Göbekli Tepe: most amazing site dating to last Ice Age
Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, has the world's first monumental architecture which was built 12,000 years ago. Read Nick Kropacek's extended article on this amazing site
The ancient site of Gobekli Tepe with enclosure C in the foreground
Anatolia is described variously as a melting pot of civilisations and cultures, a bridge between Asia and Europe, a fusion of East and West and many other familiar and over used descriptions, all now rather pedestrian but accurate nonetheless. It is certainly a fact that Anatolia has the unnerving habit of turning up ‘Lost Civilisations’ and ‘Vanished Cultures’. It’s unnerving for two reasons: in the modern age we have covered so much ground, physically and intellectually, that we think we should know everything by now and it is unnerving because, intrinsically, an entire civilisation is a hard thing to lose, especially in a place that is supposed to be a ‘bridge’ and has been tramped across by so many peoples since the very dawn of civilisation itself. But Anatolia still does it.
The story of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy in 1870/71 is fairly well known to people; a discovery made by a brilliant, if obsessive, man building an idea on the foundation of a mythological story written down in the Bronze Age by Homer, a man whose existence we are not even sure of. But it did have the benefit, in Western Culture and in the Western literary canon, of being very well known and its discovery was a revelation and a cause for great popular wonder and excitement. The discovery and excavation of Bogazkale was another revelatory event, if less celebrated by the general public. After all, the Hittites were just bit players in a Biblical narrative; not wholly unfamiliar, but more of a footnote. However, academics and scholars were aware of the fact that there was a significant missing component to ancient Near Eastern history, a lacuna just hinted at by tantalising discoveries made in the late 19th century. The discovery and excavation of the Hittite capital, locked away in its Central Anatolian mountain vastness, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, filled in a huge gap, a gap reduced even further by the translation of the Hittite language by the Czech linguist Hrozny in 1915, and the wealth of documentary evidence that had been turned up during excavations at the Royal Library in Hattusha, and which could now be read. Göbekli Tepe was just a massive shock!
Just a short distance from the city of Sanliurfa in South East Turkey, a Kurdish shepherd noticed a number of large, embedded stones, stones which had clearly been worked, the tops of which were partially exposed but nothing was done until the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, an expert in Neolithic archaeology, visited the site. What has been emerging since that day in 1995 is nothing short of extraordinary; a site of significant size containing first circular ‘enclosures’ and then rectangular ‘rooms’ dominated by remarkable carved and decorated monoliths. So far, over 25 of these enclosures have been identified and two of the earlier ones have now been fully excavated down to floor level revealing an unknown and unimagined culture that turned the archaeological world on its head. The most startling thing about this site is its great age. Going back to the end of the last Ice Age and first constructed around 10,000 BCE, the site is known as Göbekli Tepe (or in Kurdish, GirêiNavokê) and Klaus Schmidt referred to it as the world’s first ‘constructed sanctuary’ while later publicists referred to it as the world’s ‘first temple’.
The monument comes to us from the distant past and from a time when, according to the existing historical narrative, it simply shouldn’t have been there. This is monumental architecture on a grand scale, preserved to an extraordinary degree, but silent. While we can describe the site in minute detail and study its physical attributes with all the tools of modern science, we can only speculate as to the motives of the builders or the culture of the people; all of this was accomplished 6,000 years or more before the invention of writing. And there is an additional riddle within this enigmatic and haunting place. The great enclosures, after being used for hundreds of years, were simply buried. The rest of the site continued to be used with smaller, more modest structures built on the mound created by the burial of the original monuments and then, after a period of use as a site for gathering and a place of ritual that may have been as long as 2,500 years, the place was simply abandoned.
To give the site some context in the continuum of time, more time separates the builders of Stonehenge from the first monumental builders at Göbekli Tepe, than separates us from the builders of Stonehenge. Its initial construction period is referred to as ‘Pre- Pottery Neolithic A’ (PPNA) meaning that it comes from a period that predates the invention of pottery vessels. It is also pre-writing. Göbekli Tepe exists in a part of human history that is unimaginably distant and at the end of the last Ice Age. Most importantly, this is in all likelihood a religious or cult site, not a settlement site; there is no evidence of anyone having lived here, although remnants of food preparation demonstrate occupation at certain times. The construction was a huge effort, and Prof. Schmidt believed that hundreds of people came from far and wide for specific cultural or religious rituals over an extended period of time, and then went back to their territories or hunting grounds and their daily lives. The site was only used for very important events; perhaps rituals associated with sex, the arranging of partnerships and the exchange of goods, births and deaths in the family, clan and kinship events or even the changing of the seasons to mark the migratory patterns of wildlife.
While no burial evidence has been found, Dr Schmidt said these could be behind the walls; ‘we must be patient to answer these questions and only excavate what we need’. One possible use for the site may have been the practice of sky burials or exhumations, but this remains speculative and tentatively connected to burial practices prevalent in other parts of the wider region. However, the problem with uncovering sites like this is that the very process of excavation actually destroys the site. The goal therefore, has been to protect the site as much as possible while learning as much as one can. Consequently, the process is going to take a very long time and is as far removed from the buccaneering style of archaeology espoused by early archaeologists such as Schliemann in his excavations at Troy, and made popular by the Indiana Jones films, as it is possible to be. In spite of the painstaking and incremental nature of modern archaeology, the excavation produces what appears to be a very truncated timeline when compared to the site’s actual ‘working’ life: 20 years to exhume and a possible 2,500 years of use. This can, and does lead to some confusion for people visiting the site or researching the site on line if they do not have the proper guidance.
The surrounding area of Göbekli Tepe
How does one give the site a cultural and historical context? With no pottery and no writing there can be no indication of how these ancient people perceived themselves. The archaeological team had to compare archaeological sites, taking materials from Göbekli Tepe and other sites which are related by archaeology and which can be carbon dated, and compare these findings. The practice of site burial also gives an indication of age since the material used to back-fill the main enclosure contained significant quantities of animal material, more of which later. Since the early 1990s a number of sites across South Eastern Turkey, essentially the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent, have emerged and the iconic objects which represent Ghich r Tepe, the anthropomorphic ‘T’ shaped monoliths, have been found in other parts of the Sanliurfa region and in the centre of Sanliurfa itself. Many of the ‘T’ shaped stones which stand within the stone-walled circles are clearly representative human figures possessing arms, clothing and adornment, but significantly, no facial features.
That this is in all likelihood a religious or cult site, not a settlement site, is suggested by the dearth of remains which inevitably come with settled communities; there is no evidence of anyone having permanently lived here. This is the characteristic which makes Göbekli Tepe unique and so intriguing. The other contemporary sites around the region, which include ‘gatherings’ of these anthropomorphic ‘T’ shaped pillars, are all a part of what is probably of mixed domestic and working environments making, what is the ritual sphere, a part of daily life. Göbekli Tepe was set apart and would have taken some effort not just to build but also to visit. What also sets Göbekli Tepe apart, especially in its early (oldest) phase, is the sheer size and monumentality of the ‘T’ shaped pillars. Here most of the pillars have sophisticated carved decoration and reliefs; some of them stand up to 5.5 m and weigh as much as 20 tons. The construction was a huge effort, and it is believed that hundreds of people must have come from far and wide for specific cultural or religious rituals over an extended period of time. The quarry that produced the stones is just a few hundred metres away where one can still see some pillars, partially excavated, but remaining in situ and attached to the bedrock but abandoned because of flaws.
The site chronology can be broken down into three levels, I, II and III, which represent the main phases of construction and use; I being the most recent and III being the most ancient and therefore the deepest level. Layer III is also the most sophisticated level at the site, a fact which poses some interesting questions. This is a site that in terms of artistic endeavour, construction and concept seems to go backwards rather than progressing with the passage of time. Level II is much more basic while Level I represents the thousands of years of abandonment or much later agricultural use. Factors featuring in these changes may include changing social structures, economy, religious practice and so on. Level I still produces many relevant finds but these would have been relocated by erosion and farming.
