The world’s oldest temple and the dawn of civilization

The megaliths at Göbekli Tepe were erected by hunter-gatherers around 9000 B.C.By 

Late one October evening, I flew into Urfa, the city believed by Turkish Muslims to be the Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. My hotel had clearly been designed for pilgrims. A door in the lobby led to a men-only steam bath. There was no women’s bath. In my room, a sign indicating the direction of prayer was posted over the nonalcoholic minibar. Directly outside the window, Vegas-style lights stretching across the main drag spelled, in two-foot-high letters, “WELCOME TO THE CITY OF PROPHETS.”

Urfa is in southeastern Anatolia, about thirty miles north of the Syrian border. Tens of thousands of people come here every year to visit a cave where Abraham may have been born and a fishpond marking the site of the pyre where he was almost burned up by Nimrod, except that God transformed the fire into water and the coals into fish. According to another local legend, God sent a swarm of mosquitos to torment Nimrod, and a mosquito flew up Nimrod’s nose and started chewing on his brain. Nimrod ordered his men to beat his head with wooden mallets, shouting, “Vur ha, vur ha!” (“Hit me, hit me!”), and that’s how his city came to be called Urfa. Urfa also has a Greek name, Edessa, under which it is enshrined in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the origin of perhaps the world’s first icon: a handkerchief on which Jesus wiped his face, preserving his image. (Known as the Image of Edessa, the holy handkerchief was said to be a gift from Christ to King Abgar V, who was suffering from leprosy.) In 1984, Urfa was officially renamed Şanlıurfa—“glorious Urfa”—in honor of its resistance against the Allied Forces during the Turkish War of Independence. Most people still call it Urfa. The city’s religious sites also include the cave where Job is said to have suffered through his boils.

I, too, was in town on a pilgrimage, visiting a site that predates Abraham and Job and monotheism by some eight millennia: a vast complex of Stonehenge-style megalithic circles in the Urfa countryside. For thousands of years, this Early Neolithic structure lay buried under multiple strata of prehistoric trash, and therefore just looked like a big hill. Its Turkish name is Göbekli Tepe: “hill with a potbelly,” or “fat hill.”

There are a number of unsettling things about Göbekli Tepe. It’s estimated to be eleven thousand years old—six and a half thousand years older than the Great Pyramid, five and a half thousand years older than the earliest known cuneiform texts, and about a thousand years older than the walls of Jericho, formerly believed to be the world’s most ancient monumental structure. The site comprises more than sixty multi-ton T-shaped limestone pillars, most of them engraved with bas-reliefs of dangerous animals: not the docile, edible bison and deer featured in Paleolithic cave paintings but ominous configurations of lions, foxes, boars, vultures, scorpions, spiders, and snakes. The site has yielded no traces of habitation—no trash pits, no water source, no houses, no hearths, no roofs, no domestic plant or animal remains—and is therefore believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers, who used it as a religious sanctuary. Comparisons of iconography from similar sites indicate that different groups congregated there from up to sixty miles away. Mysteriously, the pillars appear to have been buried, deliberately and all at once, around 8200 B.C., some thirteen hundred years after their construction.

The idea of a religious monument built by hunter-gatherers contradicts most of what we thought we knew about religious monuments and about hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers are traditionally believed to have lacked complex symbolic systems, social hierarchies, and the division of labor, three things you probably need before you can build a twenty-two-acre megalithic temple. Formal religion, meanwhile, is supposed to have appeared only after agriculture produced such hierarchical social relations as required a cosmic backstory to keep them going and supplied a template for the power relationship between gods and mortals. The findings at Göbekli Tepe suggest that we have the story backward—that it was actually the need to build a sacred site that first obliged hunter-gatherers to organize themselves as a workforce, to spend long periods of time in one place, to secure a stable food supply, and eventually to invent agriculture.

I got a ride to Göbekli Tepe from an overweight, truculent taxi-driver, a friend of the hotel receptionist. We left the city via a giant traffic circle. Drivers were entering and exiting this diabolical wheel from all directions, switching lanes and cutting each other off, without using their turn signals or altering their speed. Where a non-Urfa driver might speed up or slow down, it seemed, an Urfa driver preferred simply to honk his horn. Horn-honking had become a symbolic rite, evoking the function once filled, in the world of physical reality, by use of the brake pedal.

The traffic circle eventually disgorged us onto the rural highway to Mardin, the home town of the world’s tallest man, an eight-foot-three-inch-tall farmer with pituitary gigantism. We drove past numerous dealers in firearms and agricultural machinery, making visible the primeval oscillation between hunting and farming. Exiting onto a dirt road, which wound for several miles through the hills, we ended up in a dusty lot, where a couple of minivans were parked next to an informational tableau. Two tethered camels gazed at the plains with droopy, self-satisfied expressions.

I walked past the camels and up a slope, and came to a group of graduate students crouched on boulders, hunched over a drumlike sieve full of dirt, which was suspended by cables from a makeshift wooden tripod. They looked as if they were trying to invent fire. I asked what they were doing. A round-faced young man wearing glasses and a panama hat glanced up, with a tight, conversation-ending smile. “Sifting dirt,” he replied, intensifying his smile and turning his back.

I climbed up the hill, toward the solitary mulberry tree that stands at its summit. Tattered strips of cloth tied to the branches testify to its former use by local farmers as a “wishing tree.” The pillars came into view, as unfamiliar and unexpected as an extraterrestrial settlement. One face of the hill had been almost completely excavated, exposing four stone circles, each made up of a dozen or so pillars with two larger pillars in the middle. Several of these megaliths had surprisingly poor foundations, and were now standing thanks only to wooden supports. Archeologists speculate that the weak foundations may have had some acoustic purpose: perhaps the pillars were meant to hum in the wind.

During their centuries of use, the pillars were periodically buried, with new pillars built on top of or alongside the old ones. The circles thus stand at different depths in the hill, and have been connected by various wooden scaffolds, ladders, and walkways. Jens Notroff, the graduate student with whom I had coördinated my visit, took me on a tour. It was an immensely destabilizing landscape. Everywhere you looked, you saw something that wasn’t supposed to exist. Hunter-gatherers, for example, weren’t supposed to make larger-than-life human representations, which are a violation of a purely animistic, nonhierarchic world view. And yet, as Notroff pointed out, the pillars are almost certainly humanoid figures, with long narrow bodies and large oblong heads. There are pillars depicted with clasped hands, or wearing foxtail loincloths. One is wearing a necklace with a bucranium, or bull’s head. If the pillars represent specific individuals, the bull might be a form of identification, a name, like Sitting Bull.

Because the bas-reliefs of Göbekli Tepe, unlike the cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, offer no picture of daily life—no hunting scenes, and very few of the aurochs, gazelles, and deer that made up most of the hunter-gatherer diet—they are believed to be symbols, a message we don’t know how to read. The animals might be mythical characters, symbolic scapegoats, tribal families, mnemonic devices, or perhaps totemic scarecrows, guarding the pillars from evil. They include a scorpion the size of a small suitcase, and a jackal-like creature with an exposed rib cage. On one pillar, a row of lumpy, eyeless “ducks” float above an extremely convincing boar, with an erect penis. Another relief consists of the simple contour of a fox, like a chalk outline at a murder scene, also with a distinct penis. So far, all the mammals represented at Göbekli Tepe are visibly male, with the exception of one fox, which, in place of a penis, has several snakes coming out of its abdomen. Perhaps the most debated composition portrays a vulture carrying a round object on one wing; below its feet, a headless male torso displays yet another erect penis. On an informational board near the vulture, the German and English texts mention the erect penis; the Turkish text does not. I like to think that, when it comes to identifying a headless man with an erection, I’m as sharp-eyed as the next person, but I wouldn’t have recognized this one without assistance. To me, he looked more like a samovar.

The images don’t seem to share a unifying style, or even a standard level of draftsmanship. Some are stylized and geometric, others remarkably lifelike. “They can do naturalistic representations,” Notroff said. “So when they don’t do it, it’s a choice.” He told me about a statue of a man which was believed to be eleven thousand years old: the oldest known life-sized human sculpture. Discovered in the nineteen-nineties in downtown Urfa, the Urfa Man now resides in a glass case in the Şanlıurfa Museum, where I visited him that afternoon. Mouthless, carved from pale limestone, with obsidian eyes in sunken sockets and hands clasped to his groin, he resembled a wasted snowman.

