I believe that cities are more beautiful when they embed legends into reality and glorify what the eye sees with the consent of the heart. Şanlıurfa is one such city! It pulls the heart strings of those who give ear to Eastern myths and melodies distilled through centuries.
I’ve been a local in Şanlıurfa for generations, as the song goes. My grandparents were from here. It just so happens that my parents also met here and it’s my birthplace. This bond shows no signs of breaking any time soon because my last visit to this city filled with history, flavor and music made me murmur to myself, "You will come back here!"
I hop in a taxi from the airport to the city center, looking out the window as we drive by. The Karaköprü sign is the first thing that triggers my memory. As the driver is mumbling a folk song “Karaköprü is full of pomegranate orchards / And beauty is a richness,” I ask him whether Karaköprü is famous for its pomegranates. “We have none of that now,” he replies as the orchards in the district have been replaced by luxury apartment blocks but no worries – Şanlıurfa’s red pomegranate, its syrup and molasses are still very famous.
We soon arrive in the district of Kızılkoyun. Şanlıurfa Metropolitan Municipality initiated an urban transformation project in this old settlement in order to protect the city’s historic texture. Therefore, in the districts of Haleplibahçe and Tılfındır, rock caves from the Roman period were discovered. The excavated ground mosaics were unearthed and transported to the museum.
With these thoughts in my mind, I come across the sign for Balıklıgöl Lake. It would be amiss not to remember this legend, feed the fish, take pictures and relax in the breeze of the surrounding park when you’re in Şanlıurfa. There’s a story about Prophet Abraham (a.s.) in the Qur’an. When he started to fight against the icons worshipped by the people and announced Allah’s orders to his tribe, he was cast into a fire by the vicious King Nemrut from the top of the hill which is currently home to Şanlıurfa Castle. Meanwhile, Allah calls on the fire, “O fire! Be cool and peaceful for Abraham!” and the fire turns into water, the woods into fish, and the surroundings into a rose garden. The locals believe that this incident happened in their city and that was how Balıklıgöl Lake was formed. It’s forbidden to catch the carps in the lake because they are believed to be holy. Another legend goes that when Zeliha, Nemrut’s daughter, believed in Prophet Abraham (a.s.), she was also cast into the fire by her father. Aynzeliha Lake is the place where it is believed she died. Halil-ür Rahman Mosque and the cave Prophet Abraham (a.s.) was born are also located here. I follow the directions and head towards Dambak Hill which is home to Şanlıurfa Castle. It’s a pleasure to explore the castle which is believed to have been built in 2000 BC, played an important role during the Crusades, and was restored in the Ottoman period.
I climb the park stairs to Çift Mağara (Twin Caves), take off my shoes and sit in one of the wooden loggia-like sections decorated with carpets and cushions so that the guests feel comfortable. If I were a foreigner here I’d order my coffee by saying “Menengiç” (turpentine coffee) but, as a local, I treat myself to a cup of “bitter coffee” and gaze at the park and the bird’s-eye view of Halil-ür Rahman Mosque.
I leave this place for some shopping. I walk through the outer gate of Balıklıgöl and follow the directions for Tarihî Hanlar (Historic Inns). I am greeted with a rich variety! Ottoman-era structures are situated around Gümrük Inn, the city’s old trade center. It’s impossible to count them all: Kazzaz (covered bazaar), Sipahi, Koltukçu (sofas), Pamukçu (cotton), Kınacı (henna), Bıçakçı (knives), Kazancı (pots), İsotçu (local red pepper flakes), Demirci (iron), Kunduracı (shoes), Attar, Kasap (butcher), Eski Kuyumcu (jewelry) markets and Hüsniye Bazaar!
I treat myself to a plate of liver kebab at Gümrük Inn, which was built by Behram Paşa by order of Suleiman the Magnificent and referred to as "Yetmiş Hanı" in Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue, at Mustafa Usta’nın Yeri (Gümrük Hanı Ciğer Salonu). The trip becomes even better with soft liver on skewers, puffy pita, grilled hot peppers, sweet onions and homemade ayran (yogurt drink).
After this delicious break, I start wandering the cool corridors of the bazaar. Here you can find everything from silk scarves to local clothes and accessories, carpets and rugs to copper pots and plates, haspir (safflower) to isot (Urfa pepper), Urfa cheese and pistachio to pomegranate molasses, syrup and hışır (gold jewelry).
It’s impossible not to have heard of Şanlıurfa’s culinary culture. For dinner, I opt for Cevahir Inn. Managed by Asuman Cevahir Yazmacı, the first woman business manager in the city, Cevahir Inn is situated at the historical Samsat Inn, believed to have been built between the 15th and 16th centuries. The menu comprises regional dishes and kebabs. Polish it off with şıllık tatlısı or kadayif dessert.
Since I have a very busy schedule the next day, I greet it with tirit, an indispensable part of local breakfast, at Sakıp’ın Köşkü in Haleplibahçe. Used as a summer house by Sakıp Efendi, a local poet and philanthropist, the historic mansion and its verdant garden resemble an oasis. After munching on the restorative tirit and liver kebab, I head towards Haleplibahçe Museum Complex, the biggest museum in Turkey spanning 34,000 square meters. Exhibiting nearly 10,000 artifacts, the complex comprises Şanlıurfa Archaeology Museum, Arkeopark and Edessa Mosaic Museum. Excavated during the road construction near Balıklıgöl in 1995 and believed to date back to the 9500BC, Urfa Adamı is the “world’s first human sculpture in real scale (180 cm)” and has a special importance. I closely admire the world’s first mosaic portrayal of warrior Amazon queens made with stones from the Euphrates.
This admiration increases with Göbeklitepe, one of the biggest discoveries of the archaeological world. More convenient for visits thanks to the recently built roof protection, Göbeklitepe is described as the "zero point in time" with its past of 12,000 years. The oldest temple in the world, it was temporarily added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. At this year's meeting, they will review the request to "permanently add Göbeklitepe to the list."
After leaving this historic place, I find myself back in the present. I begin exploring the traditional “kavi” homes renowned for their zerzembe (cellar), hayat (wide courtyard) and flat roofs from Yorgancı Sokağı Street. I walk by Abdülkadir Hakkâri House and find myself in cool and shaded streets called kabaltı or abbara. I get lost in these arched passages which are mostly too narrow for two people to walk side by side. Forty-four kilometers from Şanlıurfa is Harran, which has an architectural style of its own. In addition to cone-like houses (some over 100 years old) the Grand Mosque and Şeyh Hayat el-Harrâni's mausoleum rise in the Harran Plain. The Sin Temple, built in Harran in approximately 2000 BC, was home to astrological studies. Though very little remains from this temple and Harran School, which was a prominent science and art center of the Islamic civilization between the 8th and 10th centuries, Harran impresses every visitor, especially at sunset.
Wandering around the back alleys of history, I come across the famous "pigeon sellers" of Şanlıurfa. A bird seller for 35 years, 40-year-old Mehmet Sakızcı says, "I have such birds that some people offer me 30,000 liras and I still don't sell them." Now I understand the passion of people who buy or sell birds.
It’s a must to attend a sıra gecesi ceremony while in Şanlıurfa. I cannot resist the amazing Urfa songs I’ve been familiar with since my childhood. There are many venues (Cevahir Inn, Çardaklı Mansion, Gülizar Konuk Evi guesthouse) and local teams in the city where you can watch this ceremony. I choose one and start singing the folk song with my grandmother’s name, feeling a sense of longing: “Fadile, oh Fadile / People talk about me because I’m in love with you / I suffer for your love, oh Fado.”