The Ur and Harran Latitudes, and Göbekli Tepe

NEWS: "... latitude at Harran equals 3/4 atan and at Ur 3/5 atan ..."

2008.04.25 - When is a "moon temple" an observatory? Recent press reports called my attention to Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (Göbekli Tepe - An Introduction). A flurry of news and media has followed the Jan. 18 Göbekli Tepe article in Science, 319:5861. Location = 37.224 N., 38.922 E. I particularly enjoyed a blog with good photos and critical attention to interpretation: My Visit to Paradise.

Since 1994, archaeologist Klaus Schmidt has excavated at the Göbekli Tepe stone circles, circles 7,000 years older than Stonehenge. Schmidt reported, "Gobekli changes everything. It's elaborate, it's complex, and it is pre-agricultural. That fact alone makes the site one of the most important archaeological finds in a very long time." The German Archaeological Institute presents information about their Göbekli Tepe activity online. I include several Göbekli Tepe videos and the links above for more imagery.

None of us, not even archaeos, needs an excuse for being unfamiliar with such early Neolithic megalithic monuments; their existence is still big news. Nonetheless, interpretations about religion and even Adam and Eve have appeared. In researching Göbekli Tepe's location, I read more of the regional archaeological context, with which I'm also rather unfamiliar. Literally and professionally, I live in the "New World," the Americas. One interpretation I encountered online called Harran's inhabitants "Septimite idolators." Okay then! It was more explicit associations with astromony that caught my attention with reference to Harran, an ancient center on the great plain south of Göbekli Tepe.

Harran is renowned as a Sabaean center associated with a moon "temple" and as an earlier Sumerian center. Harran was an important, once-populous prehistoric crossroad. I noticed Harran's latitude is 36.87 degrees, the acute angle of a 3:4:5 geodetic triangle (3/4 arctangent = 36.8699°). Was knowledge of the latitude considered in locating a moon temple at Harran? When is a "moon temple" an observatory? When is idolatry exact science?

At this point the Old World had captured my attention once again, distracting from great pueblo geometry near the same latitude. The history/myth of Mesopotamia holds that Ur and Harran are two important, related Sumerian centers, both associated with the moon. I checked the Ur ziggurat, at 30.963 degrees. At first I did not notice colatitude equals 5/3 arctangent (atan). Colatitude is the distance to the nearest pole, a geodetic reference point. Latitude references the equator, the mid-poles plane perpendicular to the rotation axis. The local level plane at Harran intersects the rotation axis at a 4/3 atan angle, forming a 3:4:5 right triangle, as does latitude in relation to the equator and geodetic center.

Ur Ziggurat latitude = (3/5) atan

Summarizing, colatitude at Harran equals 4/3 atan and at Ur 5/3 atan. Thus, latitude at Harran equals 3/4 atan and at Ur 3/5 atan. Perhaps these "idolators" were doing astronomy? Lucky me, astronomy is not punishable idolatry anymore.

4/3 atan
Ziggurat at Ur
5/3 atan
Tell Gobekli Tepe

Getting to why I did not notice the Ur colatitude right off, I checked latitude first because the precise value for pi caught my eye in the conversion table. We live in a 360 degree world, probably due to ancient astronomers in the Sumer region. Cultures also invent 365 degree worlds, as known from the history of astronomy in China. Divide earth's circumference by days per solar orbit (so = 0.98561°), multiply by 10 pi, and the result is the latitude of the Ur ziggurat (30.9638° = 31.4159 so). This 10x version of pi caught my eye, distracting from the latitude tangents. But, I digress with this precise pi coincidence given a 365.25 degree world.

ziggurat of ur
Mesopotamia Placemarks KML text file. Open with Google Earth.

I turned next back to Göbekli Tepe and Harran. The sites are apparently intervisible, just over 40 km apart. The difference in latitude from Harran to Göbekli Tepe equals precisely 1/1,000 of earth's circumference. This is where we enter a twilight zone in ancient astronomy. Of course, the opposite metaphor—"the dawn" of ancient astronomy, is the proper one regarding the implication. Göbekli Tepe features the oldest known room aligned north-south, evidence of astronomy in practice.

