Digging for history at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey
The astonishing discoveries at the world’s oldest temple may tell us more about the Garden of Eden
I am standing above an archaeological dig, on a hillside in southern Turkey. Beneath me, workmen are unearthing a sculpture of some sort of reptile. It is delicate and breathtaking. It is also part of the world's oldest temple.
If this sounds remarkable, it gets better. The archaeologist in charge of the dig believes that this artwork has connections with the Eden story. The archaeologist is Klaus Schmidt; the site is called Gobekli Tepe.
In academic circles, the astonishing discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have long been a talking point. Since the dig began in 1994, experts have made the journey to Kurdish Turkey to marvel at these 40-odd standing stones and their Neolithic carvings.
Is the Eden story is an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming?
But what is new, and what makes this season's dig at Gobekli so climactic, is the quality of the latest finds - plus that mind-blowing thesis which links them to the Garden of Eden.
The thesis is this. Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure - literally picking fruit from the trees - to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.
And where did this change take place? Biologists now think the move to agriculture began in Kurdish Turkey. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of the world's cereal species, has been genetically linked to here. Similarly, it now seems that wild pigs were first domesticated in Cayonu, just 60 miles from Gobekli.
This region also has Biblical connections, tying it closer to the Eden narrative. Muslims believe that Sanliurfa, a nearby city, is the Old Testament city of Ur. Harran, a town down the road, is mentioned in Genesis twice.
Even the topography of Gobekli Tepe is 'correct'. The Bible describes rivers descending from Paradise. Gobekli Tepe sits in the 'fertile crescent' between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The Bible also mentions mountains surrounding Eden. From the brow of Gobekli's hills you can see the Taurus range.
But how does this intoxicating notion link to the architecture of Gobekli, and those astonishing finds?
Klaus Schmidt says: "Gobekli Tepe is staggeringly old. It dates from 10,000BC, before pottery and the wheel. By comparison, Stonehenge dates from 2,000BC. Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious - the world's oldest temple. This site proves that hunter-gatherers were capable of complex art and organised religion, something no-one imagined before."
As for the temple's exact purpose, Schmidt gestures at a new discovery: a carving of a boar, and ducks flying into nets. "I think Gobekli Tepe celebrates the chase, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And why not? This life was rich and leisured, it gave them time enough to become accomplished sculptors."
We may never know why the hunter- gatherers buried their ‘temple in Eden’
So why did the hunters of Gobekli give up their agreeable existence? Schmidt indicates the arid brown hilltops. "Gathering together for religion meant that they needed to feed more people. So they started cultivating the wild grasses." But this switch to agriculture put pressure on the landscape; trees were cut down, the herds of game were dispersed. What was once a paradisaical land became a dustbowl.
Schmidt explains that this switch took place around 8,000BC. Coincidentally, the temple of Gobekli Tepe was deliberately covered with earth around this time.
We may never know why the hunter-gatherers buried their 'temple in Eden'. Perhaps they were grieving for their lost innocence. What is unquestionable is the discoveries made in Gobekli Tepe, in the last few weeks, are some of the most exciting made anywhere in half a century.
Schmidt shows me some workmen scraping earth from a rock relief. It is marvellously detailed: it shows scorpions, waterbirds, and river life. I suddenly realise I am the first person other than an archaeologist to see it in 10,000 years.