Late May in south-eastern Turkey, and the city of Urfa is warming up. In the evening, the day’s heat radiates from walls of parchment-coloured limestone. Squashed mulberries dot the cobbles, the smell of grilled lamb fills the bazaar and squadrons of swifts screech around the minarets. After dark, as if in some hammy biblical epic, the twin columns of Nemrut—high on the city’s ancient citadel—are silhouetted against flashes of lightning.
Urfa is at the heart of one of the holiest regions on Earth. A damp grotto near the city centre is thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, a much-visited fount of the three great monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Schismatics and mystics, prophets and preachers, Sufis, Yazidis, Alevis, Gnostics, Elkesaites and Nestorians have long thrived in the district’s dusty villages. Urfa itself was once the capital of a kingdom that was the first to adopt Christianity.
But that was not the reason I was here. My interest stretches back much further, to the time before a single, omnipotent god chased out all the others, when every hill and spring had its resident deity, back to the early Neolithic, when a strange collective urge to build stone monuments emerged for the first time.
It happened all over Europe and the Middle East, from the Black Sea to the west of Ireland. The latest interpretation of these arrangements of rock—stone circles, standing stones, barrows and tumuli—involves the idea of ritual landscape. Archaeologists have now identified a pattern: the monuments appear to be concentrated in particular areas, often referring through sightlines to a natural feature like a distinctive peak or series of peaks, or a spring. Some experts go further, pointing out that the practice of sanctifying such places with stone coincided with the development of settled agriculture. Might the very keeping of animals and the sowing of crops have prompted a more active reverence for the land?
For several years, I’ve been studying the ritual landscapes of south-west England. It is one of those subjects that grow more compelling and less clear the more you look into them. Here, around Urfa, are not only some of the earliest and most distinctive examples of ritual landscape but also, some four or five thousand years before they reached north-western Europe, signs of the very beginnings of agriculture.
It was still dark the next morning, on the pavement outside my hotel, when I met Taha, an English-speaking Arab with glasses and a charming smile. We had worked out an itinerary of sacred sites that would take us first by car to the south, then on foot to the Neolithic stone circles at Gobekli Tepe, whose discovery and excavation over the last couple of decades have revealed its astonishing antiquity. Dated at around 10,000BC, Gobekli Tepe is now known as the oldest temple in the world.
Leaving the city, we entered the plain of Harran. The first sun struck its board-like flatness and picked out the early greening of the cotton plots. Less than half an hour to the south was the Syrian border. “But here, all is quiet!” Taha offered a smile of reassurance. “No sign of war.” A couple of minutes later, he was pointing out a UNHCR camp of 13,000 Syrian refugees, adding that last night his friend had crossed to fight with the rebels. Within a few months, Islamic State had over-run the Kurdish villages just across the border and laid siege to nearby Kobane.
In the town of Harran, we dropped in on Taha’s family. They lived in the semi-ruined old city, one of the oldest settlements on Earth. The courtyard was scattered with farm machinery and pecking turkeys. Dandling his two-year-old son on his knee, Taha told his wife he’d be gone for several days. The boy looked at me and, very slowly, his face crumpled.
Beyond Harran we entered a region of low scrubby hills. The land dried, cultivation thinned and the way itself—like a declining faith in need of a prophet—grew more and more ambiguous. Shepherds leaning on sticks offered various interpretations of the route, and it was late afternoon when we crawled into the small Arab village of Sogmatar. Leaving the car, we walked up past a grassy mound and found ourselves in an open valley, at the point where two wadis met.
I had read about Sogmatar and its collection of hill-top temples. But nothing prepared me for the place itself. The ground was bare limestone, dissolved into runnels and grykes and scattered thinly with yellowish grass. The rock rose in grey tiers to a series of saddles and peaks that ringed the skyline. They created a sense of enclosure so powerful and enigmatic that it looked deliberate, designed rather than natural. On top of seven of the hills were the remains of the temples.
“Up here!” A boy of 15 or so had attached himself to us. We followed him as he jogged up the nearest hill onto a low ridge. Our footsteps made a hollow clack on the stone. At the highest point was a chest-high face of rock, carved with two figures. Beside them were deep-chiselled Syriac inscriptions and, on the flat rock above, several more.
In the 1950s, the scholar J.B. Segal spent a week here surveying the temples and transcribing the inscriptions. His translations date the structures to 165AD, but their elaborate nature suggests a site which was already highly significant. Local lore connects it with Moses, but its name, meaning many springs, suggests an importance that goes back far earlier.
We had a reproduction of Segal’s sketch-map and were able to match it to the landscape. We were standing on Kutsal Tepe, the sacred mount. Looking south-west, a kilometre or so distant, was a hillock named after the principal planet in Sabian cosmology, the Saturn Tapinagi (temple in Turkish). As we worked our way round clockwise, next came the Jupiter Tapinagi, the Moon Tapinagi, then those of Mars and Mercury. On a lower inner peak, hazy in the late afternoon sun, was the Shamas Tapinagi—the sun temple.
