Monday, April 30, 2012

Serendipity 2--The Oldest Temple in the World, URFA

We are traveling North from Urfa—the city of prophets, of pilgrims and lost gods. And colors. Women wander the bazaars with tattooed faces, saffron dresses and bright purple head scarves. Pink pours from the lilacs and cherry trees. The markets are filled with mounds of red isot pepper—crimsons, brick reds, clay colored, maron—and the wide pans in front of the tantuni shops bubble with red peppers. 

The Columns At the Throne of Nimrod Overlooking Urfa
The women in the market--pic by Delal

Everything sentence here begins with the ‘Oldest in the World’. The ruins of Nimrod’s castle loom over a mosque built around the cave where they say Abraham was born. In another cave a kilometer out of the city (they say) the prophet Job endured the plagues sent down by God.
North—outside the city. The landscape is haunting, empty—groves of pistachio trees growing out of a deep red earth. The trees are bare, buds just appearing in bright green spots along their bodies. Clusters of huge boulders and rocks boil up out of the ground—little cliffs and canyons filled with new spring grass, neon-green and splattered with patches of butter colored flowers. The sky is big, bigger than I’ve ever seen and empty. This is the oldest place of civilization in the world. The first wild grains were domesticated here. The first cities built here. The first animals domesticated.
We turn down a dirt road and start to wind up through rocky hills. The lowlands spread out for miles—patches of gold and tan and green. There’s not a house in sight, not a village or car—just one shepherd with a herd of sheep that waddle off the road in a clang of bells as we pass.
The horizon has no end.

The road to Göbeklitepe
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We are driving toward a mound in the distance called Göbekli Tepe, The Potbellied Hill (click here for a link). Buried here for thousands upon thousands of years is a monument to gods long lost and buried. There are acres of rings of standing stones. The people of Mesopotamia raised them over  11,500 years ago. The first faith—before Chronus and Rhea, before Yahweh, before the Earth Mother, before Osiris and the Vedas. 6000 years older than Stonehenge, 7000 years older than the Great Pyramids. It came before pottery, before the wheel, before writing, before everything.
Most historians believe that organized religion formed after human beings developed agriculture. The logic goes like this—large scale farming required people to stay put and work together—and thus form cities. This level of organization led to organized faith, complete with ceremonies and rituals and formal myth.  But the temples here came before farming—their sheer size required, by some estimates, the organized labor of at least five hundred men. Animal bones were found everywhere but no evidence of cooking fires or houses—suggesting that game was gathered from miles away and brought here for sacrifice. Mass worship—the suggestion is that it wasn’t agriculture that created cities, but the impulse to worship. A longing to touch the other world. To explain why we die. To account for all the mystery.
The view from Göbekli Tepe is astounding. In the west you can see Yaşar Kemal’s Taurus Range, still crowned in snow.  A rocky path leads up the hill toward the site of the first excavation. There are T-shaped megaliths arranged in a circle in a pit.  Some of them have animals carved into them—foxes and snarling boars, ducks and vultures.  The boar is fearsomely detailed—with fangs and snarl and raging eyes. One tall megalith catches my attention above all the others. On the bottom, a human form is carved from the waist down. The genitals are covered with the pelt of a large animal—like a wolf or a fox. It has legs and feet. Above the waist, the stone is blank—a smooth pale surface except for these enormously long arms. They stretch from unseen shoulders, three to four times the length of the legs and as thin and spidery as the arms of the aliens in Close Encounters. They float in nothingness—no head, no neck, no body of any kind.
‘This must have been their god,’ Delal says.
               And there’s something unsettling about it, an image floating out of the subconcious. Something behind the door in the dream. Why should worship be the driving impulse?  Magic and myth and mysticism.
                I have these dreams of the dead. Sometimes my grandmother, now thirty years in the grave, still lives in her old house on Hampton Avenue back in Lakeland, Florida. I find myself at the back door, the one that led into the Florida room from the patio, and she is in her chair watching television.  Without looking up, she asks where I’ve been.  She looks older, but alive. The sunlight has a strange quality as it pours through the jalousies—this whole world is the skin of a soap bubble, whirls of color and something that makes you stop in child-wonder, but you know it’s going to burst. And then it does, and I wake up, and there’s this buried wound that throbs so softly under the skin, it’s like it’s singing to me.
                Or I dream of my father. He’s living in a trailer near Gainesville, bagging groceries at the Winn Dixie. ‘I thought you were dead!’ I say. He takes it in stride. We drive out in a car neither of us has ever owned deep into the woods. We’re going to Lake City down a road that is miles and miles of pine scrub without a break in sight. If you look too hard at the sky you can see it’s blue surface tremble. It’s a bubble too, drifting toward the gentle burst lifts me awake and I think if I had just gone a little further into the woods, there would have been an answer.
Death was the universal 12,000 years ago as it is now. For both me and the people that worshipped here, there was that undiscovered country out of which creatures like this long armed faceless giant might emerge. It holds that old insight—the gods cannot be looked at directly or imagined in full. There is another carving around the other side, a vulture holds a human head in its wings.  Carved on the stone below is a headless human body. It could mean anything—but maybe it’s what they thought happened to their dead friends and family. They had watched the birds pick at corpses and then fly upward—perhaps they thought they carried the dead to heaven.  
The Stone on the left is the vulture god with the head in it's hands

