Monday, November 10, 2008
Southeast Turkey Part III: In the footsteps of Abraham
Candace thinks this shot of the shepherd is the best picture she's ever taken, especially since she took it from a moving bus, driving up a very bumpy road to the site of Göbekli Tepe. It is easy to imagine him as a modern-day Abraham. Be sure to click on it, the man's face is amazing.
Candace was just talking to her grandparents on the phone (well, on the computer actually), and was inspired to continue with the blog report of the Southeastern Turkey trip. It's been so long now since we were actually there that we are in danger of having things slip our mind, so it's probably best to get it all out there now!
The third day of the four-day trip was very special. Within the space of a few hours, we covered thousands and thousands of years of history. Some of it was well-known to us, and other parts were completely new.
We had stayed another night in Urfa, and in the morning we drove about an hour outside of town to a site called Göbekli Tepe. "Tepe" means "mound" or "hill" in Turkish, and is a word that is used to describe any artificial mound that marks an archaeological site (sometimes the Turkish word "Höyük" is also used). Göbekli Tepe, which most of us had never heard of before, is a very important site. One of the Fellows in our group who is a zooarchaeologist (she studies the animal remains at archaeological sites for what they can tell us about the environment and life at the sites) knew about it and convinced the Director to take us there. It is one of the oldest sites in Turkey. It was not a settlement site, because the people that used it were hunter-gatherers, but it was clearly of some ceremonial significance. Archaeologists have dated the remains to approximately 10,000 BC. Just to give you a frame of reference, that is 7,000 years before Stonehenge was built!
A comparison with Stonehenge is not inappropriate. Although Göbekli Tepe was not built on the same scale as Stonehenge, its monuments were also laid out on a circle, and as at Stonehenge, researchers don't know exactly what was going on here. They loosely call it a temple, but really no evidence so far has been found to show that there were sacrifices here, although it seems likely. Here are some pictures of the standing stones that were erected here. If you look closely at some of them you can see carvings of animals -- lizards,
antelopes, even ducks (here they are in a net)!
Some archaeologists think the stones themselves represent standing human figures, but that is just a theory based on the fact that some of them have carvings on the side that may or may not be intended to show arms. Whatever they were for though, it is incredible that they have survived here, and that the carvings are so clear. The archaeologists say that the site was abandoned when the people ceased to be nomadic and settled in villages that were not located high on these rocky/windy hills, but down in the river valley where farming was possible. They do think that burials may still have been carried out here though, and they hope to find some of them in the near future. It is a really, really incredible site, and like nothing either one of us had ever seen before.
After Göbekli Tepe, we moved on to see something that had always SEEMED like ancient history, but in light of what we had just visited, seemed downright modern! It is the village of Harran, which is mentioned in the Bible and in the Koran as the place where Abraham and his family were from. It sits a mere 4 miles from the Syrian border, the closest most of us will ever get to that country. It is dusty, dry, and desolate. There are very few people still living there, and most of them are Arabs and Kurds (Turkish won't do you much good here!), and some of them are semi-nomadic. But some do still live in the traditional "beehive" houses that have been built here for centuries. They are constructed entirely from mud with no wooden supports at all. They are quite practical since they are easy to heat in the winter and remain relatively cool in the summer. We only went into one house, which is a "culture house" that has been retained in its traditional form by the family that owns it, so tourists can come and see what life has been like in Harran for generations.
While we were there, many of us "went native" and purchased head scarves which the owner of the house tied on us in the traditional fashion. We didn't know it when we bought it (ok, Candace picked it out), but as our Israeli friend later point out to us, Peter's black-and-white checkered scarf indicates that he is Palestinian, so we have to be careful where he wears it. The lilac color that Candace is wearing is the popular, fashionable color in Southeastern Turkey right now. Probably 80% of the people, men and women, were wearing it in Urfa. We thought it might indicate a religious or tribal affiliation, but our bus driver told us it has just been the "in" color for about 3 years now.
Some strange stuffed creature at the Culture House
The interior of one of the beehive domes
When we arrived in Harran, school-age children immediately approached us to sell us postcards (some of you will be getting them sometime soon) and a particular kind of trinket that they sell there that is supposed to keep your house safe. It is made from dried chickpeas and all kinds of bits and pieces of feathers, felt, sequins, whatever is on hand probably. We now have one hanging in our kitchen. Harran is a tourist destination, especially because of its ties to Abraham, but because it is remote and close to Syria only fairly intrepid travelers make it there; also, we were there in the off-season so we were really attracting a lot of attention. You can see that the children were interested in us:
Besides being the hometown of Abraham, Harran was an important center of learning in the Islamic period. One of the most important sites in the village is the "University," which is actually the remains of a mosque, constructed in the 8th century, which also housed a medrese, or religious school, from which it now takes its name. It rises up very majestically, and somewhat hauntingly, out of the dusty ground, with the Syrian border in the background.
The other landmark in town is the kale (castle). It was built by Crusaders in the 11th century, on the site of an ancient temple for the worship of the moon. Harran was the base for a cult of the Moon that survived from antiquity all the way into the Middle Ages. Not a lot is known about it, but the people who worshiped the moon there were alternately persecuted by the Christians and, later, the Muslims, but they managed to persist with their cult for centuries. We spent quite a bit of time climbing around there.
Peter conquers the castle at Harran
After Harran, we went back to Urfa and had a wonderful lunch, then headed out for the afternoon to explore the town. We had been staying there for two nights, but had always returned so late that there was no time for sightseeing. In retrospect, we all very much regret that we did not spend more time there.
The full name of Urfa is Şanliurfa, which means "Glorious Urfa." And it really is glorious. The old part of the city is gorgeous and important. Again, it is connected to Abraham. Some Jewish sources also say that Job lived here for awhile. And legend places the Garden of Eden near here, which makes sense since it is between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But we sure didn't see it!
According to the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the rulers of this area, King Abgar I of Edessa (one ancient name for Urfa), who ruled during the time of Christ, was impressed with the ministry of Christ and asked him to move to this area to continue it. Obviously that did not happen, but according to the legend Christ did press his face into a cloth, leaving a mark, and sent the cloth to Abgar as a memento. This object, called the mandalyon, was the most prized relic of the Syrian Orthodox Church until they lost it to the Arabs. The Arabs, in turn, used it to ransom Edessa back from the Byzantines, who then promptly lost it in the sack of the city by western Christian Crusader soldiers in 1204, never to be recovered again. Edessa (Urfa) played an important historical role again when the Arab capture of the city in 1144 was used as the pretext for Europe to launch the Second Crusade against the Arabs. So there is a lot of history surrounding this city, but none of it looms larger than the city's association with Abraham.
Both Jewish and Muslim sources say that Abraham was living in Urfa when God called him to move with his family to Canaan and become the father of His chosen people. And here, according to Muslim teachings, is the cave where Abraham was born and lived until he was 10 years old. It is called İbrahim Halilullah Dergahı (say it with me now, "Hallelujah!"). It is one of the holiest Muslim pilgrimage sites, and few tourists visit -- we were surrounded by pilgrims and were certainly the odd Westerners.
The mosque at the birthplace of Abraham
Pilgrims (and Candace) preparing to enter the cave where Abraham was born.
Although there is not really much to see inside, Candace did surreptitiously snap a picture of the women's side. The women were all going through their ritual prayers which included a lot of prostrations, which is why they are all a bit blurry.
It is so holy that there are completely separate men's and women's entrances and spaces inside the cave. You can see from the photo that the window into the inner part of the cave, the site of the birth, is blocked on the women's side by a water tank that supplies the water for the small ablution fountains inside each of the outer caves, so people can wash themselves before praying. Of course they would mount it on the women's side!
An arch outside the mosque at the cave of Abraham, leading to the sacred pool.
Outside the cave the local Muslim legend of Abraham continues. Here, Abraham smashed the idols of the king Nemrut that were in the local temple. As punishment, King Nemrut had Abraham cast down from the battlements of his citadel into a fire. Now there is a 12th century Frankish Crusader castle built where his citadel stood, and two lonely columns remain from a 3rd-century Christian chapel, but the locals persist in calling them the "Throne of Nemrut."
According to the legend, God saved Abraham by changing the fire into water and the firewood into carp. The pool (known as Gölbaşı, literally "at the lakeside") is therefore very sacred, and the carp are fat from being fed by the pilgrims, and are never in danger of being eaten. In fact, it is said that anyone who is sacreligious enough to catch and eat one will go blind!
Feeding the sacred carp.
The entire complex is absolutely gorgeous. We were there as the sun was setting, and the stones of the arcade around the sacred pool were turning a beautiful amber color.
One final note from Urfa. We met our bus that evening in front of a 5-star hotel next to the sacred pool. Some of us stopped in to use the ladies' room because we had a 6-hour ride in front of us. This place was top-quality. And, judging from the toilet design, they must really expect people to stay awhile: