Harran: Ancient Crossroads City of Mesopotamia


By Aigerim Korzhumbayeva – 

“…44 km (25 miles) southeast of Urfa what you first experience is the scorching wind. Afterward, the Bedouin melancholy hovers around you. Dust and fog mix. The sun shines, illuminating your soul. Young girls and boys smilingly welcome you on the way. History cannot be read here. It must be seen.

If you look around, all you see is debris. A seal has been stamped on the past of all of this debris.  Traditional Harran houses catch your eyes. You wonder, “What is the history of Harran?” You open the Torah, and see that Harran was mentioned as the city of Abraham. If you delve into ancient times, you will come across the great temple of the Moon God, Sin. If you ask the ancient merchants about Harran, they will tell you that Harran is the trading center of the world. You will encounter Islamic footprints.  With every step you take, a seal of every country appears. The blood shed from swords starts speaking… Thousands dead…you are walking in a land that was once a Seljuk state, an Ottoman city…” [1]

In the southeast of Turkey, next to the city of Urfa (once called Edessa), lies the city of Harran. Beginning about 2000 BCE, Harran’s name was mentioned in a variety of historical accounts as one of the most prominent cities of Northern Mesopotamia. However, very scarce information regarding the earliest period of its history has survived. A number of excavations have revealed Early Bronze Age materials that support the existence of Harran during this period.  The name of Harran first begins to be mentioned in the Mari archives. [2]  Reports in the royal letters from the city of Mari on the middle Euphrates indicate that the area around the Balikh river was occupied in the 19th century BCE by semi-nomadic tribes, who were especially active in the region near Harran. [3]  According to the letter correspondence between the Assyrian King Shamsi-Adad I (1812-1797 BCE) and his son Ishme-Adad, Harran was once a vassal kingdom of Assyria. [4]

Old Harran arches (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)
Old Harran arches (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)

The name of Harran has drawn immense attention and has raised debates regarding its origin among historians. Some claim that the name “Harran” is as old as its history. In Greek accounts, Harran is known as Karra, Kharran, Karais, whereas in Roman Latin accounts, Harran is mentioned as Carrhae, the infamous 53 BCE battle site where the Parthians crushingly defeated the Romans under the impetuous Crassus. This stinging defeat was accompanied by the loss of legionary standards later returned in a peace (Pax Romana) negotiated by Augustus and commemorated on the breastplate of the famous Porta Prima Augustus sculpture, also a reminder of neutralizing Antony’s losses to the Parthians in 40 BCE. In the Torah, the name is mentioned as Haran, a city inhabited by Prophet Abraham. It is also believed that different patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob traveled to and lived awhile in Harran (or Haran) according to various early biblical accounts including Gen.11:31-2 and Gen. 29-31. In the Assyrian tablets, Harran is mentioned as I-na-ha-ra-an, meaning “a path, road, or travel”. [5]   This meaning is likely due to the importance of Harran’s geographical location, which was once the knowledge and trading center that connected important routes. Harran was located at the intersection of the Silk Road, Iraq, Syria, and Inner Anatolia, especially important as a connection between the Euphrates River and the Levant because this vital route avoided the Nefud Desert and the great Hauran basalt wastes to the west. Some believe that Harran’s name comes from a cognate Arabic word harr, which means “hot”.  According to the twelfth-century traveler Ibn Jubayr:

“Stripped from the grassy lands and shades, it seems like Harran’s name comes from its own climate. Every part of it is boiling hot. You can neither find shade, nor breathe normally.” [6]

Throughout its history, Harran has been the home of the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, the Alexandrian Empire, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ayyubids, and many other dynasties and empires. Toward the end of the Umayyad Dynasty, Harran served as the capital city of the Islamic Empire. Once, Harran was known as a religious center, a commercial and agricultural city, and it was famous for its cotton, honey, sweets, and measuring tools. [7] In the period between 718-913, Harran went through its golden era as a cultural and knowledge center. Renowned Islamic scholars such as Thabit Ibn Qurra (826 – 901), Al-Battani (858-929) and Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) came from Harran. After the Abbasid rule, Harran started losing its power and reputation. In 1098 the Crusades set their expeditions in Harran, and as a result Harran lost more of its power. [8]   Salahaddin Al-Ayyubi (1138-1193), commonly known as Saladin, arrived in Harran to bring back its power. Saladin is a prominent figure in Muslim culture, whose noble character won him Richard the Lion’s respect. Hospitals, bazaars, madrasahs (schools), and bathhouses were built during Saladin’s rule. After alternating periods of power and weakness, Harran got a final fateful blow in 1260 when Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded the city. Mongol troops destroyed the city, including famous sites such as the Grand Mosque and the city gates. Shocked residents of Harran fled to nearby cities such as Mardin, as well as present-day Syrian cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. After Mongol invasion, once a commercial, agricultural, and knowledge center, Harran transformed into a mere village with a small population. In 1517 when Harran became part of the Ottoman Empire, its population consisted of no more than 250 residents.[9]  Harran never again regained its power and has remained as a small Turkish province.

Harran's kumbet house cluster (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)
Harran’s kumbet house cluster (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)

I happened to travel to southeastern Turkey, to the cities of Harran, Gazıantep, and Urfa in March 2011.  While studying at Oxford University (UK) as part of an overseas program, I met an amazing Turkish family who invited me for a spontaneous trip to explore ancient sites in Turkey. While exploring Harran’s historical sites little did I imagine that a long time ago Harran had been a prominent city. Today, Harran’s landscape is not reflective of its magnificent past that once reigned in the city, prior to the Mongol invasion. It is beyond imagination to visualize Harran’s golden era in the presence of a contradictory bleak landscape. Nevertheless, what makes Harran so special are the remaining structures of a past grand city.  From a distance, what first draws your attention is a 131-foot minaret and the remains of the Grand Mosque (Ulu Cami) walls, suggesting to passers-by that it was once a grandiose structure. According to Ibn Jubayr, the Grand Mosque remained from the Roman period as a temple for worship.  According to Ibn Shaddad, the Sabians, a mysterious group residing in the Harran region, used this structure as the great temple of the Moon God, Sin. After an Arab invasion in 639, Iyaz bin Ganm turned this temple into a mosque, and gave permission to the Sabians to build their temple in a different location. [10]

Another important site that still exists in Harran is the Inner Fortress. With dimensions of 426 x 295 feet and a height of about 100 feet, it is believed that the Inner Fortress was composed of as many as 150 rooms.[11]  Its overall structure is rectangular-shaped and polygonal towers rise from its corners. The architecture of the Inner Fortress is stunning; its beauty is complemented by the view from the entrance doors up to the azure sky and cotton-shaped clouds, and down to the unique, traditional Harran houses.

Harran’s beehive-shaped mud brick houses are called kümbet. According to archaeological findings, the custom of building such houses dates back to thousands of years in Northern Mesopotamia. Today there are around 960 kümbets in Harran. Bet is an ancient Semitic word for “house”. Every kümbet has an open hole on top of the roof for the purpose of day lighting. This open hole serves the dual purpose of a chimney.  The conical shape and clay material have excellent thermodynamic and air circulation properties. Kümbets are perfect for Harran’s climate: they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is said that when kept in kümbets, hens hatch more eggs, domestic animals like horses become tamer, and onions sprout faster. [12]  The Ministry of Culture bought and restored 4 kümbets, which now collectively function as a museum. This museum displays traditional costumes, jewelry, and other artifacts specific to the region.

Apart from its ancient sites, the Harran region has been famous for its hospitable culture and traditions. Here is a bit of Ibn Jubayr’s description:

“Harran is full of kind and softhearted people, who love foreign travelers, and who defend and help the poor. Here the homeless do not feel the urge to beg – they get their food and other provisions from Harran’s citizens. Harran’s citizens are recognized as the most generous population … ” [13]

My personal experience with the people of Harran and its surrounding areas totally aligns with Ibn Jubayr’s description. Harran and its nearby regions remain in my memory as the most hospitable places that I have visited, not only throughout my trip, but also throughout my life. Here is one of my encounters that showed uncommon hospitality of common Turkish people in the Harran region: while we were resting somewhere in Harran, a woman clad in a Bedouin dress with a purple headscarf (exclusive to Urfa-Harran region) came up to us to offer sweets. After a short conversation with us, this woman invited us over to her house. Her spur-of-the-moment invitation struck me and reminded me of the long-gone good days, when a stranger would invite another stranger, without any speculation and table preparation. We gladly agreed to go to her village named Akçakale, which was about a half hour drive from where we met her. Upon arrival at her house, her young daughter and son welcomed us. I could see that her children were surprised to see tourists, but they were not surprised to receive random guests – it was probably a norm in their family culture. The woman invited her neighbor friend, another female with a purple headscarf, and her young daughter to welcome us. Together the two families prepared a delicious lunch for us, including a popular Turkish appetizer and a specialty of southeastern Turkey, çiğ köfte, translated as “raw meatball”. Lore has it that çiğ köfte was invented near Harran, in the city of Urfa, at the time of the Prophet Abraham. Prophet Abraham destroyed the idols worshipped by the King Nimrud and his nation, and instead invited them to worship God. Enraged King Nimrud decided to punish Prophet Abraham by burning him alive. For the execution purpose, all firewood in the Urfa region was collected, and as a result, no firewood remained for people to cook. Çiğ köfte was a creative invention of one woman, who, trying to feed her family, mixed raw meat with bulgur and spices and crushed the mixture with tools made of stone.

Interior of Harran village active kumbet house (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)
Interior of Harran village active kumbet house (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)

Today despite the ubiquity of stoves, the tradition of making çiğ köfte has remained and has become an inseparable part of Turkish cuisine. There we sat on the floor around a long tablecloth and cherished the delicious çiğ köfte and a friendly conversation. We spent a wonderful day at the family’s village, which turned out to be the border city between Turkey and Syria. I found it exhilarating to be standing on the roof of their house and viewing two different flags behind the border fences, each representing its country, but only within a stone’s throw away from each other. People in this village carried patterns of two cultures, Turkish and Arab, and one of the most evident indicators to this fact was that they spoke Turkish and Arabic equally well. At that time I had been learning Arabic for two years, and I wished I were equally fluent in Turkish and Arabic, just as the people living in the Akçakale village. However, what I wished more was that I was as hospitable as them, and I wondered whether it was possible to acquire similar hospitality traits carried through their culture. The uncommon hospitality of common Turkish people from the Harran region, engraved in my memory a paradigm of what true hospitality should be like.

New Harran village with kumbet clusters and other houses (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)
New Harran village with kumbet clusters and other houses (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva, 2011)

After nine centuries of Ibn Jubayr’s quotes on Harran’s weather, and maybe even since Harran’s established existence, to date, Harran’s weather has remained boiling hot. The tan that lingered on my face for quite a long time as a result of my visit to Harran would have testified to this truth. Ibn Jubayr’s remark on the hospitality of the Harran region still holds true as well. Now that my tan from Harran is gone, one gift still remains with me. It is the Turkish hospitality, which transcended from mere “warm” hospitality to extraordinary “boiling hot”.



[1]   Müslüm Yücel. Ibrahim ve Harran Gizemi: Sin Mabedi ve Sabiilik. Istanbul, Turkey: Belge Yayıları, 2000, 11.

[2]  Aynur Özfırat. Eskiçağda Harran. Istanbul, Turkey: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 1994, 100.

[3]  Tamara M. Green. The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran. The Netherlands: E.J.Brill, 1992, 19.

[4]   Özfırat, op.cit., p.100.

[5]   Yücel, op.cit., p.13.

[6]   Ramazan Şeşen. Harran Tarihi. Ankara, Turkey: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Yayın Matbaacılık ve Ticaret İşletmesi, 1993, 21.

[7]   Şeşen, op.cit., p.9

[8]   Şeşen, op.cit., p.10.

[9]   Şeşen. op.cit., p.12.

[10]  Özfırat, op.cit., p.96.

[11]  Özfırat, op.cit., p.93.

[12]   T.C. Şanlıurfa Valiliği (The Governor of Şanlıurfa)

[13]   Şeşen, op.cit., p.22.


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