Human Rites

January 21, 2018

Rituals bind us, in modern societies and prehistoric tribes alike. But can our loyalties stretch to all of humankind?.

My colleagues and I were pressed up against each other on the back seat of a police car as it wove through the narrow streets of Urfa, a medieval Turkish city nestled in the watershed of the Euphrates. We stopped in traffic. Somewhere behind a tangle of washing on the rooftops a baby was crying and a television was blaring.

On the pavement a group of Kurdish youths stared at us. One hour earlier, near the excavations we had come to see, there had been killings. Some said the bomb was launched from over the border in Syria. Others said it was a Kurdish attack on the police. The policeman at the wheel glanced at the youths and then over his shoulder at us. ‘Bad people,’ he said.

I found myself wondering how many times that kind of sneering encounter had occurred in this ancient landscape, a cradle not only of civilizations but of the divisions between them. A minaret burst into song. In the distance, another joined in, then another. We turned a corner and the high fortifications of the city loomed into view. Two years before, I had stood at the top tracing ancient landmarks of the silk trade. Now the city gazed out at the troubled hills of an Arab Autumn.

Earlier that day, I had eaten lunch with an archaeologist living in Jordan. He viewed the sufferings of the Middle East through the lens of deep history. His eye twinkled when I pointed out this quirk. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I see it the other way around. Most people view the Middle East through the lens of very shallow history.’

We were in town with a group of scholars and scientists who were trying to reconstruct a world that blossomed more than 10,000 years ago. Some 15km away, Göbekli Tepe comprises a series of Stonehenge-like circles of stone slabs, faintly resembling giant phalluses. In fact, these stones were quarried much, much earlier than Stonehenge — some 12,000 years ago. And each spectacular ring of towering monoliths was probably buried within days or weeks of its completion. The sheer effort of human labour involved is mind-boggling.

Nobody knows how it was done without bulldozers, winches, cranes, or even steel hand tools. And nobody knows why. What inspired ancient foragers to push their stone-age technology to the very limits, cutting 20-tonne stones out of the hillside, dragging them up to the summit and placing them in painstakingly dug holes several metres deep? Why carve exquisitely realistic high reliefs of animals into their sides, only to hide these staggering creations from view under a pile of rubble?

Strange objects — long stone knives, masks and other ritual regalia — lie tucked away from prying eyes, shrouded in darkness as surely as if they had been buried underground

Each T-shaped monolith, whatever else it represents, is a giant person: some of the stelae have arms and hands carved into them, roughly in proportion for a giant human figure. Between the markings, however, are reliefs of foxes, bulls, vultures, spiders and seemingly countless other species of fauna known to have roamed, wriggled and flapped around the late Pleistocene or early Holocene landscape some 12,000 years ago.

Equally striking are the images not inscribed on the stones. Although these complex foraging peoples were just beginning to cultivate crops, there are no plants depicted at Göbekli. And with the exception of one carving of a headless skeleton and the eerie anthropomorphism of the monoliths taken as wholes, human figures are few and far between. These master carvers were very interested in animals.

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