Named Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill), the site is the world’s oldest known megalithic structure located in Upper Mesopotamia and is some 11,000 years old.
The site, considered to be the world’s oldest temple, is in the present-day southeastern province of Sanliurfa and reopened to tourists earlier this year after restoration work was undertaken including a protective roof for the site.
The site contains “monumental circular and rectangular megalithic structures, interpreted as enclosures, which were erected by hunter-gatherers in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic age between 9,600 and 8,200 BC”, UNESCO said in a statement.
“It is likely that these monuments were used in connection with rituals, probably of a funerary nature,” it added.
On the “distinctive” T-shaped large pillars, there are images of wild animals, which UNESCO said provided “insight into the way of life and beliefs of people living in Upper Mesopotamia about 11,500 years ago”.
The late German professor Klaus Schmidt led the excavations of Gobekli Tepe from 1995.
The ancient megalithic site had been a World Heritage candidate since 2011. Such status means the UN recognizes certain exceptional places around the world –both man-made, natural or a mixture of both– as being “of outstanding value to humanity,” and as such they are granted special protection in order to preserve these sites indefinitely, according to international treaties which have been adopted by UNESCO since 1972.
These are welcoming news for two reasons: Firstly, because the archeologists who have continued the work of professor Klaus Schmidt (after his untimely death in 2014) have barely scratched the surface (no pun intended) on everything that is still left to discover in this Anatolian site. On his recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast last month, Dr. Robert Schoch speculated we’ve only unearthed a tiny fraction of the entire archeological complex –uncovering the rest and understanding their true purpose might take centuries, and will require the use of the most advanced tools at the disposal of modern Archeology, like ground penetrating radar –or leaving certain areas untouched until new non-intrusive technologies emerge; with the new status there’s a higher chance the site will get the funding it needs.
And secondly, the World Heritage status now puts an obligation on Turkey to take good care of Gobekli Tepe, for the benefit of all mankind. Just in late March of this year a disturbing news broke, warning that the use of heavy machinery and concrete was causing ‘irreparable damage’ on the megalithic complex. The alarm was raised by Çiğdem Köksal Schmidt (Klaus Schmidt’s widow) and other members of the a member of the Gobekli Tepe Scientific Board, who complained on how carelessly the Turkish authorities were planning on turning the site into a tourist attraction:
“The construction work for the visitor center, as reflected in the media, looks like a disaster … They should have moved very sensitively in the protection zone but we can see heavy construction equipment used on the site. It is very worrying that the extraordinary Neolithic remains and the round temple site at the entrance have been exposed to such action. It is unacceptable that such careless construction work has damaged this extraordinary archaeological site,” archaeologist Nezih Başgelen warned.
Even though the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry denied the accusations that concrete or asphalt was used, the photos shared by Köksal and her colleagues speak for themselves.
And although nobody denies Turkey’s right to develop what is now called ‘the world’s oldest temple’ in order to promote tourism –in fact tourists’ dollars is in many cases the only protection against grave robbery and illegal excavations for most archeological sites in developing countries– Gobekli Tepe’s new recognition as a World Heritage site will try to ensure such developing plans have the UNESCO seal of approval and the site is properly preserved for many future generations, lest the international organization strips the complex of the WH status –as it was the case with the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman.