Travel: Explore Neolithic Türkiye

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Türkiye is a land bursting with history, and the area surrounding the Harran plain in the southeast of the country, in particular, is home to spellbinding Neolithic sites, where ongoing excavations are shedding new light on a region that acted as the crucible for the development of modern human civilisation.

Those seeking out the wonders created by communities laying the foundations for a new way of life 12,000 years ago can visit Taş Tepeler, an area located in Şanlıurfa, a province in Upper Mesopotamia, which hosted the earliest settled communities. This 200km2 (49,000 acre) region is home to 12 significant Neolithic archaeological sites, including the famous Göbeklitepe and several other settlements and centres built during a time of immense change. During this era, the communities who occupied these prehistoric marvels transitioned from hunting and gathering to sedentism and began to establish permanent villages, construct mysterious monumental structures, domesticate animals, practise agriculture, carry out long-distance trade, and much more.

Göbeklitepe is renowned as one of Türkiye’s most celebrated prehistoric sites and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2018. The complex is situated just 15km northeast of the city of Şanlıurfa and is a candidate for the world’s first temple. The earliest layers date back to 9600 BC – making it c.7,000 years earlier than the Great Pyramid of Giza – and it remained in use for at least 1,500 years. Today, several of the site’s monumental structures can still be explored, however it is the size of Göbeklitepe that makes the site unique. Geophysical surveys have revealed at least 20 circular ritual enclosures hidden below the surface of the mound. The smallest of the buildings is 6m across, with limestone T-shaped pillars rising to about 3m high, while the largest circle, which archaeologists call simply Building D, measures no less than 20m across. Many of these structures are lavishly decorated with depictions of wild animals, geometrical figures, and abstract depictions of humans. The ruins offer a tantalising glimpse into the world of the people who built this spectacular site thousands of years ago. Meanwhile, continuing excavations are constantly uncovering new information about Göbeklitepe’s past.

Another major Neolithic site, Karahantepe, lies just 35km from Göbeklitepe, and is also easily accessible from Şanlıurfa city centre. Karahantepe covers an area of 140,000m2 (35 acres) and contains over 250 T-shaped megaliths, which are decorated with human and animal figures. Many well-preserved structures – some of which appear to be secular, whilst others may be religious in function – were carved directly out of the living rock. Excavations only began here in 2019, so plenty more exciting discoveries are guaranteed from this important site.

At present, archaeological excavations and research are being carried out at seven Neolithic sites in the Taş Tepeler region: Göbeklitepe, Karahantepe, Gürcütepe, Sayburç, Çakmaktepe, Sefertepe, and the Yeni Mahalle mound. Yeni Mahalle a settlement right at the heart of today’s Şanlıurfa, within the Balıklıgöl complex – is believed to be the original source of the world-famous Urfa Man – a limestone sculpture from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic era (now on display in the Şanlıurfa Archaeology Museum). Sayburç, a neighbourhood to the west of Sanlıurfa city centre, is a major settlement dating back to the pre-pottery Neolithic, featuring a stunning relief carved into the limestone bedrock, depicting human figures and fearsome lions with open mouths and sharp teeth visible.

With so many ongoing excavations, more revelations about this historic landscape are always emerging, making it the perfect destination for everyone entranced by the advent of the Neolithic in Anatolia. In just a short trip to Şanlıurfa you can sample a wealth of fascinating sites constructed by some of the world’s earliest sedentary communities in Taş Tepeler. Visitors can also peruse the largest museum in Türkiye – the Şanlıurfa Archaeology Museum – which houses intriguing artefacts from this period, as well as the recent finds from the Karahantepe excavations, on display in the exhibition ‘Karahantepe and Neolithic Human’. All told, the region presents an unparalleled opportunity to discover more about this enigmatic era, which had such a far-reaching impact on the development of the world as we know it.

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