Şanlıurfa, El Ruha, Edessa, Riha or perhaps just plain old Urfa (as it’s most commonly referred to) is a welcome surprise. The drive in from the airport, however, is not encouraging.. An imposing and ugly housing boom has left much of the outer fringe of modern Urfa looking like a victim of its own success. Then, however, you penetrate that encircling ugliness and find an ancient land associated with the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim and the local traditions of its Kurdish population as well as a very large Arabic minority and you begin to sense that you’re in for something different and possibly wonderful. Make no mistake: this is the East of Turkey, close to the Syrian border. Yet despite its proximity to that troubled land, it did not seem at my first, and very cursory glance, especially affected by the troubles on the other side of the border, nor too interested in the political strife in Istanbul or Ankara. There were certainly no protest regarding Internet censorship this weekend. Perhaps that’s because Urfa is one of the most prosperous cities in the area. It is something of a closed world. The older generation of men are often attired in headscarves and salwar trousers. If you look foreign, expect to be stared at. It might be somewhat unnerving, but it is unlikely to be unfriendly. In fact — if my limited experience is any indication — you’re likely to be welcomed most hospitably.
Among its many charms Urfa possesses a host of archaeological riches, including the recent discovery of one the world’s oldest neolithic settlements, dating back over 12,000 years. However, as I mentioned above, it is most commonly associated with the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim, being both his birthplace and the legendary site at which he was thrown into the fire by Nimrod, whereupon God turned fire into lake and coals into fish. Balıklıgöl, the pool, is beside the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman, erected in 1211 and surrounded by the Gölbaşı-gardens. If you are lucky enough to spot a white fish in among the slate grey carp, it’s said that the heavens will open up for you. And while we neither glimpsed the white fish or nirvana, we still had a fine time strolling through this part of town before plunging into the smoke2y delights of the bazaar.
More than half the fun of a Turkish bazaar isn’t in the buying, but in the gathering … of stories, experiences and verbal exchanges. Urfa’s bazaar is no exception, and something else to behold. Unlike Istanbul’s more famous covered market, Urfa’s provides the charm of seeing the industry smack dab beside the retail. We were particularly interested in the metal work for which Urfa is renowned. Opposite stalls selling ornate teapots, ayran jugs and cups, platters and turkish coffee sets, you will witness the spectacle of three generations of men banging out their collections. These range from the glittery and cheap to the more pricey and valuable. Regardless of the quality you desire, for the price of a single Turkish coffee cup in Istanbul’s Kapalıçarşı (Covered Market) you can easily acquire an entire set.
After a prolonged period of mercantile negotiation, you’ll probably be ready to eat. We were particularly charmed by the humble outfit, Ciğerci Siyaset, which translates, roughly, to mean, “Liver-maker Politics” referring to a piece of the owner’s family history involving competitive swimming and community which I’m not sure I can do justice to in the re-telling. Suffice it to say that you’ll be treated to a spicy wrap of chicken, liver or meat here which you can garnish yourself with hot peppers, parsley, or eye-watering slices of onion. If it’s not spicy enough for you, there’s plenty of isot on hand for you to sprinkle on. It’s a particularly good bet for lunch.
For accommodation, I’d only suggest one place. While there are a few charming (in an idiosyncratic kind of way) places to stay within easy walking distance of Balıklıgöl and the bazaar, only one is licensed to serve alcohol. Manici is both comfortable and clean, and allows you the pleasure of staying somewhere a little more colourful than the generic hospitality of a Hilton. The food was good too and the service friendly.
A word or two of caution, however. The Manici hotel hosts social nights referred to as sıra gecesi. These are certainly worth experiencing. However, if you take a room too close to the URHAY on the third floor, you’d better want to take part in the party. Otherwise you’ll be subjected to a lot of raucous spillover. So if you happen to have small children, or an early start the next day, avoid this part of the hotel. Otherwise, start swinging, Urfa-style. I know we’ll go back for that unique mix of fire and water.