Un Divan à Tunis is a great movie that combines fun with food for thought. Selma moves from Paris to Tunis where she was born because Paris has many psychologists and Tunis has none. She wants to be meaningful in her job and Tunisians need her. But… issues occur from unexpected angles…
Tunisia won my heart after I went there to give diversity trainings in several companies. The Dutch are called ‘direct’ in their communication style but hey, nothing beats the Tunisians in their directness. Un Divan à Tunis is certainly no exception to that: on the level of society, there is secretive behaviour but not in the interpersonal contacts. Relations develop in an unexpected way, as well as the plot. This movie is a joy to watch, you won’t be bored!
Selma is a psychoanalist who decides to start a practice in Tunis. In Paris, people can find psychological help at every corner of the street but in Tunis, it is new. Family members think she is crazy to want this, and they think her customers might be crazy too – so they do not want her to have the divan at the rooftop of their house but Selma insists and becomes successful at a short notice. However, life is not that easy for her.
Un Divan à Tunis shows step by step the complexity of Tunisian society. How the Jews are a common ennemy, even though some know nothing about Jews at all. How homosexuality and transgenderism are oppressed at the level of society – and might be accepted at individual level. How a man and a woman cannot be in the same room because it is against morals. Nevertheless Un Divan à Tunis shows several moments where this rule is broken, not because of sexuality but, very interesting, because they help each other, because they want to interact, listen, communicate, show empathy. Being human in this movie is stronger than all the societal rules.
This strong wish to be human, whatever societal problems occur, is what I remember from my visits to Tunisia. It can also be found is this great documentary Danny in Arabistan – Tunisia (in Dutch). I highly recommend Un Divan à Tunis, because it is a funny movie that gives good food for thought while you laugh.
House of Dionysos in Paphos, Cyprus, has floors full of mosaics. It dates from the 2nd century AD but there is evidence it was built upon a much older building. The mosaics are worth your visit all by themselves, although they lie in a larger archaeological parc next to the seaside of Paphos, with much more to see.
The Phaedra and Hyppolytos mosaic for example form a refined work. Hyppolytos is there with his hunting dog and he reads the love letter his stepmother Phaedra sends him. An explanation says he ‘looks embarrassed’ and she is ‘waiting anxiously for his reaction’; I leave it to you to decide whether these observations are correct… Cupido directs a burning torch to her heart as a sign of her passion.
Platforms above the mosaics walk you through or better to say ‘over’ the mosaics. Signs are in Greek and English ànd braille: very customer friendly!
There are also great mosaics showing animals, and other aspects of nature, like the animals here: a wild boar purchased by a tiger (?), a bear, a deer, a bull for example.
All together the House of Dionysos in Paphos has 556 m2 in mosaics so there is a lot to enjoy. Also the more figurative mosaics are very fine, I loved them.
The House of Dionysos in Paphos lies within a larger archaeological parc called Kato Paphos with more interesting remains to see. Some interesting floors in the open air were covered with protective carpets when I visited, alas. Also the weather was very hot: if you go during the summer, be early to be able to look around the archaeological site without a burning sun over your head. The mosaics of the House of Dionysos themselves are covered with a roof but of course not the whole area is.
Further on in some corner of the site lie interesting tombs. There was nothing to explain them so if you have information about it, please comment here. They seem to be different from the Tombs of the Kings mentioned on wikipedia, but maybe they were part of them. Some of the tombs were a bit of a mess, as you can see on the photograph to the left.
As said, the House of Dionysos in Paphos was built in the 2nd century AD upon more ancient remains; the oldest one was a sanctuary carved into the natural bedrock. It was destroyed most probably by an earthquake in the 4th century. The leading role Paphos used to have in Cyprus was then transfered to Salamis, also a very interesting site to visit. The coins found on this site can be seen in the Museum of the History of Cypriot Coinage in Nicosia.
You may also like these blogs about other mosaic treasures:
Salamis was a city with 100.000’s of inhabitants in ancient times. Only a small part of the city has been excavated, showing Roman and Byzantine remains. Much more is to be discovered as Salamis was founded already in the 11th century BC, ruled by Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians and Alexander the Great.
Salamis lies next to the sea, at a not very proper but well accessible sand beach. As temperatures can be quite high here in the summer season, this offers a great opportunity to combine a visit to hot Salamis with a good swim to cool down. The site of Salamis is a deserted place. The first excavations here date from 1880 and all excavations stopped after the division of Cyprus in a Turkish and Greek part in 1974. The largest part of Salamis is still covered under sand and bushes. Visitors are scarce.
