Spiritual beliefs can be dated back to the middle Palaeolithic 300, 000 years ago. At this time, early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals began to ritually bury their dead with grave goods and deliberate care, suggesting a belief in the afterlife.
But evidence of belief in gods, however abstract, comes much later- as do recognizable places where those gods were worshipped and petitioned. These sacred sites -and their practices – show how humanity’s concept of the divine evolved with time. Here are five ancient landmark places of worship that illustrate the evolution of human beliefs.
“The Mountains of the Gods” and the Oldest Ritual Site in the World
In a small, secluded cave in Ngamiland, in the Tsodilo Hills of Botswana lies evidence that challenges accepted ideas of human activity. Experts had always believed that ritual practice began 40,000 years ago in Europe. But in an area known to the indigenous Sans people as ‘The Mountain of the Gods, Professor Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo has found evidence of ritual activity from 70,000 years ago- making the cave the world’s oldest ritual site.
The entrance of the cave is marked by a six meter by a two-metre natural rock formation that looked suspiciously like a python. The rock’s physical appearance has been augmented with carvings. Three to four hundred man-made marks give the stone the appearance of snakeskin. Erosion of the scores shows these carvings were not made recently.
Just behind the snake rock is a hidden passage to a small chamber, its entrance worn smooth by feet. Further human activity can be found inside the cave where there is a single painting on the rock wall, just in a place where water runs, showing a giraffe and elephant.
There is no evidence of domestic activity, but over 13000 artifacts have been found on the site, including stone tools and spearheads made from colorful rock that traveled hundreds of kilometers to the little cave. These objects have been interpreted as ritual offerings-especially as the red spearheads seem to have been burnt.
The Sans people still worship the python today, and many of the elements found in the cave echo their beliefs and practices. The hidden chamber has been interpreted as the place the tribal shaman acted as the voice of the python. Even the cave painting has significance. Its echoes a Sans myth where the python fell into water-until it was pulled out by a giraffe. Elephants often represent snakes in Sans mythology because of their trunk. So the cave could also identify the Sans religion as the oldest in the world.
Gobekli Tepe: The Oldest Manmade Place of Worship
60,000 years later, humanity began to build their own ritual sites rather than relying on nature. Gobekli Tepe in Turkey was built in around 10,000BC -7000 years before the construction of Stonehenge. The site just predates the advent of agriculture and is the oldest man-made place of worship in the world.
The site consists of a series of seven stone circles located on a 25-acre site on a hill in southeastern Turkey. The rings vary between 30 to 100 feet in diameter and were constructed of nine megaliths. These megaliths in their turn were confined by six-foot-high rectangular stonewalls which may or may not have been roofed.
The megaliths included T shaped pillars carved with a range of animals. These included predators such as lions and crocodiles, scorpions, foxes, bulls, cranes, spiders, ants and snakes. The carved animals all correspond with animal remains found on the site suggesting they represent sacrifices made at Gobleki Tepe. The site also seems to be centered on the Dog Star, Sirius. The central temple pillars of three of the temple rings seem to frame the star at the point on the horizon where it would have risen around 10,000 BC, further enhancing the site’s ritual importance.
No signs of human habitation were found around the site but to build it would have required at least 500 people to hew, transport and erect the stone pillars for the site. This speaks of a need for considerable social cohesion and organization, suggesting the existence of an elite priestly class organizing small tribal bands of hunter-gatherers, who were converging upon Gobleki Tepe at the cusp of the agricultural revolution.
Ggantija Temples of Malta: A Celebration of Agriculture.
The Ggantija Temples of Malta predate the pyramids and are the oldest of the four temples found on Malta and the second oldest man-made structures after Gobleki Tepe. Dating to between 3600-3000BC, their construction is remarkable. Some of the stones used to build the double temple weigh 50 tonnes, and only stone tools were available to process them. To ensure the co-operation necessary to make the temple, the early agricultural society needed to be socially tight and share beliefs.
