Header image courtesy of Jericho Li
Şanlıurfa is located in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, where some of the earliest human civilisations were cradled about 12,000 years ago. Also known as Urfa, it is notably regarded as a holy city and the spiritual centre for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam religions, captivating people’s hearts with pristine beauties and ancient relics.
Despite its sacred prominence and cultural diversity, Şanlıurfa is still relatively devoid of mass tourism. It is slowly attracting more international travellers who are eager to dive into the natural wonders and mystic legacies that have prospered here for centuries. In this timeless city where the locals embrace their visitors and guests as “a gift sent by God,” you will be amazed by the welcoming gestures and genuine hospitality, creating an unforgettable experience.
Balıklıgöl, surrounded by the Halil-ür Rahman Mosque (also called Döşeme Mosque) and the Rızvaniye Mosque, is a large, rectangular pool crowded with sacred fish resting right in the heart of Şanlıurfa’s Gölbaşı Park. Legend has it that when the prophet Abraham challenged the biblical King Nimrod and was ordered to be tossed into flames, the almighty God had the fire miraculously transformed into water bountiful with a swarm of holy carp.
Nowadays, this fabled site is a popular meeting place, and perhaps the best spot for people-watching. Locals can often be seen socialising and relaxing amongst the delicately landscaped gardens and lush trees.
Halil-ür Rahman Mosque, Merkez, Balıklı Göl Cd, 6300 Eyyübiye, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
Immediately adjacent to the Gölbaşı Park is the Dergah Complex, centred around the holy cave attached to the Ottoman-style Mevlid-i Halil Mosque (also known as Dergah Cami), where prophet Abraham was said to be born. Its central courtyard is a pilgrimage site for religious believers to gather for prayers and for visitors to find traces of Şanlıurfa’s millennia-old history. Nearby is Şanlıurfa Castle resting on the slopes of a small hill, which makes for a great place to enjoy a panoramic view of the old city.
Dergah Complex, Göl, 63200 Şanlıurfa Merkez, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
Turkish people would tell you that a bedesten (also known as a “bezzazistan” among the locals) is different from a bazaar, but it is essentially a covered bazaar housed inside unique Ottoman architecture. Here in the Kazzaz Bazaar (Bedesten), you will see craftsmen carving and hammering copperware and watch silk weavers bringing the city’s most important handicrafts to life. Getting lost in the labyrinthine alleys amongst shops and stalls selling everything from traditional clothes, household items, sheepskins, and local foods to colourful spices is a sensory journey that you have probably never come across in other bazaars.
Kazzaz Bazaar (Bedesten) will also lead you to Gümrük Hanı, an ancient caravanserai (a roadside inn for caravaners) where you can soak up the city’s most atmospheric experience in a spacious courtyard. Find a seat to sip a cup of menengiç kahvesi (caffeine-free pistachio coffee) and grab a bite of simit (ring bread).
Gümrük Hanı, Pınarbaşı, 1211. Sk. 2 K, 63210 Şanlıurfa Merkez, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
Atop the wheat-coloured Germuş mountains 17 kilometres from Şanlıurfa stands Göbekli Tepe (“Belly Hill”). A Neolithic site recognised as the oldest religious temple in the world, this 11,000-year-old structure predates even the prehistoric monument Stonehenge.
Discovery of this marvellous yet puzzling archaeological site has reshaped the existing perceptions of how human civilisation was developed. Large T-shape pillars of different styles are layered in circular enclosures and some of those are up to 5.5 metres high. Carvings with depictions of human figures and other animals can also be seen on these limestone pillars.
Göbekli Tepe, Örencik, 63290 Haliliye, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
A spectacular archaeology museum and the largest in the country with 14 main exhibition halls as well as 33 animation areas, this large cultural complex houses around 10,000 breathtaking artefacts, including the famed Urfa Man—the oldest discovered life-sized sculpture of a human—and replicas of excavations from the Göbekli Tepe temple.
