By Charles C. Mann
Photograph by Vincent J. Musi
Every now and then the dawn of civilization is reenacted on a remote hilltop in southern Turkey.
The reenactors are busloads of tourists—usually Turkish, sometimes European. The buses (white, air-conditioned, equipped with televisions) blunder over the winding, indifferently paved road to the ridge and dock like dreadnoughts before a stone portal. Visitors flood out, fumbling with water bottles and MP3 players. Guides call out instructions and explanations. Paying no attention, the visitors straggle up the hill. When they reach the top, their mouths flop open with amazement, making a line of perfect cartoon O’s.
Before them are dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.
At the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple’s builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.
Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species’ deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution—the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.
At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event—a sudden flash of genius—that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.
After a moment of stunned quiet, tourists at the site busily snap pictures with cameras and cell phones. Eleven millennia ago nobody had digital imaging equipment, of course. Yet things have changed less than one might think. Most of the world’s great religious centers, past and present, have been destinations for pilgrimages—think of the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis). They are monuments for spiritual travelers, who often came great distances, to gawk at and be stirred by. Göbekli Tepe may be the first of all of them, the beginning of a pattern. What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.
Klaus Schmidt knew almost instantly that he was going to be spending a lot of time at Göbekli Tepe. Now a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), Schmidt had spent the autumn of 1994 trundling across southeastern Turkey. He had been working at a site there for a few years and was looking for another place to excavate. The biggest city in the area is Şanlıurfa (pronounced shan-LYOOR-fa). By the standards of a brash newcomer like London, Şanlıurfa is incredibly old—the place where the Prophet Abraham supposedly was born. Schmidt was in the city to find a place that would help him understand the Neolithic, a place that would make Şanlıurfa look young. North of Şanlıurfa the ground ripples into the first foothills of the mountains that run across southern Turkey, source of the famous Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nine miles outside of town is a long ridge with a rounded crest that locals call Potbelly Hill—Göbekli Tepe.
In the 1960s archaeologists from the University of Chicago had surveyed the region and concluded that Göbekli Tepe was of little interest. Disturbance was evident at the top of the hill, but they attributed it to the activities of a Byzantine-era military outpost. Here and there were broken pieces of limestone they thought were gravestones. Schmidt had come across the Chicago researchers’ brief description of the hilltop and decided to check it out. On the ground he saw flint chips—huge numbers of them. “Within minutes of getting there,” Schmidt says, he realized that he was looking at a place where scores or even hundreds of people had worked in millennia past. The limestone slabs were not Byzantine graves but something much older. In collaboration with the DAI and the Şanlıurfa Museum, he set to work the next year.
Inches below the surface the team struck an elaborately fashioned stone. Then another, and another—a ring of standing pillars. As the months and years went by, Schmidt’s team, a shifting crew of German and Turkish graduate students and 50 or more local villagers, found a second circle of stones, then a third, and then more. Geomagnetic surveys in 2003 revealed at least 20 rings piled together, higgledy-piggledy, under the earth.
The pillars were big—the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art. Other parts of the hill were littered with the greatest store of ancient flint tools Schmidt had ever seen—a Neolithic warehouse of knives, choppers, and projectile points. Even though the stone had to be lugged from neighboring valleys, Schmidt says, “there were more flints in one little area here, a square meter or two, than many archaeologists find in entire sites.”
The circles follow a common design. All are made from limestone pillars shaped like giant spikes or capital T’s. Bladelike, the pillars are easily five times as wide as they are deep. They stand an arm span or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls. In the middle of each ring are two taller pillars, their thin ends mounted in shallow grooves cut into the floor. I asked German architect and civil engineer Eduard Knoll, who works with Schmidt to preserve the site, how well designed the mounting system was for the central pillars. “Not,” he said, shaking his head. “They hadn’t yet mastered engineering.” Knoll speculated that the pillars may have been propped up, perhaps by wooden posts.
To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the “shoulders” of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle—as at “a meeting or dance,” Schmidt says—a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.
Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.
Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.
Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu
In the shadow of China’s legendary Shaolin Temple, a kung fu master’s disciples confront the changing world of martial arts.
By Peter Gwin
Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann
The master spent his last day of life wrapped in a quilt stitched by his wife, his rasping, irregular breaths filling the small bedroom. Throughout the cool spring day a stream of visitors arrived in the town of Yanshi, in the foothills of the Song Mountains, to pay their respects at the deathbed of Yang Guiwu, the man who had taught them kung fu. Some wore monks’ robes and offered blessings as they entered the tiny brick house. Others wore jeans and loafers and stubbed out cigarettes before passing through the door. The master’s wife, her white hair neatly combed, clasped the shoulders of each new arrival as if he were a blood son and ushered him through her kitchen, past the coal-burning stove, to join family members and other disciples assembled at her husband’s bedside.
The wife leaned close to the bundled figure to announce a visitor, the last disciple the master had accepted into his kung fu family 15 years before. “It’s Hu Zhengsheng,” she said. Wearing a Nike tracksuit and traditional cloth slippers, Hu, now a broad-shouldered man of 33, bent over the shriveled figure. “Shifu,” he called softly, respectfully, using the Mandarin word for teacher. “Can you hear me?” The old man’s eyelids, pale and thin like rice paper, flickered. For an instant, his pupils seemed to center on the young man’s face, then drifted away.
