It was the home to the first Islamic university and the oldest civilizations of Anatolia. Şanlıurfa, the golden city of Southeast waits for the SAP Project to revive the glamour of its olden days.

As our plane begins its descent to land at Şanlıurfa’s GAP Airport, I look out the small window and can’t help but ask myself, “Where are the misty mountains that are said to encircle Urfa?” We float over the fields that turn the vast, bounteous Harran Plain into a razzle-dazzle of colors and finally are on the ground. One of two airports at Şanlıurfa, GAP Airport is designed to be the logistic epicenter of the Southeast Anatolia Project, for which it was named and whose completion it anxiously awaits.

What water brings…
As we drive to our first destination, Atatürk Dam, our guide indicates the fields just beside the road. “These are pistachio trees,” he tells us. “Although pistachios are usually associated with Gaziantep, they grow mainly in Urfa. Because Antep is an industrial city, they buy the pistachios from us and process them there.” We learn that a pistachio tree only starts bearing fruit almost 15 years after being planted. Partly due to this and partly due to the changing economic climate, pistachio trees have been now replaced with other fruits, in particular, apples. The black pipes laid just beneath the trees show that the use of dripping systems, one of the most advanced irrigation technologies, is becoming widespread. Signs of how SAP is transforming the land are evident everywhere. When water meets soil, the destiny of a region begins to change. 

Then we arrive at Atatürk Dam, a completely different dimension of water… Bare numbers on the page will not suffice; one literally has to stand on the viewing platform and see the dam itself in order to comprehend the project’s colossal proportions. This giant structure, made of condensed clay and basalt and containing no concrete, is one of the most important dams in the world. It provides a significant part of Turkey’s electricity, which is distributed through a broad supply network extending all the way to İkitelli in İstanbul province. The cost of the dam was approximately four billion dollars. By a rough estimate, it paid for itself in five years. Every minute it operates today means an important contribution to the Turkish economy and significant economic support for Şanlıurfa. At the same time the waters of the Euphrates, after leaving the dam, bring life to Harran through the Şanlıurfa Tunnels. 

Abraham’s table
One discovers very early in Şanlıurfa that bread is the staff of life… Exhausted after the sightseeing tour, we are ready now for the meal everyone has been looking forward to. Although there are slight differences here and there, certain basic dishes turn up on every table. For example, onion salad with hot chili peppers, which arrives on the table as a token of the delicacies yet to come, a reminder of the hot and spicy cuisine the region is famous for. While eating your stuffed wheat balls and drinking your buttermilk served in copper cups, you feel you can wait a little while for the kebab as you savor the zest already on your palate. Aubergine kebab marries this miraculous vegetable with meat. If you’re from the big city and think that Urfa kebabs are traditionally not very spicy you might be in for a surprise as original Urfa kebab is actually quite hot. Especially the peppers. The fire roasted stuffed peppers, for example, that look harmless enough on your plate and reveal their stinging flavor only to the fortunate few, may transport you temporarily to an altered state of taste! If you are not picky, a mixed kebab plate will be more than enough. And of course to “polish off” the kebab, you must leave room for the liver wrap that the natives of Urfa love to eat even for breakfast.  Not only the liver wrap but künefe, an oven-baked shredded pastry with cheese filling in thick syrup, is also worth a try. 

City of peace and prayer
No other city in the world has been blessed with a history interwoven with so many legends. Urfa is said to be the first city where the idea of worshipping a single god originated and to have been visited by many prophets. The Pool of the Sacred Fish is believed to be the place where the cruel idolator King Nimrod tried to immolate Abraham on a funeral pyre. The cave where Abraham was born is hidden in the courtyard of Mevlid-i Halil Mosque.  The region is rich in legends: When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, they came to Urfa, where they planted the first rose and pomegranate trees on Earth.  It is also said that the foundations of the first Islamic University were laid in Harran and soaked in rose water so that whenever it rained the whole city smelled of roses.  A center of astronomy and science of the time, the university was known for its advanced studies on the structure of matter and models of the atom.

