Oldest Temple in the World You Can Still Visit

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: December 29, 2022
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Temples are visible structures for worship and they play an integral role in a variety of religions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, and many others currently use temples as their sacred sites dedicated to piety and religious community. Temples from cultures long gone also dot the earth’s landscape. What is the oldest temple in the world that you can still visit?

What is the Oldest Temple in the World You Can Still Visit?

Göbekli Tepe is located near Şanliurfa in southern Turkey and it’s the oldest temple in the world you can still visit. It’s over 11,000 years old and it was built before the invention of the wheel or pottery. It’s a neolithic structure purposefully built in large stone circles over 6,500 years before the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge.

There are megaliths supporting the large recessed circular structures, and both make up the bulk of what’s excavated. These megaliths are the oldest known in the world. Many anthropomorphized animals are depicted here, including ducks, vultures, gazelles, mouflon, foxes, snakes, boars, and onagers.

The temple was used for a thousand years before it was buried for unknown reasons. The site is only partially excavated after efforts to unbury the temple began in the 1990s. Less than five percent of it is uncovered. While most of the temple is still covered in dirt, the complex is huge.

It would have taken many people to transport the stones used to build this temple and some of the stones were quarried from far away locations. One of the prevailing theories is that an extended family dedicated their time to the carving and erection of the stones for a religious elite. Nobody knows if this is true, however.

Some of the stones at the site feature domesticated dogs and ancient domesticated einkorn wheat grows nearby. Mortars and pestles as well as grinding stones were found at the site as well, providing more evidence of grain processing.

Gobeklitepe National Park

The pillars found inside the temple are decorated with various animals, and some of the larger pieces may weigh around 50 tons!

©iStock.com/serkansenturk

Göbekli Tepe: Who Built the Oldest Temple on Earth?

It is believed that the temple was built by hunter-gatherers. This contradicts previous assumptions that humans became stationary before architecture developed. Perhaps it was architecture that drew humans to stick around in one spot. It may have been communal structures like Göbekli Tepe that inspired the development of domesticated food animals and agriculture.

The people that built the oldest temple in the world aren’t well understood. Göbekli Tepe’s size and organized mathematical architecture imply that a high-functioning network of communities existed at the time. Whether this society was fully migratory or somewhat sedentary is unknown, as is our understanding of the nature of their social organization. Questions about central control and tribalism remain unanswered.

A large number of animal bones were found at the site with telltale signs of processing, storage, and cooking. The game animals present were all wild varieties of various species including geese, vultures, ducks, cranes, sheep, boar, and red deer. These remains indicate that the culture invested in the site was still gathering wild game and not farming domesticated animals.

The culture that created this structure and the art inside used only stone tools. They depicted humans and animals, though no one is sure what the significance is of these images. The depictions are around 6,000 years older than written language, so even experts do not know how to interpret them.

Gobeklitepe - Sanliurfa - Turkey

The excavated top layer of Göbekli Tepe revealed stone pillars in a circular arrangement just like Stonehenge. However, Göbekli Tepe was built thousands of years earlier.

©iStock.com/Mehmet Nisanci

How was the Oldest Temple in the World Originally Used?

The religion that inspired this temple isn’t understood though it involves the star named Sirius. The original scientists that discovered the site in the 1960s blew off the limestone they could see as a run-of-the-mill medieval cemetery. However, the archaeologist at the site in the 1990s suggested that this temple was dedicated to a cult of the dead, which was common during this time in pre-history.

The site may also have had a profound social use outside of worship. Trading, partnering, and eating probably took place in a large group setting. There is also evidence that limited housing existed at the site.

How Do I Visit Göbekli Tepe in Turkey?

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest temple in the world you can still visit and the best way to get there is by flying into Şanliurfa via Ankara or Istanbul. Şanliurfa is called Urfa by locals and it was known as Edessa during the ancient Roman era.

From Urfa, the visitor’s center is easily accessed by car. Shuttles are available that take you up the hill to the actual ruins. The visitor’s center has a café and souvenir shops.

There are a lot of guided tours to choose from and the temple is about 20 minutes outside of the city. It costs around five dollars for admission and there is a protected area with a large platform built around and over the excavated site. Children under eight are free.

Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is located in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey approximately 7.5 miles from the city of Şanlıurfa.

©iStock.com/bodrumsurf

What Else Should I Do When I Visit Göbekli Tepe?

Şanliurfa (near Göbekli Tepe) is a great place to spend a few days if you’re a history buff. Back in town, the Şanliurfa Archaeology Museum holds objects excavated from the temple site and admission is around three dollars.

There are reconstructions of large structures with contextualization and an opportunity to see details up close that can’t be seen from the platform at the site. It’s also possible to take a shuttle from this museum to the visitor’s center at Göbekli Tepe, so you can easily visit both locations.

Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum

The Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum has ancient artifacts from Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa, Harran, and more.

©iStock.com/Dreamer Company

There is a variety of different museum passes available for sale by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They allow you entry into other cultural sites around the country for a set number of days. If you’re planning on spending a few days in Turkey exploring history, these packages may be better than direct admissions.

Even if you don’t need an entire package, purchasing an entry ticket to the Şanliurfa Archaeology Museum earns access to other historical sites outside of Göbekli Tepe. A mosaic from 184 CE originating from Edessa, for example, went on display in 2015 after it was returned to Turkey by the Dallas Museum in Texas. 

There are neolithic, Bronze Age, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hittite objects on display as well. These objects vary from ornaments and art to pottery and tools. There are also examples of calligraphy and old Qurans from the region on display.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Philipp Berezhnoy


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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Şanlıurfa Museum, Available here: https://muze.gov.tr/muze-detay?sectionId=SUM02&distId=SUM
  2. UNESCO World Heritage Convention, Available here: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1572/