It was late evening on a bus headed towards Sanliurfa, one of the Southeast’s major cities, when our bus stopped for “petrol.” But not at a normal gas station, instead two men hailed our bus to the side of the road and guided the bus behind a roadside parking lot. Once there, a green jeep pulled up beside us, and the bus attendants and driver went outside. The men pulled gas cans from the bus, and a hose from the jeep. For the next twenty minutes the men transferred what was apparently gasoline into the cans. The women in the bus chided the staff for the reckless stop while my seatmate explained the oil was likely from Iraq or Syria, sold on the black market. Oil in Turkey is extremely expensive because of taxes from the government so apparently this company was trying to save a little money. On my second visit to Sanliurfa, my friend found a man leisurely rolling “knockoff” Marlborough cigarettes in the lobby of his two-star hotel.
My friend Emily called this region the “Wild, Wild, East” in her blog. There are similarities to America’s “wild, wild West.” The region is far more arid, less developed, and yes, the law does not always go as far.
But amidst the wild desert, now becoming greener due to recent dam projects, the region is also believed to have been the birthplace for Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Turks and many Muslims believe that Abraham was born in a cave just under the largest hill Sanliurfa, Turkey. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of Abraham being born in Ur, which many believe to have been actually located in Northern Iraq. So, it is not precisely known where Abraham was actually born since it was believed to have been at least 3,000-4,000 years ago.
In Urfa, “the cave” where Abraham was born has become a very busy pilgrimage site for Muslims. But the larger attraction is the nearby pool of “sacred carp.” The Balikli Gol (Fish Lake) is a massive placid pool that lies within the mosque complex surrounding Abraham’s “birth cave.” According to legend, Abraham was brought up to the top of the hill in Urfa before the ruling emperor. At the time, Abraham’s society believed in numerous pagan gods. It’s widely known from surviving ruins that the moon and sun, among others, were worshiped as gods during the time Abraham is believed to have lived. The emperor, threatened by Abraham’s insistence, is said to have thrown Abraham off the hill and into a fire as a death sentence. But according to lore, the flames became water and the wood chips became fish. Abraham was saved. Today, the residents have recreated the legend by filling the pool with hundreds of fish. The fish are considered holy and removing them is said to bring a curse on the thief. The fish are fed constantly by visitors, and because of that, they swim in crowded globs awaiting the sprinkles of food from visitors.
The Koran and the Old Testament say Abraham grew up with an intrinsic knowledge that there was only one God. All the “Abrahamic religions” agree that he was the first to believe and make a covenant with that God. They all tell stories of how Abraham left home bound for a new world where he could establish and live with his new faith. Some stories say Abraham traveled to Harran after fleeing from his pagan captors. Today, Harran is a small village between Sanliurfa and Syria. It’s known for unique beehive shaped houses, and again, for being another way point for the prophet Abraham. The ruins of a large mosque and old fortress rise above the desert landscape, but little else does. For me, it was interesting to visit the same places mentioned in the Bible and where Abraham may have passed through.
However, Abraham is not the only prophet who is believed to have passed through southeastern Turkey. The prophet Job’s “cave” also resides just outside
Sanliurfa’s city center. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, believe in the testing of Job. The cave is thought to be where Job resided while undergoing his trials. A holy well stands near the cave entrance, and Muslim pilgrims crowd around it, pressing their faces against the metal grate covering the opening. The well is believed to mark the source of water Job opened up after his trials. The Koran says a spring of water rushed forth after he touched his foot to the ground at God’s command. They believe the air around the well can have mysterious healing or other beneficial powers. Like the Abrahamic legend, no one can confirm this, and several other locations including Lebanon and Palestine claim Job as a resident.
Whether or not you believe in these spiritual stories, the age of Sanliurfa and its surrounding villages are undeniable. Just 20 km west of the city lies the oldest temple known to exist anywhere on Earth. The stone formations found at Gobekli Tepe are estimated to have been built around 11,000 B.C.
While passing through what seemed like an endless expanse of rocky desert, we came across all sorts of fragments of past civilizations. Much of what remains of those ancient origins include crumbling caravansarais and churches, city foundations and their underground escape tunnels, and a rocky hill with stone reliefs and cuniform writing.
If you’re looking for where it all started, you can’t miss Turkey’s wild southeast.
(For all of my photos, browse the Sanliurfa and Harran-Kilis photosets the photo gallery.)