(ORDO NEWS) — I look at a dozen hard orange-red figures, eight feet high, carved from living rock and located in a semi-enclosed chamber.
A strange carved head (of a man, demon, priest, god?), also carved from living stone, looks at phallic totems – like a primitivist gargoyle.
The expression on the face of the stone head is mournful, up to a grimace, as if he, or she, or it, does not approve of all this: the fact that everything is naked under heaven and is revealed to the world for the first time in 130 centuries.
Yes, 130 centuries. Because these penises, this peculiar chamber, this whole bewildered place known as Karahan Tepe (pronounced Kah-rah-hann Tep-ay), which now appears on the dusty plains of Harran in eastern Turkey, is amazingly ancient. In other words, its age is estimated at 11-13,000 years.
This figure is so large that it is difficult to accept. For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 4,500 years old. Stonehenge is 5,000 years old. Possibly the oldest standing structure in Europe, the tomb complex of Cairne des Barnesnes in Brittany may be up to 7,000 years old.
The oldest megalithic ritual monument in the world (before the Turkish discoveries) has always been considered Ggantija in Malta. He is possibly 5,500 years old.
Thus, Karahan Tepe, his penis chamber and everything that inexplicably surrounds the chamber – sanctuaries, chambers, altars, megaliths, audience halls, etc – are much older than anything comparable, and penetrates completely unimaginable the depths of time, even before the advent of agriculture, perhaps even before the advent of ordinary ceramics, right at the time when we considered human “civilization” simply impossible.
After all, hunter-gatherers – cavemen with flint arrowheads – without a regular supply of grain, without a regular supply of meat and milk from domesticated animals, did not build temple cities with water systems.
Is it so?
Virtually everything we can now see from Karahan Tepe has been skilfully excavated over the past two years with surprising ease (for reasons we will return to later). And while much remains to be drawn from the grave, what it already teaches us is amazing.
Together with its age, complexity, refinement and deep, resonant mystery, as well as its many kindred objects now excavated in the plains of Harran, collectively known as Tas Tepeler, or “stone hills”, these carved ocher-red rocks, so silent, brooding and wary under the harsh wind of the semi-desert, represent perhaps the greatest archaeological revelation in the history of mankind.
The opening of Karahan-tepe and almost all Tas-tepelers over the past two years has no precedent. While I urgently photograph the ominously looming head, Nekmi Karul touches me on the shoulder and gestures behind my back, to the sun-scorched and unlit plain.
Nedjmi, a staff member of Istanbul University, is the chief archaeologist in charge of all local excavations – all of Tas-Tepeler. He invited me here to look at the latest finds in this region because I was one of the first Western journalists who came here many years ago and wrote about the origin of Tas-Tepeler.
In fact, under the pseudonym Tom Knox, I wrote a thrilling thriller about the first of the “stone hills” – a novel called “The Secret of Being”, which has been translated into many languages - including Turkish. This place I visited 16 years ago was Gobekli Tepe.
Nekmi points into the distance, which is now hazy from the heat.
Sean. Do you see that valley with the roads and the white buildings?”
I can make out a whitish dot in one of the pale, greenish-yellow valleys that stretch endlessly into the shimmering mist.
“This,” Nekmi says, “is Gobekli Tepe. It’s 46 kilometers away. It has changed since you were here last time!”
And now, Gobekli Tepe. The hill of the navel. Gobekli is of key importance. Because Karakhan-tepe, and Tas-tepeler, and what they can mean today, cannot be understood without the primary context of Gobekli-tepe. And to understand this, we must go back twice over time for at least a few decades.
The modern history of Gobekli Tepe begins in 1994, when a Kurdish shepherd followed his flock along the lonely, barren hillsides, passing by a single mulberry tree, which the locals considered “sacred”.
The bells hanging from his sheep tinkled in the silence. Then he noticed something. Crouching, he brushed off the dust and saw a large oblong stone. The man looked left and right: there were similar rock outcroppings peeking out of the sand.
Calling his dog, the shepherd informed someone of his find when he returned to the village. Perhaps the stones were important. He wasn’t wrong.
