The Place of Temples

Gobeklitepe, or more properly, Göbekli Tepe, stunned the archaeological world a few years back.  This site in what is now Turkey contained what is apparently a sanctuary—purposefully buried—and advanced architecture for its age.  It was that age that was so shocking.  Gobeklitepe dated from around 11,000 years ago.  Now, in case ancient history’s not your thing—this will be painless—agriculture began, according to the standard chronology, about 10,000 years ago.  This led to surplus production that in turn led to the first cities, indeed, what we recognize as civilization itself.  While Gobeklitepe wasn’t permanently occupied, it was an example of a temple before agriculture, and according to the standard thinking, this should not be.  Consequently not too much has been published on the site because nobody likes a smart aleck, even if said aleck is an archaeological site.

Just within the last weeks, Anadolu Agency announced that an even older site was found in Turkey, near the city of Mardin.  Reports coming out of Boncuklu Tarla suggest that it is a millennium yet again older, dating from 12,000 years ago.  The article doesn’t include many photos, but suggests the site is similar to Gobeklitepe.  If this holds up, a new paradigm for human history will need to unfold.  What drew people together at first was not tilling the soil and reaping a surplus, but religion.  Even in the still standard paradigm, kings could only emerge with the backing of gods, so early cities had impressive temples.  What the evidence now suggests is that the temples came first and ancient people came together at sacred sites before they had a surplus to bring.  You can’t pick a sacrificial animal without having a heard or flock from which to take said victim.

We live in a technological era in which intelligent people are scratching their heads with their smart devices because religion just won’t go away.  I have suggested before that the reason it won’t is that it is deeply engrained in our biology.  We can try to reason the gods away, or abstract them to the point that we can call them laws or principles, but we can’t escape the fact that we’re held down by forces beyond our control.  Ancient people in Turkey, hunter-gatherers in our current paradigm, were gathering together and putting massive energy into building what look like temples before they had a secure and steady source of food.  Before, indeed, they had smart phones or even dial-up.  Millennia later we would rediscover them and wonder about things even as religion would be the deciding factor in elections in the most technically advanced cultures on the planet.

Photo credit Zhengan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nothing to Do with Pigs

Pseudepigrapha is not a word that flows mellifluously off the tongue, and the first time reader stops to give pause over its awkward beginning and several syllables. It comes from a couple of words meaning “false” and “letters” and it designates a book, usually ancient, falsely attributed to somebody important. Since most people in our post-modern world don’t even read the regular Bible (many Fundamentalists among them), throwing a false gospel out there and telling everyone what it says is a fairly safe bet for getting some attention. A friend sent me a link to a web story about the “Gospel of Barnabas” based on an allegedly clandestine Turkish manuscript, that has been circulating for a few years now. Let’s face it: how is a non-specialist supposed to find a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, and how is the public going to know how to weigh one ancient document against another? After all, we as a society have determined that biblical scholars are more than useless, and they should be employed doing odd jobs just above minimum wage, the unbelievers!

Dante making Scripture

Dante making Scripture

The story on the promisingly named Liberaland website makes a Bill Maher of mistakes regarding the ancient document, however. Citing only vague “religious experts and specialists located in Tehram,” (after all, we all know that there are no religious specialists in North America or Europe) the article claims with an unattributed quote, that this 23-million-dollar gospel has been squirreled away for safe keeping because of its scandalous claims about early Christianity. Any biblical scholar knows, however, that truly original scandalous claims are difficult to come by. The Gospel of Barnabas has been known since the seventeenth century and it is likely a document with Muslim sympathies. It doesn’t help that actual ancient documents are sometimes held in secret (I know of one being kept in a Turkish monastery that is being held, literally, for ransom to help finance the place), and the general public is ill-equipped to know who’s telling tales outside of school.

There’s no point in denying that religions have made a plethora of mistakes and missteps over the centuries. New religions are emerging all the time and new mistakes and missteps will be made. Given that people are, according to the best evidence, programmed to believe, it would seem to this insignificant former scholar that keeping a few religion specialists on the payroll might not be such a bad idea. Of course, I am an interested party, and that makes me suspect from the beginning. I spent my early adulthood years learning to read a dozen dead languages and that has landed me in an obscure job that barely covers the rent. One thing it did prevent, however, is being taken in by claims of mysterious gospels that seem to surface several times a year. There will be those who dispute what I write, but then any document these days is liable to be called pseudepigrapha.

Stone Age Henge

At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.

375px-GobeklitepeHeykel

The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.

There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.

Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”

Tepe Temple

When a colleague sent me an NPR story on Göbekli Tepe, I was thrown back into the conundrum far older than archaeology itself—how can a site be identified as religious? Most of us hardly realize that when we enter a church or cathedral that the overall plan is based on that of the earliest temples we know. Conventional wisdom associates temples first with the Sumerians, the harbingers of civilization itself. The basic premise was that a niche existed for a cult image (statue of a deity, generally) with an altar before it. Although the concept was widely disseminated, many reformed and rereformed Christian groups tried to distance themselves from it, calling altars “tables” and making them mobile. Probably the most successful are the Pentecostals; last time I attended a service the “sanctuary” felt like a warehouse. Actually, it was a warehouse. In general, however, there has been little need to reinvent the religious wheel, so the standard plan still often applies. Enter Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is located in southeast Turkey, near what was actually Mesopotamia in ancient times. The hill-top site is a Neolithic structure, and that means it was built before agriculture became widespread, during our hunter-gatherer stage. It is the earliest known human religious structure. The article on NPR questions precisely this: is it religious? How do we identify structures in pre-writing cultures as religious? Some archaeologists are guilty of labeling any structure or artifact with no practical function as “religious,” but this is a little cynical. Part of the problem is that religion itself remains ill-defined, being a post-Christian category to describe behavior singled out for God’s benefit. As a child I wondered, if God exists how could anyone not devote all their time to God?—the very speculation that led to my profession. Ancient people, like all animals, felt the urge to eat, rest, seek shelter, reproduce—animal things. It was a full-time job. When agriculture simplified things a bit by giving some measure of control over food supply, other professions began to emerge. Priesthood, as a means of ensuring continuity among the entire system, was one of the coveted jobs. Göbekli Tepe predates the Sumerians by thousands of years. The large structure with reliefs carved into the rock seems temple-like to some, less so to others.

The NPR article points out, correctly, that the distinction between sacred and profane may be premature as applied to Göbekli Tepe. We can test the cases even today: certain human functions are considered profane, chief among them sexual acts. It is clear from the sexuality of ancient religious artifacts that the profanity of sex is not an ancient idea. Ritualized eating is very common and still takes place in highly stylized form among many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups. Work itself was considered to be a divine assignment in ancient times. Our ultimate bosses were the gods. Little room remained for “secular” pursuits. By compartmentalizing life into “religious” and “not religious” we have found a way to pursue our own selfish ends and still wind up in the pews on the weekend, congratulating ourselves for obeying the dictates of divine law. Where is true religion to be found here? Is it not more likely to reside among ancient people, like those of Göbekli Tepe who lived their entire lives in the service of the gods?