The great pilgrimage city of Sanlıurfa in east Turkey is a fabulous place if you want to dive into Turkey's rich culture and heritage. This is said to be Biblical Ur, where the Prophet Abraham was born and from where he began his monotheistic teachings. With such a long history, it's no wonder there's much to see in Urfa itself as well as many ruins in the surrounding countryside. The main tourist draw is the archaeological site of Gobeklitepe, just on the city outskirts, where humanity may have first began religious belief.
Popular Places to Visit in Sanliurfa
Although the ruins themselves are scant, the importance of this site for our understanding of human history cannot be overstated. When excavations began here in the mid-1990s archaeologists discovered what is believed to be the world’s oldest religious site. The Neolithic pillars, carved with anamorphic depictions, have been dated to about 9500 BC, turning archaeology’s understanding of Neolithic culture (beforehand thought to have not included religion) on its head. Only a tiny portion (roughly 5%) of the site has been excavated so far but the slope containing the mammoth totem-style pillars that can be seen is quite striking and a must-see for anyone interested in humanities early beginnings.
Sacred Fish Ponds Area, Balikli Gol
This pool is believed by Muslims to be the place where Abraham was thrown into the fire by Nimrod. Abraham is mentioned in three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism but in Islam, he is called Ibrahim. The pool is a special place for practicing Muslims because of the importance of Ibrahim. He was the same prophet who was prepared to sacrifice his son for Allah. The story says that when Ibrahim landed in the fire, Allah turned the flames to water and the burning logs into fish, hence the translation of the Turkish name into “lake of fish”. Since Abraham / Ibrahim is also a prominent figure of Christianity, the pool is on the agenda of most Christian tours throughout Turkey.
Southeast of Golbasi is the Dergah complex of mosques and parks surrounding the colonnaded courtyard of the Hazreti İbrahim Halilullah , built and rebuilt over the centuries as a place of pilgrimage. To visit these important places of worship you should be modestly dressed. Its western side is marked by the Mevlid-i Halil Camii , a large Ottoman-style mosque. At its southern side is the entrance to the cave where Abraham was reputedly born. He lived here in hiding for his first seven years – King Nimrod, responding to a prophecy he’d received in a dream, feared that a newborn would eventually steal his crown, so he had all babies killed.
The remains of this ancient fortress overlooking the city centre can be reached by a trail that winds up from Golbasi Park. The hill is known by locals as Nimrud Kürsesi (Nimrod’s Pulpit) and whole colonies of hermit ibises nest on the steep rock faces. A 12 m man-made ditch separates the castle from the hinterland. The castle’s age is not known but local lore states that this is where the Prophet Abraham’s funerary pyre was built by King Nimrod. The actual fortifications on the hilltop are either (according to which history you read) Greek, Byzantine, Crusader or Ottoman. The external wall still has three gates while inside, the ruins of 25 fortified towers can be seen.
Urfa’s bazaar features everything from sheepskins and pigeons, to jeans and handmade shoes. It was largely built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century. One of the most interesting areas is the bedesten , an ancient caravanserai where silk goods including colourful local scarves are sold.
Urfa’s Syrian-style Ulu Cami dates from the period 1170-75. Its 13 eyvans (vaulted halls) open onto a spacious forecourt with a tall tower topped by a clock with Ottoman numerals.
Sanliurfa Archeology Museum
Opened in late 2014, Sanliurfa’s spectacular new Archeology Museum forms the city’s Archeopark with the new Edessa Mosaic Museum. Across three massive floors, the region’s archeological heritage includes sculpture and art from Gobekli Tepe, and a stunning cavalacde of history from Paleolithc times. To get the best from a visit to Göbekli Tepe, we recommend visiting this museum first.
Selahattin Eyubi Mosque
The city’s most beautiful mosque has to be Selahattin Eyubi Camii, which has been finely restored to its former glory. The mosque is built on the foundations of St John’s Church and part of the church’s plan has been incorporated into its design (you can still see the original altar). The interior is a cavernous space that boasts some truly intricate craftsmanship.
This ancient town is thought to have been settled from the 3rd millennium BC. Although most famous for its distinctive mud-brick beehive houses (a local style of architecture that probably came into being due to a lack of wood), Harran is also home to two important ruins. The fortified remnants on the kale (castle) settlement mound date from the Fatimid period of the 11th century although there is evidence that some kind of fortress building has stood on this spot since the Hittite era. On the other side of the village are the Ulu Camii ruins where the first Islamic university once stood. The complex was built by the Umayyad Caliph Marwan II in the 8th century. Near the modern district of Harran you can also see the remnants of the City Walls which once ran for 4 km around the town.
Excavations on Sultantepe hill have unearthed remains of an 8th and 7th century BC Assyrian settlement. Discoveries include countless clay tablets forming a library of epic poetry (including parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh), prayers, letters, and mathematical and scientific text. Some of the most important finds from here are now displayed in Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
Sogmatar Ancient City
The modern hamlet of Sogmatar lies amid the extraordinary ruins of a pre-monotheistic sacrifice centre. Upon the hill peaks surrounding the village are the remnants of temples dedicated to sun and moon worship and rocks on the summits are carved with elaborate Assyrian script. In the village itself a cave entrance leads to a shrine with statues carved out of the rock walls and still visible Assyrian inscriptions.
Edessa Mosaic Museum
This modern domed structure protects the excellent Haleplibache (Aleppo Gardens) mosaics, part of a Roman villa complex only discovered in 2006 when construction started on a planned theme park. Highlights include wonderfully detailed mosaics showing Amazon warrior queens and the life of Achilles. The theme park has been usurped by Sanliurfa’s sprawling Archeopark, also taking in the city’s massive new archeology museum.