While the overall size of the Göbekli Tepe site is quite considerable, this ancient core currently being excavated so far is of a more modest size and is represented by four enclosures identified by lettering: A to D so designated by the order of their discovery. Each enclosure is characterised by different thematic components and artistic representations. These early groups of enclosures are roughly circular in shape. The first to be excavated was Enclosure ‘A’ which is also known as ‘the snake enclosure’ because depictions of the snake dominate the carvings on the T-pillars (see left). These are, in places, extremely intricate including one (pillar no.1) which depicts a group of tightly packed snakes contained in what appears to be a net or wicker basket, set above a wild sheep or ram. The leading edge of the stele has three carved snakes moving downwards and one snake moving up. All the snakes carved at Göbekli Tepe are carved in a downward motion except this single example. The use of the snake occurs in all the Level III enclosures (except ‘C’ where they are totally absent) but not in the profusion seen in Enclosure ‘A’. It is interesting to note that the snake holds a very powerful position in the mythology of Anatolia, even today (see appendix). Along with the snake, images of the fox are a consistent feature and possibly the fox has some totemic value for important members of this culture although, unlike the snake, the fox does not appear to have survived with a significant folkloric role in the wider region today. With the exception of the snakes in Enclosure ‘A,’ which are depicted on the main face of a single stone, all the snakes are depicted on the leading edge facing inwards; they are shown as short, thick creatures with broad flattened heads typical of snakes which inhabit the Urfa region today, including the common Levantine viper.
Another pillar depicts a grouping of an aurochs (a very large and now extinct bovine), a fox and a crane, positioned one above the other in what may represent a narrative of some description. This is a thought provoking narrative because the depiction of the crane is anatomically incorrect if the carver was depicting what he actually saw in the wild. The knees of the crane articulate backwards in the same fashion that a human knee does. Any member of a hunting and gathering society would know from an early age that a bird’s knee articulates forward, and with a long legged bird such as a crane this forward movement is very marked indeed. What in fact may be depicted here is a human dressed as a crane. Could this be a hunting scene or possibly a depiction of a dance to invoke the attributes of the creatures being depicted?
This anatomical puzzle is repeated elsewhere. The central pillars in Enclosure ‘A’ do not have the anatomical features such as arms that we see on other pillars at this site and elsewhere but the animal depictions are particularly vivid. Nor do the pillars have any obvious structural purpose. However, along with the snake, images of the fox are a consistent feature.
Enclosure ‘B’ is in the shape of a rough oval measuring about 10 to 15 m (N/S) and about 9 m (E/W) and has a constructed terrazzo floor. This enclosure is called the Fox Pillars Building because the image of the fox predominates (see left). The two central pillars each have a life-sized fox carved on them, both facing inwards and given their posture, in mid-leap. But interestingly on one of the stones, the fox appears to be pouncing upon a small rodent-like creature that was etched into the pillar at a later date. In front of one Fox Pillar there appears to be what the archaeological team interprets as a depression set in the floor, possibly for votive offerings. These central pillars are quite large and are fully intact, measuring about 3.5 m in height and weighing approximately seven tons.
At some point after the burial of Enclosure ‘C’ (possibly post Neolithic, but this is uncertain), a large 10m diameter pit was dug in the central area of the enclosure and both standing central stones were smashed into several pieces. One can reasonably assume that this act required knowledge of the enclosure’s layout and contents. It is impossible to know the circumstances of this episode of iconoclastic vandalism and it is repeated elsewhere at Göbekli Tepe. It has been determined that the violence of this attack was considerable because the eastern pillar was cracked apart by an intense fire. It is intriguing to note that in front of the broken fragments of the fired pillar the assailants had placed four objects made of limestone: two stone plates, one crude vessel or container and a small sculpture of a boar. We do, of course, have numerous examples to refer to in our own more recent history, of religious change driving destructive forces: the violence directed by English Puritans against the decorative elements in England’s great medieval cathedrals and churches right down to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban iconoclasts in Afghanistan and the cultural atrocities carried out by ISIL are merely three examples of many. The reconstruction of the western pillar from fragments of the original is adorned with a life-sized fox relief on the inward face in mid- leap southward towards the entrance. The eastern pillar, most of which is missing was adorned with a bull on its inward face. It is fortunate that the violence was only directed at the central pillars, because around the perimeter wall of Enclosure ‘C’ are to be found some of the highest quality stone work at Göbekli Tepe including an extraordinary high relief (Pillar 27) of a free-standing feline above a wild boar. The enclosure is built on to the plateau’s surface on the natural bedrock.
