Gobekli Tepe: The Oldest Temple in the World


Reel back in time by exploring the history behind “the first human-built holy place” – Gobekli Tepe.

Tucked in the southeastern Anatolia region, the ancient archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe has captured the attention of archaeologists and history buffs alike. Gobekli Tepe, dating back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period between 12000-9000 BC, boasts the title of being the oldest human settlement in the world.

The site was initially discovered in 1963 during a survey, but it took over three decades for German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to recognize its prehistoric significance in 1994. Gobekli Tepe is a marvel of human ingenuity, featuring large circular structures that are supported by towering stone pillars.

What truly sets Gobekli Tepe apart, however, are the stunningly detailed figurative anthropomorphic details, and reliefs of wild animals adorning the pillars. These rich decorations provide archaeologists with rare insights into the prehistoric religion and iconography of the time.

Despite its awe-inspiring grandeur, there is still much debate over Gobekli Tepe’s purpose and its role in the development of human civilization. While prehistorians typically link the Neolithic Revolution to the appearance of the world’s oldest permanent human settlements, there is no clear evidence of agricultural cultivation at the site. This lack of evidence has spurred arguments about the site’s purpose, with some suggesting it may have been used as a temple by groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers from the surrounding area.

Recent research has led to the revision or abandonment of many of the original conclusions about Gobekli Tepe, further underscoring the site’s enigmatic nature. Despite this, the site was recognized for its outstanding universal value and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018. With less than 5% of the site excavated as of 2021, there is undoubtedly much more to discover about this remarkable piece of human history.


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Where is the Exact Location of Gobekli Tepe?

Gobekli Tepe Pillars
Göbekli Tepe, settlement mound near Şanlıurfa, Annex C, pillar 12. Source: Klaus-Peter Simon via Wikimedia Commons

The location of Gobekli Tepe is particularly fascinating because it is nestled in the Germuş Mountains of south-eastern Anatolia. This area, known as Sanliurfa or Urfa, is widely regarded as the birthplace of civilization, where the first agricultural practices were developed, and writing was invented. Interestingly, the oldest known naturalistic life-sized sculpture of a human, known as “Urfa Man,” was discovered here and dates to approximately 10,000 BC. Many archaeologists are currently examining the ancient sites surrounding Gobekli Tepe in order to uncover its rich history.



What Do the T-Shaped Pillars Represent in Gobekli Tepe?

Gobekli Tepe Pillars
Totem of Gobekli Tepe. Source: Klaus-Peter Simon via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most fascinating features of Gobekli Tepe is without doubt the strange T-shaped stone pillars, which stood tall with a strikingly human-like appearance. Some even have arms and hands carved into them, resembling statues of humans frozen in time. On one particular pillar at Nevalı Çori (not far from Gobekli Tepe), the head is represented by a cross with a longer face section and a shorter back, mimicking the natural proportions of a human head. The front of the pillars featured a unique attribute, with two bands in flat relief, potentially symbolizing a specific garment worn only by certain individuals as an important element of a ritual robe.

At the center of the ancient site, there are pairs of pillars in each space that depict twins, or pairs of brothers or sisters, which is a common theme in mythology. Two pillars wore belts with belt buckles depicted in flat relief. On the eastern pillar, there are H- and C-shaped figures on the belt. A loincloth, covering the genital region of the depicted figure, and made of fox pelts, hangs from each of the belts. The pillars are decorated with reliefs, mainly depicting animals, but also including abstract symbols such as the letter H, crescents, discs, antithetic motifs, and two depictions of humans.

A decorated pillar fragment discovered shows a vulture and a species of hyena that is as yet unknown among the images at Gobekli Tepe. These reliefs indicate a new and unique pictorial language whose interpretation is the subject of important scientific debate. The animal reliefs are naturalistic and correspond to the fauna of that period, but it is unclear whether they were attributes of the pillars or part of a mythological cycle. The absence of distinctly feminine motifs from both the animal and human images at Gobekli Tepe is striking, with the exception of a naked woman engraved on a stone slab between the so-called lions’ pillars, which was not part of the original decoration.

At Nevalı Çori, in contrast, over 90% of the clay figurines found are anthropomorphic objects, and male and female figures occur in equal numbers. The complete absence of clay figurines at Gobekli Tepe is quite remarkable and may reflect the different functions of the ritual buildings at each location.

To better understand what the T-Shapes represent, we can look at the non-stylized statues at Nevalı Çori. These statues depict powerful and important members of our world in a naturalistic manner, but they still appear inferior to the enigmatic and faceless T-Shapes. While the T-Shapes seem to belong to another world, the non-stylized statues seem to serve as guardians of the sacred sphere.

In addition to these statues, there are also two other human head sculptures at Nevalı Çori. These sculptures are part of composite motifs that resemble the totem poles used by Native Americans on the northwest coast. One of the sculptures features a large bird, possibly a vulture, holding its head in its claws. Unfortunately, the lower and upper parts of this sculpture have been lost over time, leaving only the preserved medial part. It’s possible that this sculpture was once part of a much larger composite statue that included other motifs, similar to totem poles.



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