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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

With a Name like "Glorious Urfa," It's Got to be Good!
March 22, 2000

The call to prayer rings out from behind me, loud and sharp: "Allah Akbar!" Then, in front of me, a second call sounds, and from both sides, a third. Singing-echoing off the tall cliff wall and across the open gardens-everything becomes still for these few minutes, while the air is filled with the song of the Muezzin (a Muslim crier who calls the hour of daily prayers.) Pigeons flutter in the air, their wings catching the last glows of rosy red.

Women pass me on the white stone walkway, only their hands and faces visible beneath their flowing gowns and scarves. Men move quickly to their entrance into the mosque behind me. They glance my way, whispering among themselves about "that foreign woman." Several of them even stop to talk to me, wanting to know where I'm from and eager to practice their English.

We're just west of the Tigris River, the "Cradle of Civilization," where history and mythology are inexorably intertwined. This is Sanliurfa or, "Glorious Urfa," a town said to have been founded by Noah himself, after the floodwaters receded. Others say Enoch, the son of Cain and the grandson of Adam and Eve, started the first city here. However you look at it, this place is OLD! This is where the patriarch Abraham -the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims-is said to have been born, and a major pilgrimage site for Muslims.

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I arrived this morning and, I must admit, I was pretty disappointed at first. The town is large, industrial, dingy and drab. "This is 'Glorious' Urfa?!" I thought. We're close to the Syrian border now, and I quickly noticed the Arab and Kurdish influence. The southeast is a poorer, more conservative part of Turkey than Istanbul, where we've been staying. Here most women wear veils that cover their hair, and sometimes even their mouths, and they all wear very modest dresses-never pants. Many men wear the typical Arabic checkered kafiyyahs.

I dropped off my stuff in a dingy, cheap hotel and decided to go exploring. The main street, Ataturk Bulavari, is bustling with vendors, shoeshine boys, busses and even the occasional donkey cart. At the end, there's a huge, bustling bazaar, where anything and everything is for sale. It's built around seven old caravansari, or caravan hotels, where the camel caravans would stop and rest on their long journey along the Silk Road from Istanbul to China.

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I took my bearings, checked the map and plunged into the labyrinth of winding passageways lined with colorful shops. Everything under the sun is for sale here, from shampoo to spices, knives to baby shoes, electronic devices to Koranic verses. Men called to me, trying to lure me in to look at their wares.

I entered a caravansari through a huge doorway, large enough to admit a camel fully laden with consumer goods. Today, the courtyard is full of men sitting around tables, drinking tea and playing cards, dominoes or chess. Around the top level, where the "hotel rooms" used to be, tailors have set up shop, making clothes to order. Yet another friendly young man wanting to practice his English invited me in for a cup of tea and a game of chess, but I declined and moved on. I wanted to see the main attraction-the park with the sacred pools of carp and the mosques, with an old fortress looking down over it all.

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The bazaar let out onto the wide stone walkway in front of the mosque and Koranic school that were built around the cave where Abraham is said to have been born. A little boy fell into step beside me, trying to sell me some sort of little black leather pouch (I learned later that it contained a bit of Koranic verse to be worn around the neck). I kept shaking my head, which means I don't understand, and saying "hayir," which means "no," but he wouldn't leave me. A bearded man finally said something to the kid and gave him a quick shake of his head and a click of his tongue. The boy left me alone. The man's wife, dressed from head to toe in black, only her hands and eyes visible, giggled. Their little daughter beamed up at me, with the same sparkling eyes as her mother.

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I smiled back at them and said, "Tesekkur ederim" or "thank you very much." If I was surprised to hear a giggle come from underneath the black scarf, I was even more blown away when her sweet voice said, "Hello!" Until now, these completely veiled women have seemed so serious, mysterious and impenetrable that I was surprised she spoke to me-and in English! Another stereotype shattered, as I discover that the world is populated by real people, even if they do dress differently! Duh!

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Bedriye and I became fast friends, and her precious daughter Kevser won my heart without any words spoken. Along with her husband Kadir, Bedriye and Kevser are in Sanliurfa as tourists, too. They live in Turkey, but farther west. Together, we headed up the hillside steps to visit the old fortress and to look out over the sacred park below, and at the sprawling city in the distance.

This is the hill where the ancient Assyrian king Nimrod had a giant throne built, so he could look out over the plain, just as we were doing. Muslim legend has it that Nimrod's paganism was threatened by this Abraham guy who was preaching about ONE God, so Nimrod had Abraham thrown from the top of this mountain into a raging fire below. God was quite fond of Abraham, though, so He made the fire turn into water and the coals turn into fishes. Abraham was saved.


inexorably - not to be persuaded
patriarch - a man who is father or founder
pilgrimage - a journey to a shrine or sacred place
impenetrable - unable to be penetrated or pierced

After wandering around the ruins of the Ottoman fortress, we said goodbye, and since then I've been sitting here watching people feed the giant carp in the sacred pools in the park below the hill. I've never seen so many fish-and big fish-in such a confined place! Because the carp are considered sacred, everyone wants to feed them but no one will eat them. When someone throws food into the water, it's like the water is alive with dozens of fins sticking out. Sometimes they pile up so thick that an entire fish will wiggle out of the water on the backs of the other fish! Weird!

With the last rays of sun, I leave the park and head back out into the crowded city. I smile to myself, remembering my adventures of the day. "'Glorious' Urfa!" I think. "Now I get it!"


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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