March 05, 2019

Göbekli Tepe. The oldest temple in the world.

In the hills outside of the Turkish city of Sanliurfa lie the recently discovered remains of an ancient temple complex. So old that it predates Stonehenge by at least 6,500 years and, based on our previous understanding of the development of human civilization, it should not really exist.

Temples were supposed to be a product of the move to farming and agriculture, freeing up time for humans to develop symbolism and religion, but here in Göbekli Tepe in 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers built an enormous site of inter-connected buildings, with large T-shaped pillars engraved with images of dangerous creatures such as scorpions, vultures, spiders and snakes. And an awful lot of erect penises. 

There are also large numbers of containers around the site, which are thought to have been filled with a very early form of alcoholic beer. Which makes Göbekli Tepe not a bad place to be eleven thousand years ago. Particularly when the life at this time, as described by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was "...solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".

Excavations only began in earnest in 1994, instigated by the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, and the whole area has not been that tourist friendly in the past, often closed to those not involved in the excavations, and being a real challenge to visit. That all changed in 2018 with the opening of a new cover over the main excavated area, a wooden walkway, and an audio-visual exhibition centre. The site is now open everyday except Fridays.

The real test these days is to actually find it. I had a hire car to explore southern Turkey, and was using Here Maps, an app that I have found to be indispensable, and much better than competing apps, as it works well even without a local sim card, and has vital reminders of speed limits and the location of fixed cameras. This time it let me down.

The directions led me onto a small road which gradually moved from a rough tarmac surface to that of sand. The ever-helpful voice then informed me to turn right. I ignored the softly spoken lady and continued on, I could not see a road, before being told to do a U-turn and follow the previous instructions. A small mud track, seemingly made by tractors, led over a muddy hill. This could not be the way, so I checked with Google Maps. The advice was the same, Göbekli Tepe seemed to be only a few km's away.

I had full damage waiver insurance on the car. I was upsold this by a nice lady at Avis who reminded me that "the roads can be so, what is the English word, ah, shit, in Turkey". It was the best $30 I spent on the trip, particularly so after a goat collided me with a few days later (there is no attribution of blame here, but the goat had no road sense and seemed to be a  reincarnation of a car chasing dog).

I set off on the track. A woman and her child set down their bundle of sticks and just stared at me as I bounced over rocks and mud in the once pristine Renault Clio as I drove over the fields. The car was white, or at least was once white (hire car companies love white cars, presumably because they show off damage more easily than a dark colour). As I reached the top of a hill the car stopped, the track was now just pebbles and mud and the Renault's wheels were spinning. Dropping down a gear I hit the accelerator and I gained traction, just enough to start moving downhill, where gravity helped the car move down and onto a gravel road.

I was in a small village, with a crudely painted large white arrow on a wall. I guessed (correctly as it turned out) that this was a sign to Göbekli Tepe. The first one I had actually encountered. The only problem was that the street was only just larger than the car, and it was bin day and the locals had helpfully placed large metal bins outside their houses. 

The drive was worthy of being turned into a video game, sharp turns, massive potholes, children and chickens running across in front of the car, and helpful locals pointing with a finger the way to the ancient temple. At least I think that was what they were doing.

Ten minutes later and minus one wing mirror (the insurance was paying real dividends) I arrived at an incredibly modern museum. Paved roads, signs, and even traffic lights! There were only two other cars parked here, but they were clearly planning for the future.

The audio-visual museum was impressive. Neolithic men and women were dancing and singing around the temple while an incredible storm raged, with rain and thunder echoing around the  auditorium. A small museum next door tells of the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, and has a few artifacts to look at. However you should make sure you visit the Sanliurfa Museum while you are in this part of Turkey, which has some some of the best examples of statues and engravings from the site.

A bus takes you to the excavations from the car park, although it is only a ten minute walk, so if it is not too hot you might as well use your legs. The newly covered site allows you to get close to the temple, but not too close. A telephoto lens will help with the photographs.  

Visiting Göbekli Tepe makes you realise how little has yet to be uncovered. It is believed that much of the surrounding countryside and hills contains more of the temple complex, and maybe housing and other structures. There is so much more to learn about this incredible time of human history, knowledge that is rewriting what we had previously believed had been the evolution of mankind.

Göbekli Tepe is well worth a visit if you are in Southern Turkey. It is quite close to the Syrian border, so check out your governments travel advice before booking. There actually is a new two-lane highway that leads here from Sanliurfa if you are not up for the excitement of cross-country driving. I gratefully discovered this on my return journey despite the protestations of my phone app to turn back and return the way I had arrived. 

Alternatively a taxi/uber from the city would not be that expensive, albeit lacking the adventure of driving here by yourself, and missing out on the Indiana Jones sense of discovery as you make your way past the green traffic light and into one of the most mysterious discoveries of ancient human civilization in recent years.

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  1. My husband and I have been twice to Gobekli Tepe, both times with a guide from the Hilton Garden Inn in Sanli Urfa.. Museum is killer. Gobekli Tepe was better before the tour buses found it. NEXT, we want to take in Mount Nemrut. I read there is a bus from Urfa. AND, yet another Hilton Garden Inn. We did appreciate that chain as almost no one speaks English in that area. We had NO issues with locals, terrorists, etc. People nodded and smiled in greeting all over.

  2. You will love Mount Nemrut. Possibly my favourite site in Turkey. Make sure you get there before sunset (this is when the crowds come in a misguided idea that the statues look better at sunset. They don't, much better in full sun!). Check out my Nemrut blog