Urfa. This is where three of the world’s religions started. Jews and Muslims alike believe the father of monotheism, Abraham, was born in a cave here.
But people were here thousands of years before Abraham. Drive about 12 miles outside the city to Gobekli Tepe and you’ll see the beginnings of the excavation of an archaeological site featuring the world’s oldest temple.
Dated at 11,600 years, Gobekli Tepe is changing much of what we thought we knew about human history. As National Geographic puts it: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”
It truly blows your mind to know that you’re looking at the remains of a circular temple constructed seven millenia before the Great Pyramid of Giza.
But here in the cradle of Abraham, time has not stood still. Urfa, short for Sanliurfa, is a vibrant, thriving city, sprinkled with new construction, mainly highrise apartment complexes to house the 2 million or so people, predominantly Arabs and Kurds, who live here.
Men and women enter the cave separately and women, of course, are not allowed to pray on the main floor of any mosque. The prayer room for women at the Halil-ur Rahman Mosque is a small room on the opposite side of a marble courtyard.
John toured the cave and mosque while I succumbed to my inner feminist and opted out of complying with a dogma that requires me to cover myself head-to-toe on a warm day, separate from my husband and use the second-class facility to worship our Creator. To put it simply, I just didn’t want to comply.
John found me sitting in the courtyard watching children feed a flock of pidgeons. He plopped down beside me, exuberant and happy to have completed the #1 item on his Bucket List — visiting the birthplace of Abraham. I was very happy for him.
“What an amazing place,” he said, referring to Sanliurfa in general, which is just 30 miles north of Syria. “I don’t feel the least bit threatened here.”
“That’s because you’re a man.” I do have a knack for the obvious.
“Do you feel threatened here?” he asked.
“No…not physically threatened…just constricted.”
I thought about the young woman I had seen trying to eat an ice cream cone while wearing a burka. A mindless, pleasurable task made inconveniently difficult.Constricted.
I thought about all the women surrounding me, covered from head to toe on a nice, warm day. I thought about how miserably hot they must get in the blazing summer sun here. Constricted.
I thought about the little girl, not more than nine-years-old, who I had seen earlier in the day hauling a bale of freshly cut grass that had to weigh as much or more than she did. Why wasn’t she in school? Constricted.
I thought about the young, Arab teenagers we ran into while touring Gobekli Tepe. I was more of an attraction to the boys than the neolithic temple. They all scrambled to have their picture taken with a woman of Amazonian proportions. Arab men are very small and the women even more so. Thus, I’m an oddity in this part of the world. I graciously complied because I detected genuine amazement and no mean spiritedness in their request.
weren’t hostile so much as curious. I don’t look anything like the other women in Sanliurfa. (Another obvious observation!) While being different is often freeing, today I felt like an exotic bird in a cage. Constricted.
In the cradle of Abraham.