Continues digging out the religious purpose of
Was it the world’s first Sanctuary?

By: Iride Aparicio

Archeologist KLAUS SCHMIDT shows his audience an aerial picture of Göbekli Tepe his site in Turkey.                                                                                              Photo by: Antonio Gadong

LOS ALTOS, CA – At a reception in his honor, sponsored by the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), Professor KLAUS SCHMIDT, Senior Researcher in Prehistoric Archeology at the Orient Department of the German Archeological Institute, and Head of the Göbekli Tepe Excavation in South Eastern Antatolia, gave the audience a brief talk about his running project.

He began by explaining that the name "Göbekli Tepe", comes from the Turkish words  Göbek, which means “belly” and Tepe which means “mountain” and that the name is fitting to his site because, if one looks at the hill in profile, it shows a lump which gives it the appearance of a mountain with a belly. His site is the oldest known example of monumental architecture. It dates back to the Pre-PotteryNeolithic Period (The l0th and the  9th millennium BC) but because typical domestic features are missing, the evidence leads SCHMIDT  to believe that Göbekli Tepe was never used as a dwelling.

On the other side, the architecture unearthed at Göbekli Tepe, resembling so called communal and cultic buildings exclusively, as known from contemporary settlement sites where they are the exception, makes SCHMIDT  hypothesize that the stone-age monument was either used as a Ziyaret, (a Turkish word meaning a place or pilgrimages and worship) or as a sanctuary, thus making Göbekli Tepe the first religious sanctuary ever erected in the world.

 In the l960’s, a group of anthropologists from the Universities of Chicago and Istanbul, visited  Göbekli Tepe (the mountain)  but could not recognize its importance and left it as it was, assuming that the few broken slabs of limestone, that covered the site,  indicated that it was an abandoned cemetery.

A few years later, in October  of  l994, Archeologist KLAUS SCHMIDT  was in the region surveying prehistoric sites, and after reading “After the Ice” a book written by archeologist STEVEN MITHEN, who had, briefly, mentioned Göbekli Tepe in his book, SCHMIDT decided to visit the site.

In the pages of “Göbekli Tepe: A Stone Age Sanctuary in South-Eastern Anatolia, his own book, SCHMIDT  describes his first visit to the site  as follows: “I have heard that in South-Eastern Anatolia  there was a hill with a lump, named  Göbekli Tepe, which I could easily recognize by a lonely tree growing at the highest peak of the barren mountain.”

The tree described by SCHMIDT (visible at the Center back of the photograph below) is "The Wishing tree,” called that way  because those who may have come to visit Göbekli Tepe  believed that it was sacred, and (symbolically) tied “their wish” on its branches, in the form of  a single piece of cloth.  


Aerial of the tell of Göbekli Tepe with
Aerial of the tell of Göbekli Tepe with main excavation area at the south –eastern depression ( right) and tree in the back.                                                                                        Photo: Erhan Kücük

SCHMIDT continues his story: “Göbekli Tepe is located on a huge flat and bare rocky ridge with the plateau stretching, in a star-shaped manner, into all the four cardinal directions. The hill has a round top (Shown in the photograph) that rises 50 feet above the surrounding landscape. “

“As I got closer to the hill,  it became clear to me that this hill was not a burial place, as many people had believed before because of its overabundance of rocks, and that this hill was not a natural hill. It could not be. How could a pile of earth be found on the highest part of a limestone ridge? While winds may pile sand on top of the mountain, this time it had happened on a mountain located in a region that was not a desert. So, what this pile of earth indicated to me, was that Göbekli Tepe was a gigantic man-made hill that was an archeologically-significant site."

He continues: “To reach its top was not easy. One had to move through a bizarre landscape of black-grey stone blocks, which served no other purpose to the visitor than as barriers, forcing us to constantly change our course from left to right. At the end of the basalt field we reached a bright, which allowed us to view a wide horizon where, around us, we could see nothing but grazing flocks of sheep and goats."

“From there, as we looked at the previously grey and barren surface, the plateau started glittering as if covered with thousands of crystals. We thus discovered that the carpet of  Flintstones covering the rocky surface of the hill started glittering in the light of the late afternoon sun, with the brightness of snow shimmering in the sun."

