While not much of ancient Harran survives, its atmosphere remains imbued with a sense of magic and mystery. The Mesopotamian city was a former dwelling place of Abraham and home to Anatolia’s first mosque. And it was long a center of stellar worship, remaining one of the ancient world’s last pagan strongholds. In this Harran guide, we’ll be covering the city’s fascinating history and prominent landmarks, including its iconic Beehive Houses.
Harran was inhabited as early as the Chalcolithic age but first grew to prominence in the 3rd millennium BC as part of the Assyrian Empire. Due to its position on important trading routes, it quickly became a major commercial center.
And for thousands of years, Harran was synonymous with the worship of Sin, the Mesopotamian moon good. Sadly, nearly all was lost following the Mongol invasion of 1251, but Harran’s numerous legends live on.
The Citadel Mound
Not far from the main bus stop is the entrance to the Citadel Mound, or Harran’s Old City. Somewhat unusually for Turkey, you’ll likely be accosted by guides offering to show you around. You can politely decline, but expect to run into a few more as you explore the area. Apparently, most of them are related.
Harran was originally a round city, completely surrounded by walls and built around a central mound. The walls were first built in Byzantine times during the reign of Emperor Justinian. But as mentioned above, Harran is much more ancient.
Approaching the Old City, you’ll encounter the western Aleppo Gate, one of the original seven. While later named after the cities to which they led, they originally represented the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
The gate was restored by Saladin in the late 12th century before being demolished by the Mongols. And more recently, it was restored, or rather rebuilt, by local archaeologists.
A local man I met expressed his frustration witnessing these ‘restorations,’ as archaeologists were essentially destroying what was left of the original landmarks, he claimed. But his persistent letters to the government were ignored.
Stepping inside the walls, Harran’s Old City appears rather bleak and desolate at first glance. But as you walk around, you’ll notice old stones scattered everywhere. And with a bit of imagination, you can picture a bustling city packed with buildings and lined with narrow streets.
The hill in the center of the Old City was Harran’s original burial mound. Archaeological finds, which include figurines, grinding stones, clay tablets and bronze artifacts, date back to at least 3,000 BC.
Some of these artifacts are on display at the Şanlıurfa Museum. But the museum’s most interesting items from Harran are the basalt cuneiform inscriptions belonging to King Nabonidus, discovered here in the 1950s.
Nabonidus was the final king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, first formed in 626 BC. While the empire would last for less than a century, its longest-reigning king, Nebuchadnezzer II (r. 605-562), is repeatedly referenced in the Bible.
Years later, around 556 BC, Nabonidus took control by usurping the throne. And he wasn’t even native to Babylon, but came from Harran. Accordingly, during his reign, he shifted focus away from the Babylonian patron deity of Marduk and toward the moon god Sin.
In the three identical inscriptions on display at the Şanlıurfa Museum, Nabonidus writes that though he wasn’t born of royal blood, the gods decreed that he was destined to rule.
He also claims that Mesopotamians at the time had forgotten their traditions and shunned the gods, resulting in a society rife with lies and cruelty. This caused him to depart Babylon during his reign, traveling between outlying cities for years.
Historical records indicate that he spent 10 years in the city of Tayma (current Saudi Arabia) while still holding the title of king. And later, he’d visit his hometown of Harran to establish a Sin temple there. In his stela, Nabonidus writes that Sin commanded him to do so in a dream.
The first Sin temple in Harran was established as early as the 23rd century BC by King Narram-Sin, ruler of the Akkadian Empire. It was already ruined by Nabonidus’s time, and he needed to search long and hard for it.
But once he found it, he excavated and restored the temple. Amazingly, Nabonidus is widely regarded as the world’s first archaeologist!
Eventually, though, Nabonidus would return to Babylon in 543 (his son had been ruling as prince). And only several years later, Cyrus the Great of the Persian Achaemenid Empire conquered the city, ending the Neo-Babylonian Empire for good. Despite being an outside invader, Cyrus garnered much local support by restoring the prominence of Marduk.
But over in Harran, the cult of Sin would thrive for centuries. And its unique religious community would come to be known as the Sabians.
Who Were the Sabians?
Harran was long inhabited by the Sabians, a group who merged Neo-Platonic philosophy with Babylonian star worship.
Though they assigned a divinity to each planet, their primary god was Sin, the moon god. The god was first known as Nanna, but it was eventually synchronized with the Semitic moon god of Sin during the Akkadian Empire era.
The Sabians were known to have always faced north during their sacred rites. Could it be a coincidence that the circular enclosures of Göbekli Tepe, just 40 km away, were also oriented north?
Göbekli Tepe, built at least 12,000 years ago, consisted of multiple T-shaped pillars. And the Sabians of Harran also prayed to their deities in the form of stone pillars. Some sort of connection, therefore, seems highly probable.
The Sabians prayed in the morning, midday and at sunset. And aside from Sin, their pantheon included other Mesopotamian deities like Shamash and Ishtar, Sin’s mythological children.
The traditions of Harran proved to be incredibly resilient. When Christian Rome sought to ban all practice of ‘paganism’ throughout its empire, the Sabians continued to thrive.
Around this time, it’s speculated that the priesthood of Egypt fled to Harran for refuge, bringing the entire library of Egyptian texts with them. The compilation of and intermingling with other sacred teachings (like those of the Iranian Magi) supposedly gave birth to Western Hermeticism.
The origin of the Sabians’ name is a mystery, as they’re mentioned in the Quran as a ‘People of the Book.’ But clearly they were not.
According to legend, in the 9th century, the Abassid caliph Al-Mamun threatened the moon worshippers with death if they didn’t convert to monotheism.
In fear for their lives, they consulted the Quran and found the reference to the Sabians, claiming the title for themselves. If the tale is indeed true, the real identity of the Quran’s Sabians remains an unsolved mystery.
Harran’s Sabians continued to thrive throughout the Islamic era, though many of their structures would be replaced with Islamic ones. At a time when astrology played a major role in Islam, the Sabians were highly respected by the Abassids for their knowledge of the stars and planetary cycles.
Influential Islamic scientists and astrologers would study in Harran, and some even speculate that Islam’s star and crescent symbol has Sabian roots.
In the 10th century, however, a Muslim uprising destroyed the original Sin temple. And, as legend has it, following Harran’s 13th-century destruction, those with the ancient knowledge fled west into Europe, giving birth to the various Occidental mystery schools.
The spread of this knowledge – at least in underground circles – would then set the foundation for the Italian Renaissance.
From atop of the mound, you’ll spot Ulu Cami, or the Grand Mosque, down below on the other side. It’s one of Turkey’s oldest Islamic structures, having been founded in the 8th century by the Umayyads. And it may even be the world’s oldest Islamic university.
Like the Aleppo Gate, it was repaired by Saladin before its destruction at the hands of the Mongols.
Amazingly, the tower remained standing all these years, albeit with its top missing. It’s quite puzzling then, why archaeologists felt the need to ‘repair’ it, especially in such a shoddy manner.
During Islamic times, the minaret was used as an astronomical observatory. In fact, the famous medieval astronomer Al-Battani (c. 858-929), who calculated the distance between the earth and the moon, lived and worked in Harran.
Also in the 9th century, influential alchemist and astrologer Jabir ibn Hayyan studied in Harran as well.
While Ulu Cami’s minaret is square-shaped like others from this period, we can be certain that the Sabians had an observatory of their own, presumably in this very same spot.
Aside from the tower, other parts of the mosque/university were also being rebuilt during my visit. The series of walls topped with prominent triangular gables, for example, appear to be entirely new additions.
This is all being done with future tourism opportunities in mind. But most visitors making the effort to come to Harran would likely prefer the original look, no matter how ruined.
The whole area was surrounded by a large barbed wire fence, but I could still peek through to see piles of old stone and an impressive marble fountain in the main courtyard.
Walking away from the mosque area, I explored the rest of the Old City, coming across lots more interesting stones lying around. In some areas, pillars and small sections of walls remain standing.
While it may not be for everyone, I found it exciting enough to briefly take my mind off the sweltering midday heat.
The Beehive Houses
Making my way east, I spotted some of Harran’s iconic Beehive Houses in the distance. There are actually multiple groups of these houses around the city, and at least a few of them are open for tourists.
The first group I encountered was called Harran Evi, where no ticket was required, and the staff let me explore freely on my own.
