The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe

One of the excavated enclosures at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, with massive T-shaped megaliths forming ancient stone circles thought to be up to 12,000 years old. (Click for a larger view)

One of the excavated enclosures at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, with massive T-shaped megaliths forming ancient stone circles thought to be up to 12,000 years old. (Click for a larger view)

Grandpa Enoch over at Pronaos wrote a few days ago that Archaeology Magazine‘s latest issue has a cover article by Sandra Scham entitled “The World’s First Temple”1.  The magazine Science also did an article on the same subject back in January 20082.  There are many articles that are being published, all focused on one archeological dig in southeast Turkey (see this map) which has come to be known as Göbekli Tepe, a Turkish name meaning “navel hill/mountain” or “hill with a belly”3.

What makes this excavation so unique?  Why all the hype?  Because evidence is showing that this may be the world’s first man-made monumental structure ever built, even before agriculture developed.  Archeologists didn’t believe that Neolithic hunter-gatherers were capable of building such an enormous complex at such an early date, but this site is starting to redefine our understanding of the beginnings of mankind.  What else is interesting is that this appears to have been some sort of ritual center or ceremonial complex – a temple

An artist's rendering of what Göbekli Tepe may have looked like.

An artist's rendering of what Göbekli Tepe may have looked like.

The site was first noted as a serious archaeological interest in 1994 when a German archeologist, Klaus Schmidt from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), began digging there.  Since that time Schmidt has led a team of archaeologists in unearthing parts of what has been determined was an enormous complex of stone circles formed into rooms dating back nearly 11,500 years ago, and intentionally buried in dirt around 8,000 B.C. (which is interesting in and of itself, since that preserved the site for ages instead of destroying it).  Only about 3-5% of the site has been excavated so far, which has yielded several of these stone circle rooms, only one of which has been dug down to the floor.  As many as 20 such structures are thought to exist under the ground at the site, detected by radar scans.

When we mention “stone circles” people usually immediately think of Stonehenge, which we’ve written about before here.  Göbekli Tepe, however, dates to even 7,000 years earlier than its more famous counterpart.  That’s right, it is twice as old as any other ritual complex found on the planet4.  Jacob, in the Bible, is noted for having raised a pillar of stone at Bethel, a name which means “House of God” (Gen. 35:14)5.

But why do the archeologists think it was a temple?  We still don’t know much about the religious practices at this site, but here are some of the things I’ve found.

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation.  In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else.  The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship.  This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind.  The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C.  But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple6.  The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city7.  I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument.  Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8.  It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture.  Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area.  We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples.  People always ascended to their sanctuaries.  As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai.  Nephi was caught away to a high mountain.  The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2).  So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site.  Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed10.

Klaus Schmidt, lead archaeologist on Göbekli Tepe.

Klaus Schmidt, lead archaeologist on Göbekli Tepe.

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13.  Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14.  While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15.  Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill16.  Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains17.

Another interesting note from Science Magazine is that this site has been deemed by some to be the original Biblical Garden of Eden18.  Why?  Well, there are several reasons for this.  The location is generally the same as what is thought to be the beginning place of civilization – Turkey.  It also seems to follow the latest theories about the origin of the Garden story.  The online news magazine The First Post reports:

Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure – literally picking fruit from the trees – to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.19

This site seems to depict that transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.  But it goes further than that.  Even the landscape seems to match the Bible story.  The site is in the “fertile crescent,” right between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, purportedly the rivers that flowed down from the Edenic paradise.  Even the vegetation at that time points to a paradise-like environment:

Animal and plant remains suggest that 11,000 years ago this place teemed with gazelle, aurochs, and deer. Groves of fruit and nut trees lined the rivers, and flocks of migrating birds paused here regularly. “It must have looked like a paradise, ideal for hunter-gatherers,” says Angela von den Driesch, an emeritus archaeozoology professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, who has classified animal remains at the site. The region was so rich that people could have settled down while still supporting themselves with hunting and gathering…20

While it is highly suspect that this was actually the original Garden of Eden, particularly from an LDS point of view, just the fact that people are describing this “temple” as such is fascinating.  The Garden of Eden story has endless connections and parallels with the temple21.

