The all-yellow taxis are parked bumper to fender next to the Sanliurfa Bus Terminal like the vertebrae of a giant snake. I walk to its head and greet the driver with the only two words of Turkish that I know.
It shouldn’t have been a question, but my uncertain pitch rises at the end, and it comes out that way.
He nods, we both climb in, him in the front and me in the back, he punches the stick into gear, and I fall backwards as we lurch forwards into the sunny morning traffic.
I was in England, now I am in Turkey, the final leg of a thirty-six-hour journey from my Cornish seaside town. Graham Hancock was on the Joe Rogan podcast. The discovery of Gobekli Tepe was being hailed as the most important in the history of mankind.
I’ll be the judge of that, I thought. And feeling all India Jonesey, I grabbed my duffle bag and fedora and set forth into the footsteps of Claus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who has brought the discoveries of this ancient site back to the surface.
I leapt from bus to train and train to plane, and plane to plane and bus again, each mode of transport getting cheaper, pound for pound, mile for mile, the closer I get, and before you can say Constantinople, I’ve left Istanbul and arrived in Sanliurfa, was Urfa, was Odessa, The name changes are nobody’s business but the Turks. It’s straight outta Genesis, and a city frozen in time, the birthplace of Abraham, the deathplace of Job, the city of the Prophets.
It was late. I found myself a boutique hotel, its stone rooms set around an interior courtyard, close to the lake where the Emperor Nemrut had set fire to his daughter after she converted to Islam. You can read all about it in the Quran. Those were unforgiving times. The fish in the lake are sacred, which makes them lazy and plentiful, and the area is patrolled by the Guregh, huge shepherd dogs that sit for hours, implacable as sphinxes. And when they do move, they move with the slow and deliberate gait of panthers.
It’s beautiful, it’s magical, and it’s cold. Fully clothed, wrapped in a blanket, with soft live music from somewhere in the distance, I slip into a deep and dreamless sleep and when I wake the sun is shining and it’s still cold and since I’m already dressed I head straight outside to move and get warm and quickly become lost in a maze of nearby souks, emerging back out into the sunshine of a café, where I slip inside to where it’s warmer and eat a breakfast of bread, honey, and soft white cheese under the shadow of the ancient castle. The tea is served from a five-foot-tall caddy and it’s the finest tea I’ve tasted in a long time.
Klaus Schmidt was the first here, of course, and that was many years ago. The Germans have also found the time to put in a highly efficient public transportation system, so I buy an Urfa-Kart and ride around town, something I like to do every early morning in every unfamiliar place as it gives me an elevated view without having to do much, and here it gives me two insights; firstly, how remarkably polite and considerate the passengers of all ages are to each other, and, less pleasingly, how the transition from old town to new town has spread from ancient to modern, the individual colourful souks and stalls selling their kebabs, spices and precious metals morphing into identical glass fronted outlets with invisible vendors selling burgers and mobile phones.
But I’ve left the bus at the station now and I’m at the head of that mechanical snake.
I climb in and fall back as we lunge into the one-way system before sliding onto the highway that holds these cities of southern Turkey in its web.
The driver and I share no common language, but we are talk anyway, no notes in common but our hands dance to the music; do I want him to wait for me and return with him, he asks, no, I smile and shake my head, I will find my own way back to town, he doesn’t have to wait for me.
Modern buildings slip away, and thoughts slide to ancient sites. Two months prior I had toured Egypt with my son, visiting the Pyramids in and around Cairo, the temples of Luxor and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. I had stood in awe before constructions thousands of years older than a boastful Englishman ever deserved to see, and now I was visiting a site older still, four times older than the oldest pyramid, seven thousand years older than Stonehenge. Carbon dating techniques from the top of Gobekli Tepe site sets it back twelve thousand years. In other words, the most recent elements of this vast site are twelve thousand years old.
We move through the rolling hills of Sanliurfa, a province that I later read stretches over eighteen thousand kilometres of Turkish countryside. It’s bigger than I thought.
In its heyday this edge of the Fertile Crescent would have been teeming with animals, a crowded food chain with man at the top. Now it is left to a shepherd and his flock. He looks disapproving as we pass, here’s another one, he seems to say to himself. The settlers are coming in wagons.
We roll through hills and valleys, and more hills and valleys, and we are alone, as far as I can see. And there are times, as we reach the peak of each of these plateaus, that I can see very far indeed. I indicate with a finger making a continuous backward circle that I have changed my mind and “I will take you up on that offer of a lift back” and the driver smiles, he understands I don’t want to die out here of course. And as I am going through all the ways a man like me could die out here – exposure, thirst, exhaustion, beaten to death by a shepherd’s crook – a dome emerges on a hillside ahead, and other buildings suddenly reveal themselves and then we turn onto a new, narrow road, towards the buildings which ends in a car park big enough for fifty cars, but so far today holding only us.
I confirm again that my driver will wait. Yes, yes, he understands, he will wait. I indicate with my fingers on my watch that I will be one hour, maybe two tops. He waves his hands, take your time. It’s fine. I’m happy to wait here for you. The metre is running. The metre so far reads the equivalent of fifteen of my English pounds, which would just about get me around the corner at home. I’m good with that. A short walk – about two hundred years – along a constructed wooden path inclines me slowly to the top and spirals around and then I am looking into the guts of this pot-bellied hill.
The skin has been pulled back to reveal a belly full of fresh stones. There are four circular rooms, each room has two large pillars in the centre, which are surrounded by smaller pillars forming the circles. The T shaped pillars have arms and hands carved into the sides. Dotted around the rooms, either separately or attached to the pillars, are elaborate carvings of animals, now exposed to the light by the open wound of the hillside, a theatre of stone statues. I am looking at them from above, like a witness in the post-mortem of a giant.
Unlike the sites of Egypt, whose construction engineers are debated by everyone but the Egyptians – this is clearly the work of human hand. These are delicate brushstrokes and soft carvings, that take time and need love. No machine was here. But there is magic at work.
If the Great Pyramid is the stuff of science fiction, Gobekli Tepe is the land of fantasy, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairy garden, a cathedral on a hill, perhaps the world’s first with stones that weigh upwards of fifty tonnes but feel as light as a feather, carried by hand, carved by hand, erected by hand. And then buried by hand.
Some of these unearthed treasures are now being housed in the museum at Sanliurfa, and this is our next stop. It’s a magnificent place, and in its carefully constructed spaces it cradles these ancient pieces, and they dance under the lights in an intricate ballet of freedom.
I come face to face with Sanliurfa man, the oldest intact statue ever found, and he stares back at me through the passage of time, enigmatic, inscrutable, as deep as the oceans and unfathomable in its depths.
I wander around the pieces and think about that pot-bellied hill, lost for millennia, deliberately hidden by people that scrutinised the skies, with the same passion that those around me are now staring at their mobile phones. We have morphed from a world of souks and spices to a world of processed meat and mobiles, a world spent gazing up at the skies to staring down at screens. Is that progress?
And then I’m suddenly in the museum shop, I feel compelled to buy something – anything at all – to hold onto the memory, to express my gratitude, to show my rediscovered curiosity.
I spy a book on the shelves about the life of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. The back of the book reads, “The greatest military commander of all time”.
I’ll be the judge of that, I think. I buy it. I’m not that far from Macedonia. If I set off now, I can be there for breakfast.