Anatolia: Where Civilization Began


Dear Burak, the journey of The Wise has proceeded so fast that it seems like only yesterday we were pondering the layout of our first issue. Now, lo and behold, our first year has passed already. We are devoting this first-anniversary issue to Anatolia and the values that led us to begin this journey and share the spirit in which we live with others from around the world. We’ve thought of an artsy cover title, Anatolia: Where Civilization Began, so before everything else, I would like you to tell us about Anatolia, especially from your own viewpoint.

Before starting to discuss the importance of Anatolia on the course of human civilization, we need to understand who we are and how our endless voyage began on the surface of this planet. While almost the entire planet is home to human beings today, the most critical turning point of our evolutionary process took place in the heart of Africa around 2 million years ago on the fertile lands we now call Tanzania. In other words, the roots of our species belong to a specific location on this planet where the ecological conditions allowed a small group of early humans to stand up on two feet and begin using their hands to manipulate objects, using them as tools. That was the crucial point in our history, so in a way, we could rightly say we are all Tanzanians. All traces of our first tool-making ancestors were discovered around a place known as the gorge of Olduvai in Tanzania.

Humans did not just appear simultaneously on every continent of the planet. A single species evolved in Africa and spread to other continents and lands through a long and slow process of migration. Why did they leave their homeland and search for new habitats around the world? Was Africa a boring place for our ancestors? The answer reveals the true character of human history. If ecological conditions change rapidly within the cycles of Mother Nature, it is essential that a species finds new more suitable habitats if it is to avoid extinction. Therefore, the history of humanity is strongly connected to the history of nature in this struggle for survival. Our tool-making ancestors lived in Africa for hundreds of thousands years safely and happily, but a harsh change in climate forced them to search for new homes. Around 50,000 years ago, flocks of these tool-making humans began spreading to other continents through migration routes. They would have come across some important stopping points, which enabled them to rest for some time or settle down permanently. Anatolia, in my opinion, was the most important of these stopping points.

The inspiration for our artsy cover title, Anatolia: Where Civilization Began, was the ideas presented in your book, Cosmic Ocean. Since you are the author of that wonderful book, as well as one of our writers, we would like to hear directly from you why Anatolia is the place where civilization began?

The migration process was not like a vacation where thousands of humans just travelled to nice places and had fun. In fact, thousands of them starved and died, and only a fraction of them survived by finding suitable lands with plenty of food and water sources. When we retrace  the migration routes of 50,000 years ago, we find only a handful of places with the right conditions to allow our ancestors to settle there and produce their own food. The Nile Valley was one such place, but because of this river’s tendency to flood, which was probably bewildering to the first migrants, it was impractical for large numbers of humans around those times. In spite of this, some migrant groups chose to settle around the plains near the river Nile. Heading northeast, there were the mild rivers of the Palestine-Levant region, where we find traces of some early human settlements, the most important of which is at Jericho. Then finally, we see northern Mesopotamia, where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers generously brought their waters, supporting plant life and providing an ideal home for the tired human migrants.

Around 20,000 years ago, southeastern Anatolia would have looked like the Garden of Eden with its fertile lands, lush forests, and high plains, which provided protection from floods. There were so many natural resources that it must have been a dream environment for the tool-making humans. There were volcanic rocks to make blades, axes, and ornaments; plenty of wood to build simple shelters and gather into communities; and of course, ample food everywhere. They only needed to discover “the power of the seed” to invent agriculture, and the females of these groups actually did this more than 10,000 years ago in southeastern Anatolia. It’s no big surprise then that we find the marvelous site of Göbeklitepe in the heart of these fertile lands.

Now we have mentioned Gobeklitepe, which everyone seems to be talking about lately: “Ah, Gobeklitepe? It’s said that it’s a wonderful place and very important…” We hear such statements all the time. Even while we were returning from Egypt, someone on the plane asked me, “Why go to Egypt when you have Gobeklitepe in your own country?” However, I don’t think people who say these things have really grasped the significance of Gobeklitepe. Now, I would like to hear it from you: What is the importance of this site? What is the story of this place, which could change how we view the history of humanity?

