Archaeology holidays in
eastern Turkey

It was a local shepherd who re-discovered Göbekli Tepe. In 1994, he bent down to brush the dust off a large oblong stone which was lying flat on the top of a small hill. It would have been impossible, then, to realise that what he was touching was one of the most important archaeological finds ever made.
The site is inconspicuous and remote, in rolling hillside, and marked by a single mulberry tree. “It seemed fitting that it was a shepherd that first discovered the site,” said David McGuinness, one of the two directors of our Turkey archaeology specialist, Travel The Unknown. It was local knowledge that brought David here, too, way back before Göbekli Tepe’s existence was known to the wider world. “I had a chance encounter with a student from Urfa in the market there. He had been involved in some seasonal work with the archaeologists and told me about the site. I was intrigued but there was little information to be found, and it was in no guidebooks.”
Urfa is a city in southeastern Anatolia known as the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. Nowadays, its museum is full of finds and information about Göbekli Tepe. But when David visited, nothing about the city could have prepared him for the archaeological remains just a short distance away.

“I visited the next day and was amazed by what I found,” David says. “I could see that this was clearly an incredible site, with beautiful stone carvings of birds, lizards, human-like structures, and its remote setting was very special.”

When David returned to the site again, keen to set up an archaeology tour of eastern Turkey, he got to know the site’s lead archaeologist. In 1996, Professor Klaus Schmidt, from the German Archaeological Institute, had had his own ‘discovery’ of the site. He led excavations here until his death in 2014 and always passionately advocated its extraordinary importance. “We didn’t expect this,” he said, speaking to the BBC for a documentary about the enormous T-shaped pillars that he unearthed on the site. “We have a chapter in world history which we didn’t know existed.”

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Turkey holiday, best of Turkey

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Highlights tour including Istanbul, Cappadocia and Troy

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What’s so special about Göbekli Tepe?

A shepherd, an archaeologist and a traveller had all discovered something here. But what exactly had they found?

Göbekli Tepe, of which only a small percentage is currently unearthed, appears to be an ancient temple some 12,000 years old. It completely shakes up conventional wisdom about the sophistication of our stone-aged ancestors. It predates Stonehenge by 6,000 years, but that’s not all. At its construction, agriculture had only been adopted by a small portion of the Middle East and China. Writing and pottery did not exist. Most of human civilisation was hunting and gathering in small groups, not working to build temples. “This site marks the end of that time and the beginning of a new age. A turning point in world history,” Dr Schmidt said. Now, people think it was a strain of local wheat that allowed people to settle the area, and feed the huge workforce required to build the temple – and to carry the site’s individual megaliths, which weigh 10 tonnes each.

David got to know Dr Schmidt on subsequent trips, and between them, they discussed protecting the site. “While he was very keen that people learn about the site and its importance, he was clearly concerned about the risks,” David says. When David developed his archaeology tour of Turkey with Travel The Unknown, he was the first company to do so. He worked with Dr Schmidt himself on guidelines for protecting the site. They’re simple, asking tourists not to remove stones or flint, to resist the urge to distract the archaeologists, and not to photograph the ongoing digs.
They were right to prepare, because in 2019 President Erdogan declared it the ‘year of Göbekli Tepe’, publicity which has made many more aware of the site. By 2018, the excavations had a 4,000-square-metre roof, a network of walkways, and UNESCO world heritage status. It had also caused controversy: archaeologists – among them archaeologist Çiğdem Köksal Schmidt – Dr Klaus Schmidt’s widow, accused the Turkish government of pouring concrete on the site to replace wooden walkways.
Despite developments, Göbekli Tepe remains under-visited. When western tourism rushed to Turkey in the 1970s, it didn’t come here, to southeastern Anatolia. There is no nearby beach. There’s no public transport. It is not convenient for a day trip, unlike famous Roman ruin Ephesus, which even gets tourists flying in for a single day.
“Tourism hasn’t been a significant source of income into that area until the last couple of decades,” says Sten Vermeiren, who works for Travel The Unknown and is a self-confessed Göbekli Tepe fan. Whilst 19th-century Europeans trampled all over Turkey’s Roman ruins, no one comes here. “It’s such a new and historical site that taking tourists there will have a really positive impact on the local community.”

What do archaeology tours of eastern Turkey entail?

Traditionally, tours of Turkey’s archaeology focus on the western side of the country. “Western Turkey has many iconic archaeological sites,” David explains, “like Ephesus, Troy and Pamukkale, which are incredible sites, and it has some beautiful hidden gems like Termessos (a ruined Pisidian city in Antayla).” But to see Göbekli Tepe, you have to head east.

“Eastern Turkey boasts the most ancient history,” David says. “Göbekli Tepe of course, but also Çatalhöyük, the world's oldest town, the cave cities of Cappadocia, the Hittite capital of Hattusa and the stunning heads of Mount Nemrut.”
Göbekli Tepe is relatively near Mount Nemrut, close to the mystic city of Urfa, and a few hours from the famous hot air balloon-strewn rock formations of Cappadocia. However, many of the sites are quite spread out, meaning internal flights are necessary. You need one to get from Istanbul down to Mount Nemrut, and to go back up to Ankara.
Many sub-par archaeology ‘tours’ give you very little time at the sites and are contractually obligated to make several stops at businesses who have ‘sponsored’ the tour. But go with a responsible operator who actually cares about the sites and you’ll get longer – and even repeat visits over a number of days, if you’re really interested. You’ll travel in a small group and get plenty of time with an expert guide who is passionate about what the area offers. David sums it up, “The variety and antiquity of the sites in eastern Turkey is unparalleled anywhere in the world. This IS the Garden of Eden!”
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Travel The Unknown] [Gobleki Tepe - further away: Rolfcosar] [Gobleki Tepe - up close: Benefits] [Mount Nemrut: Travel the Unknown]