The name of ŞANLİURFA, or “Glorious Urfa” – most locals just say Urfa – commemorates resistance to the French invasion and occupation of 1918–20. A place of pilgrimage for many religions, and the reputed birthplace of the prophet Abraham, its chief attraction is a beautiful mosque complex, reflected in the limpid waters of a sacred pool. Just as compelling is the town’s distinctly Middle Eastern atmosphere.
Much of the population is Kurdish, a significant minority Arab, and you’ll find the bazaars full of veiled, henna-tattooed women, and men wearing baggy trousers and traditional headdresses. In Turkey this “city of the prophets” has gained a reputation as a focus for Islamic fundamentalism.
Although Urfa is one of Turkey’s fastest-growing cities, thanks largely to the money generated by the GAP project, it still ranks very low (68 out of 81) in terms of socio-economic development. That fact is clear from a walk around its impoverished backstreets, and the number of occasionally annoying ragged urchins working them. Hotels, change-offices and ATMs are all found on the main street of Köprü Başı/Sarayonu Caddesi, which links, via Divan Caddesi, with the bazaar quarter and Pools of Abraham to the south and west.
The Hurri, members of one of Anatolia’s earliest civilizations, built a fortress on the site of Urfa’s present citadel around 3500 BC. Later came the Hittites and Assyrians, but only after the city was re-founded as Edessa by Seleucus Nicator in 300 BC did it eclipse nearby Harran. It later became an important eastern outpost for the Romans against Persia.
From the second century AD, Edessa was a thriving centre of Christianity, and Abgar IV (176–213) made it the world’s first Christian kingdom. The city changed hands between Byzantine and Arab several times; according to Syrian Orthodox legend it was once ransomed for the “mandalyon”, a handkerchief bearing the imprint of Christ. As Byzantine control ebbed, the Arabs moved in, staying until the eleventh century. During the First Crusade, a French count, Baldwin of Boulogne, stopped off en route to Tripoli and the Holy Land to establish the county of Edessa, a short-lived Christian state. In 1144 the Arabs recaptured Edessa, giving the rulers of Europe a pretext to launch the Second Crusade. After being sacked by the Mongols in 1260, Edessa never recovered. The city declined into obscurity and was eventually absorbed as Urfa into the Ottoman Empire in 1637.