SanliUrfa – Ancient Crossroads of History

Urfa and Harran are two ancient cities in southeastern Turkey that have a rich and storied history dating back thousands of years. Both cities have played important roles in the development of human civilization and have been centers of learning, culture, and religion for centuries.

Ristras of dried eggplant and peppers hanging in the bazaar in Sanliurfa, Turkey

In 1984, the Turkish National Assembly granted Urfa the title “Şanlı”, meaning “glorious”, in honor of its citizens’ resistance against British and French troops at the end of the First World War; hence the present name “Şanlıurfa”.

Urfa today


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One of my favorite places in Turkey is Urfa’s former caravansary, a 2 story building of shops surrounding a pleasant open-court garden tea house. It’s bustling  with multi-generational families, young women with their silk scarves gathering after work or browsing the silk and jewelry shops on the second level.  Men play backgammon and Turkish checkers as younger men navigate the hubbub, carrying ubiquitous but precarious trays of tea. 

URFA, TURKEY – JUN 8, 2014 – Extended family relaxes at a tea house in Urfa bazaar, Turkey
Typical tea house scene with men playing boardgames and talking in Urfa bazaar, Turkey
URFA, TURKEY – JUN 8, 2014 – Waiter brings drinks in tea house in Urfa bazaar, Turkey
Waiter brings drinks in tea house

 We had lunch here.

A new plate was ciger (jee-ur) kebabi ( liver kebabs) – small skewered. cubes of calves’ liver . served with sliced onions, salad and bread. normally I’m not a fan of liver (other than foie gras), but I enjoyed this preparation  especially as some others in the group shared it. The rest of the lunch included minced meat and chopped meat and eggplant kebabs, on a bed of onions with pomegranate molasses, sumac and Urfa biber

Liver and other kebabs for lunch in Urfa bazaar, Turkey

Urfa biber starts as a maroon colored pepper (looks like ancho), then ground into flakes, It has a salty, smoky, mildly spicy flavor.  It’s used in many dishes, including savory desserts. One simple stew is cubed eggplant and lamb with chopped onion, stock and tomatoes flavored with Urfa biber.

After lunch we moved to specialty shop

for. Künefe. Cheese (Urfa peyniri) is arranged between two layers of Kadayıf (shredded phyllo), cooked until golden, and soaked in a sweet syrup. Deliciously decadent, even though it has no chocolate! 

Sticky, sweet kunefe dessert in Urfa bazaar, Turkey

According to local tradition, Abraham’s Cave is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, revered as a patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The cave complex consists of several chambers, including a central hall with a large pool of water. It also contains a mosque and a mausoleum dedicated to Abraham and his family members.  Abraham’s Cave has been a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years, and it continues to attract visitors from all over the world. The site has undergone several renovations and additions over the centuries, but it has remained an important symbol of interfaith harmony and tolerance.

Inner courtyard amd sadivan fountain for ablutions, Makam Ibraham Camii (Abraham’s hiding place) in Sanliurfa, Turkey
Inner courtyard ad sadivan fountain for ablutions, Makam Ibraham Camii (Abraham’s hiding place) in Sanliurfa, Turkey

In addition to its religious significance, Abraham’s Cave is also a remarkable example of ancient architecture and engineering. The cave’s massive stone walls, intricate carvings, and natural spring are a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the people who built and maintained it over the centuries.

We stayed at Urfa Evi Uygulama Hotel, one of the newer Cave hotels.

The main course for dinner was ali nazik -roasted eggplant with yogurt, tomato, onion, topped with sautéed lamb

Night lights on cave hotel complex Urfa Evi Uygulama Hotel,  Urfa, Turkey
Night lights on cave hotel complex Urfa Evi Uygulama Hotel, Urfa, Turkey
Stairways connecting room levels in cave hotel,  Urfa, Turkey
Stairways connecting room levels in cave hotel, Urfa, Turkey

As Urfa can be very hot during the day, people gather in the cooler evening, especially in the park near the Halil Ar-Rahman Mosque and its famous Pool of Abraham,  Balikligölü (Lake with Fish). Its sacred carp swarm wherever people’s shadows fall, expecting to be fed. The mosque was originally the Church of the Virgin Mary built in 504. It was converted to a mosque and medrese in 820.

SANLIUREFA, TURKEY – JUN 7, 2014 – Pilgrims and tourists feed the koi carp fish in Birket Ibrahim ( the pool of Abraham) in Sanliurfa, Turkey
Reflections of Halil Rahman Cami on Birket Ibrahim ( the pool of Abraham) at night in Sanliurfa, Turkey
URFA, TURKEY – JUN 8, 2014 – Veiled woman shops at a night market stall in in Sanliurfa, Turkey
Halil Rahman Cami on Birket Ibrahim ( the pool of Abraham) in Sanliurfa, Turkey

However, compared to our original visit in 1999, in 2014 we found the city changing dramatically. The new mayor promoted the tearing down parts of the old city to replace it with parks & new cave hotels (like the one we stay in).

