Article Words : Jeremy Seal | 15 May

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey: Civilisation starts here

As the oldest man-made site in the world, Göbekli Tepe is a 12,000-year-old game-changer. Reach it via south-east Turkey’s Abraham’s Path to combine legendary hospitality with wild walking and mind-blowing history

Deep in south-east Turkey, I followed a dusty track towards a distinct rounded hilltop. The approach did not promise much. One hut, some barbed wire and a makeshift toilet with a threadbare drape for a door suggested one of the fly-blown military outposts that are dotted across these contested lands at the juncture of the Turkish, Kurdish and Arab worlds. Rather less likely was that I had in fact arrived at Göbekli Tepe – the site of what many leading archaeologists rate as the most important excavation on earth.

It was only then that I caught my first glimpse of the large pit that had been cratered in the face of the hill’s summit. Beyond the queue of tractors, a crowd of German and Turkish archaeologists, head-swathed Kurdish barrow-haulers and gawping foreign tourists milled around some 60 standing stones of an arresting, otherworldly beauty. These limestone megaliths, in some cases nearly five metres tall and weighing 9,000kg, and arranged in circles, have often been likened to Stonehenge. But where the stone blocks of Salisbury Plain rise plain and unadorned, these ones were as much art as architecture.

Their characteristic shape, narrow-topped Ts, suggested stylised renderings of the human form that the exquisitely carved detailing of belts, loincloths and clasped hands on some of the stones movingly confirmed. Then there was their extraordinary age. That these megaliths have been dated to 10,000BC – more than twice the age of the come-lately stone circle beside the A303, at least 5,000 years before the oldest known cuneiform texts – actually left me giddy at the sight of them.

Overlooking the Mesopotamian plains around the city of Urfa, Göbekli Tepe (Belly Hill) has been causing seismic excitement among archaeological insiders since excavations began here almost 20 years ago. As news spreads of this early-Neolithic site’s astonishing significance, however, the specialist interest is rapidly becoming general.

As little as three years ago, whole days could pass without the archaeological staff at Göbekli Tepe seeing a single visitor. Now barely a moment goes by between arrivals, with culturally curious travellers building Turkey itineraries around a visit to these ‘game-changing’ stones, as the world’s earliest man-made structure has been described. Site foundations are already in place for a protective canopy, a nearby visitors’ centre and a ticket office.

But as Göbekli Tepe increasingly appears on the tour itineraries, some are taking a radically different approach to the site. In the company of local guides, they walk there along the Turkish stretches of a long-distance, multi-country hiking trail – Abraham’s Path – staying in villages along the way. The walk not only takes in historic highlights such as Göbekli Tepe but also gives wanderers an insight into the wider landscapes, cultures and people of this ancient region between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Walking through the lands where civilisation dawned was surely worth a few blisters?

The warmest welcome

My hike to Göbekli Tepe began in the Kurdish village of Yuvacalı, some 48km to the north of the site, with an overnight stay at the home of the Salva family. Yuvacalı marks the northernmost point on Abraham’s Path, a trail that broadly retraces the journey of the Old Testament prophet through the Middle East, taking in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. The path showcases the regional tradition of kindness to travellers, and offers a point of contact whereby the warring faiths that revere Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and its constituent sects – may be reconciled.

If this brave vision currently rings hollow along much of the route, especially in war-ravaged Syria, it appears achievable at least along the path’s 170km stretch through south-east Turkey. Among these neighbouring communities north of the Syrian border – Kurdish and Turkish, Arab and Shia Alevi – walkers can safely experience the misafirperverlik (hospitality to strangers) that their hosts, rather than emptily incant, regard as nothing less than a sacred obligation.

Beneath wide blue skies the farming community of Yuvacalı lay clustered at the foot of an ancient shard-strewn mound or höyük, the signature of these plains. The Salva farmstead, a simple block-built house, was fronted by a yard where cattle stood tethered. There was a shaded orchard hung with plums and persimmons, figs and pomegranates, apricots, peaches and pears. On the floor of the main room I joined the Salvas’ other homestay guests – two sprightly American septuagenarians called Elaine and Nancy – crossing my legs before an oilcloth ‘table’ laid for dinner.

Over a meal that belied the apparent poverty of our sparsely furnished surroundings – cooked aubergines and peppers, home-produced yoghurt and crumbly white cheese, freshly picked salad, flatbread baked on an open fire, bloom-fresh fruit – 20-year-old Fatih Salva described the life of the village in excellent English. Fatih, who runs the homestay programme with a sunny maturity, told me that his parents Halil and Pero were both born in the village, which had long been the home of their forebears. Not that this peaceful rural place was free of old shadows; their Armenian village neighbours were erased by the Ottoman state during the First World War.

An exclusively Kurdish population of smallholders remained to make a living raising a few acres of wheat, lentils and isot (the local chilli pepper). However, the recent addition of the homestay and walking programme – the village hosted some 2,000 foreigners in 2012 – has put money into local pockets and done much to transform horizons.

That night, the kindly Salva family pushed back the red peppers drying across the flat roof of their house to make a bed-sized space for me. Here I slept under locally made quilts and a mosquito net. I awoke to the smell of the unleavened bread Pero was cooking on an open fire in the yard and wandered the high mound behind the house before breakfast.

Technology and tradition

The sun was still low when Fatih led me out of the village along the unmarked trail. The baked plain was brown except where the concrete canalettes of GAP, a massive irrigation project, carried water from the Euphrates to the cotton fields. Bee-eaters swooped around clusters of box-shaped hives. Passing out of pistachio and apple groves, we climbed towards a prominent hill where a ‘wishing’ tree stood tied with rags. On the summit a low white-washed wall enclosed a tomb. The headstone, to a local saint called Haci Ömer, was garlanded with necklaces.