Most of the buildings are little more than ruins. The best preserved is the Venus temple, a rotunda some ten metres across. Bas-relief columns were cut into the ashlar, but otherwise the surface was smooth. I ran my hands over it, marvelling at its flawless curves. Underneath the structure was a cellar-like space, with the entrance aligned to the Kutsal Tepe. It was the same at all the temples, each one pointing back to the same spot, the navel of the site.
From the Venus temple, I walked back to the Kutsal Tepe. It was dusk. The sun was sliding towards a bald horizon. The grey limestone fell away from the peaks in tiers, looking half-melted. In the half-light the natural amphitheatre cast an even stronger spell than when we’d arrived. It was, I thought, one of the most extraordinary places I had ever been.
We spent the night in the village with a family called Aslan (lion in Turkish and Farsi, as well as in Narnia). It was warm and I slept outside on the terrace, listening to the parp-parp of frogs from the valley cisterns. In the morning we went to visit Sogmatar’s mukhtar—the mayor—who lived in the old military compound. He received us sitting on the floor at the far end of a long room, an elderly man in a white keffiyeh. Slipping off my boots, I crossed the soft carpets and sat down opposite him. Various sons and grandsons sat propped against the walls beside him, as in a medieval court.
The mukhtar looked at me for a moment. Then he turned to Taha with a look that said: what sort of stranger is this?
“From England”, Taha explained.
The mukhtar looked at me a while longer, then leaned forward. His face, close-up, was both fierce and mischievous. “Who are the English? Where do they come from?”
I dredged up something about Germanic-speakers from the low countries of north-western Europe.
“Wrong!” He picked up a plastic drinking straw. He held it for me to see, then began to slide it across the carpet. “The sons of Ham, they went this way. We—” He pointed back down the room at his offspring. “—are from Shem. We came this way. You are the sons of Japheth.” He pushed the straw far to his left. “You went over there somewhere.”
I asked him about his early life and he said that when he arrived here in 1945, at the age of eight, there was no village.
“Statues were everywhere. But bandits have stolen them. The temples were not so ruined.”
I wondered what he made of them.
“What? They are the work of heathens, Sabians.” He leaned forward. “Do you know about Moses?”
He told the story of young Moses killing the Egyptian and having to escape the Pharaoh’s vengeance. In both Al-Qasas in the Koran and the Book of Exodus, Moses fled to Midian. But the mukhtar said it was here that he came, to Sogmatar, here that he helped the two young women struggling to water their flocks at the well, here that he married one of them.
“The well of Moses is just up there.”
For the mukhtar that meant more than any number of idolatrous temples.
The sacralising of Sogmatar was based in part on its striking topography, that particular arrangement of high ground so suggestive of a deliberate pattern. But it was also water. “More than 300 wells of sweet water”, Segal was told. “One hundred wells exactly”, according to the mukhtar.
Abraham’s watery cave in Urfa, Job’s well on the outskirts, Moses here in Sogmatar—and Jacob too, who first saw Rachel at a well near Urfa—the earliest stories made much of water sources. When people first pioneered Upper Mesopotamia, spreading down from the Anatolian highlands at the end of the Palaeolithic, they mapped out their new land by its wells and springs. So it is hardly surprising that these should feature so strongly in the roll-call of sacred sites.
After another day of holy hills, and more sitting on carpeted floors discussing the distant past, we reached the Alevi village of Kisas. Alevi belief is a slippery fish, being neither Sunni nor Shia but combining elements of both. Music and dance lie at the heart of Alevi rites. We went to visit an elderly man named Asik Celali (asik means bard). He was up on his roof, sitting on a stool in his dovecot, singing and playing the cumbas, a sort of banjo: “Life is only five days long…oh, why are you doing this?” His pedigree doves looked on and cooed, feather-footed on their perches.
“He loves his doves,” his son whispered in my ear, “like other men love tobacco.”
In the morning we rose early to start the walk to Gobekli Tepe. We were joined by Ali, a sprightly Kurd who wore baggy shirwal trousers and had inherited the Anatolian mistrust of lowland Arabs. He kept racing ahead to show up Taha. We walked through the cool early hours before Ali pointed to a hill and said: “Yazidi shrine.”
We climbed to the rough-walled grave of Hajji Omer. Like springs and wells, high places have always played a large part in the local cults. In the hothouse religious atmosphere around Urfa, few peaks lack some trace of reverence. The day before, we’d found Karahan Tepe, whose slopes chinked underfoot with flint arrow-heads, blades and burins. Near the summit was a group of half-buried carved stones from the eighth or ninth millennium BC; many more, it is thought, lie beneath the surface. Now, far to the north, amid the Anti-Taurus mountains, I spotted the peak of Nemrut Dagi which I’d visited a few years earlier. In the decades before the birth of Christ, a local ruler had made the sanctity of the mountain manifest by erecting giant statues of the gods. Each of the heads is the size of a man and gazes still over the entire region.
