Saturday, July 7, 2012

Day Six: Gobekli Tepe To Gaziantep, The Old To The New. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day six of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

We turned off the Urfa highway and suddenly the modern parade of gas stations and stores fell away, revealing a landscape of mud-brick huts, lavender-scarfed peasants, green irrigated farmland, with the hard dry roll of unimproved hills in the background.  The asphalt quickly turned to dirt and rocks.  Barefoot children played in the fields while their mothers worked in the heat.

This could have been almost anywhere in the plains surrounding Urfa.  And in some ways it felt like it could have been any time, too.  Peasant children had probably been playing in these fields for thousands of years, ignoring the tides of kings and princes who had claimed the Urfa plain.

The car clattered up hills, and soon the village shrunk in the background.  Our poor over-worked compact car, stuffed with five full-grown humans and their baggage, struggled.  Soon the winding hill leveled out, and the road bulged into a parking lot.

We stepped out onto a high, wind-blown hill.  Here was Gobekli Tepe—the oldest temple on earth, built over 11,000 years old.

We were met with a middle aged man named Veyal Yildiz, whose family has farmed Gobekli Tepe for generations.  Our Turkish friend spoke with him a while, and we were worried that we would not be allowed inside—Gobekli Tepe is no museum, but a working archeological site where the ruins of dead civilization are day by day being pulled from the earth.  After five minutes of greetings, where are you froms, and what is your names, Yildiz gave a nod and led us to the excavations.

Twenty circle-shaped structures have been discovered under Gobekli Tepe’s dry soil, and four have been excavated.  Large sculpted limestone monoliths three meters high poke from the dry ground, most of them shaped like a pot-bellied T.  They are arranged in circles, with two pillars standing in the center of the circles.  Many of the pillars are decorated with carvings eked out of the rock with flint tools. 
A stone circle, older than bread.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
This site is older than Babylon, older than Stonehenge, older perhaps than agriculture itself.  The people who made it were probably hunter-gatherers who had not yet resigned themselves to settled life and government.  Somehow they dragged the eight-ton slabs of rock up from the quarry a hundred meters away, and then shaped the rock, with only hand-made flint tools.

A path ringed its way around the four open excavations.  Veydal pointed out the interesting carvings.  Here are lizards, foxes, sheep, donkeys, snakes, and boars; nets, pelts of animals, and birds.  On a number of the T-shaped rocks, hands clasped around the front of the spines, and at the sides, you could make out the crooks of bent arms.

At first the rocks just looked like rocks.  But slowly the monoliths took on human characteristics.  The tops of the Ts become the nods of massive heads.  The hands clasping the spines of the T seemed to be resting on bellies, the foxes around the base were pelts covering the privates.  Here, Veyal pointed to two monoliths standing next to each other.  “They think that this one is a man, and this one is a woman.”

We walked to the very top of Gobekli Tepe and sat down to rest in the heat.  A wish tree hung with scraps of plastic bags shaded us from the heavy sun, and four graves piled with loose stones shared the shade with us.  We looked out across the dry landscape, and I thought about the people who built this mound.  No one knows who they were.  No one knows what language they spoke.  No one knows why they spent so much time dragging stones up a mountain.

Only five percent of the whole 22-acre site has been excavated.  Klaus Schmidt, the site’s devoted archeologist, thinks that even after fifty years of work we will still only know the vaguest outlines of this huge temple.

We were the only people there.  We saw no cars.  No tour buses.  Veydal said that about five people a day come here, to Gobekli Tepe, the oldest sacred place on earth.


A new black-asphalt three-lane toll road took us from Urfa to Gaziantep, the third largest city in Turkey.  As we dove into the city we encountered the worst traffic we’ve seen since Istanbul.  Every one of the million citizens of Gaziantep seemed to push their way through Istasyon Caddesi, Gaziantep’s pulsing artery of traffic and trouble, the cars merging and honking and swerving before suddenly stopping to let pedestrians hurry across the road.

Our GPS told us to take a left down a road clogged with construction.  We circled around, looking for another route, but this too was blocked with earth moving machines and torn-up cobblestones.  We parked the car at a random parking lot and lugged our bags through the busy streets, reluctantly taking a room at the first hotel that we saw.  Our room was decorated in the style of a 1970s-era Turkish pimp, and the air heavy with the stale smell of cigarettes.

