A Tale in Red: A dam, Abraham’s birthplace, sacred fish and Lots of ancient history

Şanlıurfa, 8 – 10/11/2011

It was hotter than summer in Brazil, where I lived then, and I was happy to have a car with an air conditioner to keep the hot outside. The landscape around us was dry; the colours made me think about the desert in other places I had visited. 

Soon, however, that would change. After a took the modern road and crossing under a vast and contemporary bridge, we arrived at one of the marvels of Turkish Engineering.

The Atatürk Dam is Located around 80 kilometres northwest of Şanlıurfa; the Atatürk Dam is an impressive feat of modern engineering and an important symbol of Turkey’s development. Completed in 1990 as a part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the dam stands 169 meters tall and 1,820 meters wide, making it one of the largest dams in the world. Spanning the Euphrates River, the Atatürk Dam has played a crucial role in the region’s economic growth and in improving the quality of life for its inhabitants.

The Atatürk Dam’s primary function is hydroelectric power generation, with its power plant boasting a capacity of 2,400 megawatts. This clean and renewable energy source has significantly impacted the region, helping to meet the growing electricity demands of Turkey and contributing to the country’s overall energy independence.

The dam has also been instrumental in transforming the region’s agricultural sector. The Atatürk Dam has turned vast stretches of arid land into fertile, productive fields by providing a stable water supply for irrigation. This has led to a substantial increase in crop yields and diversification, contributing to the region’s economic growth and improving the livelihoods of local farmers. The dam’s reservoir, Lake Atatürk, also serves as an essential water source for the surrounding area, helping to sustain communities and ecosystems.

In addition to its economic and environmental benefits, the Atatürk Dam has also become an attraction in its own right, drawing tourists and locals alike who wish to marvel at its massive scale and engineering prowess. The dam offers a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, including the expansive Lake Atatürk, a popular spot for boating, fishing, and birdwatching. The area around the dam also offers opportunities for hiking and picnicking, making it an ideal destination for a day trip from Şanlıurfa.

The blue water and the magnificent structure of the dam wondered me. There was also a monument for the people who lost their lives while building a significant network. The gardens had many flowers, making an interesting contrast between the concrete and nature.

Leaving the modern dam behind, we follow to a place built in the past. Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe, located about 15 kilometres northeast of Şanlıurfa, is an enigmatic archaeological site that fascinates scholars and visitors alike. Dating back to around 9600–7000 BCE, this ancient site predates Stonehenge by over 6,000 years and is considered one of the world’s oldest known temples. Its discovery has fundamentally transformed our understanding of the Neolithic era and the development of human civilisation.

Göbekli Tepe consists of several circular and oval-shaped enclosures featuring massive, T-shaped limestone pillars arranged in concentric circles. Some of these pillars weigh up to 20 tons and stand up to 6 meters tall, making their construction an extraordinary feat for a society that predated metal tools and the wheel. Intricate carvings of animals and abstract symbols adorn many of the pillars, showcasing the sophisticated artistic skills of the site’s builders.

Göbekli Tepe’s discovery has challenged long-held assumptions about the origins of human civilisation. Before its unearthing, it was believed that the development of agriculture and the establishment of permanent settlements preceded the construction of temples and large-scale religious structures. However, Göbekli Tepe predates the advent of agriculture, suggesting that the urge to build sacred spaces may have been a driving force in forming early human communities.

While much about Göbekli Tepe remains mysterious, the site offers valuable insights into its builders’ spiritual beliefs and practices. The intricate carvings of animals and abstract symbols on the pillars suggest a complex belief system and a deep connection to the natural world. Some researchers believe that Göbekli Tepe may have served as a ceremonial centre where people from surrounding communities gathered to participate in religious rituals, feasts, and other social activities.

In recent years, efforts have been made to preserve and protect Göbekli Tepe for future generations. A protective canopy has been installed to shield the site from the elements, and ongoing excavations continue to reveal new insights into the lives and beliefs of the people who built this enigmatic temple.

I was fascinated with the carvings and immense pillars on the site, and there was that sensation of being out of time when confronted with our distant past. But Urfa, as Şanlıurfa is called, had much more to enchant me. 

The next stop is Şanlıurfa.

Tucked away in the southeastern region of Turkey lies the captivating city of Şanlıurfa, a hidden gem waiting to be explored. Steeped in history, Şanlıurfa is a treasure trove of ancient ruins, legends of prophets, and vibrant culture. This city will transport you back in time as you immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of its past. Read on to discover why Şanlıurfa should be the next destination on your travel bucket list!

A Tale of Prophets and Kings Şanlıurfa, also known as “Urfa,” is believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history dating back over 10,000 years. The city is a mosaic of different civilisations, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Romans, and Byzantines. This rich history has bestowed the city with a unique blend of ancient ruins and fascinating legends.

Revered as the “City of Prophets,” Şanlıurfa holds a special place in the hearts of many. It is said to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a central figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The city is also linked to other prophets, such as Job and Moses, adding to its spiritual allure.

Our first stop was a restaurant where I could taste a delicious pide and ayran. After our sumptuous lunch, we had the famous çay and explored the city.

First, we stop in Balıklıgöl. A visit to Şanlıurfa would not be complete without experiencing the beauty of Balıklıgöl, a complex of two sacred pools teeming with fish. Legend has it that when Abraham was thrown into the fire by the tyrannical King Nimrod, God transformed the flames into the water and the burning logs into fish. Today, the pools are considered holy, and the fish are protected and revered by locals and visitors.

Naturally, the guide (Fırat) suggests buying food to feed the fish. It was a simple and funny moment that made me forget the temperature was 50ºC.

From the fishes, we moved to the mosque complex. 

The Mevlid-i Halil Mosque in Şanlıurfa holds a special place in the hearts of locals and visitors thanks to its historical and religious significance. It is believed that Prophet Abraham was born in the cave next to it; the mosque was named Mevlid-i Halil Mosque. According to available sources, the building has gone through five major phases. First, a temple was built on the site during the Seleucid Period. In the Judaism period, a synagogue in the same area is mentioned. In the first period of Christianity, in 150 AD, a Christian church was built in the same place. In the Byzantine Period, the Urfa Hagia Sophia was built in this area. Finally, a mosque was built in the same area by Muhammed Salih Pasha in 1523 during the Ottoman period. 

Mevlid-i Halil Mosque, which has a rectangular plan, was converted into a mosque on the wall between the cave and a small minaret. In addition, two more minarets were added to the southeast and northwest corners of the mosque. According to its inscriptions, the mosque;  was repaired by Muhammed Mes’ud (1816) and Mahmut’s son Mahmut (1852); Rooms were added to the courtyard of the mosque by Urfalı Ahmet Bican Pasha (1855) and Derviş Musa (1887). The Mevlid-i Halil Mosque was last restored in 1951 with the support of the public under the presidency of the Sufi Sheikh Müslüm Hafız from Urfa. The public accepts that the Mevlid-i Halil Cave’s water is the most healing after Zamzam.

Şanlıurfa Castle, while much of the original structure has been lost over time, its two remaining Corinthian columns from the Roman era offer a glimpse into the past. The castle also provides panoramic city views, making it a perfect spot for photography enthusiasts.

Museum of Şanlıurfa To truly appreciate the history and culture of Şanlıurfa, a visit to the Museum of Şanlıurfa is a must. This modern museum houses a wealth of artefacts from the region’s ancient civilisations, including the famous 12,000-year-old statue of Balıklıgöl, the oldest known life-sized human sculpture. The museum’s well-curated exhibits provide a comprehensive understanding of the area’s history, from the Palaeolithic period to the Ottoman Empire.

The Alluring Bazaars and Cuisine

The charm of Şanlıurfa extends beyond its ancient wonders as you meander through its bustling bazaars and sample the delectable local cuisine. A Rich Artistic Heritage, The city of Şanlıurfa has a long and storied history of traditional crafts, with skilled artisans passing down their knowledge and techniques through generations. The city’s bustling bazaars and markets are a treasure trove of exquisite handicrafts, reflecting the region’s rich artistic heritage. From intricate textiles and copperware to delicate jewellery and traditional pottery, Şanlıurfa offers a unique shopping experience that will immerse you in its vibrant creative culture.

Textiles are essential to Şanlıurfa’s artistic heritage, with various traditional fabrics and embroidery techniques on display. The region is renowned for its hand-woven kilims and carpets, featuring intricate geometric patterns and vibrant colours reflecting the city’s diverse cultural influences. Scarves, shawls, and other garments made from silk or cotton are also popular, often adorned with delicate lacework, beadwork, or gold and silver thread embroidery. Exploring the city’s bustling textile markets, you’ll find a treasure trove of unique, handmade pieces that make perfect souvenirs or gifts.

The skilled coppersmiths of Şanlıurfa have long been celebrated for their exceptional craftsmanship, producing a wide range of intricately designed items, from decorative trays and coffee pots to kitchen utensils and traditional lanterns. As you wander through the city’s markets, you’ll come across workshops where you can watch these artisans hammering and shaping the metal with precision and skill. The beautiful, handcrafted copperware of Şanlıurfa makes for a unique and lasting keepsake that will remind you of your time in this enchanting city.

The traditional jewellery of Şanlıurfa is characterised by its intricate designs and exceptional craftsmanship, often incorporating semi-precious stones and delicate filigree work. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings made from gold or silver are popular, often featuring motifs inspired by the city’s diverse cultural heritage. You’ll find exquisite pieces for a perfect, timeless souvenir or gift as you browse the glittering displays in the city’s bazaars.

