Şanlıurfa and Mount Nemrut

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October 21st 2015
Published: October 22nd 2015
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We arrived in Şanlıurfa (Urfa for short) after two flights from Van. The first leg from Van to Istanbul started boarding after we were due to take off so by the time we arrived in Istanbul we didn’t have long to wait before boarding our next flight from Istanbul to Urfa.

After landing in Urfa we caught the shuttle bus into the city past the pistachio trees, olive groves, grape vines and cotton plants. The shuttle bus stops at a petrol station outside the old city so from there we caught a short taxi to our hotel. As soon as we entered the old city I was glad we had decided to visit Urfa despite its proximity to Syria and PKK activity in surrounding towns (Urfa itself seems to be fine at the moment).

Urfa (best known by its previous name Edessa) is an ancient city, according to archaeologists the surrounding area has been populated since approximately 9000BC. The city itself was founded in approximately 304BC. Since the city was established, many civilisations have laid their claim to it including the Ebla, Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Armenians, Hurri-Mitannis, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Arameans, Osrhoenes, Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, and Crusaders.

Urfa is also a pilgrimage town due to the important role it plays in the Islamic and Jewish religions. The prophet Abraham was apparently born in the hills surrounding the city and, later in life, was thrown into a fire by Nimrod (Nemrut), the local Assyrian king, who took offence at him destroying pagan gods.

While checking into our hotel we were offered a room upgrade which was pretty exciting, the first time we’ve ever had that happen! We were upgraded to a king suite, which meant we had a lovely spacious room with lots of windows, a view of the fort and the bazaar…and a minaret (which we both loved at 5am each morning).

After settling in and taking a few photos of the view we headed out towards Gölbaşı which was just across the street from our hotel. Gölbaşı, with its fish ponds and rose gardens at the foot fort, is a recreation of the story of when Abraham was thrown into the fire by Nimrod. God apparently turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish and Abraham was thrown off the fort and landed safely in a rose garden below. Even if you’re not religious it is a very picturesque area (with lots of cats!). When we arrived it was teeming with families out enjoying the surrounds, feeding the fish and watching the sunset. We decided to make our way up the hill to a restaurant so we could take in the view. We watched the sunset, ordered dinner and ate while watching the fireworks over the old city.

The following morning we were woken at 5am by the call to prayer, but both managed to fall back to sleep afterwards. We had a delicious breakfast in the courtyard of our hotel before heading out to check out the bazaar.

The bazaar is a rabbit warren of tiny streets selling just about everything you could want. If you want a rocking crib for your baby, a new remote for your TV, a pigeon, a new carpet, tobacco, spices and a goats head to cook up for dinner you can get it all in the bazaar (provided you can find your way to the right area). We spent a few hours wandering around before heading out to find some lunch. We went searching for falafels (apparently Urfa is one of the few places you can easily get them in Turkey due to the proximity to Syria), but failed to find them so settled for some chicken shish and salad. After lunch we headed back to the hotel to escape the heat of the day and read our books for a while.

Later in the afternoon we went out for a walk through the old city then up to the top of the hill (but not the fort, apparently there isn’t much left of it and it looks better from below), before returning once again to Gölbaşı. We decided to have dinner at the same restaurant as the view was so spectacular, so climbed up the hill again, grabbed some seats and ordered some chips and drinks (non-alcoholic, Urfa is mostly a dry city) and watched the sunset again.

The following morning we were picked up at about 8:45am (8:30 Turkish time) by our guide and driver for the day Mustafa. Mustafa and his tours of the local area came highly recommended by the Lonely Planet so I had organised for us to take us to Mount Nemrut prior to arriving in Turkey.

Our first stop was a little restaurant with a spectacular view over Atatürk Dam. Atatürk Dam was created by damming the Euphrates River. The construction of the cofferdam began in 1985 and was completed in 1987. The fill work for the main rock-fill dam lasted from 1987 to 1990. The construction began in 1983 and was completed in 1990. The dam and the hydroelectric power plant, which went into service after the upfilling of the reservoir was completed in 1992. The lake behind the dam is the third largest in all of Turkey. The hydroelectric power plant has a total installed power capacity of 2,400 MW and generates 8,900 GW·h electricity annually, which is between 30-40% of Turkeys total electricity generation.

After admiring the view over the dam, we had some tea (we are in Turkey after all), and then set off to Kahta for lunch. I had a roast chicken dish with rice, Scott had a lamb stew with rice and we shared some salad and bread. The food was delicious and we both ate far too much. We washed our lunch down with some more tea.

