When German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began digging atop a Turkish mountain 25 years ago, he was convinced that the buildings he discovered were unusual, even unique.
On top of a limestone plateau near Urfa called Göbekli Tepe, which in Turkish means “mount with a belly”, Schmidt found more than 20 circular stone enclosures.
The largest was 20 m in diameter, a stone circle with two 5.5 m tall pillars carved intricately in the center.
The stone columns — stylized human figures with hands clasped, rather sinister, and fox-skin belts — weighed up to 10 tons.
Carving and erecting these pillars must have been a tremendous technical challenge for people who had not yet domesticated animals or invented pottery, let alone metal tools.
The buildings were 11,000 years old or older, making them the oldest monumental structures known to mankind, erected not for shelter but for some other purpose.
After a decade of work, Schmidt came to a startling conclusion.
When I visited the excavation in the old city of Urfa in 2007, he —who was then working for the German Archaeological Institute— told me that Göbekli Tepe could help rewrite the history of civilization, explaining why humans started to develop agriculture and live in permanent settlements.
Stone tools and other evidence that Schmidt and his team found at the site revealed that the circular enclosures had been built by hunter-gatherers.
Tens of thousands of animal bones that were discovered were wild species and there was no evidence of grain or other cultivated plants.
Schmidt thought these hunter-gatherers had come together 11,500 years ago to carve the T-shaped pillars of Göbekli Tepe with stone tools, using the limestone rock of the hill beneath their feet as a quarry.
Carving and transporting the columns would have been a Herculean task, but perhaps not as difficult as it first appears.
The pillars are carved from the natural limestone layers at the base of the mound.
Limestone is soft enough to be worked with a stone or even the wooden tools available at the time, with training and patience.
And because the limestone formations on the hill were horizontal layers between 0.6m and 1.5m thick, archaeologists working at the archaeological site believe that the ancient builders had to cut off excess from the sides rather than the part of low.
Once a pillar was carved, they moved it a few hundred meters towards the top of the hill, using ropes, wooden beams and vast labor.
Schmidt believed that small nomadic bands from across the region were motivated by their beliefs to join forces at the top of the hill for periodic construction projects, hold large parties, and then disperse again.
The archaeological site, Schmidt argued, was a center of rituals, perhaps some kind of cemetery or death cult complex, rather than a settlement.
It was quite a statement.
Archaeologists have long believed that complex rituals and organized religions were luxuries societies developed only when they began to domesticate animals and grow crops, a transition known as the Neolithic period.
The idea was that once they had a surplus of food, they could devote their extra resources to rituals and monuments.
Göbekli Tepe, Schmidt told me, turned this timeline upside down. The stone tools at the site, supported by radiocarbon dating, placed the archaeological site firmly in the pre-Neolithic era.
More than 25 years after the first excavations, there is still no evidence of domesticated plants or animals there.
And Schmidt didn’t think anyone lived there full time. He called the place “a cathedral on a hill”.
If it were really true, it would reveal that complex rituals and social organization would actually have come before settlements and agriculture.
Over 1,000 years, the need to gather nomadic bands in one place to carve and move huge T-pillars and build circular enclosures would have driven people to the next step.
To regularly organize large gatherings, they would need to have more predictable and reliable food supplies, taming plants and animals.
Rituals and religion, it seemed, would have launched the Neolithic Revolution.
The next day I drove with Schmidt to the top of the hill before dawn.
I wandered in amazement and bewilderment between the pillars as Schmidt, his head wrapped in a white scarf to protect him from the blazing sun, supervised a small team of German archaeologists and workers from a small village on the road.
Schmidt had just published his first reports on Göbekli Tepe the year before, leaving the small world of Neolithic archeology experts in an uproar.
But the archaeological site still had a sense of numbness and neglect, with excavation areas covered by makeshift corrugated steel roofs and rutted dirt roads winding to the excavation site at the top of the mountain.
Schmidt’s theories about the archaeological site’s impressive T-pillars and huge circular “special structures” fascinated his colleagues and journalists when they were first published in the mid-2000s.
Breathtaking reports called the archaeological site the birthplace of religion; the German magazine Der Spiegel compared the surrounding fertile pastures with the Garden of Eden.
Soon, people from all over the world were flocking to see Göbekli Tepe in person.
Within a decade, the top of the hill was completely transformed.
