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Urfa’s Göbeklitepe: Urfa’s remote Mesolithic site
1.       Roswitha
4132 posts
 18 Mar 2008 Tue 02:55 am

Anthropomorphic monoliths from Göbeklitepe.
Around 15 kilometers northeast of Urfa, where the southern foothills of the Toros Mountains fade into the burning flatlands of upper Mesopotamia, sits one of Turkey's most important, yet least known, archaeological sites: Göbekli Tepe (Hill of the Navel).

Ten thousand years before the Turks reached Anatolia, 8,000 years before the fall of Troy and 2,000 years before the first evidence of mankind settling down to cultivate crops, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ranged across these low hills. Collecting wild grains, legumes, fruits and berries, chasing down boar and deer and living in rudimentary dwellings, they led an unsophisticated life dictated solely by the basic necessities of food and shelter. Or did they? Archaeologists excavating the site at Göbekli Tepe have discovered that on this wind-scoured, sun-scorched hill rising 870 meters above sea level, Mesolithic and early Neolithic (new stone age) man created structures of great artistic sophistication that had no "necessity" beyond that of ritual worship.

In spring particularly, the hills around the site exhibit a sparse beauty. Vivid green grass sprouts between the bleached ribs of exposed limestone. Bright red poppies sway in the gentle breeze and kestrels hover over the eroded, rounded hills and hollows searching for grasshoppers and small rodents. The translucent emerald leaves of the "wishing tree," a solitary mulberry on the very top of Göbekli Tepe, are illuminated by the strong sunlight. It was this tree that helped mislead a joint Turkish-American archaeological team visiting the area in the early 1960's. They were looking for evidence to help explain how hunter-gatherer societies became sedentary agricultural ones (and we know that it was in this region, on the northern rim of the Fertile Crescent, that the first cultivated grain, einkorn wheat, was sown). Beneath the mulberry tree, its branches decorated with votive rags tied by Muslim pilgrims, the archaeologists stood and stared down at a couple of piles of stone markers. It was clear to them that this exposed hilltop held nothing more exciting than the graves of a couple Muslim holy men and they departed. How wrong they were.

In the 1990s German archaeologists turned up in the area, excited by the discoveries they had made at nearby Nevalı Çori. They realized that buried beneath the grave markers were not bodies, but monoliths, similar to the ones they had found at Nevalı Çori. It appears that, in the past, Muslim pilgrims had mistaken the then-exposed tops of these Neolithic standing stones for the headstones of Muslim saints and, out of respect for the dead, covered them with smaller stones. Harald Hauptman and one of his students, Klaus Schmidt, were given permission to excavate. What they turned up challenged the commonly held theories of how mankind developed. The hilltop mound, around 300 meters in diameter and some 15 meters high, contains a series of circular structures or temples, carbon dated to a period between 9,500 and 7,500 B.C. According to Schmidt, now director of the dig at Göbekli Tepe, the structures were made by first building an "artificial" mound of debris, then hollowing it out to create a sunken chamber.

But it is what lies inside these chambers that is incredible. Each contains a series of T-shaped limestone monoliths, the tallest of which are some five meters high. These freestanding stones are anthropomorphic, with the top of the T representing the head of the figure. The stem of the T represents the body, with arms carved in light relief on either side. Many of the monoliths are covered in relief carvings of wild animals, usually either predatory or dangerous, such as lions, snakes, foxes and scorpions. The floors of the temple chambers are of burnt lime, and benches line the walls. That these massive stones were quarried, cut to shape, carted into place and sculpted to such a high standard by Stone Age man -- obviously using only stone and flint tools -- is wholly remarkable, especially when you consider that England's Stonehenge wouldn't be built for another 7,000 years.

But what really excites archaeologists is the fact that hunter-gatherer societies were capable of producing buildings and sophisticated art on such a grand scale (until Hauptman and Schmidt uncovered Göbekli it had been assumed that only settled, agricultural societies could do this). Klaus Schmidt believes that it was man's desire to produce large-scale, ritual art that led to his need to settle down in one place and cultivate crops. In other words, Göbekli Tepe is a key site in helping us understand how and why man evolved from hunter-gatherer to cultivator. That Göbekli Tepe was a major cult site for early man is clear, and people must have come from far and wide first to construct the temple complex and then to maintain and worship at it. But exactly how the site fit into the life of the communities who made it is far from certain. This is what makes it so exciting for Schmidt and his team, who toil away each year on the exposed hilltop in the cruel heat of a northern Mesopotamian summer.

Göbekli Tepe is not a site in the normal sense of the word. There are no ticket offices, no admission fees and no guidebook or postcards for sale. Arrive outside of the excavation season and the monoliths are covered with tin sheeting to protect them from the elements. Even in season, a barbed wire fence protects the exposed enclosures and you really need a pair of binoculars to make the most of the carvings on the uncovered monoliths. From May to October, the archaeological team set up camp nearby, and may be busy on site when you arrive. At the moment only a handful of visitors make it here, usually by taxi or hired minibus from Urfa. Public transport from Urfa to the nearest village, Örencik, is very limited, and from there you'll have to walk a couple of kilometers to the site -- not advisable in the heat of an Urfa summer.

Even if you can't make it to the site, it's worth stopping by the Archaeological Museum in Urfa. The museum provides assistance to Schmidt and his team and has a few items of interest found at Göbekli Tepe on display. In the garden, tucked away behind a hedge, is a frog, carved in high relief from a square-meter limestone block. Inside and even more impressive, are the statues of several animals from the site, notably a wonderfully carved boar. They provide further evidence of the skill and sophistication of our hunter-gatherer forebears, and of the importance of wild animals to their lives.

Outside of the digging season the only person you're likely to come across on the hilltop is Şeymus Yıldız, the land owner and the guardian of the site. With his flowing red kuffiye (Kurdish headscarf), weather-beaten features and piercing eyes, he's a suitably imposing figure to watch over this remote site. Örencik, his home village in the valley below, is impoverished and Şeymus himself far from wealthy. But this doesn't stop him from greeting "guests" with a warm "selam aleykum" and, if you're lucky, a refreshing glass of tea brewed on his picnic stove. No doubt he'd have preferred it if oil had been discovered on his parched land rather than the world's first stone-built temple, but he's rightly proud to be associated with a unique site that has helped increase our understanding of how mankind developed.

Source: ZAMAN

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