In the middle of the wide, flat plain 40 kilometers south of Şanlıurfa lies Harran. It is confirmed that this Harran is indeed the place where Abraham went when God told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees, as the bible book Genesis tells us. Therefor I had to go there and experience it! Moreover, Harran has ruins of a medieval islamic university: a period when Islam prospered in combination with science. People warned me ‘there is nothing left to see’ but I love places without anything to see. So I found myself in fields where nomads seem to live the way Abraham did as a nomad 4000 years ago, overlooking empty plains far into Syria.
The dolmuș that brings you from Urfa to Harran stops where the four kilometer long city walls of ancient Harran begin. Some parts of the walls have recently been restaured, more restauration projects will follow. The walls are impressive. I passed the gate of Aleppo, the only gate that remained from the originally six gates (opening the road to Anatolia, Arslanli, Mosul, Baghdad, and Raqqa). In front of me lay a long road going over a hill. Far away on the left, the shade of a tower that could be the spectacular leftover of the medieval university, renowned and successful for hundreds of years.
Up the hill were active excavations in what is called the ‘mound of Harran’. It has a 9000 year old history and thousands of artefacts were already found. Spectacular are the Stèlès from the 6th century BC that are exposed in the Archaeological Museum of Şanlıurfa; look at the pictures and imagine them here in this spot, overlooking the plains.
Today’s Harran is a small provincial city but it had a central place in early history during thousands of years. Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ayyubids, Ummayads: Harran was a mighty town for many different powers, until it was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.
It never recovered from that and did not regain its central position in the middle-eastern history.
Harran is only 15 kms away from Syria and some actual (December 2018) hotspots in the Syrian war. But Harran is totally quiet. People here fear more an inner war in Şanlıurfa region than a possible attack from Syrian groups to Turkey (‘they do not dare that because we will fight and die for our country’). Read more about these tensions in this blog.
It is true there is not so much ‘to see’ here but the visitor walks over grounds of 9000 years of civilisation and that is a great experience in itself! Moreover the idea that Abraham was here, and his father Thera, his wife Sara and other members of his family. It is an experience not to be missed and a feel of ancient times that brings history closer to understanding.
I followed the path and came to the site of Harran university. It was closed for restauration purposes but I could still have a good impression of the enormity of the complex. Although this university is usually presented as an islamic achieval, it was already active as a study center during many centuries before the arrival of islam.
Harran was originally the core centre of the worship of Sin, with a central place for the god moon and practices in following the sun, moon and planets. Sciences like astronomy were well developed and early Greek works like Aristotle had been translated to Syriac, local language. These efforts opened the Greek world to Arabs later on and it made the rule of the Abbasids flourish, a period called the islamic golden age.
Under pressure of the Ummayid caliph Marwan II in 744 the local pagan scientists called themselves Sabeans as this was a religion accepted by islam. Thus they escaped accusations of paganism and possible penalties like exile and hanging. Sabeanism seem to have had the worship of Sin but that was also the religion originally practiced in Harran. Stories are contradictory here, I could not find out what was the difference between the old practicesin Harran and the Sabean practices accepted under islam pressure. Some say it was about cruel blood offers of young people that had to be abolished under islam, but I could not find formal sources for that. The same goes for the story that Sabeans had adopted a ‘book’ – the Corpus Hermeticum – to be accepted by islam.
Most probably the Sabeans are related to the Mandaeans, a now Iraqi minority that lives in the marshes between the Euphrate and Tigris – they might even be descendants of Sabeans who had to flee when islamic religious pressure became too strong to uphold their own religious practices. Today Sabeanism a ‘religion of nature’ that survives in Turkey, though very much underground, waiting for better days to come.
I was surprised to discover that.12th century traveller Ibn Jubayr places the location of the temple of Sin originally on the spot of the university. The tower that in modern literature is described as an islamic built minaret belonging to the mosque built here in the 7th century, is the only left over of that temple. Turkish sources deny that but it is probably true. Anyway ‘stories’ seem to flourish more in Harran than well researched facts. I found Harran a place where there is still a clash of different ideas, although rather hidden than outspoken. The people who warned me ‘there is nothing left to see’ were right and still I am very happy I went there – Harran in all its desertion influenced my perspective as much as Urfa did.
How to go to Harran
I had a lot of trouble finding out how to get in Harran without taxi so I explain it for you here if you like to go. There is a dolmuș going to and from Harran every 15 minutes until 17.30. In Şanlıurfa it starts in the new Otogar that lies outside the center (1 hour walk but there are city-busses and dolmuș-busses on that road). Upstairs are the intercity busses, downstairs the dolmuș-busses like the one to Harran. You can also go to the Nevali Hotel, a high building visible from far away. Follow the (car) road sign to Harran, just 50 meters and that is a spot where the dolmuș stops, right in front of the ‘Urfa Anadolu Lisesi’ sign on the picture above. There is no bus-stop sign but if you lift your hand when you see it coming, it stops anyway. It takes about 1,5 hours to go (as the driver looks for passengers) and 1 hour to return. In Harran, it drops you off at walking distance from the antiquities.
Read also part 2: Harran: nonsense with traces of the real past