Tour to Gaziantep-Harran
by Fred Moore
January, 2004: This is a travel log of our over night adventure to Gaziantep, SanliUrfa and Harran in the southeast of Turkey. We ventured to within 15 minutes of the Syrian border to visit the village of Harran from Genesis; Abraham left from here to venture to Canaan. But that is ahead of our story this time.
We began a two-day trip from the base on a small, mostly uncomfortable bus. The seats were narrow, cramped and with little legroom. There were 17 of us on a chapel sponsored tour. We pulled out from the base gate at 7 in the morning. The bus really didn't start out all that bad it simply got worse as the hours progressed. We drove about 20 minutes to get to the expressway for the trip east of Adana. The expressway is six lanes and very well done so makes a trip much faster than it would normally be in this country. There were none of these type highways 20 years ago when we were living and traveling here.
This first leg of the trip to Gaziantep is about two and a half hours. We plan to stop for some shopping in Gaziantep. As the sun begins to bring the countryside to life we see the snow capped mountains. It isn't all that cold down where we are but the peaks are quite high up and this time of year get plenty of snow. Our trip will take us over the mountains though so we must be mindful of the weather. About an hour into the trip we begin to ascend the first mountain and began driving through tunnels. We move through 4 in all, one of them is nearly a mile and a half through. They are 3 lanes wide inside (thus there are two for the divided highway) and they are well lighted. One is so short we no more than enter it and we see the light at the other end. The long one seems to both climb and curve at the same time. There are numerous signs forbidding tanker trucks from entering and lighted speed signs to encourage slow and caution. For the most part all seem to heed the direction provided; I mention this only because most Turks pay little attention to highway markings.
Our driver seems to be a fan of HEAT, we have to tell him several times to
please shut it off or at least turn it down some. As we are all crammed into
this bus we tend to provide each other plenty of warmth already. He is kind
enough to do as we ask but not long afterwards it comes back to the heating
The countryside we travel through is primarily agricultural. Villages tend to dot the hillsides where fields would be difficult to cultivate. This area is noted for its cotton production and looks much like Texas, except for the mountains. The soil is pretty red and the cotton picked plants look very much like any in the south of our country. Of note however is the fact that the cotton plant is pulled up by hand and carted from the field to be used as fuel to fire both home heating and food preparation stoves. One sees wagonload after wagonload of cotton plants being hauled off the fields and deposited in massive heaps near the villages where anyone can make use of them. Village after village on our trip has these piles prominently placed along the highway.
I notice too in one field of corn there's a tractor and wagon moving along side of the cornrows and six or eight folks hand picking the ears and throwing them into the wagon. Before you ask the question, yes, there are corn pickers but, as is the style here in many places, human labor is cheaper than machine and used often. These are NOT Turks down in this area either; they are for the most part Kurdish. So, when I say Turk I mean Kurd; the primary difference being cultural. The dress and customs will vary to some degree and their adherence to the Islamic faith will be more devout. Don't misunderstand me here, many Turks are very devout Moslems as well; but by and large, they do not practice with the same degree of zeal as these folks in this part of Turkey.
Two more very prominent agricultural products in this part of Turkey are the pistachio and the olive. We drive through an area where no matter in which direction you look or how far you can see there are groves of trees for both of these products. In some fields both grow side by side, making the landscape appear a patchwork of gray and green. The pistachio tree is quite silver gray in color while the olive tree is very distinctly green. Actually an olive grove in the breezes can flow from a deep olive green to almost silver as the wind blows through the trees. The underside of an olive tree leaf is a shiny gray. And while I'm on the subject of olives, there was some harvesting going on. The ground surrounding the tree is covered with tarps and the women are standing about with long sticks or poles; they are beating the tree branches to dislodge the olive. Then the children join in and collect the harvest from the tarps.
One thing about the olive tree, they grow in some pretty awful places, that is, it is not unusual to see them growing on a very steep hillside and groves of them dot the hillsides and mountainsides as well. This of course makes mechanized harvest very impractical. Not so much in this area but in other parts of Turkey we have visited, I'm amazed at the ability of these people to harvest olives from these trees on some of the cliffs they grow on. There is little waste in this country, however, and if there is the slimmest change of a harvest NO tree is off limits.
We're now in Gaziantep, a major city in this part of the country. There are a number of machine-carpet factories here. Many merchants from throughout Turkey travel here for machine made carpets. Hammered copper plates are another major production here, again much of what is created here goes to shops throughout the country.
This is not our ultimate destination of course; we simply stop here for several hours to shop and to have lunch. We're dropped off near the old city center where the streets are narrow and vendors are plenty. There is shop after shop of copper, brass, antiques, woodcrafts, fabric and carpets. Carol and I escape the group as quickly as we can; I hate looking like a tourist! We make our way through street after street taking in the overwhelming panorama of products and people. The aroma of spices, wood burning, bakeries and little restaurants cooking lunch is intoxicating. A number of merchants sit outside their shops with old cans filled with burning wood so they can warm themselves. Few shops actually have heat and most even leave their doors wide open. I can't help but wonder sometimes how safe it is in these myriad little alleys with these guys burning wood in some old olive oil can. These olive cans are square about the size of kitchen trash bin. Several times the sticks being burned would fall from the container and the merchant would simply pick it up and stick back into the container. The few shops we actually went into had a propane gas cylinder with a heating element attached that was glowing red-hot. If one were to stand too close to one of these things it would easily set your cloths a blaze. OSHA simply DOES NOT exist here.
Several times while we were making our way through these little streets and alleyways, we were nearly run down by guys on motorbikes. In one little alleyway we were even pressed to the wall by a CAR! You simply do not expect to encounter a car in these places; but again, anything is possible and one has to expect the unexpected.
Another commodity here is gold; there are gold shops all through the area and this is typical of Turkey. The most amazing thing here though is the ever present cell phone. Something unheard of twenty years ago, they are everywhere! It's not unusual now to see a vendor with a horse cart full of veggies on a cell phone!!!! It's too funny.
Our time here has come and gone and now we are on the bus again headed for SanliUrfa. As we travel farther east we come to the city of Nizip, the capital of olive oil. This city produces more olive oil than any other city in this country. Next along this route is the city of Birecek on the Euphrates River. This village is the home of a very strange bird called the Bald Ibis (they migrate to Africa for the winter) and is advertised as the ONLY place they live in Turkey. They even have a festival in April each year for this bird. Another attraction in this city is the Byzantine fortress along the river. This will have to be seen another time however because it isn't on our agenda to stop here. We see this ruin however as we drive across the bridge into the city. Not far over the bridge we see the statue of the Ibis birds. We do not see the real bird and the statue reminds me some of the Turkey vultures I've seen in other parts of this country. In a word they are ugly. Would be great to see the real bird though simply to say I've seen one. I get the impression it is a pretty large bird as well.
Can't get by here without the mention of the road condition either. There is no xpressway after Gaziantep, so we are now traveling two lane roads. They are paved but in poor repair. I guess the best way to describe the road surface is "patch upon patch with a hole in the middle." There are short stretches where new asphalt has been put down and it's great, however there are miles of rough and even rougher surface. The road department has even used one of those grinding machines on some areas BUT it simply made no difference!
We've arrived now in SanliUrfa the home of Biblical Abraham. I must say also, none too soon, as my internal organs feel as though they have all been rearranged by that awful roadway. We go immediately to the area of town where the cave of Abraham is located (his alleged birthplace) in order to see what we had come for. It was getting late therefore the sun was setting and it was going to be more difficult to see the ruin if we stopped at our hotel first. His ruin isn't; what I mean is the government has done a really great job of preserving the area. There is also a sacred pool here. As the story goes, Abraham was to be thrown into a fire by King Nimrod but before reaching the flames the fire was transformed to a pool and the logs of the fire to fish. Hence the first thing we observe is this pool that has been surrounded by a park and the water is so teaming with fish that it would appear you could walk across it on them. We're told they are sacred carp and none are eaten or caught. For a small fee you can get some pellets from vendors along the walk and feed the fish. The few who did set the water to boil! Literally thousands of these fish converged on the pellets dropped into the pool and the water became a torrent! Further into the park and against the hillside is a formidable structure; a mosque and Islamic school built to encompass the cave of Abraham. Again as the story goes, Abraham took Sarah from here and made his way to Harran. Carol visited the cave but I declined as it was through the mosque and I didn't choose to remove my shoes! Don't ask; I really didn't feel like a cave was all that important a view.