Many times the master had told Hu about awakening from dreams in which his martial arts ancestors, long-dead monks from the Shaolin Temple, visited him. They came bearing wisdom collected over centuries from generations of men whose feet had grooved the flagstones in the temple’s training hall, whose bones were interred in the Pagoda Forest just outside the temple walls. These were the monks who had committed their lives to perfecting kung fu styles with names like Plum Flower Fist and Mandarin Duck Palm, each a symphony of physical movements, adding variation upon variation that pushed human muscles and bones to their limits. Some would say beyond their limits. Perhaps, Hu thought, these ancestors now were gathering by his master’s side.
The master’s most advanced disciples recognized special irony in the fact that the old man’s lungs would ultimately betray him. He would have approved of this turn of life’s wheel, a final lesson in humility for the man who had instructed that breathing was elemental to harnessing one’s chi, or life force. It was the first thing he’d taught them: breathe in through the navel, out through the nose. Steady, controlled, in harmony with your heartbeat and the rhythms of your other organs. Learning to breathe properly, he told them, was the initial step on the arduous path to tapping the wellspring of the chi’s power and, in doing so, unlocking one of the universe’s hidden doors.
Now, with or without unseen spirits at his side, Yang Guiwu stood at another of the universe’s hidden doors. The disciples listened for signs in his breathing that he was trying to marshal his life force for the journey ahead.
Some 12 miles from where the old master lay, in a valley just over the Song Mountains, tour buses prepare to disgorge their daily load of visitors at the Shaolin Temple. They come from all over the People’s Republic—uniformed soldiers on leave, businessmen on junkets, retirees on package holidays, young couples leading wide-eyed children kicking and chopping the air with exuberant expectation—all to see the birthplace of China’s greatest kung fu legend.
Here, the popular myth holds, is where a fifth-century Indian mystic taught a series of exercises, or forms, that mimicked animal movements to the monks at the newly established Shaolin Temple. The monks adapted the forms for self-defense and later modified them for warfare. Their descendants honed these “martial arts” and over the next 14 centuries used them in countless battles—opposing despots, putting down rebellions, and fending off invaders. Many of these feats are noted on stone tablets in the temple and embellished in novels dating back to the Ming dynasty.
Scholars dismiss much of this as legend embroidered with bits of truth. Bare-handed martial arts existed in China long before the fifth century and likely arrived at Shaolin with ex-soldiers seeking refuge. For much of its history, the temple was essentially a wealthy estate with a well-trained private army. The more the monks fought, the more proficient they became as fighters, and the more their fame grew. Yet they were not unbeatable. The temple was sacked repeatedly during its history. The most devastating blow came in 1928, when a vengeful warlord burned down most of the temple, including its library. Centuries of scrolls detailing kung fu theory and training as well as treatises on Chinese medicine and Buddhist scriptures—essentially the temple’s soul—were destroyed, leaving the legacy of Shaolin kung fu to be passed down master to disciple, through men such as Yang Guiwu.
Today, however, temple officials seem more interested in building the Shaolin brand than in restoring its soul. Over the past decade Shi Yongxin, the 45-year-old abbot, has built an international business empire—including touring kung fu troupes, film and TV projects, an online store selling Shaolin-brand tea and soap—and franchised Shaolin temples abroad, including one planned in Australia that will be attached to a golf resort. Furthermore, many of the men manning the temple’s numerous cash registers—men with shaved heads and wearing monks’ robes—admit they’re not monks but employees paid to look the part.
Over tea in his office at the temple, Yongxin calmly makes the case that all of these efforts further Buddhism. “We make more people know about Zen Buddhism,” he says. A slightly jowly, sad-eyed man, he has a politician’s gift for imbuing his remarks with the sense that he believes deeply in what he’s saying. “By registering the Shaolin brand name in other countries, promoting Shaolin traditional cultures, including kung fu, we’re having people around the world know better and believe in Zen Buddhism.”
It is an argument he has made many times in both the Chinese and foreign press, and he isn’t the first abbot to face criticism that Shaolin has pursued riches over enlightenment. A 17th-century magistrate railed against the temple’s “lofty mansions and splendid furnishings.” And yet, whether a force for evangelizing or profitmaking, the Shaolin Temple has helped foster an undeniable kung fu renaissance, which has coincided with China’s own resurgence as an international power. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dengfeng, a sprawling city of 650,000 just six miles from the temple gates. Here some 60 martial arts academies have sprouted over the past two decades and now boast more than 50,000 students. A drive down a main road passes some of the biggest schools. They rise like Vegas casinos, with towering dormitories adorned with murals of kung fu fighters, dragons, and tigers.
These schools fill their ranks with boys, and increasingly girls, from every province and social class, ranging in age from five to their late 20s. Some arrive hoping to become movie stars or to win glory as kickboxers. Others come to learn skills that will ensure good jobs in the military, police, or private security. A few are sent by their parents to learn discipline and hard work.
Six days a week, 11 months of the year, the campuses come alive at dawn with legions of students dressed in identical tracksuits—hundreds of children born in the new China, aligned in sharp rows, practicing kung fu. Faces forward, backs rigid, they punch and kick in unison, their voices puncturing the morning air as they repeat their instructors’ cadences.