Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge

Göbekli Tepe laid undiscovered for tens of thousands of years until it was discovered in a little known part of modern Turkey. But who built it, and why?
Christopher McFadden
Gobekli Tepe
Gobekli Tepe

OZAN KOSE/Getty Image 

Back in the 1960s, a little-known area of farmland in Southeastern Turkey yielded evidence of an ancient monument so old that many archaeologists couldn't believe the find. Built at a time when human beings were not supposed to have had the skill or ability to do so, it rocked the archaeological community to the core.

Named after the hill it is found on, Gobekli Tepe is one of the world's most exciting yet strangest ancient sites. And it is not alone. Around a dozen other sites of similar age are also under excavation in the so-called “Stone Hills” area — an area extending for about 100 square kilometres around Gobekli Tepe.

Let's look at what we know -- and mostly don't know -- about this gift from the ancient past.

What is Göbekli Tepe?

Göbekli Tepe ("Go-Beck-Lee-Tep-E"), translated as "Potbelly Hill" or "Hill of the Navel" in Turkish, or "Girê Mirazan" or "Xirabreşkê" in Kurdish, is a Neolithic archaeological site in Turkey's Southeastern Anatolia Region. The site is roughly six miles (about 9.5 km) from the modern Turkish city of Urfa and is thought to date to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic age (roughly 9,500 BC and 8,000 BC).

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa.

If true, these dates would make Göbekli Tepe at least 11,000 years old!

The site consists of several large, circular structures surrounded by the world's oldest known megaliths. Many of these pillars are richly adorned with abstract and enigmatic anthropomorphic details (animals with human characteristics), clothing, and reliefs of wild animals.

Archaeologists believe the site was first used at the start of the Neolithic era when the oldest permanent human settlements in the world appeared.

It is hotly debated what the site was used for, with most experts erring on the side of it having some ceremonial or religious significance. Others have also claimed that it may be one of the earliest examples of human settlement.

The latter is probably unlikely, as the site (on top of a rocky mountaintop, 1,000 feet above the valley) doesn't appear to have a reliable water source. This would be critical for long-term human settlement, although the valley below would have had arable land and water.

German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first found the site in 1963, was the first to dig at it and was bold enough to claim that it was the "world's first temple." If this were the case, the site would have been a place of worship for groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers from a wide area with few or no permanent residents.

Of course, many other archaeologists have disagreed with this interpretation, noting that the evidence that there was no nearby farming or people living in the area wasn't robust, and that Gobekli Tepe sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent.

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Location of Gobekli Tepe.

Recent research has also led the archaeologists digging at Göbekli Tepe to change or throw out many of Schmidt's original conclusions.

Schmidt was in charge of excavations there from 1995 until he died in 2014. Since then, the work has been done by Istanbul University, the Sanliurfa Museum, and the German Archaeological Institute, with Turkish archaeologist Dr. Necmi Karl in charge of the whole thing.

It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018 because it is "one of the first examples of human-made monumental architecture" and has "outstanding universal value."

As of 2021, somewhere in the region of 5% of the site had been successfully excavated.

What is special about Göbekli Tepe?

Göbekli Tepe is one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites ever discovered. Since it was first discovered in the 1960s, it has, in no small part, changed many aspects of what we know about the ancient world.

Believed by some to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, temples in the world, the site consists of a complex of temples likely constructed by a hunter-gatherer culture some 12,000 years ago. Before the discovery of this structure, it was believed that only agrarian (farming) cultures erected temples.

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
We still have much to learn about Gobekli Tepe.

Before its discovery, and to some extent today, the region was used for farming by locals. Often, these farmers would uncover large stones they would pile or throw away without a second thought.

Unbeknownst to them, they were accidentally destroying priceless artifacts! Who knows how much information has been lost over the interim thousands of years by completely innocent folk?

Since the site was confirmed to be ancient, great lengths have been taken to excavate, document, and study the site carefully. It is also now a protected monument and the focus of ongoing and careful archaeological study.

In 2017, geophysical surveys found more than 200 obelisks and 15 more temples buried beneath the Earth, meaning there is much more to be found over the coming years.

So far, the largest temple to be excavated is roughly 98-foot (30 meters) long and incorporates large T-shaped pillars that weigh 40 to 60 tons apiece. Most of these pillars are etched with pictures of wild animals and other enigmatic reliefs yet to be fully understood.

Countless other artifacts and items are yet to be thoroughly studied. It is still very early, with new "groundbreaking" finds made almost every day.

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
The site is now protected.

The site is so well preserved that it has been estimated by some that it will continue to yield incredible insights into the deep past for at least the next century and a half! Like many other ancient and intriguing archaeological sites, Gobekli Tepe has, to date, created more questions than we have answers.

