Sling shot (verb): To be slung or flinged.
In the center of Urfa is a citadel. On the top of the citadel are two columns. From between these two columns, Abraham was slingshot.
That is the story anyway.
We stand in the shadow of the columns and peer over the edge. Beneath us is a drop of two hundred feet. Rising from below to meet our eyes are the twin minarets of Mevlid i Halil Camii. This mosque is adjacent to the cave where local tradition claims that Abraham the patriarch was born (See our blog, “Urfa’s Dergah”). A manicured complex of parks and pools unfolds around it. The buildings of the modern town stretch beyond. The desert of northern Mesopotamia lines the horizon. The scene is dramatic. It is picture perfect in the morning light.
We scamper onto the podium for a group picture. The column behind us is enormous, measuring some 17 meters in height. It wears a Corinthian cap and dates to the third century AD. In its original position it marked the center of the Kingdom of Edessa. The stories of this town are fascinating: the place is linked to the spread of Hellenism in the East, the preservation of the Aramaic language (as Syriac), the mission movement of the Apostolic church, and even the assassination of a Roman emperor. Unfortunately, the twin columns are all that is left of (what must have been) a grand palace.
Given the tradition that Abraham was born in Urfa, one more story must be spun. Locals claim (in expanding upon a passage in theQu’ran 21:51-70) that the citadel was once the throne of Nimrod, a haughty king (incidentally, as I learned just a few days ago, the termnimrod, is still used in Arabic today to describe a wickedly arrogant man). King Nimrod arrested Abraham on the charge that he smashed religious idols. The guilty monotheist was dragged to the citadel to be executed in a most unusual way.
An enormous bonfire was built in the valley. Nimrod ordered Abraham to be loaded into a sling anchored to the twin columns. He was then launched like an angry bird up into the sky and down into the flames!
But God saw it all and miraculously acted. He turned the flames into water and the burning wood into fish. Abraham landed safely in a bed of roses.
We swing down from the podium and walk down the stairs in a more moderate way. At the base we explore the Dergah. All the elements are here: pools of water, sacred fish, and beautiful flowers. This odd tale is celebrated in symbol. It is at the center of the shared memory.
I get close to the water. For Muslims, the fish of the pools are sacred and never eaten. Catch one, you’ll go blind.
Evidently the warning was ignored by Christians in times past, who regularly snagged dinner here. Egeria, a nun who traveled through the region in the late fourth century AD, commented on all kinds of things in the Holy Land, including the carp of Urfa. She wrote home, “there were fountains full of fish such as I never saw before of so great size, so bright of of so good a flavour were they” (See her The Pilgrimage of Etheria, trans. 1919, parag 33). George Percy Badger, an Anglican orientalist and missionary of the early 19th century, likewise commented how Christians eat the fish “cooked in a wine sauce and declare them excellent” (See his The Nestorians and their Rituals, 1852: 324)
I flip a pebble. It arcs upward and lands in the water. The carp swarm.
I think I’ll stick with walleye.