From the sublime to the bazaar

Pat Yale tangles with Turks off the tourist trail in Urfa, and finds herself where east meets west
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Earning a living in Turkey isn't always easy, even if you're a teacher. So it was that I bumped into Ozcan Arslan, an English teacher who was supplementing his salary by moonlighting as a tour operator.

I'd come to Urfa drawn by memories of a wonderful plane-tree-shaded tea garden. But my path to the Hotel Harran strayed past the door of Ozcan's shop, and before I knew it, there I was, sitting on a kilim-covered bench, sipping tea and having my itinerary reworked.

Ten years ago, Urfa was on the tourist trail that wound round eastern Turkey, but since then, the Gulf War and the Kurdish liberation struggle have frightened visitors away. No matter that Urfa keeps its nose pretty clean; it, too, gets the cold shoulder. Ozcan was running a one-man campaign to reinstate it on the tourist map.

Like most visitors, I had my sights set on a quick foray south to Harran to inspect the famous beehive houses designed to a biblical blueprint, but Ozcan had other ideas. Tea finished, he whisked me off to get to grips with Urfa itself.

A lovely city of honey-coloured houses with stone tears dripping down their facades, Urfa is the perfect antidote to Turkey's coastal resorts, where looking for signs of anything particularly Turkish is as futile as searching for kebabs up Mount Everest. It's in Urfa, more than in modern Istanbul, that east really meets west, and the covered bazaar is an instant illustration, with black denims on sale alongside sheepskins, saddles and copious tinware.

Visitors to Turkey usually have a love-hate relationship with the carpet dealers, but in Urfa few tourists means no high-pressure sales tactics. In the bazaar, we inspected piles of bargain-priced carpets. "People come here with their old rugs when they hit hard times," Ozcan explained. A sort of pawnshop system, then, which didn't stop me leaving with a delightful dowry bag that had been unstitched to make a floor covering.

At the heart of the bazaar there were the plane trees, just as I remembered them, with the old men in flat caps perched on wooden chairs, playing tabla as if their lives depended on it. Ozcan ordered glasses of sahlep, a milky drink that tastes like diluted custard, while I wrestled with sudden edginess, conscious that I was trespassing in a man's world.

In place of more conventional tourists, Urfa is full of devout Muslim pilgrims. According to legend, the prophet Abraham was born in a cave here. Leaving Ozcan to round up other stray wanderers, I popped in to inspect the birthplace, expecting the reverential silence of a church. What I got was the atmosphere of a family picnic, and a vivid illustration of Urfa's crossroads location. Half the women wore head-to-toe Iranian black. A few sported the glistening, colourful robes of Syria. A handful of westernised urbanites made me feel as overdressed in trousers, long sleeves and headscarf as if I'd worn them to the beach.

Outside, the authorities have turned their back on the Turkish tradition of tearing down any half-way attractive old building and replacing it with a concrete high-rise. Instead, a delightful rose garden, irrigated in the ferocious sun by a wooden waterwheel, links the cave with Urfa's other holy of holies, the sacred carp pool. The Abraham story reports how, after King Nimrod sentenced Abraham to be roasted alive for messing with his idols, God stepped in to turn the fire into water and the coals into fish. Voila, the carp pool, where I handed over my lira for a tray of pellets to feed some of the world's most pampered pisciforms.

Above the pool stands a ruined castle, probably dating from the time when Urfa was Edessa. A quick look at the map says it all. Anyone wanting to reach Europe from the Middle East would have had to pass through Edessa which was occupied, in turn, by Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Arabs. For a brief period it even masqueraded as the quirky European County of Edessa, a leftover from the first Crusade.

Ultimately it fell to the Seljuks, and then to the Ottomans who renamed it Urfa. The Sanli (pronounced "Shanli") which precedes it on signs is a relatively recent honorific, meaning "glorious".

With the wind whipping up a dust storm, I hotfooted it to the hammam. In western Turkey most baths, especially those for women, are little more than tourist attractions. Out east I was used to soaking alongside the locals, although I'd never yet heard a shades-of-the-playground hubbub like the one that emanated from behind this particular door.

Pushing it open, I found myself in a cavernous vestibule filled to overflowing with women and children. The noise level dipped momentarily as the occupants took in this unexpected apparition, but it was too late to back out. Within minutes I'd been stripped of my clothes and bundled into a bathhouse so chocka it was hard to find space to sit down. "It's cheap, you see," Ozcan later explained. "People take their lunch, make a day of it."

Ozcan had one final ace to play, and that was his excursion to Harran. It started with a drive to Sogmater, a tiny, all-but-forgotten desert village. There, in the gloom of the Pagnon Cave, we inspected spooky, life-size rock-cut figures in crescent crowns, relics of the equally all- but-forgotten cult of the moon god Sin.

From Sogmater we rattled along a dirt track through a landscape of browns, yellows and ochres. At a rare waterhole, the cows were chocolate brown, the shaggy-fleeced sheep a grubby fawn, and even the water was a murky treacle.

After the warm welcome we'd received in Sogmater, Harran's mobs of bonbon- demanding children were a dismal reminder of the likely long-term fallout from our adventuring. It was a shock, too, to bump back on to the Tarmac highway. Gone were the browns and yellows, replaced by shades of green, the cotton-bush legacy of the brand-new Ataturk Dam, cornerstone of Ankara's plan to make the desert bloom. Back in Urfa, Ozcan turned to me with a grin. Now, if I wanted to see the Ataturk Dam ...

Harran-Nemrut Tours, Koprubasi Caddesi, Sanli Urfa (0090 414 215 1575). Day trip to Harran and around, $15 (pounds 9), assuming at least four people. Hotel Harran, Ataturk Bulvari, Sanliurfa (0090 414 313 2860). To stay in an old Urfa house, try Sanliurfa Valiligui Konuk Evi, off Vali Fuat Bey Caddesi (00 90 414 215 9377)