekli Tepe is evidence of broad-based links between communities throughout the Fertile Crescent as long ago as 11,600 years.

Alternative Explanations

Banning's Current Anthropology article argues that the relief carvings on pillars have also been found at other PPN sites, albeit in less frequency, at "ordinary houses". Some of the pillars at Gobekli do not have carvings, either. Further, at Level IIB at Gobekli, there are unassuming ovoid structures that are more similar to early buildings at Hallan Cemi and Cayonu. They're not well-preserved, and Schmidt hasn't described them in detail, but Banning argues that these represent residential structures. Banning wonders if carving wasn't necessarily done at the time of building erection, but rather accumulated over time: thus, multiple carvings might mean the structures were used for a longer period of time, rather than particularly special.

Banning also argues that there is ample evidence for residential structures in the fill within the buildings. The fill includes flint, bones, and plant remains, all of which could surely be debris from some level of residential activities. The location of the site on top of a hill with the closest water source at the foot of that hill is inconvenient; but doesn't exclude residential activities: and during the occupation period, the more humid climate would have had water distribution patterns significantly different from those of today.

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Interpreting Göbekli Tepe

Pillars at Göbekli Tepe
Pillars at the temple of Göbekli Tepe—11,600 years old and up to 18 feet tall—may represent priestly dancers at a gathering. Note the hands above the loincloth-draped belt on the figure in the foreground. Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic

The four cultic enclosures excavated so far are similar: they are all circular or oval, they all have twelve T-shaped pillars and two monolithic pillars, they all have a prepared floor. But the animals featured in the reliefs are different, suggesting to Schmidt and colleagues that they may represent people from different settlements who all shared the use of Gobekli Tepe. Certainly, the construction project would have required a sustained labor force to quarry, work and place the stones.

In a 2004 paper, Joris Peters and Klaus Schmidt argued that the animal images might be clues to the home communities of their makers. Structure A has zoomorphic reliefs dominated by snakes, aurochs, fox, crane, and wild sheep: all but the sheep were known as important economic resources at the Syrian sites of Jerf el Ahmar, Tell Mureybet and Tell Cheikh Hassan. Structure B has mostly foxes, which were important to the northern Fertile Crescent, but are also still found throughout the region. Structure C is dominated by wild boar images, suggesting the makers might have come from the central Anti-Taurus to the north, where wild boar are generally found. At Structure D, fox and snake dominate, but there are also crane, aurochs, gazelle, and ass; could this be a reference to watercourses along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers?

Eventually, the oval structures at Göbekli Tepe were abandoned and purposely filled in with refuse, and a new set of rectangular enclosures were built, not as well made, and with smaller pillars. It's interesting to speculate about what might have occurred to cause that.

One thing to remember about Göbekli Tepe's architecture is that it was constructed by hunter-gatherers, ancestors by a few generations of the people who would invent farming. Several of their residential settlements have been discovered along the Euphrates river not far from Gobekli. Food remains from Göbekli and other sites in the vicinity suggest they ate pistachios, almonds, peas, wild barley, wild einkorn wheat and lentils; and fox, Asiatic wild ass, wild boar, aurochs, goitered gazelle, wild sheep, and Cape hare. The descendants of the makers of Göbekli would domesticate many of these animals and plants.

Göbekli's importance is as the earliest human-built cult structures in the world, and I'm eagerly waiting to see what the next decades of research show us.

An Alternative Viewpoint

See the terrific discussion in Current Anthropology, written by E.B. Banning, and a raft of scholars who responded to his article.

Banning EB. 2011. So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East. Current Anthropology 52(5):619-660. Commentary from Peter Akkermans, Douglas Baird, Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen, Harald Hauptmann, Ian Hodder, Ian Kuijt, Lynn Meskell, Mehmet Özdogan, Michael Rosenberg, Marc Verhoeven and a reply from Banning.

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Bibliography for Göbekli Tepe

June 2011 Cover of National Geographic Magazine Showing Gobekli Tepe
June 2011 Cover of National Geographic Magazine Showing Gobekli Tepe. Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic

Göbekli Tepe was first discovered by Peter Benedict during the Joint Istanbul-Chicago Survey of the 1960s, although he did not recognize its complexity and thus its importance. In 1994, Klaus Schmidt now of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) began excavations and the rest is history. Since that time, extensive excavations have been conducted by the members of the Museum of Sanliurfa and the DAI.

This photo essay was written as context for Charles Mann's feature article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic, and the wonderful photography of Vincent J. Musi. Available on news stands on May 30, 2011, the issue includes far more photographs and Mann's article, which includes an interview with excavator Klaus Schmidt.