Menekse Tokyay ANKARA: Few people were aware of Gobeklitepe before the start of the excavations there by researchers from Istanbul and Chicago universities in 1963.
On Sunday, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added the Turkish archaeological site, considered the “ground zero for human history,” to the World Heritage List.
The site had been on UNESCO’S so-called Tentative List for five years before the decision was taken, at the 42nd UNESCO World Heritage List Committee meeting held in Bahrain’s capital Manama, chaired by the country’s pioneering lawyer and diplomat Shaikha Haya bint Rashed Al-Khalifa. Turkey now has 18 cultural heritage sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Gobeklitepe, which translates as Potbelly Hill, is the world’s oldest known megalithic structure in Upper Mesopotamia. It dates back 12,000 years and is considered to be the world’s oldest temple. It is also among the oldest archaeological ruins in the world, featuring massive carved stones and T-shaped pillars that predate the invention of agriculture.
The site, located in Turkey’s southeastern province of Sanliurfa, was recently reopened to tourists following extensive restoration work.
Professor Klaus Schmidt, a German archaeologist and pre-historian, led the wide-ranging excavations at Gobeklitepe from 1996 until his death in 2014, contributing through his research much that helped to rewrite the early history of civilization.
“We, as the archaeological team excavating the site, congratulate Turkey for this inscription into UNESCO’s world heritage list and are thankful for the unique opportunity of doing research at this important site,” said Jens Notroff, a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute and member of the Gobeklitepe research project.
The research team issued a statement saying: “The significance of the site for our understanding of the Neolithic transition in this key area of the Fertile Crescent can’t be stressed enough.
“But it’s not only an important site for us archaeologists. It’s a crucial site in world history and its inscription on the World Heritage List will underline this fact.”
Gobeklitepe is located at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent, an area often described as the “Cradle of Civilization” that covers the Middle East from the Arabian Gulf to Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
The addition of the site to the UNESCO list is expected to boost tourism at the site, which is in a region where visitor numbers have significantly declined because of the conflict in nearby Syria and the refugee crisis.
Sanliurfa, also known as Urfa and the City of Abraham, is renowned for its historic buildings with Arab-influenced architecture.
The population of the city is mainly a mixture of Turks, Kurds and Arabs. It is believed that Prophet Abraham was born and thrown into the fire in this city.
“Despite the negative effects of the nearby Syrian conflict and refugee crisis on tourism at the site, there is still a considerable number of tourists visiting the area,” said Isil Acehan, a post-doctoral fellow at the Foundation for Religious Sciences John XXIII in Bologna. “The coverage of the site by international news outlets and channels attracted more tourists.”
Acehan said that no matter how significant a site such as Gobeklitepe is to world history and heritage, not only must it meet certain criteria to merit being added to the World Heritage List, but so must the government responsible for it.
“For example, nominating states must clearly demonstrate their commitment to preserving the site,” she added.
Speaking exclusively to Arab News, Mechtild Rossler, the director of the Division for Heritage and the UNESCO World Heritage Center, said addition of Gobeklitepe to the World Heritage List is a great recognition of the scientific research at the site and the efforts to protect its outstanding heritage.
“This inscription will further raise awareness about this unique heritage globally and may also attract tourists and visitors and could be a motor for local and regional sustainable development,” she added.