Even non-archaeos understand stratification and deposition basics—deeper is older. Göbekli Tepe is 12,000 years old. Harran is equated with Abraham of biblical fame, and with Ur of Sumeria, the "Civilized Land" and a "cradle of civilization." That cradle and astronomy is presumed to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old, not 12,000. Harran is located at 3/4 atan latitude, a fixed parameter, and Göbekli Tepe is at a specific latitude difference north. Because the fixed parameter must come first, the conundrum, of course, is that this precise 1/1,000 of circumference latitude difference is either coincidence, or ancient astronomy just took a leap back to 12,000 years ago.

Anyway, that's how I came to notice the latitudes and colatitudes of Ur and Harran, excitement enough without entering twilight zones of inference and interpretation. But if I must, I might argue the Ur and Harran "moon temples" evidence a relationship to astronomy and precise knowledge of geodesy. In other words, what we call exact sciences. In videos of Göbekli Tepe, carved stones speak well enough for themselves and for their makers 12,000 years ago.

2008.10.13 - Archaeology magazine has a new Göbekli Tepe article, entitled "The World's First Temple."

2008.11 - Smithsonsian Magazine has the good sense to frame same as a question: "Gobekli Tepe: The World's First Temple? Turkey's stunning Gobekli Tepe upends the conventional view of the rise of civilization," by Andrew Curry with photographs by Berthold Steinhilber.

2009.08 - repeats the temple interpretaton in Göbekli Tepe: Standing stones from humanity's oldest temple by Gwynneth Anderson. They are engineers when building, "Building such a site is an engineering challenge...." Then when preserving the monument, they are religious instead "...worshippers buried Göbekli Tepe under tons of earth...." Most interesting is the posted video with numerous still images of the site. The math is fuzzy, the images are clear:

2010.02.22 - attempts contributing to the interpretation front in a piece that likely reaches the widest audience so far for the now-dubbed "... Gobekli Tepe temple near Sanliurfa, Turkey, the oldest known temple in the world." That is not the only superlative being thrown about. Patrick Symmes writes "Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn't just old, it redefines old...." Not bad for a first building! What Göbekli Tepe redefines is the depth of our ignorance of our past.

To be fair, I found Göbekli Tepe news in the article. "Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the Göbekli Tepe surface." Recent digs uncovered more huge pillars, now 50, the biggest yet, and what are now the world's oldest radiocarbon-dated monumental artworks. I was also prompted to check the Web for new Göbekli Tepe videos, images, and articles, and far more imagery is online today than a few years ago.

As Göbekli Tepe's obscurity is displaced by archaeology's limelight, interpretations of the past will likelier give way to new findings, rather than present belief systems redefining their own origins in light of deep antiquity news.

2011.01.29 - Theresa Day writes in Today's Zaman, Göbekli Tepe: Making us rethink our ancestors, "German archaeologist Professor Klaus Schmidt ... tells us about site’s discovery, its importance, what has been uncovered to date ...."  It is satisfying to see the interpretive naming issue addressed:

The press is calling the site the “oldest temple” in the world, as it dates back to the tenth millennium BC, predating Stonehenge, for example, by seven millenia. What does Dr. Schmidt think? “It would be better to call it the ‘oldest yet found and excavated’ place of cultic activity,” he underlines. “The constructions at Göbekli Tepe do not satisfy the concrete definition of a ‘temple,’ but the tag ‘oldest temple’ illustrates the site’s standing in human development quite well.”

“The major discoveries as a result of work at the site are the realization that there must have been a very complex degree of organization in hunter-gatherer societies and that non-sedentary groups like those were building such monumental constructions,” he explains.

I recommend the article.  It is obvious the author is an archaeologist sensitive to interpretive issues.  I'm not certain the photo is actually Göbekli Tepe.

2010.02.22 - Several recent YouTube videos about Göbekli Tepe came to my attention via Facebook posts.  I'm surprised by the amount of utterly unbelievable pseudo-science now attached to the site.  Wildly fantastic ideation in pop culture and mass media is alarming evidence of failure of science education.  I did a search of recent videos and found one worth watching without mute, on the Global Heritage Fund YouTube channel.