I spent the next few days at the site. Over the course of several trips, the receptionist’s surly taxi-driver friend dropped his guard a bit. We discussed Urfa traffic. When I remarked that I had yet to see a woman behind the wheel of a car, he assured me that the number of lady drivers had risen “by at least seventy per cent” in recent years. Another day, when we got to Göbekli Tepe, he offered to write me a receipt for double the actual fare, so that I could cheat my employers.

Excavation began at six-thirty every morning, when there was still pink light in the sky and a chill in the air. On the scene were forty Kurdish workers, twenty German and Turkish archeology students, and an official from the Izmir museum of archeology, who had been appointed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism to keep tabs on progress and to insure that the ruins were being made accessible to the two hundred or so tourists who turned up every day. Many of these visitors became angry and frustrated at not being allowed into the trench to see the pillars, so workers were building them a boardwalk.

Excavation was under way on a new trench, on the other side of a low limestone ridge. The area had been dug up in squares, varying in depth between three and seven feet. Seen from above, they resembled rooms in a doll house. In one square, students were measuring the depth of the layers of backfill; in another, three workers, their heads swathed in purple cloths, hoisted a boulder into a wheelbarrow. One of the center squares contained a newly discovered pillar with the most intricate bas-reliefs to date: rows of sinuous-necked cranes and snakes packed efficiently together, like sardines in a can.

The workers digging the trenches had learned to set aside objects of potential archeological interest. One day, they found an irregularly shaped stone, about the size of a tea tray, its upper surface pitted with small hemispherical holes. “We believe it was cultic,” one graduate student told me of this object. “That’s what we say whenever we don’t know the purpose of something. Of course, maybe it was not cultic. Maybe it was a contest, to see who can make the most holes the fastest. Anyway, they didn’t have sacred and profane then. It’s a young distinction.”

In general, it was difficult to engage the graduate students in conversation, either about Neolithic man or about archeology. The Kurdish workers, however, loved to talk. One day, a few of them started looking through my copy of a monograph on Göbekli Tepe. They reminisced about the order in which the reliefs in the photographs had been discovered, who had been there and who hadn’t. They made fun of one of their friends who had been photographed with an enormous black beard. He had shaved off his beard a long time ago, and they all thought he looked better now.

The workers spanned several generations, from mustached grandfathers in baggy pants, with cigarettes clenched in the corners of their mouths, to jeans-wearing youths with fabulous hair. Their village, I learned, was called Örencik. Some people called it by an older name, Karaharabe, which means “black ruin.” Nobody seemed to know where the black ruin was. They told me about the hazards of the job, which included having a snake jump out at you from between the rocks. One day, a worker was bitten by a scorpion and had to be sent to the hospital in a taxi. His friends told me that scorpion bites hurt, but they won’t kill you. Snakes are another story. The students found a poisonous snake once, but it was already dead. Someone put it in a bag and took it away.

I asked the workers what it felt like to uncover ten-thousand-year-old reliefs of terrifying animals.

“It’s beautiful, actually,” one of them said. “It’s a beautiful thing. When you first find a pillar, when the top of the stone is just visible—first you ask yourself, What animals will be on it? Then you dig and dig, slowly, bit by bit, because you know that by digging you’re causing damage. Slowly, always slowly. But sometimes you can’t contain yourself—you think, Let’s just quickly look and see what’s there.” He paused. “Sometimes we wonder, if one of the people from back then were to sit up and talk to us, what would the man say? What language does he speak? What is he? Is he shorter than us or taller than us?”

“That base stone there—it was brought here by human strength!” another worker said. “So we wonder, were the people who carried it much stronger than us? We think the men then were two or three metres tall, and we’re only 1.6 or 1.7 metres tall. Of course, we don’t actually know anything about it. We’re just imagining to ourselves.”

In fact, nobody really knows how Neolithic man managed to hew these pillars. Claudia Beuger, an archeologist at the University of Halle, is conducting a study at a limestone quarry in Bavaria, to determine whether she and ten of her students can build a twenty-three-foot Göbekli Tepe-style pillar, using only fire-blasting techniques and basalt “hammers” with no handles. The early results suggest that the job can be completed in ten weeks by either forty-four archeology students or twenty-two Neolithic people.

The first survey of Göbekli Tepe was begun in 1963, by Peter Benedict, an archeologist from the University of Chicago, who described the site as “a complex of round-topped knolls of red earth,” two of which were surmounted by “small cemeteries,” probably dating from the Byzantine Empire. It’s possible that Benedict, unable to imagine that Neolithic man was capable of producing giant mounds or stone monuments, came across a fragment of carved limestone and mistook it for a medieval tombstone. Nothing about his description made anyone want to rush out and start digging.

