Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day Five: Urfa, A City Of Pilgrims, A City Of People. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day five of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

We woke up in Urfa, the heat already rising, and gorged ourselves on a huge Turkish breakfast with three kinds of cheese, roast peppers, katmer—a delicious sweet green pancake—honey, eggs with Turkish sausage, olives, cool kaymak, tomatoes, cucumbers, french fries, and a basket of bread that the dutiful waiters insisted on refilling again and again.  We started to talk, but our tired conversation was overcome by the TV, which played a selection of the most manufactured US pop, and soon we just ate, and craned our heads around to gaze gap-mouthed at the latest Keisha video.

The city if Urfa is a palimpsest of names and histories stretching back over a eleven thousand years.  In 1984 the city was renamed Sanliurfa—Glorious Urfa—in honor of its tenacity in the Turkish War of Independence.  Urfa itself was named after the biblical city of Ur, Islamic scholars believing that this was legendary settlement where the prophet Abraham once lived.  Before that, Urfa was called as Edessa, a bustling metropolis of the Byzantine Empire.

After breakfast we headed outside, but the heat, even this early in the morning,  burdened our shoulders like a real weight.

We walked through the busy, broad streets, passing medieval towers, remarkable mosques, women dressed in purple headscarves with noses pierced with gold.  An old man in droop-crotched shalwar pants putted his motorbike up the sidewalk at a little more than walking pace.  We stopped in a shop hanging with dried peppers and eggplant husks, selling three different kinds of famous Urfa hot pepper in three qualities—’Home’, ‘Lux’ and ‘Extra’.  The city gave us too much to look at, and too much to think about, so that we walked around like people half-asleep, snapping photos of this oriental scene and that one.  It is hard to recognize Urfa’s monuments, bazaar and people as real living things, and not merely touristic photo opportunities.


Close to the bazaar is the sacred quarter of the city, a lawny tree-shaded expanse of marble courtyards, mosques, fountains and benches, filled with families and pilgrims.  The people here were conservative looking.  There was hardly any bare-headed women.  Many men were dressed traditionally, in saggy shalwars and bright lavender head-wraps.

Urfa is a city of pilgrimage.  According to Islamic tradition, Urfa is the birthplace of the profit Abraham, and this scared complex full of indolent tourists presses up against the cave in which he was supposed to be born.  There are two small doors entering this holy site, one for men and one for women, and a tired security guard sits in between them, dealing with questions and donations.

After taking off my shoes and ducking through the entrance to the sacred cave, I walked into a small room crowded with feet and shoulders.  At the front of the room a thick plexiglass barrier covered the dim grotto—the place of the birth of the prophet Abraham.  Children and old men washed their hands in the sink in the right corner, and then hold their palms face up in prayer.  The room smelled lightly of feet.  I tried to sidle up to the window so I could get a better view of the green-painted stone platform that stood in the grotto, but I was worried that I was getting in someone’s way, and interrupting the seriousness of the prayers, so I left.

Outside I stood a moment in the heat, waiting for my friends to finish their explorations, watching the kids dip their feet into the fountain.

“Well, that was boring,” someone says before we walk off to our next site.

In the shade of the mosque abutting the shrine, two men laid asleep or ill, their coats thrown up over their heads against the sun, their feet bare and black with callouses.

We wandered two minutes or so from the Cave of Abraham before we made it to the Sacred Fish Pool.  Tradition says that the cruel king Nimrod tried to catapult Abraham into a burning pyre.  But God turned the fire to water, and the coals to fish and landed safely Abraham into a rose bush, so accordingly Urfa’s scared quarter is decorated with a large rectangular pool full of holy fish.  We took tea beside the fish pond.  Young men pushed boats to the fountain in the center of the pool, propped a ladder against it, and climbed on top of it, unwinding a long green hose with which they cleaned.
Cleaning the fountain.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

The water was a soft green, and well-fed happy looking carp bobbed their heads out of the water.  Urfa’s heavy sun was mottled through the trees, and the wind blowing over the water gave a freshness that eased the heat.  The carp would crowd around the edge of the pool, waiting for the tourists to throw them a handful of fish food, opening and closing their yellow-lipped, toothless mouths.  A pudgy fish food seller had positioned himself under an umbrella, carefully measuring brown pellets from a hessian bag at his feet into small metal tea saucers and plastic baggies.  He had the radio on, that softly blared with the latest international pop.  Keisha came on and he subtly tapped his foot, while his mustachioed face kept the same hard mercantile expression.

