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Garden of Eden?



Sanliurfa & Harran


Saliurfa (Urfa) is at the centre of an area crammed full of history and historic sites.

Sanliurfa, often simply known as Urfa in daily language, in ancient times Edessa, is a city with 482,323 inhabitants in south-eastern Turkey, and the capital of Sanliurfa Province. Urfa is situated on a plain under big open skies, about eighty kilometres east of the Euphrates River. The climate features extremely hot, dry summers and cool, moist winters.

The city has been known by many names in history. For a while it was named Callirrhoe or Antiochia on the Callirhoe . During Byzantine rule it was named Justinopolis. Prior to Turkish rule, it was often best known by the name given it by the Seleucids Edessa.

Sanli means "great, glorious, dignified" in Turkish, and Urfa was officially renamed Sanliurfa (Urfa the Glorious) by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1984, in recognition of the local resistance in the Turkish War of Independence. The title was achieved following repeated requests by the city's members of parliament, desirous to earn a title similar to those of neighbouring rival cities 'Gazi' (veteran) Antep and 'Kahraman' (Heroic) Maras.

The history of Sanliurfa is recorded from the 4th century BC, but may date back further, when there is ample evidence for the surrounding sites at Duru, Harran and Nevali Cori. It was one of several cities in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, the cradle of the Mesopotamian civilization. According to Turkish Muslim traditions Urfa (its name since Byzantine days) is the biblical city of Ur, due to its proximity to the biblical village of Harran. However, some historians and archaeologists claim the city of Ur is in southern Iraq. Urfa is also known as the birthplace of Job. The Bible specifically states "Ur of the Chaldees" as the place Abraham was called from. It is unlikely that we would have been "called" to make a journey so short as the one from Urfa to Harran where his father, Terah, died. Abraham most likely was born in the area around Harran as his family remained here, and Terah returned to Harran to die. According to the Bible, the family were involved in stock rearing and, possibly, other farming. So what kind of trade it was that took Terah, Abraham and Sarah south down the Eurphrates to the seaport of Ur is unknown. However, many people were involved in various kinds of trade around the Fertile Crescent.

According to tradition, Nimrod (who ruled Chaldea, likely including Ur of the Chaldees) had Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre, but God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. The pool of sacred fish remains to this day.

Urfa was conquered repeatedly throughout history, and has been dominated by many civilizations, including the Ebla, Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurri-Mitannis (Armeno-Aryans), Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Macedonians (under Alexander the Great), Seleucids, Arameans, Osrhoenes, Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, and Crusaders.

In the Byzantine period Edessa was a powerful regional centre with churches, schools and monasteries.

Islam first arrived around 638 CE, when the Rashidun army conquered the region without a fight. Islam was then established permanently in Urfa by the empires of the Ayyubids, Seljuks and Ottoman Turks. In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the city was the center of the Crusader County of Edessa, until 1144, when it was again captured by the Turk Zengui, and most of its inhabitants were slaughtered together with the Latin archbishop. For the ten years following the Turkish capture, Urfa was at the center of European history, since the very reason for which the Second Crusade was launched was the city's recapture. While it began with an enthusiastic massacre of Jews in western Europe and the presence of an Emperor and a King of France gave it much lustre, it was a disaster, its only success recorded resulting from auxiliary operation when an English fleet took from the Arabs and passed into the hands of the future King of Portugal the city of Lisbon.

Under the Ottomans, Urfa was a centre of trade in cotton, leather, and jewellery. There were three Christian communities: Syrian, Armenian, and Latin. According to Lord Kinross, 8,000 Armenians were massacred in Urfa in 1895. The last Syrian Christians left in 1924 and went to Aleppo (where they settled down in a place that was later called Hay al-Suryan "The Syriac Quarter").

In 1914 Urfa was estimated to have 75,000 inhabitants: 15,000 Kurds and 30,000 Turks, 25,000 Armenians and 5,000 Syrian Christians. There was also a Jewish presence in the town, most of whom fled to Istanbul, Egypt and other countries due to anti-semitism.

At the end of World War I, with the Ottoman Empire defeated, and European armies attempting to grab parts of Anatolia, first the British and then the French occupied Urfa. The British occupation of the city of Urfa started de facto on 7 March 1919 and officially as of 24 March 1919, and lasted till 30 October 1919. French forces took over the next day and their uncomfortable presence, met by outbursts of resistance, lasted until 11 April 1920, when they were defeated by local resistance forces (the new Turkish government in Ankara not being established, with the National Assembly declared on 23 April 1920.

