Şanlıurfa, Turkey

A biblical city on the border between Turkey & Syria

We arrived in Şanlıurfa (or simply Urfa as locals call it) on a cool and windy night. We had been looking forward to visiting this ancient city that has hosted so many of the world’s oldest civilizations.

From the airport, we took a taxi to Yildiz Square in the old town, within the city walls. It was a Friday evening and the streets were buzzing with people. We had booked a room in a historical mansion called Yıldızsarayı. The taxi driver stopped at the mouth of a narrow, dimly lit, mysterious looking alley and pointed to the end of it, "That's where your hotel is". As we walked past ancient yellowish stone buildings, we could hear "türkü" (traditional Turkish folk music) leaking out of a building far away, possibly our hotel we thought. Women wearing long dresses of lively colours, almost like Indian saris, rushed past us dragging their dolled-up happy children behind them. We could only guess they were hurrying off to a wedding party. The sights, sounds, smells on this short walk from the taxi to our hotel were totally out of this world.

Soon we found that the wedding party was indeed at our hotel. With approximately 300 guests running around, very loud "türkü" blasting in our room, just one single public toilet in the hotel and no en-suite bathrooms, we figured it was not going to be possible to stay here for the entire time. We chucked our bags in the room and went out to discover Urfa by night. We never thought we would find such a lively city after dark. We wandered along crowded streets and found a restaurant still serving dinner. Eager to try our first genuine "Urfa kebab", we entered the restaurant and found a table upstairs. There was a crowd of Turkish tourists downstairs enjoying "sira gecesi", a traditional form of entertainment, originally for men only, where guests sit in a U-shaped row on the floor and get served a number of kebabs and mezes on low wooden tables as a musician plays live traditional music.

The food was delicious but we were tired so we returned to the hotel before too late and tried to get some sleep amidst the noise of the wedding party. The next morning, we got up early, had a good look around the mansion and went out to find a quieter place to stay.

Our noisy mansion
An hour later, we had moved into one of those modern but soulless hotels. Not really our cup of tea, but it was very welcome after an uncomfortable night in the "mansion" . We then went into the old town to see the city's main attraction: the sacred lake known as Balikligol.

Every year approximately one million tourists and pilgrims visit this lake, which is a rectangular natural aquarium with a big population of sacred carp and a fascinating biblical history. It marks the spot where Abraham was thrown into fire by Nimrod, the Mesopotamian king known for his ruthlessness. The fire then turned into water through divine intervention, and the burning coals were transformed into the fish which populate the lake today.

A lot of effort is made by the local authority to keep the sacred fish healthy and their numbers up. Visitors buy fish food from the stalls to feed thesm Women and men wearing the violet headscarves of Urfa and feeding their sacred fish are a sight to see.

We then had "pogaca" and tea for breakfast by the second lake known as Ayn Zeliha (= tears of Zeliha). According to legend, this is where King Nimrod's adopted daughter Zeliha threw herself into fire after her loved one, Abraham. The green and shady park around the lake provides a refuge from the sizzling hot days of Urfa.
After breakfast, we headed off to the covered bazaar. This is the place to buy fabrics, scarves, copperware, "isot" (dark red pepper) and other spices, and of course pistachios!

The bazaar sprawled onto the street. Little boys in Urfa seem to learn a trade from a very young age, such as this one selling tobacco with his father.
After a walk around the bazaar, the best thing to do was to go to "Gumruk Han", the courtyard coffeehouse, for a tiny cup of "mirra", the traditional bitter coffee of Urfa. The trick with mirra is that you need to drink your shot of hot, bitter coffee in one gulp and not put the cup down before you finish it up. If you put it down halfway, you need to pay a fine! There is a great article about mirra at: http://www.letsgoturkey.org/culinary-culture/the-bitter-coffee-of-southeastern-turkey.html .
Afterwards, we simply wandered around in the ancient cobblestone streets of Urfa.
As Urfa is famous for its cuisine, we felt obliged to try their kebabs and mezes! By the end of our trip, we had sampled dozens of them and thought that the best restaurant in town was Gulhan near the mayor's office. Spotless clean and reasonably priced, this restaurant also offers a chance to eat togther with the locals.

Of course, a second visit to the Sacred Lake area after dark was a must. In contrast to the previous windy evening, this one was balmy and still. Mosques were full of people praying, and there was peace in the air. After a short stroll around the lake, we stopped by at Ayn-Zeliha once again for tea.
When we headed back to our hotel that evening, we were not only dizzy with all the different "colors" of this fascinating biblical city but also looking forward to the next day and our trip to Halfeti.

Thanks for stopping by in our blog. If you liked reading about Urfa, you will also enjoy the entries about Halfeti, Harran and Gobeklitepe.

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