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.
Mosaic Museum Şanlıurfa has several mosaic masterpieces that were found at or close to the spot where the museum is located. The mosaics are relatively recent, dating from the 5th and 6th century AD in the time that Şanlıurfa was called Edessa. I liked especially the mosaic of the Amazons, fearlessly hunting ladies.
Mosaic Museum Şanlıurfa lies next to the Arkeoloji Müzesi, the archeological museum. On the other side it lies next to an old 19th century Urfa house and beyond that excavations of Roman baths, both on pictures above. On traffic signs pointing to touristic activities this museum complex is simply referred to as ‘Urfa Müzesi’, ignoring other museums because this is thé one – certainly the largest. Tickets for the Mosaic Museum Şanlıurfa also go for the Arkeoloji Müzesi.
Mosaic Museum Şanlıurfa is a large round building. Paths have been made over and in between mosaics. This makes your visit a pleasant walk. As you can see, I was the only visitor: lots of possibilities to watch in detail. All mosaics found are local, deriving from byzantine Edessa: villas with mosaics were excavated on this spot, called Haleplibahce by locals.
Like the Arkeoloji Müzesi, extra room on the floor is left for future findings that will certainly be done. In 2013, new pieces were added to the museum.There were three things I particularly liked. One is that the mosaic stones that reportedly derive from the river Euphrate, are much smaller than in mosaics elsewhere. This turns the mosaics in very fine representations. The best artists must have been at work here!
Two is the mosaic of the Amazons, the warrior women from ancient myths that are depicted here while fighting with predators like the lion on the picture. This mosaic was discovered quite recently, in 2007. On the wall the museum shows the mosaic as it must have been when it was complete. A great piece!
Three is the ‘zebra whisperer’: the representation of a servant with a zebra. I found that strikingly beautiful and unique in its kind.
Archaeological Museum Şanlıurfa is unique, as it contains the artefacts found in Göbeklitepe, the oldest temple complex ever found (for example way older than the pyramids in Egypt). It is a very rich museum simply because the region is so rich in archaeological findings. All objects shown are ‘local’ and absolutely unique. Moreover, good efforts were made to make historical moments come alive for the visitor. Signs are both in Turkish and English and they offer excellent information.
Archaeological Museum Şanlıurfain its actual form is brand new (opened in 2015). The museum is large and its space gives a relaxed feeling to visitors. It is almost as if they left lots of space for new objects to come, which will certainly be the case. Unfortunately in this region, several dams were built covering the world’s oldest sites in water (Atatürk Dam, Birecik Dam, Kargamış Dam). There is a clear conflict of interest between conservation of archaeological areas and modern development issues – in that conflict, under actual Turkish politics modern development comes out as the winner. ‘Rescue excavations’ have been made regularly, often under supervision of the Archaeological Museum Şanlıurfa. Artefacts and other findings that could be ‘rescued’ are shown in this museum. All the rest is gone now, maybe to reappear one day from under the water, maybe lost for good.
A ticket for the Archaeological Museum Şanlıurfa also gives entrance to the Mosaic Museum next to it and vice versa. Anyway you won’t avoid these museums for the price (only € 2,- when I visited December 2018). I will show you some highlights here about things I liked; be aware there is a lot more to see! A visit absolutely recommended…
The oldest statue in the world, found in Urfa center. I thought I saw the oldest statue in Amman Archaeological Museum but this one is older indeed. The figure has a clear expression, maybe because of the black obsidian eyes. At the bottom, it is smaller; most probably the was put into a hole in for example the rocks (like in Sogmatar) to stand upright.
A unique, astonishing picture of a woman giving birth, 10.000 years ago. It was found in Göbeklitepe. Other findings and the temple exposition of that site are mentioned in my blog about Göbeklitepe, a reason in itself to visit this museum.
Statues that mix human heads and animals, found in Nevali Ҫori, one of the sites now lost in the water. I found it astonishing that 10.000 years ago, humans were able to make statues like this.
