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.
The small village of Yuvacalı, set amid bleached fields of wheat, lentils and chickpeas, huddles at the foot of a prominent settlement mound as ancient as nearby Göbekli Tepe, not far from the market town of Hilvan. Here you can stay in a Kurdish village home (€35 per day full-board), eat with the family, sleep beneath the stars on the flat-roof of the family home, and try your hand at milking sheep and baking unleavened village bread. You’ll also be introduced to Kurdish history and culture, taken on a 1hr 30min walk around the village and its ruins, and perhaps walk a part of the waymarked Abraham Path (wabrahampath.org), which starts here.
The homestay is part of a responsible tourism project set up by village-born Omer Tanık and his English wife Alison. The host families keep all the money they receive from guests, as do the drivers on the couple’s well-regarded Nomad Tours (t0533 747 1850, wnomadtoursturkey.com). Guests are asked to make a small donation to the project. The money goes straight into the local community and has, for example, helped to set up a pre-school in the village. Booking ahead is essential; accommodation can and does fill up.
To get to Yuvacalı, catch a bus from Urfa’s otogar to Hilvan (TL5), where, if you call Nomad Tours in advance, someone from the village will meet you. With your own transport follow the D-885 to Hilvan (the Siverek/Diyarbakır road) and turn right (signed Gölcuk) at the second set of lights. After a few kilometres, take the second left to Yuvacalı.
Set where the southern foothills of the Toros Mountains fade into the scorching flatlands of upper Mesopotamia, Göbekli Tepe (Hill of the Navel) ranks among Turkey’s most intriguing archeological sites. Here, on a hilltop 870m above sea level, stands a man-made mound some 300m in diameter and 15m high, containing a series of circular enclosures, carbon-dated to between 9500 and 7500 BC.
The enclosures have burnt-lime floors and are lined with stone benches, but most remarkably contain a series of T-shaped monoliths, the tallest of which are 5m high. Clearly anthropomorphic, many of the monoliths are liberally covered with incredible relief carvings of wild animals, from scorpions and snakes to lions and wild boar. The enclosures were almost certainly used for cult purposes and the site is much hyped as the “world’s first temple”.
Göbekli Tepe also appears to disprove the theory that only settled societies were capable of producing monumental buildings and sophisticated art. Most of the work here was done when man was still in the hunter-gatherer stage of development – no evidence has been found of human settlement. An unsightly protective roof was removed in 2011 and a new wooden walkway added, allowing visitors to walk right around the main enclosures.
Sira geceleri (literally “nights by turn”) were originally informal gatherings of male friends at one of their homes, where a meal and conversation were accompanied by traditional live music. The idea was picked up by several Urfa restaurants (each invariably sited in an old courtyard house), and now “guests” pay for the experience, sitting cross-legged at a low sofra table and tucking into a banquet of speciality local dishes while being serenaded by a traditional band. Three of the best venues are listed here.
Selahhattin Eyyub Camii Karşısı t 0414 215 9377, w cevahirkonukevi.com. Probably the best, and certainly the dearest (TL50 for the set menu of eight different dishes). Wed, Fri & Sat from 8pm.
Sarayönü Cad, İrfaniye Sok t 0414 215 0505. Lovely old mansion set below the towering Ulu Cami minaret, with TL35 set menu, and, usually, two sira geceleri each week. Wed & Sat from 8pm.
Yorgancı Sok t 0414 216 9494, w yildizsaraykonukevi.com. Courtyard mansion with a good reputation, TL35 for the set menu. Performances usually Wed, Fri & Sun from 8pm.