The part I liked most is the bathing complex from the 1st century BC, as it has several statues around it with the beautiful dark marble statue of Persephone (on the right). Salamis prospered during 15 centuries until it was destroyed by earthquakes and tidal waves in the 4th century AD. Only some Byzantine activity persevered in Salamis but Arab raids in medieval times brought islam and made an end to christian domination. Many stones from Salamis were used to build Gazimagusa (Famagusta) and other buildings all over the island. All other remains were covered under sand dunes and bushes.
Worth your attention is also the 6th/7th century AD Basilica of Campanopetra. Cyprus was a very early christian island, as the apostle Saint Barnabas was born in Salamis from a Jewish family. There was a large Jewish community in Salamis, most probably due to its nearby location to Israel. Saint Barnabas spent time in Israel, became a christian and an active apostle, traveling to major 1st century cities. He returned to Cyprus together with the famous apostle Saint Paul in 46 AD.
The gymnasium of Salamis was among the largest of Roman era. Byzantines rebuilt it upon an older complex, destroyed in 4th century AD earthquakes. The marble columns do not match with the capitals on top, most probably the rebuilders just took pieces from elsewhere in the Salamis ruins. To be honest, the gymnasium itself is not very special to visit except for the impression of the large size; however the 44 (!) latrines where people would sit side by side in a semi-circle is a unique place to see.
They had good plumbing systems to secure hygiene, fortunately, that are still visible here. Note the funny sign in Turkish, Antik Tuvalet = antique toilet.
Particularly interesting are the roads that have been excavated. They show how well the roads were made, and also how large the city of Salamis must have been (for example in the 1st century AD it problably had 350.000 inhabitants).
Here some pictures of beautiful streets.
However, the best may still be uncovered here. Salamis has known Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian and Greek times: all I saw were the much more recent remains of Roman and Byzantine times. The nearby Royal Tombs and other excavations show that deep down there is more to see; much more. Salamis is waiting to be discovered.
Royal Tombs dating from the 8th and 7th century BC can be found in Northern Cyprus. The burial practices offer a good insight into ancient rituals just like Homer described them in the Iliad. However, it is more the knowledge about the Royal Tombs than the visit to the tombs themselves that is interesting.
Homer describes in the Iliad how kings and other noble personages were buried. His words are confirmed by the discoveries at the Royal Tombs in Northern Cyprus, although there are also archaeological theories about Homer being first to tell and invent and then the rituals on Cyprus following his epic narrative.
It is easy to find the Royal Tombs. If you go to the grave or the monastery of Saint Barnabas, north of Gazimagusa / Famagusta, you will see them along the road in the fields. Most objects found are in the Cyprus Museum in the South of the Island; I have not been there yet but it seems interesting as findings include chariots, a throne, incense burners, ivory objects, bronze horse bits and decorated breast plates, pottery and amphorae that contained oil and wine. Kings were buried with lots of grave goods.
On the location of the Royal Tombs however, only the stone buildings of the graves remain as well as the skeletons of horses: try to see one behind the glass on the picture (left). I am not sure if the glass ‘protection’ is helpful; most of them were so humid on the inside that it was impossible to see anything or take pictures. How can a humid glass house be protective for such old remains? My visit was December 2018; maybe it is dryer and more clear in summertime.
Burial in the era of the 8th and 7th century BC did not just come with the above mentioned grave goods but also with sacrifice of horses, donkeys and even humans. Archaeological research only started in the ’60ies here and gave a wealth of information. Whoever thought that Homer just made up his stories in the Iliad, found out that his description of burial practices was very accurate (unless you support the theory that the rituals were only shaped under the influence of Homer’s stories).
Most probably (part of) the Royal Tombs were used during many ages. Saint Catherine’s Tomb, number 50, for example, had a chapel on top that dated from the 4rd century BC. Archaeological research in the ’60ies revealed that the chapel was built on a tomb dating from a thousand years earlier than the 4th century chapel. By the way, the chapel was used for Saint Catherine’s veneration even in 1950 BC! So this location was special to many people during at least 2600 years…
Not everybody could afford a Royal Tomb. Next to the Royal Tombs lies a necropolis of hundreds, or even thousands of graves. Just like the nearby ancient city of Salamis and the nearby Bronze Age city of Enkomi, only a minor part of the fields have been unearthed. What has been excavated, shows us tombs people could go to by steps downstairs that were cut in the rocks. Large stones sealed the entrances of the burial chambers that were used almost continuously from 700 BC until 400 AD.
