While the ancient stone circles in the southeast of Turkey awe visitors with their scale, they also challenge long held beliefs about the development of human civilization.
Text by Yasemin Ulusoy
Photos courtesy of Doğuş Group Archive
On a rounded hill that rises amid the barren plateaus of the Germuş mountains in southeast Turkey lies Göbekli Tepe: a site of massive carved stones, almost 12,000 years old, crafted and arranged by Neolithic people. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by over 6,000 years.
Göbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) is 15 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital of Şanlıurfa (often simply called Urfa). A survey by the University of Istanbul and University of Chicago first examined the nine hectare hilltop site in the 1960s and discovered limestone slabs, which they assumed to be part of a medieval cemetery. The true significance of the site would not be uncovered for another three decades.
In 1994 the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region, visited the site and identified it as something exceptional. Excavations began soon after and are continued today by the Orient and Istanbul Departments of the German Archaeological Institute (DIA).
While the sheer size of the structures is staggering, the site—which was recently admitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List—is also upending knowledge about the development of societies in Neolithic Anatolia, and has provoked debate about the ancient significance of the space.
Messages from prehistory
The stone rings date back to the Neolithic era, before the development of metal tools or pottery. Five-meter-tall T-shaped pillars in the center, weighing between seven to 10 tons, are encircled by slightly smaller inward-facing stones.
The T-shape of the pillars are believed to be abstract depictions of the human body; horizontal parts of the stone represent the human head, tall vertical parts represent the torso, with reliefs of arms on the sides.
A closer look at some pillars reveals reliefs of naturalist symbols and abstract signs, likely carved by flint. Some have been deciphered and others still being researched by the excavation team. The best-preserved pillars contain clear decorative motifs of wild Eurasian animals, including lions, foxes, vultures, wild boar, and snakes.
The function of the space is still debated. Some archaeologists, such as Klaus Schmidt, believe that Göbekli Tepe may be the world’s oldest human-built temple. Others, however, believe that the space was likely not restricted only to religious practices.
Whatever the function of the site, discoveries from Göbekli Tepe have been revolutionary in challenging previously held beliefs about the development of human civilization, which typically held that people only constructed complex societies and temples only after learning to farm in settled communities.
But the construction of Göbekli Tepe was a massive undertaking requiring hundreds of workers, who would have needed housing and feeding in a relatively organized and stable social system that predated the establishment of agriculture. The first known case of crop cultivation was traced to the domestication of einkorn wheat around Karacadağ mountain close to Göbekli Tepe at 7,800–7,500 BC, while initial constructions of Göbekli Tepe started approximately 9,600 BC. This would suggest that agriculture followed societal and cultural change.
Another interesting feature is the carved symbols on the megaliths which predate Sumerian hieroglyphics—traditionally thought to be the basis of written languages—by around 8,000 years.
Göbekli Tepe was part of an active civilization for nearly three millennia, before being abandoned around 9,000 years ago under mysterious circumstances.
To date, four large sections have been partially excavated and are open to visitors. These enclosures reveal just 3-4 percent of the entire site. Ground-penetrating radar suggests there are at least 16 other stone rings that remain hidden.
As excavations continues to yield insights about its creators, Göbekli Tepe is a messenger from the past; posing intriguing questions, stirring debate, and humbling visitors with its grandeur and mystery.
After touring Göbekli Tepe, which can take anywhere between one hour to three hours, hungry explorers can take an indulgent lunch break at Çulcuoğlu restaurant. This family run joint has been a local authority in baklava since the 1960s, and is popular among Urfa’s locals for its succulent grilled eggplant kebab, crispy mini lahmacun (minced-meat pizza), and melt-in-your-mouth pistachio şöbiyet stuffed with cream.
Also well-worth visiting are the Şanlıurfa Archeology Museum, which houses an extensive collection of archaeological deposits from Göbekli Tepe and the surrounding archaeological digs, while the Mosaic Museum contains several well-preserved mosaics from local second and third century Roman villas. www.muze.gov.tr/tr/muzeler/sanliurfa-arkeoloji-ve-mozaik-muzesi
Şanlıurfa’s most popular landmark, Balıklıgöl (Fish Lake or The Pool of Abraham), is a ten minute walk from the museums. According to local legend, after Abraham was thrown into a fire by Nimrod, God turned the flames to water and the burning logs into fish. Today, hundreds of fish believed to be sacred inhabit the pool. It has become a tradition for locals and visiting tourists to feed the fish while making a wish.
Balıklıgöl also serves as the town’s community center. People of all ages pass by the lake and walk around the surrounding gardens from dawn till dusk. Open air cafés provide opportunities for people watching while taking a rest. Try the local menengiç coffee, a caffeine-free Turkish coffee made with wild pistachios.
Make sure to take a stroll through the nearby street stalls and bazaars such as Sipahi Pazarı for handcrafted fabrics, and İsotçu Pazarı for Urfa’s acclaimed dried red pepper spice. Be aware that most shops close at 6pm.
Although one can understand and enjoy the site with little knowledge or some prior research, there are numerous local businesses specializing in trips and guided tours of the site. Finding Göbekli Tepe is easy, as roads to the site are signposted around town, but a vehicle is required to travel from the airport. Car rentals are available at the airport and cabs are not expensive, as long as you agree on the price with the driver beforehand.
- Göbekli Tepe is open between 8am–5pm in winter, 8am–7pm in summer. Admission: 30 TL.
- Şanlıurfa Archeology Museum & the Mosaic Museum are open 8am–5pm in winter, 8am–7pm in summer, closed Mondays. Admission: 12 TL (combined ticket for the two museums).
- Recommended read: Göbekli Tepe: En Eski Tapınağı Yapanlar by Klaus Schmidt (2007 – Ciltli).
- Also see www.dainst.blog/the-tepe-telegrams news and notes updated regularly by Göbekli Tepe research staff.