“My name is Hilal which means good friend. And I hope we will be very good friends.”
Hilal, a Kurd, is our tour guide in the city of Sanliurfa (glorious Urfa) where our group has just arrived on a two-day trip from Cappadocia. He is a tall man with dark hair, a high forehead, thick eyebrows that meet in the middle and a disarming smile.
“Now we will visit the holy fish.”
Hilal is married to a Turkish woman. He is proud of his interracial marriage in this conflict-ridden area of southeast Turkey.
Women dressed head to toe in the chadar (long scarf). Click image for more photographs of Sanliurfa.
We walk beside the 13th century mosque whose triple domes and stone frieze are reflected in Abraham’s Lake. Women dressed head to toe in the chadar (long scarf) and the burka chatter under the minaret. Many are here on pilgrimage from Iran, Iraq and Syria to visit the prophet Abraham’s birthplace, sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
A veiled woman buys seeds for her sons to feed the portly fish. The young boys squat by the lake, the holy carp swirling at their feet. Then they cry out as a teenager steals one of the fish.
“Bad boy,” mutters Hilal.
A policeman, in a navy uniform and baseball hat, takes chase. The story that those who steal the holy fish will go blind has not deterred the teenager.
We follow Hilal as he strides in his smart dark suit through the rose gardens beside Ayn-i Zeliha Lake. Zeliha was the daughter of King Nimrod who was furious with Abraham for destroying his pagan gods so had him catapulted from the citadel into a funeral pyre below.
“But Zeliha was in love with Abraham so threw herself into the flames.”
Hilal waves his arms, tracing the fall of the lovers. Allah came to the rescue, of course. He turned fire into water and both Abraham and Zeliha landed safely in their separate lakes.
People rush in and out of a row of stone arches ladened with bundles of merchandise. This is the covered bazaar built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century.
“ Keep close to me,” says Hilal. “It’s easy to get lost.”
Hilal goes so fast that we have to run to keep up. I am tempted to buy a blue or red headscarf worn by local women. I need protection from the heat and to gain entry to the Dergah Ottoman mosque but there is no time. I have to keep up with Hilal. Market sellers peer through strings of dried aubergines and pyramids of turmeric inviting me to smell Sanliurfa pepper but I cannot linger. I have to keep up with Hilal. A handcart piled high with ruby red cherries blocks my path. A woman buys a punnet to appease her children who spit out the pips at passers by. I am stuck, lost in a maze of alleyways. Neither Hilal nor the group are in sight. I have no clue of where to meet up or the name of the hotel where I am staying.
A turbaned shopkeeper points down an alley. I rush past handmade shoes, pots and pans, silks and sheepskins with barely a glance. I turn right into blacksmith alley where old men brandish hot pokers taken out from glowing embers. I turn left into coppersmith alley where young boys hammer intricate inlays on bowls and tea trays, pepper grinders and coffee pots. The sound is deafening. Local women turn to stare at a foreign woman rushing through the bazaar with wild hair and a billowing skirt.
Exhausted I pass through an archway into a shady courtyard, part of an ancient caravanserai, a customhouse, where traders on the Silk Route spent one or two nights free of charge. Turks, Kurds and Arabs sit at small tables playing dominoes, backgammon and chess with tiny brass pieces. There is not a woman in sight. I look round and my eyes glaze over. There are several men with the same high forehead, dark hair and thick eyebrows as Hilal but none respond. They are focussed on their game, their weather-beaten faces creased up in concentration as they consider their next move.
Backgammon in the courtyard, Sanliurfa market. Click image for more photographs of Sanliurfa.
Then an Arab with a magnificent moustache wearing baggy pants and a checked scarf turban stands up and beats his chest.
“I am a champion,” he cries.
I accept tea in a gold-rimmed glass and sit down with a group of men. I am tired of looking for my group. Instead I challenge the Arab champion to a game of backgammon. I hope Hilal is indeed my good friend and will come to my rescue. Or perhaps the caravanserai will open its doors once again to this traveller without silks from the East or a camel in tow.
This article was runner up in the Bradt/Independent travel writing competition in 2011.