Is Göbekli Tepe the oldest civilization? Why was it abandoned?

There are many reasons why people would abandon a site like Göbekli Tepe. Foremost among them include war and displacement, environmental stress (drought/famine/disease), or simply that the site lost its relevance over time.

If the latter, it could indicate that people's beliefs or way of life had changed enough to make the site obsolete.

We may never know for sure, but another important question is why the site appears to have been buried thousands of years ago. This is because natural burial through sediment build-up, etc., is highly unlikely for the location.

Hilltops don't usually collect sediment because they are usually places where the soil is lost, not where it is added. So, it is likely that the monuments on top of Gobleki Tepe were buried on purpose.

With no written records existing for the time, experts can only really speculate. But, it could have been buried to keep it safe for people in the future.

Of course, if a new religion or people replaced it, the site may have become seen as a place of sacrilege or taboo and was duly "memory holed," to borrow a phrase.

If the place was a religious sanctuary, another possible reason could be that the burial was part of a process to make the place less holy.

In many cultures, things or buildings that are thought to have supernatural or divine power must be destroyed or changed in some way when they are no longer needed.

In many Christian traditions, for example, the altar of a church that is going to be closed or used for something else must be ritually de-sanctified so that a person doesn't accidentally use a holy table for something else and commit sacrilege.

What are some interesting facts about Göbekli Tepe?

We've covered quite a lot that is known about this enigmatic site already, but there are many more exciting titbits about Göbekli Tepe that are well worth uncovering.

Here are some of the most notable facts about this mysterious place.

1. The site is older than other famous neolithic ancient sites like Stonehenge

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Gobekli Tepe was ancient to the people who built Stonehenge!

If the dates for the site are correct, that will date the site roughly 6,000 years before other famous Neolithic megastructures like Stonehenge. To put that into perspective, if the dates for Stonehenge are also correct (officially 5,000 years old), then Stonehenge is closer to us in time than Gobekli Tepe would have been to the people who built Stonehenge!

Coincidentally, this is roughly the same age as the famous Giza pyramids, so Gobekli Tepe is also officially older than those too.

That is incredible to think about.

Around that time in Western Europe, humans were probably pretty sparse in numbers.

Around the time Gobekli Tepe was built, the Würm Glacial Age (about 12,500 years ago) was ending in places like Europe. Over the next few thousand years, temperatures and sea levels slowly rose, changing the environment to make more areas habitable for a range of animals — people.

Ireland and Great Britain turned into islands around 7,000 BC, and Scandinavia split off from the rest of Europe as a part of the continental shelf called "Doggerland" that used to connect them sunk under the sea.

The people who lived at Gobekli Tepe are thought to have been primarily hunter-gatherers, and slowly but surely, they were either displaced or influenced by farming people from the "Fertile Crescent."

2. Gobekli Tepe might have been a giant outdoor BBQ site for hunter-gatherers

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Was Gobekli Tepe a festival destination for ancient peoples?

We've seen that what the site was used for is hotly debated. But, one of the most interesting theories is that ancient hunter-gatherers may have constructed it as a place for festivals.

The people who built the site would have lived at a critical juncture in human history between the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes to the first truly settled peoples.

Since there are no apparent signs of domestication of crops or animals at or near the site, the team has suggested that those who built it had not yet made this transition.

There are also a lot of animal bones within the ruins, which shows that the people who lived there were good hunters, and there are signs that they had big feasts. Archaeologists think hunter-gatherer groups from all over the area sometimes gathered here for huge festivals, which would have included cooking on, essentially, giant barbeques.

These feasts may have inspired people to build impressive stone structures to meet up and have a good time!

However, recent digs at the site conducted by a German Archaeological Institute team, found evidence of houses and year-round settlement, including a large cistern and channels for collecting rainwater, and grinding tools for processing grain and brewing beer.

3. It could also have been a giant brewery!

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Was Gobekli Tepe and ancient brewery?

Another interesting theory regarding the site's purpose is that it may have been a giant bakery-come-brewery. In 2021, researchers from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin learned over the past four years that the people who built these old buildings ate vast pots of porridge and stew made from grain that the ancient people ground and processed on a nearly industrial scale.

The clues from Gobekli Tepe show that ancient people used grains much earlier than was thought, even before there was evidence that these plants were domesticated.

Dietrich's work is part of a growing movement to look more closely at how grains and other starches fit into the diets of people in the past.

The researchers use many methods, like looking at microscopic marks on old tools and DNA in pots.

Some researchers are even trying to replicate meals like those eaten 12,000 years ago, using techniques from that time.

Evidence for grain cooking and brewing has come from the site's "rock garden."

This is what archaeologists called a nearby field where those who used the site dumped grinding stones made of basalt, limestone troughs, and other large pieces of worked stone. These appear to be dumping grounds of old grinding stones of one kind or another.

The "garden," according to researchers, is about the size of a football field and had more than 10,000 grinding stones and nearly 650 carved stone platters and vessels, some of which could hold up to 200 liters of liquid.

This quantity of stones is believed, by some, to be proof that the site was used to grind grain to make porridge and beer. Archaeologists had thought for a long time that the stone vats at the site showed that beer was sometimes used in ceremonies at Gobekli Tepe, but they thought it was a rare treat. This new evidence appears to show that this may not be the case.

4. The site may have been a temple for a strange skull cult

Gobekli Tepe is an extraordinary place to us today, but it gets even weirder. Recent studies on finds made at the site appear to indicate that people who built or used the site had a strange fascination with collecting and modifying human skulls.

The researchers found that although there are no human graves on the site (yet discovered), pieces of human bones have been found in the fill of buildings and the areas around them. The researchers examined these piles and found a series of partly preserved human skulls.

There is nothing to add there except that all of them have been changed by humans in a way that hasn't been seen on sites from the same time or place. This was unexpected, to say the least, and could, the researchers point out, point to the fact that there appears to have been a new kind of "skull cult" in Anatolia and the Levant during the Early Neolithic that has never been seen before.

Interpretation of this is tricky, but the presence of these modified skulls may indicate that the site was some important ritual center from the Early Neolithic period. The skulls also appear to have been removed after death and could suggest that some people at Gobekli Tepe were given exceptional care after death.

Evidence for the special status of the people these skulls belonged to comes from the fact that decorations were added to some of their skulls, which appear to have been displayed in certain places around the site. At the moment, no one knows if these treatments were done as part of rituals in the monumental buildings or if they were brought to the ritual center from settlements in the area.

Creepy but incredibly interesting.

5. Or was the site occupied by some human sacrifice cult?

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
A. Intentionally decapitated human statue. B. A "gift bearer" holding a human head. C. Pillar 43 ("Vulture stone") with low relief of an ithyphallic headless individual, one arm raised.

The discovery of the human skulls in 2017 is fascinating enough, but more evidence for the use of the site may be extracted by studying the actual columns and other artifacts.

As previously mentioned, the T-shaped columns on the site famously have various animal-human hybrid depictions. But, more crucially for us, some of the reliefs appear to indicate the ritualistic decapitation of human bodies.

One particular case (image C above) shows a headless individual in the bottom right of the pillar (below the scorpion and the right of the "bird's head."

Other artifacts from the site appear to support the inhabitants' fascination with heads. One small statue (image B above) appears to show what has been interpreted as a "gift-bearer" carrying a disembodied head. Yet another appears to indicate a human statue that has, at some point, been intentionally decapitated (image A above).

We can never really know the meaning of this, but it is clear the people at this site were very different from us today.

6. Gobekli Tepe might have a sister site

Situated relatively close to Gobekli Tepe, another site, Karahan Tepe shares many characteristics and is often called Gobekli Tepe's sister site.

Karahan Tepe was first discovered in 1997, but the first systematic survey wasn't carried out until 2000. This study revealed basin-like pools carved in bedrock, and a considerable number of chisels and adzes, beads, stone pot fragments, grindstones, and pestles.

The fact that arrowheads, scrapers, perforators, blades, and other stone tools made from flint or obsidian were found there suggests that most people there hunted, gathered, or raised animals for food. This is different from most Neolithic settlements, which were based on farming.

The finds also show that the site was used during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (10,500–6,500 BC), which puts it roughly the same period as Gobekli Tepe.

Later studies have shown Karahan Tepe resembles the "Gobekli Tepe II" layer. For example, both sites have 266 pillars with T-shaped architectural elements and animal reliefs showing snakes, insects, birds, the head and forelegs of a rabbit, the hind legs and tail of a gazelle, and the hind legs of an unidentified animal.

Circular homes are part of a large ritual complex on the site. Structures for ceremonies have also been found cut into the bedrock. One of these structures is a rock-cut chamber with 11 giant phalluses and a head with a snake's body for a body.

Karahan Tepe has more depictions of human beings than the literal menagerie at Gobekli Tepe, which might show that people were starting to see themselves as separate from animals. However, over time, the people who lived there buried the site and left it.

Even more astounding is that Karahan Tepe is apparently not alone as a "sister site" to Göbekli Tepe. It is now considered part of a constellation of contemporaneous settlements that extends for more than 100 km and includes Karahan Tepe and at least 11 other unexcavated sites.

