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11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Sanliurfa

Written by Jess Lee
Feb 26, 2019

Said to be Biblical Ur, where the Prophet Abraham was born and began his monotheistic teachings, Sanliurfa is one of Turkey's great pilgrimage cities. In ancient times, it was known as Edessa and was prized by conquerors from Alexander the Great onward. Today, this city's rich history and architecture makes it a fabulous place if you want to dive into Turkey's culture and heritage. As well as Urfa's central district, crammed with mosques and medrese architecture, as well as a new museum complex, there are many ruins scattered across the surrounding countryside.

The main draw for visitors today is the archaeological site of Göbeklitepe, just on the city's outskirts, where humanity may have first began religious belief. Discover the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions in Sanliurfa.

1. Göbeklitepe

Göbeklitepe

Göbeklitepe

Although the ruins themselves are scant, the importance of this site for our understanding of human history cannot be overstated. When excavations began here in the mid-1990s, archaeologists discovered what is believed to be the world's oldest religious temple site. The Neolithic pillars, carved with depictions of animals, have been dated to about 10,000 BC, turning archaeology's understanding of Neolithic culture (beforehand thought to have not included religion) on its head.

Only a tiny portion (roughly five percent) of the site has been excavated, but this hill slope containing the mammoth totem-style pillars, recently protected by a roof covering, is quite striking, and for anyone interested in our early beginnings, this is a must-see.

An easy way to explore the site is on the full day Göbeklitepe tour, which includes pickup and drop-off from your hotel and guided tours of Göbeklitepe, the archaeological museum, and the sacred fish ponds area.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sanliurfa

2. Sacred Fish Ponds Area (Gölbasi area)

Sacred Fish Ponds Area (Gölbasi area)

Sacred Fish Ponds

Right in the center of the city is the Gölbasi area, a well-tended park where Sanliurfa's most important tourist attractions lie. The Sacred Fish Ponds (balikli göl) are surrounded by the beautiful Rizvaniye Vakfi Mosque and Medrese complex on their north side, and the Halilur Rahman Mosque to their west. Swimming in the ponds are hundreds of sacred carp, which play a central role in the story of the Prophet Abraham.

Legend says that when the prophet remonstrated with King Nimrod and the idol-worshippers of Ur, Nimrod had him burnt at the stake because of his professed monotheistic beliefs. God, though, intervened to save him, and a violent storm swept Abraham up into the air. He landed on this very spot with the fire turning to water and the embers turning into fish. For believers then, these are holy carp, and visitors here are encouraged to feed them. It's said that anyone who kills one of the pool's carp will go blind.

3. Archaeology & Mosaic Museum

Archaeology & Mosaic Museum

Archaeology & Mosaic Museum | Verity Cridland / photo modified

Sanliurfa's new archaeology museum is a must-do for any history fiends, with an astounding collection of artifacts on display from nearby excavation sites. The highlight is the Göbeklitepe exhibits, which showcase Neolithic finds from the site, but exhibits cover the breadth of history in this region right up to the Ottoman era, with plenty of Assyrian and Hittite pieces as well.

Next door, protected under a space-age-style dome covering, is a rich haul of mosaic flooring, part of a Roman villa that was discovered here in 2006. The mosaics are intricate in detail and excellently preserved, allowing a peek at the lifestyle of the elites in ancient Edessa.

4. Dergah Complex

Dergah Complex

Dergah Complex

Within the grand Dergah Complex is the Hazreti Ibrahim Halilullah, the cave where the Prophet Abraham is said to have been born. Local legend says that the prophet's mother gave birth to him here in secret because King Nimrod had been warned in a prophesy that a great leader would soon be born and so set out to kill all of Ur's newborns.

Just to the west, across a central courtyard, is the regal facade of the Mevlid-i Halil Mosque. This is an important pilgrimage site for the faithful, and once a year, just before the hajj to Mecca, pilgrims gather here to seek blessings.

5. Castle

View of Sanliurfa from the castle

View of Sanliurfa from the castle

The remains of this ancient fortress overlooking the city center can be reached by a trail that winds up from Gölbasi Park. The hill is known by locals as Nimrud Kürsesi (Nimrod's Pulpit), and whole colonies of hermit ibises nest on the steep rock faces. A 12-meter manmade ditch separates the castle from the hinterland. The castle's age is not known, but local lore states that this is where the Prophet Abraham's funerary pyre was built by King Nimrod.

