Sanliurfa – Urfa

Like its neighbouring city Antep, Urfa gained its honorific title “Şanlı” (Glorious) due to its heroic defence during the War of Independence, becoming Şanlıurfa. The city is also known as the “City of Prophets”. The 145 km highway linking Antep and Urfa road is in good condition and a comfortable drive. On your trip from Antep to Urfa, once the Euphrates River is within your sight, you know that you arrived at Birecik, a town in the province of Urfa.

Urfa is one of the most interesting cities of the south east. As you wander through its bazaars or its streets you will feel you are in the 16th century. Any visit to Urfa should start in its bazaars. There are many hans (old stone shopping or trade arcades which sometimes used to provide accommodation in the past) from the Ottoman era. The most famous ones are the Gümrük (Customs), Hacı Kamil, Mencek, Bican Ağa and Topçu Hans. In these hans, where traditional handicrafts are still practised, you can find very colourful materials, faru” (baggy trousers) made of lamp skin, many types of copper, wood items and household goods. Centuries ago, these hans were the city’s trade and business centres. You should sit on the low stools in the middle of the courtyard of one of the hans and drink a special type of coffee called “mirra” that is served in small cups and without sugar. You can look just like the locals of Arab origin do by buying a scarf called a “kefiye” or “agali” and wear it over your head to protect you from the strong sun in the city. One of the most interesting bazaars in Urfa is the Bakırcılar Çarşısı (the Copper Bazaar). If seeking a souvenir of your visit you can buy yourself of trays, cauldrons and pans, all made from hand beaten copper shaped made by using methods as old as the art itself.

After your travels through the bazaars you should proceed towards the Balıklıgöl (the Fish Lake). Inside the mosque on the left before you come to the Fish Lake there is the cave where Muslims believe the Prophet Abraham was born. The cave is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. One should drink from the water inside the cave, which is believed by the locals to have healing powers. The Fish Lake is also believed to be both sacred and have the power to heal. However, before you get to the Fish Lake area, you have to make your way through groups of small children trying to sell you a triangle shaped amulet to wear around the neck. They will insist in trying to tell you about the charm of this amulet, locally known as a “Cevsen”. Once you reach the lake there are more children and some adults who may try to sell you food to feed to the fish in the ponds. They may also attempt to give their version of the story of the Fish Lake.

The Fish Lake in fact is a pool of 150 metres by 30. The name of the other nearby 30 metre by 50 pools is Zaliha Gol. The Halilurrahman Camisi (Makam Mosque) next to the lake was built in 1211. The belief is that Prophet Abraham was ordered by the local king to be thrown from the hill to the left of the site into a fire and burnt alive. However, God turned the flames into water and the fish that now swim in the lake are supposed to be the embers of that fire.

If you enter the water, which isn’t actually allowed, it is said that the soft nibbling of the fish on your skin can activate the small veins in the body and have a healing effect. In the tea garden next to the lake you can drink mirra or zahter, buy some publications about Urfa and various local handicrafts. The Ridvaniye Camisi (Mosque) in the bank of the lake was firstly built as a synagogue, then converted to a church and finally turned into a mosque. The Ulu Cami (the Great Mosque), built in 1191, and the Selahaddin Medresesi (Islamic University) are also here. You should climb up to the fortress, though at the risk of getting a bit tired. From the fortress you have a wonderful view over the old Urfa and its houses – a wonder of architecture – and the new Urfa of rising apartment blocks. The two columns in the fortress are said in local legend to be the masts of the ballista that hurled the Prophet Abraham into the fire. Even though the inscription on the southern column reads, “For the son of sun Efuthra’s Queen Sarmet,” and which says that it was built for her, the locals insist on believing their version of the legend. According to the Biblical version the founder of the city of Urfa (Ur in the Bible) the King Nimrod, displeased with the preaching of Abraham against the pagan Gods, had him thrown him into fire from his point. As we wrote before, Abraham was saved and the lake below the fortress was formed. Another of the local beliefs concerns one of the region’s most visited sites, a cave on the Akcakale road. It is believed that Prophet Eyup (Job), when afflicted by leprosy, was healed in this cave thanks to the great patience and support of his wife. The saying, often used by Muslim in hard times, “let God give you the patience of the Prophet Eyüp”, originates from this myth. Children who have some health problems are brought to this cave in an effort to find a cure.

The Urfa museum

To pay a visit to the museum, where finds from the region are on display, is useful to help you better understand the city itself. There is much to be learned from carefully studying the map of the area, as well as the historical and cultural riches of the region.

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