The Göbekli Tepe excavation has only just begun.  It will be interesting to watch and learn as more is discovered about this site, particularly if they can uncover in more detail the rituals and ceremonies that occurred there.

Klaus Schmidt has written several books on his finds at Göbekli Tepe, which can be found here on Wikipedia.  His latest book published in 2006 is entitled Sie bauten die ersten Tempel. Das rätselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjäger, which is German for “They Built the First Temple. The Mysterious Shrine of Stone Age Hunters.”

There are also two great YouTube videos which show Göbekli Tepe, both the excavated ruins, and what they think the complex looked like.  The narration is in German, I believe. If you know the language, be sure to let us know if they say anything else interesting in the videos. I’ve embedded them below:

Notes:
  1. Archaeology Magazine, Volume 61 Number 6, November/December 2008, abstract []
  2. Science, Vol. 319. no. 5861, p. 280, abstract []
  3. Wikipedia – Göbekli Tepe. []
  4. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav041708a.shtml []
  5. See Dr. William Hamblin’s Podcast on Sacred Stones for more information about these pillars, and even some comments about Gobekli Tepe. []
  6. The First Post, http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/1410,features,digging-for-history-in-turkey,2 []
  7. http://www.dainst.org/index_642_en.html []
  8. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav041708a.shtml []
  9. Science Magazine. []
  10. Archaeology Magazine []
  11. Archaeology Magazine. []
  12. http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/2880,features,gobekli-your-questions-answered,2 []
  13. Science magazine. []
  14. Science Magazine. []
  15. ibid. []
  16. ibid. []
  17. http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/articles/Gobekli_Tepe_interview.htm []
  18. Originally reported by a 2006 cover story in the German weekly Der Spiegel []
  19. http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/1410,features,digging-for-history-in-turkey,2 []
  20. Science Magazine. []
  21. See The Gate of Heaven by Matthew Brown.  For some of the latest scholarly insights see Jeffrey Bradshaw’s 2008 FAIR presentation, “A Walk in the Garden.” []

9 Comments

  1. PeaJay
    Posted October 22, 2008 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    “…known as Göbekli Tepe, a Turkish name meaning ‘navel hill/mountain’…” Interestingly, the original name of Cuzco, Peru, was Qosqo meaning ‘navel’.

  2. Posted October 23, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    You’re right. Archaeology Magazine’s article also mentions Delphi, Greece, as a navel of the earth, which it was to the Greeks. Janne M. Sjodah talks about both of these in Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon:

    CUZCO, the name of the holy city of the Peruvians, the capital of the Incas. The word is Quichua and means, according to Garcilasso de la Vega, “navel.” (Roy. Com., Book 2, chap. 5.) Rivero (Rivero and Tschudi, Peruvian Antiquities, p. 44), takes the same view:

    “It is certain, according to the traditions of the natives, that, as the navel is the source whence the infant receives life and growth in the womb, the plain of Cuzco was the nucleus of civilization and the focus of light for the estate founded by Manco Capac and Mama Oclla Huaco, as the celestial couple were called.”

    Squier (Incidents of Travel and Exploralion in the Land of the Incas, p. 426), says:

    “Its name, which signifies umbilicus or navel, was not given to it after the Inca dominion had been widely extended by warlike princes, but at the very period of its foundation, to denote that its position was central and dominating.”

    If we accept this derivation of the word, we are struck with the fact that the concept of the name for the city is purely Hebrew. Jerusalem was by the ancient prophets called the “navel” of the earth. (Ezek. 38:12; Judg. 9:37.) “Thus saith the Lord God, This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst [Hebrew "navel"] of the nations and countries that are around about her.” (Ezek. 5:5.) The highland forming the backbone of Palestine, where Jerusalem was established, was to the Hebrews the tabbur, the “midst,” “the center,” literally “the navel” of the earth. The very name proves that Cuzco was to the Peruvians what Jerusalem was to the Hebrews. Dante borrowed the Hebrew idea and placed Jerusalem in the “center,” with Ganges as one extreme and the Pillars of Hercules as the other. To the Greeks Delphi was the “navel” of the earth. They, too, borrowed the Hebrew idea; for the Greeks were great travelers and liberal borrowers. But where did the Peruvians get the same idea, if not through some such connection with the Old Country as related in the Book of Mormon? (Janne M. Sjodahl, Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, 1927, 160)

    Jerusalem is considered a premiere navel of the earth, the tabbur ha-aretz, because of the temple. The following comes from the book Jerusalem: The Eternal City, by Skinner, Ogden, and Galbraith:

    Earth was considered the center of the universe; the Holy Land was the center of the earth; Jerusalem was the center of the Holy Land; the Temple was the center of Jerusalem; the Holy of Holies was the center of the Temple; the Ark with its mercy seat of God was the center of the Holy of Holies; God, therefore, was at the center of centers….

