I walk past the earth-plastered walls of the visitors’ center and arrive at a mound covered by a protective roof. Once again, I’m in Göbeklitepe. As I walk along the circular, wooden walking path, I can see the oldest known sanctuary built by human labor. Below rise the T-shaped giant standing stones of the four temples which are completely excavated. I’m mesmerized by the predatory animals, reptiles and birds featured in the admirable reliefs on the obelisks and I cannot help but wonder that they mean. I feel as if I’ve found a message in a bottle sent out to the sea by Stone Age hunters 12,000 years ago and have been reunited with them when Göbeklitepe was discovered. Although I know their place, I cannot understand their language. When I look at the visitors around me, I smile at the fact that dozens of people of all ages and nationalities cannot stop gazing at the temples like me. It’s as if we’re all aware that this message is the introduction to our shared story on this blue globe called Earth.
Our story begins with hunters who, covered the temples in Göbeklitepe using their manual skills 10,000 years ago and made it possible for the complex to reach the present. After sleeping underground for thousands of years, the temples they hid began to awake about 40 years ago. Şavak Yıldız, who was ploughing his field in Göbeklitepe, found two statues and delivered them to the museum in 1986. The statues remained unidentified as there was no similar artifact to compare them to and were kept in a warehouse for a long time. One day, two German archaeologists, who were about to fly back to their country, entered the warehouse to deliver their findings from Nevalı Çori, which had been saved from being flooded by Atatürk Dam, to the musem. The settlement at Nevalı Çori coincided with the period when Göbeklitepe, a 10,000-year-old hunter-gatherer settlement and establishment, was buried and abandoned. This is where a temple of T-shaped obelisks was discovered for the first time. When the excavations revealed peerless statues and totems, Nevalı Çori hinted that it would upend the known history of the city of Urfa. The archeologists from this team noticed the statues kept in the warehouse of Şanlıurfa Archeology and Mosaic Museum and set out to explore Göbeklitepe where they had been found. After a while, Klaus Schmidt, one of the archaeologists, began the excavations which he would pursue until his death. In this way, Göbeklitepe awoke from its 12,000-year-old slumber. And, since its awakening, it continues to surprise everyone.
First and foremost, Göbeklitepe’s age is truly astonishing to people. The oldest temple is 12,000 years old while the newest one is 10,000. Forget about the Egyptian pyramids which used to be regarded as ancient structures! They seem so young when compared to Göbeklitepe which is 7,000 years older. During the period of the construction of these temples (at least the older ones), there was no animal domestication, no settled life, and no agriculture. The people who built Göbeklitepe were the long-haired hunter-gatherers bearing stone axes who we knew from the images in history books. First, they carved various animal figures and even abstract symbols on the obelisks with obsidian and pebble stones. Then, they carried the obelisks (5-6 tons in weight and up to 5.5 meters in height) to nearby stone pits and placed them upright in the middle of a pedestal shaped from the main rock. Hunters, who gathered for a common belief and construction, created a mesmerizing architectural structure with their ability to think in an abstract and technical way. This is why many people think that the temples were built by aliens or an advanced civilization like Atlantis!
Göbeklitepe has an unexpected size considering the Stone Age. The radars that scan underground have found nearly 20 structures. In front of me stand four that have been entirely unearthed and positioned in circular formation. Each temple has T-shaped obelisks – two in the center and 10 on the low-rise enclosure wall. There are also smaller and more square-like temples. As to what the stones represent, the temple named “D” provides a hint. The lateral façades of the two central obelisks feature thin arms while the front façade has hands with long fingers, which hints that the obelisks symbolize stylized humans. The façades of the other obelisks are facing the two in the center, with depictions of predatory animals and abstract symbols. Maybe, our shared story is really written on these pillars. An exciting hypothesis claims that these symbols are the ancestors of hieroglyphs and tell a story which is meaningful for the people of the Stone Age. Projects are being carried out to reveal the secrets of this story to the world. With a vision to turn Göbeklitepe into a global icon, Doğuş Group, the main sponsor of Göbeklitepe, has initiated a 20-year collaboration with the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism to support the communication, excavation, research and preservation operations of this unique center. The visitors center, which serves as the first step of this collaboration, was completed and opened in 2015.
Now, we can neither read this story nor figure out why Göbeklitepe was built. We call these structures “temples” in layman’s terms (believing that they were completely built by human labor) but meticulous experts prefer the term “center of faith” for Göbeklitepe. This place is believed to be a seasonal meeting place which hosted celebrations because a great number of animal bones has been excavated. The opinions as to why they got together are still being discussed. There are also some who say that enemy tribes gathered around a common belief and held celebrations to make peace and others who believe that the obelisks symbolize the ancestors of hunters or associate the symbols with star clusters.
We don’t have definite answers to these claims but, for now, we can at least say that Göbeklitepe was a milestone in the great transition to production and settled life. The most fundamental social change, which brought us to the present seems to have been triggered in this land. For instance, despite the fact that we expected hunting communities to have been equalitarian, with Göbeklitepe, it’s been discussed that there was social stratification in the Stone Age. Judging from the fine craftsmanship of the reliefs on obelisks, some hunters became stonemasons during the course of the construction. Moreover, certain people must have overseen and inspected the construction which required a great labor force. But with the emergence of these specific duties, were there also elites in Göbeklitepe who wanted to obtain social power and reputation? Did the elites aim to acquire social influence and respectability through the animal reliefs on the obelisks which symbolize a fearsome and protecting power? The construction and reorganization in Göbeklitepe perpetually continued. Did the elites who became experts in construction and celebration make these operations permanent to acquire influence? And, did they pave the way for the discovery of agriculture due to the need to feed the populous labor force? The region is the place where two types of wheat were domesticated and cultivated. Göbeklitepe makes us ask significant questions that bear enough importance to influence the history of humanity more deeply than we think. Its presence revolutionizes the writing of history, demonstrating the inevitability of reverse-thinking. Thus, we see that the story of Göbeklitepe does not belong to 12,000 years ago but rather that the story of the present is 12,000 years old. This is a story that began with astonishment, turned into amazement, and now continues with dreams. We’re astonished because we’ve started to talk about concepts that we couldn’t have imagined as relevant to the Stone Age. We’re amazed because we have discovered that hunters had extraordinary artistic talents, organizational skills, and abilities for abstract thinking. And we dream because the unknown and undecipherable aspects of the story invite us to bring a piece of ourselves to this fantastic celebration. It’s the perfect time to visit Göbeklitepe. Before, of course, one should visit the world’s richest Stone Age collection at Şanlıurfa Archaeology and Mosaic Museum.