Enclosure ‘D’ is referred to as the Stone Age Zoo because of the wide variety of animal imagery. The dominating feature of this enclosure is the massive pair of central ‘T’ shaped stele, clearly intended to represent human figures and monumental in scope, they face south and are set on an ornamental pedestal, one of which is decorated with what appear to be ducks and which stand at an impressive height of about 5.5 m. Both standing pillars have arms clasped at the belly just above a decorated belt and a fox pelt loin cloth with the tail hanging down at the front. The pillar standing eastwards has a life-sized fox in the crook of its right arm leaping to the south. But significantly, as with all the anthropomorphic ‘T’ pillars discovered here and elsewhere, there are no facial features. Apart from the belt and loin cloth, both figures have what could be described as neck adornments which are clearly symbolic: the western figure has a ‘bucranium’ or stylised bull’s head symbol at its neck, while the eastern figure wears a symbol which is like the letter ‘H’ beneath which there is a circle sitting in an up-turned crescent which is a very common image across this region at much later dates; this is the attitude of the crescent moon which is observable at these latitudes. This enclosure also has, as one of its perimeter stones, the most discussed, and possibly disturbing set of Göbekli Tepe images of all. This is pillar No.43, the ‘Vulture Stone’ (see right). The bizarre images on this pillar include, on the left-hand side, a vulture holding an orb or egg in an outstretched wing. Equally curious is the possibility that this particular image is of a man dressed as a vulture since, like the crane images, the legs do not articulate correctly for a bird, and one theory is that the orb may be a human head. Lower down the pillar there is a scorpion and the imagery is further complicated by the depiction of a headless ithyphallic man. While all the animal images on peripheral pillars at Göbekli Tepe look to the centre of the enclosures, one image of a bird on this stone (possibly a rock partridge or other prey bird) looks outwards to the edge. It is the only one to do this but, of course, with an ongoing excavation like this, one has to add the proviso, ‘so far’. The enclosure is built on natural bedrock which was levelled and smoothed to construct the central pillars’ pedestals and floor.
There is one further enclosure, Enclosure ‘E’ which is about 100 m east and slightly south of this grouping of enclosures. Nothing remains except the floor plan and foundation sockets for the central pillars. The floor is carved directly from the bedrock. Just adjacent to the enclosure there are some carved depressions which may be small cisterns carved from the rock; there are other larger examples found along the ridge of Gust ad Tepe. There are no springs in the vicinity, so water supply would have been a problem. There is also a grouping of cup-like depressions carved into the rock which are replicated at other Neolithic sites in the region but there are no real theories as to what they may have been for.
Göbekli Tepe is famous for its striking depiction of a variety of wild animals not just because of their profusion but also for the artistry and skill of their execution. However, it is worth noting that all the creatures depicted, where it is possible to assign any gender at all, are decidedly male, many of which sport large, erect penises. There is a single exception of a stone plaque used as a bench at some point that was clearly a later addition to the Level II ‘Lion Building’. This is a crudely executed image of a woman (left), scratched on the surface of the stone, spread-eagled and with a distended and engorged vulva clearly positioned for coitus. It is best to describe this as a piece of Neolithic Graffito. One has to say that there is some merit in that a single exception to the norm should be truly exceptional, but this image is quite startling even by the open minded standards of today. There is no possibility of determining why it is where it is, as all the statues of men from Göbekli Tepe are silent; like Urfa Man now in the Sanliurfa Museum, they lack mouths. One thing is certain, this strange object notwithstanding: the sacred spaces of Göbekli were clearly places for men, or more specifically, male hunters.
All the enclosures at Level III were filled in prior to the constructions on Level II. It is unclear why this was done but there seems to be a conscious ‘decommissioning’ of the structures at Level III because some pillars were damaged or moved in an organised and controlled manner, while some pillars seem to have been removed entirely. Small artefacts remained and statues were left in situ but toppled. There is another odd feature about this process that is suggested by the condition of the tops of some of the central pillars, especially those in Enclosures ‘B’ and ‘D’. Some of the the tops of the pillars in Enclosure ‘C’ are completely broken off. The tops of the intact central pillars have carved, cup-like depressions. It appears that when the Level III structures were buried, just the tops remained above ground and these cup-like depressions were carved once burial was complete. Once again, the purpose of this is speculative but receptacles for votive offerings or candles are a reasonable suggestion. With the construction and use on Level II, people were clearly using the site and would have been aware of the buried enclosures, the tops of which were protruding just above the surface, evidence of the convocation of standing stones just below. It is also reasonable to conclude that, although buried, the ancient enclosures still played a role of sorts in the ritual life of the people who continued to build and gather here.
