On a hilly ridge called Göbekli Tepe in the Taurus Mountains of southeast Turkey, near the ancient city of Sanliurfa, archaeologists have uncovered the oldest stone temple complex in the world. Constructed most probably during the second half of the tenth millennium BC, some seven thousand years before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid, the site consists of a series of rings of enormous T-shaped pillars, many bearing carved reliefs of ice age animals, strange glyphs, and geometric forms.
But what exactly were these stone enclosures used for, and were they aligned to the stars? Already there have been claims they reflect an interest in the constellation of Taurus, the Pleiades, and Orion, but what is the real truth? What is the true key to Göbekli Tepe? What exactly was its function, and did its greater purpose involve a synchronization with the celestial heavens?
In the knowledge that megalithic monuments worldwide have been found to possess alignments towards celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon and stars, it seems reasonable to look for something similar at Göbekli Tepe, with the most obvious candidates for orientation being the various sets of twin pillars at the center of the monuments. These could have acted as astronomical markers of some kind, especially as in the past a clear view of the local horizon would have been visible in all directions from the various enclosures located on the summit of the mountain ridge.
Even a cursory glance at the positioning of the different sets of twin pillars shows them to be aligned roughly north-south, suggesting that they are unlikely to have targeted the sun, moon, or planets, which rise in the east and set in the west. Clearly, if their orientations meant anything, then the enclosures must have been built to target a star or stellar object of some kind that either rose or set close to the north-south meridian line that divides the sky in two and crosses directly overhead.
Establishing the orientations of the enclosures’ central pillars was put to chartered engineer Rodney Hale, who for the past 15 years has made a detailed study of stellar alignments at prehistoric and sacred sites around the world. He examined survey plans of the monuments at Göbekli Tepe and determined that the central pillars in Enclosures B, C, D and E (the “Felsentempel,” or “rock temple,” located to the west of the main group) all seemed to be aligned just west of north and, equally, just east of south.
Among the southern star groups and constellations looked at by Hale were the Hyades, Taurus, the Pleiades and Orion (more specifically its three “belt” stars), all of which have been claimed to match the orientations of the twin pillars in the various enclosures at Göbekli Tepe during the epoch of their construction, c. 9500–8000 BC. Out of these, just one candidate emerged as perhaps playing some role at Göbekli Tepe, and this was Orion, the celestial hunter.
North or South?
In fact, there is a fundamental problem in even assuming that the enclosures were built to face south, for although the human-like features of the central monoliths are all turned in this direction, there is no reason to assume they are observing the southern skyline. More likely is that they face the entrant approaching from the south, in the same manner that statues in churches face the worshipper approaching the high altar. Church altars are placed in the east, since this is the direction of heaven in Christian tradition. Just because Jesus, St. Michael, or the Virgin Mary might face away from the high altar, does not mean that they gaze out towards the western skyline.
In Göbekli Tepe’s case, if its enclosures did have a high altar, then it would be in the north, the direction of darkness, where the sun never rises. It is, on the other hand, the direction of the celestial pole, the turning point of the heavens. Northerly orientations of early Neolithic cult buildings have been determined in southeast Anatolia at various other early Neolithic sites such as Çayönü, Nevali Çori, and Hallan Cemi. Thus it seems likely that Göbekli Tepe’s enclosures are oriented towards the north, and not the south. Indeed, the T-shaped termination of Enclosure D’s eastern central pillar is tilted downwards in order to greet the entrant, like some kind of god-king receiving his subjects.
Just one star emerged as a potential candidate, and this was Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the celestial bird, or swan. Before 9500 BC, Deneb was circumpolar, in that it never set, although after this time, due to the effects of precession, it started to extinguish each night on the north-northwestern horizon. As the centuries went by, the star’s setting position moved further and further west of north in a manner that not only makes sense of the alignments of the various sets of twin pillars at Göbekli Tepe, but also provides realistic construction dates for the enclosures in question.
Sighting Stone Discovery
Further evidence of Göbekli Tepe’s proposed astronomical alignments comes from Enclosure D. A small stone pillar standing around five feet (1.5 m) tall has been found in its north-northwestern perimeter wall, exactly behind and in line with its central pillars. The stone is rectangular in shape and, unlike the rings of radially oriented pillars found in the main enclosures, it has one of its wider faces turned towards the center of the structure. The significance of this stone is that it has a hole some seven to eight inches in diameter bored through it horizontally at a height of around four feet off the ground. Covering the stone are a series of curved lines, which flow in pairs and converge just beneath the hole before trailing off towards the stone’s right-hand corner.
Very likely they are a naive representation of the human torso with legs coming together and bent towards the right-hand edge of the stone. If so, then this would make the hole synchronous with the vulva, or human birth canal. If the enclosure’s twin pillars were indeed orientated towards Deneb during the epoch in question, then a person, a shaman or priest perhaps, would have been able to look through the stone’s sighting hole in order to see Deneb setting on the north-northwestern horizon, a quite magnificent sight that cannot have happened by chance alone. Clearly, this was powerful evidence that the enclosure really was directed towards this all-important star.
The Deneb Portal
As we have mentioned, the structures of Göbekli Tepe are aligned towards the bright star Deneb, in the constellation of Cygnus, the celestial bird. The twin central pillars in the center of the enclosures seem to target the star’s setting. Yet, why Deneb? Why was this star so important to our distant ancestors? The answer is that Deneb cannot take all the credit for the alignments at Göbekli Tepe, as it might simply be a marker for what lies behind it—the opening of the Dark Rift, the stream of dark stellar debris that splits the Milky Way from Cygnus down to the area of Sagittarius and Scorpius, where the sun makes its pass across the Milky Way.
All over the world, from India and Egypt to Mexico and South America, the Dark Rift has been seen as an entrance to the sky-world, a place of the ancestors, a land of the gods, and the source of cosmic creation. For example, the ancient Maya of Central America pictured Xibalba, their “underworld,” as accessible via a sky-road known as ri b’e xib’alb’a, the Black Road, identified as the Milky Way’s Dark Rift. Its actual entrance or location was represented by cave and mouth imagery, often accompanied by a glyph known as the Cross Bands glyph. It has the appearance of a letter X inside a square frame, and has been identified with the Cygnus stars in their guise as a celestial cross, made up of five specific stars. The actual road to Xibalba (a word meaning “place of fear”) is shown as a caiman crocodile, its long jaws the twin streams created by the Dark Rift, with its head, eyes and gullet located in the vicinity of the Cygnus region.
Turn the Milky Way on its side and the Dark Rift’s likeness to a crocodile’s head and jaws are unmistakable, confirming that the entrance to Xibalba; i.e., the opening of the Dark Rift, was via its gullet. In Mayan mythology the solar god One Hunahpu was reborn from the mouth of the caiman, a sure reference to his emergence from the Dark Rift. The sun-god was then imagined as being carried along the length of the creature’s open jaws to the place where the ecliptic, the sun’s path, crosses the Milky Way in the vicinity of the stars of Sagittarius and Scorpius. This is a point corresponding, visually at least, with the nuclear bulge in the galactic plane that marks the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The sun-god was conceived as reaching this point at the moment of sunrise on the winter solstice, an act that completed an annual solar cycle.
Similar ideas regarding a spirit world existing beyond the opening to the Dark Rift are held even today by a number of Native American tribes. The most consistent story that emerges from their beliefs and practices tells of how in death the soul departs westwards towards the setting sun, a journey that can take three to four days to complete. When it finally reaches the edge of the world it stands on a coastal shoreline, with the underworld visible beneath the surface of the water and the sky-world above in the night sky.
If the sky-world is chosen as the soul’s final destination, it must make a leap of faith into the night sky in order to access a star portal symbolized by something that native tribes refer to as the Hand Constellation. It is a symbol found again and again in the decorated art of the mound building cultures of Ohio.
Göbekli’s Vulture Stone
Confirming the Göbekli builders’ apparent interest in Cygnus is Pillar 43. Located in the north-northwestern section of Enclosure D, it stands just a few yards away from the holed stone.
Here we see a vulture positioned at the end of the line of small squares that draws the eye. It stands erect, with its wings articulated in a manner resembling human arms. It also has slightly bent knees (or it is pregnant) and bizarre flat feet, in the shape of oversized clowns’ shoes, indicating that this is very likely a shaman in the guise of a vulture, or a spirit bird with anthropomorphic attributes. Similar vultures with articulated legs are depicted on the walls of shrines at Çatal Höyük, the neolithic city in southern-central Turkey, which dates to c. 7000–5600 BC, and these too are interpreted either as anthropomorphs, or shamans, adorned in the manner of vultures.
