Called “Potbelly Hill” by locals for its gently sloping curves, Göbekli Tepe appears almost insignificant, a place of little prominence compared to any other mountain in its range. And yet, beneath the tawny earth of the mountaintop lies an astonishing discovery: a temple predating the earliest known place of worship by almost 5,000 years. In a time before pottery, agriculture, or even invention of writing, people came together to construct this monumental work of human ingenuity. Hidden for millennia after being hastily buried by its worshipers, Göbekli Tepe was far beyond its time both in architecture and in artistry, and with five percent excavated, is only slowly revealing its secrets.
Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance, since it profoundly changes our understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human societies. Contradicting all prior theories and research, the erection of monumental complexes was in fact well within the capacities of hunter-gatherers, and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been previously assumed. In other words, as the late Project Director Klaus Schmidt puts it: “First came the temple, then the city.” While this revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research, the field of archaeology has been invigorated by what is arguably the world’s first great monument. The circa 300-meter-wide hill of Göbekli Tepe is situated approximately 15 kilometers northeast of the modern town of Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey. Though buried for thousands of years, the site of Göbekli Tepe has a foregone majesty that is not difficult to imagine: with an advantageous placement at the highest point of an elongated mountain range, it would have been an epic landmark for miles around. Indeed, when an American archaeologist first stumbled upon the ruins in the 1960s, he was so confused by his findings and where he found them that he walked away and never returned.