Sean Thomas

How to have the archaeological adventure of a lifetime

How to have the archaeological adventure of a lifetime
Gobekli Tepe (Image: Getty)
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Anyone with even a passing interest in history and archaeology has surely, at some point, asked themselves: what would it be like, to be an eye-witness to a world-shaking discovery?

To walk down the Valley of the Kings, even as Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s Tomb. Or to visit Sutton Hoo in the week they unearthed the first glittering Anglo-Saxon treasures. Maybe you’d like to have been among the first to see marvellous walls of Troy as the great German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann lifted away the veil of thirty centuries.

Well, remarkably, you can do something like this today, by visiting the so-called Tas Tepeler ('the stone hills') in eastern Turkey. More remarkably, as my recent article explains, you will witness something even more important, more exciting and mind-blowing than those examples given above. In truth, you might be witness to the greatest archaeological discovery ever.

It may sound impossible: daunting, remote, difficult. It isn’t. Here's exactly how to go about it. First you need to fly to the city of Sanliurfa in southeast Anatolia. There are no direct flights from the UK, but there are many flights to Istanbul from multiple UK airports, and from Istanbul it’s a pretty easy connection to Sanliurfa, with Turkish Airlines. As I write, Turkey has minimal Covid restrictions: if you are fully vaxxed, you fill in a short online form, and that’s it. No tests required.

Sanliurfa, Turkey (Alamy)

Where to stay? Since the discovery and celebration of Gobekli Tepe, Sanliurfa – which is a fascinatingly historic destination in itself – has blossomed with hotels (also restaurants, shops and Cafés). These days you can even get an alcoholic drink, which didn’t use to be the case – Sanliurfa is a site of Islamic pilgrimage, as the reputed birthplace of Abraham, which makes it quite conservative.

One hotel with a bar is the Hilton Garden Inn. It’s pleasant enough, with an excellent location near the delightful Fishponds of Abraham, but it is also somewhat functional. A better bet (but probably sans bar) might be the one of the new boutique hotels, carved out of exquisite medieval houses in the Old Town. Try the Palmyra, the Hayatli, or the Gazel. You can expect to pay about £40 to £70 a night.

Now for the archaeology. Your first stop has to be the grandiose, intricately carved, 12,000 year old T-stones of UNESCO World Heritage listed Gobekli Tepe. A morning here provides the astonishing context for all the other sites, as it was the first of the Tas Tepeler to be excavated, and is still the most complex and beautiful to date.

Gobekli Tepe is a mere twenty minutes out of town, making it easy to reach. You don’t need a car at this point, simply jump on one of the many tour buses, or summon a taxi. In the right season (not the depths of winter or the height of summer) you might see archaeologists digging in one of the Gobekli Tepe pits. However, the primary stone circles are now protected in a futuristic steel-and-plastic 'tent' so you cannot get that close to the carvings.

Work is still ongoing in the Gobekli Tepe pits (Getty)

For a more vivid upfront experience, and the real sense of 'being there' as history is made, you need to check one of the other dozen-or-so Tas Tepeler, such as Sefer Tepe, Sayburc, Ayanlar Hoyuk. At the moment the most striking and accessible of these sites is Karahan Tepe. It’s about an hour’s drive from Sanliurfa and clearly marked on Google Maps. You’ll need to rent a car to get there (maybe collect at the airport to avoid driving in the middle of Sanliurfa). Karahan Tepe is not officially open to the public, yet – this is expected to happen later in 2022 – but the bored guards at the site have no problem with people rocking up right now, on their own. 

Karahan Tepe is where you will see the extraordinary 'penis chamber', with its phallic pillars, and the bizarre, grimacing 'gargoyle'. You might be the only tourists there: contemplating one of the grandest revelations in all archaeology, a few feet away, and only discovered these last two years. There is a good chance you will also see archaeologists hard at work, pulling away rubble and backfill, making jaw-dropping finds on a daily basis. For anyone with a love of history, the emotion of bearing witness to this, in person, is quite intense and profound.

After that, simply wander around Sanliurfa, explore the Old Town, eat the local liver kebab (deliciously spicy) and clock the church of the Crusaders (built when Sanliurfa was called Edessa). From here you could go further afield, to mysterious Harran (early Islamic), or even more mysterious Sogmatar (creepy and pagan); or you could grab a lovely week on the beautiful Turkish Med. But for now just sip sweet dark Turkish tea in the charming, evocative, nobly colonnaded 16th century Gumrek caravanserai as you congratulate yourself on an historical adventure you will never forget.