Clay nails to form mosaic pictures. You see here the nails, and an example of how pictures were made by putting them in the wall. They could be painted in different colors after that, too. They are from the Uruk culture, 4th milennium BC.
Pottery from the Bronze Age, depicting a gate / tower. I saw this after my visit to Harran and I stood there in surprise: doesn’t this pottery resemble the Aleppo Gate I went through? I told myself the gate in Harran is more recent in age but still….
Lovely Bronze Age terracotta. Nice animals, and a stamp seal; never saw such a stamp seal before. The museum has different types.
Statue with Syriac inscriptions, Roman age. Syriac was the common language during a long time in Şanlıurfa, called Edessa in biblical and Byzantine times. The inscription says: “This sculpture is Şamașyahb’s son Lișammaș. His brother, Barnay, made it for him. Who destroys this, will be punished by [the god] Sin”.
The oldest temple complex ever discovered in the world so far is Göbeklitepe in the hills of Mesopotamia. Findings date from 12.000 – 9.500 BC. Who’d ever guessed that mankind already had this type of constructions thousands of years before the pyramids of Egypt were built? That is why Göbeklitepe is called ‘zero point in time’. Visiting Göbeklitepe was on top of my list when I traveled to Șanliurfa, south of Turkey. There is so much to discover here! A big part of the research field has not been unearthed yet. Archaeological work will extend until 20 to 30 years from now, at least. Every inch of this field contains neolitic artefacts.
It was well-prepared that I arrived in Göbeklitepe. I read everything, I had seen many photographs. The only surprise was the weather. I travelled 6000 kilometers to find myself in terrible storm-like weather circumstances. The locals were shivering even more than I was. They stayed inside, protected from an icecold wind that brought horizontal gusts of rain soaking you whatever clothing you’d wear. What to do?
I went to the building down the hill, next to the parking place. An extra ticket of five lira gave access to a room with an audiovisual representation. Some kind of vague movie about neolitic times was shown: images ran over the walls and floor, while loud music rolled over the only spectator present. It was a dazzling experience and certainly not the most interesting part of the visit. But well, once you traveled 6000 kilometers you want to see everything to prevent missing out.
I left the building and stepped into the small bus, sponsored by the Dogus Group. Nothing about the weather had changed, so I accepted my fate. After a one, two kilometer ride to the top of the hill, the bus stopped. I saw a small museum shop but it was closed. All I could do was walk to the temples of Göbeklitepe through heavy wind and rain, so I did and arrived at a spectacular spot.
Fortunately there was a roof that stopped at least most of the rain. But the photographs I made are rather misty as the wind blew the clouds over the temples anyway. Four temples lay in front of me and it was most impressive. Especially the age, from 9.600 to 12.000 BC is unimaginable. How did neolithic humans make five meter high stèles to stand upright? Two stèles in the middle, twelve stones surrounding them.
Later, I visited the Șanliurfa Arkeoloji Müzesi where they rebuilt the largest temple found. They made it so that you can walk into the temple, an impression that makes you silent. On Göbeklitepe you look at the remains of the real temple, from above. In the museum, you experience what neolithic people have experienced when they entered the site. If you decide to make your way to Șanliurfa, I recommend that you visit both sites because it will make your experience complete.
Many animal carvations are seen on the stones, like a fox, birds, snakes. The neolithic era is considered as the time when mankind went from a hunting and nomad existence to a residential and agricultural existence. One theory says Göbeklitepe was not about religion but about domesticizing animals: people were trying to find out which animals could or couldn’t be domesticized, and that was the purpose of these buildings and the animal carvings in the rocks. It is a theory that does not explain the specific placement and number of the stones. However, we know nothing about eventual religious practices in that era so calling Göbeklitepe ‘temples’ is an uncertain theory as well. We just do not know.