 History  

Urfa, also known as Şanlıurfa, has a history that dates back to the Neolithic period, around 9000 BC. It is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Over the centuries, Urfa, under its Greek name Edessa,  has been conquered and ruled by various empires and civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. It has also been an important center of religion, with significant Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities.

One of the most famous stories associated with Urfa is the story of Abraham, who is said to have been born in the city. According to the Old Testament, Abraham was thrown into a fire by the king of Urfa, Nimrod, but was miraculously saved by God. This event is commemorated by a mosque and shrine in the city, known as the Cave of Abraham. From the fish lakes, a wide path with steps leads up to the top of the citadel, restored by the Crusaders and Turks, but with traces from Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times. A pair of Corinthian columns crowning the top are known as the Throne of Nimrod, and Abraham was supposed to have been tossed from up here on to the funeral pyre below, now the lake. 

Edessa was in Armenian hands until 1098 when Count Baldwin detached himself from the First Crusade’s march on Jerusalem and established a small Christian state here. Fifty years later Zengi, father of Nureddin, took Edessa, prompting the pope in Rome to call for a Second Crusade.

Harran / Carrhae

Harran, located about 50 kilometers southeast of Urfa, is another ancient city with a rich history. It was first settled around 2300 BC and was an important center of learning and scholarship during the Islamic Golden Age. It is particularly famous for its role in the development of early Islamic astronomy, and for its extensive library that was said to contain over 100,000 volumes.

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Like Urfa, Harran has also been ruled by various empires and civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, and Arabs. It was also an important center of religion, with significant Christian and Islamic communities.

One of the most interesting features of Harran is its unique architecture, which includes beehive-shaped mud-brick houses that have been used by locals for centuries. These houses are designed to keep the interior cool during the hot summers and warm during the cold winters.

During the Middle Ages,

both Urfa and Harran were important stops on the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe. The cities were also centers of Islamic scholarship and culture, and produced many famous scholars and thinkers.

A welcome humanitarian but unfortunate modern addition to the area is the large refugee camp of Akcakale –  200 meters from no-man’s land, and the war zone beyond. (In 2014 we were able to drive down a deserted side street right to the unobstructed border – a few hundred yards away was a small Turkish checkpoint.

You can support this and other refugee projects at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.”

The Battle of Carrhae

One of the most important battles of history was fought in Harran, also known as Carrhae. In 53 BCE, the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire clashed here. The Roman army, led by Crassus, was marching through the desert towards Mesopotamia when it was ambushed by the Parthians near the town of Carrhae in modern-day Turkey.

The Parthians, known for their skilled horse archers, surrounded the Roman army and launched a devastating barrage of arrows. The Roman soldiers, heavily armored and unaccustomed to fighting in desert conditions, were unable to keep up with the lightly armored Parthian cavalry and suffered heavy losses.  The Persians galloped just within arrow range, then did an about face, releasing a deadly volley of arrows as they retreated.  This became known as the “Parthian shot” (evolving into the English “parting shot”, or the wonderful French “coup d’adieu”)

Crassus, hoping to negotiate a truce, sent his son and other officers to parley with the Parthians. However, the Parthians seized this opportunity to capture and execute the Roman negotiators.

With their morale shattered and their leadership decimated,

the Roman soldiers attempted to retreat but were pursued by the Parthians. Many were killed or captured, including Crassus himself who was executed. Some stories say molten gold was poured down his throat (Game of Thrones?) and his skull was used as a goblet.

The Battle of Carrhae was a humiliating defeat for the Romans and marked the end of their ambitions to conquer the Parthian Empire. It also demonstrated the effectiveness of the Parthian tactics of hit-and-run attacks and psychological warfare, which would be adopted by other Eastern powers in their battles against Western armies.

More directly, the death of Crassus had significant consequences

for the Roman Republic. Crassus was one of the wealthiest men in Rome and a prominent political figure, as well as a talented general.  He was a member of the First Triumvirate, along with Julius Caesar and Pompey His death caused the collapse of the triumvirate and a civil war between Caesar and Pompey, resulting in the death of Roman Republic.

The loss of Crassus’s military leadership also had major implications for Rome’s expansionist ambitions. With his death, Rome’s plans to conquer the Parthian Empire were put on hold, and the Roman army suffered a demoralizing defeat.

Carrhae was doubly unfortunate for Rome.

Caracalla, a Roman emperor, was assassinated in 217 AD. He had a reputation for being cruel and paranoid, and his reign was marked by constant warfare and political instability. During a campaign in the east, Caracalla was travelling with his army when he stopped near Carrhae to relieve himself. At that moment, a soldier named Justinianus stabbed him to death. Justinianus was quickly killed by Caracalla’s bodyguards, but the emperor’s death sparked a period of chaos and civil war in the Roman Empire. Caracalla’s legacy is one of violence and tyranny, and his death marked the end of a tumultuous reign.


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By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at https://steve-estvanik.pixels.com. We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us

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