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Published: November 22nd 2008
A Flag in the Night
The huge Turkish flag above Urfa castle was a lovely sight in the twilight.
One of the things I love about traveling without an itinerary is that plans can change on a moment’s notice. My plans were to leave Cappadocia on an early bus to Kahta, near the base of Mt. Nimrut, with my Canadian friend Errol and then continue on to the mountain. We packed our stuff up in the morning and checked out of the hostel. Then we headed down to the bus station to buy some tickets. The man at the counter informed us that every bus (they were not that regular) to Kahta was full for that day and the next. We briefly considered a tour to the area, but the thought repulsed us both. We asked the man what other destinations were available that day and in the general direction we wanted to go. He thought for a while and then said, “There is an overnight bus to Urfa.” We quickly looked at the map and saw that it was a town near the Syrian border. We asked the man what the city was like and he smiled and said it was very nice. In a discussion that couldn’t have lasted more than a minute we decided to go to
Urfa and then on to Mt. Nimrut from there. We bought our tickets and then we set off to spend the day doing a bit more exploring around the town.
At dinner we did some research on Urfa, or Sanliurfa (Glorious Urfa in Turkish) as its name had been recently changed to. The more we learned, the more excited we became with our impromptu change of destinations. Urfa was a very old town. According to Muslim tradition, Urfa was the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham. Abraham is considered the father of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and because of that Urfa has become an important pilgrimage site in the Middle East. Once known as Edessa, Urfa has been a stage to many important happenings in history. In addition to being Abraham’s birth place, Urfa was where, in Islamic tradition, Abraham was cast into the fire by King Nimrod and walked out unscathed. The town was taken by Christian forces during the First Crusade and then taken back by the Islamic forces, bringing about the Second Crusade. During World War 1, French forces took the town from the Ottomans and then, after the founding of
The Ancient Fortress
The castle was one of the best preserved parts of Harran an it was open for exploration.
the Turkish Republic, gave it back to the Turkish people. In addition to the city itself, there are several biblical cities of considerably more ancient origins in the area, like the town of Harran on the Syrian border, that are worth a visit. Just as we were getting ready to head to the bus, my friend noticed a tiny line meandering its way around the map to the west of Urfa. Closer inspection of the map revealed a name written in tiny letters, almost like an afterthought, that said Euphrates R. - We both got excited, because we were going to cross right over the famous river into Mesopotamia, the ‘land between rivers’, or, more famously, the Fertile Crescent!
Our bus arrived just after dark. We stashed our bags in the luggage compartment and took our seats in the back of the very full bus and then we were off. The bus was very noisy. My friend and I were talking, the row behind us was talking and the two rows in front of us were talking. There was one very large man sitting in the seat across the aisle from me. He was noticeably agitated and growing worse
Through the Hole in the Wall
Everywhere I turned in Harran there were interesting things to see. This was at the castle.
with every second. The attendant came back and the man grabbed him by the arm and said something in his ear. The attendant then stepped back and sternly told everyone in the back of the bus to be quiet because we were annoying the angry man - He used some fairly humorous, ‘Bla, Bla, Bla…’ hand signs to let those of us that didn’t speak Turkish know what he meant. We took the hint and got quiet, but the Turks all around us took offence and took it upon themselves to make the ride miserable for the man - They laughed and bumped his seat and talked in a loud, considerably more annoying, whisper. As annoying as he was, I started to feel a little badly for the guy. Eventually the man’s stop came and he got off and everyone erupted in laughter and the loud talking began again. Our bus arrived in Kayseri and we got off. It was late, yet the station seemed busier than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. We grabbed our bags and made our way slowly through the crowd into the terminal building. We found the counter we were told to look for and,
there, the attendant checked us in and took us to where our next bus would be leaving from. We had about an hour to kill before the next bus arrived, so we found a nice bench at the edge of the festive crowd and we took a seat. We asked several people around us what the huge crowd was for, but nobody understood our poor attempts at Turkish. It was clear that the huge crowd was there to see a few men off. They were cheering and chanting what sounded like the Turkish equivalent to, “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” They were waving Turkish flags and, occasionally, they would break out into a very official sounding song, possibly the Turkish National Anthem. As it got later, the crowd grew until there must have been nearly a thousand people surrounding the buses. From time to time a young man would erupt from the seething mass of people and fly high above everybody’s head, fall back into the crowd and then get launched again. It was a very festive occasion and it was impossible to not get caught up in the joy. We had been sitting there for about half an hour when a
Written in Stone
This is the massive stone book that is at the entrance of the pilgrimage park in Urfa. It is inscribed with the beginning of Abraham's conflict with King Nimrod.
