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Terah took his son Abram . . . to go to the land of Canaan. But when they reached Haran, they settled there.” Genesis names Harran as the first stop on Abraham’s journey, and the place where he first heard the voice of God. Although Abraham would leave Harran behind when he set off for Canaan, ties of kinship and memory would link his family to the city for generations. Abraham’s son, Isaac, did not take a Canaanite bride, but instead returned to Harran to choose his wife (Rebekah) from among their kinsmen who had stayed behind. Isaac’s son, Jacob, repeated this marriage pattern when he met Rachel at a well outside of Harran. All of Jacob’s eleven sons (with the sole exception of Benjamin) were born here. This prophetic genealogy is still commemorated in a series of holy sites in contemporary Harran, such as the Jacob’s Well and the tomb of Abraham’s father, Terah.

Although Harran was the origin point for Abrahamic’s revolution on worshipping one god only, the city itself proved remarkably resistant to monotheism. In Abraham’s time, Harran was home to a widely renowned shrine to the moon god Sin, and was thus a center for pilgrimage, sacrifice, healing, and fertility rites in the ancient world. The city remained staunchly pagan for centuries, even as other cities in the region embraced Christianity, including Urfa (Edessa) immediately to the North. Thus when the great Christian pilgrim and chronicler Egeria visited Harran at the end of the fourth century, she was able to visit sites like the “Monastery of Abraham” and the “House of Terah (Abraham’s father),” and yet, she wrote, “I met not a single Christian. All were pagans.” The city’s aversion to monotheism may have been historically fortuitous, as this provided a fertile ground for the cultivation of classical intellectual and religious traditions that were elsewhere rejected as heresies.

Contemporary Harran may hold few traces of its former glory, yet its cultural atmosphere is unique within the region and within Turkey. The Harran plain, which stretches south of Urfa and into the Syrian desert, hosts an Arab population (whereas the north, west, and east of Urfa are predominantly Kurdish). The spoken language in Harran is Arabic, the cuisine is distinctive, and the style of dress also unique. The traditional women’s clothing, for instance, is sewn from eye-catching fabrics such as sequined cloth or brightly colored velvet. Another striking feature of today’s Harran desert is how little desert one sees: in satellite images, Harran stands out as a bright green square surrounded by stark sun-baked plains. This is due to large-scale irrigation provided by the Southeastern Anatolia project (GAP), a state development initiative that aims to transform this impoverished region into a thriving agricultural basin. While the project has undoubtedly brought capital to the region, its land-based approach has mostly benefited the already-wealthy landowners, leaving intact entrenched inequalities.

Sites in the Harran Region:

Sogmatar

Deep in the barren hills of Anatolia near a remote village, seven temples adorn seven hilltops with rock carvings and writings dedicated to the sun, moon, and planets.

Jethro’s City

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Jethro’s City (Suayib Sehri), a former Roman town, is revered as the dwelling place of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. It is here that Moses met his wife, Zipporah, and received the staff with which he would part the Red Sea.

Karahan Tepe

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Buried under timeless hills, one of the first religious structures ever built by humans remains almost entirely a mystery.

Bazda

Head underground to probe the innards of a set of enormous caves carved out by a quarrying operation centuries ago.

Beehive Houses

Harran’s ingenious conical mud-brick structures, whose form may date from biblical times, provided shelter (and natural climate-control) to Harran’s families for generations.

Great Mosque

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The crumbling tower of Harran’s Great Mosque, visible from a distance, stands vigil over the ruins of one of Turkey’s first mosques and once-illustrious university.

Han al-Barur

A ruined medieval waystation reminds walkers that these quiet plains once hosted a busy trade route heading east from Harran.

Harran University

When the classical academies at Athens and Alexandria were closed down under Christian rule, Harran’s world-famous center of learning became a refuge for scholars from across the ancient world with over 8,000 students gathering here.