Göbeklitepe, the world’s oldest temple, is around 12,000 years old. It was built by hunter-gatherers in the pre-pottery Neolithic period, before writing and the wheel were invented. Göbeklitepe has rewritten the history of human civilization.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2018, the site began to attract travelers and history enthusiasts from all over the world. The Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture designated 2019 as the Year of Göbeklitepe with over a million visitors expected.
As such, Göbeklitepe is the most important archaeological site in the world. It is a small hill on the horizon, 9.5 miles (15 kilometers) northwest of the town of Urfa in Southern Anatolia. Called “the town of prophets” Urfa has been linked with the biblical Abraham (some claim that Urfa was the town of Ur mentioned in the Bible) and was known to have hosted the Holy Mandylion.
Once also known as Edessa, Urfa is on the edge of the rainy area of the Taurus Mountains , source of the river that runs through the town and joins the Euphrates. Urfa was (and still is) an oasis, which could explain why Göbeklitepe was built nearby.
A life-sized limestone statue found in Urfa, at the pond known as Balikli Göl, has been carbon-dated to 10,000 – 9,000 BC, making it the earliest known stone sculpture ever found. Its eyes are made of obsidian.
Some believe that Göbeklitepe was a major step in the evolution of religion and the human connection with God – that it marks the beginning of civilization and might be the root of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Göbeklitepe is a vast collection of stone structures built by Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Construction started about 12 millennia ago and continued for approximately 2,000 years.
T-Shaped Pillars Symbolizing Humans Found at Göbeklitepe
A typical structure consists of a circle of standing pillars built from stones up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) tall. These pillars each weighed as much as 20 tons (9.1 quintals) and each was carved out of a solid block of granite. They were pried out and moved a few hundred feet using only wooden levers.
The pillars were then erected vertically into a base that had been carved into the bedrock. Some researchers estimate this would have required many clans to come together – perhaps 500 people at a time – to both build and feed the builders.
Each circle is about 30 feet (9.1 meters) in diameter. One circle has 12 stones spaced around its perimeter and two stones in the middle. Only a few of these circles have been excavated so far and the site is already massive. Every circle has two massive T-shaped pillars at the center of the circle.
The T-shaped pillars at Göbeklitepe. ( muratart / Adobe Stock)
Piled up stones serve as a wall to make this circle an enclosure. Smaller pillars surround the area. Some think these T-shaped pillars once held up a thatched roof or other material; others believe they symbolize humans. This is what I also believe that the builders of Göbeklitepe wanted to attract the attention of the gods , above the stars, in order to interact with them.
Most of the pillar carvings are of animals. But there are also the ones that are anthropomorphic or in the shape of a human. This was a project similar to building the pyramids of Egypt. But building with stones that weigh tons began here in Göbeklitepe, long before Egypt or England with Stonehenge.
What Was the Reason Beyond…
Why was this huge project built?
One thing is clear to the excavators — this site was not a place to live. There is no sign of food storage or farming and it has no evident purpose. Its mission must purely be a religious one. It has been declared the oldest known structure built as a temple.
My point of view for the mysterious Göbeklitepe, which harbors many secrets, is as follows:
One of the most important changes in the history of humanity was taking place in the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris about 12,000 years ago. Humankind was just beginning to move from the forager lifestyle to a settled way of living – from hunting and gathering to farming and production.
This transition period took maybe a few centuries or even a millennium. Initially they witnessed a seed from a fruit turning into a crop, emerging from the earth and blooming as a process of rebirth! This might have been the reason for them to start burying their dead and hoping for a rebirth in due time.
Various types of gods with supernatural powers were interrupting their daily life with climate changes and natural disasters. And there was one thing they were sure of: that they must please the gods, behaving as the gods wished them to behave.
In order to save the lives of their loved ones – to see their deceased family members re-born – and in order to start farming, men believed that they must come to terms with all gods.
They thought that they needed the approval of supernatural powers to shift to a settled life and start farming. When would it rain, when would it storm or hail, or turn everything upside down with earthquakes? Would the sun god, moon god, or other gods, which seemed sometimes to punish men and make them afraid, allow them to farm, to cultivate and harvest?
Seeking the Permission of Gods for Farming
Men tried to placate the gods to avoid their anger and to keep them satisfied. As the gods punished them with natural disasters , taking many lives when they became angry, men sought a way to mollify the gods, killing some of their own to ward off the gods’ rage, thinking that the gods were satisfied when these people or animals were sacrificed.
Did they need to obtain the gods’ permission for farming when moving toward permanent settlements? Would they be able to satisfy the gods and harvest the crops if they sacrificed animals and humans – the youngest and most beautiful ones – in rituals and ceremonies?
