Text & photos: Michel GYBELS for Turkish Archaeological News
Şanliurfa, ancient Urfa and ancient Edessa, is a large town in Eastern Turkey of mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turkish inhabitants and is attractive to travellers for three main reasons. Firstly the famous Unesco World Heritage site of Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known temple complex in the world and fast becoming one of the ‘must-sees’ of Eastern Turkey, situated about 20 km from Şanliurfa; secondly the exceptionally fine, recently discovered mosaics in the Villa of the Amazons, and finally the town’s architectural reminders of Syria’s Aleppo, notably its Ulu Cami (Great Mosque).
Urfa’s key sights, however, remain Halil Ar-Rahman Mosque and its famous Pool of Abraham. Urfa is a city of profound historical and religious associations, and certainly has the feel of a pilgrimage destination. It has enjoyed a great improvement in accommodation facilities and is now firmly on most organised tour itineraries, especially pilgrimage tours because of its biblical and Koranic links.
When Alexander the Great passed this way after his victory of the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE, he named this town Edessa after the Macedonian city. In the 2nd century CE, Edessa became the earliest Christian centre in Mesopotamia and in Roman-Byzantine times the opulence of the 5th/6th-century Villa of the Amazons testifies to its prosperity. A school of Christian religion and philosophy flourished here, a fascinating synthesis of Christian, Hellenistic and ancient Near Eastern civilisations, and the local dialect or Aramaic, called Syriac or Süryani, was the dominant cultural force of Eastern Christianity, producing a rich, dynamic literature.
Even under Muslim rule (640-1035 CE), it remained a predominantly Christian city, producing many saints and church leaders. Edessa had also been 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.
Edessa’s history has therefore not been without incident, but like so many other once important cities in the region it never recovered from the Mongol invasion led by Hulagu in 1260, and which had destroyed Baghdad two years earlier. Hulagu and his successors were Buddhist and pursued a strong anti-Muslim policy, which was not reversed until the Mongol ruler Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) switched sides and became a zealous defender of Islam. Today, the population is half Arabic-speaking, half Kurdish-speaking.
The lakeside with Abraham’s Sacred Pool (Balikligölü, Gölbaşi area) is undoubtedly the highlight of Urfa with the green landscaped gardens and the special atmosphere if you sit and join the local people at one of the tables under the trees around the pools for a tea or cold drink – alcohol is not on offer. Avoid asking for fish because they are considered sacred. There are in fact two pools: the larger one, called Ain Zeliha, the Pool of Zeliha, below the citadel with a fountain and rowing boats, and the original Balikligölü (Lake with Fish) which is the sacred Abraham’s Pool. Zeliha was the daughter of Nimrod (Turkish Nemrut), king of Urfa, who declared her allegiance to Abraham and defied her father’s pagan beliefs. The Koran relates that she, like Abraham, was therefore thrown from the citadel and the pool miraculously appeared to save her. The central fountain is known as ‘the tears of Zeliha’.
The history of Abraham’s Pool
According to the Bible, Abraham’s legitimate but younger son Isaac was the ancestor of the Jews, while his older illegitimate son Ishmael (born from Abraham’s concubine Hagar) gave birth to the tribes of the Arabian Desert after being abandoned with his mother beside the holy spring of Zamzam in Mecca. The Koran expands the biblical story of Abraham by telling how Nemrut (Nimrod), the Assyrian king, is warned by his stargazers that a child has been born who will grow up to challenge his rule and break the idols in the temple. Parallels with Herod and Jesus are clear.