The temples are made up of two separate areas, which are united by a single 6ft limestone wall and façade. Neither was large enough to hold a large community of worshippers, but a manmade platform outside the temple probably accommodated the crowd while the priests worked within
The south temple has five alcoves or apses and a passageway leading to the inner area. Here the walls open up to encompass an area 85 meters square and 6 foot high. The walls of this area inclined inwards to create a semi-dome shape which was probably completed with hide-covered frames. The walls were smoothed and plastered using lime plaster over an initial covering of clay and furnished with altars, carvings and libation stones. The north temple is much smaller, with 4 apses and an end niche.
The temples were begun around the time agriculture established itself on the Maltese islands. Figurines and animal sacrifices point to fertility rites on the site. Large statues also suggest the worship of a goddess figure. Legends attached to the place tell how a giantess, Sansuna who ate nothing but broad beans and honey bore a child to one of the local men. She reputedly constructed the temples in a single day, carrying her baby under her arm.
El Manati: A Sacrificial site of the Olmecs
The Olmecs were the first complex society in Mesoamerica. From between 1600BC until 400BC, they dominated the areas of modern Mexico and Guatemala, establishing Mesoamerican writing, the Mesoamerican calendar, the famous Mesoamerican ball games and laying the foundations for the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. The Olmec’s also laid the foundations for Mesoamerican religion and are credited with introducing bloodletting and sacrifice, including human sacrifice and introducing the prototypes for south American deities.
However bloody their religion, the Olmecs revered nature. Natural places such as caves, mountains, and springs were nexus points between the earth, the sky and the underworld and so particularly sacred. Caves linked earth with the underworld and mountains with caves and springs connected all three. Such sites were of particular importance. El Manati was the earliest of them.
El Manati is one such site. In use between 1600-1200BC, it is situated at the foot of Cerro Manatim, a hill site south of the Olmec city of Tenochtitlan. The location was undoubtedly chosen because of its natural springs. Nearby bogs preserve the remains of regular Olmec practices and beliefs.
Thirty-seven Wooden sculptures-the oldest in Mexico have been retrieved, along, 12 rubber balls and ceremonial axes. Believed to be ritual offerings, they were accompanied by the bones of infants, which may or may not be evidence of the Olmec practice of human sacrifice. The wooden sculptures indeed seem to mimic human sacrifice. They were ritually wrapped in mats before their deposition- mimicry of funeral rites. Because each face is unique, may actually represent individuals.
The oldest identifiable place of continual worship: The Umayyad Mosque
Damascus is the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. So it is not surprising that it is also the site of the oldest continually sacred place. The location of the Umayyad mosque has been sacred to one god or another for the last 3000 years.
Its first identifiable temple was constructed in 1000BC to the Aramaean god of thunder and rain, Hadad Ramman. The temple survived until 64BC when the Romans conquered Damascus-and assimilated Hadad Ramman with their own thunder god, Jupiter. The temple was given a complete makeover, redesigned by the Damascus born architect Apollodorus. A vast temple complex was designed- the largest and most beautiful in Roman Syria with the temple itself separated from the city by two sets of walls. Only one relic of the original temple still exists a single basalt orthostat, which remains in the National Museum of Damascus.
In the Fourth century AD, Theodosius I converted the temple into a Christian cathedral. Two centuries later, it was formally dedicated to John the Baptist when the head of the Saint was deposited on the site. The cathedral became an important Christian center of the eastern empire. It was the seat of the bishop of Damascus, who was second only to the Patriarch of Antioch – the equivalent of the pope in the eastern empire.
But in 634 AD, it was all change again. Khalid ibn al Walid captured Damascus, and several decades later, the Umayyad dynasty chose Damascus as the administrative capital of the Muslim world. For a time, Muslims and Christians shared the Byzantine Cathedral. But in 706 Ad, the Caliph al Walid commissioned a mosque to take the place of the church. Most of the Christian features were demolished but the Umayyad mosque as it is still known today, recycled columns and arcades from the Christian Church and architectural elements from the temple of Jupiter-including its temenos and its towers, which have become minarets.
Gods may change, and religions may come and go. But some sites still remain sacred.