HARRAN, Turkey – Harran, home of Abraham, is ostensibly where Adam and Eve fell to Earth after being exiled from paradise, according to local legend.
In summer, the heat on the Harran plain can reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and the night brings little relief. Yet the unusual mud-brick “beehive” houses for which the city is famous today remain oddly cool inside. True, nobody lives inside them anymore. The clusters of domed homes have been relegated to a tourist attraction, though signs of domesticity abound – one features a washing machine; another has been converted into a marble-floored public toilet.
The oldest beehive house still extant is about 200 years old, says resident Resat Ozyavuz, who lived in one until age 13, he says. But to the best of his knowledge, this building style goes back at least 300 years, when his forefathers came from Iraq.
Whether such architecture was in use locally or elsewhere in the vicinity is not clear. Rain on the Harran plain is rare, but mud brick is not very resilient to the ages and weathering – and local folklore is less occupied with its own immediate antecedents than with ancient legend.
From the outside, and to Western eyes accustomed to, well, Western homes that are not Tel Aviv micro-apartments the size of an armpit and a cat, the beehive homes seem small. But inside they feel surprisingly spacious, with one domed house connected to the next, creating a continuum into which light filters through a central ceiling hole (covered to prevent rain, dust and whatever else from falling in), the doorways and the occasional small window.
Not only are they strangely cool in summer, but these domed homes retain warmth in winter too, Ozyavuz says. The blackened ceilings of some of the domes reveal ages of warming and cooking on the hearths, still extant to the delight of tourists. Tea and refreshments are prepared and served in a nearby tent, however.
Watered by the Euphrates
The Harran plain in southeastern Turkey has been occupied since time immemorial. The semi-arid land is dotted with mounds, many of which could potentially be tells, judging by the way they stand out from the gently rolling landscape.
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Visiting in May, the hills – albeit badly eroded by the ages – are quite green. Agricultural fields extend in all directions. But they are not fed by rainfall on the Harran plain, because there is little of that. They are fed by irrigation from the Euphrates, watering crops mainly of cotton (a recent innovation) and peppers, many types of peppers.
But as soon as the burning summer commences, the hills will turn brown, says licensed tour guide Alim Kocabiyik. Yet if there is anything that lends credence to the local insistence, repeated by Ozyavuz, that the primordial Adam and Eve – presumably terrified by their expulsion from paradise – landed here somewhere in the Harran plain, it is the environment there as it would have been during the Holocene period. Adam and Eve would have been all right.
As the last ice age retreated and the Holocene began, the Harran plain, surrounded by the Tektek Mountains on one side and the Germush mountain chain on another, was forested, teeming with animals and watered by streams, Kocabiyik says. The climate was wetter than it is now. It can’t have been that far a cry from the paradise that the original couple allegedly knew.
Hints at the rich animal life appear in artworks from the extraordinary sites discovered in recent years in southeastern Turkey, dating to about 12,000 years to 11,000 years ago. These range from depictions of gazelles – which everyone has loved to eat since sapiens first stepped foot on the planet, it seems – to those of boars, mega-reptiles (aka crocodiles), foxes, leopards and snakes.
Today the city of Harran, which arose near the beehive houses, is home to about 80,000 people and has zero boars or leopards or other wildlife beyond hordes of cats, dogs and other urban fauna. Visiting sites outside the city, one finds fresh fox burrows, so we know they are still around. There are probably snakes, too, but all this author saw aside from the ubiquitous goats and sheep was one small lizard scuttling among the burning hot rocks at midday.
When did the site acquire the name of Harran? We cannot know what its Neolithic residents called it, but the name has existed since written records began. It appears in the Ebla tablets of Assyria, dating to the late third millennium B.C.E. By then it was already a great city that the Assyrians called Harra, Kocabiyik says. And of course it appears in the Bible and Koran as the birthplace of Abraham. (Later the Romans would call it Carrhae.)
The Assyrians described marriage between the King of Harran with an Assyrian princess who became its queen. Clearly Harran, which at that point was akin to a local city-state, was of great significance during this period. Its role as a hub of sprawling trade routes was described by Pliny the Elder.
In the 14th century B.C.E. it was burned to the ground by the Hittites, but the Assyrians pushed back, vanquished the invaders and rebuilt. From this point the strategically placed city witnessed ceaseless struggles over its control. The Assyrians would be overrun by the Persians, and then Harran would be conquered by the forces of the great marauding emperor Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. And when that wonder of the ages died so young, and his empire broke up, Harran wound up in the hands of the Seleucids. The Romans met humility in this land, squashed by the Parthians and then the Sassanids. And the struggle continued.
