With its millennia-old past, its traditional fabric and its living traces of ancient legends, Urfa is a city that represents the history of civilization...
“More than three thousand years ago, far away in the distant east, in Mesopotamia, God spoke to a man who was living with his flocks: ‘Leave your land, your father and your family and go to the land that I will show you.’” So begins the story of Abraham, Father of Prophets, in the book of Genesis. Abraham, of the lineage of Noah, who came with his father Terah from the city of Ur to settle in Harran, set out from here for the the ‘Promised Land’ of Canaan.
CITY OF PROPHETS Ur, one of the earliest cities of Mesopotamian civilization, is situated near Basra at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But it harbours in its history several more cities of the same name. The place in northern Mesopotamia known to the Aramaic tribes as Urhai, in other words today’s Sanliurfa, also appears in certain sources as the ‘Ur’ of ancient times. While it is not known to which place the Ur in Genesis refers, one thing is certain: Urfa is a very old city, touched and hallowed by many prophets, with living traces of ancient legends, a vital traditional fabric, and a history stretching back thousands of years, a city that has opened its arms to a wide variety of cultures. And religions, too, of course... The celebrated 17th century Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi describes the city as follows in 1650: “Urfa is one of the oldest cities to have been founded since the time of Noah and the Great Flood, the work of a ruler by the name of Rohai from the tribe of Semud (Semito-Aramaic). It was in this city that Nimrod tossed the Prophet Abraham into the fire. During Roman rule, Jesus came here and descended on a church, which they therefore they call the Church of the Messiah.” Together with the many holy places visited by Muslims, Christians and Jews along the pilgrimage route that has run since the oldest times to Mecca and Jerusalem, Urfa is truly, as is claimed, a ‘City of Prophets’.
URFA’S LIFE-GIVING LAKE The Balikli Göl and nearby cavern are the scenes of the legend of Abraham, which has been kept alive for centuries and passed from language to language. They are connected as well with the Ur of Genesis. According to legend, Abraham was born in a cavern that lies today inside the courtyard of the Mevlid-i Halil Mosque and lived there until he was seven years old. Then, as the concept of monotheism began to spread, the king of the time, Nimrod, threw him into a fire from a high hill. But he was saved, because at that very moment the fire was transformed into water and the pieces of wood into fish, thereby creating the Halil-ür-Rahman Lake. This site is one of Sanliurfa’s most imposing, with the Rizvaniye Mosque and madrasa, built in 1716 by the Ottoman governor of Rakka, on one of its shores, and the Halil-ür Rahman Mosque complex, dating to 1211 in the Ayyubid period, on the other. And the fish in its waters have been regarded as sacred and protected ever since that day. Again in Çelebi’s famous Book of Travels, Halil-ür-Rahman adds vitality to Urfa: “Such a spring is the water of life that issues from the scene of the fire that it waters not only all the mosques, inns and public baths but the saddlers’ workshops and tanneries as well.” The Gümrük Han (1562), dating to the period of Suleiman the Magnificent, and a section of the covered markets concentrated around it where the heart of the city beats are still supplied today with Halil-ür Rahman water, exactly as Çelebi mentions. With their local costumes and shawls, two markets add colour today to this ancient commercial quarter, which lives on with undiminished vitality: the Sipahi Pazari, which preserves its historical character with its carpets, flatweaves and felt textiles, and the Kazzaz Pazari or Bedesten, a rare market that preserves the ancient flavour of Anatolia where, even though only two masters remain today, silk thread is still spun and processed by hand. And there are many more markets, such as the saddlers’, feltmakers’ and fabric merchants’ markets, where the traditional handicrafts are struggling to survive despite everything.
Together with the hans or inns such as Haci Kamil, Mençek, Topçu and Millet, some of the finest examples from the Ottoman period, Urfa’s historic markets are so rich and bustling that for this reason alone the city regards itself as among Anatolia’s leading provinces.
PALATIAL STONE RESIDENCES As for the old stone houses, they occupy a privileged position within Urfa’s centuries-old traditional fabric. Divided into a women’s section and a men’s section known as the ‘oda’ or room, these houses, despite having the same layout with their summer and winter ‘eyvan’s or antechambers, display a wealth of variation. While each house has its own unique character, a host of details, such as doors and shutters decorated with motifs, wall panelling, and pigeonholes or niches, exhibit highly refined and masterful wood workmanship. Although they are divided up among different families today, these stone houses are in general so spacious as to resemble palaces. On a small scale of course...
But their courtyards, called ‘hayat’, always boast pools and flowerbeds shaded by a variety of trees. As well as tiny decorative niches or birdhouses... Situated above the windows overlooking the courtyard, these birdhouses are part and parcel of Sanliurfa’s domestic architecture. The pigeons inside them, each one the pride of its owner, with bells on their feet and ‘necklaces’ of bone or amber and elaborate earrings, lead contented lives in the style to which they have become accustomed at these special windows.
HISTORIC AND HOLY The houses, which are entirely closed off to the outside world behind high walls, also determine the character of the narrow streets, where legend continues to light the way in an urban texture that exudes a medieval atmosphere. Such as, for example, the legend of the cave where the Prophet Job lay ill for seven years and the well where he was finally restored to health. One of the most fascinating sites from the legends recounted in the ancient sources is the Ulu Cami or Great Mosque dating to the 1170s in the Zangid period.
This mosque, where the tomb of Seyh Ebubekir, a celebrated saint of the 17th century, is also located, was built over the former Church of Saint Stephan, known as ‘the red church’ for its red marble columns. This church, conspicuous with its columns and bell tower, today a minaret, is synonymous with the legend of ‘Black Abgar’, the first king to recognize Christianity after receiving Christ’s handkerchief. According to the story, which is well known in the Christian world, Abgar V (ruled 13-50 A.D.) from the dynasty of the Aramaic kingdom known as Osrhoene which was founded in Urfa between 132 B.C. and 244 A.D., wrote a letter to Jesus, inviting him to Urfa. Sanctifying the king and Urfa, Jesus sent him a handkerchief with which he had blotted his face. Imprinted with Jesus’s visage, this sacred textile fragment was preserved in the Red Church and is said to have been brought ceremonially to Istanbul centuries later in 944 A.D. by a Roman Imperial commander.
The tombs of Islamic scholars and sheikhs such as Sih Maksut and Bediüzzaman el-Hemedani, the Mosque of Hasan Padisah, built by the Akkoyunlu Sultan (15th century), the Church of Saint John (18th century) and many other religious structures, madrasas, public baths, bridges and fountains... The fortress, a repository of all time, stretching back from the Ottomans to the Mamluks and Byzantines, from the Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians to the Seljuks and the Seleucan kingdom of Edessa, legacy of Alexander the Great... And beyond that from the Persians to the ancient Assyrians, from the Hittites to the world’s first farmers, and from the 11-millennia-old ‘temple mound’ of the hunter-gatherers (Göbekli Tepe) to the paleolithic era, Urfa reflects the great adventure of the civilization of man.