In early March 2014 I went with a group of fellow ETA’s on a whirlwind weekend tour of two of the most important and historic cities in southeastern Turkey: Şanliurfa (more commonly known by its former name, Urfa) and Diyarbakir. This post is details the first half of my almost 24 hours in Urfa.

I flew from Ankara to Sanliurfa’s airport on a Friday evening, where we met up with our friends and had dinner at a kebap house. The cuisine in Urfa and the surrounding area is distinctly spicier than other regions in Turkey, and we sweat our way through an array of delicious meze (often called semsek) before feasting on lahmacun and the famous Urfa kebap. The whole meal was washing down with a copper mug-and-ladle over-frothing with yayik ayran a foamy, salty yogurt drink.

me savoring the ayran
me savoring the ayran
urfa lahmacun

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the time/arrange to have the ultimate Urfa dining experience: sira gecesi, an evening of food (especially ciğkofte and kebap) and live music, held in a şark odasi, or Ottoman-style sitting room (seating on the floor with cushions) in a konuk evi (converted mansion). Inşallah, next time.

We woke early the next morning and arranged two taxis to drive us 11 km northeast of central Urfa, to a site that was as unassuming as it was mind-blowing:

Gӧbekli Tepe, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world.


As unassuming as it may appear, Gӧbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill, also known in Kurdish as Girê Navokê) is, for lack of a better term, a really, really, really big deal. I mean, Stonehenge is amazing, right? Such ancient history, such compelling questions about the origins of belief… Göbekli Tepe is estimated to be about 6,500 years older than that, dating back to somewhere around 9,500 BCE. Something like 11,000 years old. That brain buster is just step one, though. Claims about what this site indicates do no less than challenge just about every textbook claim made about the shift from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to agriculturalist societies. With this discovery, some argue that everything anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have argued about the timeline of the Neolithic revolution, the domestication and production of crops and animals, and its causes are up for scrutiny. But there’s more, and for Tess the religious studies major, this one is the real kicker: the leading archaeologist of the site, and the man generally accredited for ‘discovering’ the site in 1994-5, Klaus Schmidt, argues that Gӧbekli Tepe also evinces what is probably the first known worship site of any kind.

The signage at the sight echoes Schmidt's theory about the implications of the site
The signage at the sight echoes Schmidt’s theory about the implications of the site


The site first received widespread international attention after the publication of two pieces: “The Birth of Religion” by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic, and “The Sanctuary: The World’s Oldest Temple and the Dawn of Civilization” by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker. Both articles reflect on the lead researchers’ supposition that, to quote the lead in of the National Geographic piece, “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”


This momentous claim is not without its skeptics, of course. In addition to the articles above, I’d encourage you to check out Cris Campbell’s six-part series examining Göbekli Tepe and critiquing this theory on his blog, Genealogy of Religion. (His blog also has much better pictures of the site, and the megaliths in particular, than I could manage to capture.)

views of the megaliths from the boardwalk overhead
views of the megaliths from the boardwalk overhead

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A relatively newly discovered and little known archaeological gem, mass tourism has not yet reached Göbekli Tepe. Reports from a few years describe a couple hundred daily visitors; more recent ones suggest that as many as a thousand come at the weekend during high-tourist season. This seems a little difficult for me to fathom… We saw a total of about 30 people, including at least one bus of schoolchildren and a large family in the two-ish hours we spent at the sight mid-morning, on a Saturday. It seems difficult to imagine that mass waves of tourism are likely to come soon, given Urfa’s location and the surrounding areas current geopolitical realities. However, I’ve recently read that tickets are now being sold and required for entrance to the site, but I do not remember this being the case as of early March.

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In addition, the idea of the site was far more astounding than the site itself, in my opinion. The site is prohibitively ancient- the engraved megaliths cannot stand alone, and their excavation puts them at risk to the elements. They are propped up by a network of wooden stilts, and a rickety boardwalk of sorts guides visitors over the site. The lack of visual splendor is a perfect testament to the tension between preservation and touristic exploitation faced by those who seek to learn and/or profit from locations like this. Signage in four languages (English, German, Arabic and Turkish, seen above) vaguely indicate the meaning of the arrangement of the stones and their engravings, mostly animals and humans. The hillsides around the site were blossoming with yellow flowers and flush with the green of the coming spring (perhaps a testament to the controversial and apparently successful Guney Anadolu Projesi, a water irrigation project, previously alluded to on the site here and here, with more to come).


It is difficult to articulate what it feels like to visit something so truly ancient, to stand on earth that (regardless of the anthropological evidence conclusive from these stones in particular) is known to be among the first to be used for agriculture. How can one say what it “feels like” to stand on the ground where, millennium before, people may have gathered, conscious of some deity or higher power for the first time in human history? “Overwhelming,” “humbling,” “inspiring”… they don’t quite cut it. After months of traveling across an ancient land, after visiting countless sites whose dates of construction were jaw-dropping, how could I even begin to wrap my head around these hills, what they might signify?

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My mind was blown, but it was time to press onward for more, as I headed off, stuffed in a taxi with my friends, back through the pastoral hills back to Urfa, to the cave where it is said that Abraham (the one with many sons) was born.

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