Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel


I already blogged about my visits to Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. It’s an important site from the Early (preceramic) Neolithicum. What it is, we don’t really know, although Klaus Schmidt, the excavator, is pretty sure that the site is religious in nature. In his nice, well-illustrated book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel (“They built the first sanctuary”), he offers lots of information.

The book is very well-structured. In the first chapter, Schmidt explains how the site was identified. It had already been discovered, but the discoverer had not understood that the big stones on the surface were from the Stone Age. Misidentifying them as Islamic tombstones, he had not realized the site’s significance. Schmidt, who had the benefit of knowing the finds from sites like Çatal Höyük, Çayönü, Nevali Çori, and Gürcütepe, was the first to realize the importance of Göbekli Tepe (“belly hill”).

The second chapter is about the discovery of the Stone Age, from the very moment that archaeologists realized that there had been an age in which people made stone objects, until the present day. It is a very useful and interesting chapter, because Schmidt can introduce important questions and technical expressions.

The third, and longest, chapter consists of a meticulous description of what has actually been found. The five enclosures are mentioned and every pylon receives is dealth with. Those pylons, which represent human figures (ancestors?), were decorated with all kinds of animal figures. Perhaps this chapter was a bit too detailed, but Schmidt did well to separate the description from the identification.

Enclosure C; photo Kees Tol

The fourth chapter deals with the interpretations. Schmidt compares Göbekli Tepe to several other places, without making very strong statements. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his argument that at least one picture does not represent ostriches, but people dancing like ostriches. I also liked the idea that the pictures of animals might in fact be some kind of sign language, although Schmidt does not say that this is the only possible interpretation of the finds. His conclusion is essentially negative: he is certain that these animals were not representation of the hunter’s prey. No one hopes to catch spiders or snakes.

Photo Marco Prins

A predator from Enclosure C; Museum Sanli Urfa; photo Marco Prins

In the fifth chapter, we read about the way this monument was built. A great many hunters and gatherers must have been involved, and the size of the monument proves that they were well-organized. The 2007 edition of the book, which was first published in 2005, concludes with an additional chapter with new finds and further thoughts.

What I like about Sie bauten die ersten Tempel is that it presents scholarship as a puzzle and allows readers to understand the process of acquiring knowledge. There is much room for doubt and cul-de-sacs are not ignored. For example, many animals look as if they are about to attack – but what are they defending? Schmidt admits that he does not know. He calls the building a temple, but immediately stresses that in fact, we cannot really know. This is the way a true scholar must proceed. I like this excellent book and can sincerely recommend it.

6 Responses to Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel

  1. judithweingarten says:

    But is this, in fact, a temple complex? See Ted Banning’s paper in the latest issue of Current Anthropology (summarized here:
    Well worth reading the full article in CA.
    This question will run and run,


  2. I got the impression Banning has erected a straw man. Schmidt is very reluctant to call it a temple.

  3. judithweingarten says:

    Schmidt is very reluctant to call it a temple. That is not my understanding. On the contrary, by arguing that there was no resident population (recently eased to allow occasional resident ‘priests’), the structures could *only* be temples of some sort. I think Banning is not so much erecting a straw man as probing the weaknesses in Schmidt’s scenario. I am certain that the last word has not been heard and that this extraordinary site will still surprise us.
    Warm regards,

  4. vamd says:

    Where’s the English edition of this thing?

    Shouldn’t there be one?

    The publisher says that there is no translation in preparation…

    The page on Gobekli Tepe at DAI does not list any bibliography in any other language then German either:

    Not sure how to plead the case for translation any further; perhaps there are perfectly kosher reasons for keeping a science book in a linguistic island…

  5. The English market is usually considered to be “closed” to foreign books…

  6. vamd says:

    Interesting… I wouldn’t have thought that a popular academic title would be problematic in that way. For economics,political science, at least, publishing in English seems to be taken for granted, whether in Europe or not. I came to forget about the pesky problem of foreign language sources entirely.

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