There were sights to see, of course.  Why else would we come?  The old archeology museum stood proud and ignored across the street from the sports stadium.  The museum was had once boasted some of the finest mosaics in the world, but these had been moved to the new museum, so now it was a lonesome place, with emptied, echoing spaces, informational plaques whose corresponding objects were missing, plaster marks on the polished floor.

Gaziantep is arguably one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth.  People first settled here in the third millennium B.C., and since then they have been trading, eating, marrying and dying, leaving behind the litter of their life which was then unearthed, identified, and set under glass for display.  We looked at the old cut-stone sarcophagi, the piles of old coins, the grave stele, the old glass-ware, the broken potsherds, the marble heads.

A lonely corridor was lined with grave stele from a half-dozen passed civilizations.  The rocks showed gods and warriors who had not been celebrated or worshipped for thousands of years.  Carved into the rock, their features worn by rain and the indifference of time, they eat, drink, banquet, fight, hold emblems and pieces of food and weapons, cups, trinkets and grapes.  Sometimes I caught a particularly fine detail—a eye that lifted with joy, a hand delicately holding a trident.

Kings enjoying themselves.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
But nobody else was at the museum.  I was a little indignant.  The stadium next door is busy with men eating kebabs and talking about sports, but here, where the monuments of history stand, there is silence. 

But then again, why should people care about the past, when the past is dead and they are alive?  Like the figures on the stele, they too must fight and drink and feast and die.  When the stele and the statues in the museum stood alive in the open air, they were not monuments, they were pieces of daily life.  The people of their time appreciated them with the same lazy eyes with which we now look at billboards and street signs.  So why should the musty virtue of antiquity make these cracked slabs of rock suddenly worthy?  Why should I expect people to turn their backs on the fun of their lives to look at dusty rubble?

After the old museum, we went to the new museum a twenty minute walk away.  We plodded along the tramway, passed under the train station, and skirted the slightly sketchy neighborhood around the train station.  Then out of the obscurity of the low-rent apartments, the mass of the museum imposed itself, huge and white, not yet even a year old.

Most of the mosaics had been rescued from Zeguma.  Zeguma was a Greek city perched on a crossing of the Euphrates river.  It became rich with trade, and over the centuries its citizens became rich, built their villas and their fountains, and laid their houses with mosaics of startling beauty.  Their patron god was Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and so the wheel of fortune repeats itself along the border of mosaic after mosaic, a tumbling interlocking circle.  Zeguma was taken by Rome and the city grew even more.  But the wheel of fortune turned, Rome became weak, and in the third century Zeguma was overrun by the Sassanid Empire, burned, its greatness lost.  People lived there, but they lived in the shadow of a great city, people unable even to remember the distant greatness of their ancestors.

The Wheel Of Fortune.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

The city wallowed in obscurity until the 1990s when archeologists discovered the city’s well preserved frescoes and mosaics.  But the careful excavation of the archaeologists was slow—faster were the antiquity traffickers who ravaged the new discoveries before they could be preserved.

Fortune was still crueler to Zeguma, the city who had once worshipped her.  A new dam was built, and the city was set to be flooded.  An international consortium of archaeologists flocked to the city to rescue what artifacts they could, finding seals and statues, lifting frescoes and tiles—but when the dam was finally opened over three tenths of the city was submerged and destroyed.

Those mosaics that had been salvaged were moved here, to the new museum in Gaziantep, and they stun the visitor with their incredble craftsmanship.  They show the strange gods of Asia Minor in all their glory and folly.  Oceanus and Tethys pose, swimming with dragons and snakes.  Europa is eternally being dragged off with Zeus the bull.  Eros and Psyche sit on a couch, and Aphrodite is birthed from a clam-shell.  These fine works were once on the floors of dining rooms and bedrooms, stepped on by the sandals of visitors, submerged with fountain water.  Now they were on the wall of a museum, to be admired.
Oceanus and Tethys pose.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

We see these gods marring, posing, eating and arguing.  Eros and Psyche sit on a couch and the expressions on their faces look like they are sitting at home and they can’t exactly decide what to watch on TV.  Eros has his hand lightly on Psyche’s back, and Psyche has her left hand open imploringly, like she’s just about to suggest that they put on a rerun of Olympus’ Got Talent.

They are like us.  And I imagine that the long-dead city of Zeguma must have once been a lot like the city of Gaziantep:  bustling, commercial, and hot; the citizen’s lives rich with traffic and trouble, the people only sometimes pausing to admire the work of their mosaics and fountains and frescos.  And then they move on to the real beauty of their daily lives.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.