man came out of the crowd and sat down on the bench next to us. He spoke a bit of English and was patient enough to suffer through our bad Turkish. We struggled through a very long conversation with him and we learned a lot. He turned out to be a security guard at the local airport, but he was taking a bus to visit a friend elsewhere in Turkey. The crowd was there to see off a large group of Turkish soldiers that had just completed their training and were heading off to the conflict areas in nearby Kurdistan and elsewhere in the country. He told us that very few of the people in the crowd actually knew any of the soldiers, but that it was a point of intense national pride to see them off. Finally, just as the conversation was reaching the inevitable point where we had all exhausted our knowledge of each other’s language and uncomfortable pauses were becoming regular, our bus arrived and we said farewell to the man and thanked him for his patience.
We settled down into our comfy seats and watched the crowd through the windows. Ten minutes later, the sea
This is one of the Mosques in Urfa's lovely park. Note the castle in the background.
of people parted in front of us and we left the station and started the second part of our journey to Urfa. I drifted in and out of sleep for the next few hours. We made a rest stop somewhere along the way where we got out and stretched our legs, but, other than that, the journey passed like a dream. I woke up in time to watch the Euphrates River pass beneath us in the early morning light - Entering Mesopotamia was another big geographical moment for me! The sun was already shining brightly when we pulled into the bus station in Urfa. We quickly grabbed our bags and got ready to walk into town to find a place to live. The map of town that we had was scandalously vague, since Urfa was not a regular stop on the Lonely Planet-toting travelers’ itinerary, so we had to wing it. Just as we were about to set off a seemingly nice man corralled us and told us about his pension in town. He told us that if we would stay with him he would give us a ride into town. I wasn’t against staying with him, since it sounded
At the Tea Shop
The entire patio area around one of the ponds was filled with lovely tea shops. We chose this one because of the nice pitchers and the tablecloths.
like a nice place with a pleasant atmosphere, but my friend was a bit leery about being approached the way we had been and his price was fairly steep by Turkish standards. We took the man’s business card and told him that we would like to look at a few different pensions in town before we decided on a place to stay and that we preferred to walk into town to get our bearings. The man then started using some very annoying, hard-sell tactics - “You will not find another place in town!”, “It is much too far to walk!”, “All of the foreign travelers stay with me!”… At that point the man was starting to sway my opinion of him to align more closely with that of my friends and we decided to just walk away - We did, however, leave on pleasant terms, with a warm ‘thank you’ and a smile, just in case the man was correct and we had to stay with him.
Some of the pictures we had seen of Urfa highlighted a beautiful hilltop fortress with two huge columns on top. We knew that the fortress was roughly where the center of the
old town was, so, when we got our first glimpse of the citadel on a distant hill, we were pretty sure we had interpreted the unlabeled scribbles on the map correctly and were headed in the right direction. It took us about twenty minutes to walk into town along a road that followed a dry creek bed. Along the way a group of children ran up to us, giggling amongst themselves, to say hello. When we reached the first recognizable landmark in town we started following the lines on the map looking for a home. The first place we stopped, which was in a labyrinthine network of narrow alleys, was a lovely old home with a central courtyard. It had been recommended to us as a budget place, but the man behind the counter told us that the place had been recently renovated - The staggering price tag pushed the place well out of even what could be considered a midrange hotel, so we moved on. The next place we came to was locked up and silent. We consulted the guide book to see if there were any interesting places listed in there. We found two places that sounded decent
The restored entrance gate through the ancient walls of Harran.
and we set off in search of them. One of the places sounded very nice, but we searched every alley in the area and couldn’t find it, so we went to the next one on the list, Hotel Bakay, which was a very obvious, high-rise hotel. There we found a nice room overlooking the city. It was pricey, but the room had two beds and something we hadn’t experienced in some time - Air conditioning! We took a look at a few different rooms before we found one that didn’t reek too badly of tobacco smoke - We could only smile as we walked past the prominent ‘No Smoking!’ signs into the room. We stashed our bags and then we set off to explore a bit of the town. We ended up walking around for quite a while. We spent a few hours exploring the labyrinthine passages of the very lively bazaar. There we watched as metal workers pounded sheets of copper into lovely works of art and people sold just about anything you could imagine. It was actually a pleasant experience, because, unlike the huge bazaar in Istanbul, the merchants were not annoyingly shoving everything in your face and
Looking through the Aleppo Gate Harran doesn't seem like much.
trying to squeeze every last penny out of you. We grabbed a quick bite to eat in the bazaar and then we made our way down to the lovely park-like pilgrimage area at the base of the hill that the fortress was on.
We followed the stream of devout pilgrims past a giant stone book carved in both Turkish and English with the beginning of the story of Abraham and a map of the site and then we passed through the gates into the park. Neither of us was dressed nicely enough to enter the mosques, so instead we sat in the courtyard near the entrance of the mosque that contained the cave that Abraham was born in. We watched as the pilgrims streamed by, some dressed in very conservative, traditional dress and others in fairly plain western styles. Everyone seemed to be excited for what they were about to see, so smiles were on everybody’s face. Several people came by and sat on the bench next to ours and asked us several questions including the usual where we were from, what we thought of Urfa and what religion we followed - They always seemed happily surprised when they
Signs of a Grand Past
This buried arched ceiling gave me a hint at the past grandeur of Harran's structures.
discovered that I was a Christian. After a few minutes we decided to walk over to the sacred carp ponds to take a look. The area around the ponds was very lovely. The ponds themselves were large rectangular pools of greenish water surrounded by a huge garden and large trees. The first one we visited was Halilur Rahman Golu (the Lake of Halilur Rahman). Sometimes known simply as the Pool of Sacred Fish, Islamic tradition says that King Nimrod built a giant funeral pyre and had Abraham cast into the flames, but Allah (God) turned the flames into water and the coals into fish and Abraham emerged unscathed. The resulting pond is still full of the sacred carp and it is considered good luck to feed the fish - As you would expect, the fish are massive and quite tame. We sat for a while watching hordes of people feed the fish and then we decided to toss a few handfuls into the seething mass of fish as well - It was an impressive sight to see. We walked over to the second of the ponds in the area, Aynzeliha Golu, which was dedicated to a female follower of Abraham.
This is the sight of Islam's first university. The ruins of the Grand Mosque were one of the only standing structures remaining at Harran.
That pond was surrounded by a lovely, tree-lined patio filled with sidewalk tea shops. We took a seat at one of the tables up against the rail and ordered some tea and then we talked for a while as we took in the scenery. The patio was filled with people happily going about their business. There were families rowing around the pond in one of a handful of rowboats available for rent. There was a lovely fountain in the middle of the pond sending the soothing sounds of rushing water in every direction. Several of the people at the surrounding tables greeted us with a smile and a welcome - It was a great place to sit and relax a while.
We were both exhausted from our overnight bus journey, so we decided to head back to the hotel and take advantage of our air conditioning - A long nap during the hottest part of the day seemed like a good plan. On the way back we passed a man on the street who spoke good English. He told us that he had a restaurant nearby and asked us to stop by later for dinner - He pointed it
The East Facade
Jamal, our guide, called this the Baghdad Gate, because it faced Baghdad.
out and we went on our way. We then spotted a movie theater just down the street from the hotel. There was a big poster advertizing the new Quentin Tarantino movie, Planet Terror - Neither of us had seen a movie in a while, so we decided to see one after dinner. The air conditioning in our room cut through the musty tobacco smell and the mid day heat and I managed to quickly drift off to sleep.