Just above the vulture’s right wing is a carved circle, like a ball, or sun disk. Klaus Schmidt (Göbekli Tepe’s discoverer) interprets this “ball” as a human head, and this is almost certainly what it is, for on the back of another vulture lower down the register is a headless, or soulless, figure, mimicking very similar examples of headless figures found in association with images of vultures and excarnation towers at Çatal Höyük. And we can be sure that the “ball” does indeed represent a human head as similar balls are seen in the prehistoric rock art of the region, where their context also makes it clear they represent human souls.
So the headless figure represents not only the human skeleton but also a dead man whose soul has departed in the form of a ball-like head that is now under the charge of the vulture, which is arguably a bird spirit with anthropomorphic; i.e. human like, attributes.
Star Map in Stone
If Göbekli Tepe’s Vulture Stone does show a human soul being accompanied into the afterlife by a psychopomp in the likeness of a vulture, then there has to be a chance that its rich imagery contains themes of a celestial nature. Scholars working in the field of archaeoastronomy have been quick to point out that a scorpion shown at the base of the shaft could signify the constellation of Scorpio. Certainly, in Babylonian astronomical texts, such as those found on the so-called Mul-Apin tablets, the stars of Scorpio are identified with a constellation named Scorpion (MULGIR.TAB).
Almost exactly what we see represented in abstract form on the sighting stone in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D is found also on the Venus and Sorcerer panel inside France’s Chauvet cave, created by a Paleolithic artist some thirty two thousand to thirty thousand years ago. Here too the abstract legs of the “Venus” seem to signify the twin streams of the Milky Way either side of the Dark Rift, with the head of a young bovine overlaid upon the position of the womb. This bucranium is likely to represent the Cygnus constellation in its role as the head of a bull calf, which in prehistoric times was seen as an abstract representation of the female womb or uterus complete with its horn-like fallopian tubes. The uncanny likeness between the two is something that our distant ancestors would appear to have realized at a very early stage in human development. We are reminded also of the 3D frescoes from Çatal Höyük showing bulls being born from between the legs of divine females (often with the heads of leopards), and the ancient Egyptian belief that the goddess Hathor, in her role as the Milky Way, gave birth each morning to the sun-god in the form of a bull calf, which was seen to emerge from between twin sycamore trees perhaps signifying the twin streams created by the Dark Rift.
The cult of Hathor was virtually synonymous with that of Nut, the Egyptian sky-goddess, who was herself a personification of the Milky Way, her womb and vulva occupied by the stars of Cygnus.
How exactly the entrants to Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D might have celebrated the act of cosmic birth is open to speculation. Perhaps the soul was seen to emerge from the opening of the Dark Rift, and then in some unimaginable manner enter a pregnant woman waiting between the enclosure’s twin pillars. A ritual act like this might have taken place either at the point of conception, sometime during pregnancy or, perhaps, shortly before birth. It might even have been the case that certain births actually took place between the enclosure’s central pillars, mimicking exactly what the incised lines on the holed stone were attempting to convey in such a crude and naïve manner. So not only were the enclosures at Göbekli Tepe built to honor the departure of the soul in the company of the vulture, acting in its role as psychopomp (remember, the Vulture Stone is next door to the holed stone), but they might also have celebrated the bringing forth of new life from the sky-world.
In fact, it is likely that a psychopomp, in the form of a bird, was thought to accompany new souls entering this world. This, of course, is the role played in many parts of Europe and Asia by the stork, although in the Baltic (and seemingly in Siberia), it was a white swan that played this same role. In its guise as a celestial bird, Cygnus is identified with the swan throughout the Eurasian continent.
In Egyptian and Hindu myth it was a primordial goose or swan that brought forth the universe with its honk, although in many other countries the swan was said to have laid the egg that either formed the earth or heavens, or became the sun.
Everything points towards Enclosure D’s holed stone and Vulture Stone next to it being not just confirmation of Deneb’s place in the mindset of the Göbekli builders but also in the site’s role as a place where the rites of birth, death, and rebirth were celebrated both in its architectural design and in the highly symbolic carved art left behind by its builders. It is confirmation also of the incredible role played by Cygnus and the Milky Way’s Dark Rift in the cosmological beliefs of the Upper Paleolithic age and, later, among the early Neolithic peoples of Anatolia. These are incredible revelations that entirely alter our currently held views on the mindset of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic world.
The author would like to thank Rodney Hale and Greg and Lora Little for their help preparing this article. For more information, including references, go to andrewcollins.com. Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods by Andrew Collins will be published by Bear and Company at the end of 2013.