The picture on the right shows the immense fields with so much left to excavate. Further on you can see the grave and monastery of Saint Barnabas between the trees. Next to the chapel of Saint Barnabas’ grave there are also findings of burial chambers. Maybe that is just ‘the other end’ of the same necropolis….
Like the Royal Tombs, there is not so much ‘to be seen’ here. Nevertheless in the same time it is an exciting experience to stand there and oversee the place and consider that all you see might have been part of an immense necropolis, used during more than 10 centuries by hundreds of thousands of people. Neither in the nearby cities of Salamis or Enkomi nor at the Royal Tombs or Cellarga necropolis any excavation took place since 1974: the year that Cyprus was split in a Turkish and a Greek side. But nothing stops you from visiting the sites already now: you can feel the vibe of Homer’s Iliad here quite clearly!
The Saint Barnabas Icon and Archaeological Museum in Northern (Turkish) Cyprus houses many beautiful artefacts: especially pottery dating from 2300 BC till 475 years BC. It was a pleasure to walk through the two different exposition rooms. The icon part of the museum is disappointing; rather new (19th/20th century) and mostly bad quality. But I do recommend a visit to other parts!
Next to Saint Barnabas’ grave lies a (former) monastery – the last monks left in 1977. Nowadays it is the residence of the Saint Barnabas Icon and Archaeological Museum: the banner above this blog notices the opening in 2017 but I remember a visit in the ’90ies when both icons and archaeological artefacts were already exposed. Most probably a more formal status was given to this place to attract more attention and thus visitors.
You can enter through the gate where you pay a small entrance fee and find the church of the monastery immediately on your right hand. It houses the Icon Museum but that is not an interesting place to visit. There are no valuable old icons and the quality of the icons is poor. It looks as if the Turkish-Cypriot government didn’t know what to do with the church and some icons found and decided to combine the two into a museum.
Just pass by the church to find yourself in the beautifully kept courtyard. The Archaeological Museum is housed in (several different) buildings that surround this courtyard. It is a simple museum, just showing objects as they are in showcases, with little signs for explanation in Turkish and English. The charm lies fully in the tranquillity of the place combined with the quality of the artefacts. This is not a modern, fancy museum, but a museum that you like if you like the unusual. Like in other blogs, I can only show here some highlights: there is much more to see. Some examples I liked:
Red polished double spouted bowl with plastic decoration, early bronze age, 2300 – 2075 BC, says the sign. Someone, living 4200 years earlier than us, decided to decorate a red pot with humans lying against or climbing up the sides of the bowl: how moving is that! What a brilliant artisan…
And then this pottery: how can I describe it? The sign says ‘white painted ware and red-on-red flask, early bronze age 1900 – 1625 BC’. The description does not do justice to the originality and variety in shapes. Endless is my admiration for the artisans who made this in a period when they had ‘nothing’ compared to the instruments and techniques we have.
Late bronze age pottery – 1450-1225 BC: amazing in its simplicity. Or is this late bronze age design? Amazing….
I adore the warrior in this chariot: although he seems to be too small for the size of the chariot, he looks proud and confident. This is just one of a collection of very special terracotta figurines in this museum, from the archaic period 750-600 BC.
Among a series of terracotta heads, also from the archaic period, my eye fell on this one because his eyes fell on me. A strong and in the same time quiet, confident expression. Very nice to see. I was walking out of the museum when I passed by this one and he stopped me 🙂
Panagia Tochniou Monastery or in Turkish, the Bulușa Manastırı lies in a beautiful spot of the Kyrenia mountains in Northern Cyprus. A high Cypress Tree that is 500 years old serves as a wishing tree. The place is deserted and peaceful when I arrive there.
Panagia Tochniou Monastery is in a better state than I expected when the locals of the village Agıllar (in Greek: Mandres) showed me the way, complaining that heritage is left abandoned and that nobody takes care of it. Panagia Tochniou Monastery lies at only 3 kilometers distance of Agıllar; follow the tarmac, you do not need to go over unpaved roads even if your map tells you so. The first 2,5 kilometers you think you will end up in the middle of nowhere with nothing to see.
Then suddenly a great view opens in front of you: tree, monastery, fields and the Troodos mountains far away. The Cypress Tree is said to be 500 years old and 15 or 18 meters high. It was bigger once upon a time but it was struck by lightning and is now hanging over like the tower of Pisa. The tree is full of little papers and cloths symbolizing visitor’s wishes: may they all become true! Large iron rods protect the tree from falling: a merciful act accomplished by English inhabitants, a local in Agıllar told me.
