A case for religion in the prehistoric Mediterranean
Until recently, archaeologists thought that settled civilization evolved as a result of agriculture. Once tied to land, humans eventually developed technologies for building clustered structures that were meant to withstand the elements and last some duration of time. Social life, according to this theory, was a subsequent development.
A relatively recent discovery, however, has put that narrative into question, proposing instead different scenarios for why human groups erected structures that they used collectively. The discovery is Gobekli Tepe, an estimated 12,000-year-old site buried under shallow land on a hilltop in the Anatolia region of Turkey.
This discovery makes a case for social life, or sophisticated collective interaction, as an earlier instigator of human settlement. Findings in Gobekli Tepe suggest that ceremonious gathering, ritual, or some other form of assembly may have existed before people cultivated seeds.
The site was excavated by the Turkey-based German Archaeological Institute in the mid-1990s. Gobekli Tepe contains large stone pillars of different sizes. The most striking are T-shaped pillars that are thought to mimic the human form.
Some of these megaliths measure as high as 20 feet, and most have exquisite carvings and reliefs, mostly of animals. The beauty and state of preservation of these forms are simply stunning. Archaeologists think that the site was deliberately buried, probably not long after it was constructed, but they do not know why.
It is estimated that a mere 5-10 percent of the site has been unearthed so far, according to archaeological predictions and radar technology. Archaeologists also estimate that around 250 pillars are still underground, compared to the 43 that have been uncovered. The site sits 6 miles from Urfa, a city in southeast Turkey.
Urfa has strong significance in the religious history of the region. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, important events took place there. So the modern city has many holy sites today, some bearing witness to other ancient religions as well.
With no evidence of human settlements in the prehistoric era of Gobekli Tepe, speculation has been mounting as to who created the structure and why. Theories vary widely. One scenario is that the site was built by a group of technologically advanced people that either were killed by hunter-gatherers or left the area soon after they constructed the site.
Another assumption proposes a cataclysm that caused the extinction of a developed civilization that had lived close to the site along with many other civilizations to whom it had imparted agricultural and other skills before all was destroyed.
Without evidence of agriculture or residential settlements around the site (there is evidence nearby of animal consumption by humans), archaeologists can only speculate that it was built by hunter-gatherers who used it for some kind of ritual.
One of the most widely circulated explanations of this unique site is that it was a place of worship, a temple of sorts. Without evidence of agriculture or residential settlements around the site (there is evidence nearby of animal consumption by humans), archaeologists can only speculate that it was built by hunter-gatherers who used it for some kind of ritual. Burial rites and ancestor worship bear reference to nearby sites, but none date as early as this one.
What most theories seem to agree upon is that the structure was used as a place of assembly. This proposition is based on a number of features, such as the circular formations in which the columns are arranged, and the animal figurines on their surfaces. The carefully carved shapes have naturalistic and sacrificial overtones in our understanding of ritual, or what in many contemporary cultures is considered religion.
I visited the site in 2014, and found it covered by sheds that made a full view difficult but shaded the digging site from direct sunlight. The pillars appeared to be uniquely decorated, with elaborate or minimalist carvings of patterned shapes and animals, ranging from insects to large animals. My favorite was what I thought was a frog.
But there were more serious animals as well, such as lions and bulls, references to which abound in ancient Mesopotamian mythology and religions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last year that 2019 is the year of Gobekli Tepe. Hopefully the scaffolding has been reduced for visitors to enjoy a better view.
Historians tend to go by material evidence, which they select and examine carefully before they construct historical narratives — retrospectively — based on possible scenarios. If agriculture was indeed the initial instigator behind the formation of human societies, as has long been thought, then a discovery such as Gobekli Tepe introduces alternative scenarios for why and when human groups became attached to land or built sophisticated things on it.
If indeed assembly was the purpose, then humankind has valued being together more than we think. What is more, if groups of people got together for purposes of worship, then they have valued being close to the powers they feared or adored, also more than we think.
Whatever those ancestors were doing 12,000 years ago in the environs of Urfa, a different thought preoccupied me as I wandered around the pillars. I was trying to imagine the kind of acoustics this place might have had. To this anthropologist of music and religion, the central question was what types of sounds, or song, may have reverberated on these exquisitely carved surfaces.
• Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, and an associate fellow at Pierson College, Yale.