ii. The Direction of Heaven

The stone rows at Karahan Tepe are directed towards the north, and the temple structures at Göbekli Tepe are likewise roughly north-south. Other stone structures in South-east Turkey from a slightly later age, such as Çayonu north of the city of Diyarbakir and the now submerged site of Nevali Çori in Hilvan province, between Diyabakir and Sanliurfa, also have their ritual areas at the northern ends. This preference for the north is found among the Sabians, a pagan race who thrived for thousands of years at the nearby city of Harran. They envisaged the Primal Cause, God himself, as a divine force that resided in the north. This was their kiblah, or direction of prayer, while Sabian feasts honouring the Mystery of the North regularly took place. Was it possible that the Sabian form of worship was a leftover from a much earlier epoch, when the earliest Neolithic temples were built in the same region?

Yezidi sanjak depicting cosmic bird atop the sky-pole.

Several other early cultures, religions and civilizations connected the north not only with the direction of the celestial abode, but also with the transmigration of the soul. Among them were the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (first encountered by European travellers during the Middle Ages and erroneously termed 'St John's Christians'), the angel-worshipping Yezidi from Northern Iraq and Syria, and the Shiite sect known as the Brethren of Purity, all of which are descended from the Sabians of Harran. Most usually it is the Pole Star, also known as the North Star, that is the object of their veneration, even though originally this could not have been Polaris, the current Pole Star, due to the process of precession.

Did the priestly elite of the Early Neolithic world also venerate the Pole Star during their own epoch, c. 9500-5500 BC? Like the Mandaeans, they practiced a cult of the dead, focused around the process of excarnation, whereby vultures were allowed to pick clean the flesh of human carcasses. It is depicted on the walls of Çatal Huyuk, the oldest known city in the world, built on the Konya plain in Southern Turkey, c. 6500 BC, by the descendants of those responsible for sites such as Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe in Southeast Turkey. At Çatal Huyuk we see the vulture carrying, or accompanying, the soul of the deceased, shown as a head, into the afterlife.

Once again, the north, along with the east, end of cult buildings that are associated with cosmic life and death. In addition to this, walls at Çatal Huyuk show scenes of shamans adopting the guise of the vulture to make otherworldly journeys. More evidence of the veneration of the vulture is to be found at the Early Neolithic sites of Southeast Turkey, including in one instance a bird emerging from a totem pole of human heads found at Nevali Çori and dated, c. 8000 BC.

Curiously, there was no Pole Star in 9500 BC. Indeed, one has to turn back the clocks to 11,000 BC in order to find one. This was Vega, the brightest star in Lyra, identified in the past as an eagle or vulture. It had held this role between 13,000-11,000 BC, before precession caused it to move too far away from the celestial pole to act as the North Star. Had this been a celestial object of veneration among the Early Neolithic peoples of South-east Turkey, even after it ceased being Pole Star? Although an attractive proposition it made no sense of alignments at the Neolithic sites examined, so another explanation was sought using a computer generated map of the night sky.