Our next stop was in the ‘prophets’ city’ Şanlıurfa, commonly known as Urfa. Our host this time was a young man called Oktay, who we had previously met in Çirali. We only met him for one evening at the guesthouse, but with the typical Turkish hospitality, Oktay immediately offered to host us in his hometown.
Considering the recent violence in the region, Oktay was keen to assure our safety, so he pulled many strings and went to great effort to get us a room in a Governmental building, usually reserved for Government employees or NGO workers.
Driving from our hotel into the centre of Urfa, we were taken back by the stark beauty of the majestic sand coloured mosques and religious buildings. We arrived in the cool evening, just after sun-down, which was definitely the perfect time to see this well-known spiritual centre.
As we drove into the old town, it became clear that this city was the most religious and conservative that we had visited so far. Women were dressed in black chadors, and men in traditional Arabic loose pants. Once more, the presence of Syrian refugees was undeniable, and as dusk began to fall, they lay in the parks, women and children, with no homes to go to.
Our first stop was the holy Gölbasi area, which is truly one of wonders of the world. It’s a pilgrimage centre whereby a stunning Mosque stands tall above a picturesque park with two rectangular, carp filled lakes known as Baliki Göl and Aynui Zeliha. Legend has it that the Islamic prophet Abraham was from the fortress at the top of the hill into fire, but God turned the fire into water and the coal into fish. The lakes are a symbolic representation of this tale. Apparently if you see a white carp, your wishes will come true. Sadly we did not see one.
Nevertheless, our night could not have been better. In the cool evenings this spiritual area comes alive; the buildings and ponds are dimly lit and people travel mile to come and pray in this sacred area. The murmur of prayers combined with a glorious full moon and soft lights was enough to give us goose bumps.
Our night ended on top of the hill in Çift Magara, an outside restaurant, where we had Nargile (shisha) and philosophised as we overlooked the stunning Gölbasi and the prophets’ city. Oktay treated us to a ‘mırra’ coffee, a local speciality drink made from the Turpentine tree. Sweet and rich with a slightly grainy texture, it was a delicious way to end the night!
The next day we were up early and feasted upon a big buffet style Turkish breakfast to fill us up before an intense day of sight-seeing and travelling. We had a lot to cram in but Oktay was a great host, navigating us around the famous bazaar featuring everything from tacky fake brands to sheepskins and spices.
Unfortunately, not much was open as it was Turkey’s national independence day. Usually there are street marches and parties, however, due to the recent political unrest in that region, the Government had cancelled street celebrations. We found this a shame but for everyone’s safety, it probably was a wise decision.
Inside the bazaar, we settled for a çay (tea) in a lovely leafy courtyard called Gümrük Hani. This place was full of moustached old men playing the ever-popular backgammon, drinking tea and coffee, and getting their shoes shined. No women could be seen here apart from blonde Kirsty, so all eyes were on her. It seemed this was the place to come for gossip. The men here are worse than the English women! Above, up some concrete steps, various tailor shops surrounded the square with the odd old man ironing and cutting the cloth in the hallway. We could tell that Gümrük Hani has had a long history of bustling communal life; men, children and stories have come, gone and past through here and continue to do so. You can feel that, and we felt it was our time to leave also.
Next, we tried another Turkish speciality drink, Erk Sous! This apparently “liquorice” like drink, dark and frothy is often sold by eccentric street vendors all over Turkey, with their clanking metal adornments with large golden tanks, glittered with jewels. It all makes you curious enough to buy one with a smile oj your face, which can soon be wiped off your face with the first sip. Trouble is, it is tradition to down it all in one! It left John with a sour taste and an upset stomach for the next hour, Kirsty managed to escape the torture. Anyway, it is safe to say it was an acquired taste.
After visiting the tombs and mosques that adorn old town, it was time for us to head to Mardin, another beautiful ancient city four hours further east. We has heard so much about this spot that we were extremely eager to get there!
Upon arrival it was even more dry and the landscape looked just as biblical as it is. The old city of Mardin sits on the Mesopotamian plains, dominated by a castle which its ownership is still at the centre of dispute between the PKK and Government. Arriving again at sundown, we really felt like we had arrived at somewhere special.
This day also marked our one month in Turkey and, just like when we left, the moon was full again but rose as faster and more red than we have ever seen over the Mesopotamian hills whilst we had dinner on the rooftop. It was for sure a special moment. The night ended with a lightning show in the far distance.
Out hotel was pricey but beautifully set into the rocks and from the rooftop terrace we had a fabulous view of Mardin’s squiggly lanes and minarets. Although quiet and authentic, at the time of visiting, accommodation here is pricey and hotels tend to be quite swanky.
We were told that many young men and their families come here for Mardin’s famous gold jewellery as a wedding gift to their future wives. In some families, such offerings a compulsory tradition. Indeed, the gold jewellery in Mardin is remarkable, so bright and carefully detailed. Kirsty had to be torn away from the windows!
We stayed two nights in Mardin and it was by far one of the most beautiful places yet. All the buildings were the same honey colour and everywhere you turned, another beautiful, carefully renovated building would emerge. What’s more, there was a lovely mix of Kurdish, Christian, Yezidi and Syrian cultures and history here, imprinting a lovely diversity in both monuments and traditions.
Mardin is rich with history, which can be easily seen and in many regards historic practices can still be seen here. Lorries are replaced by donkeys, supermarket are non-existent; animals are slaughtered in the gardens and sold in the street, and kids play with wooden sticks which they turn into guns; perhaps taking turns to protect the castle at the top of the hill. There’s an authenticity here that we have been yearning to find.
We could have ventured to nearby cities on day trips, but with an extremely long bus drive up to Trabzon, Northern Turkey lurking, we thought it best to rest and be psychologically prepared for a long day and a sleepless night.
Have you ever been to these places? Do you have your own story you would like to share? We would love you to comment, share and like.