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Gobekli Tepe Archaeology 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 [...]

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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.

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.

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

Filed under: Archaeology, Turkey

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

17 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Diana July 13, 2010, 7:33 pm

    Hi, I came across your writing while trying to find a particular image from this site. Another writer mentioned seeing an old photo of a Sheela type image of a woman that was carved on a slab on the ground and near two pillars carved with what could possibly be lions or large cats, I haven’t been able to find any image of this online and wondered if you might have seenthis at the site?

    thanks, Diana

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 16, 2010, 11:56 am


      Can’t say that I remember seeing this at Gobekli.

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      • Diana July 16, 2010, 1:06 pm

        ok, thanks for the response

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  • Linda Heuman March 4, 2011, 9:48 am

    Hi Wade,
    Did you publish your story yet? I’d like to read it…
    Also, I’m headed to Turkey this summer and would really like to visit the site. Is it accessible to visitors yet? How hard was it to get to? Thanks! Linda Heuman

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 4, 2011, 10:20 am

      This story feel through the cracks. I think the local people will take you there from Sanliurfa. I was picked up by the director, but I don’t think it is too difficult to get to using other transport.

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  • Gayathri Ananth September 11, 2011, 2:23 am

    This article is short & sweet. If you have prepared an article about Indus valley civilization or if you will do it in future, i request you to send it to my e-mail ID. Thank you.

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    • Wade Shepard September 11, 2011, 10:49 am

      The article that resulted from this investigation was published in the first issue of Vagabond Explorer magazine, which can be downloaded for free.

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  • Gayathri Ananth September 11, 2011, 1:07 pm

    Thank you very much; I got it downloaded & as I have already requested please consider about Indus valley civilization also. And if you can give me the contact number / address of any genuine, experienced Indian Archaeologist (in case you know him / her personally), it would be of great help to me as I want to pursue a career in Archaeology; for which I want good guidance from an Archaeologist who will really guide me & whom I can approach easily. Can you kindly help me in any way? Thanks a lot.

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    • Wade Shepard September 11, 2011, 1:28 pm

      I’m an archaeologist, and have worked in the profession for a number of years in North, Meso, and South America. My biggest point of advice is to go to university and try to get in tight with one of the archaeology professors who are doing active research. Also, make sure you go to a university that has a big archaeology department. Here are some sections of Vagabond Journey that may help:

      Archaeology on the travelogue
      How to become an archaeologist questions
      Archaeology fieldwork and travel

      Hope this helps.

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  • Gayathri Ananth September 11, 2011, 11:43 pm

    Thank you so much. I am happy to know that you are an Archaeologist. I will try my best to follow your advice regarding Archaeology career (though I think it is not so easy in India).
    I will surely visit the links listed by you. Thanks once again.

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  • nick February 12, 2012, 11:02 pm

    diana, i think the statuary you are looking for is the mother goddess seated, and flanked by two leopards can be found at websites that have pictures of the archaeological digs of catal huyuk or catal hoyuk. This town is in south central turkey just north of the Taurus mountains. Oddly enough it was founded about the time that Gobekli Tepe was abandoned. Also, the evidence tends to show, counter to popular thinking at the time of its discovery , that it was not founded for agricultural reasons although their was plenty of wild grain around the site , but to gather obsidian (volcanic glass ) from volcanoes approximately a hundred miles to the east. Hand tools, and especially spear points and arrowheads of exquisite quality , manufactured by its residents have been found at archaeological sites all over Anatolia ( the ancient name of turkey ) as far west as Greece and as far east as India. Is it possible that the descendants of Gobekli Tepe peopled Catal Hoyuk? anyway i hope this the statuary is the one you are looking for . P.S. Catal is pronounced Shatal and is a Turkish name.

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  • Julia DB March 17, 2012, 10:41 am

    I just want to mention what a wonderful place Göbekli Tepe is and that your location on the map is wrong.

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    • Wade Shepard March 19, 2012, 12:44 pm

      What’s next, are you going to tell me that Gobekli Tepe isn’t a huge red square?

      For what the map is showing the location is correct.

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      • Julia DB March 20, 2012, 2:16 pm

        Hello again,
        I did not mean to be arrogant in my last comment, or imply that Göbekli Tepe is located in Russia. However, I still stand by my comment. The location is off with about 100 km. Surely not that much, yet hard if you want to visit the site. Göbekli Tepe is located around 15 km east of Urfa which means more southwest than what your map is showing.

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        • Julia DB March 20, 2012, 2:22 pm

          I now saw that you are using another map in your published article which shows the location.

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        • Wade Shepard March 21, 2012, 3:40 pm

          Thanks for the feedback, Julia, and for pointing out a more exact location. The one on this page is just a Wikipedia map anyway, not meant to be overly accurate. I would hope that nobody would use such a map for travel purposes — but you never know haha. Now if someone says that I led them 100km astray I’m covered by your comments. Thanks again.

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