Dubbed the ‘Zero Point of History,’ the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, one of the world’s oldest temples, changed everything we thought we knew about prehistoric peoples. The 12,000-year-old temple complex reveals that not only did ancient humans have the capability to carve and move huge monoliths, but they also possessed intimate knowledge of the cosmos. Visiting Göbekli Tepe to see their work in person is a must-do while traveling in Turkey.
In the following guide, we’ll cover the history of the site, the significance of each enclosure, and how to get to Göbekli Tepe from nearby Şanlıurfa.
What is Göbekli Tepe?
A few decades ago, a German archaeologist by the name of Klaus Schmidt was excavating the Neolithic site of Nevali Çori in Şanlıurfa Province. But when the entire site was flooded by the Ataturk Dam in 1992, Schmidt had to look for new work.
The nearby site of Göbekli Tepe had been known since the 1960s, but the team who studied it determined that it was nothing more than a Byzantine cemetery. But once Schmidt laid eyes upon the hill in 1994, he knew immediately that it was an artificial mound buried thousands of years ago.
Göbekli Tepe turned out to be older than anyone could’ve anticipated. In fact, it’s likely the oldest temple ever discovered, dating back to at least 12,000 years ago. And it remained in continuous use until the 8th millennium BC.
The temple complex consists of numerous circular enclosures formed by standing T-shaped monoliths. Over 200 pillars have been uncovered thus far, with some reaching up to 6 meters and weighing over 15 tons.
And this was all carried out by a culture that had yet to develop pottery.
Interestingly, the site was in use for centuries, and enclosures were commonly buried before new ones were built nearby. The most recent enclosures, therefore, are situated at much higher levels on the hill. But for some reason, the entire site was eventually buried and abandoned.
Before his death in 2014, Schmidt estimated that only 5 percent of the site had been uncovered, with possibly over 16 additional enclosures still underground.
Göbekli Tepe contains no evidence of having been a settlement, with the nearest water source being around 5 km away. We can conclude, then, that it was purely used for religious purposes.
But this flies in the face of everything we thought we knew about human civilization and Neolithic peoples. It was long believed that agriculture needed to become commonplace before communities could carry out large-scale, organized building projects.
The discovery of Göbekli Tepe reveals that the opposite is true. Ancient humans felt compelled to build large megalithic temples first, resulting in the need for agriculture to sustain big groups of workers.
We still know little about the mysterious civilization behind Göbekli Tepe, but we now know they’re behind numerous other sites throughout the region. Similar T-shaped pillars have been found at the nearby site of Karahan Tepe, which may even be older!
The same type of pillars were also utilized at Nevali Çori, a settlement and temple complex built a couple thousand years after Göbekli Tepe’s founding.
For lack of a better term, I’ll be referring to this lost civilization as the ‘T-Builders.’
Visiting Göbekli Tepe
For quite some time, Göbekli Tepe was an obscure site that few had heard of. But now, having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with the Turkish government declaring 2019 as ‘The Year of Göbekli Tepe,’ it’s become a household name.
Arriving at the site from Şanlıurfa, the current infrastructure reflects this. The ticket booth is situated within a modern building complete with a bookshop and cafe. And though it was closed during my visit due to the pandemic, the neighboring building houses an exhibition and screening hall.
Whether you’re coming by public bus (more below) or with your own transport, the main parking lot is situated nearby these buildings. The actual site is some distance away, and there are free shuttle buses transporting visitors to and fro.
You can also walk, which only takes about 10-15 minutes. This allows you to take in the impressive views of the surrounding hills.
The place where the shuttle bus drops visitors off also contains a small cafe, gift shop and restrooms.
From here, the main dome is just a short walk away, but there’s a smaller landmark you should check out on the way.
The first landmark visitors encounter is known as Enclosure E. This area once featured pillars and walls like the other enclosures around the site. But strangely, they’re all missing.
Look closely and you’ll notice two carved pedestals which held the two tallest pillars in the center. But it’s best to revisit the site before leaving. Only after seeing all the other enclosures can you picture how this space might’ve looked.
Aside from the missing pillars, another mystery of Enclosure E is the set of cup marks left in the bedrock. As the T-Builders were perfectly capable of creating smooth surfaces, these had to have had some kind of purpose. But what?
Perhaps they acted as bowls for some kind of liquid, either for rituals or to attract birds. Or perhaps they were used as oracles.
Göbekli Tepe’s main enclosures, A through D, were all built right next to one another. Originally, visitors could walk around within the main area, but access is now restricted to an elevated circular walkway. And a modern dome was also added to protect Göbekli Tepe from the elements.
