Fascinating Harran and Gobekli Tepe in Southeastern Anatolia

Turkey > Urfa

February, 2013

Story covers Locations 7 and 8.

A fine morning, and we are in the southern part of Urfa. It is a nice sunny winter day.

There’s a grand-looking mosque … with a curious-looking domed structure in the compound. I am told Prophet Ayub (Job) used to live in a cave here, but where is it?

There it is … underground, via a narrow flight of stairs. There is the story of Prophet Ayub, afflicted with a dreadful skin disease, and losing his family and wealth in the process. He is said to be a contemporary of Prophet Ibrahim, which means he lived some 4,000 years ago.

Ayub fled to live in this cave alone for many years (some say 18 years).

But he remained loyal and steadfast to Allah, and always prayed for salvation.

Until Allah cured his illness by bringing forth this healing spring water at the spot where he struck the ground with his foot. His family and wealth returned and Ayub is regarded as a paragon of patience and loyalty.

Al-Qur’an: And remember Our servant, Ayyub – when he called his Lord saying, “The Shaitan (Satan) has inflicted weariness and pain upon me.” Allah said to him, “Strike (the ground) with your foot: Here is a cool water to bathe, and a drink!”  [Surah Sad: 41-42]

Now everybody can enjoy this spring water of Ayub’s, said to be as holy as the Zamzam water in Makkah, but it tastes much better, almost sweetish.

After doing the Ayub stuff, I just need to peek into the mosque. I have become a fan of Turkish mosques.

And this one doesn’t disappoint.

We then head south from Urfa along the highway to the Syrian border, just 50km away, across a very fertlile plain. Just 15km short of the border, we turn east into more arable territory. This province’s population is overwhelmingly Kurdish, with Turks and Arabs being minorities.

We are now in the ancient city of Harran, or what remains of it. This place is believed to be the biblical Harran, mentioned in the story of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). It is said he moved his family to live here from Ur (Urfa?), and then got the call from God to go to Canaan. Our first stop is the tomb of a revered Islamic scholar, Sheikh Hayat al-Harrani. Said to be a saint, he died in 1195. It is believed Prophet Ibrahim’s father was buried here too.

Bathed in soft green light with ever-present gentle scent of perfumery, the Sheikh’s tomb lies in a small secured enclosure. I wonder, is that a sarcophagus with the body still inside it? One thing I also notice, the pilgrims who come would always do a short prayer just outside this spot. The man is highly-revered still.

A few kilometres away, a tomb of another scholar, this one extremely revered by the Shiites.

It belongs to Imam Muhammad Bakir (676-735 AD), grandson of both Hussein and Hassan (via dad and mum respectively), who were the famous grandsons of Prophet Muhammad. Imam Bakir is also the 5th imam in the series of 12 imams of the Shiites. From what I understand from Turkish sources, this sarcophagus contains just a finger of Imam Bakir, severed during a battle. The Imam himself, poisoned by the Ummayads, was buried in Baqi’ Cemetery in Madinah, his birthplace.

But Harran is actually synonymous with these — the traditional beehive dwellings, whose distinctive design is thought to be about 3,000 years old. People have been living in Harran for 5,000 years, well beyond Abraham’s time. Harran means ‘intersection of routes’ — it used to be the intersection of major trade routes such as the Silk Road, and the Anatolian and Syrian ones.

It’s made of some sort of mud bricks, without wood at all, and the design is supposed to keep you cool in summer but warm in winter.

We stop at a compound showcasing these adobe houses, preserved by the authorities. Well, it’s sort of a tourist trap, but you need not buy anything. Just gawk at the stuff, take photos, be polite, say thanks and leave. The people are very hospitable.

It’s quite interesting really … notice the holes at the side and the top of the beehives? The design makes upwards airflow possible for some sort of climate control. The lady smiles at me …

The interior is indeed pleasant and all these stuff are for sale. By the way, all the beehives are interconnected. These houses are called ‘kumbets’.

It’s some sort of mud and straw plaster for the interior.

Looking up, it looks like a chimney. Note the bricks (and stones maybe) and the openings for airflow. The top is some 5m up, and air flows upward as natural ventilation, good for all seasons.

Old Harran was a walled city, and in the middle of it there’s a mound, just some 20m high. Here a town centre once stood, now no more.

The whole area is still work-in-progress but I guess intrusion and looting are commonplace. Harran became an Islamic city during the rule of Caliph Umar al-Khattab (579-644). It was the capital at the tail end of the Ummayad’s Islamic Empire. Such was the significance of this place.

Here is the site of a grand mosque, the oldest mosque in this part of Turkey — the Grand Mosque of Harran was completed in 750 AD by the Ummayad caliph Marwan II (688-750). Now only parts of the mosque remain, including its 33m tall minaret. It was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and by earthquakes. Its bricks and stones were pillaged by villagers for their own constructions.

Now nothing much is left of the Grand Mosque of Harran (8th-13th century). Salahaddin Al-Ayyubi (1138-1193), commonly known as Saladin, came here to try to revive the city, but to no avail.

We climb the Harran Mound proper, with debris of an advanced ancient civilisation under our feet. Most of the building materials have been taken away by the villagers for their own use.

Nearby the grand mosque, there’s also the site of Harran University, the first Islamic learning and research institution, reaching its peak in the 8th-9th century. Famous all over the ancient world, it hosted renowned scholars such as Thabit Ibn Qurra (826-901, medicine and mathematics), Al-Battani (858-929, astronomy), Jabir ibn Hayyan (722-804, physics, astronomy, chemistry) and Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328, Islamic studies). Important Greek and Latin works were also translated into Arabic here.

Now instead of learned scholars from all over the world domiciling or visiting here, we have only this bunch of shaggy guys roaming the place.

On the ground, building debris and shards of ceramics are everywhere. But we do not disturb them — an important code of ethics when visiting an archaelogical site.

We leave Harran Mound and return to the old town, for a final destination in Harran — the castle. Built on ancient fortification site thousands of years old, this castle was built a thousand years ago by the Fatimid Caliphate to defend against the Crusaders. It was destroyed in the 13th century by the marauding Mongols. Now it seems to be under some sort of renovation, a very slow process I gather.

We have to leave Harran now and on the way out we pass by more ruins of the fortifications of the old city, built a thousand years ago by the Muslim rulers.

We are leaving Urfa tonight but there is one last place we need to visit. It’s only less than 20km by road to the northeast of downtown Urfa, but its significance is earth-shattering.

The terrain gets hilly, rocky and barren with very few trees.

We park the car and walk along the ridge to this very important archaelogical dig.

Immediately I can see remnants of some ancient structure, holes in the stone for mounting pillars.

And yes, this is the famous Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill), a site containing mysterious stone structures built some 11,600 years ago, older than the Stonehenge by 6,000 years, than the Great Pyramid of Giza by 7,000 years. Excavations started in 1994 when German archaelogist Klaus Schmidt noticed that the round shape of Gobkeli Tepe must be man-made and not natural. He thinks this is a major religious site, a sort of temple.

The interesting thing is, conventional theories say that some 11,000 years ago, humans were still primitive hunter-gatherers with little sense of organisation, but the existence of this monumental site must hint towards a large settlement of human beings. So maybe human civilisation did develop faster than what we currently think. These stones are arranged in circles, and it is believed that there are layers of these stones still in the ground beneath the exposed ones, as the people built new stone circles atop older ones.

The stones contain carved relief of animals, such as bulls, foxes, snakes, vultures, spiders, insects, donkeys, gazelles and lions. We can assume 11,000 years ago, this area was teeming with such wild creatures rather than the present arid landscape. Such a scenario would be able to support a large human settlement, and the existence of a major attraction such as Gobekli Tepe would encourage the people to settle down even more.

The whole hill of Gobekli Tepe is thought to be full of these mysterious structures. One can imagine a huge settlement growing around it, and the area at that time was a paradise — full of wild grains, fruits and game. The sheer number of inhabitants would then prompt cultivation of crops and eventual irrigation. This is the new theory scientists are contemplating with the discovery of Gobekli Tepe.

Some 200 of these stone slabs have been unearthed so far, and countless yet to be dug. Standing here gazing at these strange objects, I can only imagine how ingenious those ancient men of 11,000 years ago.

The slabs in wooden crates are important ones, protected from the harsh elements. I’m told they are virtually seldom opened, so I guess only on special occasions people are lucky enough to see the precious reliefs on the stones.

There’s an old olive tree which used to be the landmark for this spot even before the ruins were discovered in the 1990s.

The plains below us must have been very fertile land full of water, fruits and wild animals during the construction of this remarkable complex. Syria is very close, and we occasionally spot patrolling fighters from the Turkish Air Force securing their airspace from the unfortunate civil war currently raging in that country.

The whole hill used to be planted with olives, but since the discovery of Gobekli Tepe, the authorities had bought the land and removed the trees in order to do the digs.

Not too far away I spot another major excavation site. More ancient stone stuctures to be discovered and studied.

On our way out, we say hello to the caretaker — he is the son of the original owner of this land (now deceased) who first spotted suspicious debris and contacted archaelogists, thus leading to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe. Today his young son joins him as he watches over this very important heritage site for all mankind. Our friend Salleh and his lovely Indonesian wife also join in for the pose.

It’s late afternoon as we leave Gobekli Tepe for the drive to Sanliurfa Airport some distance away, through fertile pastures.

It’s a rather modern airport, but not too busy yet. I suppose this part of Turkey is still off-the-beaten track as far as tourism is concerned, but I think in due course it would become a major attraction … befitting its “Land of the Prophets’ moniker. Gobekli Tepe would also be big.

As the sun sets in the winter evening, the airfield looks beautifully desolate as we await our plane to Istanbul.

The Turkish Airlines evening flight is on schedule and soon we are on our way to Istanbul, some 1,000 km away. What a long and very educational day it has been for us!


3 thoughts on “Fascinating Harran and Gobekli Tepe in Southeastern Anatolia

  1. Gobekli tepe is the oldest civilized religious site found indicating civilization began in Turkey around 10,000 to 12,000 BC, until older sites are found in the Indus Valley. This scientific archaeological excavation for this site should be of the highest priority for the Turkish government. This site is only 20 km from Harran, the most fertile area in the southern region of Turkey for thousands of years. There is DNA evidence that farmers from Turkey migrated into Europe and continued the agricultural revolution, but it was in this area of Turkey that grain cultivation and the domestication of livestock originated. V. Gravlin, Florida


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