Inside, some traces of frescoes can be found in the dome and in arches. The tomb in the north wall seems to be the founder’s tomb.
In front of the church is a courtyard with buildings around it. On one side they are intact. You can enter the rooms that are empty. The view from the windows is spectacular. How on earth did they find this kind of spots in the middle ages to build their monasteries? Well done, for sure!
There is not a lot left from the other buildings around the courtyard of Panagia Tochniou but a look around is interesting. I saw several different marble pillars that are certainly not medieval. Most probably they took them from the ruins of nearby Salamis, an ancient city that thrived for over 1200 years until it was destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th century.
On a visit in 2012, a reporter from the local newspaper described the place as a total mess (you can read it here in Turkish, quite funny) where nobody ever picks up the garbage, but when I visited Panagia Tochniou Monastery (December 2018) it was clean. And peaceful, most of all. A beautiful place.
Agios Mamas Agıllar lies in a small village of just a few hundred inhabitants, called Agıllar in Turkish and in Greek: Mandres. Nobody looks after the church. In the village, there are tensions between Turkish Cypriots and Turcs. My visit was more interesting for the meeting with the locals than for the church Agios Mamas Agıllar.
Agios Mamas Agıllar is an abandoned church taken over by the pigeons after being used as a mosque for many years. It took me quite some time to find the name of this church and now that I have the name, I still haven’t got a clue how old it is. Feel free to comment below if you have information about this church, that would be interesting.
I met a local who felt uneasy about the state of the church: ‘our municipality should care more but they do nothing’. I wondered, is it not the Greek-Cypriot religious authority that is responsible here? But he was sure, ‘no, for general maintenance the municipality is responsible’. Well, in that case they surely lack in task execution…
The only thing about the church that struck me was the fact that it still has a clock. Usually clocks are removed as soon as churches are turned into mosques. Maybe they did remove the Agios Mamas clock but kept it in a safe place and put it back when they did no longer use Agios Mamas Agıllar as a mosque.
Agios Mamas Agıllar was maybe not that interesting for a simple tourist like me but the meeting with the locals was. A conversation that started in the streets of Agıllar soon ended in the local cafe La Marina, a century old house that had the traditional shape many houses had before they were broken down by the Turcs who came to live here. Indeed it is a beautiful place with nice arches and a wooden roof. Tea and cakes were offered by the Turkish-Cypriot inhabitants.
They told about the existing tensions between themselves as Cypriots and the mainland Turcs who had come to live in Agıllar and now form the majority. One of the Turkish Cypriots worked in the Greek South where he tried to learn Greek and his colleagues Turkish because they have a deep Cypriot desire to understand each other and share a common culture again.
Almost by accident I find out that there must be an old monastery nearby, nowadays called the Bulușa Manastırı, the Bulușa monastery. Again it took some time to find the real name that appeared to be the Panagia Tochniou Monastery. A local explains that it is abandoned just like the church. That makes him angry. Next to the monastery stands an old and precious tree that might be falling down. Who takes care of the tree? Not the Turkish Cypriots, nor the Greek Cypriots. They are worthless and do nothing for preservation. It is the English who safeguard the tree. Isn’t that a shame?! I do not know how to answer to this tirade of a Turkish Cypriot and nod silently. Whether I talk with Greek or with Turkish Cypriots: it always seems to be someone else’s responsability… I must see this monastery for myself, that is clear. The goodbye is with warm greetings and an invitation to come again. Plus indications for the road to the monastery that is a few kilometers off the road.
Agıllar, just a few hundred inhabitants with a Turkish Cypriot minority compared to Turkish mainlanders. Warm hearted and visionary in different aspects of the word: worth your visit, especially if you speak enough Turkish to exchange ideas on a profound level with the locals.
Cats in Șanlıurfa do not have a real good or a real bad life. It depends a bit where they are, whom they meet and what the weather is like. I saw happy and unhappy cats, and locals who were nice to them or unpleasant. Following my statement that the way people deal with cats says something about their level of development, I’d say Șanlıurfa is somewhere ‘average’ compared to Turkish levels.
Cats in Șanlıurfa are not difficult to spot. Especially in tourist places like the parc around the Balıklıgöl close to Abraham’s cave and the Mevlid-i Halil Mosque cats are very present. Although no one will give them fish as the thousands of carpers in the Balıklıgöl are holy, the parc with it’s many visitors must be a great place to find food. However, the cats in this parc were merely unhappy as it was raining a lot when I visited. Some cats were totally soaked and moreover dirty.
