What do Noah’s ark, prophets and pigeons have to do with Turkey?

In October pigeon competitions are held to see who can entice the most pigeons from other competitors to come back to their roost, and then they are sold back to the original owner.

 The Syriac Orthodox Deyrulzafran monastery near Mardin was built ontop of an ancient pagan sun temple from around the year 3000 BCE. (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
The Syriac Orthodox Deyrulzafran monastery near Mardin was built ontop of an ancient pagan sun temple from around the year 3000 BCE.
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

An ancient tradition in southeast Turkey holds that when Noah’s ark came to rest, it was on Mount Cudi along today’s Iraq-Turkey border, and not on Mount Ararat in far eastern Turkey near Armenia. The Bible specifically notes Mount Ararat as the highest mountain range where the ark landed and from where Noah released his dove. And by the Middle Ages, the tradition of Mount Cudi (pronounced “Judi”) had been replaced by Mount Ararat.

But in cities such as Urfa, known in Islam as the birthplace of Abraham and called the City of the Prophets, and the ancient Mesopotamian city of Madrin, the tradition of Mount Cudi persists.

Local tradition also holds that Urfa, ancient Edessa, was one of the seven cities built after the flood.

“Mount Ararat is actually the Urato Mountains, which are in all eastern Turkey,” said professional licensed guide Alim Kocabıyık. “Islamic literature claims this whole long area is the place of Noah’s ark. When Noah sent the pigeon from the ark, it came back with the branch of an olive tree. Here there are olive trees. In Ararat there are none.”

The region maintains many traditions mixing reality, mythology and fiction, he said. Whereas in many places the pigeon is reviled, in the region of the southeastern cities of Urfa and Mardin, pigeons are much beloved, with people raising them on their roofs and feeding them in parks. In October, pigeon competitions are held to see who can entice the largest number of pigeons from other competitors to return to their roost, after which they are sold back to the original owner.

Mt. Ararat is actually the Urato Mountains, which are in all eastern Turkey

licensed guide Alim Kocabıyık

October pigeon competitions

Mardin pigeon trainer Murat Yel and son Murataz ''It is in my roots.'' (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)Mardin pigeon trainer Murat Yel and son Murataz ''It is in my roots.'' (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

In Urfa, according to another local tradition, King Nimrod threw Abraham into a fire from a catapult from behind the walls of the Urfa Castle, which today overlooks the city center.

However, the legend says, God turned the fire into water and the fire wood into fish, creating the Balıklıgöl, or Abraham’s Pool. The actual castle, said Kocabıyık, was built during the Hellenistic period, over a large pre-pottery Neolithic settlement dating back to some 10,000 years BCE.

The current walls around the Urfa Castle were constructed during the reign of the Abbasids in 812-814 CE.

The two Corinthian pillars said to have been the catapult from where Abraham was said to be thrown, are actually monumental pillars built by a King Manu IX – who ruled the Kingdom of Edessa from 240-242 CE – in honor of his Queen Shalmeth.

In the mid-1990s, the “Urfa Man,” also known as the Balıklıgöl statue, was unearthed in excavations at the site. Dating to around 9,000 BCE, it is the oldest life-sized statue known to have survived intact. The limestone statue stands 1.80 meters (just under six feet) tall and has large carved eye sockets that were filled with black obsidian eyes. The man is depicted naked with his hands folded in front and V-shaped lines that resemble a necklace.

The statue is on exhibit at the Sanlıurfa Archaeological Museum.

NEAR ABRAHAM’S POOL is the Mevlid-I Halil Magarasi Mosque, which was built next to the cave that tradition holds to be the birthplace of Abraham and which is a place of prayer for Muslims. According to tradition, this is where Abraham’s mother hid her son for seven years from King Nimrod, who wanted to kill all newborn males who would threaten his reign. In local lore it is said that a gazelle helped feed Abraham as a baby when his mother couldn’t come to feed him.

The oldest mosque in the city, the site has been regarded as holy through numerous incarnations, including first as a pagan temple from the Seleucid period in the fourth century BCE. Then it became a synagogue. In 150 CE, the synagogue was transformed into a church. Later, during Byzantine times, a larger church known as the Urfa Hagia Sophia was built. Finally, during the Ottoman period, it was converted into a mosque in 1523 by Mohammed Saleh Pasha.

Tour guide Kocabıyık points out the nearby Ayni Zelhi “lake” that maintains another local tradition about Abraham. According to that legend, Ayni Zelhi was the daughter of Nimrod and was in love with Abraham. She was distraught beyond measure when her father threw him into the flames. She cried non-stop and her tears formed the “lake” that today meanders through the central gardens.

The city of Mardin, whose stone houses in the old city are said to light up the mountaintop like a diamond necklace at night, is perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Mesopotamian Mardin Plateau, which continues flat until the Persian Gulf and from where on a clear day you can see Syria.

It is one of three cities in the world considered a 100% protected historical city, noted Kocabıyık, and all renovations need approval.

Just outside the city, the Syrian Orthodox Deyrulzafaran Monastery, whose first church was built in the fifth century CE, is considered one of the earliest examples of Orthodox Syriac monastic architecture. Last year it was added to the World Heritage Tentative List.

Also maintaining the sacredness of ancient times, the monastery was constructed on top of an ancient pagan Sun temple believed to have been built around 3,000 BCE.

Standing outside his stone house in the old city of Mardin, Murat Yel, 40, watches as his nine-year-old son Murtaza gently corrals their pigeons with a stick as they walk about the stairs. Training pigeons is a tradition passed down from his grandfather and great-grandfather, he said.

Yel said he brought the pigeons from Mosul, Iraq. Pointing to the colors on their breasts, he boasted that some can do back flips. Soon it will be time to start trading them, he said.

“I pay more attention to my pigeons than to my children,” he admits. “I don’t do anything else. It is in my DNA. It is in my roots.”

I pay more attention to my pigeons than to my children

Murat Yel

The author was a guest of the Turkey Tourism Promotion & Development Agency