With excitedly friendly locals and a history stretching back to Abraham, Urfa in Turkey’s east won’t stay free of Western tourists for much longer, says ELISE RANA.
You could argue that trusting nothing but hot air and a wicker basket to carry you a thousand metres off the ground may seem like a reckless endeavour. You might even point out to some that Turkey is considered something of an adventurous destination in the first place. Yet when our plans to ‘head east’ raise eyebrows even among our fellow balloon passengers in Cappadocia, it’s a reminder that although Turkey may be one of the most visited countries on the planet, there’s still a lot to be discovered.
Bordered by Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, eastern Turkey occupies an interesting geopolitical position, to say the least. But what you don’t see on the map as you’re nervously measuring the distance from Baghdad is how it looks: every half an hour the scenery changes from snow-thick mountain passes and mist-shrouded lakes to flower-carpeted valleys, rolling farmland and orchard-covered plains. It’s beautiful.
It’s also booming. As we near the cities of Kahraman Marash and Gaziantep, heavily laden trucks thundering down a brand-new stretch of motorway are testament to the construction and development drive that’s transforming south-eastern Anatolia. Earlier this year, a €1 million package of EU funds was announced for the area, half to be channelled into the Euphrates-damming GAP project, the rest for tourism development.
For now, though, the sweet selling points of Kahraman Marash (ice-cream so thick you eat it with a fork) and Gazi Antep (baklava capital of the world) are over- shadowed by what lies further east – Sanliurfa, or Urfa, the ‘city of prophets’, an ancient metropolis now with the highest growth rate in Turkey – and, according to our guide in Cappadocia, the best kebabs.
The current name only dates to 1983, when ‘san’, meaning glorious, was added to quell resentment when neighbouring Antep was officially prefixed with Gazi (‘heroic’). This being Turkey, however, Urfa’s history goes way back. The Crusader castle that overlooks the city is impressive enough, but a fortress was first thought to have been built there a whopping 3500 years ago. Rulers have come and gone, from the Hittites, Assyrians and Alexander the Great to the Romans, Arabs and Turks. Oh, and Abraham (yes, he of Old Testament fame) was born here – a handy drawcard for three major world religions.
Undeterred by the absence of street signs and goat-based traffic jams – a friendly motorcycle cop eventually escorts us to our hotel – we arrive in Gölbasi, Urfa’s tourist central. The graceful mosque complex and surrounding gardens commemorate Urfa’s most famous legend, that when Abraham was flung onto a burning pyre by the local king, God intervened to turn the fire to water and the embers to fish, gently depositing Abraham in a flowerbed. Hence the rose garden, symmetrical pools and a rather spoiled shoal of carp.
Headscarved women scatter half-lira bowls of fish food into the ponds, turning the water’s surface into a slippery mass of gaping mouths and gleaming scales (a sternly blown whistle will let you know if you’re getting too close). Fathers row their children around the fountain in little pink and blue boats. Families and friends stroll among the trees, picnic on the grass, chat in the sunshine. It’s a sight more civilised than Piccadilly Circus.
Having fed the fish, scaled the fortress and paid our respects at Abraham’s purported birthplace, we head to the bazaar for a more visceral experience. Spice merchants, coppersmiths, string-sellers – every imaginable product has its own specialist cluster of shops. Surrounded by precariously balanced bottles of fuel, a lamp-vendor works over an open flame. Still-bloody fleeces are carted in by wheelbarrow for shearing, while the rest goes next door to the kebab shop. It makes Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar look like a New Jersey strip mall.
Avoiding the odorous pigeon shops we weave our way into the centre of the maze, where textile merchants in a crumbling caravanserai sell a rainbow array of scarves at dirt cheap prices. Women haggle while the menfolk spin out the afternoon with coffee and games of backgammon in the courtyard next door. It’s a Middle Eastern feast for the senses. Best of all, aside from the approaches of a few would-be tour guides and stallholders attempting to entice us their way, we’ve gone by not unnoticed, but totally unhassled.
That is, until we wander out of the bazaar, out among the town’s dusty back streets and past the gates of a local school. A tidal wave of blue-uniformed excitement breaks over us in a deafening chorus of ‘what’s your name?’ and other newly learned English phrases. The phenomenon turns from amusing Beatlemania-esque to mildly terrifying as we are swept down the street by the increasingly agitated mob – until a hand reaches out from what appears to be a lightbulb kiosk and pulls us out of the fray. A few stern words and the threat of a bucket of water from somewhere above disperse the mob.
As the kids head to the playground over the road, our hospitable saviours insist we pull up a foot-high wooden stool and recover with a glass of tea while we embark on a conversation in the language of football. Or rather, they name Turkish players in the Premiership and we smile and nod, desperately wishing we knew the first thing about the game.
When our new friend Mustafa eventually leads us back out to the main street, I realise I wouldn’t have minded staying lost. Urfa’s a good place for it. We’ve got bearings enough to find our way downtown, as it seems only right to wind up our day’s exploration with a kebab.
Not only does the hype prove pretty well justified, but the heavenly dessert that follows, a local speciality called kadayif, nearly eclipses it. In our venture east of the middle, the rewards have been nothing but sweet. On our way home, we pass the only other Westerner we’ve seen all day, knowing it can’t stay this way for long.
• Elise Rana travelled in Turkey with Fez Travel (+90 212 516 9024; ). Tours start at £199 including transport, guide and three-star accommodation with breakfast. Booking is now being taken for the first departures to eastern Turkey in May 2007.