“The Sanctuary,” Elif Batuman, The New Yorker, Dec 19 & 26, 2011 (See previous posting.)
Urfa (recently renamed Sanli-urfa) is a small town in southern Turkey, about thirty miles north of the Syrian border. Muslims consider it to be the Biblical Ur of the Chaldeans, birthplace of Abraham. It is also thought to be the site where Job suffered his torments.
In the countryside just outside of Urfa is an archeological site called “Gobekli Tepe” that simply means “potbelly hill” in Turkish. It has recently become famous for containing strange, T-shaped megaliths weighing several tons, smoothly shaped and containing carvings that on some are geometric and on others are realistic depictions of various dangerous animals such as lions, scorpions and vultures, all clearly male. There seems to be no unifying style (not all are T-shape) nor a consistent level of craftsmanship. The megaliths are arranged to form a circular, 22-acre, Stonehenge-style temple. This discovery is turning our assumptions of the origins of civilization upside-down.
The most amazing aspect is their age. They are about 11,000 years old. That is an incredible six and a half thousand years older than the Great Pyramid, five and a half thousand years older than the first cuneiform tablets, and a thousand years older than the walls of Jericho. (Stonehenge is not all that old. The barbaric tribes of the British Isles came late to civilization’s table.) Abraham was far closer to our time than to the time of Gobekli Tepe.
Gobekli Tepe had to be created by a hunter-gatherer society who were thought to be too nomadic to have developed complex symbols and a social hierarchy necessary to build it. Hunter-gatherers were not supposed to have made larger-than-life human figures, yet these megaliths are clearly humanoid representations with large, oblong heads. Some are carved wearing a loincloth, some with their hands clasped, some with necklaces. But there are no scenes of daily life such as those commonly shown in Egyptian art. There are very few depictions of animals such as deer and antelopes that must have provided most of their food.
Apparently no one lived at the temple. There are no trash pits, homes, hearths or animal bones indicative of habitation, although there are some bones of animals typically eaten at Neolithic feasts, suggesting it was once a big party site, whatever else its function may have been. Then, another mystery. The whole thing was deliberately buried some thirteen hundred years after its construction. There are no signs of a battle: no weapons, no scorched rock, no human bones. The burying was done carefully as if they expected to return. One suggestion is that they simply packed up and moved on, becoming someone else who may still be among us. There is much more to be excavated, and this may eventually shed more light on the story.
But already this is changing our theories on the origin of civilization. We had assumed that changing from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural society was a prerequisite to civilization. Only when people settled in one place could they develop the type of society necessary to build permanent structures such as temples. Now, we find we may have it backwards. Perhaps it was the motivation to build a sacred site that forced the hunter-gatherers to organize themselves into a work-force, to spend long periods in one place, and only then to develop agriculture. The small Neolithic fertility goddess figurines so commonly found throughout the Middle East may have preceded, not followed, agriculture societies. (The University of Pennsylvania’s museum of archeology has many of these figurines on display.)