Until the civil war in neighboring Syria that disrupted tourism in the region in 2011, work on the archaeological site often slowed down as buses packed with curious tourists flocked around the digs to see what some called ” the world’s first temple,” making wheelbarrows impossible to maneuver through the narrow alleys.
Over the past five years, the top of the mountain on the outskirts of Urfa has been transformed once again.
Today, roads, parking lots and a visitor center can accommodate curious travelers from all over the world.
In 2017, the corrugated steel sheds were replaced by state-of-the-art canvas and steel sheds, covering the central monumental buildings.
The Şanlıurfa Archeology and Mosaic Museum, built in 2015 in the center of Urfa, is one of the largest museums in Turkey; it features a life-size replica of the archaeological site’s largest enclosure and its imposing T-pillars, allowing visitors to get a feel for the monumental columns and examine their sculptures up close.
In 2018, Göbekli Tepe was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and Turkish tourism authorities declared 2019 the “Year of Göbekli Tepe”, making the ancient archaeological site the face of their global promotion campaign.
“I still remember the archaeological site as a remote place on top of a mountain,” says Jens Notroff, an archaeologist at the German Archaeological Institute who began working at the site as a student in the mid-2000s.
“It has completely changed.”
Schmidt, who died in 2014, did not live to see the transformation of the archaeological site — which from a dusty excavation atop the mountain became a major tourist attraction.
But their findings sparked global interest in the Neolithic transition — and in recent years, new discoveries at Göbekli Tepe and more detailed analyzes of previous excavation results have begun to alter Schmidt’s initial interpretations of the archaeological site.
Work to erect the foundations needed to support the new roof of the archaeological site required archaeologists to dig deeper than Schmidt had already done.
Under the direction of Lee Clare, Schmidt’s successor, a team from the German Archaeological Institute dug a series of holes into the rocky foundation of the archaeological site, several meters below the floor of the massive buildings.
“We had a unique chance,” Clare said, “to examine the lower layers and deposits of the archaeological site.”
What Clare and her colleagues found may rewrite prehistory once again.
Excavations revealed evidence of houses and settlements, suggesting that Göbekli Tepe was not an isolated temple visited on special occasions, but a thriving village with large special buildings at its center.
The team also identified a large cistern and canals to collect rainwater, critical to support a dry mountaintop settlement, and thousands of grinding tools to process grain to prepare porridge and brew beer.
“Göbekli Tepe is still a unique and special archaeological site, but the new knowledge fits better with what we know of other historic sites,” Clare said.
“It was a real settlement with permanent occupation. It changed our entire understanding of the archaeological site.”
Meanwhile, Turkish archaeologists working in the rugged countryside around Urfa have identified at least a dozen other hilltop sites with similar T-pillars — though smaller, dating from roughly the same period.
“It’s not a unique temple,” said researcher Barbara Horejs of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, a specialist in the Neolithic who was not part of recent research efforts.
“It makes the story so much more interesting and exciting.”
Turkey’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, went so far as to say that this area could be called the “pyramids of southeast Turkey”.
Rather than a centuries-old building project that inspired the transition to agriculture, Clare and other experts now believe that Göbekli Tepe was an attempt by hunter-gatherers to cling to a lifestyle that disappeared as the world changed to theirs. around.
Evidence from the surrounding region shows that people elsewhere were experimenting with domesticated animals and plants — a trend that people in the ‘hill with the belly’ might be resisting.
Clare argues that the stone carvings at the archaeological site are an important clue. Elaborate sculptures of foxes, leopards, snakes and vultures covering the pillars and walls of Gobekli Tepe “are not animals you see every day,” he says.
“They are more than just images, they are narratives, which are very important to keep groups together and create a shared identity.”
When I first wandered around the site more than 15 years ago, I remember a feeling of great distance.
Göbekli Tepe was built 6,000 years before Stonehenge, and the exact meaning of its sculptures—as well as the world the people inhabited there—is impossible to understand.
This, of course, is part of Göbekli Tepe’s tremendous magnetism.
As thousands of visitors marvel at a place most people had never heard of a decade ago, researchers will continue to try to understand why it was built.
And each new discovery promises to change what we now know about the archaeological site and the history of human civilization.
“The new work is not destroying Klaus Schmidt’s thesis; it exists thanks to him,” says Horejs.
“There has been a huge gain in knowledge, in my opinion. The interpretation is changing, but that’s what science is all about.”