An interesting stone is also this one. On the left above you see the on-site version and on the right the museum version that is a copy but clearer because there was no mist when I took the photograph 😊. The idea is that the round ball is a head and – like other natural human burial/after death traditions – that the head of dead people was given to birds to be ‘cleaned’. Think of the way Persian Zoroasters dealt with dead bodies.
I loved walking around the Göbeklitepe temples, even though I almost froze. A class with school kids visited as well. Some were super concentrated when a guide explained them where they had arrived, others felt clearly miserable… The teachers looked so motivated, it was great to see. I saw groups of schoolchildren with enthusiast teachers almost on every location of heritage in Șanliurfa – so good that they invest in that! Of course a bit of nice weather helps to get the message across to the kids…
On the way back to the bus, I passed some other excavated carved stèles that apparently could not be protected yet. They were packed in wood against weather circumstances, not a superfluous measure.
I also saw new excavation sites, one uncovered – you can see how they divide the area in helpful squares – one covered by a large roof: I hope that roof allows them to continue the work because in the weather circumstances I passed through, that would be impossible.
Last but not least, I like to show you some pictures of animal statues found at Göbeklitepe and exposed in the Șanliurfa Arkeoloji Müzesi. How wonderful that in a very early era, these statues were already made by humans. For me, the most attractive point of Göbeklitepe was the continuous awareness that this site and all its artefacts form a zero point in time!
500.000 Syrian refugees Șanliurfa, that is really a lot for an existing population of 2 million. Turkey is doing a great job for the children of Syrian refugees in Șanliurfa but the integration of the adults seems to fail. Although most people support the shelter given to Syrian refugees, they worry about the consequences of housing 1 refugee on every 4 inhabitants in the province of Șanliurfa.
500.000 Syrian refugees Șanliurfa, that is really a lot for an existing population of 2 million. Turkey is doing a great job for the children of Syrian refugees in Șanliurfa but the integration of the adults seems to fail. Although most people support the shelter given to Syrian refugees, they worry about the consequences of housing 1 refugee on every 4 inhabitants in the province of Șanliurfa.
Turkey’s effectiveness to deal with a refugee crisis Turkey has set up very good provisions for its refugees. In Europe one can hear sometimes remarques of doubt about the seriousness of Turkish expenses for refugees (EU gives billions to Turkey to shelter refugees in the region) but everybody traveling in the south can see that Turkey makes a serious business of good shelter. I saw that last year in Gaziantep and wrote a blog about that and I see it now in Șanliurfa. It is impressive and worth our support.
Problem 1: Competition for ordinary workers So what is the problem? Well, the problem is not that Turkey is not taking care of the refugees but that they are different and they are many. First of all, there is a competing situation for workers, especially in the low cost areas. Turkish poor work for little money and now Syrian workers have arrived and take their jobs for even less money. More than anybody, it is the workers who pay the price for 500.000 Syrian refugees Șanliurfa. They lost their jobs that brought already no more than poverty or they kept their job but their wages have gone down.
Problem 2: lack of integration, fear of ethnic conflict Second, there are worries about long term effects of the lack of adult integration. Șanliurfa has camps and neighbourhoods that are Syrian dominated, for example in Harran exists a refugee camp that is almost a city in itself with 30.000 refugees (note that we do not talk tents and the like but normal housing and other infrastructure). This allows for targeted efforts such as education and association. Children are doing fine, they are learning Turkish and as a consequence also other lessons at school. But the adults do not seem to learn a lot. It is not clear why that is: do they still expect to return to Syria at short notice, are they too traumatized to learn, are they just not interested or not capable? On the other hand all-Syrian associations are developed in isolation of Turkish society. Some individuals are optimist and think that this is because the Syrian refugees want to return and they are succesfully preparing for that. However, general opinion is pessimist, that Syrian refugees are creating a state in a state with their own clubs and political parties that will form a danger for the status quo in Șanliurfa.
