The Fertile Crescent. Back at last. I was ﬁrst here in south-eastern Turkey around 12,000 years ago and now I have returned. By “I”, of course, I humbly mean humanity. It’s a strange thing, but it did feel like I was somehow coming full circle. Here in erstwhile Mesopotamia, between the legendary Euphrates and Tigris rivers, is where civilisation began.
But the spot I was standing on, an unassuming archaeological site on a man-made hill near Sanliurfa, puts our existing account of the origins of settled life in the shredder. Göbekli Tepe’s been described as ‘the most important archaeological site in the world.’ It asks big questions about mankind, but I had another inquiry on my mind: why was I the only visitor here? And over the next three days, as I travelled around south-eastern Turkey’s ‘cradle of civilization’, I found myself asking that same question again and again.
Identiﬁed in 1994 by the late German archaeologist Klaus Schmit, Göbekli Tepe (“Belly Hill”) is estimated by some to be around 12,000 years old. It is the oldest discovered man-made religious structure in the world, more than twice the age of box-fresh Stonehenge. But this arrangement of 10,000kg sculptures pre-dates the domestication of plants and animals by a cool millennium, potential proof that people ﬁrst gathered not to farm, but to pray. The hows and whys have scripted the narratives of several interesting documentaries. To some theorists, aliens are not out of the question. However, I found that the details of this mightiest of history lessons were best related when actually looking down at the humanoid T-shaped megaliths themselves.
Göbekli Tepe and its primeval assembly made me work for their charms. Context is everything: my guide Baki’s words set the Stone Age stage, giving the dusty scene before me a ﬁlmic quality. Then the imagination began to ﬁre. Aliens? Really?
The site now has a walkway that takes you around the ongoing excavations, themselves canopied for protection, although mainly from the weather and certainly not from overtourism. Despite being a site of mind-bending importance, humanity’s ground zero is not over-burdened with visitors. This is more bizarre given that Turkey was the world’s sixth most visited country in 2019, with traveller numbers clocking in around 46million.
When I visited in clement February, the only other person present was kuﬁya-toting Mahmut Yildiz, the former farmer – now custodian – of the land that Göbekli Tepe sits on. He seemed to exude a quiet pride when explaining what he thought of it all (“...now the world comes to Göbekli Tepe”) although was also somewhat nostalgic for a more hands-on vocation.
As we walked around, Baki put this into context: “If you want a ‘holiday’, go to other parts of Turkey,” he said. “This is a place for intellectuals. The history of civilization is in south-east Turkey!” You don’t need be a scholar though to feel moved by the game-changing stones at Göbekli Tepe.
At the entrance, in the visitor centre, an interactive exhibition helps 21st-century minds see things more clearly. However, I quickly decided that the most enjoyable part of the experience was the view. This is the highest point in any direction for kilometres around. A vast sweep of baked limestone hills and friable earth undulates toward a hazy horizon. It’s accompanied by an insistent, cutting wind, that’s enough to stir the senses: there’s a gravitas and wistfulness to it, catalysed by that viscous mix of history and mystery. Somewhere here lies the secret of how we became who we are.
The anthropomorphic stones are decorated with relief carvings of lions, scorpions and foxes, and are believed to have been chiselled some 6,000 years before the invention of writing. What’s even more confusing is that these curious pray stations were deliberately buried some time after they were built.
It’s a small site, but I needed the best part of a day there. One hour to walk around, then a good few more to contemplate it all.