We reached Ali’s village in the heat of midday and spent the afternoon in his garden. It was like Eden. There was shade from mulberry trees, pomegranates, apricots, cherries, figs, walnuts, apples and pears. Later we ate cheese from his sheep, folded into flat bread baked from his wheat. Then we took bedrolls up to the roof. I lay there unsleeping for some time, the wind cool on my face and the stars cast across the sky as thick as seed.
It was hotter the next day and as the sun rose, the entire landscape appeared to shrivel beneath it. We walked through fields of wheat and barley bleached almost white. The harvest had begun, and brightly painted combines had arrived from the west of Turkey. One of the reapers turned his turbaned head towards us; his face was hidden in shadow, except his teeth. “Come, help us! It’s not difficult work.”
Just beyond the village of Beyazit, Ali gripped my arm and pointed ahead. “You see? Gobekli Tepe!”
At once, the name lent the hill an aura that sharpened the contours in the morning’s haze. Still some five miles off, it was impressive, pushing out from the ridge like a buttress. A lone tree stood on its summit. For centuries, Gobekli Tepe had been a ziyaret, a place of minor pilgrimage where visitors would come and mutter devotions under the tree. Until the 1990s, they had no knowledge of the 10,000-year-old treasures that lay beneath the soil.
We laboured up its slopes. The heat weighed down on our limbs, but it was a dry heat. Ali was first to the top, leaping up the last rocks like a goat. “Kurd number one, English number two!” Mounted on top of the cliff like a statue, he pointed far down the slope to where Taha was struggling. “Arab—number three!”
The monuments at Gobekli Tepe, which have revolutionised understanding of our earliest history, stand on the hill’s southern scarp. They are protected now by a timber roof. Columns and trusses criss-cross your sight as you try to look; a raised walkway steers you through them. But once I’d spent a little time here, working out the layout of the standing stones, immersed in their antiquity, I became aware of a feeling deep in my stomach, a physical sense of awe.
The stones are T-shaped, rising to three metres or more. They lie beneath the level of the land, arranged roughly in four ovals. Around each runs a rubble wall. In their execution they are finer than any of Britain’s 900-odd surviving stone circles. They are also more than twice as old. But what really distinguishes them, what fills that site with a wild expressiveness that echoes down the centuries, are the carvings—open-mouthed lions, toothy boars, untamed donkeys, foxes, cranes and bulls, scorpions and snakes, many snakes.
The same question hovers over all such sites: why? What beliefs, what shared convictions drove hundreds of people to return again and again to this arid hill-top, to chisel these images with flints, to heave the massive stones into place? There’s never a shortage of functional explanations: ritual meeting place or ancestral burial site, observatory or calendar. But each one leaves more questions in its wake.
Perhaps that’s the point. Neolithic monuments were not built or used for any one purpose. They were meant to be enigmatic, to recognise the unfathomable mysteries of existence: death and belonging, the perpetual press of tradition and the past. Like works of art, they merely reflect what can never be fully understood.
In 1994 Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute first saw the surface flints and the top of a T-shaped pillar at Gobekli Tepe. He sensed the site’s importance, and although he had no idea of the extent of the finds below, he decided then to dedicate his life to its excavation, a task that is still far from complete. He believed the site was part of an extended ritual landscape that covered a number of similar hill-tops in the Urfa region.
Schmidt also identified the historical context of Gobekli Tepe—the Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic—seen by many as the most formative period of the human story. The defining feature, which happened at different times in different places, was the transition from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. For the first time, people realised the efficiencies to be made from keeping animals for meat rather than chasing after them, in clearing plots to plant food rather than collecting it in the wild.
This region was one of the places it began. DNA analysis suggests that the nearby mountain of Karacadag is the origin of a good deal of our domestic grain. Every animal depicted on the stones at Gobekli Tepe—lion and crane, goat and boar—was local. Some were quarry, some domesticated or becoming domesticated, and some simply dangerous. Animals were threats, and they were meat (or both), and they had populated the boundaries of existence for countless generations. In this period of fundamental change, it was their image that was used to embellish the monuments.
One of the ideas that now recur in archaeologists’ discussions of Neolithic ritual landscape is memory—a deep cultural memory, ancestral memory, stretching far back into the Palaeolithic. Perhaps the urge to sacralise natural places, to gather there and to build monuments, derived in part from the need to celebrate those who came before.
Stepping out from under the stones’ new-built shelter, I blinked in the sun. The afternoon heat pressed on my shoulders. At my feet, the slopes dropped away bare and sculpted to a patchwork of ochre plots which dissolved in the haze, into the plain of Harran, the Fertile Crescent, the troubled arc of Mesopotamia. If Gobekli Tepe’s carved orthostats were in part put up as an act of remembrance, motivated by a profound respect for the past, then they’re still doing their job. From across 12,000 years, this distinctive hill now offers something so distant it is hardly even visible, a glimpse of our own beginnings.