Given all the hype surrounding Göbekli Tepe, many are surprised to discover just how small the area really is. If you weren’t paying much attention, you could circle the whole thing in just a few minutes.
But there’s a lot more than first meets the eye. The more time you take to carefully observe the old stones, you’ll notice new shapes and carvings with each walk around.
Furthermore, understanding that these weren’t just randomly placed pillars will greatly enhance your experience. This is a topic we’ll get more into by covering each individual enclosure below.
Entering the domed area from the south, the first circle you’ll encounter is Enclosure A, which was also among the first to be excavated. It consists of five central T pillars with a few more outside the inner walls.
The ovoid enclosure, which measures 12 x 13 meters, was built atop the natural limestone bedrock.
Enclosure A is also known as the Snake Pillar Building. While the circular walkway prevents you from getting too near, look closely at the larger of the two central pillars to see why.
Not only are there snakes slithering on its side, there’s also what appears to be a big group of snakes on the front. Combined, they create a mesh-like pattern.
On the other central pillar, meanwhile, is what appears to be an auroch, a species of wild cattle that went extinct in the 17th century AD. Below it are a fox and a bird, the first of many such depictions of these animals.
Note how all the art at Göbekli Tepe was carved in raised relief. This means that the T-Builders had to clearly envision the art before shaving down the large limestone monoliths, with no room for error. Pretty advanced stuff for an era before pottery!
Enclosure B, an enclosure of around 12 meters in diameter, was first excavated in 1998. It contains 11 pillars in total, with seven in the inner circle.
The pillars were placed atop what’s called a terrazzo floor. By mixing burnt limestone with water, the Neolithic builders could create perfectly flat floors out of the plaster that resulted.
Again, we see the two tallest pillars facing each other in the center. Each one features a relief of a leaping fox, as do numerous other central pillars at Göbekli Tepe.
But what does the fox represent? In folklore throughout the world, the fox is seen as a trickster. And given the bushy tail-like appearances of comets, there may be some astronomical significance as well.
A large comet had struck the earth around the year 10,900 BC, causing what we call the Younger Dryas Impact. It resulted in mass destruction across the globe and even triggered a mini ice age. And interestingly, the T-Builders seemed to have emerged right around the time that temperatures returned to normal.
If you were to stand in the southern part of the enclosure and look toward the space in between the two central pillars, you’d be looking slightly northwest. And straight ahead you’d see a stone with a hole in the middle, above which is a cow with horns.
In various ancient cultures, the head of a bull calf represented the womb, with the horns or ears resembling the fallopian tubes. Hathor, the Great Mother Goddess of ancient Egypt, is one of the most well-known examples.
Bovine art used to represent the womb can be seen at another Anatolian Neolithic site called Çatalhöyük. And also in the paintings of the Paleolithic-era Chauvet Cave in France, drawn a staggering 36,000 years ago!
We’ll be getting more into this topic shortly during our examination of Enclosure D.
Also within the enclosure is a square-shaped pedestal with a circular ring in the middle. Presumably, it was discovered quite recently, as no sources or books I’ve come across mention it.
While it’s purpose is unclear, perhaps it was meant to hold some kind of narrow pole representing the axis mundi, or center of the world.
Also note the cup-like indentations atop the central pillar. They resemble those next to Enclosure E and were clearly left there deliberately.
Things get even more interesting at Enclosure C, opposite from Enclosure B on the eastern end of the ring. In total, the enclosure has a diameter of about 25 meters with two layers of walls.
The outer wall marked the original boundary of the enclosure, while the inner wall, for some reason, was added much later.
The inner wall contains 9 standing pillars, though the original number was likely higher. Again we see two central pillars with foxes carved on them. Unfortunately, both of the pillars are broken.
Interestingly, the central pillars were placed in special pedestals that were carved from the bedrock. In front of them, a free-standing sculpture of a boar was discovered, now on display at the Şanlıurfa Museum.
Within the outer ring, look out for the pillar with five flightless birds and a wild boar carved under them. It’s one of the few discovered where the head of the T has been entirely covered in reliefs.
And looking back in the central ring, look closely for the four-legged creature on one of the pillar’s sides. This is the only example so far of a high relief carving at Göbekli Tepe.
It almost looks like a statue’s been glued to the side! It’s unclear exactly which animal it represents, but it’s likely a feline predator.
While now largely broken, a stone with a hole was also found at the northern part of the enclosure, aligned with the space between the two central pillars. It’s much like the hole at Enclosure B, and as we’ll cover shortly, at D as well.
There are a few other peculiarities about Enclosure C. As mentioned, the inner wall was added sometime later, but whoever built it left no entrance or doorway. It’s therefore unclear how people would’ve gotten in.