One cannot be absolutely precise but it would seem that Level III, original construction around 9,500 BCE, was buried in phases after hundreds of years of use. The content of the material used to fill the enclosures in is a huge source of hard data. This was a considerable undertaking with large volumes of material required to complete the task. Enclosure ‘D’ alone required about 500 m³ of material. The composition of the in-fill material is simply refuse produced by hunting, food preparation and consumption mixed with in-fill material which included the residue of construction, stone working, thousands of flint tools and the remnants of tool manufacture. The spoil tells us some important things about these people. The tools themselves, in the absence of the archaeologist’s basic dating tool - pottery - can be used to produce a broad cultural and chronological context in which data from other sites can be used to produce rough dates.
There is a significant database of flint tools and weapons (blades and spear/arrow points) of styles from across the region. Excavated at Gnificant da have been arrow points of the Tel-Aswad (Syria: 600 km), el-Khiam (Israel: 680 km), Helwan (originating in Egypt but found across the Levant), Nemrik (Iraq: 470 km) and Nevali iginatianliurfa: 30 km) types, all slightly different. While this could be down to either traded items or the sharing of technique, given the nature of this site and the organisational effort to build it, it seems more likely that this debris is produced by ‘allochthonous’ human groups from some of these places coming to perform rites in their own identified enclosures. It would also suggest an explanation for the apparent ‘totemic’ differences from enclosure to enclosure at Level III. However, this is not unlike the discovery of the burial of the Amesbury Archer at Stonehenge alongside a relative. Dental isotope analysis has established that this was a man who originated in central Europe’s Alpine region, but travelled a considerable distance to visit what was an important site within a widely dispersed Neolithic culture in Western Europe. Göbekli Tepe is clearly operating in a similar manner. As with the flint arrow points, other stone artefacts such as stone carved cups and bowls are shared across a wide region and are found in fragmentary form in rubble removed from the enclosures. They demonstrate not just a sharing of the ideas behind physical items but they also emphasise the shared symbolic world. Evidence for the sharing of cultural life over considerable distances combined with the importance of feasting by Neolithic peoples again comes from Stonehenge, where dental isotope analysis on animal teeth from animals slaughtered at Stonehenge demonstrated that they had been reared across the British Isles, some as far as Scotland, and brought to Stonehenge for feasting at mid-winter. While Göbekli Tepe predates agriculture, the evidence from Stonehenge clearly establishes the fact that Neolithic peoples had a culture that was widely dispersed in geographical terms but which maintained close cultural connections.
Level II is a different environment both conceptually and artistically. It is evident that the society and the culture are undergoing an important series of changes while important cultural markers remain. The enclosure spaces are far smaller and much more modest while decorations are simpler and are executed with less skill. They are also far more numerous and are constructed, almost in a jumble of competing floor plans, on top of Level III and sometimes cutting into Level III. They are certainly considerably less ambitiously monumental and much more ‘democratic’ in nature. This is possibly a society that has exhausted itself both economically and spiritually with Level III. It may be evidence of a transitional period before the abandonment of Göbekli Tepe and the evolution of more settled societies, such as the one at Çatalhöyük in the Konya Plain which is dated from about 7,500 BCE. However, speculation aside, the most elaborate of these now more modest rectangular enclosures is the so-called ‘Lion Building,’ identified by the carving on one of its principle stones. Pillar sizes are considerably less ambitious being reduced to an average size of around 1.5 m. While probably still a purely cult or religious site with no evidence of domesticity, the enclosures are small and in many respects resemble the domestic buildings in other places such as Nevali Çori. It could be that economic and cultural changes are reflected in construction patterns here. Certainly changes are afoot because it is the ‘Lion Building’ where the graffito of the pre-coital female was found. It is certainly not a part of the enclosure’s original fixtures and fittings and one can imagine an almost sacrilegious challenge to the existing order with its placement here.