This place is still charged. We find arrow heads as we walk—cream orange and grey flint stones lying in the dirt.  Sheep bleat. The hot wind makes the fields of grass and flowers ripple. Thomas Wolfe began the chronicle of his youth with these words, ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door, and all of the forgotten faces.’
Loss and faith seem so entertwined—nothing makes me believe in a God more than that mysterious pain of a long-ago grief.  My old faith begins with loss—God drove Adam and Eve from home, from their garden, and placed terrible cherubim with flaming swords at each corner to make sure they never ever entered again--a violent, final ripping you out of home, the return guarded by monsters. Genesis says ‘The Lord God sent Adam forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken.’ Some historians say that  the Genesis story might be an old folk myth about the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture, from a time when you could pluck food from the trees to a time when you had to sweat and labor to plant it—a loss of a more intimate connection to the natural world. The archaeologist who works this site says that Göbekli Tepe may be an illustration of that story. It lies between the Tigris and Euphrates of Eden and marks a deep irrevocable change in the human species.
A Kurdish teenager in sunglasses explains the site to us—he works with the archaeologists and sells standing stone ashtrays and guidebooks from a folding table at the fence gate.  The wind whips the  money we lay on the table up into his face.
One cannot almost feel the giant Cherubim near, circling and circling the sacred space—their faces hidden, their swords swinging in their long arms, the blades pure lava flame.

A self proclaimed 'subject of many pictures'--'I am in coffee table books' he says


Carolyn Abiad said...

Gobeklitepe is on my bucket list, so I'm very happy to read about it here. I've written the site into a middle grade novel that I'm working on, so I love your details about the boar. (I used the alligator)

Also, is that human form you describe the "missing head" the archaeoligist had to pay for? There was something in the news about it recently.

Jeff Gibbs said...

I don't think so...the vulture with the head and the human form with only arms are different carvings. I think the archaeologist scandal was that the Berlin museum had an item that Turkey wanted and they had to give it back or the Turkish government would take away permission for Schmidt to dig there (this after the last thing that Berlin returned was stolen within a week or so of its return to Turkey--by the museum itself) If there is another incident I don't know about it...

Anonymous said...

I am Stephen's mom and wanted to let you know that I loved your blog. It was a very interesting read and I loved the pictures. Thanks for sharing this with me. Teri

Thomas said...

Hi Jeff, I have been to Urfa several years ago. Pictures though bring things to attention that I otherwise miss. Do you know the significance of the women wearing the same colored headscarf in the picture? I have not noticed this. Sometime when passing through Kadikoy I would love to meet you. Regards

Jeff Gibbs said...

Thanks Teri! We are looking forward to meeting you this summer. And Thomas, the woman are either Kurds or Arabs or a mix and the purple scarf is endemic to Urfa--just a local style as far as I know marking a Kurd or Arab. One woman told us that the purple was just the fashion of the season but everyone I know from the East says its a traditional color for Urfans. Sure, maybe we can get together sometime. Send me a message sometime on the blog.

Andrew said...

Great article.
We recently shot a short video at Göbeklitepe. Watch on Youtube:
Looking forward to your comments!