A lone Kurdish man on that summer day in 1994 made an irreversibly deep discovery that eventually led to the Karahan Tepe pillars and an archaeological anomaly that, time and time again, defies everything we know about prehistoric human history.
A few weeks after that meeting at the mulberry tree, news of the shepherd’s discovery reached the curators of the museum in the ancient city of Sanliurfa, located 13 km southwest of the stones. They contacted the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul.
And at the end of 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to the site of Gobekli Tepe to begin a slow, painstaking excavation of numerous, peculiar, huge T-shaped stones, which are usually arranged in a circle – like the standing stones of Avebury or Stonehenge.
However, unlike European standing stones, older Turkish megaliths are often decorated with intricate carvings: images of local fauna. Sometimes the stones depict cranes, wild boars or wild birds – hunting creatures. There are also leopards, foxes and vultures. Sometimes these animals are depicted next to human heads.
There is a noticeable lack of detailed depictions of humans, except for a few crude or creepy figurines, as well as the T-stones themselves, which seem to be stylized invocations to men, their arms “tilted” to protect the groin.
The obsession with the penis is obvious – what’s more, we now have the benefit of the hindsight provided by Karahan Tepe and other objects. From Tas-Tepeler, very few images of women have survived so far; there is one obscene caricature of a woman, possibly in labor. Whatever inspired these temple cities, it was not a benevolent matriarchal culture. Perhaps quite the opposite.
The apparent date of the creation of Gobekli Tepe – the first temple was erected in 10,000 BC, if not earlier – caused skepticism. But over time, expert archaeologists began to recognize its significance. Ian Hodden of Stanford University stated that: “Gobekli Tepe changes everything.”
David Lewis-Williams, a respected professor of archeology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said at the time: “Gobekli Tepe is the most important archaeological site in the world.”
And yet, in the nineties and early zero years, Gobekli Tepe avoided the attention of the general public. It’s hard to say why. Too remote? Too hard to pronounce?
Too eccentric to fit into the established theories of the prehistoric period? Whatever the reason, when I flew there on a whim in 2006 (inspired by two peppy minutes of filming a TV show), even the locals in the nearby major city of Sanliurfa had no idea what was out there in the swamps.
I remember how on the day of arrival I asked a taxi driver to take me to Gobekli Tepe. He never heard of him. Not the slightest clue. Today, it’s like asking someone in Paris if they’ve heard of the Louvre and getting the answer “no”.
The driver had to consult with several taxi driver friends until one of them understood where I wanted to go – “this is a German excavation, outside the city, near the Arab villages” – and so the driver took me from Sanliurfa to the dust until we climbed the last distant hill and missed the scene from the opening credits of The Exorcist: archaeologists toil unnoticed by the world, but furiously pursuing their world-changing discoveries.
For an hour, Klaus (who unfortunately died in 2014) generously accompanied me around the site. I took pictures of him, rocks and workers, and it was not difficult, since there were literally no other tourists.
Several of the photos I took on that hot afternoon have become iconic, like my photo of a shepherd who found the place, or Klaus crouching next to one of the finest carved T-stones. They were valued simply because no one else bothered to make them.
After the tour, Klaus and I retired from the heat to his tent, where Klaus explained the meaning of this place over elegant tulip cups of sweet black Turkish tea.
According to him, “Gobekli Tepe turns our understanding of the history of mankind. We always thought that agriculture appeared first, and then civilization: agriculture, pottery, social hierarchy.
But here everything is the other way around, it seems that first a ritual center appeared, and then when enough hunters gathered to worship – or so I think – they realized that they needed to feed the people.
He waved his hand at the surrounding hills: “It is no coincidence that in these same hills in the Fertile Crescent, men and women first domesticated the local wild einkorn grass, which became wheat, and also first domesticated pigs, cows and sheep.
It was here that Homo sapiens moved from picking fruits from a tree to labor and the sowing of the land.”
Klaus suggested to me. People have already argued that if the myth of the Garden of Eden is seen as an allegory for the Neolithic Revolution, that is, our fall from the relative ease of hunter-gatherers to the relative difficulties of farming (and life did become more difficult when we first started farming, because we worked harder hours and contracted diseases from domestic animals), then Gobekli Tepe and its environs are probably the place where this happened.
