Urfa's Dergah

Urfa is a different town by day.

The promenade. This pond is called Balıklıgöl, or “fish lake,” in Turkish. It is connected to local legends about the patriarch Abraham.

The night before, when we filed though Urfa’s bazar and dergah, it was a cacophony. Buyers and sellers haggled. Families socialized and ate. Hollering, honking, munching, braying and wailing filled the sultry air. Every space was contested. Tanner was wide-eyed. “Welcome to the Middle East,” I had shouted. Dir balak! “Be careful!”

Now, at sunrise, Keith and I retrace those steps. The scene is altogether different. The promenade is almost deserted. A man is stretched out on a park bench. He snores in an even cadence: inhale–puhhh-h! inhale–puhhh-h! Apart from his flapping jowls, the night has exhausted itself.

Our goal this morning is a cave beneath the citadel of the city. Some say it is the spot where Abraham the monotheist was born. As the legend goes, his is a secret arrival. A wicked king named Nimrod was informed by astrologers that a newborn would arise, claim his crown, and bring an end to his reign of terror. Nimrod had to kill the child. A “slaughter of the innocents” is initiated. Nimrod is painted in Herod-esque colors.

I know. I know. It is Jim Burns' imaginative presentation of Gilgamesh the king. But certainly Nimrod ("the proud") would have liked to be remembered like this. Image from here.

However, the baby escapes Nimrod’s rage. He survives for seven (or was it ten?) years in a cave by virtue of his own hiddenness. That, and the milk of a deer that nurses him. Now it is Abraham, not Nimrod, who is painted in other colors. Is it Cyrus-esque? Mowgli-esque? Do you prefer Kipling or Herodotus?

As a reader of the Christian Bible, these strange stories about Abraham’s origins are new to me. In my tradition nothing is known of the patriarch’s early years apart from his starting place. It is simply “Ur of the Chaldees” proclaims Genesis 11:28. Could Ur somehow morph to Urfa? But then what does one do with the modifier Kashdim (Chaldees)?

I wonder how much of Woolley’s identification of a southern (Sumerian) Ur for Abraham was driven by his own need for funds or fame? Certainly he wouldn’t be the first or the last archaeologist to make a public splash for . . . reasons.

Interestingly, traditional scholarship has, more often than not, looked north for Abraham’s Ur. Those who have floated other possibilities include Josephus, Maimonides, Speiser, and Gordon. There is no slam dunk here, despite the bold print of Ur in the place of Tell al-Muqayyar in virtually every Bible Atlas.

Today, Urfa is a pilgrimage site within the Islamic community, a kind of Turkish Mecca. People living in this part of the world travel great distances to visit Urfa, think about Abraham, and pray. We, on the other hand, are propelled by curiosity.

Keith and I approach the structure built in front of a rising cliff. There is a men’s entrance and a women’s entrance. The guard of the sexes is positioned in a booth, exactly in the middle. He waves us to the right. We remove our shoes to comply with holy etiquette and enter. We are completely alone.

Keith inside the “Cave of Abraham.”

Fluorescent bulbs dimly light the small space. It is oppressively warm and damp. The sound of running water fills our ears.