Gobekli Tepe: where the religion was born.

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We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization. Göbekli Tepe is the oldest place of worship ever discovered, predating the Egyptian pyramids by 6,500 years. Peerless in architecture and artistry, this monument is a true wonder to behold.

Carbon dating of vegetable materials from the site shows the age of the oldest structures at Gobekli Tepe to be somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 years old. Apparently the complex was built and used during three separate periods over about a thousand years with different kinds and styles of stone work. At the time of probable original construction the site was older than most of the factors associated with human civilizations: It is older than the wheel. It is older than agriculture and farming. It is older than animal domestication. It is older than metal tools. It is older than local pottery. It is older than any known towns or villages. 

To show the extreme age of the Gobekli Tepe site following is a list of the approximate ages of other interesting stone structures from around the world:

  • Gobekli Tepe 9250 BC
  • Barnenez (France) 4800 BC
  • Stone Temples from Malta 3700 BC
  • Sechin Bajo (first stone building in Peru) 3500 BC
  • Baalbek stones (Lebanon) 3000 BC
  • Pyramid of Djoser (first Egyptian pyramid) 2700 BC

Dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

The pillars were big—the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art. 

Because of the apparent maturity of the stone work at Gobekli Tepe it is possible that the true origins of the Gobekli Tepe carvings are at least 1,000 years older than the construction of the actual site. There must have been several generations of stone masons who perfected the skills used at Gobleki Tepe. The work looks like it was done by skilled stone masons and not by amateurs. Unfortunately there are no older sites yet discovered. But the sophistication of Gobleki Tepe indicates that probably older sites may have existed.

We estimate that at least 500 people were required to hew the 10- to 50-ton stone pillars from local quarries, move them from as far as a quarter-mile away, and erect them. How did Stone Age people achieve the level of organization necessary to do this? We do speculate that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste--much earlier than when social distinctions became evident at other Near Eastern sites.

As important as what the researchers found was what they did not find: any sign of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the site had no water source—the nearest stream was about three miles away. 

Nearby the site is Mount Karaca Dag, a mountain that geneticists believe to be the birth place of many of today’s cultivated grains. It’s theorized that Gobleki Tepe could be showing us a transition period, depicting nomadic cultures’ first attempt to farm (which would later bring about permanent settlement). The one acre excavation site has raised more questions than it has answered, and astoundingly enough, the site is believed to extend some 22 additional acres.

Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated

One curious aspect of the site is its historical progression and transformation.  Over time the stone rings were buried, with new rings erected over and beside the old, each of which was successively smaller than what came before. This gradual reduction in size might represent either a decline in the capacity to build such structures, or a declining interest in maintaining structures of such magnitude at this particular site, the importance of which might have waned. Around 8,000 B.C., the site was filled with soil and mysteriously abandoned.

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