Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part Six of my Summer 2010 trip




Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

6th August, 2010 – Diyarbakır, Turkey
I awoke at ten and stomached, (if not enjoyed), the hotel breakfast better than the previous day before heading out to the bus station and catching a coach onwards across the flat, empty steppe to Urfa,[1] some 200km and three hours away.
Urfa was the one place in Turkey, besides Kars, that I’d been desperate to see. My friend Brian Connellan had spent several days there when he travelled the Silk Road in 2002 and he raved about the place. Furthermore, upon Brian’s recommendation, I’d read a book entitled Magi by Adrian Gilbert which explored the story of the Magi in St. Matthew’s Gospel and linked them to the Mandylion, Abraham and a whole host of other happenings all centred around ancient Edessa. Admittedly the scholarship of this book had been a little ropey at time – Gilbert had visions every so often that helped to supplement the gaps in his thesis – but nonetheless, it had been a good read and had reinforced my view that this was definitely a place to pay a visit to.
Urfa is ‘Glorious’ in name and in the minds of its inhabitants because of its legendary associations with several prominent Islamic prophets. Foremost amongst these is the Prophet Ibrahim (the Christian Abraham) who, according to local legend, was born in a cave in the city and then hid for seven years from the Pagan king Nimrod. Later in his life, when Abraham began destroying the local Pagan idols, this same Nimrod had him immolated on a funeral pyre but God turned the fire into water and the coals into fish so that His Prophet would not be harmed. This first approach not having worked, Nimrod then decided to hurl Abraham off the ramparts of the city’s fortress, but again God intervened and protected His favourite by causing him to land safely on a bed of roses. After that second escape, one assumes that Nimrod gave up and let Abraham go free.[2]
Also associated with the city is Eyyub (Job) who apparently retreated to a cave nearby to wait in patient devotion to God after his whole life had started to go wrong due to the Devil’s wager with God, and on top of that a couple of lesser prophets too have links with the city, making it, along with Konya, Turkey’s main place of pilgrimage and centre of the devout.
Today that means Sunni devotion, but apparently the city has always been a hotbed of religious heresy. Dalrymple writes in From the Holy Mountain that “In Edessa it seems that any belief or combination of beliefs was possible – as long as it was inventive, unorthodox, deeply weird and extremely complicated”[3] and he backs this up by going into great detail about a number of the surreal heresies that flourished in the city prior to the advent of Islam. However, even before then, the city had an established religious tradition. It seems that, historically speaking, the famous pools full of fish that still exist as a result of God saving Abraham from the flames, are actually due to the cult of the Syrian fertility goddess Atargatis which flourished in ancient Mesopotamia around the 4th century BC. Atargatis’ religion contained some suitably weird elements including a tendency for her male followers to castrate themselves in her honour and for believers to swim out to her shrine in the centre of the lake and then perform erotic ceremonies. The pious of today would be horrified!
Arriving at the out-of-town bus station, (where I strangely had to walk a quarter of a mile to a dual-carriageway to catch a bus into the city centre), I made my way to a budget hotel, the İpek Palas which charged 30 lira per might including breakfast. I dumped my bags and then walked through the city to the main Abrahamic sites, stopping off for my first proper meal since falling ill, (after which I felt bloated) en route.
Urfa had a completely different feel to Diyarbakır. Without walls, she was more spread-out but more than that, the forbidding dark basalt was now gone and in its place all the buildings were constructed out of beautiful honey-coloured stone. This, coupled with the religiosity, dress and ethnicity of its inhabitants made me feel as if I were not in Turkey at all, but instead several hundred miles further south in Palestine. With a journey of but three hours, all the Kurds had gone and in their place there was a distinctly pious and more Arabian population, a sign that Syria itself lay only 50km to the south.
Before I spoke about the numerous legends that associate Abraham with Urfa, but literally speaking the link is tenuous. All the Quran has to say on the matter is that the prophet argued with Nimrod and was consigned to the flames for his troubles, but it does not state where. The Bible has even less; it fails to mention the whole row with Nimrod and has Abraham definitely born in “Ur of the Chaldeans” (now Iraq). Biblically-speaking, the nearest he gets to the city is Harran, a small town some 50km to the south.[4] However, like so many things concerned with religion, literal historical truth is not always key. I for one doubt very much that Abraham was born in a cave in Urfa and I certainly don’t believe that he was immolated on a fire that God turned into a pool of fish, but as I walked through the precincts of the mosque that stands by Abraham’s Cave I felt that I was somewhere special, a beautiful place and even if it was in the wrong place physically as a shrine to Abraham, it still resonated profoundly as a shrine to what Abraham represents: faith, devotion and loyalty. I prayed in that tiny cave and felt glad to have journeyed there.
The Cave of Abraham, Urfa
The pools that supposedly formed after God turned the fire into water are now landscaped and set in a beautiful, shady park filled with the strolling faithful. The pools now groan with huge numbers of well-fed red carp that are protected from being caught by a legend that states that anyone who does catch them will go blind. I strolled with them for a while in the evening twilight taking in the Halilur Rahman Camii, a 13th century mosque that used to be a church, before settling down in a tea garden by the pool and enjoying a fine nargile pipe and tea whilst watching the world go by. The nargile relaxed me and helped me to reflect on the spiritual message of Urfa. There, amidst the pools and shady trees, Abraham and God felt much closer than they had in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, one of the few sites with an Abrahamic connection that both the religious and the historians agree on. In that place it had been tense, the air thick with hatred; Urfa was full of peace and tolerance, a place of love, not war. As my smoke curled up towards the pillars that mark the spot where the prophet was thrown off the castle mount by Nimrod, I composed my first short story in over a year and meditated on just how good life can be.
Sacred Fish Pool, Urfa

7th August, 2010 – Urfa, Turkey
I awoke too late for the hotel breakfast, (not too much of a loss if the breakfast in Diyarbakır had been anything to go by), and took a dolmuş out to Harran, the only place in the vicinity with a definite Abrahamic connection.
Harran, just shy of the Syrian border and another recommendation of Brian Connellan, is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited spots on earth. The Book of Genesis tell us that, “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lon, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.”[5] That was around 1900BC, but it seems likely that the place was inhabited long before they arrived. However, the Harran that the prophet knew would have been quite different to the Harran of today. As I travelled through the countryside between Urfa and Harran, all I could see were green fields full of crops with concrete channels of water running alongside them. Only ten years before though, the scene would have been one of desolation; a vast stony desert stretching for as far as the eye could see.
The green fields near Harran complete with GAP irrigation channels
The difference is all due to the GAP,[6] an enormous government project that has brought irrigation to vast swathes of arid land and generates huge amounts of hydroelectricity for the national grid. The scale of it is so massive that it makes the dams that I saw in the far north-east of the country pale in comparison. GAP comprises of no less than twenty-two dams over two rivers, (the Tigris and the Euphrates), and nineteen hydroelectric plants. The results are impressive: mile after mile of productive land where once nothing grew. It reminded me of the greening of the Negev Desert undertaken by the Israelis, but unlike that manmade transformation of desert, this came at a high price indeed, for instead of harnessing underground water, this used already-flowing rivers and now Syria and Iraq, the two countries which lie downstream, are complaining that Turkey is stealing their essential water supplies.
Harran may no longer sit in the desert that it once did, but the heat was still the same and within seconds of alighting from the dolmuş, sweat was streaming down my brow. A young man named Mustafa came up to me asking to be my guide and although mildly annoying, I took him on as I was in no mood to spend hours wandering around in the harsh desert heat wondering as to what each stone on the ground might once have been.
