I am not usually one for omens, but I should have known that I would like Sanlifura when the guy sitting behind me on the bus into town offered me his (still packaged) bus snack (I know better than to take unwrapped candy from strangers -most days). Have I mentioned how generous Turkish people are? No? Well, they are very.
There’s more to Urfa than random bus snacks and the beautiful purple scarves that both men and women wear around town. It’s the birthplace of Abraham, you know, that guy that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all agree to be awesome. It’s also where Job, the guy who was not a fair-weather fan of God after all, lived (and suffered).
Urfa also hosts the throne of Nimrod, who did not like what he considered to be Abraham’s monotheistic nonsense. In order to teach Abraham a lesson, Nimrod tossed Abraham off a cliff and into a fire. But God wasn’t having that, so He turned the fire into water and the coals into fish, and threw down a nice rose garden to catch Abraham (it’ true that landing in a thorny bush is preferable to an untimely death, but why not a kinder flower?).
The sacred fish still happily swim around to this day:
After feeding the fish, we climbed up to see the kale, which was built in the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. and holds what remains of the Nimrod’s throne:
This castle, like all other well-planned castles, was built on the top of a hill, and as we reached the main gate, the afternoon call to prayer echoed up from Abraham’s mosque, which was right below us:
We watched the roosting pigeons flee from the mosque’s domes and minarets. Soon, fractured calls to prayer from across Urfa reverberated up to Damlacik hill. We enjoyed the lazy din and excellent view for a few minutes before turning our attention to the kale, which, much to our disappointment, was closed for renovation. Not to be deterred by a simple closed sign and locked gate, we decided to see if there was a back way in. Because castles are known for their accessibility.
As we meandered around the less-touristed side of the kale, we were met with a chorus of “hello”s and “what’syourname”s shouted by an assortment of shy and curious children. One particular such child was pulling his little sister along the road using a garden hose wedged into a plastic crate. As we passed him, the hose came free, and he decided to play a fun new game that I like to call “herd the yabancis by manically swinging a garden hose at them.” Needless to say, he won.
While he chased us down the block, his younger sister watched disapprovingly from the crate. She wanted to know why the ride stopped while we wanted to know why it had started. Just as quickly as the game began, the boy lost interest, and we continued on our way laughing at the absurdity of the incident. As one of my fellow Fulbrighter quipped, “That’s the only time I felt unsafe in southeast Turkey.” It wasn’t the Kurdish rebels or the Syrian refugees; it was a nine-year-old boy with too much imagination and too little supervision.
As it turns out, this particular castle was not as accessible as we had dared to hope. Using “other entrance” would have involved scaling a barbed wire fence, descending into a rather rocky former moat, climbing up the other side of said moat, and then somehow repelling up the sheer castle walls. So, like numerous under-motivated barbarian hordes before us, we decided to give up on the forceful siege concept and go shopping at the bazaar and drink some tea instead. However, we had to swing by Abraham’s birthplace first.
The cave that Abraham was supposedly born in is conveniently located inside the Abraham mosque. It is divided into two halves, one for men and one for women (women get the left half of the cave; men, the right). The whole cave is part of the grand tradition of tacky Turkish lighting, which involves taking something beautiful, like a minaret or kale and dramatically illuminating it with green or red or blue lights. In this case, green. I cannot speak for the men’s side of things, but the women’s side was surprisingly warm and crowded with women devoutly praying. While it is unlikely that Abraham was actually born in this specific cave, I know that I have walked where he walked and that is humbling and amazing (I know, sorry about the cliché, but I couldn’t not say it).
How do you follow up seeing birthplace of the originator of monotheism? With shopping, obviously. The main section of Urfa’s amazing, bustling, bursting bazaar was built in the 16th century by Suleyman the Magnificent (who clearly agreed with me about shopping post-pilgrimage). It was filled to the brim with spices, scarves, jewelry, knives, and all things imaginable. The others and I left with lighter wallets and heavier bags to carry. It was quite a surprise when I returned the next day to discover this: