Monday, 21 August 2017

Göbeklitepe: South-Eastern Turkey's 12,000 Year-Old Obelisks

Text by Haldun Aydingün | Photographs by Berthold Steinhilber and Haldun Aydingün   
Challenging commonly held ideas about human history, Haldin Aydingün describes the T-shaped obelisks of Göbeklitepe in south-eastern Turkey - a sanctuary from the 10th millennium BC. Erected 10,000 years before the founding of the Roman Empire, 8,000 years before the appearance of the Hittites and 7,000 years before the building of the Great Pyramids, the hilltop settlement near the town of Urfa was established by hunter-gathers.
I got down from the dig team's minibus and started walking towards the excavation area. The sun wouldn't be up for while, but it was already light. It struck me that the environs had been fixed up since I was here eight years ago. Göbeklitepe has now become a well-known place, both in nearby town of Urfa and in the world at large.

I saunter among the 'T'-shaped obelisks, the largest of which weighs 25 tons, each one boasting reliefs of wild boar, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and insects, seemingly poised to leap out and attack. There are also signs resembling the letters 'H' or 'O'. I had read a few claims that those who built Göbeklitepe had also invented writing, and chuckled. The idea that these people had directly invented the Latin script would make a great subject for a hilarious fantasy film.

A 12,000-Year-Old Complex

The Göbeklitepe monuments were created twelve thousand years ago. In other words, 10,000 years before the founding of the Roman Empire, 8,000 years before the appearance of the Hittites, and 7,000 years before the building of the Great Pyramids.

I am standing amidst evidence that could upset everything we know about our remote past. Imagine such an age that it is still thousands of years to the discovery of metal and that the best cutting tool available is made of a piece of flintstone, with which you will hack 25-ton obelisks out of the bedrock and, carving those frightful animal figures on them, drag them here and erect them. We are talking about a project that required the simultaneous toil of two thousand men, a project so big for its time as to be considered gargantuan. Why did these people feel a need to erect such a complex of buildings? Perhaps we will never learn the answer to this question. It is thought that this was a cult centre since everyone, dig director Prof. Dr. Klaus Schmidt included, are in agreement that it was not a site used for vital needs such as hunting and shelter.

In short, our ancestors of 12,000 years ago lived in a society that was very advanced in the art of generating abstract ideas and that could accept this amount of self-sacrifice for the sake of a few religious and spiritual needs. Clearly they do not fit the image of the rough cavemen we've been taught about in school.

Obelisks and Reliefs

Göbeklitepe consists of circular chambers that stand independently of one another. 'T'-shaped obelisks of medium height surround the chambers, with two large stones standing facing each other directly in the center.

In his book, Göbeklitepe, Prof. Dr. Schmidt compares the Stone Age structures that have been discovered in other parts of the world with those found in this region in an attempt to give meaning to them. He discusses a number of different possibilities. Yet still, when looking at the fury in the faces of the animal reliefs, I feel they are trying desperately to tell us something in a very ancient language but that we are unable to comprehend.

I have come to Göbeklitepe this time as a photographer. The photos I take of the reliefs on the stones will constitute the major part of my work. Photographing reliefs is difficult. You can only get a clear image if the light is coming from a specific angle; otherwise it's impossible to tell what the thing is. When the scorching sun of the Urfa plain appears on the horizon, the bluish-grey lights of morning suddenly morph to yellow.

I walk around the major obelisks one by one trying to decide which one is going to be in the best light at which time. As I do so, I realize that some of them are in the completely wrong position. Nevertheless, the dig area makes a very lovely sight at this hour of the morning. When I climb up next to a tree at Göbeklitepe's highest point, I realize it's a votive tree from the myriad tiny scraps of cloth tied to its branches. Call it coincidence if you want, but Göbeklitepe has succeeded in remaining a sacred site of sorts right up to our day.

Stone Quarries

As the morning cool slowly gives way to Urfa's notorious heat, leaping from stone to stone becomes more difficult. At an opportune moment I go to see Prof. Dr. Schmidt. The subject of the kind of people who created this place comes up again. Prof. Schmidt reiterates his view that in general they were hunters and gatherers. I was thinking how bringing a labour force of 200 here would necessitate feeding all those men and how this would only be possible in some sort of agrarian society. Supporting my thesis would mean accepting that agriculture began in the world two thousand years earlier than what is currently believed.

Later Prof. Schmidt showed me the stone quarries that are spread over the environs at Göbeklitepe. First we found a place from which a circular piece seemed to have been removed, and then realized that it had not been removed after all. The stone was carved out like a hoop but the piece in the middle was still there. It occurred to me that perhaps here, too, like Egypt's famous unfinished obelisk, there was an obelisk that had not been able to be completed. And indeed there was. Strolling alone down a path cleared by the dig team, I came upon a 'T'-shaped obelisk that was lying on the ground. It was much smaller than the one in Egypt, but it had been made 7,000 years earlier and, lying here like this for the last 12,000 years, its edges had been worn down over time. Returning by another path, this time I saw a fragment that had been left behind because it was broken. It was so badly worn that it wasn't clear what it was, but still it impressed a person as a fragment of stone that had come to a bad end.

Monuments in the Urfa Museum

Archaeology is an extraordinary branch of learning. Every passing day changes and deepens the shape of our past through new finds. Sometimes these changes manifest themselves as a tiny step, and sometimes, as at Göbeklitepe, they emerge in a giant leap. Following these developments can become an all-consuming passion without a person's even realizing it.

Articles like this one usually end with an injunction to go there and see for yourself. I'm going to make an exception this time and say, “Don't go. Don't go there and distract the dig team.” But you should not miss the Göbeklitepe monuments and artefacts that are now in the Urfa Museum. And keep this in a corner of your mind: “Somewhere, in a distant place, on a parched hill in eastern Turkey, a piece of world history is being written again.”

This text is courtesy of SkyLife, a monthly magazine published by Turkish Airlines.

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This article is one of the most interesting to read in several years. I hope that you keep us all posted on additional findings.
Dick B Terry




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