Magicians of the Gods
The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth's Lost Civilization
By Graham Hancock
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Graham Hancock
All rights reserved.
"There is so much mystery here ..."
Göbekli Tepe is the oldest work of monumental architecture so far found anywhere in the world, or at any rate the oldest accepted as such by archaeologists.
And it's massive.
Awesome, magnificent, numinous and overpowering are among the adjectives that dismally fail to do it justice. For the last couple of hours I've been wandering round the site with its excavator, Professor Klaus Schmidt, and my mind is frankly boggled.
"How does it feel," I ask him, "to be the man who discovered the temple that's rewriting history?"
A rubicund German archaeologist with a barrel chest and a grizzled beard, Schmidt is wearing faded jeans, a blue denim shirt with a streak of mud on the sleeve, and scuffed sandals on his bare, dirty feet. It's September 2013, three months before his sixtieth birthday and although neither of us know it yet, he'll be dead in less than a year.
As he ponders my question he wipes a bead of sweat from the glistening dome of his forehead. It's not yet mid-morning but the sun is high here in Turkey's Southeastern Anatolia region, the sky is cloudless and the ridge of the Taurus mountains on which we stand is baking hot. There's no breeze, not even a hint or a breath of air, nor is there any shade to be had. In 2014 a roof will be erected to cover and protect the site but in 2013 only its foundations are in place so we're standing exposed on a makeshift wooden walkway. Down below us in a series of semi-subterranean, more or less circular, walled enclosures are the dozens of giant T-shaped megalithic pillars that Schmidt and his team from the German Archaeological Institute have brought to light here. Before they began their work the place had the appearance of a rounded hill — in fact "Göbekli Tepe" means "Hill of the Navel" sometimes also translated as "Potbelly Hill" — but the excavations have removed most of that original profile.
"Of course we cannot say that Göbekli Tepe is a temple exactly," Schmidt answers eventually, obviously choosing his words with care. "Let us call it a hill sanctuary. And I do not claim that it is rewriting history. Rather I would say that it is adding an important chapter to existing history. We thought that the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers was a slow, step-by-step process, but now we realize that it was a period when exciting monuments that we didn't expect were made."
"And not just monuments," I prompt. "At the beginning the local people were hunter-gatherers and there was no sign of agriculture."
"No," Schmidt concedes, "none." He gestures expansively at the circles of pillars. "But the people who came to Göbekli Tepe, and who did all this work, invented agriculture! So we see a connection between what happened here and the later emergence of Neolithic societies dependent on farming."
My ears prick up at that word "invented." I want to be sure I'm getting this right. "So," I emphasize, "you go so far as to say that the people who made Göbekli Tepe actually invented agriculture?"
"Could you elaborate on that?"
"Because in this region we have the early domesticates, both animals and plants. It's done in this region. So they are the same people."
"And as far as you are concerned this is the first — the oldest — agriculture in the world?"
"The first in the world. Yes."
I sense that Schmidt is becoming impatient at the way I'm probing this point, but I have my reasons. The areas of Göbekli Tepe that have been excavated so far are close to 12,000 years old which makes them (according to orthodox chronology) more than 6,000 years older than any other megalithic sites anywhere — sites like Gigantiga and Mnajdra in Malta, Stonehenge and Avebury in England, or the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Yet those sites all belong to that phase of the evolution of human civilization that archaeologists call the "Neolithic" (the "New Stone Age") when agriculture and the organization of society along structured, hierarchical lines were already well advanced, permitting the emergence of skilled specialists who had no need to produce their own food because they could be supported from the surpluses generated by farmers. Göbekli Tepe, by contrast, belongs to the very end of the "Upper Paleolithic," the late "Old Stone Age" when our ancestors are supposed to have been nomadic hunter-gatherers living in small, mobile bands and incapable of tasks requiring long-term planning, complex division of labor and high-level management skills.
