Eight Days Journey Through Four Millennia of History (3) From Tarsus to Mount Ararat

By Ferrell Jenkins

On the fourth day we left Adiyaman and headed south-easterly on highway 875 to Sanliurfa and Harran. The road isn’t even on a map I bought about 10 years ago. We were able to see Mount Nemrud in the distant mountains about 35 to 40 miles away. We saw the lakes that have been formed as a result of GAP; in English this acronym stands for the Southeastern Anatolian Project. When completed in 1997 the project will consist of 22 dams on the upper Euphrates. Already the water is providing electrical power and irrigation water for the dry southeastern portion of Turkey. A large tunnel takes water to Harran and the Mesopotamian plain. Lack of water is a big problem in the Middle East and this project is a source of concern to Syria and Iraq because they depend on the Euphrates for water.

The River Euphrates:

Boundary of the Promised Land

We were excited to see the Euphrates River. A drive of about one-half mile east of the highway brought us to the southernmost dam of the water conservation project. The river is wider than I had imagined it would be here. The water is clear and some fish can be seen jumping. I have seen the Euphrates at Nasiriyah near the traditional site of Ur of the Chaldees north of the Persian Gulf in Iraq. There the river is wider, deeper and contains more mud. The Euphrates is called the Firat in the Turkish language.

The Euphrates is the largest, longest, and most important river of Western Asia. It is nearly 1800 miles long and was the boundary of the land promised to Abraham (Gen. 15:18). The empires of Assyria and Babylon, the greatest enemies of Israel, lived east of the Euphrates. The prophets often put the Euphrates by metonymy for these countries to designate the place from which the punishment of God would come (Isa. 7:20; 8:7; Jer. 46:10). In the book of Revelation the Euphrates is dried up so that the kings of the east can gather at a place called Armageddon (16:12-16). When Revelation was written the Parthians, dreaded enemy of Rome, lived east of the Euphrates. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) mentions frequently in his records that he had crossed the river Euphrates. In one of his annals he says he had crossed the Euphrates twenty-one times (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 279-80). That means war! For more details see my Studies in the Book of Revelation, 39.)

South of the highway we visited a typical village of the area with mud-brick houses, piles of stored grain, stacks of dung cakes which were being dried for cooking and warming the houses during the winter. Along the river there were flocks of sheep and goats and two horses. While I was photographing the scene, a young woman came to the river with two buckets to get water for her house. As she walked out in the water I focused my camera on her and she turned her back and then walked back toward her house leaving her buckets behind. We realized that life styles had changed little in the past four thousand years.

As we continued toward Sanliurfa we saw some people winnowing lentils in one of the villages; they had already winnowed some wheat. They gladly went through all of the stages of the process for us to photograph.

Most of the people we talked with from Sanliurfa east-ward stated they were Kurdish  not Turkish. This is an ethnic problem for Turkey which is outside the interest of this article.

Sanliurfa: Birthplace of Abraham?

When we arrived in Sanliurfa, with a population of 276,000, I told Curtis and Kyle that here they were seeing the thoroughly oriental Middle East that I have known for more than a quarter of a century. The culture, the dress of the people, the streets, and the markets remind me of Damascus, Antioch of Syria, Amman, and Jerusalem before Israeli modernization. Yet the city has a modern touch, too. It is the home of Harran University. The name Sanliurfa means “Glorious Urfa,” but the town is often called Urfa.

Many Moslem pilgrims come to Urfa to visit a cave where it is believed Abraham was born. Some have equated Urfa with the Ur of the Chaldeans of the Bible (Gen. 11:28, et al.). Ur may not equal Urfa but a fairly good case can be made for placing the Biblical Ur in the northern sectors of Mesopotamia, rather than the traditional Ur in ancient Sumer. For more information see The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands, 80, and International Standard Bible Encyclopedia IV:954-5.

We visited the Cave of Abraham and saw the pilgrims worshipping there and drinking the water which flows from the spring in the cave. We also visited the nice museum which contains many items from the Bronze Age, including the period of the biblical patriarchs. One of the most impressive items is the stele from Harran of Nabonidus, the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian empire (556-539 B.C.). Nabonidus was king of Babylon when Daniel was made third in the kingdom [after Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus] (Dan. 5:7).

The earliest name for Urfa was Ursu. During the Seleucid period, about 300 B.C., it was named Edessa. Here Crassus and the Roman army were defeated by the Parthians in 53 B.C. Trajan visited the city in A.D. 114. Edessa became a strong center of Christianity during the third century A.D.

Harran: Home of Abraham

Driving twenty miles south to Harran (spelled Haran in many English versions of the Bible) we knew we were in Mesopotamia, the Greek name meaning the land between the rivers (Euphrates and Tigris). In the Hebrew this territory was called Aram-naharaim, “Aram of the two rivers” (Gen. 24:10; Deut. 23:4; the NASB has Mesopotamia). This term may apply only to the area between the Euphrates and the Balih rivers, also known as Paddan-aram  “field of Aram”  in the Bible. The region is part of the wet steppe of Mesopotamia which receives about 12 inches of rainfall annually. It is part of what has been called the “Fertile Crescent,” primarily in contrast with the arid desert which surrounds it (The Moody Atlas of the Bible, 7).

The Genesis record tells us that Terah and his family, including Abraham and Sarah, left Ur of the Chaldeans “in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there” (Gen. 11:31). After the death of Terah, Abraham and Sarah continued south to the land of Canaan. Genesis 12:5 indicates that the time spent in Harran was one of prosperity for Abraham. See also Acts 7:2-4.

Paddan-aram was the home of Laban, the brother of Sarah (Gen. 28:2). Rebekah came from this region to be the wife of Isaac (Gen. 24-25) and Jacob spent many years in the area working for Leah and Rachel (Gen. 28ff). All of his children except Benjamin were born here (Gen. 29:32 – 30:24): The Israelites were able to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5; Syrian,.KJV). The life we see in the area today is reminiscent of the events recorded in Genesis. The women wear colorful costumes even when working in the field or getting water at the well (now re-placed by the running water at one place in the village). Wells supplied the necessary water in Patriarchal times (Gen. 24:11; 29:2).

Harran is mentioned in texts as early as 2000 B.C. as the location of a temple of Sin, the moon-god. Assyria maintained a presence here from the 14th century B.C. The city rebelled against Assyria in 763 B.C. and was sacked (New Bible Dictionary, 453). Sennacherib used this fact to intimidate the Judeans (2 Kings 19:12, Isa. 37:12). After Nineveh fell in 612 B.C., the Assyrians maintained their capital at Harran until 609 B.C. when the city was captured by the Babylonians. Ezekiel, in prophesying against Tyre, mentions the trade with Harran (Ezek. 27:23).

Before reaching the Syrian border we turned east and headed straight for the mound of ancient Harran. Ruins of the oldest mosque in Turkey, from the 8th century A.D., stand on the tell, as do ruins from the time of Saladin (A.D. 1192) and the time of the Crusaders. Ruins of the famous Moslem university are also visible. Harran has a population of about 2300 persons today. Many of them live in beehive or conical-shaped houses. It is said that these houses are warm in winter and cool in summer. Throughout our journey in eastern Turkey we marveled at the way man is able to adapt to his environment and utilize the local material to provide housing.

Everything we saw in Harran was interesting, but it was the association with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that drew us here. We got a little feel for the place they lived for so many years. In a way this was our ancestral home: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).

More adventure to come. The Tigris River, the land of Urartu (Ararat), and Mount Ararat.

Guardian of Truth XL: 7 p. 10-11
April 4, 1996