Beehive Houses are unique to Harran, an area with an abundance of mud but with a relative lack of timber. With temperatures as high as they are, ancient inhabitants needed to come up with a way to stay cool during the long, hot summers.
The cone-shaped roofs have holes in their tops, and they pull up the hot air while keeping the bottom part of the structures cool. In the 40 °C heat, I put this to the test by stepping inside and was relieved to feel the temperature drop considerably.
Though the houses of Harran Evi are equipped with furniture and various other items, they’re not used as dwellings anymore. In fact, many of them were reconstructed fairly recently for tourism purposes.
Be that as it may, they maintain the exact same shape and style of Harran dwellings from thousands of years ago. That means that Abraham himself stayed in such a house during his time in the city.
According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham came to Harran after leaving Ur of the Chaldees. While there’s much debate over where Ur of the Chaldees was (many say Ur, Iraq while others say nearby Urfa), most scholars agree that Turkey’s Harran is indeed the one referenced in the Bible.
Abraham lived around the 19th century BC, and he came to Harran with his father Terah, his wife Sarah and their son Lot. He stuck around for several years before making his way onward to Canaan.
Some of Abraham’s relatives remained, however. And he’d later send a servant to Harran to seek out a wife (Rebecca) for his son Isaac.
Ever since Abraham’s time, the world has seen a strict divide between the Abrahamic religions and traditional ‘pagan’ ones. It’s quite ironic, then, that a town where Abraham himself dwelled would end up being one of the last surviving pagan strongholds in the region.
Moving on, I walked over to another Beehive House cluster known as Harran Kultur Evi.
In contrast to the Harran Evi, where I was mostly ignored, I was followed every step of the way here. I was implored to buy all sorts of trinkets, but I ordered a much-needed coffee and water at their cafe outside instead.
The Kultur Evi is the base of operations for the numerous Harran guides (most of them brothers) who will approach you around the entrance to the Old City. As I sipped my coffee, I saw some familiar faces from earlier, and they were clearly disappointed I’d declined their services.
I’d been searching for a driver for this route, and he gave me a very reasonable price. He followed through with all our agreements and it turned out to be a great experience.
Following my visit to the Beehive Houses, I headed south to see the Old City’s final landmark.
The last landmark to check out within the Citadel Mound is Harran Castle. It was constructed during the reign of Marwan II, the final Umayyad caliph, in the 8th century. But it was built over Harran’s original Sin temple, some remnants of which apparently still remain.
While the site was fenced off and closed during my visit, visitors can still see a lot by walking around the outer perimeter.
There are some very interesting towers here that are octagonal and even ten-sided. Atypical of Islamic architecture, they were likely placed here by the Sabians.
In ancient times, the Sin temple at this spot was known as E-hul-hul, or ‘The House of Joys.’
At the time of writing, there’s only one artifact from the original Sin temple on display at the Şanlıurfa Museum – a votive stele. But with ongoing excavations, let’s hope they come across more.
During your walk around the castle, don’t be surprised to get pestered by local children asking for money. The ones here were relentless, following me around for a good fifteen minutes!
Finished with the castle, I walked around the outside of the Citadel Mound rather than through it. In many areas, parts of the original wall remain partially intact.
Though I’d been considering heading back to Urfa at this point, I realized I was still doing good on time. And so I decided to make a big detour over to the northwest to check out one more ancient landmark.
In an area about 1.5 km north of the Aleppo Gate is a well which appears in a famous Biblical story involving Jacob.
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac and Rebecca. And Harran is also where Rebecca’s brother Laban lived.
Rebecca sent Jacob to her hometown after learning of his brother Esau’s intentions to murder him. Jacob had deceived their blind father Isaac and received the birthright blessing, despite Esau being the firstborn.
Upon arrival in Harran, Jacob stopped at a well, where he laid eyes on the beautiful Rachel – also his first cousin. He then asked his uncle for Rachel’s hand in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor.
But Jacob was tricked when Laban replaced Rachel with her less attractive older sister, Leah. Jacob then had to toil another seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage.
Jacob remained in Harran for quite some time, fathering more than a dozen children there (i.e. the Twelve Tribes of Israel).
Having made the long walk over, I was disappointed to find the entire area locked. I was, at least, able to get a fairly good view from outside the fence.