7. Gobekli Tepe may document one of humanity's darkest times

About the same time as Gobekli Tepe was being constructed, one of the most significant environmental stresses ever impacting our species was underway. Called the Younger Dryas, it was the worst and longest break in the warming of the Earth's climate and occurred roughly between 14,500 and 12,900 years ago.

The decline into a mini-ice age happened quickly, probably over a few decades, and caused Greenland's temperatures to drop by about 7 °F (4 °C). This resulted in glaciers advancing, giving most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere a drier and harsher climate.

The cause is not fully understood, but theories include interruption of ocean thermal currents or a comet impact. Whatever the cause, it would have an enormous impact on the lives of anyone living at the time, especially in Europe and the Levant.

Could this be why many of the images at Gobekli Tepe seem to indicate struggle and death?

Some researchers have even surmised that some of the columns, like the "Vulture column" mentioned above, could serve as a kind of "smoking gun" that the comet impact hypothesis might be on point.

"The pillar was created by the people of Gobekli Tepe and now appears to have served as a means of commemorating a devastating event—perhaps a comet breaking up and its remnants crashing into the Earth, causing an immediate environmental impact around the globe and possible loss of life (one of the characters on the pillar was of a headless human.)," explains Phys.org on work carried out by researchers with the University of Edinburgh.

8. Some believe Gobekli Tepe is the inspiration for the "Garden of Eden"

Gobekli Tepe is clearly an exceptional site, but could it have been famous even in ancient times? Some researchers believe so and have even claimed that it could be the inspiration for the biblical story of the "Garden of Eden."

In case you are unaware, the "Garden of Eden" is the mythical paradise on Earth made by God for his first two human creations, Adam and Eve. The name "Eden," it is believed, is derived from the Akkadian word for "plain" (edinu).

The place is sometimes referred to as the "Garden of God" because, in the biblical tradition, the biblical authors frequently mention it as a luscious and bountiful place. Questions about the garden's existence aside, theologians disagree on Eden's exact location.

It is described in the Book of Genesis as located at the source of four tributaries — Tigris, Euphrates, Gihon, and Pishon. The Qur'an also mentions Eden and Islamic scholars have also long-debated its location. Interpretations of the location of the garden include that the garden was Paradise itself; that it was a separate place created especially for Adam and Eve; and that it was located on Earth.

Some theologians have proposed a number of candidate locations on Earth, including at the head of the Persian Gulf, in southern Mesopotamia, in the Armenian Highlands, Iran, or even in Jerusalem.

However, others have also suggested that Gobekli Tepe could be the origin of the story of the Garden of Eden location, given its position close to these mighty rivers.

9. Was Gobekli Tepe an early observatory?

The site we now call Gobekli Tepe was clearly important to those who built it, but what exactly its purpose was is still, as we've seen, very much hotly debated. One popular theory is that the site is an example of one of the earliest astronomical observatories in history.

The rationale for this hypothesis tends to distill down to two critical pieces of evidence.

The first is based on the fact that the location appears aligned with the night sky, notably with the star Sirius. Another contends that Gobekli Tepe's carvings document a comet impact that occurred at the end of the Ice Age (as we mentioned above).

If either of those claims were accurate, the exceptional age of Gobekli Tepe would make it the world's oldest known astronomy site. However, it must be noted that most excavation teams who have worked on the site are not at all convinced by this theory. They claim that although the archaeological site is extraordinarily well maintained, certain features have been moved due to the effects of time.

Studies, for instance, indicate that some of the pillars may have been taken down and reused elsewhere. In addition, farmers in the area more recently changed the position of several pillars and even broke off pieces, as did succeeding civilizations in the region.

This disturbance would invalidate any conclusions based on the locations of any parts of the site.

The original arrangement of the magnificent round buildings at Gobekli Tepe is still controversial, despite the researchers' best efforts to move the pillars back to their original locations. Because of this, researchers cannot determine whether Gobekli Tepe had any astronomical importance.

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple that’s 6,000 years older than Stonehenge
Was Gobekli Tepe and ancient observatory?

However, that doesn't mean that it may not have had several purposes, including partly, for astronomical observations. This is especially true as the site has yet to be fully excavated.

And that is your lot for today, ancient history lovers.

When the site was first discovered only a few short decades ago, it shook the historical community. No one had ever expected such an ancient site to be discovered, let alone its level of preservation.

While much is still unknown about the site and the people that built it, there can be no doubt it will continue to help rewrite what we know about this relatively unknown period in human history.

We cannot wait to find out what more secrets Gobekli Tepe has in store for us all!

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