Three or four hours later we were headed out of the hotel again. It was Friday night, so we decided to try and find the town’s nightlife. The guide book we had was silent on Urfa’s nighttime entertainment options and the man at the hotel didn’t understand what we were asking him. We were looking for a place to go and watch some live music of some sort over some tea. Being a very conservative town, we didn’t expect to find any wild clubs and we suspected that where ever we ended up would be gender segregated, but we thought we would find something. We ended up eating an early dinner at the English speaking man’s restaurant. The food was delicious
The Baghdad Gate
The facade has been partially restored, but has been standing more or less as it is for hundreds of years.
and the atmosphere was friendly. At the end of the meal we asked the man if he knew of any places that fit our nightlife expectations and he told us that he didn’t know of anything in town, excluding the ‘for tourist’ shows that we might be able to find at the big hotels. We thanked him and then we set off in search of something to do. We ended up back at the hotel an hour later with a box of baklava - We didn’t find anything, which explained why the guide book had been silent about it. We spent a little while looking into what we wanted to do the next day. We both liked Urfa, so we were not quite ready to move on to Mt. Nemrut. We decided just before it was time to head out to the movie that we would go and visit Harran, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities on earth.
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a brightly lit movie theater with a small group of young Turkish men. The theater was so small that the sound of the projector became part of the soundtrack. We didn’t know anything
A Detail of the Baghdad Gate
Note the Arabic script carved below the arch. There are also stylized cobras carved onto the column capitols.
about the movie we were about to see, but we both knew Tarantino’s work and were pretty sure what to expect. Planet Terror started off strangely and just got weirder. It was graphic and gruesome, but the blatant campiness kept us laughing. I was surprised that the movie was even playing in one of the most devout cities in Turkey, but it seems like that is the type of movie that is popular in the region. The most memorable part of the movie for me was completely unexpected and certainly unplanned. It happened during an encounter between the hero and his female counterpart. The reel stopped turning, freezing one of the more revealing scenes on the screen. The image stayed on the screen for a few seconds and then the film melted and the screen went white. At first we thought it had been part of the movie, but when the lights came on in the theater and the attendant came out and said he would have the movie running again in a moment, we knew we were wrong. We couldn’t stop laughing - It was only the second time I had ever seen a film melt and the moment
that it had melted and where we were watching it made it seem hilarious, possibly intentional. The movie, which was hilariously bad to the end, finished without any more mishaps and then we went back to the room and called it a night.
The next morning we were up early. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we were on our way to the bus station. At the bus station we walked through the sea of bus touts repeatedly saying, “Harran.” Before we knew it we had been collected by a young man and we were headed down a set of stairs to the lower level. A few minutes later we were on the appropriate minibus waiting for more passengers. We were surprised when, after only a short wait, the bus driver closed the door and drove off without filling every seat. After twenty minutes of winding our way all over the city the driver finally succeeded in filling every seat. We were packed like sardines into the tiny van, but we were on our way. Harran was less than fifty kilometers away, but, with the several stops along the way, it took us more than an hour to
A Dirt Devil
Jamal got a little annoyed when I stopped to take a picture of this.
cover the distance. The bus let us off on a dusty curb at the edge of a barren, desert plain. We had no idea where the ruins were, but we could see a massive, ruined wall at the edge of the plain, so we walked toward it. We were pounced on by a young college student named Jamal who said, “I am a guide, so I will show you around Harran.” We thanked him, but let him know that we were not interested in the services of a guide. He then said that he would guide us as a friend and that he didn’t want to be paid for his services - We, of course, knew otherwise. We tried to walk away, but Jamal followed us up to the ruined wall and then proceeded to tell us about the restored gate that passed through it - It was obvious that we had no choice but to accept his services.
The Aleppo Gate is the only gate remaining through the ancient walls that used to surround Harran. The gate had been carefully restored, serving as an impressive entrance to the once important city. Closer inspection of the gate revealed the
Harran is most famous for its ancient beehive houses, which are made from mud brick and stone. They have not changed for at least 3000 years.
same type of interlocking stonework in the flat lintel stones that was present in most of the ornamental arches at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I remember wondering whether the gate had been partially rebuilt during Ottoman times using the grand, interlocking lintel stones, or if the Ottoman construction had copied the ancient style used at Harran and elsewhere - The lintel stones were considerably more worn than the huge cut stones that made up most of the gate, so it is possible that they were built at different times. We paused for a moment before we passed through the gate. Looking through the opening in the ancient wall, a barren landscape of rolling hills stretched as far as we could see. There were no clear signs of the once great city of Harran - A city that sat strategically on the road to Damascus at the intersection of two important trade routes; a city that was once at the forefront of knowledge and learning and home to Islam’s earliest university; a city that served as a stopping point and home for Abraham during his journey to Canaan; a city that was once one of the most important settlements in all
Through the Gate
This is the gate that led to the beehive house that we got to explore.
of Mesopotamia; a city, now, nearly completely erased by the onslaught of the ages. We walked through the gate and began our exploration.