They had difficulty to cope with the circumstances, even though they got some help for food. Most people leave the cats alone. They do not pay any particular attention to them and they do not bother them. A negative exception I saw was in the Grand Bazaar where a cat was begging and the two owners of a shop wanted to kick the cat. The good news is that they are aware kicking is a no-go.
Their feet were already ‘hanging in the sky’ when they noticed me watching them. The feet stayed for a moment up where they were, then they stood on two legs again, grinsing in my direction. Without awareness of considerate animal treatment, they would have continued their initial movement and kicked the poor cat. The cat learned his lesson and escaped quickly between the stalls of the bazaar. A positive exception I saw was in the Freedom Museum and Müslüm Gürses Museum where the museum guard had a warm relation with Keto, a true museum cat.
Finally three more pictures of cats in notable places:
Traveling in Şanlıurfa is a great idea but not easy. Here I give you some tips. Do not worry about food or pickpockets. Buses and taxis make your transport easy if you do not want to walk. Your problems are different in this conservative area and mainly concern ‘the rules’ and personal safety.
Conservatism and safety Traveling in Şanlıurfa is traveling in a conservative place. The general norm here is orthodox Islam and it is known that radical elements are also here. Be aware that the center of the ISIS-calliphate was next to the province of Şanlıurfa (so-called capital Raqqa only 70 kilometers away). A friend of mine who visited 2 months before me noticed quite some Dutch license plates on cars (‘Syrië-gangers’), radicals who had fought in Syria and passed the border to be more safe in Turkey as they were loosing the fight in Syria. I myself didn’t see them by the way. However, conservatism can be felt in many aspects.
I got loads of questions as a woman traveling alone. Locals can get quite irritated because they feel you cross the line – you break the rules just by doing so. On the other hand, comments can be tackled with friendliness and compliments; locals are sensitive to that. Be aware that you can not change the world. Do not go into discussions you can’t win and that might bring you into safety problems. Confirm what is OK in the culture to support your safety.
For example I was in a dolmuș-bus and after the other passengers had left, the driver started to criticize me for traveling alone as a woman, and how that problem should be solved now. I responded that there was no problem because Turkish hospitality is unbelievably wonderful and that everybody is willing to help me as a guest. He immediately confirmed my view, yes, Turkish hospitality was beyond what any country had to offer (Turkish nationalism is always strong 😊). Then he frowned, I think he understood that after his praise of Turkish hospitality, he couldn’t go back to the subject of me-alone being a problem.
Conservatism means people want to play by the rules, and they do not think about the meaning of rules. They can not discuss them. For example at Göbeklitepe I first went up the hill with my ticket to see the temples but I came down because the weather was very bad. I entered the building downstairs for a coffee and audiovisual show. After an hour, I decided to try again and they wanted me to buy another ticket because I went up already. Note that all were shivering, and they knew I did not go on the temple hill itself. The keyword here is patience. Arguing doesn’t work because the basis of the rules is not argumental for them. Just stand there, telling that you already bought a ticket and wait. They started to discuss among themselves about my problem and it ended so that one guy came out, waved to me and let me go to the road up the hill again. Some others watched, maybe unhappily because the rules were broken but without further resistence. You will find yourself in situations like that. Keep smiling (not too much because you are a woman in a men’s land), wait and let others solve the problem. A key problem in islamic conservatism is the lack of critical reflexion. Do not think that a simple visitor can change that. Just find a way to travel with it when traveling inŞanlıurfa.
It is unusual for women to be on the street after sunset, unless accompanied by men. For safety in general: if you are not used to travel in risky, unsafe areas, do not go to Şanlıurfa on your own. There are group journeys, although not many because companies can not always deal with the risks of this region either. Be vigilant: personal safety is your main concern here, 24/7. Certainly do not go to places outside Şanlıurfa city or Göbeklitepe site without anybody knowing that you go there and without knowing who is your protection on the spot when problems occur. Generally speaking in places like Harran and Sogmatar you are unprotected unless you organize it and speak the language (Turkish or Arab).
Concerning robberies and the like, you are very safe traveling in Şanlıurfa. Look at the jewellers: they all have their door widely opened to the public, during day time and even after sunset. ‘We all know each other here’, a local told me. Anyway stealing is considered as a very bad thing. If you have to pay something, you could give your wallet to the person you have to pay to – and it will be dealt with correctly. Nobody grabs your bag in the street. As a woman, I was maybe judged a lot but I was not at all harassed, not one single time. Anybody you ask help from, will help you. First of all Turcs love to help someone out, second they have a culture where everybody is used to ask little services, third you are a guest and hospitality is key, also in Şanlıurfa.