The French retreat from the city of Urfa was conducted under an agreement reached between the occupying forces and the representatives of the local forces, commanded by Captain Ali Saip Bey assigned from Ankara. The withdrawal was meant to take place peacefully, but was disrupted by an ambush on the French by irregular forces at the Sebeke Pass on the way to Syria, leading to 296 casualties among the French, and more among the ambushers.

Haran is almost universally identified with Harran, an Assyrian city whose ruins are in present-day Turkey. In the Hebrew Bible, the name first appears in the Book of Genesis, in the context of Patriarchal times. It appears again in 2 Kings and Isaiah in a late 8th to early 7th century BCE context, and also in the Book of Ezekiel in a 6th century BCE context. In the New Testament, Haran is again mentioned in the Book of Acts, in a recounting of the story in Genesis wherein it first appears.

Haran was a stopping place between Ur of the Chaldees and the Land of Canaan where the Patriarch Abraham, who was known as Abram at that time, temporarily settled with his family. In Genesis 11:26-32, Abram's father Terah, his nephew Lot, and his wife Sarai, descendants of Arpachshad, left Ur and settled at Haran while in route to Canaan. The region of this Haran is referred to variously as Paddan Aram and Aram Naharaim. Abram lived there until he was 75 years old before continuing his journey. Though Abram's nephew Lot accompanied him to Canaan, other descendants of Terah flourished in Paddan-Aram, as indicated by Genesis 27:42-43 where Abraham's grandson Jacob, sought his parents' relatives, namely Laban, for whom he worked for twenty years in Haran.

Though the place name can be found in English as Haran, Charan or Charran, some say that it should not be confused with the personal name Haran, borne by Abram's brother, among others. The biblical placename can mean "parched". The personal name Haran supposedly means "mountaineer" which is odd in a land hundreds of miles from any mounains.

In Islamic tradition, the place Haran is positively associated with Aran, i.e. Haran, the brother of Abram/Abraham. It is most likely that the city became known as Haran because the man of that name lived there. He remained behind when Terah and Abraham went to Ur.

Haran is closely identified with Harran, presently a village of Sanliurfa, Turkey. The earliest records of Harran are the Ebla tablets, said to date from around 2300 BCE. Local guides claim to be able identify ruins that are supposed to be the house where Abraham lived and was married. However, repeated archeological excavations date only back to the Middle Ages and have yielded insufficient discoveries about the site's pre-medieval history or of its patriarchal era.

In summary, there is no doubt that this is the general area where Abraham was born and where he lived for part of his life. But many of the non-Biblical details are likely to be legend and conjecture.

However, it all does sell a LOT of souvenirs.

A few miles to the north is another site, discovered more recently and sensationalized by a great many publications, including National Geographic. It is Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekli Tepe is a hilltop sanctuary erected on the highest point of an elongated mountain ridge some 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) northeast of the town of Sanliurfa. The site, currently undergoing excavation by German and Turkish archaeologists, was supposedly erected by hunter-gatherers in the 9th millennium BC (c. 11,000 years ago, but no tools have been found, so the origins are unknown and open to considerable speculation at this time). Together with Nevali Çori, it has revolutionized[2] understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic. This site pre-dates any civilizations found on earth by several thousand years. When found, it appeared to be deliberately buried in sand, for reasons unknown.

The site was first noted by a survey conducted by Istanbul University and the University of Chicago in 1964, which recognized that the hill could not entirely be a natural feature, but assumed that a Byzantine cemetery lay beneath. The survey noted a large number of flints and the presence of limestone slabs, which were thought to be Byzantine grave markers. In 1994, the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul visited the site, and recognized that it was, in fact, a much more ancient Neolithic site. Since 1995 excavations have been conducted by the German Archaeological Institute (Istanbul branch) and Sanliurfa Museum, under the direction of Klaus Schmidt (1995–2000: University of Heidelberg; since 2001: German Archaeological Institute). Prior to excavation, the hill had been under agricultural cultivation; generations of local inhabitants had frequently moved rocks and placed them in clearance piles; much archaeological evidence may have been destroyed in the process. Scholars from the Hochschule Karlsruhe began documenting the architectural remains. They soon discovered T-shaped pillars, some of which had apparently undergone attempts at smashing.

Each building has a diameter of 10-30 meters, decorated with massive (mostly) T-shaped limestone pillars that are the most striking feature of the site. Each pillar is around eight feet tall, and weighs up to seven tons. The limestone slabs were quarried from bedrock pits located around 100 meters from the hilltop, with neolithic workers presumably using flint tools to carve the bedrock. However, no tools have been found at the site or the quarry. That neolithic people with such primitive tools quarried, carved, transported uphill, and erected these massive pillars has astonished the archaeological world, and must have required a staggering amount of manpower and labor.

