Sanliurfa: City of Prophets
Located in south-eastern Turkey and in the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent, anl urfa (or Urfa, as the locals call it) is a city with a truly ancient pedigree. More ancient, in fact, than almost any place on earth. There is evidence of continuous human habitation going back as far as 10,000 BCE and the oldest, monumental, freestanding (and life-sized) image of a human being, the enigmatic “Urfa Man” or “Bal klig l statue” dating back about 12,000 years, was discovered in the city’s central Yeni Mahalle district opposite the ancient citadel which dominates the Urfa skyline. The Yeni Mahalle district is an area of numerous natural springs and a water course, which attracted a number of Neolithic settlements, the route of which took in the site of Haleplibah e, the modern day Bal kl g l and looped around to the old bazaar district. Essentially, this is historic Urfa. The stream feeding these springs, the Karakoyun
Deresi (the Black Sheep Creek) was above ground until 525 CE until it was blocked and re-routed by a dam built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. This Justinian public works programme is one of the earliest flood control systems for which we have extensive information. The loop of the Karakoyun and the saddle formed by the river was an obvious place for settlement during the Neolithic period and the evidence of a Neolithic settlement is considerable. Apart from Urfa Man a number of buildings with terrazzo floors, several “T” shaped anthropomorphic stele similar to findings at other sites in the region and significant quantities of flint tools along with the remains of flint-tool manufacture were found during urban regeneration projects. Something important is discovered with each new urban development.
However, the gully formed by the river was prone to flash flooding and while this was not significant for the low-density Neolithic settlements on the slopes of the hill, as population densities grew it did become a problem. There are records of a serious flood in November of 201 CE in which about 2,000 people were killed. Another flood was recorded in 301 which demolished a large section of the city walls, another in April 413 caused
extensive damage in the city, while in April of 525 a major flood occurred partially destroying a royal palace and killing, according to one account of the time, about 30,000 people. It was this event that resulted in the dam project which rerouted the body of the river away from the old city. A subterranean river, reduced in volume, remains to feed the Pools of Abraham and the bazaar district before it rejoins the new river course east of the city. The footings for the dam and a number of important aqueducts which channelled the water flow across Urfa’s numerous gullies, can still be seen today to the north and north-east of the city centre. While later floods did occur, the last as recently as 1928, there was nothing that matched the catastrophic scale of the floods prior to Justinian’s great flood control project.
Ancient sites surround Urfa
Just a few kilometres outside the city there is G bekli Tepe, the Stone Age sanctuary which dates back to around 10,000 BCE or even earlier. G bekli Tepe, like no other site, establishes the great age and unexpected sophistication of human habitation around Urfa. Gobekli Tepe is the oldest example of monumental architecture to be discovered and it is remarkable to consider that more time separates the builders of Stonehenge from the last builders at Gobekli Tepe than separates us from the builders of Stonehenge. Archaeologists believe that the last enclosures at Gobekli Tepe were buried and finally abandoned in around 8,000 BCE and that it was used as a religious and ceremonial sanctuary for about 2,500 years, which is a greater time than that which separates us from the birth of Christ. At Gobekli Tepe we see evidence of an enigmatic, elusive faith and a culture that lasted longer than the time Christianity has existed but which simply vanished without trace, only to re-emerge in recent times.
Not far from there is the settlement site of Nevali Çori now beneath the waters created by the great Ataturk dam on the Euphrates, but which yielded a huge quantity of artefacts from the monumental to the personal and which dates from a similar period. In fact, right across the Urfa region there are many early Neolithic sites which have been identified but which are yet to be excavated.
A mere 100 kilometres away as the crow flies, lies the Karacada shield volcano and the place where the very first domesticated wheat comes from. Everything seems to begin in this ancient place between the two great rivers of the Euphrates and the Tigris.
Muslim tradition identifies Urfa as the biblical city of Ur of the Chaldees and, therefore the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. While this may be disputed, what isn’t questioned is
Abraham’s residence in nearby Harran which is mentioned in the Book of Genesis.
Tradition also identifies Urfa as the birthplace of the biblical Job and it is from these ancient religious connections that Urfa derives its sobriquet as “The City of Prophets.” Urfa, then called Edessa, also has the distinction of being the first state to formally accept Christianity as its official religion and while the circumstances of this event are shrouded in mythology, we can say that Christianity was firmly established as the dominant faith in the city by around 190 CE and that one of the early Christian councils was held here in 197 CE. However, it was the city’s Syriac ruler Abgar I (177-212) who gets the credit. Islam arrived in 638 in the first surge of the new faith out of its Arabian homeland. Edessa was taken and held between 1098 and 1150 by the Crusaders as an independent Crusader state known as the County of Edessa; the Catholic Church still lists a titular Bishopric of Edessa in Osrhoene, a faint historical echo.
With the fall of the Crusader states and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Urfa became a permanent Muslim city under a succession of Muslim dynasties culminating in the Turkish Seljuks, the Mongols, the Mamluks and finally , from 1517, the Ottomans. The Sultan who took Edessa for the Ottomans was Sultan Selim I, otherwise known as “The Grim.” Following his success at Edessa, Sultan Selim continued his campaign to Cairo where he finally crushed the Mamluks and incorporated their territory into the Ottoman Empire. This had followed on the heels of a successful campaign against Persia that was settled by the battle of Çalderan in eastern Turkey, near biblical Mt. Ararat, in 1514.
This is an important sequence of events that still resonates to this day because these two campaigns conducted by Selim I more or less set the boundaries between Shia and Sunni Islam, divisions which are still being played out in the first decades of our current century. However, there is still a sizeable Christian community across the region even today.
The Old City of Urfa
A short walk from the museum complex is the Bal kl g l district at the base of Urfa’s citadel. The citadel, as we see it today, was constructed in the early ninth century CE during the Abbasid period. However, it is constructed on a Neolithic site dating back to about 10,000 BCE. This point has clearly been used as a defensive position for thousands of years but prior to the sixth century there is no documentary reference to a formal fortification. The Abbasid citadel we see today is built on a natural promontory and with the help of a considerable piece of engineering, was literally
Gobekli Tepe is the oldest example of monumental architecture to be discovered and it is remarkable to consider that more time separates the builders of Stonehenge from the last builders at Gobekli Tepe than separates us from the builders of Stonehenge
Previously: The pools of Abraham (All images in this article are by Nick Kropacek/ Alkans Tours unless otherwise stated) Above: The ancient site of Gobekli Tepe (Image: Rolfcosar CC BY-SA 3.0) The site is now covered to protect it