Immediately on the other side of the gate we found our first signs, other than the ruined wall, of Harran buried in the desert. The only thing that betrayed the building’s hiding place was a depression in the ground with what looked like a cave in it. Closer inspection revealed that the cave was actually the vaulted arch ceiling of some forgotten structure. There was not a lot to see - The depression was filled with windblown trash and the space beneath the arch was small and filled with ages of built up dirt, but it was clear that there was a high level of workmanship in the masonry. We moved on. In the distance we could just see the top a tall, square tower rising up above the surrounding desert and we were headed straight for it. The hills all around us were strewn with stone blocks and tufts of stunted grass. It looked as if it was all part of a natural desert landscape, but closer inspection of the blocks revealed ancient tooling marks
An Eagle Guarding the Gate
This eagle was on a pedistal outside of the gate leading to the beehive house. It appeared to be made of stone or mud and it looked old.
- Every large stone had once been a part of Harran’s grand structures. I found well carved blocks and even some columns strewn about like some ancient cataclysm had doomed the city - The destruction, which resulted from the Mongol Wars in the 1200’s, seemed complete. Off to our left there were a few new buildings that formed the modern town of Harran. I was surprised to see the buildings there, considering that the entire area was a massive archaeological site. I was even more surprised to see the locals digging up the desert with a backhoe, but I suppose I can’t blame them for not looking on the surrounding ruins with more reverence - Harran doesn’t seem to be a huge tourist attraction, in fact, it seemed to be completely ignored by even the archaeologists. We continued walking through the barren hills. Slowly the tower grew more prominent and then, when we reached the crown of a low hill, a vast ruined structure spread out below us.
The entire floor plan of the huge structure, which was sunken a good bit below us, was surrounded by a chain-link fence and big signs telling us to keep out of
The Beehive Museum
The courtyard to the beehive house had several original artifacts from day to day life at Harran. The wooden bed was the highlight for me.
the active dig area. The structure was roughly rectangular. The massive tiled floor was littered with giant stone blocks and columns organized in some fashion by the archaeologists. In the center of the floor there was a massive, free-standing stone arch and a portion of another. The large stone tower, which soared thirty three meters (about 100 feet) above the surrounding landscape, was on the north edge of the floor on the far side - Our guide pointed out a band of bricks near the top of the tower that he said was part of a Roman repair or expansion of the tower. The eastern façade of the structure was standing nearly complete at the far side of the excavation, beckoning us towards it. As we walked our guide told us that the structure was the first Islamic university and that the tower was an observatory. We paused at a sign that explained the structure and discovered that the structure was known as the grand mosque. The ‘Paradise’ Mosque, as it is also known, was completed in the year 750 AD. The sign said that the tower was actually the minaret, but it is likely that it did also serve
Comfort in the Desert
The inside of the beehive houses was surprisingly cool and comfortable. Hopefully someone with get ambitious and open a few of them has hotels.
as an observatory. We walked around the corner of the fenced complex and looked on the beautifully carved east façade of the structure, which Jamal called the Baghdad Gate because it faced Baghdad. The gate had several openings in it. There were stylized cobras carved into the square column capitols and, above the beautifully arched gate, there was Arabic script carved into the stone. Errol and I took our time at the mosque, preferring to take in the artistry at our own pace. Jamal continually urged us to keep moving, but we decided to make a stand - The reason we didn’t want to have a guide in the first place was so we could go at our own pace. Jamal was clearly agitated that we were wanting to move so slowly, so we told him that we would like to stay at the mosque for a while and that he could go if he liked - He stayed. When we moved on Jamal was urging us to move quickly. We were heading across a wide stretch of desert towards a large grouping of mud-brick buildings. Off to our right, another large hill rose up above the landscape. The hill
This is what the beehive domes look like from the inside. The hole in the top serves as a chimney, but it also lets light in.
was capped by a large Turkish flag and it apparently concealed another of the important buildings at Harran, but the entire area was surrounded by another big fence and completely inaccessible. We paused for a moment to watch a huge dirt-devil swirl its way around the hill and then we continued to the settlement.
