Göbekli Tepe: The Mysterious Temple Rewrites History

Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic site in Şanlıurfa, Turkey. Dated between 9600- 8200 BC, it is the oldest known temple in the world. The excavation of the site was conducted by German archeologist Klaus Schmidt between 1996 and 2014.

Göbekli Tepe excavation site

During excavations, Schmidt discovered more than 20 circular stone enclosures. The largest one was 20m across with two 5.5m tall pillars weighing up to 10 tons at its center. The stone pillars had carvings of stylized human figures with folded hands on them. The structures were at least 11,000 years old which makes them the oldest known monumental structures in the world.

Göbekli tepe

The actual size of T pillars from enclosure D at Gobekli Tepe.


Several pieces of evidence including the stone tools found at the site showed that the circular structures had been built by hunter-gatherers. As the technology of the period was limited in terms of transportation, Schmidt thought that the hunter-gatherers carved these T-shaped pillars from the limestone (a relatively softer stone that could be carved with flint or wooden tools) layers of the hill’s bedrock. After a pillar was carved out, it was transported a few hundred meters across the hilltop, using rope, log beams, and manpower.

T-shaped pillars

According to Schmidt, Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for “Belly Hill”) could help understand the reason humans started farming and adopted a settled life.

Göbekli tepe excavation site

There was no evidence of domesticated grains on the site. The animal bones which were thousands in number also belonged to wild species. For this reason, Schmidt thought the site was a cult complex rather than a settlement. He thought that small nomadic groups from across the region would temporarily gather on the hilltop for periodic building projects and holding feasts.

carvings on a pillar
Christian Dubois

Göbekli Tepe rewrites the history of civilization.

Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists had thought that organized religion was a luxury that developed only after the domestication of crops and animals, a transition period known as the Neolithic. However, Gobekli Tepe turned this claim upside down. According to the radiocarbon dating, the stone tools at the site belong to the pre-Neolithic era. That is, the complex ritual and organized religion actually came before settlement and agriculture.

T-shaped pillars in Göbekli Tepe

Under the direction of Schmidt’s successor, Lee Clare, a team dug numerous “keyhole” trenches down to the site’s bedrock. What the team found also changed a great deal about previous speculations on the site. They revealed evidence of year-round settlement, suggesting that Gobekli Tepe was more of a village than an isolated temple.

The team also found a large cistern for collecting rainwater for supporting a settlement on the dry mountain top as well as thousands of grinding tools to process grain for cooking porridge and brewing beer.

Christian Dubois

Clare argues the site’s elaborate carvings of foxes, leopards, serpents, and vultures covering Gobekli Tepe’s pillars “aren’t animals you see every day. They’re more than just pictures, they’re narratives, which are very important in keeping groups together and creating a shared identity.”

animal carvings
animal carvings
Dragan Milad

Details of one of the T columns representing people in Göbeklitepe

UPDATE (30 September 2023)

New discoveries in Göbeklitepe and Karahantepe: A Human statue with a realistic facial expression found in Karahantepe

New finds were discovered in Göbeklitepe and Karahantepe. At around 12,000 years old, Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest megalithic site – and it has a “sister site” called Karahantepe.

With 12.000 years of history, the first painted statue was found in Gobeklitepe, which is described as the zero point of history, and one of the most realistic human statues was found in Karahantepe.

During the excavations in Karahantepe, a human statue was unearthed. The 2.3-meter-high human statue, which is a candidate to be one of the most impressive examples of prehistoric art with a realistic facial expression, was found fixed to the ground in a bench.

In the area where the seated statue, which resembles a dead person, emphasizing the ribs, spine and shoulder bones, was found, a vulture statue placed on the wall and stone plates left on the ground were found.