Şanlıurfa has a rich tradition of pottery and ceramics, with skilled artisans creating beautiful, functional pieces that reflect the city’s ancient history. Traditional pottery in the region is characterised by its earthy tones, often adorned with simple yet striking geometric patterns or floral motifs. From decorative vases and plates to practical cooking utensils, the pottery of Şanlıurfa is a testament to the city’s enduring connection to its past and the timeless nature of its craftsmanship.

A Feast for the Senses.

The cuisine of Şanlıurfa is as diverse and vibrant as its people, offering a delectable fusion of flavours that reflect the city’s rich cultural tapestry. Rooted in centuries-old traditions and influenced by the various civilisations that have passed through the region, Urfa’s culinary scene is a delightful blend of Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, and Armenian flavours. From mouthwatering kebabs to scrumptious desserts, visiting Şanlıurfa is a culinary journey that will tantalise your taste buds and leave you craving more.

No trip to Şanlıurfa would be complete without indulging in the city’s famous Urfa kebab. This succulent, grilled dish is made from ground lamb or beef, expertly seasoned with spices, onions, and garlic. Unlike the spicy Adana kebab, the Urfa kebab is known for its more subtle and savoury flavours, a true delight for meat lovers. Enjoy this delicious dish with fluffy rice wrapped in soft lavash bread and a refreshing shepherd’s salad.

Another popular dish in Şanlıurfa is çiğ köfte, which translates to “raw meatball.” Traditionally made with raw, minced meat mixed with bulgur wheat, tomato paste, and a blend of spices, this dish is now often prepared without meat due to food safety regulations. Despite its name, the meatless version of çiğ köfte is a flavoursome and satisfying treat, often served as an appetiser or snack wrapped in lettuce leaves and drizzled with pomegranate molasses.

Şanlıurfa’s culinary repertoire also includes a variety of hearty soups and stews, perfect for warming up on a chilly evening. One local favourite is Lebanese, a comforting soup from yoghurt, rice, chickpeas, and finely chopped vegetables seasoned with mint and red pepper flakes. Another popular option is the meaty and flavoursome tandır kebabı, a slow-cooked lamb stew that melts in your mouth, best enjoyed with fresh, crusty bread.

The culinary journey through Şanlıurfa would not be complete without sampling some of the city’s delightful desserts. The rich and gooey künefe, made from thin strands of dough (kadayıf) filled with sweet cheese and soaked in syrup, is a must-try treat. Baklava, another popular dessert, features layers of flaky pastry filled with crushed nuts and syrup, making it the perfect indulgence to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Another visit that made an impression was Harran.

Harran, located approximately 45 kilometres southeast of Şanlıurfa, is another historical site that shouldn’t be missed. This ancient city was once a thriving trade, science, and culture hub. The archaeological ruins of the old city walls, the Harran Grand Mosque, and the remains of the world’s first Islamic university make it an essential stop for history enthusiasts.

The ancient city of Harran is renowned for its unique and striking beehive-shaped houses. These iconic dwellings showcase the ingenuity and adaptability of the region’s inhabitants, who have relied on local materials and traditional building techniques to create sustainable and comfortable homes for thousands of years. Made primarily from mud bricks and featuring conical, domed roofs, these distinctive houses blend harmoniously with the landscape and provide a fascinating insight into the architectural heritage of southeastern Turkey.

The design of the beehive houses in Harran is visually captivating and highly functional. The thick mud brick walls and the conical domes work together to provide natural insulation, keeping the interiors cool during the scorching summer months and warm during the cooler winter. Additionally, the lack of flat surfaces on the domes prevents water from accumulating on the roofs, ensuring that the houses remain structurally sound in the face of heavy rainfall. The beehive houses of Harran stand as a testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of the region’s inhabitants, who have skillfully harnessed their environment’s natural properties to build aesthetically pleasing and practical dwellings.

The Sacred Site of the Prophet Eyyub

We wondered in a place full of simplicity. There was a small groceries store with bread being sold, people roaming and a mosque. It was then that Firat told about the Prophet Eyyub.

The city of Şanlıurfa is known for its rich religious history, with deep connections to the Abrahamic faiths. Among the many sacred sites in the region is the Prophet Eyyub’s (Job in the Bible) shrine and cave, revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. The story of the Prophet Eyyub is one of unwavering faith and patience in the face of immense suffering and adversity. His shrine serves as a poignant reminder of the virtues of steadfastness and perseverance.

The Shrine of the Prophet Eyyub is located on the outskirts of Şanlıurfa and consists of a mosque, a courtyard, and a cave. The mosque features a simple yet elegant design, with a minaret that stands out against the surrounding landscape. Within the yard, you’ll find a sacred spring believed to have healing properties, particularly for skin ailments. Many visitors collect water from this spring, hoping to benefit from its curative powers.