I walked around the pool, looking at the carp.  Then I saw a knot of fish, jostling and nervous.  In the center I could see the pale white gash of flesh.  The fish were fighting over a fish corpse, tearing at its scales before dragging it to the bottom of the pool where it disappeared.
Fish!  Sacred fish!  Photo by Jenna Staff.
The Urfa citadel stood atop the hill, looking over the scared gardens.  We had to climb it.  According to the informational plaque that stood in front of the ticket office, the citadel was first built in 9500 BC, but it was more likely erected first in the time of the Roman Empire.  Each new ruler of Urfa renovated the citadel, adding monuments and improvements to the old edifice of strong rock, so that the place now stands as a patchwork of stones and arches of different ages.  Two tall Corinthian columns topped it, beautiful and strange, like a set goalposts for some massive invisible football game in the sky.
Urfa.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

Once we reached the top of the citadel, the whole city was laid out in front of us like the spread of food at a hotel buffet.  The watered healthy green of the trees in the sacred gardens sprouted in tufts, the glinting metal domes of the new mosques in the distance, the clouds clutched against the horizon, and the burst of new development around the city’s edges high and glassy.  Behind us was what looked to be a slum, a crumbling mess of concrete shanties propped together with rotting wood and tarps.  A mother led her child out of a dark doorway and took down a piece of washing from a clothesline, ignoring the ancient castle in whose shadow she lived.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the maze-like bazaar, checking the prices on trinkets that might serve as good presents for the folks back home.  The stalls were busy with shops of every kind, gold, tea, shirts, cups, plates, bags of cheap tobacco as yellow as bread, folk crafts, fabrics.  And the winding passageways were cluttered with people as varied as the goods:  peasants from the surrounding countryside, rich conservative tourists in fashionable hijabs, and us, the short-clad, picture snapping sun-burnt barbarians.  Two women in headscarfs budged their way through the crowd, each shouldering huge rolls of thick grey foam as big as a donkey.

In the bazaar we met a hustling sixth-grade shopkeeper who, like the majority of men in the city is named Ibrahim, after the prophet Abraham.  He was short for sixth grade, and when he relaxed he looked like one of my students during the break between classes.  But then his eyes would glint with the penetrating canny of a businessman.  His English was simple yet confident in a way that suggested he learned things very quickly.  We tried to bargain, but Ibrahim just smiled, and his prices were fair, so we all bought a little thing from him—a Turkish coffee pot, a sugar dish.

I interviewed  him in a combination of my haltering Turkish and his English.  His favorite school subject was Math.  He liked Ben 10.  I could easily imagine him then as one of my own students back in Istanbul, his life a clamor of schoolwork and friends and breaks between classes.  But as we were talking an urchin sidled up to Ibrahim’s store and started to finger some of his goods.  Ibrahim’s boy’s face hardened.  He barked.  The urchin cringed and melted back into the crowd.  Once the threat was gone, the child in his eyes came back.

We got him to pose in his shop.  “Be a businessman,” I said.  He set his face as hard as he could, crossing his arms over his chest.  He was proud of his shop, of his stock of goods.

By then the heat of the day was up.  We splashed around in the hotel pool until the evening.


Harran is a small village nine miles north of the Syrian border, a good half an hour drive from Urfa down a straight new road lined with rich green farmland.  We turned down a smaller road, following first the signs for Harran, and once we found Harran, we followed the signs for ‘Tourist Center,’ keeping a look-out for the touristic sites we’d read about in the guidebooks.

But Harran is not a museum.  Harran will only reveal itself slowly.  Harran is a living village, where people work, marry, have children, and try to live the same as they had for centuries.  The new addition of tourists drawn by the city’s distinctive beehive mud huts will not change that.

We stopped and asked a man for directions.  Directions where?  Directions to Harran.  To the mud huts.  To the sites that we had to see.  He smiled curiously.  We were there, he explained.  We nervously regarded the mud-colored huts and the rank of cheap eateries on the roadside.  Could this be it?  I thought of turning back around, returning to the safety of our hotel.  The man still stood helpfully at our open window, and after a moment he offered to find us a guide.  We don’t need a guide, we decided, and the man shrugged, pointing down a dirt road.  There’s where you can go if you want to see the village, he said.

