Şanlıurfa, usually known as Urfa, is the ancient city of Edessa, located in Southeastern Anatolia. The population of Urfa is mainly Kurdish, with also Arabs and Turks living in the region. Most of them are Muslim, but also followers of other religions can be found like Jewish, Armenian, Zaza and Yezids. The region of Urfa has a very old history, with the oldest remnants coming from neolithic ages.
The history of Şanlıurfa is recorded from the 4th century BC, but may date back to as far as 9000 BC. It was one of several cities in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, the cradle of the Mesopotamian civilization. According to Turkish Muslim traditions Urfa is the biblical city of Ur, due to its proximity to the biblical village of Harran. However, some historians and archaeologists claim the city of Ur was in southern Iraq. Urfa is also known as the birthplace of Job.
Islam first arrived around 638 AD, when the Rashidun army conquered the region without a fight. Islam was then established permanently in Urfa by the empires of the Ayyubids, Seljuks and Ottoman Turks. In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the city was the center of the Crusader County of Edessa, until 1144, when it was again captured by the Turk Zengui, and most of its inhabitants were slaughtered together with the Latin archbishop. For the ten years following the Turkish capture, Urfa was at the center of European history, since the very reason for launching the Second Crusade was recapturing the city.
Under the Ottomans Urfa was a centre of trade in cotton, leather and jewellery. There were three Christian communities: Syrian, Armenian and Latin. The last Syrian Christians left in 1924 and went to Aleppo.
At the end of World War I, with the Ottoman Empire defeated, and European armies attempting to grab parts of Anatolia, first the British and then the French occupied Urfa. The British occupation of Urfa started de facto on 7 March 1919 and officially on 24 March 1919, and lasted until 30 October 1919. French forces took over the following day and it lasted until 11 April 1920, when they were defeated by local resistance forces.
The cuisine is typical of the south-east; bread and meat are the staples as in kebab, döner or kavurma (fried meat or liver), with lots of aubergine, tomato and hot pepper, including the legendary local red pepper Isot. Other dishes include the spicy appetiser çiğ köfte, the rich sweets such as the hot butter and syrup künefe or the walnut pastry sillik; the bitter Arabic-style coffee mırra and the coffee-like drink made from terebinth menengiç kahvesi.
The legend of Isot claims that during the French occupation in the 1920s the people of Urfa were at first not much concerned about the town being invaded or losing their homes and only began the resistance when they saw the French marching in the pepper fields. Now they even make Isot-flavoured ice-cream in Urfa.
Sanliurfa is a very conservative and religious town. Alcoholic drinks are not served with dinner in Urfa and even the tea-gardens are strictly segregated for families or single-men. However, today there are also some hotels where you can get a drink in the evening.
Abraham’s cave and the pond of the holy fish (Balıklı Göl)
Şanlıurfa is supposedly the birthplace of Abraham (in Arabic Ibrahim, one of important prophets) and therefore an important Islamic place of pilgrimage and healing. Abraham’s cave, carved into the base of a mountain on top of which is Nimrud’s castle, is surrounded by a number of mosques built around a park with water. One of these mosques, the Halil-ur-Rahman has a pond (called Balıklı göl) which has a large number of holy fish. It is said that anyone who catches one of these will go blind. The pond is supposedly at a site where Nimrud wanted to burn Abraham as a sacrifice. God however intervened and turned the pyre into water and the coals into fish, thus saving Abraham.
In Abraham’s time, Urfa was ruled by Nimrod, a pagan king famous for his skills as a builder. Nimrod ruled from a castle high above the city, which twin pillars still stand imposingly over the Balıklıgöl holy sites. Oracles told Nimrod that a child born in his kingdom would come to end his rule and bring a monotheistic religion, so he ordered all male children born that year to be killed. Abraham’s mother managed to hide her pregnancy, and she gave birth to Abraham in a cave near the foot of Nimrod’s castle. Abraham spent his first seven years hiding in the cave, after that he came out and started to live in the city. As he experienced the cruelty and paganism of Nimrud, he began telling people to stop worshipping the stone idols and worship the god who created the earth and they sky. One day, Nimrod held a festival outside Urfa, and all the inhabitants went there. With the city empty, Abraham destroyed all but the largest one of Nimrod’s idols. When Nimrod returned, he was enraged and asked Abraham for the person who was responsible for the destruction. Abraham suggested that Nimrod ask the largest of the statues if perhaps it had destroyed the others out of jealousy. Nimrod retorted that it was only a statue, and could do no such thing. Abraham replied: “You yourself have said it. If the statue is powerless over other statues, what power can it have over you?” Infuriated, Nimrod prepared a great fire on the ground below. He made a catapult of the castle’s twin pillars and cast Abraham to the ground. God saved Abraham and where he landed, a spring gushed forth (the spring is currently inside the Halil ul-Rahman mosque), and the firewood was turned into fish (the sacred carp that swim in the Fish Ponds today). Nimrud’s daughter Zaliha, who believed in Abraham, also threw herself into the fire and the place where she landed also turned into a pond, nowadays called Ayn-ı Zeliha.
Rizvaniye mosque and medrese
Rizvaniye mosque and medrese is the most picturesque and most photographed site in Urfa, the beautiful structures of which surround the fish pond of Abraham. The mosque was built by the Ayyubids in the 13th century and completely rebuilt in 1736 by the Ottoman governor Rizvan, after whom the mosque is named. Restored in 1993, the mosque is a showcase to the Fish Pond. In the front there is a large and quite ornate men’s mosque, and immediately opposite it, in the courtyard, is a much smaller women’s mosque. The rooms lining the courtyard were classrooms and dormitories in the former medrese. The wooden door of the mosque is the original one, being an excellent example of an intricate Ottoman woodworking technique called kundekari. In this art form, octagonal, stellate and lozenge-shaped panels carved with arabesque decorations are joined without pins or glue in grooved frames.
Halil-ur Rahman mosque
The Halil-ur Rahman mosque, located on the southwest corner of the Fish Pond, is one of the key holy sites in Urfa, built on the site where Abraham was cast down by Nimrod and saved by a spring of water. Known locally as Dosheme or the Makam Cami, it is part of a smaller complex consisting of a mosque, a religious school or medrese and a cemetery with saints’ tombs or turbes. The mosque was built in 1211 under the Ayyubids, which makes it the oldest mosque in Balıklıgöl (although an inscription on its eastern side indicates that it underwent major restoration around 1810). At the times of Christianity in Urfa, the site was the Mother Mary Church. Today, the mosque features a squat, boxy minaret which is believed to be the bell tower of the Mother Mary Church, incorporated into the building of the mosque. Inside the mosque, there is a fountain where water springs up, and pilgrims touch it or drink from it. This practice has been going on for centuries.