The catalyst for this SE Turkey driving tour was that my parents were coming to Turkey to join an Iran tour in Istanbul. So after three days in Şanlıurfa, we were off for a few days in Istanbul. My Dad also invited Megan and me on the Iran tour, something the three of us had been looking forward to for over a year. My Mom, however, viewed Iran with a little more trepidation than we did, probably thinking something like, “why does Dennis take me to Pakistan and Jordan when other people go to Grand Cayman or Paris?” But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I am anxious to write about our incredible experiences in Iran, but first Şanlıurfa (aka Urfa) and İstanbul.
In Urfa a not very old Syriac Church (constructed in 1861) was turned into a cultural center (Vali Kemalettin Gazezoğlu Kültür Merkezi). The Grand Mosque of Urfa (Ulu Camii) uses a Christian church’s bell tower as its minaret. Urfa’s Armenian Church of the 12 Apostles was turned into Fırfırlı Mosque in 1956, and the nearby Saint John Armenian Cathedral is now the Selahaddin Eyyubi Mosque. In Istanbul the Fethiye Müzesi preserves the mosaics of an old church, later used as a mosque, and of course the story is the same for the more famous Aya Soyfa. Now, of course, everything is Turkish, and it’s strange to think that both these cities — Şanlıurfa and İstanbul — were more cosmopolitan 150 years ago than they are now. Globalization and relatively cheap travel made many of the world’s large cities more cosmopolitan during the 20th century, but in Turkey, historically a major crossroads, the opposite happened in the last century.
When the Syriacs, Armenians, Greeks, and others were forced to leave (or worse), apparently they took their cuisine with them since it’s now only Turkish food in Turkey. Not that Turkish food is bad. Urfa is famous for its lahmacun and etli çiğ köfte. One evening exploring Urfa’s narrow alleys with my Mom we happened upon a small bakery where we were quickly invited inside to watch the half a dozen employees madly making lahmacun. One man rolled out the dough into a circle, something between a tortilla and pizza crust. Another smeared on a thin layer spicy minced meat. Another slid all these into the large tandoori oven with a long paddle. Someone else removed them and quickly bagged them for the waiting customers. We were given two hot lahmacun straight out of the oven which we ate right there in the bakery. Tasty.
Throughout Turkey you find çiğ köfte, which is uncooked (çiğ) spiced bulgur patties served with lettuce and nar ekşisi (pomegranate syrup/vinegar — better than it sounds, often used as a salad dressing in Turkey). The dish is originally from Urfa and originally made with raw beef instead of bulgur. All five of us tried the Urfa original one evening at our hotel, but none of us cared for it much. Perhaps it needs to be eaten with music and alcohol at one of Urfa’s famous sıra gecesi.
Long before Christians, Muslims, or Turks lived in Urfa, people were carving stones at nearby Göbekli Tepe. Described in the latest Eyewitness Travel Guide as “one of the most exciting sites in Turkey”, it wasn’t even included in the previous version of the guide because the excavation work at this 12,000 year-old site is so recent. Is it the world’s oldest temple, predating the Neolithic Revolution? Or perhaps was agriculture first started earlier than previously understood? Carbon dating indicates that these huge stone blocks (in my mind similar to those at Easter Island or Stonehenge, neither of which I’ve seen, both built many thousands of years later) were carved here before cities existed, something previously considered impossible. However, DNA testing shows that modern cultivated wheat most closely resembles that of the wild wheat from Karaca Dağı, not far from Göbekli Tepe. Perhaps wheat was first domesticated here, and then the temple was built. I watched a video which tried to explain the carvings found on the rocks at Göbekli Tepe. One anthropologist noted surprisingly similarities to Alevi rituals. There’s still a lot of guessing at this point.
One anthropologist’s claim that Alevi rituals may come from Göbekli Tepe is not as absurd as Turkey’s claim that Urfa is actually Ur, the biblical city where Abraham was born. We saw the cave where he was born, the place he was thrown into the fire, the place he fell (and died?). Regardless of whether you believe any of that, the center of Urfa is beautiful and rightly busy with tourists, mostly from Iran, the Arab countries, and Turkey, I’m guessing. The four languages on the signs helping the tourists navigate downtown Urfa were Turkish, English, Arabic, and Farsi. That’s a switch from İstanbul, crawling with European tourists.
We met up with our Iran tour group in Istanbul and had a couple days there to visit some of the sites I hadn’t seen before like Binbir Direk (an underground cistern), Dolmabahçe Palace (ridiculously over-the-top, something like Versailles?), Kara Ahmet Paşa and Mihrimah Sultan (at Edirnekapı) mosques (both Mimar Sinan creations), the Fethiye Museum with it great Byzantine mosaics, and the harem at Topkapı Palace. Time for Iran…