The actual fortifications on the hilltop are either (according to which history you read) Greek, Byzantine, Crusader, or Ottoman. The external wall still has three gates, and inside, the ruins of 25 fortified towers can be seen.

6. Bazaar

Bazaar

Bazaar | birasuegi / photo modified

The city's bazaar area is one of the most authentic in Turkey, and a visit here is one of the most popular things to do. Amid winding alleyways crammed with stalls, the aromas of spice, leather, and grilled meat from the kebab vendors all mix in the air. You can find just about anything here, from cheap jeans and plastic household goods to handmade leatherwork, antiques, and beautiful metalwork. It's a great place to get lost for a couple of hours and soak up the atmosphere. A wonderful well-preserved han (caravanserai) within the bazaar has a tea shop in its central courtyard.

7. Grand Mosque (Ulu Camii)

Courtyard of the Grand Mosque

The 12th-century Ulu Camii was erected on the site of the former 6th-century Church of St. Stephen (which in turn is believed to have been built on top of a synagogue). The western side of the building boasts an unusual octagonal minaret, probably retained from the church. Inside, the prayer rooms are laid out as a cross vault with a simple dome above the prayer niche. The mosque was commissioned by Nureddin, son and successor to the Seljuk governor of Mosul, Imadeddin Zengi, who founded the Zengid dynasty.

8. Harran

Ulu Camii ruins

Ulu Camii ruins

This ancient town is thought to have been settled from the 3rd millennium BC. Although most famous for its distinctive mud-brick beehive houses (a local style of architecture that probably came into being due to a lack of wood), Harran is also home to two important ruins. The fortified remnants on the kale (castle) settlement mound date from the Fatimid period of the 11th century although there is evidence that some kind of fortress building has stood on this spot since the Hittite era.

On the other side of the village are the Ulu Camii ruins, where the first Islamic university once stood. The complex was built by the Umayyad Caliph Marwan II in the 8th century. Near the modern district of Harran, you can also see the remnants of the City Walls, which once ran for four kilometers around the town.

9. Selahattin Eyubi Mosque (Selahattin Eyubi Camii)

Selahattin Eyyubi Camii

The city's most beautiful mosque has to be Selahattin Eyyubi Camii, which has been finely restored to its former glory. The mosque is built on the foundations of St. John's Church, and part of the church's plan has been incorporated into its design (you can still see the original altar). The interior is a cavernous space that boasts some truly intricate craftsmanship.

10. Sögmatar

Sögmatar

The modern hamlet of Sögmatar lies amid the extraordinary ruins of a pre-monotheistic sacrifice center. Upon the hill peaks surrounding the village are the remnants of temples dedicated to sun and moon worship, and rocks on the summits are carved with elaborate Assyrian script. In the village itself, a cave entrance leads to a shrine with statues carved out of the rock walls and still visible Assyrian inscriptions.

11. Sultantepe

Excavations on Sultantepe hill have unearthed remains of an 8th- and 7th-century BC Assyrian settlement. Discoveries include countless clay tablets forming a library of epic poetry (including parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh), prayers, letters, and mathematical and scientific text. Some of the most important finds from here are now displayed in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

Where to Stay in Sanliurfa for Sightseeing

  • Recommended Hotels: Right in the center of the old district, the Hotel el Ruha is in a lovely stone building with a swimming pool, big rooms, and great views. Nearby, the Manici Hotel, in another atmospheric stone building, has friendly staff and a good restaurant. For more facilities, you need to head out of the old center. The Dedeman Sanliurfa has big modern rooms, a swimming pool, and sauna.

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In the Area: If you're exploring the southeast of Turkey, don't miss Gaziantep for its fabulous mosaic museum and bundle of mosques. On the way, Mardin is an excellent stop off, with an old town district riddled with stone-cut architecture and old churches and monasteries.

Archaeological Sites: Göbeklitepe is one of Turkey's most important archaeological sites and yet has very few visitors. For more grand ruins without the crowds, head to the Roman city of Laodikeia, with its columns and crumbled theater, or hit Mount Nemrut to see the stone-carved heads on the summit in the middle of the day (most people come here at sunrise).

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