What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis?
Since I'm based in Berlin, I talk a lot with German archaeologists. There was a lot of buzz over here about Gobekli Tepe, and this story had been reported in Germany, but not in the English language media. Because it's such an incredible find, Schmidt's under a lot of pressure, so it took me about a year to arrange my visit for a time when he was digging in Urfa.
What was your favorite moment while covering Gobekli Tepe?
Watching the sun come up over the stones was an incredible moment. They're huge, and it's hard to imagine how primitive hunters carved them without metal tools. And yet there is a sense of mystery about them that I found a bit off-putting. I wanted to feel some deep connection or resonance, but the symbols and shapes are so far removed from anything I am familiar with that I felt like a total stranger.
Have any problems arisen since they started excavating the site?
Schmidt had good reason to be worried about the press: A major German magazine ran a cover story on the site last year suggesting it was the historical basis for the Biblical story about the "Garden of Eden." Because Muslims consider Adam a Muslim prophet (like Abraham, Moses and Jesus) when the Turkish media got a hold of the story there was a lot of pressure for him to stop digging at "Adam's birthplace"—a holy site. So Schmidt was very intent on stressing to me that the area was a very nice place to live in prehistoric times, but not literally "paradise," for fear I'd give the misunderstanding new legs.
Were there any interesting moments that didn't make it to the final draft?
I also spent some time talking to people in Urfa about the site. Most locals have never been there, and have a lot of strange ideas about it. Most of all, they see it as a way to bring in tourists. Urfa is in a fairly poor part of Turkey, so cultural tourism is a big deal. But the site's not ready for a flood of visitors—it's still being excavated, it's on a hill at the end of a bad dirt road, and the only people there are archaeologists, who are working as fast as they can to figure out what the site is all about and don't have a lot of time to show visitors around. When they're not excavating, the archaeologists cover a lot of the pillars up with stones to protect them from the elements. One local tourism official asked me why Schmidt was working so slowly, and when I thought he could start sending tour buses to the top of Gobekli Tepe. I didn't have a good answer. Schmidt's trying to find money to build a visitor's center nearby, and perhaps build walkways or something so that tourists can see the stones without damaging the site.
Are there any theories about what led to the site's abandonment?
Schmidt thinks society outgrew it, sort of. His theory is that they served the needs of a hunter-gatherer culture somehow, and as those hunter-gatherers developed agriculture and domesticated animals their spiritual needs changed radically enough that the temples at Gobekli Tepe no longer served their needs.
Why was the site initially dismissed by academics?
The big broken stones on top of the hill—actually fragments of pillars—were mistaken for medieval gravestones, and the academics doing the original survey in the 1960s simply didn't look any deeper. The site is remote enough that only a few archaeologists had ever been there. Usually prehistoric settlements in the region are found near water sources or rivers, so finding something like this on top of a dry plateau was really surprising.