The most distinctive feature of Harran today is its beehive houses, the design of which is almost 2,500 years old. These homes, built out of bricks salvaged from the ruins and without any wooden supports, stay cool in the summer and warm in winter. Certainly, it was a relief to be inside one and away from the heat although the example that I visited was no longer a dwelling and instead devoted purely to tourists with Arab costumes to try on and trinkets for sale.
Beehive houses, Harran
After the beehive houses Mustafa took me to the kale, a Fatimid citadel built on the foundations of a Hittite fortress and then it was onto the ruins of the university, (said to be the first Islamic university in the world), and the Ulu Mosque, (said to be the oldest in Anatolia), before finally finishing up at the remains of the city walls and the small park in the new village where Mustafa left me with 20 lira in his pocket and I sat down sipping juice with the locals whilst waiting for the dolmuş back to Urfa to arrive.
In truth, Harran was a bit of a disappointment. Although its historical pedigree is remarkable, to the untrained eye, it is hard to decipher its ruins and the heat made the place intolerable. I could have stopped off at either the Prophet Eyyup’s Cave or the Görem Tëpe on the way back, but the heat had killed me off and instead I just retreated to my hotel for a nap and cool down.
That evening I returned to the Old City to enjoy the atmosphere for one last time. I climbed up to the kale to see the spot from where Nimrod had flung Abraham but although I reached the walls, I couldn’t find a way in so instead I settled for a tea in a café on the hillside and watched the sun set over one of the oldest and most beautiful cities on earth.
I’d spied a restored caravanserai in the bazaar the day before and thought it might be a nice place to drink and smoke the evening away, but unlike its counterpart in Diyarbakır, this one shut up shop at sunset and so after buying some apple tea and menengla kahve to take back to Britain from the bazaar, I went to an outdoor café to drink tea and smoke a nargile, activities that would have been most civilised and pleasant were it not for a fellow named Ibrahim who took it on himself to keep me company and did not consider his abject lack of English and inability to play backgammon to be hindrances, instead simply smiling at me, giving me melon seeds and saying “Hello!” and “Good!” at regular intervals.
Well-meaning he may have been, but after my pipe was smoked, I bade him goodbye and moved on, stopping at a restaurant for a bite to eat away from curious locals. Whilst there I decided to try something I’d been reading about in my guidebook, a strange drink named şalgam which is made from boiled turnips, carrots and vinegar. Purple in colour, it looks and sounds like it is an ideal method of making yourself throw-up but always one to try something knew I bought a bottle and swigged it back. The result, well… I din’t throw up and it was perhaps not quite as rancid as I’d anticipated but conversely, I can definitely say that I won’t ever bother buying another bottle of the stuff!

8th August, 2010 – Urfa, Turkey
After several days of relatively little travelling, I was now at the part of the trip that I’d been dreading. My aim for this expedition had always been to explore the area in between Kars and Urfa; other regions would have to wait until a later trip, and as I had done that now, I had to really get moving. Problem was though, I was already sick of coach travel yet one look at the map told me that I was less than a third of the way across Turkey and that I was due to fly out on the 11th, only three days hence. In short, I still had more miles to cover than I’d travelled since leaving Tbilisi. No, that was not an enticing prospect at all.
Anticipating a long haul I awoke early and caught the hotel breakfast which was actually rather good. Then it was on to the bus station, catching a coach to Gaziantep. For the journey I was seated alongside an elderly gentleman who was most friendly and polite and who asked my nationality. When I told him he smiled and explained that he had fought alongside British soldiers in Korea and had a very high opinion of them, proudly pointing to himself and announcing ‘Coreli’!
The Corelis have interested me ever since I saw a monument dedicated to their fallen outside Ankara railway station and I read the chapter on them in Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent & Star, (which in fact, I’d just reread on the bus to Diyarbakır). Kemalist Turkey had kept itself to itself following the victory over the Greeks in 1922, with a strict policy of neutrality being maintained even during the Second World War and foreign travel opportunities being extremely limited even for the elites. The first instance of Turkey’s re-engagement with the world came in 1950 when she sent troops to assist the UN in the Korean War. These men – the Corelis – returned from their travels worldly-wise and respected, having gained a reputation as fearsome fighters. For decades they have been treated with respect and deference by the ordinary Turk, a living link with the country’s ancient noble martial traditions, but nowadays, as they grown older and fewer and the Korean War dims in the memory, they are being slowly forgotten. I felt honoured to meet one of the last survivors of Turkey’s first foray into internationalism, a man who truly lived up to the sterling reputation of his brethren.