Klaus Schmidt didn’t object. He said to me quite consciously: “I believe that Gobekli Tepe is a temple in Eden.” I reused this quote, which caused some controversy because people took Klaus literally. But he didn’t take it literally. He spoke about it allegorically.
Klaus told me even more amazing things.
We didn’t find any houses or human remains. Where is everyone, did they gather for the holidays, and then dispersed? As for their religion, I have no idea, maybe Gobekli Tepe was a place of excarnation where the bones of the dead were exposed to be eaten by vultures, so all the bodies disappeared.
But I know the following for sure: somewhere in 8000 BC, the creators of Gobekli Tepe buried their great structures under tons of rubble. They walled him up. We can speculate why. Did they feel guilty? They needed to propitiate an angry god? Or just wanted to hide? Klaus was sure of something else as well. “Gobekli Tepe is unique.”
I left Gobekli Tepe as puzzled as I was excited. I wrote a few articles and then my thriller, and along with me, many other writers, scientists, and filmmakers made a sometimes dangerous pilgrimage to this luxurious and mysterious place on the troubled Turkish-Syrian border, and gradually its fame grew.
Here and now, in 2022, Nekmi, me and Aydan Aslan, director of culture and tourism of Sanliurfa, jump into the car at Karahan-tepe (Nekmi promises me that we will return) and go to see Gobekli-tepe in its current form.
Nekmi is right: everything has changed. Today, Gobekli Tepe is not just a famous archaeological site, it is a tourist center included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, which can receive a million visitors a year. All this is enclosed by a futuristic high-tech tent made of steel and plastic (no random wandering around and photographing stones and workers).
Where Klaus and I once sipped tea alone in a flapping tent, there is now a large visitor center where I run into the shepherd’s grandson who first found Gobekli. I see the rock where I photographed Klaus crouching, but I see him 20 meters away from me. It’s as close as I can get.
After lunch in Sanliurfa – with its themed restaurants and souvenir shops with Gobekli Tepe stones – Nekmi shows me a glittering museum built to house the region’s greatest finds, including an 11,000-year-old statue recovered from just below the center of Sanliurfa, and, possibly the oldest life-size carved human figure in the world.
I remember the first time I saw this juicy effigy under the stairs next to the fire extinguisher in the then neglected Municipal Museum of Sanliurfa. Back in 2006, I wrote about the “man from Urfa” and how he should be much more famous than hidden in some obscure room in a museum that is visited by three people a year.
Now the “man from Urfa” has his own quiet room in one of the greatest archaeological galleries in Turkey. More importantly, we can now see that the man from Urfa has the same body posture as the T-shaped pillar men in Gobekli (and in many Tas Tepeler): his hands are in front of him, protecting his penis. His obsidian eyes still look longingly at the observer, as brilliant as they were 11,000 years ago.
As we walk through the museum, Nekmi points out more and more carvings, more and more leopards, vultures, penises. In several places, archaeologists have found statues of leopards that appear to be galloping, riding, or even “raping” people by covering their eyes with their paws.
Meanwhile, Aslan tells me that archaeologists at Gobekli have also recently found tantalizing evidence of alcohol: huge vats of chemical fermentation residue, pointing to powerful ritual feasts, perhaps.
I feel that we are approaching a new important interpretation of Gobekli Tepe and Tas Tepeler. And it is very different from the perspective that Klaus Schmidt gave me in 2006 (and this, of course, is not a criticism: he could not know what would happen next).
Nekmi – as promised – is taking me back to Karakhan-tepe and to some other Tas-tepelers so that we can put together this epoch-making puzzle. As we rush along the arid slopes, he explains that scientists at Karakhan-tepe, as well as at Gobekli-tepe, have found evidence of the existence of dwellings.
These places, Tas-Tepeler, were not isolated temples where hunter-gatherers came several times a year to bow to standing stones, after which they returned to the plains to pursue life. The builders lived here. Here they ate roasted game.
They slept here. And they used a seemingly primitive but poetic form of pottery carved from polished stone. It is possible that they performed complex male rituals in the penis chamber of Karakhan-tepe, which was probably half-filled with liquid. And perhaps they celebrated after that drunken feasts.
