The Gobekli Tepe sanctuary, remarkable for its strange megaliths decorated with animals, sheds light on the first traces of human sedentarization, but also on the place of the sacred in the Neolithic period.
“It’s a journey through time, the zero point of civilization,” insists Aydin Aslan, regional director of Tourism and Culture of Sanliurfa. The oldest known sanctuary in the world continues to reveal its infinite secrets stone by stone, on a sun-drenched hill in south-eastern Turkey. Gobekli Tepe, literally “the potbellied hill” in Turkish, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, which links humanity to the sacred.
“When you open a new trench, you don’t know what to expect,” says greedy Lee Clare, from the German Institute of Archeology who has been excavating the Gobekli Tepe site since 2013. “It’s every time a huge surprise”. More than 7,000 years before Stonehenge in England and the Egyptian pyramids, thousands of humans gathered here, between these richly adorned megaliths to meditate.
“Its importance is hard to imagine,” said Sean Lawrence, a professor at the American University of West Virginia, joined by AFP. According to some experts, Gobekli Tepe was never really inhabited and could be part of a vast sacred complex that includes other nearby sites, sometimes even older.
How old is the site? “It’s almost impossible to establish,” notes Sean Lawrence. However, he adds, “the oldest Egyptian monument, the pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, dates back to 2,700 BC”, more than seven millennia after Gobekli Tepe. “It was the end of what are often thought of as Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies and the beginning of settlement. There remain endless mysteries around the site, including how the work was organized and how the sites were used,” he concludes.
Gobekli Tepe : The beginning of sedentary life
Nobody suspected anything until the German archaeologist and prehistorian Klaus Schmidt started bringing his first discoveries to the surface in 1995. Since then, German and Turkish archaeologists have been working together, under the eye of more and more tourists. more numerous, attracted by the mysteries of the potbellied hill. The German archaeologist famous for his turbans, was obsessed until his death in 2014 by these planted, vertical megaliths, adorned with foxes, wild boars, ducks, lizards and a leopard in a hunting or defending position all males.
The site was at first thought to be purely ritualistic but, according to Lee Clare, there is enough “serious evidence” for early settled life with buildings similar to those from the same period discovered in neighboring northern Syria, Turkey constituting one of the provinces of Upper Mesopotamia.
The artefacts discovered at Gobekli Tepe are on display at the archaeological museum in the nearest town, Sanliurfa, where Abraham is believed to have been born. It presents the “most important collection in the world of Neolithic objects”, assures its director Cela Uludag. “Everything that could be transported from Gobekli Tepe is exhibited here,” he boasts, in front of a reconstruction of the site and showcases of statuettes and bas-reliefs.
Turkey’s Ministry of Culture in 2021 increased funding for excavations in the region as part of its “Stone Hills” project, notably for the hilltop site of Karahan Tepe about 35 km from Gobekli Tepe, which some already suspect of be even older. “We are now going to continue in more depth because Gobekli Tepe is not the only nor the only” site, justified Minister Nuri Ersoy. “These additional resources give us a great opportunity to compare what we know of Gobekli Tepe with other sites in the region and of the same age,” says Lee Clare. “The Neolithic here is so much more interesting to excavate than in Europe,” he rejoices. “The peoples here were 4,000 to 5,000 years ahead” of their Western contemporaries.
Gobekli Tepe is also a godsend for this poor and long-neglected region, affected by the ricochets of the war in Syria: refugees now represent a quarter of the population of the province of Sanliurfa. The shrine even inspired a Netflix sci-fi series, Atiye, built around one of the pillar carvings. In 2019, more than a million tourists visited the province, an attendance that the site hopes to find again this year.