Following lunch we headed off towards our next stop Karakuş Tumulus which was constructed in the first century BC. Karakuş Tumulus is the burial mound holds female relatives of King Mithridates II. Around the mound there were four columns in each east, west and south directions, however only two at east, one at west and one at south remain. A eagle, a lions head and an inscribed slab explaining who is buried within the mound remain in place on a few of the columns. From the site, which we had to ourselves, we had a fantastic view of the surrounding farms and mountains.

From Karakuş Tumulus we set off towards Cendere Bridge which was constructed by the Romans in the second century AD. The bridge spans over the Cendere river which didn’t have a lot of water in it at the time we visited but judging by the size of the river bed it must swell enormously after a period of heavy rain (and probably snow melt). The bridge was in excellent condition – I probably would have been brave enough to drive a car over it.

From Cendere Bridge we made our way towards Arsameia which was the ancient capital of the Commagene. There isn’t much left of the original buildings which were constructed on top of a hill, but the view from the top over the ruins of a 13th century Mamluk castle and surrounding farmland was spectacular. Just down from the top of the mountain is a stone relief portraying Mithridates I shaking hands with Heracles. This relief was discovered in front of a cave which descends 158m through the rock into a cave temple. Around the front of the cave are inscriptions in ancient Greek. Whichever archaeologist excavated the relief and cave must have been pretty happy with him/herself as the relief is in fantastic condition (though I’m not sure how well it will survive now that it is exposed to the elements..).

From Arsameia we made our way to Mount Nemrut. After having a cup of tea and chatting to an Australian tour group, we climbed up the steps towards the summit. The summit of Mount Nemrut is a UNESCO world heritage site; a number of large statues (8-9m high) are erected around what is assumed to be a royal tomb from the 1st century BC. The statues depict King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene (whose tomb it is believed to be), two lions, two eagles and various Greek, Armenian, and Iranian gods, such as Vahagn-Hercules, Aramazd-Zeus or Oromasdes, Bakht-Tyche, and Mihr-Apollo-Mithras. The heads of the statues have been displaced from their bodies, possibly by an earthquake or by an army passing through the area.

Once we reached the summit we headed to the Eastern Terrace where we admired the statues and the view before we walked around to the Western Terrace via the Northern Terrace. The Western Terrace was much warmer as it was sheltered from the wind by the mound, and had better light for photos so we spent most of our time at the summit around this side. We took photos and watched the light change for about an hour and 45 minutes. During this time we had the place largely to ourselves; we only had to share it occasionally with a few other Turkish tourists, a security guard and occasionally the construction crew who are working on the new path up to the summit. Mustafa said that sometimes they have up to 1000 people at the summit for sunset so we felt incredibly lucky that it was so quiet when we visited (though it’s most likely due to the current issues with the PKK and Syria). We descended back to the car as the sun was setting and headed back towards Urfa. On the way home we stopped for another delicious meal, before arriving back at our hotel at about 9pm.

For our final day in Urfa we decided to visit the Archaeology Museum and the Mosaic Museum. The newly opened Archaeology Museum presents the local history and findings from historical sites surrounding Urfa including Göbekli Tepe or Harran. The museum contained a huge number of artefacts and was quite interesting, though nowhere near as impressive as the gold museum in Colombia (still my favourite).

After the Archaeology Museum we headed to the Mosaic Museum. The Mosaic Museum contains the Haleplibaçhe mosaics and part of a Roman villa complex which were discovered in 2006 when construction of a planned theme park (or urban renewal project as the museum calls it) began. It was lucky they found the mosaics and ruins for two reasons; 1) they are very impressive and 2) it would have been a shame to have a theme park so close to the old city of Urfa.

From the Mosaic Museum we headed back to the bazaar where we picked up some freshly baked flat bread for lunch as well as some young pistachios. We then made our way back to the hotel to eat and pack. After checking out we grabbed some baklava from the bazaar, then grabbed a seat in Gölbaşı and ate while watching the cats running around. The baklava was delicious and I suspect we’ll probably eat a lot more during our time here. After strolling around aimlessly for a while it was time to grab our packs and head off to the airport to catch our flights (via Istanbul again) to the next destination, Cappadocia.

Despite the history, impressive architecture and surrounding sites Urfa isn’t that high up on the list of ‘must visit’ places for non-Turkish/non-Middle Eastern tourists, however after spending a few days there we definitely think it was worth the trip.

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