Questions Question number one they ask you is: do you have children? This question will come to you at least ten times a day, from the hotel reception to the bakery, from the cashier at the restaurant to the woman that helps you find your way in a mosque. Not having children here means your life was useless (and that maybe you are useless, too). Either talk about your children, real or phantasy, or give ‘kismet’ = ‘fate, destiny’ as a reason for not having them, they will stop asking. Unless you like long and uneasy discussions, of course.
Question number two they ask you is: are you married? Not being married also means missing out the meaning of life. This is one of the regions in Turkey where girls are married at the age of 14 or where a position as second wife is accepted, rather than risking a life as an unmarried person. Question number three is: what is your name? Three identical questions asked all the time and in that order. The good news is: you can be prepared 🙂
Food and drinks Food and drinks are excellent. Go to the local restaurants and eat a great meal for just a few euros. Men have their own room, usually downstairs. Some restaurants have a place upstairs for mixed groups or women and children. It took me days to find a women-friendly restaurant – in western terms. Finally, unexpectedly, in the banking district I found an open restaurant where women walked in as much as men, some of them veiled, others unveiled. It didn’t matter there and that is rare to find in Şanlıurfa. But it exists!
Alcool and drugs There is no alcool in average public places in Şanlıurfa for religious reasons. Don’t be the troublesome tourist to push for it. This is not about your safety but your waiter´s and it’s serious. Strange enough there are drugs in Şanlıurfa, at least soft drugs and maybe more, and availability might not be difficult. One local showed me a photograph of himself in front of what I’d call a cannabis tree (!) in his own garden. Also, after sunset in darker places, there is some illegal activity. Not recommended and be careful – there is no forgiveness for foreigners.
Feel free to approach me if you will be traveling in Şanlıurfa! I enjoyed it and wish you an equally good or even better trip.
Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa, in Turkish ‘Kurtuluș Müzesi’, was closed when I got there but a most friendly guard let me in anyway. There are few visitors for the Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa and certainly not tourists from outside Turkey. Apart from the museum I also had a look at the Müslüm Gürses Museum, the museum for a very successful musician from Şanlıurfa – and at the joyful museum cat Keto…
Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa houses in an old complex (1903) consisting of several traditional and beautiful Urfa houses around a court. One house is the Freedom Museum. The room of the museum is very beautiful, look at the glass works on the picture above. There is also the Folk Art or Folk Music Museum (didn’t see it) and the Müslüm Gürses Museum. As it had been raining a lot in the period before my arrival, there had been serious leakages at the Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa. All guns and rifles were removed from the showcases and the museum was closed. A very friendly Turkish-speaking guard took his key and let me in anyway.
Like Gaziantep (‘Antep’), Şanlıurfa (‘Urfa’) played a major role in the freedom war 1919-1923 after Turkey had been defeated in the 1st World War. After this war, western powers divided Turkey. Turkey’s South with cities like Antep and Urfa were supposed to be under French rule. But they resisted, under the guidance of Atatürk who later founded the ‘new’ Turkish state. The Christians were fighting on the side of the French and they were hated for that. Why did the Christians do that? During the 1st World War, Antep and Urfa were a direct witness and probably also an actor to the terrible fate of the Armenians and other Christians: 1,5 Millions lost their life. Complete neighbourhoods lost their inhabitants. Like in Gaziantep, there is not a single reference to this part of history. It all starts with the war of freedom 1919-1923.
Atatürk reportedly asked the leaders of Şanlıurfa to wait for a certain moment to be indicated by him to join the fight against the French. But in the scene depicted in the Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa, the leaders decided to start fighting anyway. They did not wait for Atatürk’s orders and joined the fight. Their contribution was so heroic that Atatürk granted the title ‘Şanlı’ = ‘glorious’ to Urfa. From then on, Urfa’s name became Şanlıurfa.
There are some photographs in the Freedom Museum Şanlıurfa. The guard showed me his great-great-great-grandfather’s picture, here on the left. Historically, the museum offers little information and the few infos given are in Turkish only. Maybe it’s more interesting when the objects removed from the showcases are there again. What I liked about this museum is the impression of the ‘couleur locale’ it gave. The guard stressed that I would have a look in the Müslüm Gürses Müzesi, now that I was there anyway – so I did. A happy and jumpy young cat, Keto, followed us.
