A mid-sized city in in the Euphrates River basin of south-central Turkey, about 50 km north of the border with Syria. Just west of the central bazaar (more on it below) is the cave where the prophet Abraham is said to have been born. As a result, Urfa1 is a major site of pilgrimage for Muslims from all over; indeed the majority of visitors to the city are pilgrims, not tourists.

The area around the cave is a lovely park, probably the best-kept park in eastern Turkey. Across the park from the cave is a pair of deep pools of water swarming with the fattest, healthiest carp I've ever seen. Legend says that the local tyrant King Nemrut tried to kill Abraham by throwing him off the nearby hilltop citadel into a fire below. Abraham was saved when God turned the flames into water and the firewood into carp. The fish are sacred and well-fed by the pilgrims.

The bazaar in Urfa is the best I saw in Turkey. It's centered around an old kervansaray, where the central courtyard is jammed with men drinking endless glasses of tea, and the upper level has dozens of tiny factories making shoes, tools, and the like. In the narrow streets around the kervansaray, hundreds of shops sell clothing, spices, food, more tea, random metal objects, books, and more. There's very little of the tourist cruft you might find in a more-visited bazaar, in, say, Istanbul.

In the mid-1990s, Urfa followed the rest of Turkey into the economic doldrums. The aforementioned lovely park also boasted lots of unemployed guys hanging out. One man I met there gave me an impromptu tour of the town, and showed me the shoe workshop where he works on alternate weeks. He introduced me to his brother, who is working this week; there just wasn't enough demand for shoes for both of them to work at the same time. Despite the tough economic times, however, the town has a friendly, upbeat atmosphere; the pilgrimage traffic must keep a certain amount of money flowing through the place, and it's a pretty sharp looking town because of it.

Urfa has a very Middle Eastern feel, compared to western Turkey. Of course this shouldn't be surprising; it's much closer to Damascus, Syria, than it is to Istanbul. It shows in the conservative way people dress, the occasional sign in Arabic, and even the architecture. In addition to a substantial Arab population, many Kurds call Urfa home.

Most hotels are about a ten-minute walk north of the bazaar, near the giant pink Sanmed Hospital. From the otogar, a shuttle bus can drop you there, or it's a twenty-minute walk through a gigantic cemetery.

Other worthwhile places to visit nearby would be Diyarbakir, Hasankeyf, Nemrut Dagi, and, if you have a visa, Syria.

Details and reminders from Ayliffe, Dubin and Gawthrop, The Rough Guide to Turkey, London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2000.

1 Sanliurfa is often just called Urfa. Sanliurfa, which means "Glorious Urfa", is a relatively new name for the city, given to commemorate resistance to the French occupation of 1918-20. Also, Sanliurfa is more correctly written (using Unicode) Şanlıurfa. The S-cedilla indicates a soft "sh" sound instead of a hard "sss", and the un-dotted-i indicates an un-stressed "eh" sound instead of an "ee" sound. So an "English" spelling of Sanliurfa might be "shanleoorfah".

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