Shattering assumptions

Shattering assumptions

The story of the Garden of Eden, like the numerous flood narratives of the Ancient Near East or the tales of gods who die and return to life,...

The story of the Garden of Eden, like the numerous flood narratives of the Ancient Near East or the tales of gods who die and return to life, represents a special class of myth called "folk memory." These are universal myths predicated on the collective memory of a particular culture or society (regardless of how chimerical that memory may be) and passed down orally from generation to generation. They can be found in some form in almost every religion and among nearly all cultures.

Embedded in the myth of the Garden of Eden is a collective memory of an era long ago when human beings were free from toil and struggle, when there was no need to slog day and night over the land. An era, in other words, before the rise of agriculture, when our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve were, to put it less biblically, hunter—gatherers.

And that is how the ancient city of Urfa has come to be regarded in the collective memory of its inhabitants as the location of the Garden of Eden. Believers will point to the fact that, like the biblical Eden, Urfa is nestled between four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates, and that it, too, is located in what the Bible terms “the east"—that is, west of ancient Assyria.

However, the main reason so many people around the world believe that this city rests upon the ruins of Eden has less to do with Urfa’s location than it does with what lies just ten miles to the northeast, atop a high mountain ridge called Gobekli Tepe, or Potbellied Hill.

For buried there, just beneath a man-made mound on the very tip of the highest peak overlooking a desolate plateau, are the remains of what is widely recognized to be the earliest religious temple ever constructed –“the Temple of Eden," as Klaus Schmidt, the chief archaeologist of the site, playfully calls it.

The temple is comprised of twenty or more large enclosures built of mortar and stone. Some of these are circular; others are oblong. A few of them spiral like galaxies. The entire temple complex stretches a thousand feet long and a thousand feet wide.

Tucked in the center of each stone enclosure are two matching megalithic T-shaped pillars, some of which stand more than sixteen feet high and weigh as much as ten tons. The central pillars are engraved with images of ferocious beasts and lethal creatures: lions, leopards, and vultures; scorpions, spiders, and snakes— nothing like the dreamy, docile animals found in the painted caves of the Paleolithic era. Alongside these beasts are intricately wrought geometric figures and abstract symbols carved up and down the pillars. The prevailing theory is that they represent a kind of symbolic language—a far more ancient equivalent of Egyptian hieroglyphics—though we lack the key to decipher them.

What makes the temple truly extraordinary, however, is that it was built at the end of the last Ice Age, between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago. That’s at least six thousand years before Stonehenge and seven thousand years before the first Egyptian pyramids.

It is so old it predates the rise of agriculture, meaning that this enormous, intricately designed monument was constructed by semi-nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherers wearing animal skins who had yet to invent the wheel.

Even more startling is the fact that there is no evidence that anyone ever lived at the site. No homes or hearths have been unearthed anywhere near Gobekli Tepe. There is no obvious water source; the nearest freshwater stream is located many miles away.

The only possible explanation for the lack of amenities is that this was a sacred place designated exclusively for the performance of religious ceremonies.

People would have journeyed from villages scattered within as much as a hundred-mile radius to participate in whatever rituals took place here. They would have been from different tribes. They would have claimed different gods. And yet somehow this disparate assemblage of Paleolithic peoples had managed to put aside their differences and focus their devotion on a common, unifying symbol.

The archaeological work being done at Gobekli Tepe by Schmidt and others has given us an idea of what that unifying symbol may have been. It is the supreme symbol of human spirituality, born from the raw material of our cognitive processes, rendered in our earliest attempts to express our conception of the divine, and transmitted successfully into nearly every religion and culture the world has ever known. That symbol is the "humanized god”—the god made in our image—and it sits at the center of each and every one of the stone enclosures in the Temple of Eden.

The matching T-shaped pillars that dominate the temple structure are more than blocks of stone. Look closely and you can see that the pillars have arms carved into their sides. The arms come together at the front of each pillar, just above what might be a belt or loincloth. Some of the pillars appear to be wearing jewelry. The small blocks that cap the pillars and complete the T shape are widely assumed by researchers to be heads. All of this suggests that these are not merely pillars; they are abstract humanoid figures.

The figures are faceless; no eyes, nose, or mouth has been carved into them, but that is not because their creators lacked the skill. One need only look at the exquisite detail of some of the animal carvings at Gobekli Tepe to recognize what master artisans they were; a leopard carved into the side of one pillar is so detailed you can see its ribs.

No one doubts that the temple’s builders could have carved the central pillars into more well-defined human beings if they had wanted to do so. But they chose to represent them in a deliberately abstract fashion, which suggests they did not intend the pillars to represent actual humans, but rather supreme beings in human form.

Extracted with permission

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