In Abraham's footsteps

Retracing Abraham's footsteps, a visit to southeastern Turkey brings one back thousands of years to a simpler time.

Southeast Turkey_58 (photo credit: Elad Brin)
Southeast Turkey_58
(photo credit: Elad Brin)
Southeastern Turkey is what the region we live in must have looked like before it became known as the Middle East and before it became famous for its national, religious and ethnic divides, its trademark bigotry and instability. This remote corner of Turkey is also the area from which Abraham, the common patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims, allegedly set off on his epic journey to what later came to be known as the Land of Israel or the Holy Land. These were two excellent reasons to go there.
If I wanted to retrace the steps of Abraham, there were two places I had to go to. The first was the city of Urfa, also known as Sanliurfa (“glorious Urfa”), which simmered with 37º the evening I arrived in it. It rose like an urban mirage out of the desert, like a sun-stroked hallucination or a Middle Eastern Las Vegas.
The bazaar was absolutely stupefying with its labyrinthine maze of streets dedicated to a single artisanship (tin and coppersmiths, tailors, weavers) or commodity (carpets, fabrics, spices, gold jewelry). It was like the bazaar in Istanbul or Jerusalem but without tourists and most of the tacky souvenirs that go with them.
Indeed, this ancient shopping mall might have been here ever since the Bible was written, and its biblical-like clientele still sauntered through it, scrutinized the goods and haggled over the prices while sipping cup after cup of bittersweet Turkish cay.
Could Urfa, so much more Middle Eastern than Anatolian in its atmosphere and population, be the biblical city of Ur, or Ur Kasdim? The Bible mentions Ur four times in the Book of Genesis and insinuates that it was Abraham’s birthplace. According to legend, Abraham (then still named Abram) spent the first seven years of his life in hiding, after local king Nimrod ordered all newborn babies killed following a dream he had in which he was told that one of them would eventually oust him. A similar story appears in the New Testament pertaining to King Herod and baby Jesus, and that’s no coincidence. The number seven, too, is highly symbolic.
King Nimrod’s nocturnal vision came true: Islamic tradition, which sees Abraham as the world’s first monotheist, maintains that it was in Ur that he smashed the town’s idols and admonished the pagan Nimrod, who punished him by setting him alight. Abraham was saved when God turned the fire into water and the hissing coals into gentle carp. Abraham was delivered from harm and landed safely on a bed of rose petals.
Most researchers would locate the biblical Ur in modern- day Iraq (now the archeological site of Tell el- Muqayyar), or Syria (the town of Urkesh). But Urfa’s biggest draw is Golbasi, a centuries-old sacred site which symbolically recreates this very tradition about the deliverance of Abraham. Thousands still come to Urfa to commemorate this story, reverently making their way between the pools, feeding the pampered and lucky carp, posing amid the roses.
There’s a complex of mosques and madrasses where caretakers chase away rowdy children and Iranian pilgrims follow young, turbaned mullahs and record everything on their digicams. I exchanged a few words with some of the Iranians. “It is not actual pilgrimage,” said one of them. “That is done only to a select number of holy cities. You can call it a ‘spiritual visit’ to the place where the first monotheist came from, a very important figure whom we all share.”
Abraham was allegedly born in a cave by the entrance It was an orchestrated, exhilarating routine that repeated itself every day. Could Abraham have seen it with his own eyes? He probably came here when there were still only tents and stalls erected on a weekly basis rather than massive Seljuk and Ottoman structures. Most probably he used barter rather than paper money. But other than that, these would be the sights he’d see, the voices he’d hear and the scents his nose would pick up.
Not even an hour’s ride away, Haran has the reputation of being the hottest city in Turkey. I made my way there one morning. Huge tracts of fertile land could be seen on both sides of the potholed road, crisscrossed by open irrigation canals. The small town definitely puts the “fertile” in Fertile Crescent: This was extremely rich earth, yielding green gold on what is probably Turkey’s best farming soil. Little wonder: This is the biblical Aram-Naharayim, Hebrew for “Aram (set between) two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates. Most people know it as Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”).
Haran is a dilapidated agricultural backwater of poor Kurdish and Arab farmers within arm’s length from the Syrian border. It is steeped in biblical history: Allegedly, this was where Terah, Abraham’s father, settled after having left Ur. This was already a land of plenty back then.
This is also where Nahor, Terah’s other son, stayed while Abraham set out, following divine instructions, to the Land of Israel. Abraham’s manservant was later sent to Haran to find a match for Abraham’s son Isaac, and this was where Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, married his distant cousins Rachel and Leah.
Even the extreme poverty and incapacitating heat could not take away the place’s magic, with its dozens of conical-roofed beehive houses made of bricks taken from adjacent early-medieval ruins. These houses (unique in Turkey; similar houses can be found in northern Syria) were built some two centuries ago, continuing a building technique used in these parts since the second millennium BCE – believed to be Abraham’s time. They give the landscape a peculiar, out-of-time quality. Why build such roofs, resembling termite hills or clown’s hats? Was it the lack of sufficiently long wooden planks required for level roofs? Or was it designed to capture the heat as high and far away as possible? A clue as to how hot it gets here can be seen in the people’s beds, placed outside the houses on elevated platforms, keeping them safe from the snakes and scorpions while allowing their occupants to catch even the slightest breeze. There is also a neglected, crumbling fortress in Haran and a minaret some 1,300 years old, probably belonging to the first mosque in Anatolia (later I learned that a mosque in the mostly-Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir was also claiming this honor).
The locals approached me, smiling broken and yellow-toothed smiles and laughing, motioning me to take their photo. Nevertheless, this was a very conservative place: When I saw a pretty girl and asked if I could take her photo, she obliged on condition that I didn’t show it to the other men in the town.
According to Genesis, Abraham was 75 when he was told by God to “get thee out of thy country... unto a land that I will show thee.” Not an easy journey for a man his age, not in this debilitating heat, not even considering Haran’s relative proximity to the Land of Israel (some 300 kilometers closer to Jerusalem than to Istanbul). But at least the road was open for him. In comparison, even a young and relatively fit man like myself, going leisurely in an air-conditioned car, would be stopped a few kilometers down the road at the Syrian border and sent back. Not to mention the Lebanese and Israeli borders farther down the line.
While I had to make a huge loop to go back to my country, my illustrious ancestor simply made a beeline for the land we now call home. On his way he changed not only his landscape but also his name, going from Abram to Abraham. He was also made promises as to the great nation that he would father from his seed.
The rest is history.