Come the year 640, sources say, and Harran was conquered by Muslim forces and became part of the Umayyad Caliphate. The city even then became the capital of Marwan the Second, the last Umayyad caliph. Yes, it was then taken by the Abbasids, who may or may not – it depends which source one consults – have been responsible for the emergence in Harran of Sabians, a group that claimed descent from none other than Noah.
It bears adding that some suspect the locals, in centuries of yore, of dissembling before the zealous Islamic authorities and quietly retaining pagan beliefs. Ozyavuz tells how his Iraqi Turkmeni ancestors came to this land and became Islamicized. At first they lived in the castle but then they began to build the dome-shaped “beehives.” To this day, or almost, since they don’t actually live in the domes anymore, there are symbols from pre-Islamic shamanic belief systems, such as bovine horns hanging over the doorway and horseshoes here and there, he says.
But Noah. Thus, local legend claims ownership of more than Adam and Eve’s first footprints on the planet.
Leave the fish alone
About 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the beehive homes and city of Harran is the city of Urfa, recently renamed Sanliurfa (“glorious Urfa,” marking the victory over the French colonials in the 1920s). Urfa also lies on the Harran plain and is intertwined with the local legends.
“According to local belief, Urfa is one of the first seven cities to be established after Noah’s flood,” says tour guide Kocabiyik. Apropos of which, there is also quite the argument over where “the real” Mount Ararat is – Mount Cudi in Iraq, on the border with Turkey, or Mount Ararat in Armenia. As Kocabiyik points out, Semitic languages don’t have vowels and the name of the Urartu mountain range has atrophied. “Ararat is a mispronunciation. Urautu refers to all of eastern Turkey,” he says.
Further to this local legend of Noah and his ark coming to rest in the general vicinity, olives do grow in this region, while they do not by the fabled Mount Ararat. And doves are a citywide favorite, Kocabiyik says. “Everybody loves to feed pigeons today on their roofs,” he says. “There are hundreds of types of pigeons and the love of birds comes from Noah’s legend.” Indeed, the city is thronged with them, as are many cities – but the ones here do look sleek and plump.
Ozyavuz tells the legends passed down for generations about Abraham, who is supposed to have lived, wed and had his sons in this area – sons who, according to local legend, had the gift of speaking from the womb. Here is where Abraham sorely peeved King Nimrod by railing against idol worship (goes the legend) and tearing down the idols of a local temple. The king sentenced Abraham to be burned to death but lo, the flames were transformed into water and the burning wood turned into fishes. Today Urfa boasts the beautiful Balklgöl, the Pool of Abraham, in the middle of the modern city. There are fish in the pool, which one is supposed to appreciate and not eat.
The legends of Judaism and Islam split here. Abraham is said to have died at a very old age somewhere in the region of what is today Damascus, but he left behind the rich legends based on which ancient Urfa and Harran are called the cities of prophets.
“The prophet Shuaib, identified by some with the biblical prophet Jethro [though this is disputed], also lived here,” Kocabiyik says. And this place and no other is where Job, yes that one, is supposed to have endured his seven years of suffering in about 1200 B.C.E, at the entrance to Urfa. Before that, when he was rich, he lived near Damascus.
Thousands of years later, by which time the Harran plain had long lost its lusciousness, its forests destroyed by climate and human hands, a school arose in the city under the reign of the last Umayyad king, Marwan. He made the city his capital for the six years in which he reigned. After he was supplanted by the Abbasids, the school was elevated, under the reign of the fabled Haroun Rashid, to the status of a great university.
“From about 750 to the early 11th century, this was one of the best education institutions in the world for the study of astronomy and, chiefly, philosophy,” Kocabiyik says.
In 1260, Hulagu the Mongol Khan, who is said to have wreaked great havoc in the Arab world, swept in. As the Mongols departed the Harran plain in the 13th century, driven out by the Mamluks of Egypt, they destroyed the city and university. Though the city persists to this day, its lofty status would never be regained.
And that was that for the great ancient school university of Harran, the partially reconstructed ruins of which still stand a few hundred meters from the clusters of beehive dome huts in which Resat Ozyavuz lived until age 13, and which are still deliciously cool in the burning summer heat of the Harran plain.
Today, the modern university of Sanliurfa is named Harran University, in honor of that long-gone school, whose only occupants are goats and tourists. But the memory of the extraordinary college on the blistering Harran plain, where the length of the year was calculated within two minutes and 22 seconds by Arab astronomer al-Battani, lives on, far beyond this land of ancient legends – as far as the Moon, where an impact crater has been given his name.