The mainstream media loves simplified definitions that make headlines sound more sensational. So, when the chief of the excavations, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, talked to a journalist about the environment of Göbeklitepe 12,000 years ago, using the metaphor of Eden, most newspapers jumped on the story. Their headlines proudly declared it the “home of Adam and Eve.” That was pure ignorance, and it proved they did not understand the key importance of the site. The “sacred site” at Göbeklitepe, the so-called “first temple of the world,” actually represents the first (and very impressive) examples of abstract human thought. We do not only find the ruins of extraordinary prehistoric architecture, but more important than this, we find a rich symbolism that presents extremely valuable clues about how these people pondered and understood the universe and the cycle of life and death. We find their perceptions of the cosmos through marvelous iconography and symbols, which were not created arbitrarily, but designed carefully to reflect and preserve their knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Klaus Schmidt talks about a religion, but I think the symbolism and architecture of Göbeklitepe does not represent a cultural view of a religion as we understand it today. It was more likely their “philosophy,” their cosmology, reflecting their comprehension of the universe and life. We can therefore conclude that the site served as a sort of library, a center of arts, a place of ritualistic philosophy, or even an education center. The archaeologists also tend to hurriedly argue its role as a place of worship . Whatever functions the site had, it is obvious the powerful symbology of the site presents us with a stunning depth of abstract thought and human intelligence 12,000 years ago. This is real, solid evidence for the place where human civilization started. That symbology, if we carefully observe, understand, and try to decode it, becomes the basis for the symbolic expression system that we see in later millennia around Anatolia, the Aegean Islands, Greece, eastern Europe, Egypt, and southern Mesopotamia. The brilliant archaeologist and prehistorian Marija Gimbutas called this symbolism “The Language of the Goddess” in the early 90s, underlining the view that the abstract thinking of our early ancestors led to a way of perceiving the universe as a loving and caring mother. Göbeklitepe was most likely the birthplace of this thought system.

How is it then that the artifacts that have been discovered, or which will be discovered later, can change things regarding humanity? How does humanity benefit from knowing there is such a place in Anatolia where everything began? How would it affect our everyday lives?

The important point is not the geographical coordinates where the first sparks initiated human civilization. What we need to concentrate on is the essentials of the symbolism and abstract thought I mentioned above. This gives us an idea of the foundations of our root culture. If we correctly understand the impulse of the thought system that gave root to our civilization, then we can follow the footsteps of this nucleus to nearby locations and lands. This helps us to trace the migration routes of the symbolism created at Göbeklitepe as it found its way to other important settlements, bringing them revelations about the Earth, the universe, and life itself. Southeastern Anatolia was most probably the first place where humans found a way to express their abstract thoughts using symbols and record them with reliefs or carvings on rocks, stones, and wood.

Depictions were stylized using simple paints on various walls and ornaments, and this helped to add “usability” to these symbols. We are talking about glyphs and pictorial symbols that continued developing in Çatalhöyük and Hacılar in central Anatolia, before spreading to Greece, the Aegean Islands, and the Balkans. In a couple of millennia, these highly standardized symbols became the first prototype for a writing system that created the Vinca script in eastern Europe. If we see the picture like this, we can easily spot the characteristics of the first conceptions and philosophy that created our civilization: A peaceful society where all individuals shared in the hard work and harvest of production. There was no gender inequality, no social classes, no hegemony, and no warfare or elements of violence. The Earth (and the universe) was a loving, caring, nurturing mother to all, rather than being a wrathful and jealous male deity. This alone, could rapidly change our opinion on prehistory and clear the way for a new understanding. The birthplace of all these essential thoughts and principles is Anatolia, which explains the importance of this land.

The Turkish name for Anatolia is “Anadolu.” If we play with words, we can reach Ana (meaning mother) and Dolu (meaning full) and derive a nice meaning such as “full of mothers.” When you said, “loving and caring mother,” that association immediately surfaced in my mind. Yes, it has been said that Anatolia is derived from the Greek words meaning “East land,” but this association is more appealing: “Mothers Land.” When we look at the history of civilization in this land, we can see that it has always been the territory of the Goddess: Cybele, Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Inanna, and many other names of the Goddess. Therefore, despite the fact that Anatolia became influenced by male energy and masculine beliefs in later times, it has always been a feminine construct in essence. Could you please tell us about that aspect of Anatolia?

