Göbekli Tepe (‘Potbelly hill’) is an early Neolithic sanctuary, built about 9000 years BC, thus being more than twice as old as Stonehenge or the Pyramids, and predating the discovery of metals, pottery or even the wheel, farming and settlements. It is considered the oldest religious structure in the world, thereby changing the way archaeologists look at history. The hill was first noted in a survey in 1964, which stated that it could not entirely be a natural feature, but it was considered to be a Byzantian cemetery and thus ignored. The hill had long been under agricultural cultivation and generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles, thereby possibly destroying much archaeological evidence.
Excavations finally started in 1994 and by now about 45 giant pillars, exquisitely carved with foxes, birds, boars and snakes have been dug out. Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters to the site, doing so without wheels or beasts of burden. The pillars weigh 10–20 tons, with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons. There are at least 20 installations, which in archeological terms can be called a temple. Based on what has been unearthed so far, the pattern principle seems to be that there are two huge monumental pillars in the center of each installation, surrounded by enclosures and walls, featuring more pillars in those set-ups. It is generally believed that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste, much earlier than such social distinctions developed anywhere else in the Near East. It is believed that the elevated location may have functioned as a spiritual center in 11,000 BCE or even earlier. Around the beginning of the 8th millennium BCE the temple lost its importance and was for some unknown reasons deliberately buried under as much as 300 to 500 cubic meters of refuse consisting mainly of small limestone fragments, stone vessels, and stone tools; many animal, even human, bones have also been identified in the fill.
Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it could profoundly change the understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human society. Not only its large dimensions, but the side-by-side existence of multiple pillar shrines makes the location unique. There are no comparable monumental complexes from its time.
For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries. Strangely enough, the people at Göbekli Tepe seemed to get steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, both technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C.
At present, though, Göbekli Tepe raises more questions for archaeology and prehistory than it answers. It remains unknown how a force large enough to build and maintain such a huge complex was mobilized and fed in the conditions of pre-sedentary society. At the time of Göbekli Tepe's construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Scholars cannot "read" the pictograms, and do not know for certain what meaning the animal reliefs had for visitors to the site. The variety of fauna depicted, from lions and boars to birds and insects, makes any single explanation problematic. Excavations have not revealed any sign of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the site had no water source — the nearest stream was about five kilometres away. The workers would have needed homes, but excavations have uncovered no sign of walls, hearths, or houses, they would have had to be fed, but there are also no traces of agriculture. All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as less than 5% of the site has so far been excavated.
Göbekli Tepe has also been considered a potential site for the Garden of Eden. Experts say that biblical Eden was situated by four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates and the stones lie between both of these. In ancient Assyrian texts, a 'Beth Eden' (a house of Eden) was mentioned. This minor kingdom was 80 km from Göbekli Tepe. Göbekli Tepe is situated at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent — an arc of mild climate and arable land from the Persian Gulf to present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt — and would have attracted hunter-gatherers from Africa and the Levant.