Typical Projectile points (Pre-PotteryNeolithic

Typical Projectile points (Pre-Pottery Neolithic) Photo © DAI, Nico Becker

The archeologists found out that the glittering  pieces were flakes, blades, broken pieces of cores, all man-made objects. The rocky surface of Göbekli Tepe  was full of flinstone artifacts.

KLAUS SCHMIDT returned to Göbekli Tepe with other five people and they began digging the site. Close to the surface they immediately uncovered the first Megaliths (Large stones used in pre-historic architectures of monumental style) and as they dug deeper,  they found lots of tools: stone hammers and blades made out of stone, that dated archeologically, by typological comparison with related distinct forms from other known sites, to the year 9000 B.C.

The excavations also uncovered massive ll,000 years old stones that were carved and crafted, with stone tools, by people who lived during the  Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period, 6,000 years before the invention of writing and when metal and pottery had not been invented yet.

SCHMIDT theorizes that these  prehistoric masons used their stone tools to cut the megaliths and shape them into T-shaped  pillars and then carried the pillars to the summit and lifted them upright. It is still unknown how they did it, because some of these T-shaped  pillars are 16 feet tall each one weighs between seven and eight tons.


Night view into Enclosure
Night view into Enclosure D     Photo: Berthold Steinhilber

After the pillars were carried to the top of the hill, these pillars were arranged in a circle, with the smaller T-shaped pillars encircling two tall T-shaped pillars standing at the center. Each circle of pillars has a similar layout. A ring of pillars was then placed near another ring of pillars or on top of  it. After some time of use, these enclosures were refilled in a manner reminding of a burial. Thus, over time and with other constructions superimposing this architecture in some areas, the mountain now known as Göbekli Tepe was formed 

In their  shape, most of the pillars are all T-shaped,  but their sizes are different. While the pillars of the older layer (l0th millennium B.C.) are up to 5.5 meters high, those of the younger layer (9th millennium B.C.) are considerably smaller, with a size of 2 meters or less. Many pillars are blank, others are carved. SCHMIDT observed that most of the carvings represent animals: foxes, Lions, snakes, scorpions, wild boars, rams, bulls, and cranes, to name a few, but due to the lack of any other sources than the material culture, the meaning of these depictions remains enigmatic.

Pillar representic artistic reliefs
Representative Pillar with artistic reliefs  Photo: DAI, Nico Becker

Some of these  pillars were recognized to represent a very abstracted human shape. They are faceless but depict  long and very thin (rule-like) arms hanging along their narrow edge, ending in hands brought together above the abdomen, with belts and loin clothes.

Among the excavations there were also sculptures of different sizes, the most interesting among them are the huge limestone elongated-rings with their center hole shaped like an eye, that were found only in Göbekli Tepe

It is beyond the scope of this article to cover in detail all the findings of 17 years of excavations from SCHMIDT’s team of archeologists, which includes his wife, CIGDEM KÖKSAL-SCHMIDT, an archeologist from Istanbul and Heidelberg Universities, but we will mention the most important:

With the excavations of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic enclosure of Göbekli Tepe, evidence for monumental architecture in a hunter-gatherer society was brought up for the first time in this scale, suggesting a social complexity and degree of organization hitherto unsuspected for such and early period.
Since Archeologist SCHMIDT tells his audience that there are many more megalithic enclosures  buried across the twenty-two acres of the site, we are left wondering. When excavated, what will they bring to light? His team may have to continue the excavations before he can find the answer to his own question: Was Göbekli Tepe the world’s first sanctuary? At this writing, the answer, remains buried in the belly of the mountain.

Senior researcher of Prehistoric archeology at the Orient Department  of the German Archological Institute KLAUS SCHIMDT

Senior researcher of Prehistoric archeology at the Orient Department  of the German   Archeological Institute, KLAUS SCHMIDT      Picture by:   Antonio Gadong

NOTE: I would like to thank Göbekli Tepe’s Archeologist JENS  NOTROFF for reviewing this article prior to publication, for accuracy purposes.