URFA, Turkey – As a child, Klaus Schmidt used to grub around in caves in his native Germany in the hope of finding prehistoric paintings. Thirty years later, as a member of the German Archaeological Institute, he found something infinitely more important: a temple complex almost twice as old as anything comparable.
“Within a minute of first seeing it, I knew I had two choices: go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here.”
Behind him are the first folds of the Anatolian Plateau. Ahead, the Mesopotamian plain, like a dust-colored sea, stretches south hundreds of miles to Baghdad and beyond. The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe, his workplace since 1994, are just in front, hidden under the brow of the hill.
Compared with Stonehenge, they are humble affairs. None of the circles that have been excavated, four out of an estimated 20, is more than 100 feet across. Two of the slender, T-shaped pillars tower at least three feet above their peers.
What makes them remarkable are the carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions that cover them, and their age. Dated at about 9500 B.C., these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.
Nevermind wheels or writing, the people who erected them did not even have pottery or domesticated wheat. They lived in villages, but were hunters, not farmers.
“Everybody used to think only complex, hierarchical civilizations could build such monumental sites and that they only came about with the invention of agriculture,” said Ian Hodder, a Stanford University anthropology professor who has directed digs at Catalhoyuk, Turkey’s most-famous Neolithic site, since 1993.
“Gobekli changes everything. It’s elaborate, it’s complex, and it is pre-agricultural. That fact alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time.”
With only a fraction of the site opened after a decade of excavation, Gobekli Tepe’s significance to the people who built it remains unclear. Some think it was the center of a fertility rite, with the two tall stones at the center of each circle representing a man and woman.
Urfa’s tourist board has taken that theory up with alacrity; visit the Garden of Eden, its brochures trumpet, see Adam and Eve.
Mr. Schmidt, however, is skeptical. He agreed the site could well have been “the last flowering of a semi-nomadic world that farming was just about to destroy” and pointed out that if it is in near-perfect condition today, it is because those who built it buried it soon after under tons of soil, as though its wild animal-rich world had lost all meaning.
However, the site is devoid of the fertility symbols that have been found at other Neolithic sites, and the T-shaped columns, while clearly semi-human, are sexless.
“I think here we are face to face with the earliest representation of gods,” according to Mr. Schmidt.
“They have no eyes, no mouths, no faces. But they have arms, and they have hands. They are makers.”
“In my opinion, the people who carved them were asking themselves the biggest questions of all. What is this universe? Why are we here?”
With no evidence of houses or graves near the stones, Mr. Schmidt thinks the hilltop was a site of pilgrimage for communities within a radius of roughly 100 miles. He notes how the tallest stones all face southeast, as if scanning plains that are scattered with contemporary sites in many ways no less remarkable than Gobekli Tepe.
Last year, for instance, French archaeologists working at Djade al-Mughara in northern Syria uncovered the oldest mural ever found — “two square meters of geometric shapes, in red, black and white — a bit like a Paul Klee painting,” according to Eric Coqueugniot, the University of Lyon archaeologist who is leading the excavation.
Mr. Coqueugniot describes Mr. Schmidt’s hypothesis that Gobekli Tepe was a meeting point for feasts, rituals and sharing ideas as “tempting,” given the site’s spectacular position. He warned, though, that surveys of the region are still in their infancy and that “tomorrow, somebody might find somewhere even more dramatic.”
Vecihi Ozkaya, the director of a dig at Korpiktepe, on the Tigris River 120 miles east of Urfa, doubts that the thousands of stone pots he has found since 2001, in hundreds of 11,500-year-old graves, qualify as such.
Nevertheless, his excitement fills his austere office at Dicle University in Diyarbakir.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at a photo of an exquisitely carved sculpture showing an animal, half-human and half-lion. “It’s a sphinx, thousands of years before Egypt. Southeastern Turkey, northern Syria — this region saw the wedding night of our civilization.”