The Oldest Man-made Structure

There were only four of us on this trip organized by “Travel the Unknown.” Four, plus our guide and our driver. Six in all. This may have been because there aren’t many people who care to kiss the Syrian border at this particular time in history, and we were headed to a site within a few miles of it.

We were headed for Gobekli Tepe, to see huge stones carved and erected about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. I was afraid the company would decide we couldn’t go because Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist who understood the site’s importance and started its excavation, had suddenly died of a heart attack three months earlier while swimming in his homeland, Germany. Plans for further excavation were in a state of flux.

This wasn’t the problem, our guide told us as we sat drinking tea at our hotel in Istanbul. The problem was ISIS and the battle raging in Kobane, just across the border. “You may decide — we may decide — it would be best not to go.”

“If we can’t go to Gobekli Tepe, I want to go home.”

All four of us said the same thing. We were scheduled to visit a dozen important archaeological sites around Turkey, but Gobekli Tepe was the main reason we were all here. We went.

Gobekli Tepe, October 2014

The site is a confusing jumble of scaffolding, T-shaped monoliths, and drystone walls. They have years of work left to do. A make-shift roof, unfortunately, keeps out much of the sunlight and makes the whole site harder to understand, but after millenia of being protected underground, these precious carvings, by far the oldest known, must be protected from the elements.

Why do we care? Fact is, many people don’t, but those of us who do, take chances, blow our budgets, and endure the dry heat to go. We lower our voices to a whisper as if we are visiting a temple. In fact, this may have been a temple.

What we want to know, what some of us want to know, is simply this: When and why did civilization happen?