Hot Camel Flies

It is hot. The breeze blowing across the Mesopotamian plain carries no refreshment, only dust.

Camels of Haran.

I do what comes naturally in this part of the world: I recline in the shade of a goat-hair tent and sip hot çay. The tea is served in a tulip glass lacking a handle, so I sip carefully but quickly. I hang on the rim to avoid burning my fingers. My companions do the same. The glasses dance.

Indifferent to this entertainment are the camels. They are tethered to a stone manger, morose. The sun beats down. The flies buzz.

This is Haran, an ancient crossroads in northern Mesopotamia. It is the perfect place for tea, camels and flies. From here roads run east to Nineveh, south to Mari, and west to Ebla, Damascus, and beyond. Caravaneers of the Fertile Crescent knew these paths well. Academics even suggest the name of the site is rooted in its position. Haran is literally a “Road-Town,” from the Akkadian, ḫarranu, for “road.”

The corner of the mound of Haran (right). The smaller circle on the left encloses Yakub Kuyusu, or the “Well of Jacob.” Image from Google Earth.

Archaeologists associate Haran with T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), the British scholar Seton Lloyd, or a new generation of Turkish archaeologists from Şanlıurfa’s Harran University who are now working the site. Despite a century of  attention, the surface has barely been scratched. Unlike the provincial Sultantepe–which is about the size of a soccer field–Haran easily measures a mile in diameter. Considering the small size of the excavated sample, our ignorance easily outstrips our knowledge of this place.

View through a chain-link fence to a recently excavated area of Haran.

The camels scuffle. I look up. Rising behind them I can see the ruins of a much older university. Some claim it to be the first such educational institution in the Islamic world, dating to the 8th or 9th c. AD. Only a few walls and single tower survive the smothering dust. Other ruins are strewn about, buried, or nearly so.

Historians associate Haran with personal names. Among them are Tiglath-Pileser I, Adad-guppi, and Crassus. The Assyrian king was delighted by an abundance of elephants he found here at the end of the second millennium BC. The queen mother of the Babylonian throne may have precipitated the eclipse of Babylon by her actions. From the brow of this hill she scorned the sun’s blaze and encouraged moon-worship, angering the traditional priesthood. Finally, the Roman general suffered a humiliating defeat at Carrhae (Latinized Haran) in the first century BC. This battle, fought somewhere on the plain below, is counted among the Empire’s greatest disasters. Legend has it that after his capture, the Parthians poured molten gold down the general’s throat. The lesson? Greed kills.

The Roman army suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Parthians at Carrhae. This depiction of the Parthian cavalry is found here.

Biblicists associate Haran with the Patriarchs of Genesis. Abraham traveled the path to Haran and even lodged here for a time (Gen 11:31-32; 12:4-5). Of course, Jacob went back to Haran to get a wife and then some (Gen 27:43-45; 28:10; 29:4; etc.).

In light of Jacob’s story, we load into the van and drive to the edge of the village. Here, an old well is receiving fresh attention. Bir Yakub or Yakub Kuyusu (“Jacob’s Well”) consists of a small enclosed yard. It is obvious that significant money is being invested to renovate the site. Outside the wrought iron fence is new signage in Turkish, Arabic, and English. Inside the fence is a garden surrounding a small masonry platform. In the center of the platform is a grated hole. When the keeper of the key arrives, the gate is opened and we enter.

Local boys meet us at the gate.

Sprinklers water the garden. In the heat of the day, we make no effort to avoid the spray.

One by one we peer though the grated wellhead and see water (and some floating garbage) far below. The watchman suggests it is a distance of 60 feet. I contemplate the energy required to repeatedly haul a full skin-sack from that depth. If a skin-sack holds one gallon and a dry camel can drink 40 gallons . . .  40 pulls up the equivalent of a six story building? And how much does a gallon of water weigh? I sweat just thinking about it.

Peering down the well.

Tradition has it that this is where the patriarch Jacob took one look at Rachel and found the strength of many men (Gen 29). He rolled away the stone that covered the well in Haran and watered a whole herd of sheep. The flies must have been buzzing that day. So was Jacob’s heart!

Tanner and the camels.