By Adriana Tchalian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
During my first visit to Armenia, I expected to find a rugged and muscular terrain, given the steady diet of cliched images I had consumed over the years of one very famous, snow-capped mountain range. What I found instead was a mild and feminine landscape where ribbons of smooth terrain are topped with delicate, cream-colored hills set against lush valleys. Even mighty Ararat appeared painterly, if not feminine, underneath the Anatolian sun. Vincent Van Gogh would have liked painting this delicate landscape, I thought to myself, seeing flecks of Japan in its eastern terrain. Could the Armenian Plateau be, as some have described, the navel of the world?
Enter Portasar (the navel of a mountain), better known as Göbekli Tepe (potbelly hill), a prehistoric magnum opus built by hunter-gatherers dating back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (ca. 10th-9th millennia BC). Considered the oldest megalithic monument in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the historic Armenian Plateau, approximately 35 miles north of the Syrian border and roughly ten miles northeast of Urfa (Sanlıurfa).
It’s also a mere 25 miles from the ancient city of Haran, mentioned in the book of Genesis as the place where Abram (later called Abraham) settled for a time after emigrating from Ur of the Chaldeans, an epic journey that would take him all the way to the promised land of Canaan.
Portasar is perched above a thousand-foot-diameter mound overlooking what was once a fertile plain. At first glance, its circular construction is reminiscent of England’s Stonehenge (ca. 2500 BC). But unlike Stonehenge and all other prehistoric monuments, including Armenia’s Karahundj (ca. 5500 BC) and Metsamor (ca. 5000 BC), Portasar is said to be the world’s first “temple,” this according to German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt who excavated the site from 1996 to 2014.
To summarize Schmidt, Portasar breaks all the rules of how an early hunter-gatherer society is supposed to behave. According to a standard model of prehistoric human development, religion and, by extension, its architectural vernacular, arrives on the scene after the invention of farming, not before. But Portasar turns that model on its head by building monumental structures before the onset of farming.
Portasar’s circular megalithic structures were likely used for funerary purposes and other notable observances. It’s believed that the site was set apart from mundane, day-to-day activities, much like Stonehenge (ca. 2500 BC) and nearby Durrington Walls (a circular structure made of timber, ca. 2600 BC). According to Schmidt, there is no evidence of dwellings found at the site. Hence, it’s very likely that the builders of Portasar lived in a nearby settlement and travelled to the sites on notable occasions. Numerous animal bones uncovered at Portasar, as well as Durrington Walls, suggest that there may have been sacrifices and feasting going on.
Two iconic T-shaped pillars, measuring as high as 16 feet tall and weighing as much as 10 tons each, were constructed from locally-sourced limestone and erected in the middle of the structure. These giant pillars, some with anthropomorphic features, are encircled with a stone wall that’s interjected with a smaller set of T-shaped pillars.
According to Andrew Curry of the Smithsonian Magazine, much of Portasar is yet to be discovered. Only 5 percent of the 22-acre site has been excavated. It’s estimated that the area contains at least sixteen additional megalithic structures that have yet to be dug up.
Portasar is set in Upper Mesopotamia, an area nested within the Fertile Crescent, also known as the Cradle of Civilization. This region includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. The term – Cradle of Civilization – typically conjures up images of ancient Mesopotamian empires dotting the Tigris and Euphrates corridor, not to mention those along the Nile. This crescent-shaped landmass has given birth to many “firsts” in human history. The ancient Sumerians (ca. 5000/4500-1750 BC), for instance, invented everything from writing to geometry; they domesticated animals and developed irrigation for agriculture, among many other originations.
According to Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, agriculture began in south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria (part of the Armenian Plateau). But many of Bar-Yosef’s contemporaries disagree with his claim, citing that agriculture originated in multiple locations within the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, Bar-Yosef maintains that honest-to-goodness agriculture (one that combined crops and livestock) developed once, and then proliferated into other parts.
The hunter-gatherers who built Portasar seemed to possess a remarkable cognizance about life – be it zoological, anatomical, celestial, et al. This is evident in the artifacts and relief sculptures found at the site. For instance, there’s a stylized etching of what appears to be a woman giving birth, and another featuring a large aperture (seven to eight inches in diameter) that may have symbolized a womb, with archaic representations of human legs. An additional example includes the so-called Vulture Stone, an etching featuring gruesome animals and insects that may have corresponded to constellations.
Perhaps it’s this level of perception that eventually led the builders of Portasar to transition into a proto-farming society. But as Schmidt explains, this shift from hunter-gatherer to farming may have brought about the downfall of this megalithic site. It’s believed that the site was deliberately buried as this new farming technology was being implemented in the region. Later on, nearby settlements of Boncuklu Höyük (ca. 8500 BC) and Çatal Höyük (ca. 6000 – 5900 BC) would become important centers of agricultural activities.
One of the most interesting aspects of Portasar is its seemingly unapologetic view of nature, something that really comes through in its artifacts. Like so many other prehistoric sites – the caves of Lascaux (ca. 15,000 – 13,000 BC) and Chauvet (ca. 15,000 – 13,000 BC), just to name a few – many of the animals depicted at Portasar were not used for food. Instead, these creatures seem to be showcasing their gruesome traits, perhaps as a testament to nature’s dark and destructive attributes.
By sharp contrast, many contemporary artists have taken a much softer view of nature, perhaps in fear of being labeled offensive, given nature’s inevitable identification with women (à la mother nature, etc.). This, coupled with a relativist mindset where everything is meaningless and there is no Truth, etc. has resulted in empty art galleries on any given weekend. But prehistoric sites, like Stonehenge, are bustling with tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world, eager to witness its timeless vernacular where meaning and purpose still preside as important ingredients in life, in art. What’s more, these ancient sites attract not just the learned few, but people from all walks of life who’ve been stirred by its style and substance.
Ironically, many centuries later, the people of the Armenian Plateau would be the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity (301 AD). Perhaps this was partly due to their age-old understanding of nature as something more than just a benevolent force – Christ as the antidote to nature.
Curry, Andrew. “Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian.com, November 2008. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gobekli-tepe-the-worlds-first-temple-83613665/.
“Göbekli Tepe.” UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO World Heritage Center, 2018. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1572/.
Haughton, Brian. “Gobekli Tepe – the World’s First Temple?” Ancient History Encyclopedia. May 04, 2011. https://www.ancient.eu/article/234/.
III, Jones, Ronnie. “Gobekli Tepe.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. May 07, 2015. https://www.ancient.eu/Gobekli_Tepe/.
Mark, J. Joshua. “Sumer.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 28, 2011. https://www.ancient.eu/sumer/.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History. 13th ed. Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.
The Bible. New King James Version.
Zimmer, Carl. “How the First Farmers Changed History.” The New York Times, October 17, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/ancient-farmers-archaeology-dna.html.