Göbekli Tepe: a new World Heritage Site

In the last decade, Göbekli Tepe has gradually moved into the focus of public interest, as seen in the increasing numbers of visitors, a trend that broke off in 2015 following the spread of conflict to nearby parts of northern Syria.

This summer, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, meeting in Manama, Bahrain, inscribed 19 new sites – including Inuit hunting ground, a cathedral, and Buddhist monasteries – on the World Heritage List. Among these new inscriptions are the early Neolithic monuments of Göbekli Tepe, near S¸anlıurfa in south-eastern Turkey. Excavations at the site have been under way for more than 20 years now, revealing buildings commonly referred to as the world’s ‘earliest monumental architecture’ and, as such, heralding a turning point in human history. It has been suggested that here, in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains between the Euphrates and Tigris, hunter-gatherer groups some 11,000 years ago may have assembled to erect buildings featuring the characteristic massive T-shaped pillars, up to 5.5m tall and carved from local limestone (see CWA 53).

The important early Neolithic monuments of Göbekli Tepe, shown under excavation (left) before the construction of two protective shelters (one of which is pictured below), are among the 19 sites to join UNESCO’s World Heritage List. IMAGES: E. Kücük, DAI/L. Clare, DAI.

At the time of their discovery, the sheer monumentality of the buildings and limestone monoliths hinted, for the very first time, at a totally unexpected level of cooperation, specialisation, and incipient social hierarchisation among the associated early Holocene communities. It has previously been proposed that the labour involved, including the quarrying and transport of large limestone blocks, could have been undertaken in the frame of ritually charged gatherings and feasts. Whether or not this was the case, the impressive repertoire of art at the site undoubtedly testifies to a complex worldview, dominated by depictions of wild animals and symbols of masculinity (phalli). Any interpretation of Göbekli Tepe should not be limited solely to its potential ritual significance. Ritual and everyday life would have been intrinsically intertwined in the early Neolithic and, as such, the monumental buildings would have also provided the stage for significant social and economic exchange between individuals and groups.

World Heritage Sites must be deemed to be of ‘outstanding universal value’. The outstanding universal value of Göbekli Tepe lies in its (pre)historical context. The construction of the monumental buildings in the late 10th and 9th millennia BC coincides with the gradual transition from hunter-gathering lifeways to farming, also referred to as ‘neolithisation’. Some have suggested that the needs of those involved in the construction of the buildings could have led to experimentation with the wild progenitors of later domesticated plant and animal species, thus contributing to the neolithisation process. Whatever the case, Göbekli Tepe’s inscription is based on three specific UNESCO criteria. First, the site represents ‘a masterpiece of human creative genius’; second, it ‘exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology’; and, third, it is an ‘outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble… which illustrates a significant stage in human history’.

In the last decade, Göbekli Tepe has gradually moved into the focus of public interest, as seen in the increasing numbers of visitors, a trend that broke off in 2015 following the spread of conflict to nearby parts of northern Syria. Due to its location in south-east Turkey, it is unlikely that these numbers will ever reach those of sites in more accessible western parts of the country, but since the reopening of the archaeological site to visitors this spring following the construction of two permanent protective shelters, and especially since the UNESCO inscription, numbers are again on the rise. Göbekli Tepe has seen further investment in the form of a new visitor centre with a permanent exhibition and tourist facilities at the main entrance. Additionally, the new S¸anlıurfa museum, which opened in the centre of the city in 2015, displays many of the important finds from Göbekli Tepe, together with a life-size reconstruction of one of the monumental buildings.

With Göbekli Tepe, the World Heritage List gains a significant site that marks one of our most important steps to modernity and is a prime example of our common heritage. The inscription will hopefully promote the true scientific significance of the site to a broader audience, a most essential contribution considering the growing number of pseudo-scientific publications and conspiracy-theory fuelled interpretations relating to the monuments.

Jens Notroff, Oliver Dietrich, and Lee Clare, German Archaeological Institute