Ancient architectural wonders: Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe_ancient architecture_Kenny Slaught_Turkey
Image courtesy of orientalizing at Flickr.com

With this post I will start a series of articles about ancient architectural wonders from the world. In the Architecture section of my blog, I will mix modern architecture with the wonders of old times. After all, architecture brilliant ideas come from new combination of existent elements, and who knows what kind of curiosities may come out from this section.

Today I will talk about Göbekli Tepe, maybe the oldest sanctuary in human history. It stands on the highest point of an extensive mountain range located about fifteen kilometers from Sanliurfa, very close to the Syrian border. The location is presently being excavated by archaeologists from Turkey and Germany. It was raised by hunter-gatherers in the Tenth millennium. C. (ca. 11,500 years ago), before the start of the sedentary communities. Mysteriously, this complex of stone pillars and sculptures was deliberately buried on 8000 A. C. It has been inhabited for approximately five hundred years. Along with Nevali Çori, this site has revolutionized the understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic period.

Göbekli Tepe, in the sands of southeastern Turkey, was already noted in 1964 when explorers realized that the hill could not be entirely natural. It was considered a Byzantine cemetery under layers of sediments. Since 1994, excavations have been conducted by the German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Turkish scientists from Sanliurfa, under the direction of the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. According to Schmidt, the stone fragments on the surface led him to deduct immediately that Göbekli Tepe was a prehistoric structure. In previous times, the hill had been cultivated for generations. Locals have removed the rocks and stacked them in piles to clear their fields, so a huge amount of archaeological evidence has been destroyed during this process. Researchers at the University of Karlsruhe began documenting the architectural remains and soon discovered the T-shaped columns, some of which have signs of destruction attempts.

Göbekli Tepe_archeology_Ancient architecture_Kenny Slaught
Image courtesy of yepyep at Flickr.com

Until excavations began, not a resort of this size was considered possible for such an old community. The solid stratigraphic sequence suggests several millennia of activity, perhaps reaching back to the Mesolithic. The oldest level of occupation (Stratum III), dated in the pre-pottery Neolithic A to the 9000 A. C., and contains monolithic pillars linked together by rough walls forming circular or oval structures. So far, it has been discovered four structures of this type, measuring between 10 and 30 meters in diameter. But the geophysical surveys indicate the existence of 16 more structures. Stratum II, dated in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, between 7500-6000 A. C., revealed remains of several adjacent rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime, quite similar to the “signinum opus” floors of ancient Rome. The latest level consists of sediments deposited as a result of agricultural activity.

The decoration of the heavy high monoliths consists of carved shapes of animals and pictograms. These pictograms may represent what is usually interpreted as sacred, similar symbols that appear elsewhere also painted neolithic caves. These carefully sculpted reliefs represent figurative lions, bulls, wild boars, foxes, gazelles, donkeys, snakes and other reptiles, insects, spiders and birds, particularly vultures and waterfowl. At the time when the sanctuary was built, the surrounding environment was probably much more lush than today, being able to sustain large variety of wildlife, before several millennia of human settlements and agriculture in the current dusty region.

The structures (probably houses or shrines) consist of round megalithic constructions. The walls are made of unworked dry stone and include numerous limestone pillars: Monolithic T-shaped with more than three meters high. Another pair of larger columns seem located in the center of the complex. The structures were roofed, as the archaeological evidence suggests: the central pair could have supported the rooftop. Geomagnetic surveys indicate that there must be some 200 pillars. The floors were made of polished lime, and there is a low bench attached around the outer wall.

The quarries of the statues have been located on the same plateau, some unfinished pillars have been discovered right there. The biggest unfinished column is 6.9 meters long, but it has been rebuilt with a total of 9 meters. It is much higher than any of the finished pillars found so far. The rock was extracted with stone picks. The concave depressions that appear in the limestone have been used as mortars or to fire during the previous period, the Mesolithic. There are also some geometric designs and phalluses carved into the rocks, but their dating is still uncertain.

Although the structures are particularly temples, small domestic buildings have recently been discovered. However, it is clear that the primary use of the site was ritual rather than domestic. Schmidt considers this “cathedral on the hill” as a place of pilgrimage that attracted devotees from more than a hundred kilometers away. The large number of bones found with cuts and lacerations, local species such as deer, gazelle, wild boar and geese have been identified as scrap derived from hunting and preparation, rather than from ritual banquets.

For further information about this architectural wonder, visit the Archaeology publication.

Follow me on Twitter: Kenny Slaught  @Kenny_Slaught

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