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Gobekli Tepe Archaeology Story

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Gobekli Tepe Archaeology Site Story

I received a tip off more than a month ago from the Hobotraveler’s Indian techie, Andrew, that I should write a story about the Gobekli Tepe archaeology site in the southeast of Turkey. Since then, I made contact with the German Archaeology Institute, who is excavating the site, and researched all of the popular literature surrounding Gobekli Tepe. A little over a week ago, I visited the site with the excavation’s director, Klaus Schmit, and completed the interview and research phase of an article that I intend to land in a newspaper or magazine in the USA.

(Update, February 2012: this article has been published at Gobekli Tepe: the Rise of Agriculture, the Fall of the Nomad.)

As I travel, I pick up little journalism projects and write stories for print media. This is sort of the balancing hand that evens out the fly by night style of this online travelogue. The print articles are the face of this journey, while the travelogue is its guts. I don’t work on any journalistic deadlines and I am usually 100% freelance, as I like to tinker with these articles for many weeks before they are ready to be published. It is nice to sometimes have the time and space to think about what I write before publishing it.
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Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Sanliurfa, Turkey- April 8, 2009

Gobekli Tepe marks the place where the human species first began the transition from being nomadic hunter and gathers to sedentary city dwellers. This shift in mental outlook as well as physical living strategy all happened in the valleys that surround Gobekli Tepe 12,000 years ago.

Gobekli Tepe is the temporal door that crosses the divide between the free roaming days of Abel and the agricultural toil of Cain. This was the stage upon which the wandering hunter and gathering act of humanity first came to a close. The times surrounding Gobekli Tepe are still vaguely remembered in the collective folklore of humanity’s deep past. The Sumerians had tales of a mythical mountain dwelling in the north where grain was first sowed, animals domestiated, and weaving was created, and the Judeo-Chistian tradition talks of the relations between the rise of farming and the fall of nomadism. This very well may be the folklore remeberance of the events that surrounded Gobekli Tepe ten thousand years ago.

It may seem ironic for a traveler to be drawn to the site of humanity’s first incidence of sedentarization, but I saw in this story something leading to the roots of my own restlessness, my own Wanderlust. I have been interested in the deeply ingrained nomadic urges that still seem to lay dormant inside the building blocks of the human animal since the days that I first began traveling. What made me want to travel? What was this urge that made me grow restless in a place after a couple of months? Why did I want to follow the geese and run with the seasons? What was the anatomy of this incessant Wanderlust? After nearly ten years of traveling I am still not any closer to answering these questions.

But I feel that the transitioning point from the migratory hunter and gatherer to the farmer is a lead towards unraveling this great riddle.

The people who built and worshiped at Gobekli Tepe were initially nomadic hunters who knew neither grain nor how to sow it. But they watched as the world changed around them. In a period spanning a couple thousand years, the valleys that surround Gobekli Tepe were transformed from forests to fields as humans set in to a life of sedentarization (into a life of restlessness). Gobekli Tepe is a widow that allows a looker to peer from one side to another: it is the transitioning point between migratory rootlessness and the knots that came to tie man to the soil he tilled.

Gobekli Tepe is the earliest known act of human construction that was designed for permanence. The carbon dates from the site indicated that it was initially constructed over 12,000 years ago. This is far older than any pyramid, city, wall, or henge in the entire ebb and flow of humanity’s lost past. The creation of Gobekli was radical. Nothing like this is known to have ever been done before. This was a full scale revolution.

Gobekli Tepe is the world’s first temple. “First came the temple, then the city,” spoke Dr. Schmit about the origins of human civilization. It is thought that this was a place where many migratory hunter and gatherer groups would come together for giant festivals and worship. It is thought that this drive to be near a holy site was the driving impetus behind the cultivation of grain and the creation of civilization in what came to be known as ancient Mesopotamia.
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I awoke in Sanliurfa to rain and dark clouds on the morning in which I had arranged to visit Gobekli Tepe with the archaeologists. Dr. Schmit called around 9 am to say that fieldwork had been canceled for the day and invite me to do a lunch interview instead. I agreed, but with a certain amount of reservation.

To get this story I knew that I needed to visit the site, itself, and talk with the archaeologists in the field. If I could not do this, I had the fleeting suspicion that my final piece would only have the depth and range of a stale page of Wikipedia. I needed to do this story in the flesh: without the observer there can be no observation, without the observation there can be no journalism.

I hung up the phone with Dr. Schmit and set out to strategize a new approach. I considered traveling to Iraq first and then visiting Gobekli on the way back through Turkey. Right as I was about to call to reschedule the phone rang.

It was Dr. Schmit. He said that plans had changed and that he could take me out to the site. He picked me up in front of the Harran Hotel, and we rode out to the site in his car. For lack of anything else to do, I began the interview immediately. Starting up my digital voice recorder, I jumped into a conversation about human prehistory, the advent of civilization, and archaeology that was to last for the next three or four hours.

My method of interviewing is rather haphazard: I just want to get a story – plain and simple. I want a real gut felt impression of what is going on. I want the ups and the downs and the ins and outs of a subject. To do a call and response style, organized interview is to walk a straight and narrow line: you go forward but you miss what is to either side of you. When I do an interview, I want to go all over the place, and then put together the pieces when I later go through the arduous task of transcribing hours of recorded conversation. I have found that the best way to do an interview is to just start the tape rolling and have a normal, natural – though sometimes crazy – conversation.

Klaus Schmit and I walked around Gobeki for at least an hour as he taught me about the site and the ongoing excavations. We then drove out to a few other neolithic sites in the region as he explained Gobekli in a larger context. Throughout all of this, the voice recorder rolled on and my ears were as big and open as a bucktoothed ass. I must say that I was sincerely impressed by the amount of time that Klaus Schmit took to fully explain the archaeology site that has become his life’s work. My excitement piched and turned each time he pointed to a new feature, and his statements were solid gold to a vendor of the written word.

At the completion of our interview, Dr. Schmit took me back to the excavation house in the center of Urfa and fed me a big German/ Turkish lunch together with the rest of the crew. After eight seasons of doing archaeology fieldwork, I found it a real odd experience to be on the outside of this scenario looking in. I nearly experienced an identity crisis as I sat amongst a table of archaeologists while wearing nothing other than a suit and tie.

I met some good people, I was fed a good meal, I got a good story.

Now it is time to write it up and find it a home.

Photos from Gobekli Tepe


Gobekli Tepe, “Hill with a belly,” in the southeast of Turkey near Sanliurfa.


The stone carvings that Gobekli Tepe is known for.


Gobekli Tepe prepped for excavation.


Stone rings at Gobekli Tepe that served as a gathering point for the hunters and gatherers at the start of the neolithic era.


Stone vat where beer could have first been cultivated. It has been suggested that the production of beer, and not food, was the impetus behind grain cultivation.


Earliest example of a terrazzo (lime) floor.


Gobekli Tepe is still a holy site, and Muslim women still visit this sacred mulberry tree and tie sections of cloth on to its branches and make wishes. The blowing of the fabric in the wind is said to make the wish come true.


Muslim burial at the top of Gobekli Tepe next to the sacred mulberry tree. Who has been buried here has been vanquished from collective memory, but they are thought to have been important people.


Kurdish man and son who protect and care for Gobekli Tepe.


The director of Gobekli Tepe’s excavation, Klaus Schmit, and Wade – with reporter’s notebook and voice recorder in hand.


Location of Gobekli Tepe on a map of Turkey.

Gobekli Tepe Archaeology Site

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Filed under: Archaeology, Turkey

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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