Born in a local cave, Abraham indeed grows up to do exactly that, and is thrown on a funeral pyre by an angry Nimrod. To save him, God created a lake which put out the fire, and the burning coals became fish. The Koran has a verse: ‘O Fire, be cool and peaceful towards Abraham’. Abraham, whose name means ‘Father of a great multitude’ is revered not only by Jews and Christians but by Muslims too, and this event is always portrayed as a clash between good (Abraham) and evil (Nimrod). Thanks to this rejection of idol-worship, Abraham is seen by all three religions as the first monotheist and the forefather of all the prophets. His message is seen as identical with Islam, and his epithet Khalil ar-Rahman (Turkish Halilürrahman) means ‘Friend of the Merciful One’. About half of Urfa’s male inhabitants are called either Ibrahim or Halil as a result. Abraham is thus considered to have been the first Muslim.
The spot, therefore, attracts Muslim pilgrims, who come to enjoy the pool and watch the sacred carp. The water comes from the Spring of Callirrhoë. Abraham’s Pool is a long thin rectangle, the water a beautiful green colour surrounded by graceful arches. The sacred carp, grey, and ranging from colossal salmon-sized monsters to tiny ones of the size of goldfish, are severely overcrowded and show signs of cannibalism. Their sacred status forbids killing them, and anyone eating them will go blind according to local superstition.
The tradition of holy fish goes back a long way, with even Xenophon, writing in the 4th century BCE, mentioning the sacred fish in Lake Chalys near Aleppo, and Lucian of Samosata writing in the 3rd century AD that at a temple near Edessa was founded on a natural spring where sacred fish dedicated to the god Atargatis were allowed to thrive unmolested.
Other interesting places to visit
To reach the pools, you stroll past the bazaar and at the foot of the citadel come to a complex of several mosques and tombs of famous Urfa scholars and theologians set in landscaped rose gardens. Some of the mosques are 18th-century Ottoman, some older, like the famous Halil Ar-Rahman Mosque at the western end of Abraham’s Pool, originally the Church of the Virgin Mary built in 504. It was converted to a mosque and medrese in 820 and is where many Islamic scholars received tuition and training. The fountain inside the domed room beside the pool is thought to have curative properties and is drunk by pious Muslims.
Among the sacred complex of tombs opposite Zeliha’s Pool one in particular warrants a mention: that of Said Nursi, a famous Sufi intellectual who died in 1960 and was buried here. Three days before his death, aged 82, he asked his disciples to bring him to Urfa to die. The grave remains a place of pilgrimage for Sufi devotees, as do some of the other nearby tombs of various Sufi masters.
In the Gölbaşi (head of the lake) area and Dergah complex of mosques within the park, you can also visit, if suitably modestly dressed with a headscarf and long sleeves, the cave of Abraham’s birth. The mosques are considered holy pilgrimage sites with hundreds visiting every day. There are separate entrances for men and woman.
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. Another version is that they are the remains of a temple of Baal.
Just 400 meters west of the Sacred Pool precinct a remarkable discovery was made in 2006 when a bulldozer hit upon some ancient mosaics. After two years of excavations an opulent 12-room villa, thought to belong to a senior official of the Roman-Byzantine Empire, came to light. Now called the Villa of the Amazons, the beautiful mosaics depict highly unusual scenes of four Amazon warrior queens, one breast bare, one removed to allow for better fighting, engaged in hunting and fighting. The quality of facial expressions is exceptionally high. A further series of mosaics depict the life of Achilles. An ambitious new complex houses them in situ in an archaeological park complete with cafés and walkways. The complex includes the Edessa Mosaic Museum and the Şanliurfa Archaeology Museum, where sculptures from Göbekli Tepe will be displayed for the first time.
The entrance to the sites is free of charge, except to the archaeological complex with the Edessa Mosaic Museum and the Şanliurfa Archaeology Museum. There are plenty of restaurants and hotels in the old city centre.
By air: Şanliurfa has its own airport called GAP, 15 km south of the city, on the road to Akçakale and Harran. There are daily domestic flights to Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir operated by Turkish Airlines, Anadolujet and Pegasus Airlines.
By car: Şanliurfa is situated at about 120 km from Gaziantep, about 110 km from Adiyaman and about 180 km from Diyarbakir and is easily reachable by road. At the foot of the citadel is a huge fee-paying underground car park.