City of the Prophets

If you look in an average Turkey travel guidebook, it will probably contain a dismissively minimal amount of information on Urfa (historical Edessa, now officially named Sanlıurfa). Do not believe them. This is a rich city that speaks to the soul.

Urfa, a city of half a million in southeastern Turkey, is popularly known as “the city of the prophets” because it is supposed to be the birthplace and stomping grounds of many important religious figures, including the most interreligiously important, Abraham. One legend says that King Nimrod sentenced Abraham to be burned alive for challenging idolatry. Just as he was thrown into the fire, the flames miraculously turned into water and the wood into fish.

This water still exists and is called the Balıklıgöl (“Fish Lake”). Muslims have always considered it sacrilegious to eat the carp from this lake, and legends sprung up about the fish–that they are immortal, that anyone who eats them will go blind, that if you see a white fish you will go to heaven, etc.

The historical center of the city orbits around this Balıklıgöl, whose channels reach out tendril-like into the courtyards of the many old mosques that border the lake. One mosque contains a cave where Abraham was supposedly born and grew up. Others contain the tombs of different spiritual figures. Watching guard over all is a Crusade-era citadel from which you can view the entire sprawl of the city.

I couldn’t help  noticing how quaint the old town looked–the park lively with local picnickers and their many children, the water that rippled with hundreds of full-bodied carp, the tourists, visitors, and locals who fed the expectant and self-satisfied fish with kibble bought from nearby vendors.

But there are other appeals in this city. The kapalı carşı (covered bazaars) are fantastic, full of fresh fruit, nuts, handcrafted ironware, and everything else. The city abounds with inquisitive children of all ages (the average birth rate in this region is something like 4.5 children per family) who seem always ready to play a spontaneous game of football or lead an ad-hoc tour around the neighborhood. The food is distinct and delicious–specialties include lahmacun (a type of meat pizza that is my current favorite food and only really tastes good in the southeast), ciğer kebap (fried liver, sometimes partially raw, that only tastes great in Urfa), and mırra (a super bitter after-meal coffee that I loved and have been dying to taste again).

The site of the Islamic world’s first university

Also note that just outside of Urfa is Harran, a district of historical significance (bronze-age archeological site; ruins of the world’s first university; Roman castle; a type of residential “beehive” housing style that has been continuously built and lived in for thousands of years; etc…).

Anyway, not to excessively eulogize Urfa, I should note that we only spent two days there last month on our way to Syria (i.e. not enough to get a perfect sense of the city) and that this region of Turkey has myriads of complex problems including poverty, which is highly apparent in the contrast between the old and new quarters. But Urfa is worth visiting both to visualize these problems and to appreciate its delicious culinary offerings and interesting historical sites.


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