Originally, the T-Builders built a walkway leading to this enclosure from the south. And the entrance to the walkway was a U-shaped stone, with lions carved on either end.
The walkway is hardly discernible now, though one of the lion carvings can still be seen. It’s all the way back under the modern wooden walkway, and the best vantage point is from nearby Enclosure A.
Enclosure D is the northernmost enclosure of Göbekli Tepe and arguably the most impressive. And interestingly, it’s also the oldest, having been constructed around 9500 BC. There are several remarkable aspects of this enclosure, and we’ll cover each of them in-depth.
The Central Pillars
The first thing you’ll notice about Enclosure D is its pair of twin monoliths, each about 5.5. meters high and weighing over 15 tons. As at Enclosure C, they were placed in pedestals shaped from the natural bedrock. But these ones are oddly very shallow, at only around a dozen centimeters high.
Archaeologists have needed to add wooden beams to both pillars for support. And there was presumably an outer structure here thousands of years ago as well.
Oddly, there are seven birds carved on the south side of the eastern pillar’s pedestal. But they can hardly be seen by the vantage point that the wooden walkway currently offers.
Yet again (or rather, for the first time) there are two leaping foxes carved on the inside of both pillars, while both contain numerous other peculiar features as well.
On either side of both central pillars are what appear to be arrows. But from the front (south), you’ll see that they’re actually arms, with hands wrapped around the pillar’s belly!
Urfa Man, the world’s oldest statue, which also dates back to around the same time period, has his arms resting in the same position. It was discovered in central Urfa and is currently on display at the Şanlıurfa Museum.
Also notice the interesting glyphs on the ‘belts’ of these pillars. While we can only guess, the H-like symbols could perhaps signify the linking between two worlds.
And below each belt is what appear to be fox pelt loincloths, appearing especially comet-like here.
Yet again, these two pillars are oriented north-south, though at a slightly different angle from those of the other enclosures. And if you were to stand in between them looking north, you’d see yet another stone with a hole.
By now we’ve seen a definite pattern and can presume that each pair of central pillars were indeed oriented towards something in the north.
And this particular hole is further indication that they all symbolized the cosmic womb. As opposed to the esoteric bovine symbolism, the stone hole of Enclosure D seems like an explicit (albeit abstract) representation of a vaginal opening.
While hard to see clearly on-site, you can get a more direct look at the museum’s replica.
More than just a representation of human anatomy, the holes were also likely meant to be looked through. But at what?
A British engineer named Rodney Hale was able to determine the orientations of each enclosure, and he then tried to see whether or not they were built with a stellar alignment in mind.
Though he compared them with the positions of Orion’s belt and Sirius, it was Deneb, the brightest star of the Cygnus constellation, that turned out to be the most likely candidate.
In other words, the central pillars and ‘viewing hole’ of each enclosure was designed to target the setting of Deneb in the north. But as Göbekli Tepe was in use for thousands of years, Deneb’s position in the sky gradually shifted westward over time. This explains the multiple enclosures and why each one was built at a slightly different angle.
Based on this theory, the chronological order of the enclosures would’ve been D, E, C, B and then A. Data gathered so far from radiocarbon dating also seems to correlate with the estimated construction dates.
But why Deneb? There are a couple of possible explanations. There was no pole star clearly visible in the sky at the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction. What’s more, is that Deneb’s position in the sky also marked the ‘entry point’ to the Milky Way’s Great Rift.
As author Andrew Collins points out in his book Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods, numerous world cultures emphasized the soul’s journey through the cosmos after death. And the Great Rift of the Milky Way was commonly perceived as the road that souls had to traverse to make it to the other side.
Deneb, therefore, provided a handy reference point for where this road began. Notably, not too far away in southern Armenia, the builders of Karahunj also aligned their stone circle with Cygnus.
The Vulture Stone
Immediately to the west of Enclosure D’s hole is one of Göbekli Tepe’s most detailed pillars, commonly called the Vulture Stone.
Many cultures have associated the constellation of Cygnus with the vulture. And while Cygnus aligns with the top of the Great Rift, the constellation of Scorpio is near the bottom. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that we see a scorpion beneath the vulture.
In numerous ancient cultures, the dead were left outside in a designated area in hopes that vultures would swoop down and devour the flesh. This practice was known as excarnation. And once the body was picked clean by vultures and other birds, the bones would be ritually buried.
There’s a good chance the tradition took place in this region, as it later would in Zoroastrian Iran. Looking closely, it seems to be depicted on the Vulture Stone.
At the bottom right is what appears to be a headless man, while the ball near the vulture could be his head, doubling as the sun.