And yet we have no signs of modern agriculture; they appear to have been hunter-gatherers, but with frightening sophistication.
Another oddity is the curious amount of carvings that show people with six fingers. Is this a symbol or a real ugliness? Perhaps this is a sign of a strange tribe? Again, there are more questions than answers. However, very importantly, we now have preliminary hints as to what the religion of these people was.
Several skulls were found in Gobekli Tepe. They were deliberately decapitated and carefully perforated so that they could – presumably – be hung and displayed.
The cult of skulls was not unknown in ancient Anatolia. If such a cult existed in Tas-Tepeler, then this may explain the vultures depicted on them, “playing” with human heads.
As to how the skulls were obtained, they could have been obtained as a result of the conflict (although there is no evidence for this yet), it is quite possible that the skulls were obtained through human sacrifice.
At a nearby, slightly earlier site, the Kayonu Skull Building, we know of altars covered in human blood, probably as a result of blood sacrifices.
Nekmi wants to say one more thing about Karahan Tepe as we look around the penis chamber and its hallways. Karakhan-Tepe is amazingly large. “So far,” he says, “we’ve probably excavated about 1 percent of the area,” and it’s already impressive. I ask him how many pillars – stones T – can be buried here.
He casually points to a rectangular stone rising above dry grass. This is probably another megalith waiting to be excavated. I think there are thousands of them around us. We are only at the beginning of the journey. But there may be dozens of Tas-Tepelers that we have not yet found, scattered over hundreds of kilometers.
In one respect, Klaus Schmidt was absolutely right. After he first suggested that Gobekli Tepe was intentionally filled in with rubble, that is, fancifully walled up by its creators, a wave of skepticism arose, and some suggested that the apparent backfill was the result of thousands of years of random erosion, rains and rivers that washed debris between the megaliths. gradually hiding them.
Why would any religious society bury their cathedrals, which must have taken decades to build?
And yet Karakhan was also definitely and purposefully buried. This is the reason Nekmi and his team were able to locate the penis poles so quickly. All they had to do was sweep away the backfill, revealing phallic pillars sculpted from living stone.
I have one more question for Nekmi that keeps bothering me more and more. Did the people who built Tas-Tepeler have a written language?
It is almost impossible to believe that it was possible to build such complex objects, in several places, on thousands of square kilometers, without careful, well-articulated plans, that is, without writing. You couldn’t sing and paint and dream of entire populated cities with shrines, vaults, water channels and cult chambers.
Nekmi shrugs. He does not know. One of the beauties of Tas-Tepeler is that it is so old that no one knows. Your guess is literally as good as the expert’s.
And yet a very good guess right now leads to the most remarkable answer of all, and it is this: archaeologists in southeastern Turkey are currently unearthing a wild, grandiose, artistically complete, incredibly strange, hitherto unknown to us religious civilization that was buried in Mesopotamia for ten thousand years. And it was all done on purpose.
Jumping into the car, we are off to another Tas-Tepeler, but then Nekmi abruptly changes his mind about the destination.
“No, let’s see Cyburk. It’s a small Arab village. A few months ago, one of the farmers called us and said: “We think we have megaliths in the walls of our yard. Would you like to take a look?”
Our cars pull up to a muddy village square where sheep and chickens roam. Of course there are the classic Gobekli/Karakhan style T-stones used to reinforce agricultural walls, they are probably 11-13,000 years old, as elsewhere.
There are so many of them that I notice one of them on the outskirts of the village. I point Nekmi to her. He nods and says, “Yeah, it’s probably the other one.” But he wants to show me something else.
Pulling back the plastic curtain, we find ourselves in a kind of stone shed. Along one wall is an impressive stone frieze, which depicts figures of animals and people, carved or embossed.
There are, of course, leopards here, as well as aurors engraved in a cubist manner so that both menacing horns are equally visible (you can see an identical image of an auror in Gobekli Tepe, so similar that you might think they were carved by the same artist ).
In the center of the frieze is a small figurine in bold relief. He clutches his penis in his hands. Next to him, who is being threatened by the Aurors, is another man.
He has six fingers. For a long time we silently look at the carving. I understand that, being a few farmers apart, we are among the first people to see this after the end of the ice age.
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