Our car rumbled over the uneven, potholed dirt road.  Around us were dozens of those hand-made mud-brick huts crowned with kumbats—large distinctive domes found in only three other places on earth.  These huts have become symbols of Urfa.  But we felt uneasy.  This was no museum we were driving into.  This was life.  Women were slowly walking home from the fields.  Children were playing bare-feet in the dirt behind their houses.  And through it all clambered a dusty, small blue car filled with foreigners snapping pictures out their windows of this very authentic village life.  A trio of dirty young children ran barefoot in the plume of dust we left behind, jumping with exuberance.

We returned to the main road and parked.  Long-haired goats chewed on something in the muddy embankment.  “I guess this is it,” one of us said.  We ventured up a dirt road to look around and we were quickly met by a class-room’s worth of small children, sullenly selling good-luck charms.  We tried our best to ignore them, but they followed a few steps behind us, polite and silent.  A small girl with huge eyes not more than seven years old had a baby tied to her back with a blue handkerchief, and the handkerchief would sometimes slip, so she would foist it up again.  She wasn’t trying to sell anything to us, or to ask us for money.  She, like us, was looking.

We have interrupted these people’s lives and we don’t want to interrupt them any more.  We turn back, get the number of the tour guide from a food truck, and wait by the car while the children orbit us with a quiet curiosity.


A man led us past a honey-colored tumbling stone castle and into the heart of Harran.  The castle was first built by the Hitties who established there a temple to Sin, the goddess of the moon.  When the Romans replaced the Hitties, they converted the temple into a church.  When the Umayyads took the castle from the Romans, they made the church into a caravansary.  Now the castle stands empty and crumbling, a monument to nothing, while children play in its shadow.

We parked next to a large mud hut with eighteen kumbats rising into the late afternoon sky.  This was Harran House, a traditional hut made to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.  Outside camels, cows, horses, goats and chickens mingled with tea-drinking men.

We were introduced to our young guide Eyup.  We walked a little up a grassy hill towards the crumbling foundations of a once-large building, a huge crumbling tower rising beside it.  Eyup told us that these was the remains of the world’s first university, amd there—he pointed to the far corner of the ruins—was a the library, a legend of the world, which  drew scholars from across the world to study alchemy, religion, and astronomy.  The tall tower, still standing, its top broken like a cut reed—that was once a state-of-the-art astronomical observatory.  One of the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh was unearthed over there, by that hill.  It was here that the Roman Emperor Crassus was defeated by the Parthians, and had molten gold poured down his throat.

We climbed a mound that rose beside the ruins, where weather-worn stone walls were being scraped out of the earth, the ancient bricks the same color as the falling light.  Beneath this hill, Eyup told us, lie the ruins of eight successive civilizations.  It is strange, I think, looking at the ghostly shape of the excavated old city, how bricks look pretty much the same over the whole span of human history.  They look exactly like bricks.

This done, we returned to Harran House.  We went inside the first kumbat where Eyup dressed us up in traditional clothes and we posed for pictures.

The inside of the house looked much bigger from the inside than it did on the outside.  The walls were hung with mementos.  In the kitchen it was cups, lamps, and a goat skin used to make the traditional Turkish yogurt drink Ayran.  The man’s salon was covered in old rugs and pillows.  The marriage room decorated with tapestries, a trousseau and a wedding dress hung on the wall.  “The house is hot in the winter, and cool in the summer,” Eyup told us proudly.

After that we rested in the declining light, drinking tea and talking.  We asked Eyup about himself.  He is in high school.  He has 14 brothers and sisters.  He speaks Arabic, Turkish and English.  He learned English from speaking with tourists, and he dazzles us with the snatches of Italian and French he’s picked up from other passing travellers.

Before it felt like we were trespassers into Harran’s daily life, but now, we are guests, sipping tea, letting the night rise around us.  People have been drinking tea here, I think, since the silk road wound its way up from China and first brought packets of tea to Europe.  The sunset bulged, the color of rose-petal jam, blowing the fresh night wind over the landscape.  The sun burned the sky orange and purple, flooding the day’s last light over the nearby ruins.  Here, I thought, we had seen something more than ruins, more than a citadel, more than the legendary birthplace of Abraham.  In Harran we were welcomed to look at a glimpse of real life.  It was not the remarkable and preserved touristic life of travel brochures, but a real life that like the ruins of Harran, had been built atop the past.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

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