2011.10.07 - Archaeologist argues 'world's oldest temples' were not temples. E. B. Banning, "So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East." Current Anthropology 52:5 (October 2011).

Meanwhile, the June 2011 issue (219:6) of National Geographic has a lenghty and vividly illustrated Göbekli Tepe article entitled The Birth of Religion. The article begins with the assertion, "Now the world's oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization... It is likely noone lived at Göbekli Tepe, a religious sanctuary...." In a National Geographic video, staff artist Fernando Baptista states (translated), "It was the first temple in the world, the birthplace of religion." That sort of grand imagining is simpy not scientific, just fantasy. We know so little of the deep past, such assertions are impossible, patently-false interpretation and an affront to critical thinking. Clay modeling and historical modeling clearly illustrate the difference between empirical evidence and thinking about it.

2011.12.16 - Electrum Magazine published, with good illustrations, Göbekli Tepe’s Oldest Temple in the World – an Archaeological Stone Age Site in Anatolia by Ömer Bülent Sever. For a change, the author, a participant in several excavation campaigns at Göbekli Tepe, reports on the "interpretations" rather than simply declaring the structures to be "temples" instead:

"The stone monoliths of the sanctuary have been interpreted by many historians and archaeologists as the oldest surviving temple in the world."

This article, with detailed descriptions of the site, is a welcome new contribution to popular literature on Göbekli Tepe.

2012.01.06 - A new facet of exploring the past worth a mention is browsing the photographic placemarking layer in Google Earth (GE), the online virtual globe. The application features placemarking "Layers", such as photographic databases. Numerous photographs from many angles allow cyber-explorers to easily envision once obscure ancient monuments. Other useful, visual GE Layers include YouTube and 3D Buildings. For a reference with good links, turn on the Wikipedia Layer.

Once-unknown, mysterious, ancient sites are no longer more-imagined than visible to everyone. Connecting place with data resources, especially with visual arts, is changing how we view the world and civilizations past. Cyberspace today is not unlike a magic carpet ride to anywhere and other times too, as we fly from place to place and from image to image with armchair ease. A lot has changed since Göbekli Tepe came to light, including new high resolution images of the site in Google Earth with the circles visible. Location: 37.22327 N, 38.92235 E.

2012.03.17 - A new LiveScience article, 'World's Oldest Temple' May Have Been Cosmopolitan Center by Owen Jarus, reports:

"Ancient blades made of volcanic rock that were discovered at what may be the world's oldest temple suggest that the site in Turkey was the hub of a pilgrimage that attracted a cosmopolitan group of people some 11,000 years ago."

While it is good to see some skepticism over the "temple" claim, now the idea of pilgrimage has been interjected. I fail to see how trade in tools constitutes a pilgrimage. Has the 'temple' interpretation become so entrenched that trade is seen as pilgrimage, supplanting the possibility that items are traded many times before arriving far from their source? How do initial interpretations influence subsequent ones? At least one caveat accompanies the interpretation:

"Though more research is needed to make any conclusive statements, if the team is right, then Göbekli Tepe was indeed something grand, a place of pilgrimage more than 11,000 years old that attracted people from across the region."

gobekli tepe aerial view

2014.03.09 - NEW: Göbekli Tepe Newsletter | Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. This year marks the 20th anniversary of archaeological research at Göbekli Tepe.

2014.03.14 - Göbekli Tepe – Developing tourism & the Urfa region.

2014.08.01 - Göbekli Tepe Newsletter 2014.  Klaus Schmidt (1953-2014).  Klaus Schmidt on

2016.06.10 - Could we really call it a ‘temple’? - Jens Notroff writes:

"... People just love to hear about the biggest, oldest, and most spectacular. And what could be more spectecular than a headline like “The Oldest Temples in the World”? That’s how you sell a find, don’t you? Yet, as scientists we need to show some healthy reservation – in particular when dealing with such phrases and terms which obviously have developed a certain history on their own. It’s all too easy to make up a good story or ‘hypothesis’, but substantiating such proposition is where real research actually starts."

2020.06.12 - Lecture organized by the Yunus Emre Institute streamed live on Mar 9, 2020.

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Reflections on Prehistory Essays written in 1995.


Mesopotamia is located on the fertile flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a hot desert ecology. Human settlements based on irrigation agriculture first appeared coincident to the establishment of Eridu about 7400 BP. A great stepped tower, a ziggurat, which culminated a series of 20 structures built one upon another during a span of 3500 years evidences Eridu's importance. Public architectural monuments were the focus of early Mesopotamian community centers. By 6500 BP. large scale canal systems and many towns with public architecture had been founded. Eridu was the largest.

The Eridu period was followed by the Uruk, named for its largest and most impressive city. Settled by 6000 BP, Uruk grew to a population of 10,000 within a millennia. A significant number of developments occur in Mesopotamia during the Uruk period, including increased economic specialization, the introduction of metals, and use of beasts of burden, the wheel, cart and implements like the plow. River based exchange networks existed. Uruk's large and impressive Anu ziggurat was repeatedly enlarged to become Mesopotamia's largest.

Uruk Ziggurat

During the dynastic period (5600 - 5100 BP.) a dozen city states evolved coincident with a widespread abandonment of rural settlement in the region. The population of Uruk rose to about 50,000 people and sprawled to cover 450 hectares, making it the world's first known urban center. Defensive walls around urban concentrations appeared. A significant new development during the Dynastic period was clay tablets with written script dating to 5,400 BP. A developed system with presentation conventions and 1500 ideographic and pictographic elements evolved. The Sumerian symbols can be equated with the forms of the earlier token convention dated to 10,000 BP. Writing facilitated cultural continuity, community organization and commodity transaction. During this period, about 5,000 BP., the first recognizable states appeared.

The innovation of irrigation agriculture made possible human settlement and population expansion in otherwise inhospitable areas. Mesopotamia exemplifies this emergent phenomena and provides one of the earliest case studies of a circumscribed marginal ecology being transformed into a breadbasket supporting large population centers. Only the Nile river exhibits a parallel situation and parallel developments during the same epoch. In Mesopotamia the earliest period of occupation by irrigation based agriculturalists centers on Eridu. Previous agricultural communities existed in northern Mesopotamia where rainfall adequate to support crops and domesticated animals occurs. What is unique at Eridu and other southern Mesopotamian settlements is a dependence on canal based irrigation, allowing emergent agriculturalists to adapt to an otherwise inhospitable ecology.

Irrigation did occur elsewhere prior to Eridu's settlement. At Eridu irrigation is a community scale enterprise. The earliest occupational levels include significant, central public structures that evolved to ziggurats. These structures remained central to Mesopotamian communities and are probably reflective of the evolution of community and regional organization during a continuum spanning millennia. Their constant rebuilding and enlargement is indicative of their social significance. Their centrality in the community is not only spatial; they are surrounded by important architecture like storage buildings and the most palatial compounds.

Canal works and public architecture evidence community organization. Evidence of land control or ownership systems is more ephemeral. Irrigation works make land more valuable to the agriculturalist or community, a quality dependent on a capacity to construct, operate and maintain a spatially complex, elaborate water transport system. This sort of sophisticated sphere of activity involves foresight, feasibility understanding, good engineering, organized construction and, to insure continuity, constant control and maintenance; in other words a community organization with continuity. Did communities, families or individuals own the land?

ziggurat stacked building phases

The value added dimension of irrigation system construction must have altered the way humans interrelated with land, particularly regarding temporality of ownership. Creators tend to view their products as property and persons and communities in creating extensive canal irrigation works became property owners. The ever larger central mound surmounted with community structures as the locus of the community area represents a form of deed, evidencing the community's longstanding claim to the locality. Today the ziggurats, tells and canal works remain as evidence from which the archaeologist works to reconstruct how the complex web of the first civilization and urban area evolved from a highly successful adaptation of irrigation agriculture.

The combination of agriculture, complex large scale irrigation works and community organization was such a successful adaptation that it sustained 50,000 member urban centers. The massive ziggurats, manifestations of the community's heritage and enduring temporality, encase many chapters in the history of the evolution of Sumerian civilization and statehood. Ziggurats, tells, canals and defensive walls write history for us today as surely as did the Sumerians evolve to utilize writing, annote our most ancient histories and thereby begin to close the door on prehistory.


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