Perhaps the temples of Göbeklitepe were temples for sacrificial rituals that were created as a result of these ideas! Who knows, maybe this was really so…
Maybe the animal and human bones, catching our eyes among the finds, and beer or wine jugs – possibly used in rituals – do tell us about this, who knows? Whatever the truth, Göbeklitepe temples, whose secrets have not yet been completely discovered, are rewriting the history of humanity.
Ancient site of Göbeklitepe in Turkey, the oldest temple in the world. (Teomancimit / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Bribing the Gods!
Human sacrifice was practiced by many ancient cultures. People would be ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease a god or spirit. Droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. were seen as a sign of anger or displeasure by deities, and sacrifices were supposed to lessen the divine ire.
The people of those prehistoric times, who wanted to start a settled life with farming, believed they had to ask for the gods’ permission by sacrificing some of their loved ones. Sacrifice meant that man made a gift to the gods and expected a gift in return. They cut off human heads, defleshed and cleaned the skulls, and hung them at an angle to face the gods.
They wanted the gods to see the huge, human-like pillars first, then the sacrificed humans, especially the young and beautiful ones – and thus be appeased, granting permission for settlement and farming under decent natural conditions, no storm or hail but abundant rain and sunshine… Elucidating what the gods wanted was the secret.
Human sacrifice is not just a ritual act designed to pacify the gods, divine the future, or bring luck and prosperity to those offering the sacrifice. Human sacrifice requires the exchange of a life – willingly or not – in return for supernatural assistance or for a greater cause. And at these temples other, inanimate offerings were also made.
A remarkable find was a limestone statue, referred to as the ‘gift bearer’, a kneeling figure carrying a human head in its hands, the eyes and nose of which are discernible.
Building D pillar. Image of the ‘Gift Bearer’ at Göbeklitepe. (Image: German Archaelogical Institute – DAI / Author Provided)
Many Bones But No Burials at Göbeklitepe
A considerable number of fragmented human bones have been recovered but the evidence of human burials is absent from Göbeklitepe. One explanation is that this particular variation of decapitation and skull modification was connected to activities specific to the Göbeklitepe site.
It is the oldest site where carved skulls have been found and fragments of three modified human skulls have recently been discovered at Göbeklitepe. Skull carvings are the result of multiple cutting actions, not related to defleshing or scalping, as defleshing must be accompanied by other types of cutting marks on the skulls, and scalping can be ruled out on the basis of the absence of typical markers.
All skulls found at the site carry intentional deep incisions along their sagittal axes. In one of these cases, a drilled perforation is also attested. These findings are outstanding because they provide the very first osteological evidence of sacrificial ritual.
Because no signs of healing could be detected, modifications were probably performed shortly after death, which is a robust clue for us to believe that sacrifice was the case. Skulls were carved no earlier than the perimortem stage; this observation is confirmed by microscopic analyses: cut marks are characterized by sharp edges, meaning that the bone was cut when still elastic, that is, at an early state of decay.
Another outstanding feature of one of the skulls found is the drilled perforation in the left parietal, the position of which was carefully chosen so that the skull might hang vertically and face forward, looking at the gods, when suspended. Drilled perforation at the top of the cranium is used to suspend the skull with a cord. Carvings were used for stabilization purposes, preventing the cord from slipping.
One of the 3 skulls found belonged to an individual, 25 to 40 years of age, who was more likely female than male. These pieces of evidence have culminated in the interpretation of Göbeklitepe as a sacrificial ritual center of early hunter-gatherer groups living around Southeast Anatolia.
The people who gathered at these temples were not permanently living in that area and they wanted the temples to stay safe until their next visit. It has been discovered that these temples were hidden by the builders under soil, to protect them until the next sacrificial ceremony – maybe till the next harvest season!
According to a recent study the ancestors of the people who built Stonehenge traveled west across the Mediterranean before reaching Britain. Researchers in London compared DNA extracted from Neolithic human remains found in Britain with that of people alive at the same time in Europe.
The Neolithic inhabitants appear to have traveled from Anatolia (modern Turkey) to Iberia before winding their way north. Maybe the recently discovered Dolmen de Guadalperal ( so called the Spanish Stonehenge) at the Valdecanas Reservoir in Spain – which is also believed to be a place where religious rituals were performed – is another example that had been created by the people that traveled from Göbeklitepe to Stonehenge.
They reached Britain in about 4,000 BC. Pieces of human bones in soil from niches behind the stone pillars at the site, like those discovered in Göbeklitepe, and the vast amount of animal bone discovered at the site, suggest that ritual sacrifice regularly took place here.
There is perhaps a parallel here with the much later site at Durrington Walls, close to Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. Dating to around 2,600 BC, Durrington Walls was a huge ritual timber circle where enormous amounts of animal bone, primarily from pigs and cattle, were discovered.
So, maybe all these temples were the sites of sacrifices to please the gods and seek their permission… and this was how mankind was trying to move from ‘hunting and gathering’ to ‘farming and production’.