Schmidt and I are standing at a point on the walkway that overlooks both Enclosure C and Enclosure D, where I've learned from my background research of an intriguing image carved on one of the pillars. I intend to ask the archaeologist's permission to climb down into Enclosure D so that I can take a closer look at this image, but I want to get his views about the origins of agriculture, and its relationship to the megalithic architecture, completely clear first. Enclosure C, the largest of the four main pits so far excavated, is dominated by two huge central pillars, both of which are broken. In their original state they would each have been more than 6 meters (20 feet) high and weighed around 20 tons. Inset into the wall around them stand a dozen other pillars. They're slightly smaller but still prodigious. The same goes for Enclosure D — again a ring of smaller pillars surrounding two towering central pillars, in this case both intact. Their T-shaped tops, angled slightly down to the front, have no features but are nonetheless eerily reminiscent of giant human heads — an impression that is reinforced by the faint outlines of arms, crooked at the elbow, running down the flanks of the pillars and terminating in carefully carved human hands with long fingers.
"All this," I say, "the megaliths, the iconography, the general conception and layout of the site ... to be honest it looks to be as big a project as a place like Stonehenge in England, yet Stonehenge is much younger. So how does what you've found at Göbekli Tepe fit in with your notion of a hunter-gatherer society?"
"It's much more organized than we expected," Schmidt allows. "What we can see here are hunter-gatherers who obviously had a division of labor because the work on the megaliths is specialist work, not for everybody. They were also able to transport these heavy stones and erect them, which means they must have had some engineering know-how, and again we didn't expect that for hunter-gatherers. It's the first architecture really, and it's architecture on a monumental scale."
"So if I understand you correctly, Professor Schmidt, you are saying that we are standing at the place where both monumental architecture and agriculture were invented."
"Yes, that's right."
"And yet you don't see anything really revolutionary in this? You see it as a process which you can fit comfortably into the existing frame of history?"
"Yes. Into existing history. But this process is much more exciting than we expected. Especially since what we have here at Göbekli Tepe belongs more to the world of the hunter-gatherers than to the farming societies. It's toward the end of the hunter-gatherers but not yet the beginning of the Neolithic."
"It's a time of transition then. A cusp moment. And maybe more than that? What I'm getting from our conversation, and from what you've showed me of the site this morning, is the notion that Göbekli Tepe was a kind of prehistoric think-tank or a center of innovation, perhaps under the control of some sort of resident elite. Are you okay with that?"
"Yes, yes. It was a place where people came together. People were gathering here and it was undoubtedly a platform for the distribution of knowledge and innovation."
"Including knowledge of large-scale stone working and knowledge of agriculture. Would you dare to describe those who controlled the site and disseminated these ideas as a sort of priesthood?"
"Whoever they were, they certainly were not practicing simple shamanism. They were a bit more like an institution. So, yes, they were on the road to becoming a priesthood."
"And since Göbekli Tepe was in unbroken use for well over a thousand years, would this be one continuous culture with its own institutions, with the same ideas and the same 'priesthood' who continued to manage the site throughout that whole period?"
"Yes. But the strange thing is that there was a clear collapse in the effort that was made as the centuries went by. The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality."
"So the oldest is the best?"
"Yes, the oldest is the best."
"And you don't find that puzzling?"
Klaus Schmidt looks almost apologetic. "Well, we hope that eventually we will discover even older layers and that there we will see the small beginnings that we expect but haven't yet found. Then we have this monumental phase, and later a decline again."
It occurs to me that "hope" is the operative word in what Professor Schmidt has just said. We are used to things starting out small and simple and then progressing — evolving — to become ever more complex and sophisticated, so this is naturally what we expect to find on archaeological sites. It upsets our carefully structured ideas of how civilizations should behave, how they should mature and develop, when we are confronted by a case like Göbekli Tepe that starts out perfect at the beginning and then slowly devolves until it is just a pale shadow of its former self.
Nor is it so much the process of devolution that we object to. We know that civilizations can decay. Just look at the Roman Empire, or the British Empire for that matter.
No, the problem at Göbekli Tepe is the pristine, sudden appearance, like Athena springing full-grown and fully armed from the brow of Zeus, of what appears to be an already seasoned civilization so accomplished that it "invents" both agriculture and monumental architecture at the apparent moment of its birth.
Archaeology can no more explain that than it can explain why the earliest monuments, art, sculptures, hieroglyphs, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and architecture of Ancient Egypt are perfect at the beginning without any traces of evolution from simple to sophisticated. And we might well ask of Göbekli Tepe, as my friend John Anthony West asks of Ancient Egypt:
How does a complex civilization spring full-blown into being. Look at a 1905 automobile and compare it to a modern one. There is no mistaking the process of "development." But in Egypt there are no parallels. Everything is right there at the start.
The answer to the mystery is of course obvious but, because it is repellent to the prevailing cast of modern thinking, it is seldom considered. Egyptian civilization was not a "development," it was a legacy.
Could this be the case, also, at Göbekli Tepe?
Klaus Schmidt has no time for ideas of a lost civilization that was the progenitor of all later known civilizations, so when I press him he reiterates his point that most of Göbekli Tepe remains unexcavated. "As I said," he growls, somewhat testily, "I expect when we get to the earlier levels we will find evidence of evolution."
He could be right. One of the stunning things about Göbekli Tepi, which had already been the subject of eighteen years of continuous excavation when Klaus Schmidt showed me round the site in 2013, is that so much of it still remains under the ground.
But how much?
"It's hard to say," Schmidt tells me. "We've done a geophysical survey — ground-penetrating radar — and from this we can see that at least sixteen further large enclosures remain to be excavated."
"Large enclosures?" I ask. I point at the towering megaliths of Enclosure D. "Like this one?"
"Yes, like this one. And sixteen is the minimum. In some areas our geophysical mapping did not give us complete results and we cannot really see inside, but we expect there are many more than sixteen. Maybe in reality it will turn out to be double that number. Maybe even as many as fifty."
"Yes — fifty of the big enclosures, each enclosure with fourteen or more pillars. But, you know, it's not our target to excavate everything. Just a little part, because excavation is destruction. We want to keep most of the site untouched."
It dilates the imagination to reflect on the scale of the enterprise undertaken at Göbekli Tepe by the ancients. Not only are the circles of megalithic pillars already excavated here at least 6,000 years older than any other known megalithic sites anywhere in the world, but also, I now realize, Göbekli Tepe is huge — occupying an area that might eventually prove to be as much as thirty times larger than the fullest extent of a big site like Stonehenge, for example.
We are confronted, in other words, by vast, inexplicable antiquity, immense scale, and unknown purpose — and all of it seeming to unfold out of nowhere, with no obvious background or preparation, shrouded utterly in mystery.
Enclosures of the giants
I'm used to archaeologists making the sign of the evil eye and turning their backs on me when I show up at their excavations. But Professor Schmidt is refreshingly different. Although he knows very well who I am, he permits me and my wife, the photographer Santha Faiia, to climb down into Enclosure D and explore it. All four of the main enclosures so far excavated at Göbekli Tepe are strictly off limits to the public and under the eye of watchful guards, but there's an image on one of the pillars in Enclosure D that I need to take a much closer look at than the walkway affords — indeed I can't even see it from the walkway — so Schmidt's generosity of spirit is welcome.
We enter the enclosure along a plank which leads to an as yet unexcavated two-meter-high partition of rubble and earth separating the two main central pillars, one to the east and the other to the west. Quarried from the very hard crystalline limestone of the region, and polished to a flawlessly smooth finish, these colossal pillars glow mellow gold in the sun. I know from Professor Schmidt that they are about 5.5 meters (18 feet) tall and that each of them weighs more than 15 tons. Scrambling down onto the floor of the enclosure I note that they stand on stone plinths each about 20 centimeters (8 inches) high that have been carved directly out of the living bedrock. In a row along the front edge of the plinth under the eastern pillar, squatting back on their tails with no wings evident, seven seemingly flightless birds have been sculpted in high relief.
With their stylized anthropomorphic appearance enhanced by their angled T-shaped "heads" the central pillars loom over me like twin giants. Though they are not my primary target, I seize the opportunity to examine them closely.
Their front edges, representing their chests and bellies, are quite slim — only about twenty centimeters wide — while their flanks measure a bit over a meter (about 4 feet) from front to back. Both figures, as I'd noticed from the walkway, have arms carved in low relief at their sides, crooked at the elbows and terminating in hands with long, thin fingers. These fingers wrap round the fronts of the pillars, almost meeting over their "bellies." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock. Copyright © 2015 Graham Hancock. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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