Jesus is also said to ave come here to cure the sick. The city is a holy site of pilgrimage for believers from all the monotheistic faiths. To walk the sacred way one must start from the Great Mosque, which used to be an Assyrian church, and follow the route to Hasan Paşa Mosque, Rızvaniye Mosque and Madrassa and Halil-ür Rahman Mosque. The ancient pillars of the Urfa Castle overlooking the city are believed to be the remnants of the catapult that hurled Abraham from the castle into the Pool of the Sacred Fish. To go further back in the city’s long history, the Archaeological Museum is the place to visit, where you can see artifacts from 12,000 years ago, unearthed at the Göbeklitepe excavations.

Felt, peppers and copper
The Historic Urfa Bazaar is a must-see for getting to know the city’s characteristics and local product. Built in the Ottoman era, the bazaar is one of the main tourist attractions with its maze-like narrow streets, inns, courtyards, coffee houses and authentic shops. One of the biggest and oldest bazaars in Anatolia, this giant marketplace is comprised of many sections such as the isot (local red chili peppers) sellers, the boilersmiths, and the furriers, felt makers and saddlers. But the favorite artisans of the bazaar are the coppersmiths, who still employ the authentic hammering technique to produce copper trays, pitchers, local coffee pots called “gümgüm”, and wall decorations, all highly prized by tourists as souvenirs. As you wander amidst local riches as diverse as hand-woven carpets, saddlebags, isot peppers, local textiles, prayer beads and chain watches, you will feel as if you are in a treasure chest of sounds and sights.

A few hours’ rest in an old Urfa mansion after a long but pleasant day will take away all your weariness. Restored and transformed into hotels, these old stone mansions are built to be naturally warm in winter and cool in summer and they host their guests in beautiful rooms around an inner courtyard. At the end of the day we are ready to experience the famous Sira Night.  A typical manifestation of Urfa’s hospitality, Sira Nights are held to give visitors to the city a taste of the local music, culture and cuisine. They are a traditional entertainment for which guests sit on the floor around low tables, listening to local musicians or indulging in long conversations while delicious çiğ köfte (a local dish resembling steak tartar) is kneaded and food is served. It will be a night to remember and will make your trip to Urfa, an unforgettable one. Try it and you will see what we mean!

“I am said to come from one of Urfa’s old, established families, and that’s true. During his Baghdad campaign Sultan Murat IV dispatched our ancestors in Izmir as standard-bearers to Birecik, which was attached to Urfa. My father, for example, was born in Birecik and later moved to Istanbul. I come from a family of artists that grew up in the multicultural environment of southeastern Turkey. There are doctors, poets, composers, musicians and photographers as well as mayors and members of parliament in my family. I haven’t been to Urfa for a long time. For some reason I haven’t had a chance to get back there. But I still remember the Urfa of my childhood with its dirt roads, steep streets and old wooden hotels. On the trips we made to Urfa we always stayed in old stone mansions with spacious inner courtyards and pools. They were famous and I’ll never forget them. Urfa has changed a lot today. It has modernized. It stands on the road to Mesopotamia, which is chock full of history, and is an important fortress on the way back to those old civilizations. If you know the history of Urfa, City of Prophets, you will feel these things deeply as you tour the area.”

What water brings…
As we drive to our first destination, Atatürk Dam, our guide indicates the fields just beside the road. “These are pistachio trees,” he tells us. “Although pistachios are usually associated with Gaziantep, they grow mainly in Urfa. 

Turkish Airlines has return flights from İstanbul and Ankara to Şanlıurfa every day. Departures are at 7:25 a.m. and 7: 35 p.m. from İstanbul and at 2:45 p.m. from Ankara. Return flights to İstanbul are at 9:55 a.m. and 10:05 p.m. and to Ankara at 4:35 p.m.

There are a variety of accommodation possibilities from 5 star hotels to small guest houses. Historic stone mansions that are restored and transformed into hotels are also an alternative for experiencing the traditional Urfa hospitality.

A typical menu includes bread stuffed with minced meat, çiğ köfte (stake tartare alla Turca), sheperd’s salad with pomegranate syrup and parsley, aubergine and tomato kebab, complemented by a cup of local coffee called “mırra”. Liver kebab is also worth a try.

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