World's Oldest Temple to be Restored
The ancient site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey has rewritten the early history of civilization.
The world’s oldest monuments may soon get an image makeover. A new project will promote and preserve Göbekli Tepe, home to the most ancient temple structures ever discovered.
Turkey hopes to eventually boost tourism at the site, which is in a region where tourism has declined because of the nearby Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.
Since excavations began in 1995, the site in southeastern Turkey has changed the way archaeologists think about the origins of civilization. Its circular structures, with their elaborately carved stones and distinctive, T-shaped pillars, are more than 12,000 years old—older than the invention of agriculture or even pottery.
The early dates have upended the idea that agriculture led to civilization. Scholars long thought that when hunter-gatherers settled down and started growing crops, the resulting food surplus made it possible for people to organize complex societies.
Göbekli Tepe calls that conventional wisdom into question. Klaus Schmidt, a German archaeologist who led excavations at the site, argued before he died in 2014 that it might have worked the other way around: The vast labor force needed to build the enclosures pushed people to develop agriculture as a way of providing predictable food—and perhaps drink—for workers.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Doğuş Group will announce Wednesday that they plan to spend $15 million over the next 20 years on the project, in partnership with the National Geographic Society. “Göbekli Tepe is our zero point in time,” Doğuş Group chairman Ferit F. Şahenk said in a press release.
Earliest Religious Site?
Newly gathered evidence from excavations at the site backs up Schmidt’s argument that the beginnings of civilization spurred the invention of farming. In the middle of each monumental enclosure are two tall T-shaped pillars, carved with stylized arms, hands and loincloths. The largest weigh more than 16 tons. Carving and moving them from a nearby quarry must have been a tremendous challenge, requiring hundreds of people and enough food to feed them all.
But archaeologists have yet to find evidence of permanent settlement at Göbekli Tepe. One recent suggestion is that the site was a regional gathering place. It’s perched on top of a bone-dry peak, with a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and the plains to the south.
“Back then people would have to meet regularly to keep the gene pool fresh and exchange information,” says Jens Notroff, a German Archaeological Institute archaeologist who works on the site. “It’s a landmark. It’s no accident they gathered there.”
In fact, smaller versions of the pillars, symbols and architecture carved into stone at Göbekli Tepe have been found in settlements up to 125 miles away. It’s as though Göbekli Tepe were a cathedral and the others local churches; hunter-gatherers might have traveled long distances to meet, worship and help build new monumental structures, sponsoring feasts to display their wealth.
“The feasting aspect is the easiest explanation for attracting a labor force to construct the enclosures,” Notroff says.