On the topic of sacrilege, it is appropriate to conclude with another act challenging an ancient system of belief. Over the 2013/14 season, archaeologists were uncovering another enclosure, Enclosure ‘H,’ about 250 m away from the original Level III excavations and on the other side of the hill towards the North West. This is referred to as the ‘North West Depression’ and, at first glance, looks almost to mirror the original existing excavation. Also built on Level III this enclosure possesses good sized central stele set in an oval shaped structure. As with Enclosure ‘C’, representations of wild boar seem pre-eminent. The enclosure, like all the others, was buried after its useful life. However, somebody, as with Enclosure ‘C’, took the time and effort to excavate a pit, locate the central standing stones and destroy one (the other one still awaits investigation). Why? Clearly what connects Enclosures ‘C’ and ‘H’, and possibly enclosures yet to be discovered, are design (oval and with an accessing stair case), level (age) and artwork but above all, these two enclosures are connected by identical acts of desecration carried out long after the enclosures were buried! These acts of desecration would suggest a number of possible scenarios none of which necessarily exclude the others. Clearly the act of burying enclosures on Level III and the evolution of the structural design changes seen on Level II indicates a conclusion of life cycle for these structures, and a change of political and economic, although not cultural or religious, fundamentals. The question of deliberate, targeted and heavy destruction in enclosures but continued site use suggests both a continuity of belief for a considerable period of time but with major change in the power dynamics of the society represented at and by this extraordinary site.
Panoramic view of new excavations at the site
There are many theories contributed by non-academic and ‘alternative’ writers of popular books about the origins of Göbekli Tepe and its builders, most of which are understandably concerned with the amazing and very photogenic remains on Level III. They range from an ‘ancient civilisation of amazing complexity’ via vaguely Biblical references to, quite literally, the stars. In terms of stellar alignments, the archaeological team, being careful people, who rely on slowly accumulated and assessed evidence, will not rule this out but do gently point out that there is no evidence of alignment with any star or constellation. The site is clearly orientated, but the Level III enclosures are orientated southwards and down the Plain of Harran from where the people might have approached and not in relation to the night sky or any apparent astronomical feature; looking at the topography of the area this would seem reasonable. Even today, the most logical approach is from the south. It is possible that this southern alignment faces a processional approach. It is true that the act of processing features strongly in the ritual lives of ancient peoples evidenced by ancient sites such as the proposed transition between Woodhenge and Stonehenge or the menagerie etched into the Nazca Plains right up to modern times with religious rites such as the Stations of the Cross or state ceremony such as the State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Level II enclosure displays no particular alignment pattern.
After the abandonment of Level II, we see nothing happening at G In terms of stellar alignments, the archaeological team, being careful people, who rely on slowly accumulated and assess-nomadic life across the environment we see today, with minor contributions during the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods and which hid the drama of the numerous and silent convocations of monolithic beings just below the surface. The name, Ge across the enviill of the Navel, could well be a faint cultural echo to those very distant times. It is certainly true that many Neolithic cultures were characterised by a symbolic connection to the earth via a magical navel or umbilical cord. Even today, this is a respected and venerated location to which the adorned wishing tree at the top of the mound attests. But, we can only speculate as to the precise nature of the seminal changes that went on during this ancient time and which are tantalisingly represented in this amazing place. But to paraphrase a popular warning we hear today in our own rapidly evolving culture …. please speculate responsibly.
(When Prof Schmidt came to this site in 1994, instantly recognising that he was looking at an important Neolithic site but, as yet, unaware of the extraordinary world that lay beneath the surface, said that if he did not leave, he would be working there for the rest of his life. Sadly, he died in July, 2014.)
It should be noted that the photographs in this article were taken before the construction of a temporary roof over the main Level III excavation area. This does detract from the impact of site for a visitor seeing Göbekli Tepe for the first time. However, the roof is necessary to prevent degradation of the site by the winter rains and snow. Original, pre-roof images were used to allow a better understanding of the site’s components and the broader context of the enclosure placements. A brand new ‘light weight construction’ roof is scheduled for 2016 to allow both easy and enjoyable viewing and continued archaeological work.
The Sahmaran Legend of Kurdistan
The snake has an interesting symbolism in Anatolia. Even today the symbol of medicine is a Caduceus with two snakes wrapped around. A Caduceus is a herald’s staff and the snakes have an ancient connection in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent with healing and rejuvenation, probably because they shed their skin and are ‘reborn’. The medical symbol is derived from the staff of Asklepios, the Greek God of healing. A major centre for the veneration of Asklepios was Pergamum in North West Anatolia and it is probably this connection that produced the healing snake symbol. The snake’s ability to shed its skin and be reborn is explained in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh, the hero of the story, travels far and wide in search of Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah figure, because Utnapishtim holds the secret of eternal life in the form of a magical herb. Gilgamesh persuades Utnapishtim to give him some of this herb which he carries away with him, only to have it stolen and consumed by a snake while he slept, which to this day enjoys eternal life and the wisdom that goes with it.