On the hilltop above this mosque/school complex there were two columns on the
old castle walls and they are supposed to represent the slingshot that was to
catapult Abraham into the fire below. Sometimes I get most skeptical of fact
transposed over fiction or legend; however I'll leave the judgment to you. This
area (the cave and sacred fish pool) is considered one of the most important
holy sites by the followers of Islam. By the time we had made the walk through
the park it had gotten very dark, therefore we now made our way back to the
bus and on to the hotel for the night.
We were put up at the Harran Hotel in the city, not far from the ruins. As we made our way to the hotel we passed the old city covered bazaar and other ancient ruins of Seljuk and Ottoman times. It was quite funny; our tour guide wouldn't discuss these ruins to any degree with us, simply stating they weren't that old or worthy of his discussion. OK, so Abraham is Old Testament and these ruins were only 6 or 8 hundred years old, gee!
We got to our room and put down our things and made a beeline for the door; we were not going to be in this city and not see some of it. We were to be back to the hotel for dinner at 7 and it was around five. We stepped into the hallway to go and one of the couples on the tour were making a fuss about there room, seems they wanted a double bed and didn't have one; they had two singles shoved together. It's a long story for some other time; suffice it to say we do not like people to be unhappy with adventures in this country so we gave them our room, which did have a double bed. We prefer singles here because you get a better deal, both in comfort and in sleep. A double here is more akin to a ¾ for us.
With that crisis averted we made our way to the lobby and informed our group leader we would not be joining them for dinner. A Turkish friend had given us a suggestion for dinner in this city and we decided to take it. No story here though, we simple did dinner and then walked the streets to see the city as best we could in the dark. We got a cab to the restaurant as we were not totally sure how far it was and after getting there found it was an easy walk back toward the hotel. So after dinner we walked, the air was chilled but not bad. As we were walking we came to one street that we needed to cross but a water main or something was a miss because it was a total flood, we walked along it for a ways thinking we might get above the confluence of the water but after a ways we turned back to cross another way. We managed to get by the water and stopped not far from our hotel for Turkish tea and a sweet pastry the city was noted for. We got back to the hotel after 8 and turned in.
Again in the morning we were to have something at the hotel at 8; that's well
after my breakfast time so when we got up at 6 we went to get our own breakfast.
We also had more time to walk the city streets and see the Seljuk/Ottoman ruins
more closely. As best we could figure the ruins were an old bazaar and an old
hamam (Turkish Bath).
A new day was now well underway and we too were getting the group together to go south to Harran our ultimate destination. This is a tiny little village today of mud conical houses; but 2600 years ago it was a major university city on a north/south trade route. Abraham left here with Sarah to go to Canaan. Issac sent his servant here to get a wife far Jacob - Rachel. There is a well in this community named for Jacob. Moses fled here from Egypt after killing the guard in Egypt. Astronomy and science was taught here; the famed mathematician who accurately calculated the distance to the moon was trained here. The scientist who proclaimed the atom, as the smallest form of matter, was also trained at this university. Ninety percent of this ruin is unexcavated; the exposed city walls are there but in considerable ruin. Gates of the city wall are visible and of the six original gates, one is in fairly good repair. We spent a couple of hours on the grounds but saw a microcosm of this site. We were taken through one set of the conical houses that is maintained for tourists. It seems so weird that we live in the twenty first century and these people are still trapped in the first millennium. They heat their mud homes with cattle dung! There is one tiny hole in the conical rooftop for the escape of smoke. It is said that these houses maintain a pretty comfortable temperature during the long scorching summers. It can get well into the hundreds of degrees on this plain just north of the Syrian border. At this village we were only 15 minutes from Syria. Needless to say these folks are not Turks; they are mostly Arabs and Syrians and dress very much the old way. The men speak both Turkish and Arabic but the women speak only Arabic. The children, on the other hand, speak words of many languages as they were accosting us in English as they begged for money. Some were selling things but others were simply begging! You must keep your feelings in check or you simply fall apart here. The definition of poor has a far more poignant meaning here. As we were preparing to board the bus to leave the cluster of conical homes nearest us had ladies busily stringing rope and hanging newly sheared wool for the sun to dry. These women are clothed in velvet dresses with sequins and headscarves of baby blue. Carol really wanted one of the scarves but we didn't find any. Some of the clothes were on display in the houses we visited and it unthinkable to wear that sort of thing for everyday chores. We also were witness to the preparations to a wedding party in the village. In the village center the men had all gathered under tents and were seated on carpets awaiting what we figured was the wedding couple to come for the official ceremony. You see, in Turkey, there is an official ceremony in front of a judge where the bride and groom represented by one person each have to sign an official ledger legalizing the marriage. After that they can have a religious ceremony followed by a large party where there is much merriment had by all. Another large courtyard had many people gathered with several people dancing and celebrating.
