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City of Brass

This amazing archeaological find has the potential to rewrite our understanding of human history: a literally prehistoric temple complex in Turkey which, at 11,500 years old, is the oldest known human structure in existence:

They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization

(…) [German archeologist Klaus] Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago-a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture-the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember-the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

As the article points out, the usual narrative is that humans discovered agriculture, which led to cities, whiich led to organized religion (centering on agricultural deities). In this traditional narrative it was agriculture which drove the creation of organized human civilization, and religion was a consequence. But the discovery of this ancient complex upends that chronology and puts religion as cause, not effect:

Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.

(…) Religion now appears so early in civilized life-earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct-that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and Göbekli may prove his case.

The builders of Göbekli Tepe could not write or leave other explanations of their work. Schmidt speculates that nomadic bands from hundreds of miles in every direction were already gathering here for rituals, feasting, and initiation rites before the first stones were cut. The religious purpose of the site is implicit in its size and location. “You don’t move 10-ton stones for no reason,” Schmidt observes. “Temples like to be on high sites,” he adds, waving an arm over the stony, round hilltop. “Sanctuaries like to be away from the mundane world.”

Unlike most discoveries from the ancient world, Göbekli Tepe was found intact, the stones upright, the order and artistry of the work plain even to the un-trained eye. Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars Schmidt has unearthed. There are a few abstract symbols, but the site is almost covered in graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers. Wild boar and cattle are depicted, along with totems of power and intelligence, like lions, foxes, and leopards. Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers. The T shapes appear to be towering humanoids but have no faces, hinting at the worship of ancestors or humanlike deities. “In the Bible it talks about how God created man in his image,” says Johns Hopkins archeologist Glenn Schwartz. Göbekli Tepe “is the first time you can see humans with that idea, that they resemble gods.”

The relevance of this to faith is immense. If (as a believer, particularly of an Abrahamic faith) you accept the view that religion is a revelation from God to mankind, then the tempe at Göbekli Tepe really has potential to provide a meaningful narrative for that relationship. But the temple complex offers deep insights into human prehistory far beyond theological insights – it is a outlier in that a similar complex structure would not be built for five millenia later, in Iraq. It is such a mystery that the first archaeologist to discover it in the 60s was simply unable to process what he saw and walked away!

The bottom line is that with these temples, we see a glimpse of humanity at the cusp, not of civilization, but of understanding that there is more to existence than merely existing. The idea of the existence of the divine -the awakening from mere survival (post Ice Age) into a broader philosophical curiosity about why we are here and Who put us here – must have been like an ideological nuke to our forebears. It was literally Revelation, and perhaps it occurred there, at Göbekli Tepe , for the first time.

Related: Photos of the site at Göbekli Tepe and additional article about the temple complex at the Smithsonian Magazine.

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