South-East Turkey road trip part two! After completing our bucket list adventure to Nemrut Dağ mum and I headed in the opposite direction, to explore Harran. (We really wanted to go to Göbeklitepe, and believe me, we tried – but it was very closed!)
Harran (modern Altınbaşak, also ancient Carrhae) is 40-50km south of Urfa, toward the Syrian border. We actually did see the Syrian border in the distance, which makes me long so badly to be able to return there. My heart really aches for the ongoing conflict. We were so close, but also so, so far.
Harran was an important site from the Bronze Age, through to Hellenistic times, and into the early Middle Ages. It was mentioned in the Ebla tablets! And it would have been on the trade route to/from Nineveh. They used to worship the moon deity Sin in Harran, and there would have been an impressive moon temple – now long gone. Harran saw rulers such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and eventually Alexander the Great. During the time of the Kingdom of Commagene, Harran was part of the neighbouring Kingdom of Osrhoene. Apparently (I learned this via Google) Harran (well Carrhae) is depicted on the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome! The battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE was one of the first major battle in the Roman-Parthian wars. (And Rome suffered a crushing defeat in the first instance! So interesting that it is depicted on the triumphal arch in the end.)
The modern village is instantly recognisable by its beehive houses. On the inside they maintain a cool temperature during summer, and preserve warmth during winter. They have been popular for millennia and used for accommodation and storage well into the 20th century – although I am not sure anyone in Harran still properly lives in them today. In the middle of the village you will find the ruins of enormous fortifications (kale, or castle) The bit still standing mainly dates to the 11th century CE. We walked around the site, but the structure is mostly crumbling and inaccessible.
A little bit further down the road we found an excavation. This was very much closed to the public of course, but mum marched down to someone who looked like they were in charge and announced that we were both archaeologists and we would like a tour. They were unhappy about this, and sent us on our way. So, we tried someone else. They frowned, but then introduced us to some more welcoming members of the team – who completely went out of their way to show us around! Many selfies were taken. The primary structure still standing at the site is an arch, and there are also some remains of walls, a minaret, a mihrab, and a sadirvan. These used to be part of the Ulu Cami – an 8th century CE (end of the Umayyad period) mosque, quite possibly one of the oldest mosques in Anatolia.
Onward to Shu’ayb! This is a huge site, located on a hill, surrounded by a small village – with ancient remains scattered in every direction you can see. As this website suggests, at first sight it looks somewhat like a Roman necropolis, with a lot of tomb-like structures dug into the hill. Instead, these may have been underground homes. There are some bigger arches, and also the remains of a temple. Mum and I lost each other for ages when she went down the hill on on side, and I walked down on the other. It is truly a place to feel lost in history!
Apparently the Turkish tourism board has been trying to call this the ‘Ephesus of the South East‘. I would say that is somewhat of an exaggeration, due to the absence of monumental architecture – but there is certainly potential there. Mainly, the site has somehow been associated with the Prophet Shu’ayb (possibly Biblical Jethro), but as with most religious archaeology this is difficult to prove.
Next, we travelled on to Soğmatar (or Sumatar). This was a cult centre between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, where they also worshipped Sin. It is still possible to see the main, open air, temple, and there are several subterranean structures as well. These are the most interesting part of Soğmatar in my opinion. They have reliefs depicting various gods, paired with Syriac inscriptions. (Here is an article on them.)
Nearby Soğmatar are the Bazda caves. Personally I find caves a little less interesting, because they do not have so many ancient remains; but they are still ancient though. The Bazda caves are man-made, forming the remnants of a quarry – probably dating to around the 13th century CE. Inside it is possible to see how and where the stone would have been cut away – as well as a lot of modern rubbish and graffiti. On Instagram, you will find couples taking wedding photos in the beautiful light that filters in from the top. Upon approaching the entrance, a group of children instantly ran at us and attached themselves to us – not very politely, pulling on our clothes and bags and asking for money. We gave them all the sweets we had, but without much result. Apparently others have had the same experience, so be sympathetic, but careful.
On our way back to Urfa, we made a brief stop at Seljuk Han el Ba’rur, a 12th century CE caravansaray. I would say more about this, but our visit was brief because we were chased off the site by a terrifying looking, barking, wild dog. Maybe another time. I really wish I remembered where we had lunch and what we ate, to end on a more positive note – but I wonder if we ended up skipping it. The weather had been over 40 degrees Celsius all week, which really affected our appetite. If you ever tour Harran in July (don’t): bring a few litres of water, sunscreen, and a hat!