Friday is the best day to be in Urfa, or, since about 1990, Shanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa”. It is a pilgrimage town, where the Prophet Abraham, very important in Islam, is believed to have been born, in a cave beneath the citadel, where we queue up to drink the holy water, men and women in separate parts of the cave. I arrived in Urfa on Thursday night, hardly a soul in town, But come Friday morning, and everyone is strolling round the gardens, sitting in the tea gardens, feeding the holy carp, taking out a rowing boat, or being told they can’t picnic on the grass.
Many of the older men wear the baggy shalavar trousers, similar to gaucho bombachos, but with a very low crotch, and tapering at the ankles, and on their heads a Yasser Arafat headscarf. Nearly all women are covered. Some in Istanbul fashion with a close-fitting cap to cover all the hair, for in Islam women’s hair is considered an erotic zone, and with a colourful headscarf on top. But the locals all wear light mauve scarves and a variety of colourful dresses. Some older women have tatooes on their faces and fingers. And men in their long Arab robes; women in complete black chadors, with just an eyeslit; and a benchful of trendy uncovered girls looking slightly out of place.
I hear Turkish with an Arabic accent, Arabic, what I think is Kurdish. And I, the lone gringo in Urfa, am assailed with “Al-lo. What is your name? Where are you from?” That exhausts the English of most, but the monotony is broken by the occasional “David Beckham very good player”.
Of course, mostly the boys and young men, even the guard outside the prison, and the only very occasional little girl. We are in conservative Eastern Turkey. But today, on my way back from the Syrian Catholic Deyrulzafran Monastery outside Mardin, a girl of 12 or 13 rushed out of her house and greeted me with a well-rehearsed: “Welcome to Mardin!”
From Urfa across the fertile plains of cereals, olive groves, almond and fruit trees, to Mardin, 175km east, just 50km from the Syrian border, but there seems to be no contact here with Syria. We are also near the territory of the PKK Kurdish separist movement, but at the moment there is a ceasefire, and things are very quiet. Police with machine guns patrol the streets. but it seems the most peaceful of places. There are a few Istabullu tourists, but foreign tourists are still staying away: the Kurdish problem, and we are pretty near Iraq… My 1999 Lonely Planet warns me to stay away… By the looks of it, the latest one does too…
A bust of Atatürk in the main square; Atatürk’s words cut into the hillside: “I am happy to be called a Turk”; men of all ages hanging around all day Sunday fingering their prayer beads between their visits to the mosque; kebabs and more kebabs; plenty of Internet cafes, fortunately! But we are in a slightly different place. I notice no supermarkets. Shopping is centred on the bazaar and small shops, almost hatches in the wall. I visit beautifully preserved medresses, Quranic schools, from the 13th and 14th centuries; I am staying in an inn, a caravanserai, from the 12th century. Equally old mosques and churches, either Syrian Catholic or Syrian Monophysite, a breakaway Catholic sect. Carved stone houses, often with sheep on the lower floor. I am woken up by an oinking, but there are no pigs in Muslim Turkey! I then realise it is the braying of a donkey, for on the very steep hillsides of Mardin the donkey is still the best form of transport.
To use a well-worn cliché, we are at the crossroads of history. Urfa, formerly Edessa, was an outpost of the Holy Roman Empire. Then conquered by the Arabs in 637. From 944 to 1098 Turks, Arabs, Byzantines and Armenians fought for the city. But in 1098 Count Baldwin of Boulogne set up the Latin County of Edessa, which lasted till 1144, when it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks. Mardin was occupied by Assyrians in the fifth century, then Arabs between 640 and 1104, then a succession of Seljuk Turkish, Kurdish and Mongol. Both cities were taken by the all-conquering Ottomans in 1517.