In the structures, two pillars were placed in the center of each circle, possibly to help support the roof, and up to eight pillars were evenly positioned around the walls of the room. The spaces between the pillars were lined with unworked stone, and stone benches were placed between each set of pillars around the edges of the wall.

Most of the pillars are decorated with carved reliefs of animals and of abstract enigmatic pictograms. The pictograms may represent commonly understood sacred symbols, as known from Neolithic cave paintings elsewhere. The carefully carved figurative reliefs depict lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes and other reptiles, insects, arachnids, and birds, particularly vultures and water fowl. (At the time the shrine was constructed, the surrounding country was much lusher and capable of sustaining this variety of wildlife, before millennia of settlement and cultivation resulted in the near–Dust Bowl conditions prevailing today.)

Few humanoid figures have surfaced at Gobekli Tepe, but they include a bas-relief of a naked woman posed frontally in a crouched position, that Schmidt likens to the Venus accueillante figures found in Neolithic north Africa, and a decapitated corpse surrounded by vultures. Some of the T-shaped pillars picture human arms, which may indicate that they represent stylized humans (or anthropomorphic gods). Another example is decorated with human hands in what could be interpreted as a prayer gesture, with a simple stole or surplice engraved above; this may be intended to represent a temple priest.

Until excavations began, a complex on this scale was not thought possible for a community so ancient, and with such primitive quarrying tools. The massive sequence of stratification layers suggests several millennia of activity, perhaps reaching back to the Mesolithic. The oldest occupation layer (stratum III) contains monolithic pillars linked by coarsely built walls to form circular or oval structures. Four such buildings have been uncovered, with diameters between 10-30 metres (33-98 ft). Geophysical surveys indicate the existence of 16 additional structures.

Stratum II, dated to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) (7500–6000 BC), has revealed several adjacent rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime, reminiscent of Roman terrazzo floors. The most recent layer consists of sediment deposited as the result of agricultural activity.

The PPN A settlement has been dated to c. 9000 BC. There are remains of smaller houses from the PPN B and a few epi-palaeolithic finds as well.

There are a number of radiocarbon dates (presented with one standard deviation errors and calibrations to BC): Lab-Number Date BP Cal BC Context

  • Ua-19561 8430 ± 80 7560-7370 enclosure C
  • Ua-19562 8960 ± 85 8280-7970 enclosure B
  • Hd-20025 9452 ± 73 9110-8620 Layer III
  • Hd-20036 9559 ± 53 9130-8800 Layer III

The Hd samples are from charcoal in the lowest levels of the site and would date the active phase of occupation. The Ua samples come from pedogenic carbonate coatings on pillars and only indicate a time after the site was abandoned—the terminus ante quem.

This speculative dating gives rise to many problems. Firstly, Current Biblical chronology dates the creation of Adam and Eve as around 4000BC. Estimates do vary but the fact remains that 80% of the world's religious population is agreed on this approximate timescale. Therefore, if this site is 10,000 years old as sensationally claimed, who built it? Dynasaurs?

Secondly, experts agree that Radio-Carbon dating is notoriously unreliable beyond a few hundred years. It relies totally on climatic and other conditions being identical to those of today - something that archaeologists are quick to tell is is definitely not the case. Also, it relies on the deterioration, or half-life of Carbon 14 being at a steady rate, which often not the case.

Rocks cannot be measured. It has to be something that was once alive. And on this site so far, nothing of this kind has been found. Further excavations are under way and further evidence may be found. But, as of today, we really have no idea of the age of the site, or man other similar sites. There is no doubt the site is very old, perhaps older than any other site. But aging, like much else in archaeology, is at best a relative science.

The structures are round megalithic buildings. The walls are made of unworked dry stone and include numerous T-shaped monolithic pillars of limestone that are up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) high. Another, bigger pair of pillars is placed in the centre of the structures. There is evidence that the structures were roofed; the central pair of pillars may have supported the roof. The floors are made of terrazzo (burnt lime), and there is a low bench running along the whole of the exterior wall.

The reliefs on the pillars include foxes, lions, cattle, wild boars, wild asses, herons, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, many snakes, and a very few anthropomorphic figures. Some of the reliefs have been deliberately erased, maybe in preparation for new designs. There are freestanding sculptures as well that may represent wild boars or foxes. As they are heavily encrusted with lime, it is sometimes difficult to tell. Comparable statues have been discovered at Nevali Chori and Nahal Hemar.