And as I walked around to get the best vantage point, I saw a man across the street waving at me, signaling for me to come over.
I thought he might have the key, but this was not the case. It was simply a hospitable and friendly local who wanted to get to know a foreign visitor.
The house was next to a lumber yard, where I met several brothers along with their father. They were all taking a break at the time, chatting while drinking some Coke.
It was still hot out and I graciously accepted a glass. With the help of Google Translate, we went over the basic subjects like my marital status, job and what I’m doing in Turkey. But then they asked me about the well.
I told them I just tried to go and it’s locked. But no, they weren’t talking about Jacob’s Well, but another well nearby with great treasures inside.
The problem was, they explained, the treasures were being guarded by a djinn (a genie in Islamic mythology). ‘Do you know any priests?’ they asked me. ‘Or anyone who can remove the djinn?’
The conversation had been lighthearted up to that point, but now they seemed serious. ‘Sorry, but I just got here and I don’t know any priests,’ I explained.
‘What about someone who knows magical spells?’ they asked me again. I told them I wouldn’t be able to help, and the conversation returned to normal from that point on. But it was quite the interesting – and oddly fitting – end to the day in a town like Harran.
Getting to Harran is from Urfa is pretty straightforward. You can find a dolmuş (minibus) either at the main otogar (bus terminal) or along the highway near the bus stop for Göbekli Tepe (see map above).
As my hotel was within walking distance, I chose the latter option. You won’t find any signage, but you can just stand by the road and wait for a bus heading east with a sign for Harran on its window.
There’s no timetable, and in my case, I had to wait for about 20-30 minutes. But one eventually did appear.
The ride lasts about 45 minutes, and you’ll be dropped off within easy walking distance of the Aleppo Gate (mentioned at the beginning of the Harran guide above).
It’s unclear when the last bus back to Urfa departs, but presumably, they run until evening. I was able to catch one at around 16:30 by just standing on the opposite side of the road from where I’d been dropped off.
The boss of the local tour guides tried to convince me there may not be any more minibuses in hopes that I’d rent a car from him! But sure enough, a minibus appeared within ten minutes.
Central Urfa isn’t a huge area. If you’re within walking to distance to the Şanlıurfa Museum or Balıklıgöl, you can easily visit the main attractions on foot.
However, if you want to visit both Göbekli Tepe and Harran by bus, you should consider your location more carefully. The bus stops for both are around 3 km north of the city center.
I decided to look for something in between the two locations (that was also in my budget), and found the Emir Sultan Hotel.
For less than $10 a night, I had a private bathroom, decent wifi and free breakfast. The biggest downside was the lack of AC – kind of unthinkable in Turkey’s hottest city at the hottest time of year. The fan they provide, at least, was very strong. And the staff were helpful and kind.
If you’re not on such a strict budget but are still interested in taking a bus to Göbekli Tepe and Harran, I’d still recommend the general area around Emir Sultan. (Hotel Guven looks like a good option.)
It’s also by the restaurant Sumer Lahmacun, one of the best lahmacun places I visited in Turkey.
Şanlıurfa has its own airport about 15 km south of the city. It connects with major cities like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
There is no rail access, so most people arrive by car or bus.
The main otogar (bus terminal) is several kilometers north of the city center. Apparently, two buses are required to get to the city center, so just taking a taxi is the best idea. As of 2020, the ride should cost 25 lira or so.
(Going to the otogar isn’t required to visit Göbekli Tepe and Harran. See the bus stop locations in the map above.)
Şanlıurfa is one of southeast Turkey’s biggest cities, so in theory, there should be many direct connections with other cities in the region. But I had strange experiences both coming to and departing from Urfa.
Despite having bought a direct ticket from Mardin to Urfa, I was made to transfer to a minibus without warning midway through the ride (avoid the company Dilmenler Mardin at all costs!).
When done with Urfa, I went on to see Mt. Nemrut, the nearest town to which is called Kahta. And despite having bought a ticket which simply said ‘Kahta,’ and getting no additional info from the ticket seller, I was made to transfer at Adiyaman. (It was at least much smoother than the Mardin ordeal.)
In three months of traveling around Turkey and countless bus rides, my journeys to and from Urfa were the only times I was suddenly transferred from a coach bus to a minibus mid-ride.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.