Step inside Ryan's trip to the Turkish cities of Urfa and Mardin
It's unlikely that you're familiar with the southeastern Turkish cities of Urfa and Mardin. I'm ashamed to admit that we hadn't heard of them ourselves until a few weeks before Ryan visited the region. But like most of our readers, we had seen these cities dozens of time before on the news without really realizing it, for this part of Turkey is within a stone's throw of the Syrian and Iraqi borders.
The tragic circumstances of its war torn neighbours have thrust Urfa and Mardin into the spotlight and it was with some trepidation that Ryan went to see the area for himself. What he discovered was a region that prides itself on old fashioned hospitality and tolerance, and extends a hand of welcome and generosity to all its guests.
And to say the hospitality is old fashioned isn't just a cliche. This is one of the oldest inhabited regions on earth, the birthplace of agriculture. Once the home to Abraham and virtually every religious and ethnic group in history, it's now home to thousands and thousands of refugees seeking safety and sanctuary.
So what was it like to step into a real life news story? Here's an insider's look at Ryan's visit.
Cold food generates a lot of heat.
Ciğ köfte is a raw meat dish in Turkish cuisine, similar somewhat to steak tartare. It is traditionally made with either beef or lamb, and usually served as an appetizer. In Turkish çiğ means "raw" and köfte means "meat ball".
According to lore, çiğ köfte was invented in Urfa at the time of Abraham. When King Nimrod collected all of the wood in Urfa in order to build a monumental execution pyre, the wife of a hunter had to prepare venison raw in the absence of firewood. She mixed the meat with bulgur (a type of wheat), herbs and spices and crushed the mixture with stone implements until it was palatable. Bulgur is kneaded with chopped onions, ice cubes and lemons until it gets soft. Then tomato and pepper paste, spices, and very finely ground beef are added. This fatless, raw, minced meat is treated with spices while kneading the mixture, which is said to "cook" the meat. Lastly, green onions, fresh mint and parsley are mixed in.
As you can imagine the kneading process is an exhaustive, labor intensive exercise and an assistant is on hand to mop the brow of the chef - and Ryan, who started to break out into a sweat after just a few minutes!
If raw meat isn't your culinary preference, rest assured. The area has a fresh, colorful, delicious variety of dishes (included cooked ones!) that will suit most pallets. Keep your eyes peeled for delicious local cheese but beware of the hot peppers in the grilled vegetables.
12,000 years of human history
The recorded history of Şanlıurfa (better known as Urfa) dates from the 4th century BC (6000 years ago), but goes back at least 12,000 years. The city was one of several in the upper Euphrates-Tigris basin, where agriculture began.
Urfa was conquered repeatedly throughout history, and has been dominated by many civilizations, including the Ebla, Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Armenians, Hurri-Mitannis, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Macedonians (under Alexander the Great), Seleucids, Arameans, Osrhoenes, Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, and the Crusaders.
For the Armenians, Urfa is considered a holy place since it is believed that the Armenian alphabet was invented there. According to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim tradition, Urfa is also the hometown of Abraham. Today, the region is a diverse, welcoming society.
A land of spirituality and sanctuary
This region is rich in religious history. Legend says that when Abraham -who lived around 4000 years ago - denied the paganist divinity of Nimrod, the King of Urfa, and broke the icons which were adored by the citizens, Nimrod ordered the people to burn Abraham and help serve their pagan gods.
They arranged and lit an enormously large fire at the site of Baliki Gol and threw Abraham from the mountain into the pyre. (This is the same event that motivated the creation of çiğ köfte!) God told the fire to be “cool and peaceful” towards Abraham, and, according to legend, the flames turned to water, and the logs into fish. Even today, the fish in this lake are considered holy by the citizens of all faiths and are not allowed to be caught or eaten.
Spirituality and sanctuary are ongoing themes in this region. The oldest artifacts of religious construction in human history (12000+ years old) were found here (as seen above), and today the region is home to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East.
Memories that will last a lifetime
A trip to southeastern Turkey was an important reminder that there are beautiful landscapes and wonderful people in every corner of the world. It has changed the way we view the nightly news and reminded us that a region and its people are more than a headline. If you chose to visit for yourself, we're sure you will fall in love with the rich cultural history and amazing culinary traditions of Urfa and Mardin. It is truly an exceptional place.
As with all travel activities and destinations, you are solely responsible for your safety. Before any trip, we always research our destination and review our government's travel advice and advisories. In doing so, we feel more comfortable and confident about our travel choices and the geo-political and socio-economic conditions we might encounter. This advice bears repeating for southeastern Turkey, given its proximity to a conflict zone. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are two highly respected charities that are working hard to provide assistance and comfort to all those affected by the conflict and we encourage you to support them.
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Ryan's trip to Turkey was facilitated by Turkish Airlines and we thank them for their support. All research, writing, and opinions are our own.