Never has a city evoked so many varied emotions from me within such an exceptionally small space of time as Şanlıurfa – Glorious Urfa – managed to do this past weekend. The three days I spent there were actually so amazingly eventful, and unexpected in the most peculiar ways, that I will be splitting my experience into three posts. This one will focus on the city of Urfa itself, in all its glory.
I left Malatya for Urfa at 5:30 AM, and I was lucky enough to arrive on a quick intercity bus – made by Mercedes Benz with personal TVs, which I did not take advantage of as I promptly fell back asleep – by around 10:30 in the morning.
Once I arrived in the center of the city, where my hotel was, I was quickly overwhelmed by the vibe of the city. Urfa, for those who love history, is one of the oldest constantly inhabited places on Earth – formerly being the Hellenistic and much later crusader city of Edessa – and it shows in every way. In the heart of the city there are perhaps three main boulevards – everything else is a maze of backstreets and small alleys, the like of which I’ve only ever seen before in Marrakesh, Morocco.
I was also told before my arrival in Urfa that the city had a distinctive Arab vibe due to its proximity to Syria, and that many Turks did not regard it as a Turkish city at all. I completely understand why – mixed amongst the modern looking young Turks of Urfa were women wearing full length black chadors, and men wearing a traditional style of Urfan dress – saggy Arab pants and bright purple scarfs that they wrapped around their heads. I am not trying to be disrespectful in the least when I said they looked like pirates, especially since a large number of them were old, sun wrinkled nut brown, and had extremely thick stubble – bad ass.
Şanlıurfa also functions as the primary site for religious pilgrimage in Turkey, as it is apparently the site of the Prophet Abraham’s birth. Urfa is also best known for being the site where King Nemrod, also known as King Nemrut, tried to immolate Abraham to stop his preaching against idolatry. God, in his infinite mercy, intervened at the last second transforming the fire into water and the logs into fish. Today, this site, Balıklıgöl, is honored with a massive complex of mosques, canals, rose gardens, and reflecting pools that symbolically recreate this ordeal. The fish are apparently sacred – and are fed constantly by the pilgrims due to this. It is said that anyone who catches one of these fish will go immediately blind as punishment.
I spent the better part of Friday exploring this complex, as well as the ancient Hittite, or possibly crusader or anything in between – there is no consensus, citadel overlooking the compound. By the time Saturday rolled around, I tried my best to steel myself for another day of walking as I delved into the massive maze of streets that comprise the city’s bazaar. I even managed to buy myself a super cheap rug – only 5 liras! The market place was another walk through history, as the majority of the caravansaries were built by Suleiman the Magnificent after his conquest of the city.
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Scattered throughout the rest of the city were also numerous mosques – and churches that had been converted into mosques – dating back some nine hundred years of more. Amazingly, they were just scattered throughout the city next to buildings built within the last hundred years, and they were completely open to the citizenry to walk in and experience as they saw fit.
After all the walking on both Friday and Saturday, I felt the need to relax – luckily there was a guest house close to my hotel that promised live music. I had no idea what I was getting into, as I soon experienced the wild nights of Urfa in this most holy of cities… But, that is a story for a future post.