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  • Writer's pictureCactusflower

Stone Age sanctuary, Biblical sites are the amazing backdrop for Urfa

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Like many people, as my husband and I approach retirement, travel is big on our radar. On a recent trip to Turkey, we decided to visit an area that neither of us had ever explored, though my husband was born and raised in Turkey.

An early morning flight took us from Istanbul to Urfa (renamed Sanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa” in 1984, but still known as Urfa by almost everyone), where we were met by Dr. Sabri Kürkçüoğlu, a professor from the local university. Urfa is a multiethnic city composed of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs, situated on a plain about 50 miles east of the Euphrates River.

Urfa is an ancient city. Its recorded history goes back to the 4th century BC, but it was inhabited in prehistoric times, back to at least 10,000 BC. According to Jewish and Muslim tradition, Urfa is Ur Kasdim, Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham. While there is scholarly and archeological debate over whether Abraham was born in Urfa or an ancient Sumerian city named Ur, many Biblical scholars go with Urfa due to the close proximity to Harran. Harran is a town mentioned in the Bible with ties to Abraham as well as Nimrod.

The entrance to the Cave of Abraham. It is a pilgrimage site for Muslims.

The cave where millions believe that Abraham was born is a pilgrimage site in Urfa. Men go in one side and women on the other. If you are a female visitor who did not bring a head scarf, there are plenty available to use—if you don’t, you’ll get the evil eye from some of the other women for not following this cultural requirement. Once inside, you will gaze into a glass-covered area, lit up with floodlights that show steps that disappear into an abyss.

The Pool of Abraham (Balikigol)

Plenty of people are praying, and plenty are shooting photos. In a way, there is not much physically to see. But it is an impressive place that puts your mind to thinking about history, your religious beliefs, and existence itself.

After the visit to Abraham’s birthplace, Dr. Kürkçüoğlu had arranged for a trip to the Pool of Abraham, also called the Pool of Sacred Fish (Balıklıgöl). The story is that Abraham incurred the wrath of King Nimrod when he declared that there was only one God because Nimrod worshipped idols. So, Nimrod sentenced Abraham to death, and had his men build a huge pyre in the middle of the city. But when Abraham was thrown into the fire, the flames turned into water and the logs into fish. The fish are considered sacred and it is against the law to catch them. But visitors are welcome to feed them, and many do, making the fish jump up in the air as they swarm to the treats being tossed in.

After leaving the sites of Abraham, we got into Dr. Kürkçüoğlu’s car and headed to 10,000 BC.

About eight miles outside of Urfa stands the archeological site called Gobekli Tepe (Turkish for Potbelly Hill, so named because of its appearance). The site was excavated from 1996-2014 by the late Dr. Klaus Schmidt and a German archaeological team, and the findings date to around 10,000 BC—older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. In 2018, Gobekli Tepe was given the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

The site is composed of two areas that contain circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars, the world's oldest known megaliths. Through underground surveys, researchers know that there are more than 200 pillars in about 20 circles, with each pillar about 20 feet tall and weighing up to 10 tons. The pillars are fitted into sprockets that are dug out of the bedrock. Some of the pillars have detailed carvings of animals, some have none. The two center pillars are meant to signify a person, with a face, belt, and a necklace carved on each side. Currently only a handful of circles have been uncovered.

Though experts are still learning and discussing the reasons and uses of Gobekli Tepe, Dr. Schmidt and his team believed that these were temples—he called them Stone Age Sanctuaries—partly because he found no evidence of people permanently residing at the site. The findings at Gobekli Tepe shake up the timeline of civilization. In the past, scholars and historians believed that man begin to build temples after leaving their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settling into agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle. Religion, art, and civilization came after the hunter-gatherers. Gobekli Tepe, with its intricate carvings and artifacts that lead researchers to believe it was a religious site in some way, completely changed the way that we now look at the timeline of civilization and the hunter-gatherers. UNESCO puts it this way: “Göbekli Tepe was the meeting place of the last hunters before humans switched to a lifestyle based on agriculture.”

We wandered all over the site with Dr. Kürkçüoğlu (who had worked with Dr. Schmidt on the excavation), shot photos and simply stood in awe. The next day, we visited the Sanliurfa Archeology and Mosaic Museum, which adds to the understanding of Gobekli Tepe and holds many artifacts from the excavation. The Smithsonian Magazine has a good article (though dated) on Gobekli Tepe at

Urfa has much to offer a visitor in addition to Gobekli Tepe and the sites related to Abraham. These are just the highlights of a fascinating visit to Urfa. A good resource to read more is at this website:


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