The quarries for the statues are located on the plateau itself; some unfinished pillars have been found there in situ. The biggest unfinished pillar is still 6.9 metres (23 ft) long; a length of 9m has been reconstructed. This is much larger than any of the finished pillars found so far. The stone was quarried with stone picks.[citation needed] Bowl-like depressions in the limestone rocks may already have served as mortars or fire-starting bowls in the epipalaeolithic. There are some phalloi and geometric patterns cut into the rock as well; their dating is uncertain.

Recently smaller domestic buildings have been uncovered. Despite this, it is clear that the primary use of the site was not domestic, due to the dwellings at the site being dated at 500 years or more after the construction of the first ring of the temple. Schmidt believes this "cathedral on a hill" was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshipers up to a 100 miles (160 km) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse derived from hunting and food prepared for the congregants.

The site was deliberately backfilled sometime later, possibly by the flood of Noah's day: the buildings are covered with sand that must have been carried from elsewhere. The lithic inventory is characterised by Byblos points and numerous Nemrik-points. There are Helwan-points and Aswad-points as well.

While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPN A), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to be hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year. Schmidt speculates that the site played a key function in the transition to agriculture; he assumes that the necessary social organization needed for the creation of these structures went hand-in-hand with the organized exploitation of wild crops. For sustenance, wild cereals may have been used more intensively than before; perhaps they were even deliberately cultivated. Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in structure to wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dag 20 miles (32 km) away from the site, leading one to believe that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. However, we must remember that Adam and his sons were farmers. There are still nomadic tribes today which could be classed as hunter-gatherers. This does not make such peoples Neolithic any more than people currently living in caves are Paleolithic.

Schmidt considers Gobekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead. He suggests that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believes they remain to be discovered beneath the sacred circles' floors. Schmidt also interprets it in connection with the initial stages of an incipient Neolithic. It is one of several neolithic sites in the vicinity of Mount Karaca Dag, an area where geneticists suspect the origins of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt and others believe that mobile groups in the area were forced to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). This would have led to an early social organization of various groups in the area of Gobekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but started immediately as a large-scale social organisation ("a full-scale revolution").

All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as only about 5% of the site's total area has been excavated as yet; floor levels have been reached in only the second complex (complex B), which also contains a terrazzo-like floor. Schmidt believes that the dig could well continue for another fifty years, "and barely scratch the surface." So it's a case of "watch this space".

Thus, the structures not only predate pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel; they were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution. But the construction of Gobekli Tepe implies organisation of an order of complexity not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPN A, or PPN B societies. The archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the 10-20 metric ton (9.8-20 long tons; 11-22 short tons) pillars (in fact, some weigh up to 50 metric tons (49 long tons; 55 short tons)) from local quarries and move them 100-500 metres (330-1,600 ft) to the site. It is generally believed that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place here. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste—much earlier than such social distinctions developed elsewhere in the Near East. Perhaps we should be considering wok done be the Nephillim (Giants) mentioned in Genesis.

Not only its large dimensions, but the side-by-side existence of multiple pillar shrines makes the location unique. There are no comparable monumental complexes from its time. Nevali Chori, a well-known Neolithic settlement also excavated by the German Archaeological Institute, and submerged by the Ataturk Dam since 1992, is 500 years later, its T-shaped pillars are considerably smaller, and its shrine was located inside a village; the roughly contemporary architecture at Jericho is devoid of artistic merit or large-scale sculpture; and Chatalhoyuk, perhaps the most famous of all Anatolian Neolithic villages, is 2,000 years younger.

At present, Gobekli Tepe raises more questions for archaeology and prehistory than it answers. We do not know how a force large enough to construct, augment, and maintain such a substantial complex was mobilized and paid or fed in the conditions of pre-Neolithic society. We cannot "read" the pictograms, and do not know for certain what meaning the animal reliefs had for visitors to the site; the variety of fauna depicted, from lions and boars to birds and insects, makes any single explanation problematic. As there seems to be little or no evidence of habitation, and the animals depicted on the stones are mainly predators, the stones may have been intended to stave off evils through some form of magic representation; it is also possible that they served as totems. It is not known why more and more walls were added to the interiors while the sanctuary was in use, with the result that some of the engraved pillars were obscured from view. Burial may or may not have occurred at the site. The reason the complex was eventually buried remains unexplained. Until more evidence is gathered, it is difficult to deduce anything certain about the originating culture.

Leon Edgar Books