The ruins remained sleeping under the earth until the arrival of someone who could recognize them. In 1994, Klaus Schmidt, an archeologist at Heidelberg University, visited the site and immediately understood that Benedict’s report had been wrong. He saw that the “knolls” were man-made mounds, and that the flint shards crunching underfoot had been shaped by Neolithic hands. Schmidt had spent much of the previous decade working at Nevalı Çori, a nearby settlement from the ninth millennium B.C., which included both domestic habitations and a “sanctuary” with T-shaped pillars. Nevalı Çori was discovered in 1979 and lost to science in 1992, when it was inundated by the Atatürk Dam and became part of the floor of Lake Atatürk. This left Schmidt in the market for a new Stone Age site. At Göbekli Tepe he saw flints nearly identical to those at Nevalı Çori. When Schmidt saw part of a T-shaped pillar, he recognized that as well. “Within a minute of first seeing it, I knew I had two choices,” he has said. “Go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here.” He went right back to Urfa and bought a house.

The house is a nineteenth-century Ottoman complex, built around a courtyard with a tiled pool. Schmidt lives there with his wife, Çiĩdem, also an archeologist, whom he met in Urfa when she was working on another dig. Schmidt, who now works for the German Archeological Institute, says he can’t remember a time before he wanted to be an archeologist. As a schoolboy in Bavaria, he learned about the Greeks and the Romans, and thought he would study them when he grew up. Then he found out about Paleolithic cave art, and became determined to find a Bavarian cave with paintings as old and remarkable as the ones in France. He discovered many caves, but no paintings. Because of his interest in caves, he studied geology as well as archeology, and this is why he could immediately identify Göbekli Tepe as a man-made rather than a natural formation.

Nowadays, Schmidt usually spends the morning at Göbekli Tepe, while Çiĩdem works at the house. Schmidt and the students, bearing several large bags of Neolithic detritus, return to Urfa for a late lunch—the Schmidts keep an excellent Turkish cook—and everyone spends the rest of the afternoon at the house, processing the day’s finds, which are sorted among various buckets and rectangular sieves in the courtyard. The team’s archeozoologist, Joris Peters, introduced me to the variety of animal bones that had been retrieved from the site: leopards, goitered gazelles, wild cattle, wild boar, wild sheep, red deer, Mesopotamian fallow deer, foxes, chukar partridges, cranes, and vultures.

“They were still eating the meat of carnivores,” Peters said of the hunter-gatherers, pointing to cut marks on the bones of the foxes. He thinks they may also have eaten the vultures. He showed me the scapula of an aurochs, an extinct forebear of domestic cattle, weighing more than two thousand pounds. Aurochs were eaten at Neolithic feasts, which appear to have been a feature of Göbekli Tepe life. “They were having big parties,” Schmidt says. He thinks they might have had beer, even “some kind of drugs.”

This was the decadent late stage of Neolithic life. Schmidt characterizes the people of Göbekli Tepe as “the victims of their own success.” Their way of life had been so successful that it found material expression in the form of a gigantic stone edifice, a reification of a spiritual world view. The very process of construction changed the world view, making the monument obsolete. Schmidt believes that’s why Göbekli Tepe was abandoned: “They did not need it anymore. Now they are farmers and they find new expressions of their religious beliefs.”

Schmidt sees no continuity between the Neolithic hunter-gatherers and any more recent culture. At one point, I asked about an Indian astronomer’s interpretation of the Göbekli Tepe iconography in terms of the Vedas, which date back to the Bronze Age. Could the bas-relief of the headless man, the vulture, and the round object represent the bird Garuda carrying the sun across the sky? “I wouldn’t exclude this possibility, but it’s a very, very low probability,” Schmidt said. He thinks the scene might illustrate a specifically Neolithic myth involving vultures who carry away the heads of dead people. “Even one thousand years later, nothing is left of this world,” he said. “Why should there be anything left six thousand years later?”

An extraordinary thought: The people of Göbekli Tepe weren’t wiped out, like other lost civilizations. They simply packed up and went somewhere else—became someone else. It was like the witness-protection program. In a way, they were still all around us. Lots of us were probably descended from them. The more I thought about the headless man the more certain I felt that he was related to me. My father’s family comes from Adana, a few hours’ drive from Urfa.

