After leaving atmospheric Mardin in South-East Turkey, we travelled onwards to what has been described as the world’s oldest place of worship – Göbekli Tepe – a mysterious Neolithic archeological site that dates back to between 9600 and 8000 BCE – 6,000 years older than Stonehenge and 7,000 years older than the pyramids!
Excavations of this extraordinary place started in 1995 and what has been discovered has upended the conventional view of the rise of civilization.
Previously archeologists believed that the adoption of farming was the impetus to cause people to settle down and begin to build permanent homes and religious and iconic structures. The discovery of Göbekli Tepe has led many experts to believe the reverse – that the building of such a massive collection of structures actually caused people to adopt farming in order to feed the hordes of people that would have been required for the building work.
Whatever the truth is, the remains that are on display are absolutely extraordinary especially considering that’s they were built in the the Pre-Pottery Neolithic age.
Looking down onto the excavations we could clearly see a number of T-shaped pillars, about five metres tall, many of them carved with marvellous studies of animals such as foxes, lions, snakes, as well as boats and abstract symbols.
The stones are arranged in giant circles and ovals — each structure is made up of two large central pillars surrounded by smaller inward-facing pillars.
There is a mysterious reason why this amazing site remained undiscovered for so long – the enclosure was deliberately – and very carefully – buried under hundreds of metres of dirt consisting of small limestone fragments, broken pieces of stone vessels and tools and other refuse, creating a tell.
Why on earth would these lovely structures with extraordinary artwork be totally buried some time after 8000 BCE?
Perhaps further exploration of this vast hilltop site will provide an answer – only five per cent has been excavated so far!
We left Göbekli Tepe with many questions swirling around our heads but we were totally enthralled by the experience.
Our next stop was the marvellous museum in Şanlıurfa (aka Urfa)which is just 12 kilometres from Göbeklitepe.
Here we were able to walk amongst a true-to-life reproduction of one of the stone circles we had just seen at Göbeklitepe. It was fantastic to see close up the reproductions of the absolutely beautiful and incredibly accurate carvings of animals that we had seen from afar at the site.
We also saw the renowned “Urfa Man” which dates (unbelievably!) from 9,000 BC and is the oldest life-sized sculpture of a human ever discovered.
There were also many wonderful exhibits from other nearby Neolithic sites – most importantly those from Nevali Çori which were excavated when plans for the Ataturk Dam and Reservoir were made and the site set to be inundated.
It was really mind blowing to see such fabulous artefacts that dated back to many, many, thousands of years ago.
That evening we went to an excellent traditional restaurant in what used to be a caravanserai (a roadside inn where travellers could rest and recover from the day’s journey) for travellers on the Silk Road.
After our meal we enjoyed listening to some traditional Turkish music that by chance was being performed at the restaurant.
The next day we were able to see the Ataturk dam for ourselves. Built between 1990 and 1992, this massive construction definitely left an impression.
Located on the mighty Euphrates, the dam has a surface area of 817 km² and a volume of 48.5 cubic kilometers, making it the third largest lake in the country.
After stopping to view the dam (where we enjoyed a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice!) we drove on to the Karakuş Tümülüs, the burial place of the mother and sister of Mithridates ll.
This fine funerary monument was built between 30 and 20 BCE and the site commands the most incredible views. The tumulus is surrounded by three columns – each about 9 metres (30 ft) high. The columns are topped with reliefs and statues of a bull, lion and eagle.
The tumulus was covered with hundreds of thousands of river pebbles – such a clever idea as this made it impossible for robbers to dig down to find the tomb’s entrance – try and dig a hole in the gravel and a load more pebbles fill it immediately!
Our next stop was Cendere Bridge (yes we packed in a lot in that day). Also known as Septimius Severus Bridge, it was built in late Roman times.
The bridge is a simple and unadorned single arch and is thought to be the second largest remaining Roman Bridge in existence!
Up until quite recently it was used to carry traffic but now a replacement bridge has been built nearby.
Our final stop before reaching our main destination for the day – iconic Mount Nemrut – was another site that was associated with Mithridates ll. It is thought that this place (Arsameia) was where his father, Antiochus (who was responsible for the construction of the mausoleum at Mt Nemrut) had his summer residence.
There are few remains to see now but there is an intriguing network of man made caves here – possibly used for storage of supplies but no one seems certain about this.
After a reasonably short but steep climb we reached an impressive carved stone block depicting King Antiochus shaking hands with Hercules.
Next to this, over the entrance to the nearby cave, is an important inscription that gives invaluable historical information about the establishment of Arsameia and the life and laws of the kingdom including all the elements to be followed during rituals.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached Mt Nemrut but the story of that adventure must wait until next time!