Birthplace of Abraham
27 September 2023
Aurora, goddess of Dawn appears over My Nemrut. Zeus and the other heads witness a new day. After my Mediterranean breakfast and Turkish coffee, I am wired. I board our van to drive southeast to Urfa. We leave the province of Adiyaman and drive through the Fertile Crescent of the Euphrates Basin. Historically, this may be one of the most fascinating of the world.
The landscape alternates from arid soil with many rocks to rich fields of grain, cotton, orchards, pistachios and tobacco. Over the eons, this land has witnessed the passage of Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Crusaders, Romans, Byzantines, Kurds, and Ottomans. They came, they conquered, they were plundered and conquered and then were in turn replaced by the stronger invader.
I enter the cradle of civilization.
The Euphrates is the longest river in Western Asia and one of the most historic rivers of Mesopotamia and of the world (the Tigris is the other). It originates to the north at Keban, Turkey, flows southwesterly into Syria and Iraq to empty into the Persian Gulf. Traveling over 1,730 miles through what is otherwise arid lands, the river acts as life-blood of those who live around it.
There are at least 21 dams along its flow used both to control its drop in elevation and to conserve water resources. Today, not only millions of Turks rely on this water source, but the cities of Aleppo, Syria and Baghdad, Iraq benefit from its water and the energy it provides. Survival depends upon all three entities (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) to play nice with each other as Turkey controls the flow and in spite of signed treaties, can reduce or stop the flow of water across the border to Syria as they did in 2014.
Urfa the Glorious
Our destination is Sanliurfa, Urfa the Glorious, an important pilgrimage site for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Sanliurfa is believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, the common Hebrew patriarch of all Abrahamic religions. In the center of the city, atop Dergah Plateau are the ruins of Urfa Castle, a Holy Pool, the large Mevlid-I Halil Mosque, and its attached Cave of Abraham.
For Jews, Abraham is the founding father of Judaism and a direct connection between Jews and God. In Christianity, he is the prophet to whom God chose to reveal himself and with whom God initiated a covenant as told in the Book of Genesis. For Muslims, Ibrāhīm is the prophet whose links begin with Adam and ends with Muhammad and considered the father of Muslims. The Arabic Druze regarded Abraham as the third prophet, following Adam and Noah, who spread the teachings of monotheism.
Mevlid means happy birth. Due to the belief that Prophet Abraham was born in a cave here, the mosque was named Mevlid-i Halil. Many religious structures have occupied this site. First, a temple stood here during the Seleucid Period. A synagogue is also recorded to have been located nearby. Furthermore, during the Byzantine times, Christians built a church, the Urfa Hagia Sophia. Finally, a mosque was constructed on the grounds in 1523.
The site has always been a place for pilgrimage. As a working mosque, strict rules apply to the entire site. There are separate entrances for men and women and all visitors remove shoes and females must wear headscarves. The inconspicuous entrance to the cave is through the courtyard of the mosque. The overall impression of the modest cave does not come close to expressing how important Abraham is to Muslims.
The entrance area has a small room displaying items attributed to Abraham and then through a low entrance is the heart of the cave. The cave’s waters are reported to be medicinal. This is a holy place and the cave has two entrances one for each gender. A plaque reads: “Abraham, peace be upon him, taught people that the stars were only stars; the moon only the moon; the sun only the sun; and that king Nemrud was only a human being.”
Exiting the cave, to show respect, one must back out.
Abraham the Prophet
The legend says, an omen in the stars told cruel King Nimrod /Nemrut of the impending birth of a boy in Sanliurfa who would kill the king and put an end to idolatry. Nimrod therefore orders the killing of all newborn babies. Nimrod, therefore, orders the killing of all newborn babies.
Nona, the mother of Abraham, hid in a cave to give birth and then left him there for seven years. Nona went home. A gazelle breastfed and raised Abraham in the cave which also had a spring. Soldiers eventually found young Abraham and took him before King Nimrod. Without having any suspicions, King Nimrod let Abraham stay and raised him. (And yes, Nemrut/Nimrod, though not particularly a nice ruler, had Mt Nemrut named for him.)
However, Abraham having accepted God and monotheism, confronts Nimrod and his evil ways. Abraham is ordered to be burned at the stake but this event fizzles without harm to Abraham. In another version, Abraham was thrown from a cliff into an inferno. The flames turned to water and the burning wood transformed into carp creating the Pools of Holy Carp.
Balıklıgöl, or the Pool of Abraham, is a rectangular pool about 500 feet long and 100 feet wide and a depth of about 15 feet. It’s turbulent with hungry carp who seem to survive on their laurels. Legend, as mentioned earlier, says this is where Nimrod tossed Abraham to the flames and the firewood turned into these carp.
Considered sacred, people are restricted from catching or eating the carp. However, in an ironic twist, when a late 4th century CE Christian pilgrim visited the city, she noted in her diary that “there were fountains full of fish such as I never saw before, of so great size, so bright and of so good a flavour were they.”
Today the carp have no such worry. Visitors and pilgrims are encouraged to buy pellets to feed them. Thus, the turbulent waters as their greedy mouths beg for food.
Is the legend true? Turkish Muslims claim this is the holy city Ur/Urfa of Abrahams birth. Iraq claims that Ur is located in southern Iraq. Archaeologists have no real evidence for either site.
In 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt was investigating a site known for stone tools and big stele. Göbekli Tepe, Potbelly Hill, became so much more. Schmidt’s discoveries changed scientists’ views of early civilization.
As yet, this neolithic archaeological site is the oldest human-made structure unearthed. It dates between 9,500 and 8,000 BCE. The site is a complex of large circular structures of large stone pillars supporting even larger stones thought to be the world’s oldest megaliths. Basically, megaliths are large stones balanced together creating a primitive structure. Probably the best-known megalith complex is Stonehenge in the U.K. (though Göbekli megaliths are at least 7,000 years older).
A number of these sites exist in southeastern Turkey. They are interpreted to be ceremonial complexes containing mysterious T-shaped stones. In Göbekli, there are at least 20 stone circles, some as large as 65’ in diameter. Some standing stones are over 22’ in height and weigh several tons. Standing stones display carved reliefs of animals, insects and birds. The belief is that these ceremonial stones were erected by hunter-gathers.
Although human features are depicted, no heads can be recognized. Currently, only five of the circles have been excavated. As yet, there is no evidence that humans lived on the site.
Today, the landscape around Göbekli is bleak and barren. But below in the valley, green agricultural fields take advantage of the rich soils of the Fertile Crescent. I imagine lots of sun and blistering heat. It could have been very different 12,000 years ago when early man traveled through this region of Anatolia. Its climate was thought to have been warmer and wetter.
Did my ancestors pass this way on their way north and west? Perhaps they hunted gazelle on the open grasslands, gathered some almonds and pistachios, and lugged some rock up to build Göbekli before they moved on.
From A Happy Birth to A Happy Flight
We depart Urfa the Glorious, site of happy birth, and drive to the Şanlıurfa Airport. A short flight delivers us to Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
We fly Anadolujet, a low-cost regional airline code-shared with Turkish Airlines. Direct flights take just over an hour; indirect flights will consume at minimum 4 hours because they stop first in Istanbul. Regardless, we arrive late to our overnight stay at the Check Inn Hotel outside downtown Ankara. Their rooms are somewhat better than their name. But not much.