There are many interesting stories and folk tales to be found in the south east of Turkey; of these, the ones concerning Sahmaran are the most interesting. It has become a favourite story and its main character is depicted as a good luck symbol in many houses and businesses across the region. The story relates the adventure of a young man by the name of Tahmasp and the Sahmaran, the sovereign of all the snakes and their subterranean realm, a creature half-human head and half-snake body. The tale is a story of close friendship, a deep secret and betrayal that ends in tragedy.
The story begins when a wood cutter named Tahmasp, the bravest of his group of friends, is lowered into a well to get at some tasty wild honey. He finds himself in the Sahmaran’s underground world where he is stuck because his friends were filled with fear by the darkness of the cave and abandoned him. The snakes capture him and he is brought before Sahmaran himself. Tahmasp explained how he came to be there and that it was an accident upon which Sahmaran shares a grim secret with the young man - having seen the Sahmaran, he may never leave. Tahmasp is then forced to stay for fear that the secret would be told to those living above. He is, however, befriended by the king’s daughter, a beautiful creature who told Tahmasp bewitching stories about ancient times, the history of the world and the origins of mankind - every day a new story. But in spite of the bewitching stories and the fact that he had fallen in love with the enchanting and beautiful t times, the history of the world andTahmasp began to pine for his old life and for his family and he desired to feel the sun on his back and the wind in his hair. After a very long time the ï¿½?ahmaran gave in to the pleadings of the young man to be freed to return to his own world but there was to be a sting in the tale. The Sahmaran princess tells him that his life with them, and the love that had grown between them, must never be spoken of and the price for the wisdom he has gained is that he must never immerse himself in water unless he was alone because on contact with water his skin would take on the shiny, scaly sheen of the snake.
Tahmasp returns to his own world and for many years told no one of the events that took place and it almost became a dream, but he always bathed alone. However the country’s ruler become ill and a seer advised the ruler that the only cure was to consume a part of the Sahmaran because the Sahmaran was a rare and magical creature which could cure any illness or disability even to the point of death. Soldiers began to look for anyone who had seen or even heard of the Sahmaran. The seer, an evil and devious man, told the ruler that anyone who had lived with the Sahmaran or who had shared their wisdom carried their mark - immersed in water, their skin took on the shiny, scaly sheen of the skin of a snake. Soldiers spread out across the land and were ordered to take people one by one to the baths where they were to wash themselves in order to discover those who might hold the secret of the Sahmaran. Tahmasp fled and hid for fear but he was caught and returned to the city, stripped by the soldiers and thrown into the baths and his secret was revealed to all.
Tahmasp was tortured to reveal the secret and eventually succumbed and told the soldiers what they wanted to know. He told them how to get to the Sahmaran’s hiding place. The soldiers, led by the seer, went to the secret cave of the Sahmaran and captured the princess. Tahmasp was ashamed but the Sahmaran saw what had been done to him. Turning to the wicked seer she said that she had a secret- whoever killed her and ate her tail would get health, long life and wisdom, but whoever ate her head would suffer a slow death. The seer who had no true interest in the life of the ruler, killed her and cut her up taking her tail away to eat so that he would learn the wisdom of the Sahmaran. Tahmasp, feeling pain and remorse just wished for death, took his knife, cut a piece from her head and ate it. But nothing happened to Tahmasp while the seer died in pain. The Sahmaran’s dying wish was to share her love and the wisdom of her race with Tahmasp and with a trick to beguile the greedy, she achieved it.
But Tahmasp was filled with sorrow and left his homeland to wander the mountains and this is how the legend of Lokman Hekim, the holy wise man of the mountains, came about and this was how the snakes became the mortal enemy of mankind.
Apologies for the lack of accent on the S of Sanliurfa and the g in Bogazkale. This is beyond the abilities of this blog.
A shortened version of this article appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Timeless Travels magazine
The Winter 2015 edition is available to read as part of the digital bundle subscription, which gives access to every issue of TT that has been published. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
CLICK HERE to find out more about the Winter 2015 edition
Alkans Tours can take you to visit Gobekli Tepe. CLICK HERE to find out more.