I have officially arrived . . . in the middle of nowhere. It took two flights, from New York to Istanbul to Şanlıurfa, Türkiye, a place even my young Turkish gate agent hadn’t heard of. From Şanlıurfa, it’s a half-hour van ride, passing low, rocky hills in shades of tan and yellow covered in dry grass. We drive east toward the Syrian border, in the historical region of Mesopotamia along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent. East, to see an incredible array of organized rocks, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in human history.
East to Göbekli Tepe
It really does feel like the middle of nowhere, but what a strange way to refer to a location that might have started everything. “But why here?!” I hear a tourist say as I walk up the long path to the main excavation area. “Why not closer to a major city?” Well, because you’re actually squarely in the middle of somewhere, circa 9500 B.C.
The Neolithic site is up on a humble hill, surrounded by a landscape that feels galactic: an entire planet covered in basalt soil and sun-dried grass. From up here, the panorama stuns: One can imagine how even the most restless hunter-gatherers would consider settling down here. Up ahead, beneath a sweeping protective canopy are the special buildings: A, B, C, D, and, of course, E. The buildings are oval-shaped gathering spaces with 12,000-year-old carved T-pillars on pedestals of bedrock, first excavated in 1995. None has been fully excavated so far.
Large tour groups of around 50 people mill around a raised walkway, taking photos of the structures. In 2018, Göbekli Tepe was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, by 2021 nearly half a million international and domestic tourists visited the region, and even more record-breaking crowds are expected this year as the region has become safer to visit.
I meet with the archaeologist responsible for the coordination of the Göbekli Tepe Project, Dr. Lee Clare, at the spot where the excavation first began in the ’90s by another German archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt. Lee is a youthful German expert in prehistoric archaeology, wearing skinny jeans and a sun hat. A few nice stray cats walk with us as he explains the site, a constant settlement that shows the gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to settlers and farmers over a millennia, if not longer.
One thing Dr. Clare is very clear about: This is not a temple. No matter how much we’re conditioned into thinking megaliths are religious sites, there’s nary a deity, god, or goddess depicted here. Instead, these T-pillars represent the ancestors of the settlers with vividly recognizable images carved into them: a fox being held under an arm; snakes, insects, cranes. All of this accomplished by hunter-gatherers, without, of course, metal tools. “This is not a primitive group of people,” he reminds me. “These were modern humans with simple tools.”
The excavation site looks somewhat familiar—although everything my mind is comparing it to came later, if not much later. Low stone walls create oval rooms, with built-in seating for people. Massive vertical pillars of stone are arranged in a way to promote a gathering space. The depictions on these T-pillars are essential to the story of humanity. Dr. Clare explains, “Here is the earliest example of a man-made environment, where they’re actually carving their myths, their narratives, onto a large piece of stone, in a building to promote identity, belonging, being part of a group, at a time [when human beings were] going through a very drastic transition. This transition, from hunting-gathering to farming, is a long transition. This is a part of it. Cognitively, they’re changing. Their minds need to adapt.”
Yet, what he was most excited about weren’t the 50-ton carved stones rising more than 16 feet, but an area where no tourists were trying to take selfies. We walked over to a small rectangular stone room on the other side of the walkway. These are “ninth millennium B.C. domestic structures,” he says. “This is really quite spectacular. The preservation is wonderful. The back wall is preserved: a two-meter-high wall of a building that is, like, 10,000 years old. It’s a dream.”
We looked over the plastered floor of the building. A basin, probably a hearth or oven on the floor. Basalt grinding stones. It was indisputably domestic. And chronologically, he explained, “These buildings overlapped. It was a constant settlement with domestic buildings, houses, and special buildings at the same time.”
If he’s excited, I’m excited. It may have been the simplest-looking part of the whole site, but also the most telling. The ordinary can be both beautiful and astounding if we allow it to be. Yes, our brains like the spectacular, but a site of this magnitude is about seeing what’s truly beneath the surface. As we looked across the landscape, he reminds me of how much more there is to discover. “It doesn’t matter where you put a hole here,” he says with a laugh. “The whole site is full of archaeology. The whole site. You can see it just poking out of the surface.”
Later in the afternoon, I’m off to another middle of nowhere. Karahan Tepe, about an hour’s drive away, is sometimes referred to as the sister site of Göbekli Tepe, discovered in 1997. It is only just opening to tourists, with plans to build a protective roof similar to the one at Göbekli Tepe. We arrive at a black shipping container and are ushered to a small courtyard for some tea with Dr. Necmi Karul, a professor from Istanbul University leading the excavations.
In the distance are more mounds of rock, with more than 250 T-pillars jutting out from the ground, and only a fraction of the landscape excavated. It will be another 100 years before it’s complete. Archaeology is about patience. “We need to concentrate on some questions, and leave the big picture to the future,” Karul says. “When you don’t know the answer, that’s part of the great mystery. Everyone wants to know—me too,” he chuckled. “This region is important for the whole world, this is humanity. Everyone in the world is a part of this.”
As we stand over the main site, he also raises the point of the temple. “If you say it’s a temple, you will underestimate the function of such a building. These buildings bring people together. And if people come together, it’s open to discussion. They can speak. They can gossip. They can dance. Make music. Everything.”
Dr. Karul looks over at a stone face that was carved into the wall. “Before we found human representation, it was mostly animal . . . and in the beginning of settled life, humans felt a part of the animal kingdom. But after some 100 years, after they came together and got used to living together, humans put themselves in the middle of the universe. Therefore, it is the beginning of our end.”
Indeed, this may have been the exact moment we slipped out of balance with nature. And perhaps it is up to us visitors to imagine what all these facts might mean. To use travel as a way to think about who we once were. To visit the places of our ancient ancestors, and to allow space for the unanswered.
I look out at the two sections of Karahan Tepe: a small area that had been carefully excavated and the acres upon acres of grass-covered hills that have yet to be discovered. There is so much more to know—but you don’t come to a place like this for answers. Because every single spot on Earth is in the middle of somewhere, and questions and stories are all we ever really have.
Know before you go
Getting there: Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Şanlıurfa three times a day.
Where to stay: Ala Han Boutique Hotel Book now
Must-do: Şanlıurfa’s Archaeological Museum is a must before going to Göbekli Tepe. It’s curated chronologically and houses many artifacts excavated from both Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe.
How to be a good guest: When visiting Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe, keep in mind that you are visiting an active excavation site. Archaeologists are working six days a week, from dawn until 10 p.m., and it’s important to respect the work they are doing and not interrupt for photos or questions.