Şanlıurfa Museum also holds many important pieces and sculptures to educate visitors on the evolution of civilisation in the holy city of Şanlıurfa, which can be traced back to over 12,000 years ago. It is surrounded by a landscaped promenade for the public to enjoy the outdoors and is well worth visiting to further your understanding before heading over to Göbekli Tepe.
Don’t forget to check out the Haleplibahçe Mosaic Museum, located in a separate building of the same area, where you will see the famous Orpheus marble mosaic, which was found on the ground of an ancient Roman villa believed to be from the third century BC.
Şanlıurfa Museum, Haleplibahçe Mahallesi 2372. Sok Eyyübiye, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
Some ancient towns around Şanlıurfa are easily accessible and can be visited on day trips. A 90-minute drive from Şanlıurfa to the east will bring you to the hidden paradise of Halfeti, which is also considered a sunken city as most of the old town is submerged beneath the translucent water of the Euphrates River due to the construction of Birecik Dam.
A scenic boat ride will take you around to enjoy a picturesque view of the Rumkale—an ancient fortress—as well as the old mosque and the beige-coloured houses of the Savaşan village cascading down the hillside. Halfeti is also a good place to try grilled sabut fish.
Halfeti, Gürlüce, 63950 Halfeti, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
About 45 kilometres south of Şanlıurfa, close to the border with Syria, is Ḥarrān, an ancient town imbued with an Assyrian atmosphere that amazes visitors with ruins of the first Islamic university in the world and the Castle of Ḥarrān. An age-old town, it is even mentioned in the Old Testament as a place where the prophet Abraham had spent several years.
History thrives in Ḥarrān, and this biblical city is perhaps best known for the clusters of mud-brick beehive houses where you can get a glimpse of how people used to live. Its existence, after thousands of years of ruthless climates, is simply a miracle.
Ḥarrān, İbni Teymiye, 63510 Ḥarrān, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
No need to pout when you realise that adult beverages are not widely available in Şanlıurfa—its exceptional cuisine and traditional delights will keep you happy instead. In fact, Şanlıurfa is one of the most important cornerstones of Turkey’s culinary culture and the city even has a Mutfak Müzesi (“Kitchen Museum”) dedicated to showcasing its centuries-old food history.
Patlıcan kebabı, also known as the aubergine kebab, is unique to Şanlıurfa and comes highly recommended. Marinated minced meat and sliced aubergines are put on a skewer and grilled together. It is often served with lavash (a soft and thin flatbread).
It is common for locals to eat liver kebabs while sitting at small tables on the pavement. Ciğer kebabı is one of the most popular street foods in town and is even eaten for breakfast. Word on the street is that tonnes of livers are consumed in Şanlıurfa on a daily basis.
You may have seen testi kebabı in western Turkey but this is actually an Anatolian speciality in which raw meat and vegetables are stewed in a sealed clay pot over fire. The way they serve this dish—by breaking open the pot right at your table—is an amusing experience.
Adventurous eaters will be excited to try the çiğ köfte that Şanlıurfa is renowned for. It is a traditional raw meat dish, made by mixing ground bulgur, raw ground beef or lamb, onion, tomato paste, minced parsley, and isot (a dried chilli pepper from Şanlıurfa) and then served with lettuce. Imagine this as a Turkish-style beef tartare and it’s lip-smacking delicious! Legend has it that this dish was invented by the biblical patriarch Abraham himself. Çiğ köfte is widely served as an appetiser at Turkish restaurants and a popular street food.
Urfa lebenisi is a simple cold soup made with yoghurt, chickpeas, and salt. Its name is derived from the Arabic word “leben” and the yoghurt is made from the milk of the Awassi sheep, a breed native to the Syro-Arabian desert that is raised in Urfa.
Did you know that in Turkey, if a piece of bread accidentally touches the ground, it needs to be kissed three times? Tırnaklı ekmeği is an oval-shaped flatbread made with wheat flour and baked in a stone oven. Simple as it looks, this speciality item takes a whole team to prepare, and it requires a lot of experience and knowledge of traditional practices to work the dough and make it just right. As a matter of fact, the culture of flatbread making and sharing in Turkey is officially recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.