Harran’s most famous feature is its beehive houses, which have been in use for thousands of years. The houses get their name from a series of roughly conical domes that rise up out of low, rectangular buildings. The buildings are made from mud-brick and stone and were well suited to the dry, hot environment. The large settlement we were approaching had several nice examples of the houses. We walked past several dilapidated homes as we entered the settlement. Most of the homes were in various states of ruin and some had piles of modern building materials beside them. A tangle of overhead power lines connected the different buildings together in an unsightly, web of electricity. Other than the cables, the area must have looked like it did three thousand years before. We walked along the sandy roads in the town following Jamal. Off in the
Shade in the Desert
Another view from inside the beehive house.
distance the massive walls of a castle or caravanserai rose up in a mysterious backdrop, but we had a stop to make before we explored its ancient walls. We walked up to a nicely restored beehive house guarded by an ornamental, arched courtyard entrance and a carved eagle. Jamal told us that the house was set up as a tourist museum. We walked into the courtyard where there were several examples of the type of furniture and tools that would have been used in Harran’s past. Everything was neatly organized and somewhat informative. We were met at the door to the beehive house by a lady dressed in traditional clothing and she welcomed us into her home. We learned that, while she and her family no longer lived in the house, it had been in her family for several generations. We walked into the dimly lit interior. It was immediately apparent why the houses had been used for so long in Harran - Outside it was very hot, but just inside the door of the house it was cool and comfortable. The home was laid out along two hallways joined in a few places with arched doorways. Each of the
If you don't like the mass produced trinkets, you can buy your very own piece of Harran - Of course you can't leave with it.
hallways was divided up into a series of rooms that corresponded with the beehive domes above them and the dome rooms were all joined together with an arched hall section. Light streamed in through small windows in the flat walls and through the small chimney openings in the top of the domes - The atmosphere inside felt very ancient, yet surprisingly comfortable. We walked slowly through the different rooms. Some rooms were set up as they would have been in ancient times, with colorful carpets, decorative wall hangings and traditional furniture. Others were set up as tourist shops selling everything from cheaply made metal work to artifacts found at Harran. We walked into one room that was filled with head scarves of several colors. The lady of the house grabbed a purple scarf off of one of the racks and put it over my head in the traditional way. Everyone was laughing and, when I looked into the mirror, I saw why - I looked more like an effeminate pirate than a proud Bedouin man. We sat down at a table beneath one of the domes and talked for a while. There was an old man smoking a hookah pipe
In the Beehive
A picture of me for mom - I know, nice hair!
in another carpeted area next to where we had taken a seat. We learned that there was a hotel of sorts in an adjacent, non beehive building, but that none of the beehives had been set up as hotels. I think that with a little advertising a place like Harran could build a huge tourism industry around using the restored beehives as traditional hotels. There were a huge number of beehive homes that seemed abandoned, slowly being consumed by the ages. If they were restored and decorated in traditional fashion and then opened up as a unique destination, much like the Bedouin tent camps in Wadi Rum in Jordan, then people would go out of their way to get to Harran and the much needed money to explore and preserve the mysteries of Harran would be available - Now there is no admission fees at all to the site and the locals rely entirely on selling stuff to the few travelers that make the trip out there.