While I watched clothes, LP’s, tapes, books and instruments that had belonged to Müslüm Gürses who died a few years ago, museum cat Keto hid behind one of the closets and the guard was busy to get him out. The guard was unsuccessful and decided to close the door of the museum anyway when I left. However clever Keto took an enormous jump and came out just in time, to run past us into the courtyard. The guard laughed and so did I. Cat lovers always find common ground, world wide.
The guard offered me a cup of tea. He did not want any money for his efforts as he was paid by the government already – very much like the guard of the kastel I visited in Gaziantep. He told me the government is a good and reliable boss; much better than the private sector in Şanlıurfa where workers regularly have to wait for their wages to be paid. Well the government certainly does something good when it creates honest and friendly employees that show Urfa’s best face to visitors. Thanks!
Churches in Şanlıurfa are remainders of a different past when Christians and Muslims lived together in this region. All three churches that I visited are mosques now but it is still possible to see that they were churches before. Few locals speak English. If you speak Turkish (or Arab), locals explain you without any problem what they know about the history of the buildings.
Where are the Jews and the Christians, I asked in Gaziantep one year before my visit to Şanlıurfa. Locals felt embarrassed to answer and in the end of the day I found out that a painful history of the ‘80ies made them careful to speak out. Şanlıurfa has its own history. If you mention the word ‘Jew’ here, faces go blank. Jews is rather something from the time of Sogmatar, long gone, far away, non-existent. ‘Jew’ is not a word that I could hear anyone pronounce in Şanlıurfa.
As for Christians, locals do remember them but I could not find anyone to go into detail about why they are not here any more. Like Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa played a major role in the freedom war 1919-1923 after Turkey had been defeated and divided in the 1st World War. In 1924 the Christians of Urfa migrated to Aleppo. The neighbourhoods they left are still recognizable in style. It is also where the former churches are found. For the history of the churches in Şanlıurfa I visited, the responses are unanimous: already in the ‘50ies, the churches in Şanlıurfa were long deserted and in an neglected state. I met no one who spoke about a period earlier than the ‘50ies.
My first visit was to Fırfırlı Cami, the former Armenian-Protestant Fırfırlı Church dating from the 11th century. Fırfırlı is a nickname, used because of the sound of the whispering wind here. The original name was Church of the 12 Apostles. It must have been a big complex and still has a nice court. Many details both inside and outside were added in the 1956 restauration to turn the church into a mosque. Local opinions differed about the question which details were or were not original when I asked so you have to guess a bit yourself.
Part of the complex is now a guesthouse. Upon request, they will show you around for a few minutes. There are traces of the mosaic floor that lay here originally. Interesting is also the entrance of a tunnel that goes all the way to the Kale, the castle, as an escape road for people living in the castle when they were under siege.
After the Fırfırlı Cami, I went to the Reji Kilisesi, the former Syriani Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It was made in 1861 on the ruins of a church dating from the 6th century. When Urfa’s Christians migrated to Aleppo in 1924, the Reji Kilisesi was used as a tobacco factory and grape store by the board of excise = régie in French. Documents and sepulchral monuments were moved to the Urfa Museum (not sure what museum is meant, I did not see them in the Arkeoloji Müzesi – maybe I was just obsessed by the great antiquities there). Apparently the church was restaured with European money and is therefor not allowed to change it into a mosque or put a minaret on it. It is used as a kind of community house. Have a look inside to see. Also the courtyard – photo on top of this blog – is worth your attention.
The third former church I visited was the Ulu Cami. A sign at the entrance tells us that the Saint Stephen Church was built on the remains of a synagogue in the 5th century. In the 12th century it was transformed into a Mosque, first called the Red Mosque because of the red marble used. The octogonal tower originally belonged to the church and now serves as the mosque’s minaret. I asked if I could visit the mosque at the inside. Alas that was only possible through the women’s prayer room – not so much a ‘do-as-you-like’ mosque here… And that was very disappointing.
The women’s prayer room is completely separated from the general mosque. It is very ugly from the point of view architecture: how to ruin the beauty of the past…! Moreover, it felt like a second or even third class place to pray. Women here litterally pray against a gypsum wall, locked up in their own space. I did not stay long, strongly regretting religious practices that offend women to such an extent.
So far my search for churches in Şanlıurfa. A local told me that there are still some Christians in Şanlıurfa and that they live a completely hidden life. The score on Christian-friendliness of Şanlıurfa is certainly lower than in other Turkish cities: not for incidental visitors who temporarily adapt to basic rules. But for those who live here, circumstances are (very) unfavorable.
