It’s a Thursday in November 2008 and I am on my first trip to Sanliurfa, my husband’s birth town.
When we first arrived in Urfa late at night, a power cut had left the city in total darkness. Perhaps, because I was tired from the long journey, I felt uneasy and had commented more than once that I had been kidnapped and taken to Beirut and I did, for a moment consider taken a plane home the following day. Standing there in a dark and oppressive alley, after parking the car, I was moaning but then large Iron gate opened, we walked through a small passageway and I stood in a moonlit stone courtyard complete with a mosaic tile fountain, ottoman seating surrounded by potted ferns. Exotic, enchanting and complete with a wooden bar area (no alcohol) and generator.
The Manager at the ‘Beyzade Konak Hotel’ is Omer, a relative. He shows us to our room and once I have the internet and some coffee, I’m quite happy to stay home alone while Murat catches up with his favorite cousin Mehmet. The shower is boiling hot and just what I need after that long journey. Once the pajamas are on I send a few “I’ve landed” emails, then my head hits the pillow and I sleep so deep, I could be in the cemetery.
As day breaks I realise the hotel is in the middle of two mosques; a dual call to prayer, one just a heartbeat behind the other. I doze for a bit, then remember I am I am actually on holiday and there are shops out there.
We breakfast by the courtyard, a traditional Turkish feast, after which we are awash with cay. Before setting off for the day I nip back to our room and cover my locks with a headscarf, one that matches my skirt of course. It’s a simple gesture of respect while I’m here and among the more traditional relatives. Mu thinks this is great and off we trot, out through the iron gate, down the day lit alley and onto the streets of Sanliurfa.
We emerge onto the main drag and its bustling. Busses and cars fight for space beside the scooters that weave in and out of the traffic and pedestrians dodge in between as they try and cross the road, us included. The air is filled with BBQ spices, pungent & smoky and the smell is everywhere. Small eateries and kebab houses jostle for space alongside clothes shops and jewelers who have 24 karat rays shining from their windows.
There are a few glances my way naturally. It could be the pale skin and the green eyes, or the flip flops and bright red toenails that don’t quite go with the rest of my ensemble. Still, that’s a great excuse to buy shoes isn’t it?
We wander through the maze of connecting alleyways that make up one of the eight covered bazars, into the area where all the electronic shops are. In the first camera shop we find, the salesman shows us his wares and converses with Murat: “Senin Esin mı?”(Your wife), “Yabanci” (a foreigner), “Alman?” (German). Mu confirms the first two and I answer the last; “English” I say, not realising at the time that we will have this conversation many times during our stay. I guess it’s due to my height and build and of course, my great Grandparents, Mr & Mrs Shram!
We buy an Olympus, ‘a compact professional’ the salesman says……. We shall see.
Murat has arranged to meet Cousin Mehmet and Hassan Amca along the road and as we greet them, their first words to me are “Kym, Beirut Nasil?” Very funny! The four of us then continue around the bazaar which contains a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of treasures. I particularly like the thoroughfare full of metal workshops and I watch grime covered workmen, cigarettes balancing on their lower lips, batter copper and solder iron as sparks fly and briefly light the treasures within.
We are slowly making our way to Balikligol and its cay bachesi, passing through the ‘Sipahi’ and ‘Kazzaz’ Bazaar’s; the oldest covered Bazaars of Urfa. Built by the Ottoman Emperor ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’ in 1562, these areas have hardly changed. I step back in time and watch ancient shalvar wearing salesmen as they sit cross legged and bathed in colour in their tented alcoves, drinking tea and putting the world to rights while customers peruse their antique carpets, kilims and hand woven head dresses.
Soon we are at the pilgrimage site; the cave of Abraham. In legend, Babylonian King, ‘Nemrud’ captured Abraham and threw him into fire for calling upon the people to worship the real god and not the icons of celestial objects (Moon God ‘Sin), as was the religion of the time. In legend, God was watching and as Abraham fell into the fire, he turned it into to the water that is now the sacred river. The surrounding trees were turned into fish, the ancestors of which we see today at the site of the “Halil ur Rahmen” Mosque that sits on Balikligol in the center of Urfa.
I buy a dish of pellets and watch the fat feisty fish fight each other for every tiny morsel;
I take a look at my photos and they are amazing. The camera has effectively captured emotive shots of men at prayer, intricate engravings, carvings, minarets and a surprisingly green landscape (a lot of these are in my photo gallery). It is a beautiful town, full of life and color and nothing at all like I first imagined.
Back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes (different skirt, matching headscarf) after which we meet Mehmet and wander toward the castle. Halfway up the stone steps, we veer to the left and approach the entrance to ‘Cift Magara’, a natural cave formation that has been turned into a café.
We sit at the back on Ottoman cushions and order Pide and Cay. The walls are covered in kilims and memorabilia and I glance up at the sign we are sitting under.
It roughly translates as: ‘How you sit depicts your character’. At the time, it was just a sign but over the years I’ve come to understand how those words reflect in the culture of the South East. Wherever we are with the relatives at dinner, my legs are crossed and should my skirt rise above my ankles, it doesn’t matter as underneath are a pair of leggings which successfully cover those ankles. Should we be relaxing and lounging around on the floor, backs slouched against the cushions, legs straight and extended and a visitor should arrive, that back will be straightened and those legs pulled back into sitting position and if that visitor should be an Amca, then we will all stand up until he himself has sat down. These traditions are now instilled in me and automatic and the one most noticeable, that gives me away is the call to prayer. No matter where I am and no matter whose company I am in, immediately I will sit up straight, uncross my legs, put down my cigarette and leave my drink untouched until it has finished.
I would highly recommend a visit to Sanliurfa to anyone that loves ancient history and culture and there really is no need, as a tourist, to cover your hair. I do it purely because of the family elders that live there. However, as innocent as it may seem to you, it is very offensive to wander around in shorts, low cut tops and sleeveless vests so if you do go, you will have a far better experience if you use ‘respect’ as your trip keyword.
My adventure continues and next I will tell you about our little planned road trip to Hasankeyf that was hijacked by Yilmaz Amca who then insisted we visit the Veysel Karani Mosque in……..Siirt!