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"The Road to Urfa" By Laurence Mitchell

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Posted 21 December 2003 - 20:03

"The Road to Urfa" By Laurence Mitchell

The Road to Urfa

A meeting with Pilgrims at Abraham's pool creates a feeling of common humanity.

WE ARRIVED IN URFA IN THE EARLY HOURS OF THE MORNING, greatly relieved to get there in one piece after an extended demon- stration of Turkish driving skills. I had had enough: we had been on the road for ten hours since Adana. I was tired and my nerves were on edge. Only a handful of us got off the bus; most of the others were traveling on to Cizre, at least another six hours away. I wished them all luck.
Urfa was enjoying a warm balmy night with a slight breeze, blowing north from the Syrian Desert, to relieve the humidity. The stars were shining like beacons in the moonless sky.
The city was asleep and most of the hotels seemed to be locked up for the night, but we found one that still had a light on. We were hailed by a man who was sitting outside the hotel entrance making the most of the night air. The man was called Ali Baba, and he was quite used to jokes about his forty thieves.
Ali Baba was an English teacher and self-styled guide to the re- gion. He was also an enthusiastic Muslim, not uncommon in this holy city even for young men. More surprisingly perhaps, he was a nonsmoker, which really was quite unorthodox for a Turkish man of his age.
Over the next couple of days, wbenever we met up, Ali would pleasantly harangue us with a lot of well-rehearsed arguments en- dorsing his Islamic beliefs. It was that typical East-meets-West scenario where, in having a foot in both camps-a traditionalist with a modern education-he was keen to rationalize his religious convictions. We were told of the scientific validity of the Koran, and how there was no need for a belief in the infallibility of Mohammed's word when all the claims of the Koran could be proved by modern scientific method anyway.
It was a well-rehearsed lecture, but he lost me after a while. He did get a bit fanciful, too, I thought, in his claim that in a nearby village there was the perfectly preserved body of a three and a half- meter giant, frozen in the prayer position. This, he claimed, was a miracle bearing witness to the power of Islam: a living statue made by Allah demonstrating the way men should prostrate themselves to Him. Every religion needs its miracles, I suppose, but the idea of a supplicating giant with permanent rigor mortis was a bit hard to swallow.
It seemed to be the sort of place where miracles might be pos- sible. Urfa-or Sanhurfa, "glorious" Urfa as it had just been renamed-seemed to be much more like the Middle East than any other Turkish city I had visited. There was something of the Arabian Nights about it, even without Ali Baba's presence.
There were few cars, but a multitude of donkey carts thronged the dirt streets. Porters carried huge items of furniture on their shoulders, and the covered bazaar echoed with metallic chimes, as craftsmen fashioned household utensils out of raw metal. In the vegetable markets, gold-toothed women chattered behind enor- mous mounds of watermelons, and the glottal stops of Arabic and silken vowels of Kurdish greeted the ears as much as did Turkish.
Urfa is a city that generally sees few tourists and, consequently, everyone was welcoming to a fault. The hospitality was boundless, even by Turkey's high standards. It was ftiendly curiosity for the most part. People would stop and talk and show you pictures of their families, and tulip-shaped glasses of fay (strong black tea) would be procured out of nowhere, delivered by little boys with tin trays.
Wandering the city streets, I was frequently invited to take pho- tographs of people; by cobblers and tinsmiths in the market, by workmen loading salt onto a truck, by a group of shoeshine boys. In the male-only tea shops, waiters would greet you like long-lost friends and refuse to charge. Even gruff old men with baggy-arsed trousers and gray stubble would stop and have a word. Inevitably it was, "Merhaba! Alman?" "Welcome! Are you German?"
"Hayir Ingiliz. " "No, I'm English." "Ah! Ingiliz, fok iyi. " "English, very good."
As everywhere else in Turkey, the most well-known foreign country was Germany, simply because so many Turks worked as migrant laborers there. But they had mostly heard of Ingiltera too, especially the infamous "Missus Tacha, The Iron Lady." They loved strong, hard leaders in Turkey-even if they were women-and the right-wing, quasi-militaristic leadership of our erstwhile prime minister was the sort of thing that the obedient Turks tended to admire. I did not hold it against them but joined in the mutual congratulations.
"Kemal Atatiirk, fok iyi. " "Atatiirk's very good too."
In our few days in the city we made numerous friends, and our visit became a round of meeting up with people to drink tea at various hours of the day and night. Not wishing to cause offense, it was a struggle to keep up with the many instant friendships that we had made, but I did not mind too much. In fact, I loved it. I loved Turkey. I loved its people. But I was still a bit confused about the country's true nature.
In Istanbul and Ankara, I had found myself asking the same questions. Where did Turkey really belong? Was it European or Asian, secular or Islamic? I could only say that it was all of these things: a frontier region where east meets west, where religious fa- talism meets scientific empiricism. It was the best (or worst?) of both worlds, and that, I suppose, was really its appeal. But here in Urfa, there was no such quandary; this was undoubtedly the east, as Asian as Damascus or Karachi.
A lot of the pilgrim buses that we had seen on the road here had stopped for the night. Urfa bears a particular significance for pilgrims to Mecca, and not just as a staging post on the way south to Moharnmed's holy city. Urfa is the city where Abraham is said to have been born, and Old Testament prophets like Abraham are as important to Islam as they are to Christianity. People come from all over Turkey to view his birthplace and many of the hajis were taking in a visit to Abraham's cave on their way south.
