Sanliurfa, also known simply as Urfa, is a holy city. Islamic pilgrims flock here to honor the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. The most iconic site in Urfa is the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where God is believed to have intervened to save Abraham from his death. When King Nimrod attempted to sacrifice Abraham by throwing him into a funeral pyre, God saved him by turning the fire into water and the coals into fish. Today the pool representing this miracle swarms with supposedly sacred carp, which pilgrims feed.
A pleasant coolness infuses the warm air in the Gölbaşı gardens surrounding the Pool of Sacred Fish. Women cloaked from head to toe stroll arm in arm beneath the shade of tree-lined canals, while couples meet for ice cream in cafés cleansed by the spray of nearby fountains. There is even a small pond where families take their children for boat rides. It is a fresh, pristine place where everyone seems at peace. A small garden paradise to match the holiness of the site.
Beyond the Pool of Sacred Fish and surrounding gardens, Urfa transforms into a chaotic and gritty city dominated by the complex web of shops that comprises its ancient bazaar. Here, vendors sell spices, vegetables, rugs, hookahs, prayer beads, copperware, shoes, furniture and electronics. Tailors in small cramped stalls lined with fabric make men suits and women skirts. Men carrying large trays brimming with honey hued glasses deliver tea, the lifeblood of the bazaar, to the vendors and their customers.
The people of Urfa dress conservatively, but stand out from their compatriots in neighboring provinces in their preference for purple headscarves, which are worn by men and women alike. A variety of other attire can also be seen, from red and black checkered head scarves on men to full black chadors on women.
The population of Urfa is predominantly Kurdish and Arabic. However, during our visit, we noticed a significant number of Syrian refugees. When we would ask people in Urfa where they were from in Turkish, often they would respond with quizzical stares to show they did not understand Turkish. As way of explanation, they would say “Suriye” (Turkish for Syria) and then, to provide further clarification, thrust their hands in the air and imitate the sound of bombings. This was particularly sad when reenacted by children, like these three adorable boys we met while climbing to Urfa castle.