Gobekli Tepe, a mysterious Neolithic temple complex on a remote hilltop near Urfa, predates the pyramids at Giza by 7,000 years. This is the oldest known instance of a religious structure. The site consists of megalithic T-shaped pillars that resemble human figures arranged in dozens of giant circles. These cleanly cut limestone forms rise up to 18 feet tall and weigh up to 16 tons. Carved on their surface are reliefs of snakes, boars, spiders, vultures, and other wild beasts. The site covers a sprawling 22 acres, only a small fraction of which has been excavated to date.
Before the discovery of Gobekli Tepe in 1994, historians would never have fathomed that hunter-gatherers possessed the technological or organizational capacity for such a large-scale endeavor. The site belongs to a period when human beings survived in small bands of nomadic foragers, a lifestyle thought to sustain only small groups with presumably rudimentary social organization. Historians have long assumed a transition known as the Neolithic Revolution occurred around 9,000 BCE, which saw the first domestication of grains and animals and the first human settlement. Settlement and agriculture supported larger and more stable social groups, which in turn supported the technological and political advances that would produce civilization and religion, or so they thought.
Gobekli Tepe, however, predates this revolution, contradicting the assumption that human settlement and farming came before religion. Despite being a clear locus of human congregation, Gobekli Tepe bears none of the signs of settlement: hearths, pottery, or proximity to a water source. One hypothesis, championed by chief excavator Klaus Schmidt, holds that the large-scale ritual activity of Gobekli Tepe might have driven the need for the domestication of animals and plants; the fact that the first animals and grains were domesticated within walking distance from Gobekli Tepe seems to lend support. If proven, this theory would up-end well-established theories about early human history, placing religion at the very source of civilization. In Schmidt’s words: “First came the temple, then the city.”