These were the same pilgrims that we had seen cheerfully drinking fay at service stations on the way here. They had seemed light-hearted and gregarious as they wandered around in groups, stretching their legs before being shepherded back onto the buses by their adrenaline-crazed drivers. Now they were seeing the sights of Urfa before continuing to Mecca. It must have taken years to save the necessary funds to finance a haj, but they seemed to be making the most of the trip and were investing their once-in-a- lifetime journey with an infectious, joyful enthusiasm.
There were large groups of pilgrims all over the city, billowing like dust clouds through the streets, a seething mass of loose white cotton. Everyone was dressed for the pilgrimage: the women em- balmed head-to-toe in cream and white, the men in skullcaps with little Turkish flags sewn onto theirjackets.
We came across a pilgrim group gathered on the citadel above the old town. The leader was carrying a large Turkish flag to iden- tify himself. The view from the top suggested that Syria and the desert were not so far away, with the dun-colored mud dwellings of the city's outskirts fading into parched low hills that defied shade. With the hajjis all grouped together in their pilgrims' attire and the brown biblical hills beyond, there was nothing to belie the effect that we were looking at a spectacle that had not changed much for centuries. It could well have been a scene from the golden years of the Ottoman Empire. That is, if you managed to ignore the Mercedes buses waiting for the pilgrims below.
I We climbed down from the citadel's fine vantage point and went to visit the nineteenth-century mosque dedicated to Abraham. Nearby, more pilgrims were quietly queuing to visit the cave that was the prophet's supposed birthplace, the same cave where he was said to have spent the first ten years of his life, hiding from the para- noid Assyrian tyrant, Nemrut, who in a fit of pique had decreed that all newborn children be killed without mercy.
The crowd was respectful of the holiness of the place but the stereotype of dour, unsmiling Muslims disdainfully looking down on foreign infidels was not at all apparent. In fact they went out of their way to be amiable.
A middle-aged woman from Malatya tried out a little German on us. She and her husband were going to Mecca, but, despite the more mundane reasons for our journey, she did not seem to make any judgment about the relative merits of our respective trips. There was no overt piety. We were accepted with good grace, as fellow holiday-makers sharing a good time.
The whole crowd was like her and the common courtesy that was shown to each other, the consideration, the politeness, the ca- maraderie the love even-was a joy to behold. This was not a throng of intolerant fundamentalists, but a group of quite ordinary middle-aged, working-class people who were having the time of their lives. They were so open and congenial that I believe they would have smuggled us onto the bus and onwards to Mecca if they could have. Part of me would have wanted to go with them.
Near the mosque stood a pool containing a large number of carp, said to be sacred because of the legend which tells how Abraham was saved from a fiery death by an act of God.
After coming out of hiding, Abraham became a stalwart oppo- nent of the Assyrians' megalomaniac leader, Nemrut. Abraham attempted to destroy all the idols of the Assyrian temple and, nat- urally enough, this angered Nemrut no end. The despot decided to have Abraham put to death by plunging him off the citadel battlements into a fire below. Fortunately, the prophet was saved by the command of God who made the flames turn into water and the firewood turn into carp. Legend has it, of course, that these were the very same fish that you see in the pond today. This would make them about 2,500 years old.
It is strictly forbidden to catch the fish, and to do so would probably result in the same sort of fate that a curious non-Muslim would suffer if he sneaked into Mecca: sudden death by divine intervention.
These oversized goldfish had grown fat on the countless offer- ings pilgrims had made over the past two millennia, but still they had not lost their appetite. I bought a bag of hemp seeds to feed the fish.
The water boiled in an orange whirlpool of feeding frenzy as I threw my seeds to the waiting carp. The pilgrims at my side smiled and remarked on the prodigious appetite of the fish. I smiled back and gave some seed to a little boy so he could throw it into the pool. We all beamed contentedly at the thrashing forms in the water.
We were starting to become that same creature, the pilgrims and I-tourists with a spiritual bent, for want of a better descrip- tion. Our aspirations were not so radically different, really. Our dif- ferent religious and cultural worlds were starting to lose their focus as self-imposed boundaries began to break down. I could not go to Mecca, nor could I ever be a Turk, and my natural skepticism probably prevented me from ever becoming a Muslim, too. But none of this really seemed to matter that much.
For a few brief minutes, I was another pilgrim participating in a small, enjoyable ritual that was part of life's journey. They would go on to travel to Mecca, I would return to England. For the time being, however, we were equals in spirit.

Laurence Mitchell has traveled widely onfive continents. He has worked at variousjobs but these days concentrates his energies on travel writing and photography. Hefinds that the condition affectionately known as "wanderlust" does not improve with age, but, rather, becomes more acute,

like rheumatism or hair loss. Despite a love of mountains, he lives in aflat part of England: life is rarely perfect. He is currently working on a book about Egypt and Sudan.

"The Road to Urfa" By Laurence Mitchell

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