As we climbed the slope toward one of the world’s most momentous archaeological sites in a gusty December drizzle, a futuristic shape loomed into view. It was the swooping white canopy erected over the main excavation at Gobekli Tepe, a group of Neolithic structures up to 11,400 years old in southeastern Turkey. Their unearthing in the mid-1990s caused a reconsideration of the standard timeline of human civilization. From under the space-age canopy, my partner, Anya, and I stared down into the monumental Stone Age panorama before us, like awed and slightly spooked time travelers.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2018, Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) has spawned sensational Netflix shows and the woolliest of speculative theories. Recently, the site and its mysteries have been drawing record numbers of visitors to this place near the provincial capital of Sanliurfa in the borderland with Syria — 850,000 in 2022. February’s earthquake, which devastated other parts of Turkey, only minimally damaged the site, which reopened in April.
A short flight from Istanbul, Sanliurfa is an ancient Mesopotamian Silk Road city, richly textured with multicultural tradition and history. It has important religious pilgrimage sites, a vivid food culture and a historic bazaar quarter that resounds with Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish.
The city is a palimpsest of civilizations as well. It was called Urhai under the Aramaeans; Edessa under Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs; and then renamed Urfa by the Ottomans in 1607. Its honorific title, Sanli, meaning “glorious” in Turkish, was bestowed in 1984 for itsheroics in the Turkish War of Independence, but locals still call it Urfa.
This history was laid out for us by our tour guide, Emine Yesim Bedlek, a vivacious former assistant professor of English literature at Turkey’s Bingol University, whom we’d hired through Istanbul Tour Studio, a boutique agency. She picked us up from the Tessera Hotel in Sanliurfa’s Eyyubiye district. Formerly an Armenian monastery, built of the ubiquitous local limestone, Tessera opened in 2021, one of a number of small, atmospheric hotels in the neighborhood, most of them renovated 19th-century konaks, or Ottoman mansions.
“Our Urfa is famed as the city of prophets, of Abraham and Job and others,” Dr. Bedlek began her exposition on our way to dinner in the vast courtyard of a many-centuries-old Ottoman inn, turned into a restaurant called Cevahir Han. It is run by Cevahir Asuman Yazmaci, a granddaughter of a renowned Kurdish tribal leader, and a pioneering female entrepreneur in this patriarchal culture.
Southeastern Turkey is the cradle of kebab, and soon our table held a mammoth platter of Urfa’s signature patlican kebab with patties of hand-chopped local lamb nestled between sections of eggplant. “Our eggplant variety is certified,” noted Dr. Bedlek. “It’s very long and slender and grows on the banks of the Euphrates,” she added poetically. “And the pepper here is God,” she declared of the shiny aromatic-hot local variety — Urfa biber — eaten grilled with most meals and also dried into smoky flakes called isot.
The next morning we took a winding route through Eyyubiye toward one of Urfa’s great religious jewels, the Pool of Abraham. On the way Anya beelined to a carsi firin, a communal oven where customers waited by the window with pans of Urfa’s glossy peppers and eggplants to be char-roasted and handed back with chewy flatbread straight from the wood-fired stone oven. These inexpensive public hearths are such a city essential, Dr. Bedlek said, that real estate ads list how close a place is to a firin.
Revered by Muslims and historically Christians and Jews, the lyrically handsome complex of the Pool of Abraham — Balikli Gol, or Fish Lake in Turkish — marks the spot where in legend the prophet Abraham was flung from nearby Damlacik Hill onto a blazing pyre by Nimrod, the idolatrous Assyrian king, only to have God turn the flames into water and the fiery logs into carp. Dr. Bedlek reprised the details as we strolled around the large, rectangular stone pool where pilgrims and tourists were feeding the plump sacred fish.
The poolside features the picturesque repeating arches of the 18th-century Rizvaniye Mosque and its madrasa. All about, couples posed in gaudy rented Ottoman outfits — and despite my protests, Anya pressured me into dressing up likewise. Ordeal endured, we headed on to a smaller miraculous pool, where Nimrod’s daughter, Zeliha, was herself flung onto a pyre for supporting Abraham’s beliefs. Just beyond lies the Dergah complex of a park, a rose garden and more mosques alongside a venerated small cave. Here Abraham was supposedly born and hidden away from Nimrod in his early years. Inside, the devout drank holy spring water, and prayed in silence.
Urfa’s bazaar, parts of which date back over five centuries, sits close by. Really an agglomeration of bazaars, it’s a bustling sprawl of small shops, alleys and crowded passages, the congestion relieved by Ottoman courtyards.
Villagers come from the countryside for their shopping — everything from wedding fabrics to gold, knives, watermelons and handmade cradles. “From north of the city they’re Kurds, south they’re Arab,” Dr. Bedlek explained. “And they dress up for the trip.”
Around us wandered middle-aged Kurdish men in traditional baggy trousers, their lavender or checkered headdresses trailing back onto their fitted gray jackets. Arab girls in dark gowns and hijabs glittering with sparkles edged past others in floral head scarves and gowns of azure and gold.
In the textile section we learned that the most in-demand fabrics came from South Korea or Dubai. Elsewhere pigeons burbled in cages. “Urfa men are crazy for pigeons,” said Dr. Bedlek. The coppersmiths’ lane gleamed in a tuk-tuk-tuk din of hammering. And Anya’s bag grew heavier with salca (the high-octane local dried pepper paste) and jars of Urfa’s prized clarified sheep’s butter.
