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Sacred space

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The drive to build places of worship began when hunter-gatherers first erected pillars at Göbekli Tepe 12,000 years ago and hasn’t stopped since

The oldest building in the world is a temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in south-east Turkey. Carbon dating shows it to be around 12,000 years old. If you’re not good with dates, be assured that this is mind-blowing. The next oldest temple we know about is in Malta, and is thought to be around five and half thousand years old. Until excavations began, a development of the scale found at Göbekli Tepe was not thought possible for a community so ancient.

Discovered by a Kurdish farmer in 1994, the complex, still being excavated by an international team of archaeologists, has walls made of unworked dry stone and numerous T-shaped monolithic pillars of limestone that are up to three metres tall with carvings depicting animals and humans. Another bigger pair of pillars, which experts think may have supported a roof, stands in the centre. It even has terrazzo floors, and there
is a low bench running along the whole of the exterior wall.

On this evidence, it seems we chose to design and build places of worship before any other kind of building, perhaps even before house and home. We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple implies the urge to worship sparked the idea of a civilised world no longer bound by hunting and gathering.

Writing on the incredible discovery for National Geographic, journalist Charles C Mann says of Göbekli Tepe: ‘What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred – and the human love of a good spectacle – may have given rise to civilisation itself.’

At the very least, it is proof of the intimate relationship between religion and architecture, distinct from mere construction. And it’s why, for the first time in a long while, this week’s AJ is focused on places of worship.

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