Last month, I set off to Southeastern Turkey on the trail of two emerging tourism treasures that are just beginning to register this off-the-path corner of the country on the radars of world travelers. First and foremost, the still-under-excavation ruins of Göbekli Tepe are believed to be the world’s oldest temple (predating Stonehenge by some 6,000 years) – a finding that is changing the way we view human history. Nearby, the impressive Zeugma Mosaics Museum debuted last year in Gaziantep as the largest mosaics museum in the world, showcasing wonderfully intact and intricate Roman period mosaics, dating back some two millennia.
Southern Turkey Unearths the Next Stonehenge at Göbekli Tepe
Set on a secluded hilltop in southeastern Turkey, archaeologists have spent much of the last two decades steadfastly uncovering what’s believed to be the world’s oldest temple, as the site, Göbekli Tepe, shapes up to take its place on the world tourism circuit as the next Stonehenge. As the buzz begins to pour out in mainstream media (National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine recently ran articles), a small segment of curious tourists have started visiting the working excavation site to discover firsthand just what is causing science to rethink the dawn of civilization.
In short, the nearly 12,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe site appears to contradict the long-held belief that it was agriculture that first gave rise to civilization, instead indicating that it may have indeed been man’s inherent call to worship that initially converted our ancient nomadic ancestors. Today, on this dusty hilltop (Göbekli Tepe translates to "belly hill" in Turkish), dozens of giant stone pillars (some measuring more than 16 feet) entrenched in excavation pits are arranged in ring-like formations, cleanly carved with animal bas-reliefs depicting snakes, foxes, and more. Excavations of this ceremonial center are still ongoing. Göbekli Tepe’s true meaning is still being deciphered, and tourists are just beginning to discover this ancient site.
Access is via the biblical city of Şanlıurfa (formerly known as Ur), located about 9 miles away and the site of the prophet Abraham’s purported birthplace; don’t miss the city's terrific Şanlıurfa Museum with artifacts on display from the Göbekli Tepe site, including the world’s oldest statue, the 13,500-year-old Balıklıgöl Statue.
World’s Largest Mosaics Museum Open in Gaziantep
This dusty, pistachio-producing city was barely a blip on the Turkish tourism circuit until last year, when Gaziantep’s extraordinary Zeugma Mosaics Museum was unveiled. Billed as the largest mosaics museum in the world, the collection is expansive and exquisite, showcased in a generously funded and remarkably executed three-floor museum building.
The mosaics collection was unearthed from the ancient Roman city of Zeugma (currently located in the town of Nizip), about 28 miles from Gaziantep. Zeugma, a once prosperous trading center, was littered with elite Roman villas touting exquisite, designed-to-impress floor mosaics. Some 35 of these decorative floor mosaic panels are on display, most of which depict geometric patterns or elaborate mythological scenes including the celebrated Gypsy Girl mosaic (in fact a Maenad, or female follower of Dionysus). An impressively displayed bronze sculpture of Mars also figures prominently. Expect interactive technology, including touchscreen games, 3D films, and audio-visual effects, to further enhance the visitor experience.
Making it Happen
Flights can be booked to Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines; the two cities are less than a two-hour drive apart (a driver and guide are recommended). While Southern Turkey has unfortunately been making headlines of late due to its brushes with the Syrian conflict just across the border and the related influx of refugees, rest assured that visits to the two sites cited here were situated well out of harm's way during my visit in late October, though the U.S. State Department should be consulted for updates prior to booking travel to the region.
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!