Note: This article was originally written in Turkish for February 2016 issue of Turkish Airlines’ in-flight magazine Skylife and it was translated into English by the magazine’s translation team. The site was at the time covered due to the roof construction works so I could not get any photos of the pillars.
This time, the reason I wanted to visit southeastern Turkey, which I find more and more impressive with each trip, was to visit the Göbekli Tepe Archaeological Site, widely regarded as one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of recent times. On our drive out of the nearby city of Şanlıurfa, I keep asking, “Is this it?” every time we pass a hill, until we finally arrive at the picturesque historical site situated on a lowland. What strikes me first about Göbekli Tepe (nearly 15 kilometers away from Şanlıurfa) overlooking Harran Plain is a wish tree at the entrance to the ruins that turned the site into a tourist attraction long before its true value was revealed in 1994. Situated between two old cemeteries, this mulberry tree and its periphery are frequented regularly by locals, who come to the area to make vows.
When we arrive, we’re introduced to our guide, Veysi Yıldız. We soon learn that he is the son of Şavak Yıldız, the farmer who discovered the site in 1994, a moment mentioned in the opening chapter of the book Göbekli Tepe, written by Klaus Schmidt, who led the site’s excavations until his death in 2014. Actively involved in the Göbekli Tepe excavations for years, Veysi Yıldız’s commitment to the preservation of the site, the most important archaeological discovery in recent years, is unwavering. And he takes a similarly engaged interest in visitors, infecting each with his excitement and love for the area. Listening to him talk about Göbekli Tepe, you can’t help but be drawn into the history of the place.
Carbon analysis has revealed that the stone pillars that stand in a circular shape in Göbekli Tepe are nearly 12,000 years old, making the site the first known temple in the history of mankind. Almost twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, and Stonehenge, in England, each of the pillars is adorned with pictures of animal figures or abstract ornaments. Most importantly, the pillars renounce the common belief that, at the time of construction, the area was inhabited only by hunting tribes. They offer proof of the sophistication of the society that built Göbekli Tepe.
Göbeklitepe’s greatest merit is that it proves that the incentive that first drove mankind to take the step towards civilization was the need to believe in a superior power, not agriculture, as the argument went until Göbeklitepe was found. To borrow Schmidt’s words, it went: “temple first, city later.” Besides the four temples that have been excavated so far, it’s estimated that twenty separate temples in total will have been found by the time the excavations in Göbeklitepe are complete. It means the site holds the potential to become one of the world’s most unique archaeological discoveries.
Another interesting detail is that these temples were temporarily buried after construction, and were then rebuilt. Why? Unfortunately, that remains one of the unsolved mysteries of Göbekli Tepe. But the fact that people at the time were able to transport huge, 16-ton pillars proves that they lived in organized groups, an argument against the widely-held belief that these people were solitary hunters.
Not only has Göbekli Tepe changed everything we previously believed was true about the history of mankind and about the mankind’a transition to urban settlements, it also offers a true visual feast all together. It stands in the midst of the Harran Plain, surrounded by grain fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Another thing that caught my attention was the way the locals honour this archaeological discovery. Everywhere you look there’s a strong pride in the fact that their hometown is host to a milestone in the history of humanity –the first known temple in the history of mankind was built here, afterall. Their excitement about the excavations is always apparent –just ask them to talk about the archaeological developments and they’ll tell you all about it.
Currently, building works are taking place for a temporary roof that is meant to cover the site and offer protection from wet weather conditions for discoveries during excavations. Based on the blueprints we saw, once this project is complete –it’s expected to be finished this year–Göbekli Tepe will become an important living museum in which excavations are still underway.
Göbekli Tepe is worthy of a visit for its own sake, but the surrounding area deserves just as much attention. It is located right next to the city of Şanlıurfa which, unlike other cities in the region, blends the historical texture of its old town with its own local life, turning a visit to the region into much more than a simple tourist experience. When I visited, I did the same as most tourists and decided to combine my Göbekli Tepe visit with a trip to Şanlıurfa. The historical area of the city, which centers on the pond of Balıklıgöl –a popular meeting place among locals– resembles an open-air museum with mosques scattered around the square and the overlooking Şanlıurfa Castle. I start my city tour from the Gümrük Inn, which has a special place in Turkish cinema because it acts as a backdrop to one of the opening scenes in the movie Eşkıya (The Bandit). The inn, which is surrounded by trees, has an atmosphere of times long gone; the upstairs galleries are still home to tailors’ shops. My next stop is the Copper’s Bazaar, where coppersmiths keep ancient tradition alive in little workshops. After watching them and listening to the hypnotizing rhythms of their work, I head towards the tailors’ area, where numerous tailors cut and sew in the open air. I visit again the next morning, and even though it’s a Sunday morning, I am lucky to have the chance to watch the coppersmith and his apprentice at work, tin-coating a copper piece.
Another interesting sight I came across was the mesmerising Şanlıurfa Museum of Archaeology, opened in 2015 in a stunning new building. Arranged chronologically into separate spacious halls, the museum’s collection is sure to catch the attention of young and old. In addition to the artifacts excavated from Göbekli Tepe, it also displays archaeological findings from Nevali Çori, another archaeological site in the region, which belongs to the Neolithic age and was buried under a dam in 1992.
A trip to Şanlıurfa wouldn’t be complete without attending sıra gecesi (sira night, an indigenous musical performance). Sıra means “turn”, so the event is organized at a different location each time. These nights were mostly about having a nice conversation with other inhabitants, but it’s turned into fun events where local Şanlıurfa songs are sung. Having the time of their lives on a Saturday night at a restaurant converted from a historic inn, the locals didn’t seem to mind this change.
Şanlıurfa and its periphery stand out among the destinations I visited –in Turkey and abroad– with the magnificent Göbekli Tepe Archaeological Site, the historic city center, unique atmosphere that preserves tradition but adopts modern life, and of course, the local cuisine. On my way flight back home, I start making immediate plans to return.