Opinions about Syrians in Șanliurfa Șanliurfa is a province with a strong Arab minority. People here judge milder about Syrian culture than in 114 kilometer far Gaziantep. Nevertheless the inhabitants here consider themselves fully as Turcs and are as nationalist as other Turcs. They do admit cultural differences between themselves and Syrians, notably the fact that Syrians do not seem to love their country and fight for it, that there are thefts and cases of begging and child labour and that they lack in contribution to society as a whole, being rather passive towards organisation of work, education and other daily business issues. All express their worries that in the long term, if the Syrian war does not end and the refugees do not go back, there will be big problems in Șanliurfa.
Șanliurfa under occupation… One man told me even that 500.000 Syrian refugees Șanliurfa means that ‘Șanliurfa is under occupation’. He is sure that President Erdogan will give citizenship to the refugees so that they will stay in Turkey for good. He thinks the risk of ethnic conflict is huge. ‘Every Syrian who is able to do something went to Europe’, he said, ‘we know that the Syrians who are stupid, unemployed and uneducated came to Șanliurfa’. They get so much aid in Turkey that their life has considerably improved compared to their status in pre-war Syria. ‘There is no reason for them to go back because their life has never been better than nowadays. It is not just that they have nothing to go back to because the war destroyed it all, it is because they simply didn’t have anything’. He told me that already 100.000 Syrian babies were born in Șanliurfa and explained that many Turkish citizens of Șanliurfa worry about these high Syrian numbers of birth.
North-Syria as the solution? Several people I spoke to consider the Turkish military offensive in Syria, first in Afrin, now soon to come East of Euphrate, as a way to re-house Syrian refugees. They think it can be a solution for the increasing tensions between Turcs and Syrian refugees on Turkish soil. Occupying Syria’s North entirely, like the Ottomans used to do, seems a good idea to them as the Turkish army will surely create a peaceful North-Syrian region where the population can start rebuilding a future.
Turkey has shown great hospitality and also wonderful capability in infrastructure to house so many refugees in a human and dignified way. Now, after the efforts to deal with the crisis, the long term issues become more urgent every day.
Harran: nonsense with traces from the real past… From the mound of Harran, many characteristic beehive houses can be seen as well as the castle of Harran. They lie in complete peace. Nothing seems to happen here. Farther away, over the border with Syria, smoke clouds rise from the fields. Is somebody making a fire? Or is that because of the war in Northern Syria? I decide to follow the path from the mound of Harran down to the beehive houses and the castle of Harran.
While making a short tour of the quarter, I walk into a group of young men. One of them wears a most trendy hoody from Amsterdam. ‘Hey’, I ask him, ‘are you from Amsterdam?’ He is not, he is from Harran, but he already went eleven times to Amsterdam. He loves it. Another guy comes forward out of the group. ‘I am a tourist guide. I will show you around’, he announces. He sends the other young men away with the words: ‘I have to work now’. So I found myself a guide or better to say: the guide found me.
Together we walk around the castle. Entering the castle is not possible because it needs to be restored. It happens that stones fall down so tourists are no longer allowed inside. Or is this the usual ‘it is dangerous’ argument? The castle appears to be a crusader-construction but my new guide tells that it is much older. Even Abraham and his wife Sara had or made a room in the castle and influenced the building of extra parts. I find that remarkable as Abraham was a nomad and lived in tents. To be honest, I think I am told quite some humbug. Harran: nonsense with traces of the real past in it… Certainly the castle is built on a place that was used before: it has a very old history and indeed maybe Abraham and Sara’s footsteps left some prints there.
Again, like in my first blog about Harran, it is difficult to find information that confirms different versions about the making of the castle. Some sources say the castle was made by Byzantines and strengthened by Crusaders; others say it was built by Fatimids in the 11th and Saladin in the 12th century.