We thanked our hosts and made our way out of the second entrance. I paused for a moment to admire a lovely Corinthian style column capitol that was sitting next to the
To the Castle
This was the view of the huge castle, or caravanserai in Harran.
door, serving as a small table of sorts - It was more evidence of Harran’s past grandeur. We walked out of the dusty town towards the huge castle. The hill that the castle was built on was separated from the town by a low, creek-like depression covered in greenery, which was in stark contrast to the brownish red stone walls of the castle and the surrounding landscape of sand. It was a beautiful scene. The castle or caravanserai (we had heard it described as both) was truly massive. The huge, crumbling walls of cut stone rose up out of the rubble strewn hill and were, in places, shored up with new block walls. The mass of well fitted stone rose high above the landscape and spoke volumes with regards to the past importance of Harran. We were excited to explore the castle, so we immediately started climbing the hill that led up to its exposed ramparts. Jamal followed tentatively behind us, as if he had hoped we would admire the building from below. Near the top of the hill two young men in white collared shirts came out from under a tarp shade and greeted us. When they saw Jamal
A Water Tower
Somebody decided to move in right at the base of the castle.
they approached him and one of them put his arm around Jamal’s shoulders in a menacing way. Their tone changed from cordial to accusatory and they started talking to us like we were in big trouble. They told us that it was against the rules for an unofficial guide to work with tourists and then they told us to have a seat in the shade beneath the tarp. We could have thrown Jamal under the bus and been rid of his forced services, but he had actually been fairly helpful. Instead we told them that Jamal was just our friend and that we were exploring the area together. We then ignored their demand that we take a seat and we started to explore the castle. The two ‘official’ guides then tried to strong arm us by saying in an assertive tone, “Take a seat NOW!” We ignored their plea again and then, wanting to call their bluff, we told them that if they felt we had done something wrong to call the tourist police so we could talk it over with someone that actually had some authority. As expected their friendly tone came back immediately and they told us that
An Arched Entryway
Grand Arches seemed to be the norm in the castle, because there were many fine examples.
they were just playing with us and they apologized. We ended up sitting under the tarp talking with them for a few minutes. They were surprised when I told them I was an American and they quickly and enthusiastically said, “OH, WWW.Bush!” with a big smile on their face - They were clearly making fun of our president, who is considered to be one of the worst people in the history of the Earth to them. Their comment brought on a fairly humorous conversation, but we quickly said goodbye and set off to explore the castle.
The sad look that had appeared on Jamal’s face when the men first confronted us quickly went away as we walked around the corner and entered some of the subterranean passages of the castle - Perhaps he really had been in trouble. We spent the next half hour or so exploring the ramparts and cavernous interior of the ancient citadel. Jamal was exceedingly helpful again, pointing out some finely carved dogs on the pillars of the rubble-filled main entrance of the castle - He said that the dogs were carved at the entrance to protect the structure and the people inside. Then he
Beneath Tons of Stone
The first floor of the castle is still relatively intact, though there are several spots that have fallen in.
took us inside and showed us the ancient remains of a temple that he said had been dedicated to the moon god, Sin, that had been incorporated into the castle’s foundations - Harran was one of the earliest cities to openly embrace Christianity, but, before that, Harran was the main home of the important Mesopotamian moon god, Sin. We explored every nook and cranny of the castle enjoying the massive, arched openings and towering vaulted ceilings and beautiful red stone construction. We climbed up a small spiral staircase to the top of one of the two remaining ‘towers’, which was just as high as the surrounding ramparts. There we took in sweeping views of Syria a few kilometers to the south across the desert. We ended up on the roof of the main structure where we decided to take a seat and get caught up on our journals. Jamal decided to end the tour there and we thanked him. As expected, Jamal hung around, clearly wanting to be paid for his services, though he had initially told us that he didn’t want to be paid. I had fully intended on giving him some money for his time, he had been
The two heads that are just visible at the bottom of the carved doorway were put there to protect the structure.
helpful after all, but I was slow about it, as a sort of protest to him forcing his services on us - I gave him what I felt was a good amount for his two hours of service and he left happy.
We sat there for a while taking in the sweeping views of the barren landscape. It was a peaceful place to sit and relax, despite the heat. I quickly got my journal caught up and then I stared out across the beehive houses and marveled at the complete destruction of Harran. The town had once been one of the most important cities in the Middle East and people had been living there nearly continuously for many thousands of years, but somehow Harran declined in power and importance and eventually was completely forgotten. Now Harran’s mysteries lay buried beneath the shifting sands of the desert waiting for the much deserved attention of the world’s archaeologists that will surely come - Until then, I hope the people of Harran will watch over and protect Harran’s mysteries. Two children appeared out of nowhere and came up to meet us. They didn’t even try to disguise the fact that they wanted
us to give them money. I have a firm policy of not giving money out to begging kids, because it fuels bad habits in the children and it allows their parents to use them for monetary gain. We both said no. They continued to pester us, saying things like, “You have ten-million Lira, so why can’t you give me one?”- Ten million Lira would have made me very rich, even by American standards! We explained to them that very few people in the world actually had that much money and then we tried to talk to them a bit more, but it seemed that their ‘ten-million Lira’ speech was well rehearsed and was the extent of their knowledge of English. It was getting late in the day and we were starting to think about finding our way back across the site to where the bus had dropped us off. We had decided to sit there for a few more minutes, but we heard a familiar sound on the wind. It was faint at first, but the second time we heard it we both clearly heard, “Urfa!” floating up to us on the wind. We looked down the ramparts to a
An Excavation to Be
The castle seemed to be completely un-excavated, much like the rest of Harran.
small dusty parking area at the base of the castle. There was a minivan parked down there and the driver was hanging out of his window pointing up at us. Again he shouted, “Urfa?” We waved down to him and shouted ‘Yes’ and got up and headed down the ramparts, passing the two annoying official guides. The van was comfortably full. There were two men in the back seat, both wearing traditional clothes, we were in the middle seat and three Turkish soldiers were in front of us. One of the men in the back seat wanted to try on my sunglasses, so I passed them to him and he slipped them on beneath his purple kaffiya. He had a broad smile on his face as he put both of his thumbs up in front of him and made a comical sound that must have meant, “Do I look cool now?” The rest of the people started laughing and carrying on in a fun way and then they proceeded to pass the glasses around the van so everyone could try them on - It was a fun experience. Most of the passengers had gotten off of the van by the
Light in the Darkness
This is my friend Errol in the castle.
time we reached the bus station in Urfa. It was fairly late, but the sun was still shining brightly in the sky. We did some quick looking around to find bus schedules to Kahta for the following morning, and then we headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up.
An hour later we left the hotel again. We stopped in a welcoming restaurant and ate a delicious early dinner and then we walked to the bazaar. We spent another hour or so in the bazaar, leaving with more baklava, and then we made our way back to the sacred carp ponds where we hung out with the fish for a while longer. We sat until dark and sipped tea next to the ponds. At dark we headed up to the castle. Not much is known of Urfa Castle, other than that a fortress of some sort has stood on the hill above the city since the time of King Nimrod. The walls as they currently stand were apparently built by the Abbasids in 814 AD. Two massive columns rose high above the ramparts of the castle. Everything I read gave me a different history of the columns, so
A Temple to the Moon God
I don't know if this is actually a temple to the Mesopotamian Moon God, Sin, but that is what Jamal said it was. It was lovely just the same.
it is safe to say not much in known about them either - One of my favorite stories was that the columns were all that was left of King Nimrod’s throne. We reached the tunnel entrance of the castle about ten minutes after they had closed it, so we were forced to skip the view from the top. Instead we climbed up a large staircase that led to another entrance for the castle. We stopped about half way up and took in the stunning views of the city and mosques. The castle was well lit up as was the massive Turkish flag on top, which, set against the backdrop of a dark, bluish purple sky, was a lovely image. We stayed on the castle’s ramparts for a while and then we headed back down to the carp ponds and took a seat and enjoyed our last night in Urfa. The call to prayer flowed rhythmically across the city and we knew it was time to head back to the hotel. We reluctantly said farewell to the lovely park around the carp ponds and then we walked back past the bazaar into the newer part of the city and our hotel.
A Hole in the Floor
We had to be careful exploring the castle, because you never knew when you would come across a hole in the ground.
Urfa had been a pleasant surprise. I had never even considered going there, but it ended up being one of my favorite cities in Turkey. The lack of tourists meant that nearly everyone I met was friendly and inquisitive and the city’s amazing history meant that I stayed captivated and lost in the mysteries of the ancient stones. Harran was an unexpected gem in the desert. As ruins go, there was not a lot to see there, but there was something magical about the place that is difficult to explain. It just goes to prove that sometimes it is a good thing when plans fall apart. I drifted off to sleep excited about our impending adventure on the mysterious and strange Mt. Nemrud…
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