“A Yezidi place,” said Fatih, referring to the tribal faith, a fusion of Zoroastrian, Sufi and shamanistic beliefs. “Some come here on Wednesdays, the holy day for Yezidis. They pray here in times of drought. Sometimes they walk their sheep around the hill.”

It was then that Fatih made a show of traditional reverence that his fluent English and app-loaded mobile had not prepared me for, retreating from the shrine without turning his back on it until he had cleared the entrance. He then led me to another hilltop called Eski Hilvan, where liberally scattered tiles and mosaic tesserae suggested a Roman-era settlement – though Fatih only knew it as the place where locals went to be cured of whooping cough. Here were reminders, even in a world of apps and high-tech irrigation projects, of the hold high places have had on humankind since the time of Göbekli Tepe.

We picnicked in an apple orchard, dozing there before a long climb beyond the corn and cotton to sun-struck heights where farmers had ploughed hopeful plots across rock-strewn slopes. Our passing put up volleys of partridges before we crested a final ridge for a first sighting of Göllü village, our stay for the night.

At the home of the Sırma family, in-laws to the Salvas of Yuvacalı, we delivered family greetings over glasses of much-needed tea. Ali Sırma talked of life here, where electricity only arrived in the 1990s and where even now they sometimes hear wolves howl on winter nights.

With the gathering dusk Ali unrolled his prayer mat and prostrated himself while Fatih pointed his mobile phone skywards, using an app to identify the emerging stars that we would soon be sleeping under – on soft mattresses stuffed with local cotton. The Sırma boys gathered wide-eyed around their older cousin while the girls, excluded by patriarchal tradition, lurked beyond the light.

Rewriting history

So it was an arresting blend of religious tradition and high technology that brought me to Göbekli Tepe, another two days on from Göllü. I entered the excavation by means of raised wooden walkways and looked down over the site. I saw how the megaliths were carved not only with human attributes but with talismanic reliefs of numerous creatures: lions, foxes and boars, snakes and scorpions, vultures, storks and ibises. I especially admired a fearsome crocodile carved in high relief at the base of one stone.

These carved megaliths, I now gathered, were originally set in walls of undressed masonry enclosing a central pair of taller, totemic stones. It was noticeable how these partially exposed compounds, often set with archaeologists’ scaffolds and ladders, stood at different depths in the earth, as if they had been built on top of ones deliberately buried centuries before them.

Thanks to the approachable regime at Göbekli Tepe, I was able to grab an on-site word with Professor Klaus Schmidt, who has led excavations here since 1995. Professor Schmidt described how some of the megaliths were protruding through the earth, their tops scarred by ploughs, when he first visited.

It didn’t take me long to wander Göbekli Tepe, barely the size of a tennis court, but it sure did take time to ponder it. From a rock overlooking the site I spent hours chewing over these stones and what they revealed about the civilising of humankind. Göbekli Tepe predated the earliest evidence yet found for agriculture and settlement, which contradicted the standard archaeological presumption that the domestication of plants and animals was the driver that led to society and civilisation.

This place, built before humankind had begun to form the earliest settled farming communities, told a different story: that people only learned to build for themselves by first building for their gods; that the Temple, as Professor Schmidt put it, actually preceded the City. What inspired humankind to master new technologies, to organise as a workforce, to invent agriculture, ultimately to invent apps for identifying stars, was not some inchoate instinct for social betterment but the pull of ritual and religion.

In a wider region mired then and now in the blood of religious minorities, of Armenians in the last century and Syrians in this, I found the lessons of Göbekli Tepe profoundly disquieting even as my visit there enthralled me.

What lies beneath?

My path finished where Abraham’s journey supposedly began. Beyond Göbekli Tepe the path led two-days south through the villages of the plain to the sand-coloured city of Urfa (or Şanlıurfa to give it its full name), where I found myself on the fringes of Arabia. In the early evening, homing pigeons rose to their owners’ whistles from flat-topped roofs hung with drying aubergine skins. Beneath the Crusader castle, families strolled the shaded tea gardens to feed the sacred carp in the ponds at Balıklıgöl before making for the cave, said to be the birthplace of Abraham.

To the call of the muezzin, pious men in shirt sleeves and in Arab turbans gathered at the fountains in the grand courtyards of the mosques while women from Saudi Arabia passed, all in black but for the gold jangling at their wrists. Beyond the gardens I wandered into Urfa’s labyrinthine bazaar, an exotica of turnip-juice stands and stalls serving fried liver, of pigeon traders and cot makers, as grilles clanged down on the workshops of coppersmiths and carpenters.

Urfa was stuffed with colour and distraction. The highlight, however, was a visit to the city’s archaeological museum where I paused before a statue that had been unearthed in central Urfa in the 1990s. It was of a man, almost life-sized, with eyes of obsidian, his hands clasped at the groin. This statue, the oldest known, may even predate Göbekli Tepe.

I was left with a powerful sense of how future discoveries across this remarkable region may further revise humanity’s story and allow us to make greater sense of it. Harking back to the beginning of my own journey, and the characteristic kindness of the Salva family during my stay at Yuvacalı, I thought of the mound behind their little home on the Mesopotamian plain and wondered what might lie beneath it.

Jeremy Seal is a travel writer, tour leader and Turkey specialist. His latest book is Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River (Vintage, 2013)

The author travelled with family-run Abraham’s Path/Nomad Tours, which offers homestays and walks along Abraham’s Path. The 170km Turkish section takes ten days; guests can book as many days as they like on a tailormade basis.