The term “Neolithic revolution” was coined in the nineteen-twenties, by the archeologist V. Gordon Childe, to describe the transition from hunting-and-gathering—the dominant mode of subsistence for the two hundred thousand years before the last ice age—to domestication and agriculture. Childe ascribed the shift to climate change, to conditions that dried up the lush forests and plains: humans and animals were drawn together at the last remaining oases, where proximity led to domestication, sedentism, and agriculture. Childe, a disillusioned Stalinist, committed suicide in 1957, soon after the Hungarian Uprising and just as radiocarbon dating was transforming the study of archeology, but many of his ideas have survived to the present day. Until recently, most archeologists continued to ascribe the Neolithic revolution to a combination of climatic and demographic factors. One notable exception was the late Jacques Cauvin, who, in the seventies, proposed that an early form of religion—a cult of the bull and the fertility goddess—had fostered a fertility-oriented world view that eventually engendered the shift to agriculture.

Schmidt believes that Göbekli Tepe proves Cauvin right—not about the fertility goddess, which seems to be belied by all those erect penises, but about an ideological trigger. He believes that the shift from animism to centralized religion, and from an egalitarian to a hierarchical society, was the cause and not the effect of economic change. Unlike Cauvin, he bases his theory less on the specific symbolic content of Göbekli Tepe, whose meaning remains obscure, than on the simple fact of its existence. Regardless of what the pillars are for, producing them took a lot of man-hours. The workers needed a stable food supply, and the area was rich in wild species like aurochs and einkorn, one of the ancestors of domesticated wheat. Building Göbekli Tepe would also have required some division of labor among overseers, technicians, and workers—another social development that might have precipitated, rather than resulted from, the shift to agriculture.

A surprising fact about the Neolithic revolution is that, according to most evidence, agriculture brought about a steep decline in the standard of living. Studies of Kalahari Bushmen and other nomadic groups show that hunter-gatherers, even in the most inhospitable landscapes, typically spend less than twenty hours a week obtaining food. By contrast, farmers toil from sunup to sundown. Because agriculture relies on the mass cultivation of a handful of starchy crops, a community’s whole livelihood can be wiped out overnight by bad weather or pests. Paleontological evidence shows that, compared with hunter-gatherers, early farmers had more anemia and vitamin deficiencies, died younger, had worse teeth, were more prone to spinal deformity, and caught more infectious diseases, as a result of living close to other humans and to livestock. A study of skeletons in Greece and Turkey found that the average height of humans dropped six inches between the end of the ice age and 3000 B.C.; modern Greeks and Turks still haven’t regained the height of their hunter-gatherer ancestors. That Kurdish worker at Göbekli Tepe was right: Neolithic man probably was taller than him.

Why would anyone stick with such a miserable way of life? Jared Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” describes the situation as a classic bait-and-switch. Hunter-gatherers were “seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production.” By then they were locked in—they had to farm more and more land just to keep everyone alive. Deriving strength from their large, poorly nourished numbers, the farmers gradually killed off most of the hunter-gatherers and drove the rest from their land. Diamond considers agriculture to be not just a setback but “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” the origin of “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Was the Neolithic revolution really a “curse” on our existence? The high emotional and political stakes of this question were manifested in a cover article in Der Spiegel in 2006, which proposed Göbekli Tepe as the historical site of the Garden of Eden. The Turkish press enthusiastically picked up the story. Given their preëxisting claim to Job and Abraham, some locals reasoned, it would actually have been remarkable if Adam and Eve hadn’t been from Urfa. Evidence for the identification with Eden included Göbekli Tepe’s position between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the copious snake imagery, and Schmidt’s characterization of the region as “a paradise for hunter-gatherers.” But the theory really draws its power from a reading of the Fall as an allegory for the shift from hunting-and-gathering to farming. In Eden, man and woman lived as companions, unashamed of their nakedness, surrounded by friendly animals and by “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, like the first fruits of cultivation, brought on an immediate, irrevocable curse. Man now had to work the earth, to eat of it all the days of his life. According to Maimonides, there are legends in which Adam, after the Fall, went on to write “several works about agriculture.”

God’s terrible words to Eve—“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”—may refer to a decline in women’s health and status produced, in early agricultural societies, by the economic need to have children who would till and inherit the land. Women, having access to goat’s milk and cereal, may have weaned their children earlier, resulting in more frequent, more debilitating pregnancies. The institution of private property, meanwhile, made paternal certainty a vital concern, and monogamy, particularly for women, was strictly enforced.

To continue the interpretation, the story of Cain and Abel may be taken as an illustration of the zero-sum game of primogeniture, as well as an allegory for the slaughter of nomadic pasturage by urban agriculture. Having killed his brother, Cain goes on to found the world’s first city and name it after his son Enoch. Read in this spirit, large chunks of the Old Testament—the territorial feuds, the constant threat of exile or extinction, the sexual jealousy and sibling rivalry—begin to resemble the handbook for a grim new scarcity economy of land and love.

What’s at issue in the Garden of Eden allegory is whether agriculture was a qualitative break in human history—“a catastrophe,” as Diamond puts it, “from which we have never recovered.” Was the human condition ever fundamentally different from the way it is now? Might the past three thousand years not be the last word on who we are? Whole world views ride on the answers to these questions. Friedrich Engels, for example, believed that prehistoric man had once lived under a classless “primitive communism,” and that monogamy was invented by greedy men, so that their sons could get their hoarded wealth after they died. Engels needed to believe in a time when the Communist utopia had been, and could again be, reconciled with human nature. Darwin, by contrast, maintained that, even if humans had once been polygamous, they had never lived in sexual freedom: male jealousy had always led to “the inculcation of female virtue.” (Jealousy was interpreted by later Darwinians to reflect the male’s desire to restrict paternal investment to his own genetic offspring.) This view, implying that the premium placed on female chastity was one of the ground rules of life on earth, accorded both with Victorian mores and with Darwin’s view of the organism as a machine for insuring the survival of individual traits. Freud, meanwhile, believed that the nuclear family was universal, and that the “primeval family,” riven by the Oedipus complex, had been even more repressive than haute-bourgeois Vienna. The great expert on sexual unhappiness had to believe that civilization outweighed its discontents: the alternative—that we’d made ourselves miserable for nothing—was too terrible to contemplate.

Did humans ever live in sexual freedom? Was work ever fun? Did we always privilege our immediate genetic offspring over other members of the community? The debate continues in our time. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, in their study “Sex at Dawn,” side with Engels, citing anthropological data about numerous hunter-gatherer societies that aren’t monogamous, don’t have nuclear families, and don’t valorize paternal certainty. They argue that this was the norm before the Neolithic revolution, that promiscuity had once fostered coöperation and reduced violence among our tribal ancestors, and that a false belief in the “naturalness” of monogamy is responsible for myriad social ills: nineteenth-century foundling hospitals, the stoning of women in Iran, the destruction of numerous American political careers. Such views bring them into conflict with Steven Pinker, whose recent book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” argues that society is at a current all-time high in peacefulness, and that the hunter-gatherers were massacring and barbecuing each other for hundreds of millennia before the cultivation of wheat.

Schmidt’s view is closer to Pinker’s. “They were trained killers, nothing else,” he says of the hunter-gatherers. He believes that Göbekli Tepe was built by a laboring class, maybe even by slaves. In his view, the reason that agriculture stuck, even though it meant more work and worse food, was that an élite caste had a vested interest in the new system: “Ninety per cent had to work, and ten per cent lived by wealth. The élite wanted to keep their advantage, and they had the power to do it.” If Schmidt is right and a form of social exploitation was already observable before farming, then agriculture wasn’t a disaster, or any kind of game changer: the human condition was, as Freud implies, always at least as bad as it is now.

“Was there any time when it wasn’t like that?” I asked. “Like, a hundred thousand years ago?”

Schmidt shrugged. “Humans don’t change so much,” he said. “The background of our knowledge is getting bigger. But our daily behavior is the same. We are all Homo sapiens.”

I asked Schmidt what he thought of the allegorical reading of the Fall of Man as the shift to agriculture. He objected that the Garden of Eden was a garden, and thus represented a horticultural rather than a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence. Schmidt’s resistance to metaphors and speculation is, in a way, part of the job. “You’re a scientist, you’re professional,” he told me. “What we’re looking at—it’s material culture. We aren’t imagining things we can’t see.” Imagination is always projection: to guess how Neolithic people might have felt about anything was to assume, doubtless incorrectly, that they felt the way we would have felt about it. And yet, with no imagination at all, it’s difficult to see how any interpretation is possible. As Jens Notroff put it, “Without any imagination, this is all a pile of rubbish.”

After my last afternoon at Göbekli Tepe, I decided to devote the rest of the day to the other Urfa pilgrimage—the Abraham one. I walked along teeming sidewalks, among street venders selling pomegranates, lottery tickets, novelty Korans, fresh pistachio nuts, sherbet, bitter coffee, photocopies. One man was literally selling snake oil—a thing I had never seen before—in addition to ant-egg oil, hair tonic, and unscented soap for pilgrims. Handbills advertised a conference called “Understanding the Prophet Abraham in the 21st Century.” A psychiatrist with a storefront office specialized in “ailments of the nerves and soul.” Most restaurants had signs that said “WE HAVE A FAMILY ROOM!”—meaning that the main dining room was for men only. About eighty-five per cent of the pedestrians were men. Nearly all the women were wearing head scarves, or even burkas. I saw one woman so pious that her burka didn’t even have an opening for her eyes. She was leaving a cell-phone store, accompanied by a teen-age boy wearing a T-shirt that said “RELAX, MAN,” over a picture of an ice-cream cone playing an electric guitar. You wouldn’t think an ice-cream cone could play an electric guitar, or would want to. I was reminded of Schmidt’s hypothesis that hybrid creatures and monsters, unknown to Neolithic man, are particular to highly developed cultures—cultures which have achieved distance from and fear of nature. If archeologists of the future found this T-shirt, they would know ours had been a civilization of great refinement.

I reached a large park with manicured lawns, a rose garden, gushing fountains, and shady tea gardens, and made my way to a rectangular stone-lined pool crammed with fat gray carp, indicating the spot where Nimrod failed to burn up Abraham. It’s said that anyone who eats one of these carp will go blind. All kinds of people—tough-looking men in black leather jackets, women in shapeless trenchcoats and head scarves, two girls dressed like Arabian princesses with gold coins on their foreheads—were buying fish food from venders and hurling it into the pond by the fistful. The sacred carp accumulated in a great heap below the surface of the water, their gaping circular mouths angled upward.

The cave where Abraham might have been born had been divided into two caves: one for men, one for women. I went into the women’s entrance hall, where a low-ceilinged stone tunnel led to the holy site. A giant, headless lump of cloth appeared in the mouth of the tunnel, and came shuffling toward me. This turned out to be a woman exiting the cave backward. When the passage was clear again, I stooped double and made my way inside.

Greenish-yellow light shimmered on the rough stone walls. Behind a large glass window, like an aquarium display, a spring was burbling in a rocky cave interior. Women were gathered around a motion-activated faucet that dispensed water from the holy spring. They waved their hands under the tap, like people in an airport bathroom. Nobody could predict what motion would turn on the holy water. Having taken my turn at the faucet, I proceeded to the prayer area and knelt on the silk carpet, behind an extremely thin young woman in a black dress and head scarf. Palms upturned, she swayed back and forth for a minute or two, then suddenly flung her body forward and touched her forehead to the carpet. Several times, the young woman repeated this motion of tremendous beauty and fierceness. I thought about the power of the sacred: originating, if the archeologists are to be believed, in the most material expediencies of the body—how and what to eat—it overtakes the soul, making Neolithic man build Göbekli Tepe and making him bury it, sweeping through the millennia, generating monuments, strivings, vast inner landscapes. I thought about history, and the riddle of the Sphinx: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? Some people say that history is progress: isn’t this just a reflection of how we’re born, tiny, weak, and speechless, and then go on to build cathedrals and fly to the moon? When others say that history is a decline from a golden age, isn’t this because youth is so brief and we regret it for so long?

I thought about Abraham—Father of Multitudes, builder of monotheism—and about the covenant, when Abraham was unhappy because he had no children and was going to have to leave his property to a servant, and God promised him as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. This covenant fulfilled the two great demands of the agricultural order: land and paternally certain offspring. If Göbekli Tepe was the Garden of Eden, where these demands first came into being, then there is a certain logic in the identification of Urfa with Abraham’s birthplace. Viewed in this light, as one big story, it may seem as if the last generation at Göbekli Tepe, when they buried their temple and embarked on a new way of life, didn’t, after all, succeed in severing their ties to the future. ♦

Source: The New Yorker