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Gobekli Tepe: Location, Facts & Reconstruction

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the fascinating archaeological site, Gobekli Tepe. Discovered only recently, Gobekli Tepe is a religious temple complex that may challenge several theories of modern archaeology.

Temples

Do you go to a place of religious worship on the weekends? Perhaps you go to synagogue every Saturday or a Christian church on Sundays. Some of you may go to a mosque on Saturdays or some other more exotic place of worship.

Some of you may even go to religious centers that are 50, 100, or 200 years old, or even older. But I'll be willing to bet none of you goes to a center that is older than civilization itself! In this lesson, we will discover just such a place, itself discovered very recently, Gobekli Tepe.

A wide view of Gobekli Tepe
Gobekli Tepe

Location & Discovery

Gobekli Tepe is the world's oldest temple complex known to man and is located in southwestern Turkey near the country's border with Syria. The name Gobekli Tepe is the local name for what locals used to think was a rather unremarkable hill. In fact, ''Gobekli Tepe'' is Turkish for ''Potbelly Hill.''

The site of Gobekli Tepe was first surveyed in the 1960s by a team of archaeologists from Istanbul University and the University of Chicago. The team found a few pieces of broken limestone and evidence of other human activity, but otherwise considered the site to be void of archaeological interest.

The area wasn't visited again until 1994 when the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt ventured there in search of a new dig site. Whereas Schmidt found similar activity as the 1960s team, he didn't simply dismiss it as unimportant Byzantine-era artifacts. Instead, Schmidt realized the place represented a much older site — one where perhaps hundreds of people had worked millennia ago.

Today, nearly a generation later, Schmidt's discovery of a few flint chips on a hill has blossomed into a 22-acre dig site, which has irrevocably changed our understanding of the beginnings of civilization. And the excavation is still continuing. As of 2017, only one-tenth of the site has been formally excavated.

Temple

What Schmidt discovered in 1994 and has spent most of his career since excavating is the largest and oldest temple complex we have ever found. It includes dozens of stone pillars that are formed into concentric rings. Archaeologists believe the site saw several different periods of construction with rings being demolished and moved before a second site was built atop the next.

The pillars are the true stars of the site with some of them being 18 feet tall and weighing up to 16 tons! Upon the pillars are various bas-relief sculptures, many of them of animals like bulls, cranes, foxes, and other creatures that would have been typical to the area in that period. Some archaeologists have theorized that the pillars, which often form a ''T,'' may be representing human figures (perhaps primitive gods).

Pillar with bas-relief sculpture
Pillar with bas-relief

Most archaeologists (Schmidt included) believe the complex was some sort of early religious center. There is evidence of feasts and other ceremonies though there is very little evidence of continuous habitation, making it likely the site was a center for ancient pilgrimages and ceremony. The site also contains the largest cache of ancient tools ever found, suggesting the site was created by dozens — if not hundreds — of workers expressly for this purpose.

Ramifications

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the temple complex is its age, which dating and other archaeological techniques place at approximately 9600 B.C.E., and it was likely continuously used until sometime around 8200 B.C.E. That makes it the earliest religious temple known to man and questions the theory behind the Neolithic Revolution, an archaeological theory that essentially explains the rise of civilization as being a result of our domestication of plants and the development of organized agriculture.

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