Göbekli Tepe

Unknown origins

What is thought to be the oldest temple in the world, dating back 11,500 years to around 9,600BC, was only awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2018, despite being first discovered in 1963. It was later rediscovered in 1994 by German archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt, who began excavations and realised they had only scraped the very tip of the iceberg that is Göbekli Tepe. The year 2019 was declared the year of Göbekli Tepe by the Turkish government as part of a plan to bring awareness to this spectacular discovery.

Many questions still remain about this mysterious site, which is starting to draw adventure travellers to this lesser travelled part of Turkey. Situated six miles outside of Urfa, this off-the-beaten-track destination is estimated to span across at least 22 acres, with the majority still untouched. Today, a visitor’s centre has been set up to accommodate tours and an archaeological museum has opened in Urfa detailing how Göbekli Tepe is considered integral to the origins of civilisation.

What does ​Göbekli Tepe mean for human history?

Predating Stonehenge by over 6,000 years, Göbekli Tepe’s significant age contradicts everything that was previously known about the origins of modern civilisation. To put this in perspective, there is roughly the same time difference between the construction of Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge as there is between Stonehenge and today.

Civilisation was originally thought to have originated when the hunter-gatherers learned to farm and settle in communities, possibly driven to do so by environmental changes. Only after doing this would people have the time and resources to be able to organise complex social structures. However, after the discovery of Göbekli Tepe it is argued that it was in fact the other way around, that the coordinated effort used to build the temple laid the groundwork for societies to form.

The sophistication of the craftsmanship and intricate details of the sculptures carved into the pillars is thousands of years ahead of its time. In order to build such a monumental structure, the workers would need to have had a reliable food source. Could this mean that the building of Göbekli Tepe was at the dawn of agriculture? The video [to the right] is a short section from a longer documentary that explains the cultivation of a type of wheat found nearby, called Einkorn.

Religion and the stars

If it wasn’t a dramatic environmental change that drove people to settle, then what did? Archaeologists believe that the human need to worship something or someone was the seed from which civilisation bloomed. There is currently no evidence of permanent settlement at Göbekli Tepe, but it is thought to be a landmark place for people to meet - possibly a pilgrimage site for religious gatherings. Smaller circles of pillars have been found in surrounding areas with symbols and architecture dating back to a similar time, and so it is thought that Göbekli Tepe is the “cathedral” to the smaller “churches”. This could give us an insight into where religion started.

As well as a religious site, Göbekli Tepe could be considered an early astronomical observatory with the so-called “Vulture Stone” that is decorated with a range of animal symbols, appearing to represent the constellations. If the animals are the constellations and the circular shape is the sun, the stone becomes a date-stamp for when the sun and these constellations were aligned in the sky. Astronomers have calculated when this arrangement occurred in recent human history and one of the approximate years coincides with when the structure was thought to have been built and occupied.

It is also thought that the pictograms carved into another stone depicts a comet impact or meteor shower from 12,900 years ago that possibly caused the Younger Dryas global cooling period, though there is much debate over this theory.​


Meeting Dr. Schmidt

When archaeologist Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul was called out to investigate some strange stones found by a wandering shepherd in Eastern Turkey in 1994, he quickly realised that he was dealing with something of immense importance. He also realised that if he did not turn and walk away at that very moment, he would spend the rest of his life amongst the incredible stones of Göbekli Tepe. Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe, and it has been decided to take things very slowly for fear of damaging the site in rushing to find the ancient truth of this special place, as many archaeologists have done at other important sites.

In the early days of the excavation, before Schmidt sadly passed in 2014, tour groups visiting the site would often see him leading a group of locals and students in the dig. He was kind enough to speak to a Travel The Unknown tour in 2012 about how he got involved in Neolithic sites like this one.

Read more about Travel The Unknown's trip here

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Ancient Anatolia & Eastern Turkey

Culture | Archaeology | Silk Road

Tread on antique footsteps through Central and Eastern Anatolia

£3,695 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
14 days
2024: 23 March, 20 April, 07 September
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