Located within the Tektek Mountains, just east of the Harran Plain, is a site that changes everything we thought we knew about prehistoric civilizations. Karahan Tepe (or Keçili Tepe, as it’s locally known) lies just 46 km southeast of Göbekli Tepe, a site believed to be the world’s very first temple. But archaeologists now suspect that Karahan Tepe, built by the same mysterious civilization, is even older.
At the time of writing in 2020, Karahan Tepe is the site of ongoing archaeological excavations and not yet an officially sanctioned tourist attraction. But for the past few years, visitors have been free to show up and explore (learn more below).
Before reading about Karahan Tepe, be sure to first familiarize yourself with Göbekli Tepe, which can learn more about here. As we don’t yet have an official name for the lost civilization that built these sites, I’ll be referring to them as the ‘T-Builders’ after their trademark T-shaped pillars.
Visiting Karahan Tepe
Karahan Tepe is believed to be considerably larger than Göbekli Tepe, covering an area of over 13 hectares, or about 33 acres. And the whole site was centered around a hill, which is approximately 490 meters long by 270 meters wide.
Unlike Göbekli Tepe, which once appeared as a hill but turned out to be a manmade mound, this hill is natural. Its top and western faces largely consist of a limestone outcrop from which the T-Builders quarried stone.
They then took the stone over to the northern and eastern sides, where they built temples and possibly even more.
Approaching the hill from the north, my guide/driver and I came into contact with the workers who were taking a breakfast break. They kindly offered us some tea as we chatted for a bit about the project.
And we also got to meet head archaeologist Dr. Necmi Karul of Istanbul University, who shared some information with me about recent findings.
He mentioned that not only might Karahan Tepe be older than Göbekli Tepe, but it appears to have been both a temple and a settlement!
I began exploring by walking around the northern end of the hill where I encountered what appeared to be the broken pieces of a large limestone vessel.
Both Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe were constructed in what we now call the Pre Pottery Neolithic Period, or PPN, which roughly dates from 10,000-6,500 BC. That means you won’t find any clay pottery at either site, even in the more ‘recently’ built areas.
The Stone Benches
One of the main highlights of Karahan Tepe are its ‘stone benches’ on the northern end of the hill. According to Dr. Karul, three such benches have been discovered around the site so far, though I think I only saw two of them.
One of the benches sits in front of a large flat surface of smoothed down limestone. As seen at Göbekli Tepe, the T-Builders were capable of smoothing down natural bedrock as well as making artificial terrazzo floors with plaster.
Over to the side, meanwhile, is what appears to be some kind of pit.
This is one of the few sections of the site uncovered thus far that has carvings. While very faint, the bench features images of both a long snake and a fox – two animals frequently depicted at Göbekli Tepe.
Foxes, and often nothing but foxes, were carved on the inside of the central pillars of Göbekli Tepe’s circular enclosure. While we don’t know exactly what they symbolized (perhaps comets), the animal was clearly significant to the T-Builders.
In fact, archaeologists have discovered fox bones at Karahan Tepe, indicating that foxes were used in certain rituals.
Around the Top
At the top of the hill, all comprised of solid limestone, are a series of ‘cup holes’ which should look familiar to those who’ve visited Göbekli Tepe.
They bear a strong resemblance to the markings at Enclosure E, situated outside of the main domed area. Perhaps they acted as vessels for some kind of liquid, either for rituals or to attract birds like vultures.
Author Andrew Collins, who’s visited numerous Neolithic sites around the region, points out that many in Şanlıurfa Province contain similar markings.
Many of the holes are around 20 cm in diameter, while the biggest holes can be up to 40-50 cm. The widest of the holes are also quite deep. And for some mysterious reason, they were often dug out in pairs.
Elsewhere in the area, there are also what appear to be large basins, possibly for storing water.
As mentioned in our guide to Göbekli Tepe, Andrew Collins appears to have cracked the code regarding the function of the circular enclosures. He argues that they were oriented north, toward the setting of the star Deneb, which also marked the entrance to the Milky Way’s Great Rift.
