Tucked away near its famous neighbor, Göbekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, Karahan Tepe remained hidden until 2019. These captivating sites, collectively known as Taş Tepeler, grace the semi-mountainous escarpments of the Harran Plain, providing a fascinating glimpse into the early Neolithic era.
Revealing Karahan Tepe’s Unique Secrets
Karahan Tepe distinguishes itself from its Taş Tepeler counterparts. At its core lies Str. AD, a circular structure dating back to the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (c. 9000-8800 BC). While the megalithic features of Str. AD may not have endured as well as those of Göbekli Tepe, it served as a hub for ritual activities.
The site also boasts Str. AB, a remarkable rounded hollow carved entirely from bedrock, a distinctive feature in the Taş Tepeler landscape. Accessible via a small stairwell of piled slabs, Str. AB’s chamber reveals ten phallic-shaped structures emerging from the bedrock, lending an otherworldly appearance to the interior.
The Mystical Carved Human Head
Among these enigmatic features, a striking human head carved into the western wall of Str. AB stands out. It is believed that people were paraded in front of this head, making it a focal point of ritual activity within the chamber. The apparent exit, marked by a pile of slab steps, lies opposite the entrance, and a serpentine channel cut into the rock suggests ritual washing, enhanced by the acoustics of the chamber’s interior.
Bridging Neolithic and Palaeolithic Worlds
Str. AB’s subterranean design mirrors the Neolithic innovation of constructing ritual spaces that mimic natural environments, akin to grottos and caves. This concept contrasts with the Palaeolithic appropriation of such natural settings.
The truncated head within Str. AB evokes Palaeolithic artistry, resembling a masked ancestor emerging from the rock. Miniature mask carvings made of stone and bone, believed to mimic life-size masks, have been found at Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe, shedding light on the Neolithic era’s artistic expressions.
The Enigmatic World of Ritual Costume
The use of costumes, designed to evoke the strange and the frightful, distinguishes gatherings at these sites as special social events rather than random occurrences. Extensive organization and planning, likely tied to specific times of the year, hint at the acknowledgment of solstices, their symbolism, religious ideas, and ceremonies. These elements are recurring themes in the Palaeolithic, Neolithic Jericho, and Taş Tepelers. Notably, the head of Str. AB faces the summer solstice sunrise.
Karahan Tepe’s Enigmatic Underworld
The semi-subterranean design of Taş Tepelers, reminiscent of the labyrinthine cave environments of the Palaeolithic era, suggests their role as “thresholds” or “underworlds,” inhabited by spirits and forces deemed dangerous to ordinary people. These inner sanctums of caves are believed to have hosted secret society initiation and ceremonial events for socially complex hunter-gatherer groups, providing an intriguing backdrop for the constructed Taş Tepeler spaces.
Intriguingly, it is speculated that Str. AB engaged with the cosmological underworld content found in Göbekli Tepe’s Pillar 43, taking it to a more virtual and interactive level. Symbolic elements discovered in corresponding ritual spaces at Karahan Tepe and Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D lend credence to this theory.
Symbols of Guardianship
Among the discoveries is a life-size boar statue located at the northern end of Enclosure D, behind Pillar 43. Painted in red, white, and black, this statue rests upon a pedestal adorned with H symbols, a crescent, two snakes, and possibly three mask impressions. This imposing boar likely served as a fearsome underworld guardian.
A Mystical Connection
In a parallel ritual space at Karahan Tepe, a small vulture sculpture was unearthed, accompanied by stone plates, similar to those found in front of a small boar statue at Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure C. Adjacent to the vulture, a larger seated male statue was found, with emphasized ribs and shoulder bones, suggesting a state of partial skeletonization and near-death, akin to other human depictions at the site. Animal images reveal ferocity driven by famishment rather than death.
This assembly of discoveries contributes to a constellation of beliefs, hinting at a complex spiritual tapestry that is yet to be fully unraveled.