Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel

15 October 2011


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.


Trapezus (Trabzon)

12 October 2011
Photo Ab Langereis

The Hagia Sophia

I was in Trabzon when its football team, Trabzonspor, beat Inter Milan. I have never seen a city that went so completely out of its mind: people honking their cars and even the ships in the port sounding their horns.

It’s an ancient city, originally called Trapezus. It became famous in the Middle Ages, when the Comnenian dynasty of Byzantine emperors settled in “Trebizonde” (as it was known back then) and made it the capital of a mini-empire, after Constantinople itself had been captured by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. In all aspects, Trebizonde had to resemble the real capital of the Byzantine world, which meant that there was also a lovely Hagia Sophia: smaller but more refined than its namesake in Constantinople. You can still visit the place.

There’s nothing left from the Greek and Roman age, but the city has an interesting history. You can read more about it on my new page: here.

Göbekli Tepe

24 September 2011

Göbekli Tepe; two oval enclosures visible

If someone would have asked me which excavations I would have liked to visit, I would have answered, without a monent´s thought, that my favorites would be Jiroft en Göbekli Tepe. Jiroft I will visit, inch’Allah, within a couple of months, but I no longer have to wait for Göbekli Tepe.

It is, to exaggerate a bit, the place where we can see the rise of mankind as a civilized being. Some 12,000 years ago, when the latest Ice Age was over, a process started that is known as the Neolithic Revolution: the rise of agriculture.

Göbekli Tepe proves that, when this process had only just started and mankind still consisted mainly of hunters and gatherers, monumental architecture was already possible. Hundreds of people must have been working on this site, so there must have been some kind of efficient leadership. We can even speak, very tentatively of course, about their beliefs, because Göbekli Tepe is a sanctuary and some of the statues may represent deities or ancestors. We will never be completely sure, of course, but it remains a fascinating thought.

Pylon 12

The first thing we saw was a couple of dromedaries and the caravan in which the German excavator, professor Klaus Schmidt, has his office. We saw Enclosure E (“the rock temple”, but essentially a wide, rocky plain) and Enclosures A, B, C, and D, where tall, T-shaped pylons used to stand in a circle or oval. The satellite photo above shows two of these ovals. They date back to the age that archaeologists call “Preceramic Neolithic A”, or the period between 9500 and 8300 BC.

Several pylons are decorated with arms and must resemble humans. The sides often show animals, like snakes, foxes, and ostriches. These statues are very primitive, but radiate a kind of power that I find hard to describe. This is art, and these pylons show that humans are cultural beings. To quote Schmidt: it is like a theater, and although we can no longer see the play itself and can only see the set, we know that the actors have put on the scene a truly grand play.

The visitor of the world’s oldest known sanctuary will be accompanied by a guard, who will, at the end of the tour, sell a book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel, written by professor Schmidt. I have now read about half of it and am very enthusiastic about the way he explains everything: very seriously and without unnecessary hypotheses. The guard offered me to ask Schmidt’s autograph; the scholar made it clear that he was actually a bit too busy, which I liked. Academics who waste time giving autographs, are to be treated with some distrust.

Getting there

From Sanli Urfa, where some of the beautiful finds are shown in the museum, it is easy to reach the excavation. Leaving the city center, you take the road in the direction of the suburb of Kara Köprü. At the great roundabout on the city’s northern edge, you take road D400 to the east, to Mardin. You will already have seen the brown signs to Göbekli Tepe. After 13 kilometers, you turn to the left and continue, even when the road is, for a short distance, unpaved. If this doesn’t work, ask directions for Örencik.

SMS from Turkey

3 October 2010

Tarkasnawa of Mira

In 2003, Marco and I rented a car and made a trip through Turkey. As always, we didn’t have time to visit the most important sites (I still haven’t been in Perge or Pergamon), because we lost way too much time on silly trivialities like finding the rock relief of king Tarkasnawa of the Hittite vassal kingdom Mira. It is not terribly important, but it’s mentioned by Herodotus, who believed it to be an Egyptian relief (more…). I think we spent about two hours, searching in vain, before we decided to give up. At that very moment, we spotted the small stairs along the road that indicated the place where we ought to climb to the rock. I will never forget the shout of Marco, who was the first to go up, that he saw the object of our quest.

I most have told this story several times, not ignoring our futile attempt to ask a Turkish woodcutter, who spoke only Turkish, whether he knew the relief. Apparently, my stories must have made some friends curious, because the other day, I received an SMS from two friends who were, at that moment, standing next to Tarkasnawa, and knew they would cause me great joy by letting me know where they were standing.

More here; satellite photo here.

Nemrud Daǧi

13 June 2010

A lion guarding the main altar

Nemrud daǧi is one of the most spectacular ruins from Antiquity. On the top of a mountain, a large tumulus covers and protects the tomb itself; in the southwest and northeast, there are two terraces, dominated by statues of the great gods and king Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.

Did I say “spectacular”? Yes, it certainly is. During our first visit, we were really impressed by the almost magical atmosphere at sunset. It was easy to forget that there were other people. On the other hand, when we arrived on the mountain for a second time, the magic was gone and we found it hard to remember how impressed we once had been.

I reorganized my old pages, put online in 2003, and added photos we took in 2008. There will be additions later, but from now on, the page is here.

Tušpa (Van)

10 June 2010

The citadel

Tušpa was an ancient Urartian fortress on the eastern shore of Lake Van. It is situated on a high and steep rock, several kilometers west of the modern city of Van. Up there, you can see several tombs of Urartian kings, a couple of inscriptions (including an Achaemenian royal inscription), and many buildings from the Ottoman age.

I put some photos online, with a couple of notes. Unfortunately, when we visited the city, the museum was being renovated. The new webpage is here.

Midas: Fiction and Fact

30 May 2010

The so-called Tomb of Midas in Gordium

King Midas of Phrygia is best known from Greek legend: the story about the drunken Silenus, the story about “the Midas touch”, the story about the donkey ears, and several others, including a nice parallel to the Roman story about the Lacus Curtius.

Yet, the Greeks also remembered him as a real king, the first to send presents to Delphi. This Midas had fought against the Cimmerians, had been defeated, and had committed suicide. He is almost certainly identical to the Mit-ta-a of Muški mentioned in the Annals of the Assyrian king Sargon II.

I’ve made a new page, which you can find here.