Popularity of Turkey's ancient temple worries archaeologists

Gobekli Tepe, the oldest known place of worship in the world, has been a site of controversy as the Turkish government monetizes the mysterious archaeological treasure.

al-monitor The Gobekli Tepe archaeological site is seen in Sanliurfa, Turkey, Sept. 19, 2018.  Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.

Jan 29, 2020

Turkey is home to an incredibly diverse and bountiful selection of historic sites and artifacts from a vast array of time periods, empires and civilizations. Unsurprisingly, in the modern Turkish republic, where political strife and ideological battles have remained constant, the country's relationship with its history is complicated.

In recent years, a stream of television series and films centering on the glorious triumphs of the Ottoman Empire have found massive popularity, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party have continually paid lip service to the predecessors of modern Turkey in what many have branded neo-Ottomanism or Ottoman nostalgia.

But at least half of the country does not share such nostalgia. The frustration boiled over in 2013, when Erdogan announced plans to reconstruct an Ottoman-era military barracks outfitted with shops on top of Gezi Park, the only major green space in the central Beyoglu district of Istanbul, located next to the city's main Taksim Square. The uproar culminated in the protests that erupted in Istanbul and spread to nearly every province in the country in the late spring and summer that the government fiercely denounced and suppressed.

While the government has glorified Turkey's Ottoman past, it doesn't look so favorably upon the Byzantines from which Constantinople was seized in a protracted battle. Among the reasons it took so long for Mehmet the Conqueror to capture the embattled city and defeat the weakened Byzantines was their seemingly impenetrable 5th-century city walls, arguably the most important defensive structure in the history of the world. They had thwarted numerous attempted invasions from other enemies prior to the Ottomans. To this day, sections of the walls remain remarkably sound, while long stretches have been restored in lousy patchwork jobs and others lie in ruin, with city utility companies using the land along the walls as parking lots or storage areas.

Gobekli Tepe, an ancient site located in the southeastern province of Urfa believed to date back as far as the 10th millenium BC and thought to be the oldest known place of worship in the world, has also been a topic of controversy amid a serious push to commercialize this invaluable archaeological treasure.

The branding of Gobekli Tepe is no more evident than in the Netflix show "Atiye" ("The Gift"), the second original Turkish series produced for the streaming giant. It stars Beren Saat, one of Turkey's most famous actresses, as Atiye, a successful painter in Istanbul. The wild ride begins when it is revealed that a science-fiction-esque symbol that Atiye frequently draws and paints has been discovered in the excavation of Gobekli Tepe, the majority of which has not been unearthed.

"Rafadan Tayfa: Gobeklitepe," the sequel to a popular animated children's film set in the ancient site, has dominated the Turkish box office for several weeks now, breaking domestic and international records for the genre.

The Dogus Group, one of Turkey's biggest holding companies, pledged $15 million for the excavation and restoration of Gobekli Tepe, which the company's head has called Turkey's “zero point in time.” Such serious investment and the resulting buzz have surely stimulated the commercialization of the site.

Archaeologist Cigdem Koksal Schmidt, the wife of the late Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who oversaw the excavation of Gobekli Tepe from the mid-90s until his death in 2014, claimed in 2018 after the site was reopened to the public that concrete was being poured during the renovations. Other experts agreed that it appeared concrete was being used and criticized the practice, which was promptly denied by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

A roof structure of questionable aesthetic taste costing 6.6 million euros was built around and over the site during the course of the construction, though it has not deterred visitors from rushing to Gobekli Tepe following its reopening. Erdogan loftily proclaimed 2019 to be the "Year of Gobekli Tepe" and two million people reportedly visited during the first seven months of that year.

Istanbul-based independent researcher Arie Amaya-Akkermans told Al-Monitor, “One would think that a touristic campaign to popularize the site of Gobekli Tepe would have mostly positive repercussions, such as increasing numbers of tourists and the diffusion of public scholarship. Heritage professionals nevertheless worry about the safety of the site, first of all, and there are concerns about sustainable development, whether the region is ready to accommodate the numbers expected and whether large companies will out-price locals in market competition.”

And while the "Atiye" series has been well received, at least based on its IMBD rating, Gobekli Tepe experts have mixed feelings about it.

“I think it was a good show, although the real archaeology of Gobekli Tepe did not really play a role in the show's plot and narrative,” archaeologist Jens Notroff, who worked on the site as the assistant to the head of excavations, told Al-Monitor.

“In the end, an early Neolithic frame was simply not really fitting the story told in Atiye, and thus it wasn't pushed much further. [I] still feel a bit sorry for Urfa, though — this absolutely is a picturesque setting deserving to be featured more prominently,” Notroff tweeted earlier this month.

The heavy investment, promotion and increase in popularity of Gobekli Tepe certainly raise questions regarding the government's selective valorization and lack of concern for certain historical sites. The remains of the Roman-era city of Ephesus remain among the country's most popular and beloved tourist sites, yet Istanbul's own city walls have been neglected for years.

Meanwhile, the iconic Hagia Sofia, which was built as a church during the Byzantine era and converted to a mosque following the Ottoman conquest and then to a museum after the establishment of the Turkish republic, has been a site of contention in recent years, and Erdogan himself even vowed to change it back to a mosque in 2019. The government's sudden embrace of Gobekli Tepe is interesting given the unknown origins of those who gathered there.

“One of the most hotly-debated issues in archaeology today is the rise of pseudoarchaeology — among other conspiracies, mainly the belief that aliens built all structures not built by Europeans — propelled by TV programs such as 'Ancient Aliens,' where Gobekli Tepe has featured prominently,” Amaya Akkermans said.

“Archaeological conspiracies have also been at the heart of popular and not-so-popular archaeology with the Turkish History Thesis, [which claims that the Turks migrated from Central Asia in several waves, bringing civilization with them] long discredited but still not without an audience. The recent popularization of Gobekli Tepe has also opened the field for Turkish TV, not the most reliable historical source when it comes to verification of historical claims with political implications,” he added.

Will the intense commercialization will help or hinder archaeologists' ability to continue excavations and learn more about the history of the site? In a Turkey where sales figures and profit margins usually supersede conservation and protection of cultural heritage, it's not hard to imagine that this process and the surrounding hype will ultimately prove detrimental.

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