We purchased our usual tourist guide to the city of Harran and got on the bus to return home. We returned to SanliUrfa and had lunch at an old Ottoman home that had been renovated and converted to a hotel and restaurant. It was located not far from the old covered bazaar on a narrow cobblestone alleyway. We were unable to get the bus to it so we left the bus at the main street and walked. This was billed as traditional Ottoman house as the lunch was served on tables just 8 or 10 inches high with everyone sitting on the floor. That is, nearly everyone, I DO NOT eat sitting on the floor. Culture is one thing BUT I draw the line when it comes to dinning; I do not appreciate picnics either. One gentleman on the tour had recently had hip replacement surgery and was not able to get down there either so he and I had lunch out of doors on the patio veranda with the driver and the tour guide who also could not get down to the floor because of knee surgery.
Lunch began with a serving of yogurt soup COLD! Carol said it was great I did not care for it at all. The next course was lentil soup HOT and very very good. I had three bowls before it was done. The main course was rat; oh, wait - I mean lamb and eggplant kabob. Since I mentioned it I must tell you this little vignette; a rat did visit while we were eating, only passing through you understand. The thing came out from under the bench the tour guide was seated upon and walked across and down the patio step. I mentioned it to the waiter who was sure I was mistaken; that is, until he too saw it by the large concrete planters. Another waiter came running out of the kitchen with a 2X4 and as one directed the rat out from behind the planter the other bounced the 2X4 off the poor thing's head! Needless to say it got quite dead. They swept it into a dustpan and went on with lunch. My tourist dinner companion was a little taken aback by the "rat killin'" but I simply went on with my lunch. I think the tour guide was a little annoyed that I brought up the subject to begin with, but that's life.
After lunch we again made our way back to the bus and set out for home. I was not looking forward to the next couple of hours on that bone jarring roadway but there's only one highway to and from this place. Again we're traveling through the olive and pistachio groves. The traffic seems heavier than before but this is Saturday now so more people are on the move. We encounter so many tanker trucks I loose track of the number. I'm told later on that the reason for all the tanker trucks is the cost of fuel in Syria is so much cheaper than Turkey it is black marketed in this area. In Turkey as in Europe gas is pumped by the liter and costs right at a dollar per liter. For us that's almost five dollars a gallon. In Syria as in Iraq it runs 25 cents a liter, when it's available. Sometimes we simply do not know how good we have it!
Traffic tends to make its own rules on these highways; if there is room they will go three abreast at times and like us, someone will even pass you on the right if they take a mind to. I can assure you, driving here is a chore NOT a pleasure. Even if you drive expecting the unexpected you will be shocked by the expected you did not expect. The road condition seemed to have no noticeable affect on the speed of traffic either. We saw the remains of a number of wrecks but only one recent event; a grain truck hauling wheat had not made a corner well and was laid over on its side. A large group of men were gathered shoveling the grain up to save as much as possible.
As we approached the halfway mark we again we able to get the expressway. It was dark by this time and beginning to rain so we were pleased that the bus was again on decent road surface. We got back to base around eight in the evening and were very happy to get off that bus. Tour complete!