Delving into my guidebook, I realised that catching an overnight train to Istanbul or Ankara from Gaziantep was not going to be possible – the Toros Ekspresi only runs every other day and this was one of the wrong days – so I asked the coach attendant, (who looked remarkably like the dad off American Pie), to extend my ticket onwards to Adana.
After Gaziantep – where the Coreli left the coach – the scenery changed dramatically from steppe to the lush green hills of the Mediterranean lands. I watched the world go by whilst reading my latest book, The State of Africa by Martin Meredith, a political history of the African continent from the independence of Ghana in 1957 to the present day, forgetting awhile the PKK, the Armenians, Atatürk, Abraham, the Ottomans and the Kurds, and losing myself in the political machinations of a myriad of African despots who ruled banana republics from Libya to South Africa and Senegal to Mozambique. It was a pleasant tonic even if the scenes I read about were rarely uplifting.
At Adana – famous for its kebabs with yoghurt and tomato sauce – I took a dolmuş through the bustling city of over a million, (Turkey’s fourth largest), to the railways station. To be honest, Adana looked an interesting place, much wealthier and more Westernised than the cities that I’d come from, and I would have liked to have stopped to explore this stepping stone between Turkey’s east and west, but I knew it would have to wait until another trip: despite a full day of travelling, I still had a lot of ground to cover. Nonetheless, from the dolmuş window I managed to see some interesting Ottoman Era buildings and a fantastic sixteen-arch Roman bridge.
I like Turkish railways. Despite the fact that Turkish buses are excellent, I much prefer her railways, even though you don’t get a complimentary cup of tea and splash of cologne on board. During my last trip to the country in 2003 I travelled from Istanbul to Konya and then Ankara back to Istanbul on them and I’d found them to be both comfortable and cheap, if not that fast. I liked them even more though after rolling up at Adana’s grand Germanic-looking railway station with a steam engine on a plinth outside, for the Çukurova Mavi Treni was leaving in but an hour and a First Class sleeping compartment on board was ridiculously cheap.
It was nice too, with a bed, writing desk and chair, suitable I suppose for a train travelling along a section of the old Orient Express route. My only complaint was that the window wouldn’t open and I’m not awfully fond of air con, but if that’s the biggest complaint that one can have about his mode of transportation, then really, he is a lucky man indeed. So it was that I climbed on board, watched trains loaded with army lorries pass by and then the countryside roll past until the sun set around Yenice. Then I headed into the buffet car for some sustenance and in there I met two young Turks on their way to Niğde. We chatted of Tuncay and of Turkey; of the European Union and of Poland where one of my companions was headed as an Erasmus student, and I partook in my first beers since Georgia; yes indeed, I really was now leaving the East behind. Then, as the hour drew late, I retired to my luxury bunk, letting the train gobble up the hundreds of miles that separated me from Ankara in a way far less painful than it would have been on board a bus.

[1] The official name of the city is Şanliıurfa, literally ‘Glorious Urfa’. The ‘Glorious’ however, was only added in 1984 and most people still refer to the city simply as ‘Urfa’. In addition to its two modern names, it has also had many other titles during its several millennia of history, but the one most often heard is ‘Edessa’.
[2] Or similar legends to that effect. The details often change depending on who tells the story. See From the Holy Mountain p.74-5 for a slightly different version.
[3] From the Holy Mountain, p.68
[4] Genesis 12:28-31
[5] Genesis 11:31
[6] GAP – The Southeastern Anatolia Project, lit. Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi

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