The beehive-style houses of HARRAN (Altınbaşak), 45km southeast of Urfa, are an established tourist attraction. The village has grown up within the crumbling remnants of the old, 4km circumference walls of a settlement once much more important than Urfa. Harran has strong biblical links, too: according to Genesis 11:31 and 12:4, the patriarch Abraham dwelt here before moving onto Canaan.
These days, Arabs and a few Kurds live amid the ruins of old Harran, surviving by farming the newly irrigated fields and smuggling goods across the Syrian border, 10km south. The stone-built, mud-covered beehive-shaped buildings owe their distinctive shape to the fact that no wood is used as support. Virtually all are now used for storage or animal – not human – habitation.
Harran’s enigmatic ruins exude tragic grandeur, dwarfing the beehive dwellings of the ethnically Arab villagers. Near the jandarma, an artificial tumulus marks the site of the original settlement. Excavations currently under way here, by a team from Ankara University, have revealed the remains of an Umayyad palace. North of the mound, and most impressive of the ruins, is the Ulu Cami, the first mosque ever built on what is now Turkish soil. Its substantial square minaret, originally built in the eighth century, was mistaken for a cathedral belfry by T. E. Lawrence when he passed through in 1909. The layout of the mosque, much rebuilt under the Ayyubid dynasty in the twelfth century, can be made out clearly, though only fragments of its structure survive relatively intact.
The eleventh-century citadel, in the southeast corner of the old walled city, is possibly built on the site of the ancient temple of the moon god Sin. Three of its four polygonal towers have survived reasonably well, but take care scrambling around as there are several holes in the upper part of the structure.
Harran is thought to have been continuously inhabited for at least six thousand years. It became a prosperous trading town under the Assyrians, who turned it into a centre for the worship of Sin, god of the moon; there was a large temple here, later also used by the Sabians. Planet worshippers, they stand accused in some accounts of holding lurid orgies and carrying out human sacrifice, and with the arrival of the Arabs were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. In 53 BC the Roman general Crassus was defeated here, crucified and had molten gold poured into his mouth by the Parthians. Despite this, the Romans later converted Harran into an important centre of learning, a role it continued to play under the Byzantines, then the Arabs, first under the Umayyad dynasty, then the Ayyubid. However, the arrival of the Mongols during the thirteenth century meant devastation.