Göbekli Tepe astronomically oriented?

The megalithic enclosures of Göbekli Tepe (Urfa, Turkey) are the most ancient stone-built sacred structures known so far, dating back to the 10th millennium BC. Is it possible for these structures to have been oriented to specific star(s) in the sky? In this post we present a relative publication on the issue.

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Göbekli Tepe, a hill in the province of Urfa in south-eastern Turkey, is the first “temple” about which we are aware of (Schmidt 1998, 2001, 2006, 2010). It is composed by a series of circular enclosures whose project is based on a megalithic “unit”: a huge T-shaped pillar, usually finely engraved. Two such pillars stand in the centre, parallel to eachother, while a series of other pillars is placed around the contour of the circle. Most carvings represent dangerous or anyhow wild animals: felines, foxes, boars, vultures, spiders, snakes, and scorpions. The site is dated to the so called pre-pottery Neolithic (PPN), and was in use between the 10th and the 9th millennium BC; successively, it was left abandoned and intentionally obliterated. Gobekli Tepe is not unique as other Neolithic sites with T-pillars have been documented (see e.g. Celik 2001). The antiquity of this sacred place is so astonishing that it is extremely difficult to put forward hypotheses on the religion and on the cults which were practised there. In recent years, however, Archaeoastronomy – used with due caution – has proved to be a quite powerful tool in gaining better understanding of the symbolic world of many ancient cultures (see e.g. Ruggles 2005, Magli 2009).

Simulating the sky in the 10th millennium BC, it is possible to see that a quite spectacular phenomenon occurred at Göbekli Tepe in that period: the “birth” of a “new” star, and certainly not of an ordinary one, as it is the brightest star and the 4th most brilliant object of the sky: Sirius. Indeed precession, at the latitude of Göbekli Tepe, brought Sirius under the horizon in the years around 15000 BC. After reaching the minimum, Sirius started to come closer to the horizon and it became visible again, very low and close to due south, towards 9300 BC.

To check if the enclosures might have been aligned with Sirius, I will consider here the 3 adjacent structures labelled D,C, and B, which are virtually intact and also extremely similar in conception. I stress that the analysis presented below is based on existing maps and satellite images. It must, therefore, be considered as preliminary; a complete theodolite survey of the site and of the horizon is certainly needed to draw more reliable conclusions. Having said that, the extrapolated mean azimuths of the structures (taken as the mid-lines between the two central monoliths) are estimated as follows:

Structure D 172°
Structure C 165°
Structure B 159°

As Sirius is a negative magnitude star, it is in principle visible just above the horizon; I will however allow in what follows an altitude of ½ ° (actually the horizon at the site estimated via satellite images looks flat towards the south-east). Then, it can be seen that the above azimuths match the rising azimuths of Sirius in the following approximate dates:

Structure D 172° 9100 BC
Structure C 165° 8750 BC
Structure B 159° 8300 BC

The above arguments suggest that the structures of Gobekli Tepe were conceived to celebrate, and then follow in the course of the centuries, the appearance of a brilliant “guest” star in the sky: Sirius. Of course, although being fascinating, the hypothesis must be taken with due caution; in particular, the relative chronology between the structures is unclear (Dietrich 2013). Getting more insight in the symbolic world of the builders would certainly be of help; many of the animals are indeed tempting as representation of constellations (Belmonte and García 2010), and – curiously enough – one of the most elaborated stelae presents an upper register with three “bags” which are pretty similar to the three “houses of the sky” occurring in the much (very much!) later Babylonian “kudurru” traditions. Similar analyses in other PPN sites with megalithic structures would also be of help; further, recently discovered, inter-visible sites seem to align along a north-south direction (Guler, Celik and Guler 2012).

As a final observation, it should be noted that a further structure uncovered at Göbekli Tepe (labelled F) has an estimated azimuth of 59° (if it was open to the north-east, as it seems) which is pretty close to that of the rising sun at the summer solstice. On the pillar 43 of enclosure D a suggestive, unique scene is represented: a sort of vulture with human traits delicately “rises up” with a wing what seems to be a sphere, or a disk. May this be a representation of the Heliacal rising of the newly born star we today call Sirius, which – as can be easily verified – occurred just a few days before the summer solstice at the end of the 10th millennium BC at the latitude of Göbekli Tepe?

(Source: “Sirius and the project of the megalithic enclosures at Göbekli Tepe”, by Giulio Magli)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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