The most significant feature of the site is the cave where the Prophet Eyyub is said to have lived during his time of suffering and trials. According to Islamic tradition, Eyyub was a wealthy and prosperous man who lost everything, including his health, family, and possessions. Despite these hardships, Eyyub remained steadfast in his faith and patience, and his story served as a powerful lesson in perseverance and devotion.

The shrine of the Prophet Eyyub attracts pilgrims and visitors from around the world who come to pay their respects and seek solace in the serene atmosphere of the site. You’ll be immersed in profound spirituality as you explore the grounds and visit the cave. The shrine offers a quiet, contemplative space for prayer, meditation, and reflection. It is an ideal destination for those seeking a deeper connection to their faith or a moment of tranquillity amid the bustling city.

Other hidden gems

Sovereign Forest (Sovereign Oak): A Natural Wonder. If you’re a nature lover, visiting the Sovereign Forest should be on your Şanlıurfa itinerary. Located approximately 20 kilometres south of the city, this centuries-old oak forest is a protected natural area and home to the impressive Sovereign Oak. The majestic oak tree, estimated to be around 1,000 years old, has a trunk circumference of 8 meters and stands tall at 30 meters, making it one of the oldest and largest trees in the region. The Sovereign Forest is an idyllic spot for picnics and nature walks, offering a serene escape from bustling city life.

Aydınlar (Yenidoğan) Cave: An Underground Adventure. Explore the hidden depths of Şanlıurfa by visiting the Aydınlar (Yenidoğan) Cave, an ancient, multi-levelled cave system located about 40 kilometres west of the city. This natural wonder, believed to have been used for habitation and religious purposes, offers a unique subterranean adventure. As you venture through its labyrinth of chambers, you’ll encounter fascinating stalactite formations and marvel at the secrets hidden beneath the earth.

The Şanlıurfa Pigeon Houses: A Symbol of Peace and Love. The Şanlıurfa Pigeon Houses is another lesser-known attraction that adds to the city’s charm. These beautifully constructed dovecotes, built into the cliffsides or atop tall buildings, serve as homes for the region’s pigeons. The locals of Şanlıurfa have a special connection with these birds, viewing them as symbols of peace and love and messengers of good news. Many pigeon houses are adorned with intricate geometric designs and patterns, making them fascinating works of art. Watching the pigeons take flight against the backdrop of the city’s skyline is a truly captivating sight.

Festivals and Cultural Events: To truly immerse yourself in the rich culture of Şanlıurfa, consider timing your visit to coincide with one of the city’s vibrant festivals or cultural events. The Şanlıurfa Culture and Art Festival showcases traditional music, dance, and local handicrafts, offering a unique insight into the region’s heritage. Sıra Gecesi” in Şanlıurfa generally, on winter nights, young people in the age group close to each other, or groups of friends in middle age, are held in another friend’s house every week, one evening a week according to a certain quality and layout. “Sıra Gecesi”  is a meeting where a group of friends come together once a week.


One of the most memorable aspects of Şanlıurfa is undoubtedly the warmth and hospitality of its people. The population of Şanlıurfa, estimated to be around 2 million, is a diverse mix of ethnic groups, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Armenians. This melting pot of cultures has given rise to a vibrant community prides itself on its welcoming nature.

As you wander through the bustling markets and ancient streets of Şanlıurfa, you’ll be greeted with friendly smiles and genuine curiosity from the locals. It’s not uncommon for travellers to be invited into homes for a cup of tea or even a meal, as the people of Şanlıurfa firmly believe in the importance of hospitality and making visitors feel at home.

Language and Communication While Turkish is the official language of Şanlıurfa, you’ll also hear various dialects and languages spoken throughout the city, such as Kurdish, Arabic, and Zaza. Although English is not widely spoken, the locals are eager to communicate and assist visitors, often using gestures and body language to bridge the language gap. Learning a few basic phrases in Turkish will go a long way in helping you connect with the people and enhance your experience in Şanlıurfa.

The diverse population of Şanlıurfa is also reflected in its people’s traditional customs and attire. In many parts of the city, mainly rural areas, you’ll see locals dressed in traditional clothing. Women often wear vibrant headscarves and long, flowing dresses, while men may be seen in baggy pants, embroidered vests, and traditional headgear, such as the turban or the shepherd’s keffiyeh.

The coexistence of various religious and ethnic groups has given Şanlıurfa a unique atmosphere of harmony and tolerance. The city’s numerous mosques, churches, and synagogues symbolise this unity, and the locals are proud of their diverse heritage. This harmonious blending of traditions and beliefs makes Şanlıurfa an extraordinary place to visit, offering a glimpse into a world where different cultures and religions come together in peace and understanding.

%d bloggers like this: