Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

World’s First Temple

“Gobekli Tepe,” say it again with me folks, “Gobekli Tepe.” It’s a name worth practicing because its a discovery that has turned anthropology on its head. As reported from Smithsonianmag.com:

“Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery.”

“So what?” You might say. Here’s so what. Temples that old aren’t supposed to exist. Traditional wisdom in the field of anthropology suggests that temples were a late development. First comes agriculture, then the city, then city walls. Once there is sufficient specialization population density increases, which in turn increases the benefit to those who hold sway over the masses, i.e. priests. Up till that point religious practice (burial, rites, shamanism) had been a quaint reminder of pre-civilized superstition. But after the development–both culturally and technologically–of the city, the proctors of religion, the keepers of the mysteries, translated religion into just one more power narrative.

In Marxist terms, civilized religion (priests, temples, rites, profit from the sacrificial system, social power) is a development of the superstructure which is a result of infrastructure (agriculture, urbanization, walls, techological and cultural specialization). But,–say it again with me folks–“Gobekli Tepe,” changes all that.

Millennia separate this Turkish temple from the development of city walls, let alone the city. What this suggests is startling. In the case of religion, superstructure enables infrastructure. Or, in other words, its not only developments that drive history, ideas drive history. This might sound dry or dull, but what it means is that our consciousness shapes the world.

It’s not just that we react to the world. It’s not just that we find a way to exploit its infrastructure. It’s that there exists an iteration between the world and our thought. Our posture toward the world terraforms it. Rather than infrastructure then superstructure then ideas. It runs like this: ideas then superstructure then infrastructure.

The idea, the oldest and until recently unspoken idea that drives human history, is domestication. Let me suggest at the end of this post that it is worth thinking seriously about the (terra)formation of such an idea. It is worth considering the outcome.

Look for more posts on domestication in the coming weeks.


  1. Which came first, the idea or the object? I would say that the idea transforms the object. The first weapon was just a rock until it was picked up and hurled. The first temple was just a hillside until it gained significance through ritual.

    Unfortunately, only artifacts that can last 11,000 years tend to last 11,000 years. The Gobekli Tepe architects used stone, and so they are remembered/discovered, unlike societies who built more temporary temples out of beetle wings or grass clippings.

  2. Great post. I look forward to hearing more about domestication.

    I like this temple because, as you said, it turns certain anthropological assumptions on its head. But I would like to suggest that the relationship between ideas and objects, as well as the relationship between infrastructure and superstructure, swings both ways–that we make the world and the world makes us.

    Let’s start with the rock. Yes, I would have to have some idea or instinct that would make me pick up the rock and chuck it at someone’s ear. However, if I was in a location with no rocks, I may not think of using rocks as weapons. In this way, the physical location and its objects limit my ideas. I could always wish for a rock to throw if there were none at hand, but what if I had never seen a rock? It is less likely (though not impossible) that I would think of snow skiing, if I had never seen snow.

    Likewise, the infrastructure that we inhabit/create, has an effect or our ideas. How did the Wachowski Brothers think of having Neo jack straight into the matrix to learn information?

  3. Always a fan of anything that turns assumptions on their head.

  4. “The first temple was hillside until it gained significance through ritual.”

    Maybe. What this reversal of superstructure suggests is that the significance was inherent in the idea, the hillside becomes infrastructure as a result of ideas. Assuming for a moment that the hillside was ‘sacred’–not sure that word can apply in this case–it was an idea that informed that quality. It’s sacred because it’s closer to the gods, sort of thing.

  5. Sure, infrastructure/superstructure is a function of iteration. What does this say about an ‘other?’

  6. Not sure what you mean by ‘other.’

  7. Here, here!

  8. Other in the sense that for an iteration to function (one thing informing an other thing) there exists an other such that it interpenetrates the subject of our concern: self, world, city, stone, etc.

  9. Why do all old sites HAVE to be a temple??

    Why not a school?

    “See this thing with eight legs – it is poisonous and not good to eat. The tail (here) has a stinger. Keep away from it.”

    “Now see this thing – we call it a snake and keep away from its fangs (point here) .. but it is good to eat. So put that on your list of things to hunt.”

    “If you see these things in the sky (point to vulture) it usually means there is a dead animal below .. and you wmay find this boar (point to its picture) around the dead animal (these are good to hunt) or you may find a pack of lions (stay away).”

    Every cave painting is not a picture of a god. Every old site is not a temple (unless we think of temples as also serving the function of government and education).

    I think they found the first school building.


  10. What you call “Gobekli tepe” is not turkish, it’s Armenian. Just visit Armenia, “Qarahung” and you’ll get answers to all your questions!