    Jerusalem, the navel of the earth and the light of the world, is destined to become the metropolis of all countries, a capital for all the world….

    Footnote: “The idea of Jerusalem as a ‘navel’ is reflected in Jewish Midrashim: ‘God created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and continues to grow from that point, so too the world. The Holy One, blessed be He, began the world from its navel. From there it was stretched hither and yon. Where is its navel? Jerusalem. And its [Jerusalem's] navel itself? The altar’ (Jellinek, Beth ha-Midrash, V, 63). Clearly the above midrash employs the symbolism of the navel to indicate the centrality of Jerusalem and its altar within the cosmos. Still earlier, Jub. 8:19 (cf. Enoch 26:1) refers to Mount Zion [the Temple Mount] as ‘the center of the navel of the earth.’” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 622. See also Ben-Arieh, “Jerusalem as a Religious City,” 11; Encyclopedia Judaica, 9:1558-59. “The site of Zion was related to the navel of the earth. Solomon’s temple is built on a rock which is the earth-center, the world mountain, the foundation stone of creation, the extremity of the umbilical cord which provides a link between heaven, earth, and the underworld.” Terrien, “Omphalos Myth and Hebrew Religion,” 317. See also Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, 323; Kotker, Earthly Jerusalem, 6; Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:748; Asali, Jerusalem in History, 33. (Andrew C. Skinner, D. Kelly Ogden, David B. Galbraith, Jerusalem: The Eternal City, 1996, 5-6)

    Hugh Nibley also once remarked:

    At hundreds of holy shrines, each believed to mark the exact center of the universe and represented as the point at which the four quarters of the earth converged—”the navel of the earth”—one might have seen assembled at the New Year—the moment of creation, the beginning and ending of time—vast concourses of people, each thought to represent the entire human race in the presence of all its ancestors and gods. (The Ancient State, 99)

    There is a lot of material on the “navel” idea, so it is interesting that the Turkish called this site “navel hill.”

  3. Dan
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Please forgive my being naive. Don’t our scriptures lead us to believe that Adam and Eve lived sometime around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago? Also, you said, “While it is highly suspect that this was actually the original Garden of Eden, particularly from an LDS point of view, just the fact that people are describing this “temple” as such is fascinating. The Garden of Eden story has endless connections and parallels with the temple[21].”
    What of Joseph Smith identifying an area in the USA as the site of the Garden of Eden? Is this a case of there being two of something? Or have we dated things wrong previously? Don’t get me wrong, I find the info about this “temple” to be very compelling, but how does it fit with what we already “know”?
    I’ll appreciate your feedback.

  4. Posted October 23, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bryce – thanks for bringing this to our attention. I think there is a lot of symbolism and meaning behind the concept of the “navel”. One concept that I had no idea about until a few years ago was the navel marker’s link to astronomical survey.

    If the temple is a place where we get our “bearings” as Nibley said it was, there seems to be more to the idea of getting our “moral” bearings at the temple. If I remember correctly, the Delphi navel is placed at a very specific latitude and longitude. In any case, Hamlet’s Mill has some interesting things to say about the “navel” in mythology. Also, I believe it is Tompkins’ Secrets of the Great Pyramid that discusses the Delphi navel and other “navels” in relationship to certain ancient capital cities.

    As you know, Nibley held de Santillana in very high regard. And although he thought the book by Tomkins was inappropriately titled, Nibley did cite it quite a number of times in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papryi: An Egyptian Endowment”.

    Great post.

  5. Posted October 23, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments Greg. Although I haven’t been able to wrap my brain entirely around the navel concept other than it represents the exact center of a thing, I have seen it mentioned quite a few times in different places. I mentioned once before that Nibley commented on the association of the Egyptian ankh with the “navel string”:

    Alfred Wiedemann gives a possible clue when he points out that as soon as an Egyptian baby was born, the gods presented him first of all with the sign of “life” (the ankh) and “divine protection” (the s3), the former representing a knotted belly-band (Gürtelband), the latter a bound-up mat. Like the placenta (hn sw), which had to be preserved most carefully if one expected to be born again, this ankh-symbol was inseparable from a person throughout his lifetime and was always worn as an amulet. It was attached to or over the navel of both male and female babies as the sign of life. This would suggest that the mysterious ankh, by all accounts a knotted cord, was the navel string. It is interesting that ankh also means “oath,” the idea being, as Jan Bergman suggests, that one swears by one’s life, so that if the oath is broken, so likewise “the cord of life” – the umbilical cord – is broken. (Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 454.)

  6. Posted October 30, 2008 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Great questions Dan. There is a lot of speculation about the age of the earth and when exactly Adam and Eve lived. I don't know if there has been anything officially revealed and canonized on the subject. About the location of the Garden of Eden, this page on the FAIR wiki might be useful. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Willis Todd
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    This is a very interesting article! I am perplexed though at why this isn’t more well know if it is twice the age of Stonehenge?
    Also, I think Dan’s question deserves a better answer, though I don’t know that I am able to give one. Perhaps you could say that while the Bible gives a record of genealogy saying Adam and Eve were not that long ago, perhaps that was one of the things altered by men who got tired of writing a long genealogy every time they made a copy. I don’t know, but it seems pretty clear to me that man has been here longer than the approximate 6,000 years you see in the Bible.
    The link posted by Bryce about the Garden of Eden has a lot of quotes in it that make it hard to believe anything but that Missouri , or very close to it was the original Garden of Eden, with reference to a pile of rocks there being the alter Adam used after being cast out of the Garden. And yet I would agree that it is better to look for early evidence of worship in the Middle East, as that is where we have continued to find the oldest structures. My two cents, though I am a bit of a doubting Thomas myself, yet I love hearing about things like this. :)

  8. Tim
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Ancient ruins will always have the challenge of being dated correctly. However, I feel that there are many items of LDS doctrine that are not always compatible with the secular world, but at the same time are still reasonable. For instance, we assume that Adam and Eve were the only human forms on the earth, but the Bible says that Adam and eve were created in the image of God – but does not hint as to whether other humanoid beings were created, and allowed to prosper under a different law. Also, there are many things in scripture which have a spiritual and physical principle, but we often can only figure out which part is which under direct revelation from the same source that all righteous men have gained their knowledge. So, how long were Adam and Eve in the GArden of Eden for? Is it possible that principles of evolution were at work during the time they spent in the garden of Eden…and was a real place anyway? And, when ‘the flood’ receded weren’t the lands separated? And didn’t people live longer before that time? Consequently, we assume that the earth has always spun asthe same revolution, in the same solar system – but no-one can tell us whether it has always located this position in the Universe. So…….all the laws of time, physical places and so forth are always refered to in the frame of our current position, but………they may have omitted some other unknown variables. So, bring on the millenium, where all things will be made known!

  9. Leslie Vadas
    Posted July 28, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I have spent thirty years thinking about religion and its origins and since have become a total nonbeliever. However, I have come to some interesting conclusions which may be of interest to readers. As to the Garden of Eden, I believe there was one, but not in a religious sense. The bible provides important clues as to the location. It was between the Tigrus and Eufrates rivers from the north and two other rivers coming from the east and west respectively. Using images taken from space, which show ancient dry river beds coming from the east and west, this places the Garden of Eden in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Ten thousand years ago so much water was tied up in the glaciers of the ice age that the ocean water levels were hundreds of feet lower than today so the the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, and many other areas around the world were dry land. Many areas such as the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea had fresh water lakes in the middle as water accumulated from the glacial melt water. As the sea levels rose, ocean water invaded previously dry land, flooding it, covering existing civilizations and giving rise to the folk memory of The Flood. Because of it’s southern location away from the northern glaciers and the fresh water lake at it’s heart, the Persian Gulf had a climate suitable for all kinds of vegetation and wild life. Until The Flood, it was the Garden of Eden.

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