Collins also speculates that Karahan Tepe was chosen because it provided a good view of certain celestial phenomena to the north – likely again related to Deneb and the constellation Cygnus. But we’ll have to wait until the deeper portions of Karahan Tepe are uncovered before speculating further.
Walking around, I discovered numerous fragments of flint – a rock which prehistoric peoples around the world have used to make stone tools.
Elsewhere around the top of the hill are various long rock formations. It’s not always clear if they were caused by quarrying or were formed naturally. But as we’ll cover shortly, there’s an entire pillar on the western face of the hill that’s been left in place for millennia!
The Eastern Pillars
Over on the eastern side of the hill are numerous T pillars sticking out of the ground. They’re roughly equivalent to the pillars of Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure F, one of the most recent parts of that complex.
At Göbekli Tepe, the T-Builders gradually built smaller and smaller as time went on. And they’d also build at higher elevations after deliberately burying the lower portions of the temple.
Assuming the two sites share a similar timeline, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these smaller pillars, which likely date to around 8500-8000 BC, have appeared first. Before long, we can expect archaeologists to uncover much larger pillars deeper below the ground.
So far, around 250 pillars have been discovered at Karahan Tepe. While all of the ones I saw were undecorated (at least as far as I could tell), one of them had a carving of a snake along its side, and it’s since been removed for safekeeping.
As Göbekli Tepe can only be observed from a distance, it was a real privilege to get up close to these ancient pillars like this. Karahan Tepe will surely be covered by a fancy dome and surrounded by a modern viewing platform before too long.
During his visit, Andrew Collins observed that as opposed to the circular enclosures of Göbekli Tepe, the pillars here seem to form three distinct ‘avenues’ leading to the top of the hill.
Perhaps they formed a processional walkway related to a ritual. But we’ll have to wait and see until more is revealed.
Coming all the way down the side of the hill, I turned around to take in the complete view.
It was thrilling to think how this nondescript hill, which from a distance looks like any other, contains some of the most important clues for figuring out human civilization’s mysterious origins.
I walked back to the top and then came down the western slope.
As mentioned, this area was mostly used as a quarry, and probably didn’t contain any temples or settlements. But it does contain the biggest indicator yet that there’s lots more waiting for us deeper underground.
The Unfinished Pillar
Carved out of the bedrock is a huge pillar that, for whatever reason, was left in place. It’s the Neolithic equivalent of Egypt’s Unfinished Obelisk.
The pillar is 5.5 meters long and at its widest section stretches out to 2 meters. This is quite significant, as the largest pillars of Göbekli Tepe, the central monoliths of Enclosure D, are also around 5.5 meters high.
And we also know that they’re among the oldest, dating to around 9500-9000 BC. Each one is estimated to weigh around 15 tons, so we can presume that the ‘Unfinished Pillar’ weighs about the same.
Thanks to the discovery of this pillar, we can be fairly certain that other pillars of this size were erected at Karahan Tepe. But were they also part of circular enclosures like at Göbekli Tepe, or did they follow some other layout?
Heading back north, I came across even more small pillars sticking out of the ground around the northwest portion of the hill. Had we no prior knowledge of Göbekli Tepe, these rocks wouldn’t even garner a second glance.
This explains why Karahan Tepe largely went undetected until the first investigation took place in 1997, a few years after Klaus Schmidt began excavating Göbekli Tepe.
After a survey in 2000, the next archaeological survey didn’t occur until 11 years later. And now that we have a better idea of what a treasure trove this hill contains, serious digging has only been happening for the last few years.
My guide and I returned the way we came, stopping for a glance at the ongoing digs. We then stopped at the nearby farmhouse belonging to the family who owns this land.
We chatted for awhile with the owner as well as Dr. Necmi Karul over several cups of tea – a great opportunity for me and also for my guide, a trained archaeologist.
We discussed how all in all, there are at least ten significant Neolithic sites known so far around southeast Turkey. And new discoveries are being made all the time.
With that in mind, as we left Karahan Tepe and drove onward through the desolate landscape, I couldn’t stop staring at every hill we passed, wondering what secrets they might hold.
Karahan Tepe is about 55 km from central Urfa. And as you can probably guess, there’s no public transport going there.
