THE PASSAGE OF TIME

Turkey 2016 | TOURISM | PHOTO ESSAY: GÖBEKLİ TEPE

Göbekli Tepe, near the city of Urfa in southeast Turkey, is an archeological site dating back to the 10th-8th millennium bc and the site of what is believed to be early Neolithic sanctuaries.

Emerging from the collapse of empire and the ravages of war, Atatürk's budding secular Turkish state saw the necessity of fortifying its fragile government with a thick cocoon of patriotism and historic pride. One measure taken was the propagation of pseudo-scientific linguistic hypothesis the Sun Language Theory, which traced all modern language to the atavistic Turkic tongue born in the primal fires of early Sumerian sun worship. Not taken seriously by even the most ardent nationalists, the theory nevertheless touched on some basic truths that place the roaming nomadic ancestors of modern Anatolia at the heart of mankind's search for itself. The ruins of Göbekli Tepe are, for many anthropologists, the Kubrickian monolith that indicates the earliest moment society evolved from a tribal into a civilizational force.

While perhaps not as well documented as the imperial pyramids of Giza or the haunted relics of Machu Picchu, what is found at Göbekli Tepe is far more significant to a scholastic appreciation of how the viral super organism of humanity came to be. Radiocarbon dating places a general estimate of construction at between 10000 and 9000bc, making an adolescent of written record, but crucially placing the cultic structures before the established recognition of the Neoloithic, or agricultural, revolution. The scale of what are considered primeval temples was previously thought beyond the ken of hunter gatherer societies. However, these temples on the outskirts of Urfa have so reversed academic understanding of societal chronology that the chief excavator announced the antecedence of the temple before the city.

Befitting their befuddling of conventional wisdom, the purposes of these antediluvian assemblies remain a matter of half blind speculation. The most educated theory posits Göbekli Tepe as a “cathedral on the hill," drawing pilgrims to a shamanic sanctuary where ancient peoples would pray to ancestral spirits protected by swathes of extraordinary refined animalistic sketches. Gatekeepers to the other side, lions, spiders, snakes and scorpions reflect a more aggressive spiritual focus than the traditional deer etchings in stone-age caves. The site is, however, undoubtedly reverent and may be emblematic of the transformative period between cultural and organized religion. The earliest known Sumerian gods, Anu and Enkil, may have been forged in the solemn echoes of pre-Neolithic ancestor worship, faintly transcending 5,000 years of unknown history.

The cultural, religious, and touristic sway of this desolate area has not been lost on local and international authorities, who now recognize the wider area as worthy of preservation and protection. Beginning in 2010, a Global Heritage Program allied with the municipal government and Ministry of Tourism and Culture undertook a conservation agenda that will preserve the site and seek UNESCO recognition. Only unearthed in 1994, the chief artifacts of Göbekli Tepe are now housed in museums in nearby Urfa, an archaeological gemstone in its own right. Previously known as Edessa, and the “Prophet's City" due to a belief that Abraham was born there, Urfa is the primary destination for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the relics. For a fuller collection of southeast Anatolian bronze age marvels, from Hittite, Persian, and Roman mosaics, sculptures, bones, and statues, the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum is also a short drive to the east.

The Sun Language Theory may have been more a psychosocial bonding device than a legitimate doctrine but, had the budding Turkish nationalists discovered Göbekli Tepe, claims of a Turkish heralding of civilization might not be so bashful. We may never find evidence of the first scratched embers of fire, or the earliest echo of spoken word, but here amid the fabled legacies of Nimrod and Abraham, Göbekli Tepe might just represent the moment our strangest chapter began.