Therefore, the pillar likely contains dual symbolism, representing both the practice of excarnation and also the transmigration of the soul. In many world cultures, the bird in general symbolizes man’s ascent to the heavens.
Interestingly, in ancient Egypt, vultures were commonly depicted enveloping a ball, or sun disk, a scene which probably represented primordial reconciliation.
Also in Egypt, common tomb scenes depicted the sky goddess Nut swallowing the sun (together with the soul of the king) at night. And following its journey across the night sky, the sun would reemerge from her womb the next day, experiencing a rebirth.
It’s quite likely that these are the same themes being presented here at Göbekli Tepe, a site which predates Egyptian civilization by thousands of years.
Yet another remarkable pillar stands at the southern end of Enclosure D. It features a plethora of symbols, including a fox, spiders, the mysterious H symbol, some birds, and a triple snake.
As only a small percentage of Göbekli Tepe has been uncovered, we’ll have to wait a bit longer before we can make further comparisons and hypotheses.
But it’s probably safe to say that little at Göbekli Tepe was done at random. It’s even been recently observed that the center points of Enclosures, B, C and D form a perfect equilateral triangle!
More Around the Area
Outside of the main dome area, there are a few other things to see. Behind the dome is a covered enclosure known as the Lion Pillar Building. It was built around 15 meters higher than the rest of the site, indicating a later construction date (c. 9,000-8,000 BC).
It was named after the carved lions on the inner faces of the two central pillars. However, the area is inaccessible to the public, and one can’t make out the lions from the current vantage point.
Walking around the outer pathway, you’ll spot a few additional dig sites in the distance. One of them even has its own elaborate cover, but visitors can’t get anywhere near it at the time of writing.
Supposedly, many of these other enclosures were rectangular rather than round, more closely resembling the now lost Neolithic site of Nevali Çori.
And while at the Şanlıurfa Museum, don’t miss the totem pole, one of the most enigmatic sculptures discovered at Göbekli Tepe. It wasn’t found within one of the main enclosures but at another minor structure.
The sculpture depicts small humans emerging from the belly of the largest figure, which appears to have the head of an animal (now damaged). Meanwhile, snakes are rising up from either side of the base.
As you make your way to the exit, you’ll pass by Enclosure F. It was also likely built later, sometime around 8500-8000 BC.
But this is a round enclosure like the others beneath the dome. It features eight pillars above an artificial terrazzo floor, and they’re noticeably much smaller.
It’s interesting to observe how as time went by, things got more and more low-tech at Göbekli Tepe. Quite possibly, the T-Builder culture had their sights set elsewhere by the 9th millennium. But they still felt compelled to carry on the traditions of their ancestors – albeit without such tremendous effort.
As you walk around the area and take in the surrounding landscape, you can’t help but wonder how far the site really extends. It’s staggering to think what other remarkable discoveries are waiting to be uncovered beneath the ground.
And with ongoing excavations takings place at nearby Karahan Tepe, it’s clear that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to learning about this mysterious civilization.
For those without a car or not wanting to pay for an expensive tour, Göbekli Tepe can be reached by public bus from Şanlıurfa, with the ride lasting around 30 minutes.
The bus stop is situated a few kilometers north of the city center, and there’s no need to go to the main otogar (see map above).
There are big photos of Göbekli Tepe on the bus stand so you shouldn’t miss it. And cleverly, the bus number is 0, after the site’s ‘Zero Point of History’ moniker.
(Note: There is, or was, a bus stop outside the Şanlıurfa Museum as well, but I walked around the area the previous day and didn’t see it anywhere.)
At the time of writing, there are two buses per day from Şanlıurfa to Göbekli Tepe, and two buses back. During my visit in 2020, I spotted a timetable posted at the bus stop, but the times given for the return bus turned out to be WRONG.
The earliest bus departing from Şanlıurfa departs at 10:00. And in my case, it arrived just on time.
According to the ‘official’ timetable, there was supposed to be a bus back at 14:00. However, this was incorrect, and the later return bus didn’t depart until 16:00, leaving me with a lot of extra time at the site.
There’s also supposed to be another bus departing Şanlıurfa at noon, but I can’t confirm if this is correct or not. It’s a shame the timetable hasn’t been updated by now, but it’s best to confirm the return bus time with the ticket vendors as soon as you arrive at Göbekli Tepe.
Also note that to ride the bus, you’re expected to have an electronic ‘Urfa Card’ for transport. But the problem is, they don’t sell these anywhere near the bus stop itself. I didn’t have one, and the driver wouldn’t take cash. He did, at least, let me ride for free.
It would be best to find one of these cards in the city center in case your driver isn’t as nice.
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.