I’d been looking for a driver to take me to Karahan Tepe along with a few other historical sites in the region, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Most taxi drivers in Urfa don’t speak English, while few are likely to have heard of the site.
But when I was in Harran, I stopped for a coffee at the Harran Kulture Evi (Beehive Houses) where I met Ibrahim.
He’s a licensed archaeologist and guide, and he asked me if I knew of places like Karahan Tepe, Sogmatar, Saib (Jethro) and the Bazda Caves. I said that I was indeed hoping to visit these places but wasn’t sure how to get there. He then offered to be a driver and guide for me the following day for 700 TL (roughly $100 USD).
This price also included pickup at my hotel in Urfa, though it would be even lower had I been staying in Harran.
The previous day, I’d been in contact with a driver from the website ToursByLocals who was quoting me double! I therefore accepted Ibrahim’s offer without hesitation.
Everything went smoothly as planned and visiting all of these important yet unknown sites was a great experience.
It was a full-day journey, beginning around 9 am and getting back to Urfa in the early evening in time for dinner.
To get to Karahan Tepe, you could also try renting a car and driving yourself. The place is marked on Google Maps. But even my driver, a local who’d been to the site several times before, got a bit lost due to the lack of signage and the unchanging landscape.
If you need to ask for directions, try asking for ‘Keçili’ rather than Karahan Tepe.
The local area is known as Keçili, while ‘tepe’ means hill. Locals, therefore, like to call the archaeological site Keçili Tepe.
Karahan Tepe was the name chosen by the first archaeologist to survey the site, Bahattin Çelik. The name is apparently derived from some other nearby place names.
Dr. Necmi Karul expressed to us how he wishes people would stop calling it Karahan Tepe, as Keçili Tepe is the real name. However, Karahan Tepe seems to have stuck, as this is what mainstream media outlets are already calling it.
Years in the future, when the site becomes an officially promoted tourist attraction, we’ll have to wait and see which name the government goes with.
Central Urfa isn’t a huge area. If you’re within walking to distance to the Şanlıurfa Museum or Balıklıgöl, you can easily visit everything mentioned in the Urfa guide above on foot.
However, if you want to visit both Göbekli Tepe and Harran by bus, you should consider your location more carefully. The bus stops for both are around 3 km north of the city center.
I decided to look for something in between the two locations (that was also in my budget), and found the Emir Sultan Hotel.
For less than $10 a night, I had a private bathroom, decent wifi and free breakfast. The biggest downside was the lack of AC – kind of unthinkable in Turkey’s hottest city at the hottest time of year. The fan they provide, at least, was very strong. And the staff were helpful and kind.
If you’re not on such a strict budget but are still interested in taking a bus to Göbekli Tepe and Harran, I’d still recommend the general area around Emir Sultan. (Hotel Guven looks like a good option.)
It’s also by the restaurant Sumer Lahmacun, one of the best lahmacun places I visited in Turkey.
Şanlıurfa has its own airport about 15 km south of the city. It connects with major cities like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
There is no rail access, so most people arrive by car or bus.
The main otogar (bus terminal) is several kilometers north of the city center. Apparently, two buses are required to get to the city center, so just taking a taxi is the best idea. As of 2020, the ride should cost 25 lira or so.
(Going to the otogar isn’t required to visit Göbekli Tepe and Harran. See the bus stop locations in the map above.)
Şanlıurfa is one of southeast Turkey’s biggest cities, so in theory, there should be many direct connections with other cities in the region. But I had strange experiences both coming to and departing from Urfa.
Despite having bought a direct ticket from Mardin to Urfa, I was made to transfer to a minibus without warning midway through the ride (avoid the company Dilmenler Mardin at all costs! See my horror story at the end of this guide).
When done with Urfa, I went on to see Mt. Nemrut, the nearest town to which is called Kahta. And despite having bought a ticket which simply said ‘Kahta,’ and getting no additional info from the ticket seller, I was made to transfer at Adiyaman. (It was at least much smoother than the Mardin ordeal.)
In three months of traveling around Turkey and countless bus rides, my journeys to and from Urfa were the only times I was suddenly transferred from a coach bus to a minibus mid-ride.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.