Sogmatar: white hills under an endless sky. At night, the view of the moon and the stars must be spectacular here, at Sogmatar. No doubt that the view is an important reason why humans with a religion following nature chose these hills for their temples: seven temples, each temple on a different hill. Visiting Sogmatar was an amazing experience, uncomparable to anything else.
The first sign of Sogmatar is the cave of Pognan. In the middle of nowhere, unprotected by any protection measure whatsoever, I find old carvings of humans against the walls of this cave. One assumption is that the human figures symbolize the planets, part of the religion of nature practiced here with a central place for the god Sin, the moon and the father of the gods. General knowledge so far relates Sogmatar directly to practices at Harran. Sogmatar could even have been Harran’s open-air temple.
After the cave, the road goes on to the hills. Poor houses are scattered around the place. Children approach to say hello. Do they not go to school? Yes they do, they say. They have a very old teacher and he is not giving lessons this afternoon. But there is a small building that forms the class room.
What should happen to these innocent children in the rather cruel environment of fundamentalists on the one side, and immense technological progress on the other? Can this half abandoned village prepare them for the world outside? I pass a goat, a dog and some garbage, to end up at the foot of a hill. On top of this hill lies the temple of the Sun or the central sacred hill (like in Harran, sources differ here so I can not give you precise information about what hill is what). The way to go up is rather easy, sport shoes would be nice but my boots with high heels do not create problems for the way up (and down).
Rock and earth, rock and earth: the higher one climbs the more impressive the view on the area becomes. Within ten minutes I arrive at the top of the hill. In front of me are new carvings made into the rocks of the hill, even better than the ones in the caves. Amazing: on top of this hill, for anyone to see and to visit, out in the open, a man and a woman are patiently looking at the new visitor. Maybe they didn’t see anybody for ages, but it could also be that I am visitor number 2 Million. However, the hills are totally deserted now, except of some villagers.
What I learned in my visit to Şanlıurfa – former byzantine town of Edessa – is that Syriac was a general language here. I always thought it was a religious language, used by minorities like the Syrian-Orthodox. However here it is found on mosaics, in Harran, and also here in Sogmatar where nothing indicates they ever heard about Christianity. It was in Syriac that astronomers studied their science, based on Syriac translations of old Greek texts of Aristotle and the like. It was in Syriac that they deployed their rituals towards the sun and the moon and the five planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury, each of them having their own temple on their own hill. From the hill of the temple of sun, all other hills are visible as you can see on the photographs.
Another hill that is visible on this picture (brown and green) looks like a place where excavations could be successful. I was told that some minor research was done on top of that hill and small stuff like coins were found there. One day, there will be archaeological excavations on this spot. It might be another Göbeklitepe. Let’s hope that whatever is under the surface will be safeguarded for future generations.
I pass the statues carved in the rock wall to go to the very top of the hill. The view is majestic. I imagine that it is night and that the sky shows all planets and stars in its full glory. There might not be a better location in Mesopotamia to watch than here. The builders of these temples either were Sabeans or were related to Sabeanism (see my other blog for uncertainties in sources about that). Holes in the top of the hill show that they had statues there, set upright by putting the smaller basis at the bottom of the statue into the hole. A man made basin indicates the spot where sacrifices were made.
More Syriac inscriptions are found on top of this hill. A translation: “I am Tridates, the son of Arab Governor Adona. I built this altar and pillar for Marelahe on February in 476, for the lives of my master King and his sons, for my father Adonna’s life, for my own life and for the lives of my siblings and my children”. The date of 476 written in the scripture means around 164-165 A.D. according to Seleucid calendar.
Technically speaking, there is ‘not so much to see’ here in Sogmatar. It is also not very old site, maybe 1800 years – not an impressive age in Mesopotamia. But for me, Sogmatar beats all other sites I visited in Şanlıurfa region for a reason I can not completely explain. I think one day I’d like to return and see what it feels like at night. Sogmatar echoes a lost religion of nature that survived much longer than generally known: most probably 800 to 1000 years after the introduction of Christianity and it had some kind of co-existence with Islam. Only the invasion of the Mongols put an end to this era.
On the way back to Şanlıurfa, I pass rock graves. Apparently, people did not just come here for religious and/or scientific practices but they also lived here. Stairs are leading into the rock graves that are empty. I look around, where did these people live? Wherever I look, the fields and hills are deserted except for the few houses close to the temples. The scenery does not reveal its secrets. It is in complete silence that I return to the city of Şanlıurfa – a very conservative-islam city where nothing echoes the lost religion of Sogmatar.