It seems that in the 8th century, when Marwan II turned the temple of Sin at the Harran university into a mosque, he permitted the Sabeans to create a new temple at the location of the actual castle: apparently the castle was built on the rests of the temple. The octogenal tower in that scenario derives from the previous temple of Sin. Surely the castle is a spot where interesting archaeological research remains to be done.
After the visit of the castle, we walk to the tourist house that allows visitors to see the beehive-structure from the inside. Beehive houses are all around in this area and specific for Harran. The special shape of the roof makes the house cool in the hot summers of Harran and warm in the cold winters.
All kind of local products can be bought at the tourist house. I drink a tea with my guide and hear about other possibilities to enjoy the region. Every spot is history here, there is no doubt about it. Do not believe everything that is told about it, and remember there is nevertheless some truth in these stories. Harran: nonsense with traces of the real past…
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.
Graves near Abraham’s cave ‘You can’t go there, it is dangerous’, the man told me while I was walking on a beautiful path amid hundreds of graves. I had come half way the graveyard, enjoying the tranquility and reading the names and comments on the stones. ‘Really’, the man said and he pointed towards one of the exit porches, ‘you are walking here alone and furtheron it is dangerous with drugusers and the like. I can not let you continue, you understand that’. He looked at me in the genuine hope that I would understand indeed.
Political correctness exists in many countries, also in Turkey. Here in conservative Şanlıurfa, they find it difficult that a woman wanders all by herself without a clear and useful purpose such as doing shopping, and even then she is usually not alone. Women are not present when their beloved ones are buried; in the best case, they watch from a distance while the men do the ceremony. And here I am, crossing all the lines by walking freely over the graveyard, uncontrolled by a man, undefined by any purpose.
Political correctness means that the man does not tell me directly to go away because I am a woman, alone. He is aware of western values and my possible ignorance about the middle-eastern ones. Therefor he tries to convince me on the grounds that are always used everywhere in Turkey in cases like these: he tells me that it would be dangerous not to listen to him. I give it a small try, by showing a shocked face when he mentions drug users on this rainy Monday morning ‘oh, do you not have police officers to come and do something about it?’ ‘Yes, of course, they will be here when there is an incident’, is the answer I get, ‘please Madam, follow me’. I decide to give up, it is not that important anyway, and follow him on the way out.
I was on my way to Abraham’s cave when I saw the immense graveyard and decided to have a look. Is it a coincidence to find so many graves here? I don’t think so. All these people have found a last place to rest in the very neighbourhood of the holiest place in this region. The very very lucky ones have conquered one of the rare spots next to Abraham’s cave and the Mevlid-i Hilal mosque, see the picture on the right. It was taken from the road to the castle (Kale) that looks down on the Dergah Complex. In many places, like Rome and Jerusalem, people get buried close to holy places (Saint Peter’s church, Mountain of Olives) to be the first one to witness on the last day, on Judgement Day. I do not know what is the thought of being buried in graves near to Abraham’s cave: there will be no resurrection of a holy person there because Abraham was buried in Hebron, not in Şanlıurfa, and it is not the spot where a prophet will reveal himself on Judgement Day. There must be a thought that I missed (feel free to comment below if you know how this works).
Another interesting story here is the grave of Bediüzzaman Said Nursî. If you are in the court that gives direct access to Abraham’s cave, look opposite to the entrance to find a special chamber for Bediüzzaman Said Nursî. He is presented as a Muslim scholar and commentator of the Quran and the author of the Risale-i Nur collection. In Western Europe he is known as the founder of the so-called Nurcu movement.
A sign mentions that he always longed for Şanlıurfa and asked to be brought there when he felt death coming. Thus he spent his last three days in Urfa lying in a hotelbed, surrounded by praying students ‘from all the corners of the country’, then he blew out his last breath on March 23 1960. They buried him in front of Abraham’s cave. But a few months after the military coup of May 1960, officials dug up his body and transported it to another place, unknown until today. So what you look at in the chamber is an empty grave. The fight between secularism and fundamental islam is older than just the 21st century…