Israeli researchers unveil architecture secrets of ‘world's oldest temple’

The Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey, which is about 11,500 years old, is different and unparalleled compared to any other site of the period because of its colossal size.

Göbekli Tepe, Urfa (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Göbekli Tepe, Urfa
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For the last quarter of a century, the Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey has been intriguing researchers for the size and complexity of its structure, which dates back about 11,500 years, and has been called the “world's oldest temple.” Two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, PhD candidate Gil Haklay and his supervisor, Prof. Avi Gopher, have now unveiled new secrets of its sophisticated architecture, highlighting an intricate geometrical pattern that was conceived before humans had even discovered agriculture or pottery.
“It might be surprising but architectural planning started to develop already 15,000 years ago,” Haklay told The Jerusalem Post. “In the early Neolithic they were already able to plan and accurately build very large and complex projects.”
Göbekli Tepe, however, is different and unparalleled compared to any other site of the period because of its colossal size, he highlighted.
“We actually have another example of a large scale construction from this period and it is located in Jericho where a large tower is preserved in its full height with an internal staircase, but is not as monumental as Göbekli Tepe and required much less effort,” the archaeologist pointed out.
Discovered for the first time in the 1960s, forgotten and rediscovered in the 1990s, Göbekli Tepe features dozens of monolithic pillars four to five meters tall placed along at least 20 concentric rings, which archaeologists refer to as “enclosures." The pillars are decorated with remarkable reliefs depicting animals including gazelles, jaguars, Asiatic wild donkeys and wild sheep. It was a place of worship where many people, likely belonging to different communities, would convene and perform rituals.
The structure and size of the site also help to shed light about the life of those who built it and used it.
“We are talking about hunter-gatherers, but at the same time we see signs of a very complex social structure,” Haklay said, adding that it is not clear how long its construction took but it might have been centuries if not more, with different people initiating it and adding to it.
“The findings that we have suggest that the construction started at some point in the PPNA, Pre-Pottery-Neolithic-A, about 11,500 years ago, but a second layer dates back to Pre-Pottery-Neolithic-B which probably lasted until 9,000 years ago,” he explained. “However, we are talking about the very initial phase of the planning and the construction. From there, there is a very long history of enclosures that continued to develop and change through time.”
AS EXPLAINED in a paper recently published by the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, the Israeli researchers manage to unveil a specific geometrical pattern between several enclosures.
“We found that there is a center point in each enclosure, which we identified not only in the three in the main excavation area, but also in others located outside it," Haklay explained. "We also found out that the center of these enclosures was always located between the two large central pillars aligned with the front side. These pillars also presented an anthropomorphic structure and they have a front side. In each enclosure based on the surrounding peripheral pillars was found an alignment with the narrow front side. This was our first observation: an abstract design rule.
“We later noticed that the role of those center points extended beyond an individual enclosure, because the three center points of enclosures B, C and D form an almost perfect equilateral triangle,” he added.
Haklay highlighted that they went on to verify whether the geometric pattern was confirmed by further observations, for example the orientation of the central pillars. They found many other elements supporting it. Among others, the main access to the structure was located between the only two pillars carrying anthropomorphic as opposed to animal reliefs.
This discovery also overcame a previous theory common among researchers that the enclosures were conceived and built in unrelated stages.
But how could such a complex design be envisioned by people who did not even know how to create a simple pottery vessel?
The archaeologist explained that while hundreds of people contributed to the building of Göbekli Tepe, the planning was probably carried out by a single person or a small group.
“In order to do it, they had to conceptualize architectural planning tools like the formulation of a floor plan, basic geometry and measurements,” he concluded. These measurements were not standardized but allowed them to build the exact form that they had previously planned.