The word “Anatolia” derives from ancient Greek and was used to describe the eastern lands where the sun rises, so it literally means “The Eastern Land.” But we cannot be sure about the real origin of the word, since the Hellens frequently distorted the ancient names of lands to make them conform and be meaningful in their native tongue. Thus, the word Anatolia could well be derived from the proper name “Anna” or maybe “Anat,” which signify the Mother Goddess of Anatolia and Syria respectively. “Anna” was a Luwian name and also used by the Hittites around the second millennium BCE, while “Anat” is considered to be a Semitic name for the creator goddess in the lands slightly south of Anatolia.

It is no big secret that the essential “deity” for all the lands from the Nile Valley to Anatolia and from the Greek mainland to the Baltic, was the Great Mother who appeared with different names but with the same or similar symbols. Anatolia appears to be the place where this idea originated. Thousands of figurines, depictions, and ornaments found around Çatalhöyük and other sites are convincing enough that the procreation was connected to the “life-giving force” of the universe that appeared on symbols for the Mother Goddess. This culture was dominant in all parts of Anatolia for thousands of years. Even after the Indo-European migrants arrived, the names of the lands still strongly emphasized the goddess cult. Adana (a city in modern Turkey) was “Ada-wana” in the ancient Luwian language, which meant “The Land of the Mother Goddess.” There are many more examples like this. Anatolia was the homeland of the Great Mother at the beginning of civilization.

I believe that this feminine construct is highly effective at merging and fusing the Anatolian people. Thus, when the Turks entered this land in the eleventh century, it was the underlying factor in coexisting with the established tribes so easily, even though they were Muslims. The Turks has their roots in a shamanic culture, so they respected women highly. Even if there is an effort in our country today to create ethnic divisions and conflicts, I still think we have a common identity: “Anatolianness.” Each individual who lives on this land is a mix of various Anatolian cultures, so no one can claim, “I am purely this or that,” because when it is traced back, our roots may surprise us. This is what brings flexibility and tolerance to the people of this land. We are born in Anatolia with this potential already written in our genes…

Beginning in the 16th century BCE, the dominant culture in Anatolia became patriarchal, so the ancient elements of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures were quickly absorbed and assimilated by the newcomers. The patriarchal society tried to replace the goddess cult with male deities and wrathful storm gods, but the native cults resisted this for centuries. In the fifth century AD, after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, an unprecedented campaign of oppression was started against the followers of the ancient cults. By the 10th century, the belief system of Anatolia’s goddess was almost completely destroyed by both Christianity and Islam. So, when the Turks arrived in Anatolia in the 11th century, as you mentioned above, it was already very late for the ancient thoughts and cults of Anatolia.

How have you benefitted from being born in Anatolia?

I consider it a unique chance. We embrace a great legacy here that has come through the millennia, and this is really priceless. It definitely helped me to develop an awareness that led me to research deeply the prehistoric roots of civilization. Every square meter of land I walk upon is full of reminders of this land’s historical and cultural wealth. I visited Ephesus when I was nine years old, and I still remember the effect of that enormous city on my mind. Yet it was just the beginning. I felt I would dedicate most of my upcoming years to researching and understanding the very beginning of our civilization.

How can the people of the world tap into Anatolia and enrich their own lives? What do you think is Anatolia’s contribution to the world in this context?

Anatolia presents solid proof of the roots of the civilization that our species created on this planet. Contrary to popular belief implanted in people’s minds by the monotheistic religions, there was never a gender inequality in the beginning: Our civilization was built upon a very simple social order where men and women worked and shared together. There were no social classes, no social hierarchy where some were privileged, no warfare, no standing armies, and no violence. There was never an “Adam and Eve” story, because our ancestors evolved on the fertile lands of Africa before migrating here to establish the first social organization. Of course, the universe itself was the Mother of all, and there was no need to worship a creator if the cosmos was understood as a dynamic, evolving, and capable being that formed life in an endless regenerative cycle.

Anatolia was the homeland of this simple and pure understanding. If our ancestors managed to develop such a philosophy in this land while establishing an equal, free, and cooperative social order without violence or warfare, then it must be possible to do it again. Studying the roots of civilization in Anatolia helps those who long for a peaceful world where equality, liberty, and fraternity rule alongside justice. The world was not always like this. If our ancestors did it here before, we can do it again. Anatolia for us is the encouragement that comes from understanding our history.

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