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Land of red-hot earth Harran

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Posted 23 February 2005 - 12:18

Home of famous men of science, the Assyrian capital Harran, where Anatolia's oldest mosque is found, was the ancient gateway to Mesopotamia.

" ...It was hotter than blazes. You could find no shade there, nor take a breath comfortably. Founded on a bare plain, in the middle of the steppe... Stripped of its dressing of green..." So does the famous traveler Ibn Jubayr, who stopped in Harran in June 1184, describe the burning soil of this land. But Harran's magnificent ruins and still vibrant traditional fabric make you forget the heat. The incredibly clear blue of the firmament and the enchanting panorama of the earth's boundless geometric plane begin to draw you in. For Harran stands at the gateway to the vast Mesopotamian plains. At the intersection of the ancient civilizations and faiths that converged here from south to north, east to west, or the reverse. Forty-four km south of Sanliurfa, this age-old settlement takes its name from 'Harran', which means journey and caravan in the language of Sumer and Akkad. And, having borne its title and presented its credentials for more than five millennia,

it silently explains its existence as a major center of trade and culture down the ages.

First, the boys meet you at the gate, with something to say in every language. Most will want to be your guide. In wildly colorful dresses, the girls will hang around you for a while and then go back to playing in the dirt. It is they who will probably finish the explanations begun by their elder brothers, "Did you know that this is where the Prophet Abraham...?" So, let me complete the note made by Ibn Jubayr when he saw Harran for the first time: "No, no! Being the city of our father Abraham is honor enough for this land. Some 3 fersahs (24 km) south of the city is the spot sacred to him." The historian Ibn Shaddad, who came to Harran in 1242 during the period of the Ayyubids, echoes him: "the most important places to visit (here) are the Mosque of the Prophet Abraham and another small mosque where there is a rock he is said to have leaned against while sitting. Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Jesus are all said to have come to Harran."

The Semitic tribes, according to legend the offspring of Noah's son Shem, in other words the Aramaeans of Shem's son Aram, the Sabaeans, the Suryani's, meaning 'of Syria'... Later, the Greeks, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Seljuks, the Zangids and the Ayyubids... As we continue our tour, we observe that the legends spun in Harran, melting pot of tribes and cultures, have been transformed in the children's world into tales abounding with adventure and mystery. This is the first place where Adam and Eve set foot when they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. Here too oxen were yoked and the earth tilled with a plow for the first time. The once famous and widespread Sabaean religion, too of course, is embellished with somewhat muddled mythological stories as the children tell it. But Harran was indeed the historic homeland of the Sabaeans. So much so that they identified with the name Harran as the 'Harrani's mentioned in the texts. The sources write that this system of belief, based on the traditions of polytheism and, especially, the cosmology of moon, sun and planets,

survived together with its rituals in the Christian and Islamic world of Harran right up to the 11th century. A direct offshoot of this tradition is the evolution of astrological concepts based on the stars and planets and 'the sacred thrones of the gods of Mesopotamia' into astronomy, which emerged and came to the forefront in Harran. More fundamental however is the fact that the culture and religions of the both the polytheistic and the Christian communities in Harran, which was Islamized through the conquest in 640 of the Caliph Omar's commander Iyaz ibn Ghanim, were left unhampered. Many famous scientists, philosophers and theologians flourished in the liberal atmosphere of tolerance brought by the Muslims. Thus were laid the foundations of the Near East and Mediterranean region's most important university, which produced an école in the 8th century (Abbasid period). Al-Battani, who calculated the distance from the Earth to the Moon, Thabit ibn Qurrah, who translated the books of the ancient Greek thinkers into Arabic, and the physicist and chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan are just a few of the figures who rose to prominence in the Harran school.

The world's most important and extensive Islamic excavations were undertaken in the heart of the city on Harran 'Höyük' or mound. The narrow streets, houses with courtyards, workshops with enormous round millstones and many more findings unearthed here lay bare before our eyes the wealth and dynamism of Harran, which played host to Islamic civilization for 600 years. Accompanying this splendor, and somewhat beyond the mound of course, stand the Ulu Cami (Paradise Mosque), conspicuous for its 33.3-m high rectangular minaret, and the inner fortress and remains of the city walls which date back to the Hittite period. The Ulu Cami, and its minaret especially, built by the Umayyad ruler Marwan II (744-750), who chose Harran as his capital, is etched permanently in our memory as a symbol of the city. To it belongs Anatolia's oldest, and most richly embellished, stone mosque with the first porticoed courtyard and first pool with a fountain.

THE MOON GODDESS AS WITNESS The discoveries made by Dr Nurettin Yardimci, who conducts all the archaeological excavations, research and restoration work in this area, open a window onto the very remote past of Harran, capital of the Assyrians in the first millennium B.C. Take the monuments, for example, belonging to the early bronze age (3rd millennium B.C.) and later periods, which were recovered from the Islamic strata. Among them, the cuneiform bricks and votive inscriptions of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (6th century B.C.) constitute an important group which point to Harran's famous temple of Sin, the moon god. In line with what several travelers and scholars like Ibn Shaddad have written, one of the oldest records concerning the moon cult, believed to date back to the time of the Sabaeans, appears in a treaty signed between the kings of the Hittites and the Mitanni (2nd millennium B.C.) and witnessed by the moon god, lord of earth and sky. Just last year Dr Nurettin Yardimci and his team uncovered new evidence concerning the existence of this temple and, especially, its location on the mound.

Again in the inscription attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II, the king mentions the temple that he had built in the center of Harran. Another important discovery about which the team is quite excited are new findings that date the mound to the 6th millennium B.C. Turning now to the present-day residents of Harran, you will meet them through the children selling evil-eye necklaces made from harmal seeds. Another of the ancient faces of Harran will greet you in the 150-200-year-old earthen houses with conical domes, the last examples of a tradition going back thousands of years ago. Drinking bitter 'mirra' (coffee flavored with myrrh), a regional specialty, inside one of these interesting structures, most of whose domes are built of historical bricks appropriated from the mound, affords a rare pleasure. Even though no longer regularly occupied by their owners, the colorful handwoven textiles on sale continue to give life to the houses, which are under protection today.


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