Back to Turkey – Desert Towns – first week of September 2004

Harran, Desert Town:
We made a small detour on the way to Urfa to see the village of Harran, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited villages, where Abraham was supposed to have stayed for several years around 1900 BC. The town is unique in Turkey because of its conical shaped houses (which can be found, however, in northern Syrian – we saw these – and in the region of Pouilles in Italy).

Most of the current conical-shaped houses were built during the last two centuries, but the model goes back to the third century BC. It is thought that the shape was imagined as a response to the lack of wood for roofing and the abundance of bricks found in the surrounding ruins. It is quite possibly the dustiest town on Earth.

We explored some of the abandoned houses, which were filled with trash. In fact, many of the conical shapes make up only one single house.

The inhabitants of Harran traditionally lived from agriculture and contraband, but since the GAP Project (a huge, hydroelectric project in southeast Anatolia) was initiated, cotton fields have become a main source of income. The project has transformed dry valleys into lakes filled with fish and dusty villages into commercial centers. We biked along the 26 km. of irrigation tunnels to Urfa, the largest of its type in the world. Miniature mud houses sprang up along the tunnels, barely one meter separating the tunnel and the houses. Women washed clothing in the tunnels, while children bathed. It was also used for drinking water.

Sanliurfa, Southeast Turkey:
I was half-dead by the time we reached Urfa, after a week of biking in the desert sun and strong wind. We found a good hotel run by the friendly Kurd Mustafa. This town was just as hot as the desert, and was still warm at midnight. It seemed never to cool off.

We did lots of things in Urfa, but the best was our visit to the famed baklava shops! Four lbs. of baklava in all – to enjoy between Urfa and Tatvan! Though I had been very sparing during the rest of our stay in Turkey, I didn’t deprive myself during our last week!

Sanliurfa is a pilgrimage city and is a very conservative Muslim city. One of its famous attractions is its basin filled with carp and its rose garden. The legend says that Abraham, great prophet of Islam, was found destroying pagan gods in Urfa. The Assyrian king Nemrod took offense and decided to burn him alive. But God transformed the fire into water (the basin) and the ashes into fish (the carp). Abraham was thrown into the air and fell back upon the earth upon a bed of roses (the rose garden).

The neighborhood of Golbasi is the symbolic representation of this legend, and it is beautiful. The carp is the most prized fish of all Turkey; it is said that whoever fishes a carp will lose his sight. People buy food for the carp, which gather around hundreds at a time, on top of each other, looking like slithering eels. It is possible to actually feed individual fish. Some of them face you, their heads out of the water, mouths gaping open for the food, and you can drop pellets into their mouths. Pretty funny.

Next to the basin are two mosques, men on their knees, hands cupped before them, listening to an imam.

Urfa is also famous for its Prophet Abraham’s cave, where he was supposed to have been born. It is a place of pilgrimage and prayer, and men and women enter partitioned-off parts of the cave by separate entrances. The cave had rock walls and ceilings, but modern flooring and carpets for praying. There were fountains inside to wash up, and while some women were praying, others were talking and babies and toddlers were screaming and crying. The men’s side was apparently calmer. They could look through a grilled window to another small cave with a water source, where the prophet was actually supposed to have been born.

We climbed a centuries’ old rock stairway cut into the mountain to reach Sanliurfa’s citadel, which is situated atop a hillside overlooking the city. There seems to be some confusion as to when it was built; certain sources say during the Hellenistic period, others say by the Byzantines, while others still say during the Crusades or by the Turks. Whatever the case may be, there is not much left of it except for some stone walls and two tall columns, which are said to be the throne of Nemrut, the Nemrod of the Bible, who was supposed to have been the founder of Urfa.

You have a great view of the city from the citadel, and especially of the old stone houses on the hillsides – very steep with what looks to be a thousand steps leading to the top. The houses are crowded, like rowhouses, and have flat roofs, like throughout southeast Turkey. The people sleep and eat on the rooftops, hang their laundry to dry, and watch TV there. Walls are erected around the sides for some privacy.

The bazaar was the best part of the city. It was even better than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Except for a few streets, the bazaar is an open-air market, where you can find just about anything: guns, ammo, knives, fabrics, jeans, rope, sheepskins, and handmade shoes. It is a place where artisans not only sell their wares, but also work at their craft. You can hear the sound of the silversmith’s hammering metal and of the electrician’s soldering gun. Large, open courtyards are filled with men and young boys at their sewing machines. We saw wheelbarrows carrying bloody sheepskins and men cleaning sheepskin in a ditch of running water, the sheep’s glistening intestines spread out on the steps in the sun. We saw men beating the sheepskin to make it soft, and others cutting and sewing it. The winding labyrinth of streets was covered by a leafy shade of trees, and men drank tea and played cards in the open courtyard.