At the grand courtyard of Gumruk Han, built during the 16th-century reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, we refueled with menengic, a milky hot beverage made from ground wild pistachios. Then we pressed on to a covered bazaar specializing in carpets, where older Arab men browsed in majestic dark cloaks like English barristers’ gowns. These used to be handmade from leather. Sadly, they’re all polyester now.
Sampling the nightlife
Finding alcohol is challenging in this conservative Islamic city. And yet, improbably, dinner that night found us at Mandelion, a newish meyhane, or tavern, near our hotel. Under a pomegranate tree in the sleekly festive courtyard of a 19th-century house, we swigged raki, Turkey’s aniseed-flavored spirit, at a table mosaicked with vibrant garlicky dips, followed by sizzling fried liver. Laughter and glass clinking sounded around us. “Can you believe this, in maybe the driest city in Turkey?” Anya said to our dinner companion, Dr. Bedlek’s erudite Kurdish husband, Yakup, a guide himself. “Urfa needs a meyhane culture,” declared Furkan Saracoglu, a 28-year-old co-owner. “Especially now that so many Gobekli Tepe tourists are coming wanting a drink.”
We could happily have lingered, nursing our rakis. But we had a sira gecesi, literally a “night in turn” ahead. Urfa is a prodigiously musical city, known for these gatherings, which historically are all male and involve traditional music, conversation and recitation, and the ritual making and eating of cig kofte, spicy raw-meat and bulgur patties. Big, noisy, touristic versions have recently been created, women welcome, and we were soon squeezing onto floor cushions at long, low tables in a big, bright salon at Sehr-i Urfa restaurant, opened in 2021. The cig kofte was finished, but the band of string instruments was going strong. As the highly ebullient singer and his thumping drummer worked the crowd, Anya announced that maybe one didn’t need alcohol after all.
Exploring Gobekli Tepe
The next morning, the Bedleks drove us the dozen miles in the drizzle to the top of stony hills. And there we were, under the space-age canopy, gazing down at the dusty, beige Neolithic panorama. Four open circular limestone enclosures stood, dominated by T-shaped anthropomorphic megaliths — the largest towering 18 feet — some embellished with carved reliefs of wild animals, even long human arms.
Excavation at Gobekli Tepe, currently regarded as home to the world’s oldest monumental communal buildings, began in 1995, led by the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. The site, dating from about 9,400 B.C., upended the archaeological consensus, which held that such architecture required a sedentary domestic society practicing agriculture. Schmidt found no signs of domestic settlement. Calling Gobekli Tepe a pilgrimage “cathedral,” he declared, “First came the temple, then the city.”
Mysteries and questions have swirled ever since, and Dr. Bedlek reprised a few along the visitors’ walkway. How was the knowledge to construct Gobekli Tepe acquired out of the prehistoric blue? Why were the monumental enclosures eventually purposely buried? Why were diminutive rough versions of them later built on the slope just above?
Schmidt’s assessment came into question shortly after he died in 2014. Settlement structures were found after all, in 2015 and 2016. Another sheltering canopy nearby covered an extensive group of them — built and inhabited by sedentary hunter-gatherers.
And the great T-pillar enclosures?
Lee Clare of the German Archaeology Institute, the site’s research coordinator, told me later over the phone that these are now seen as the settlement’s “special buildings, multipurpose social sites for rituals and sharing common identity.”
“For a kind of prehistoric sira gecesi?” I suggested. “Why not?” Dr. Clare said with a laugh. “They had drums and flutes.”
Gobekli Tepe was not a temple in our sense of the term, he declared emphatically. This touched on what he called the biggest problem — the “raving loony” media speculations and misrepresentations. Gobekli Tepe was not the “zero point of civilization,” not the “smoking gun,” as it has been called. It was best understood as one outstanding expression of a momentous Early Neolithic cultural network. As for its purposeful burial, this was a known practice of the period, though it may have also been the result, it’s now suggested, of natural events.
What’s more, the site and its surroundings are chockablock with further monumental candidates for excavation. Gobekli Tepe is one of the dozen locations, abundant in megaliths, making up the new Tas Tepeler archaeological project around Urfa. Karahantepe, about an hour east, may even be slightly older — and features a striking open chamber of phallic pillars confronted by a stone human face emerging eerily from a surrounding wall.
We drove back to Urfa for lunch at the brand-new Gobekli Tepe Gastronomy Center, run by the city in a modern section of town. The menu, researched in the region’s home kitchens, is democratically priced for the locals. But the décor is surprisingly flashy, and we ate our lamb soup and plump dolmas under a striking abstract mural of T-pillars under the stars.
Our last day we devoted to the city’s epic Sanliurfa Archaeology Museum, featuring a full-scale replica of Gobekli Tepe’s biggest special building that you can wander through, and the world’s oldest known life-size human statue, the 11,000-year-old “Urfa man.” Adjacent lies the dramatic Haleplibahce Mozaic Museum, with the haunting floor mosaics of an A.D. 194 Roman villa. Both museums suffered earthquake damage and are under repair. But their treasures will hopefully be back among Urfa’s lures by late December.
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