Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?
By Tom Knox
For the old Kurdish shepherd, it was just another burning hot day in the rolling plains of eastern Turkey. Following his flock over the arid hillsides, he passed the single mulberry tree, which the locals regarded as ‘sacred’. The bells on his sheep tinkled in the stillness. Then he spotted something. Crouching down, he brushed away the dust, and exposed a strange, large, oblong stone.
The man looked left and right: there were similar stone rectangles, peeping from the sands. Calling his dog to heel, the shepherd resolved to inform someone of his finds when he got back to the village. Maybe the stones were important.
They certainly were important. The solitary Kurdish man, on that summer’s day in 1994, had made the greatest archaeological discovery in 50 years. Others would say he’d made the greatest archaeological discovery ever: a site that has revolutionised the way we look at human history, the origin of religion – and perhaps even the truth behind the Garden of Eden.
A few weeks after his discovery, news of the shepherd’s find reached museum curators in the ancient city of Sanliurfa, ten miles south-west of the stones.
They got in touch with the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. And so, in late 1994, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to the site of Gobekli Tepe (pronounced Go-beckly Tepp-ay) to begin his excavations.
As he puts it: ‘As soon as I got there and saw the stones, I knew that if I didn’t walk away immediately I would be here for the rest of my life.’
Schmidt stayed. And what he has uncovered is astonishing. Archaeologists worldwide are in rare agreement on the site’s importance. ‘Gobekli Tepe changes everything,’ says Ian Hodder, at Stanford University.
David Lewis-Williams, professor of archaeology at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, says: ‘Gobekli Tepe is the most important archaeological site in the world.’
Some go even further and say the site and its implications are incredible. As Reading University professor Steve Mithen says: ‘Gobekli Tepe is too extraordinary for my mind to understand.’
So what is it that has energised and astounded the sober world of academia?
The site of Gobekli Tepe is simple enough to describe. The oblong stones, unearthed by the shepherd, turned out to be the flat tops of awesome, T-shaped megaliths. Imagine carved and slender versions of the stones of Avebury or Stonehenge.
Most of these standing stones are inscribed with bizarre and delicate images – mainly of boars and ducks, of hunting and game. Sinuous serpents are another common motif. Some of the megaliths show crayfish or lions.
The stones seem to represent human forms – some have stylised ‘arms’, which angle down the sides. Functionally, the site appears to be a temple, or ritual site, like the stone circles of Western Europe.
To date, 45 of these stones have been dug out – they are arranged in circles from five to ten yards across – but there are indications that much more is to come. Geomagnetic surveys imply that there are hundreds more standing stones, just waiting to be excavated.
So far, so remarkable. If Gobekli Tepe was simply this, it would already be a dazzling site – a Turkish Stonehenge. But several unique factors lift Gobekli Tepe into the archaeological stratosphere – and the realms of the fantastical.
The Garden of Eden come to life: Is Gobekli Tepe where the story began?
The first is its staggering age. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old.
That means it was built around 10,000BC. By comparison, Stonehenge was built in 3,000 BC and the pyramids of Giza in 2,500 BC.
Gobekli is thus the oldest such site in the world, by a mind-numbing margin. It is so old that it predates settled human life. It is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-everything. Gobekli hails from a part of human history that is unimaginably distant, right back in our hunter-gatherer past.
How did cavemen build something so ambitious? Schmidt speculates that bands of hunters would have gathered sporadically at the site, through the decades of construction, living in animal-skin tents, slaughtering local game for food.
The many flint arrowheads found around Gobekli support this thesis; they also support the dating of the site.
This revelation, that Stone Age hunter-gatherers could have built something like Gobekli, is worldchanging, for it shows that the old hunter-gatherer life, in this region of Turkey, was far more advanced than we ever conceived – almost unbelievably sophisticated.
The shepherd who discovered Gobekli Tepe has ‘changed everything’, said one academic
It’s as if the gods came down from heaven and built Gobekli for themselves.
This is where we come to the biblical connection, and my own involvement in the Gobekli Tepe story.
About three years ago, intrigued by the first scant details of the site, I flew out to Gobekli. It was a long, wearying journey, but more than worth it, not least as it would later provide the backdrop for a new novel I have written.
Back then, on the day I arrived at the dig, the archaeologists were unearthing mind-blowing artworks. As these sculptures were revealed, I realised that I was among the first people to see them since the end of the Ice Age…
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