The Fish Lakes complex, locally known as the Balikligol, is the ritual and symbolic center of Urfa—a site of pilgrimage and healing that spans many centuries and faiths. The traditional cave of Abraham’s birth forms the sacred core with the complex unfurling around it. The area consists of five mosques, two sacred pools, and the castle that sits above the complex, all connected by the mythical story of Abraham’s battle with king Nimrod.
The Legend of the Sacred Pool
Carved into the base of the mountain is the legendary birthplace of Abraham. The legend tells that Nimrod, pagan king of Urfa, dreamt that a child born in his kingdom would bring an end to his rule. In a bloodthirsty move echoing Pharaoh and Herod, Nimrod ordered all male children born that year to be killed. Abraham’s mother hid in a cave to give birth to Abraham, who spent the first seven years of his life there.
Years later, Nimrod held a festival outside of Urfa, leaving the city unattended. With the city empty, Abraham descended on Nimrod’s idols and destroyed all but the largest one. Nimrod returned and became enraged when he saw the destroyed idols and asked Abraham who was responsible for the destruction. Abraham feigned ignorance and suggested that Nimrod pose the question to the largest statue, as it may have destroyed the others out of jealousy. Nimrod retorted that it was only a statue, and could do no such thing of its own power. Abraham replied: “You yourself have said it. If the statue is powerless over the other statues, what power can it have over you?”
Infuriated, Nimrod prepared a great fire on the ground below. He made a catapult of the castle’s twin pillars, and from there cast Abraham into the inferno. But God saved Abraham; where he landed, a spring gushed forth and the firewood was transformed into fish—the sacred carp that swim in the Pool of Abraham today.
The Pool of Abraham, the Lake of Ayn Zeliha, and the Sacred Carp
This legendary spring feeds the two lakes of the Balikligol. The first is the Halil-e Rahman Lake (Lake of Abraham). The second is the Ayn-i Zelda Lake, named after Nimrod’s daughter who, depending on the version of the story, either jumped after Abraham (and her fire too, turned into water), or whose tears over Abraham’s fate turned into the lake. The coals of the raging inferno turned to fish, and their descendants still swim lackadaisically through the pools enjoying their sacred status. Catching the fish is strictly forbidden, with dire warning that violators will go blind. Another myth associated with the lake says that if you glimpse the one and only white fish in the pools, your wish comes true.
One of the earliest traveler accounts in history, that of the female pilgrim Egeria in the 4th century AD, speaks of the lakes and the fish, though with less reverence to the holiness of the latter:
Then we went inside the palace, and saw the pools with the fish in them. I have never seen fish like them, they were so big, so brightly coloured, and tasted so good.
The story of the fish is a curious one. There is certainly nothing about sacred fish in the Quran. These pools, which are fed by a tributary of the Euphrates, have been around long before Islam and Christianity, and have pagan roots. Running water played an important role in near-eastern pagan cults. In this site, there was a temple to the goddess Atargatis, popularly described as the mermaid fish goddess. The temple included sacred fish that only the goddess’s priests were allowed to touch. One finds other examples of cults very much like this along the north-south trade route that Urfa has always been a part of, connecting Urfa to Diyarbakir and southern Mesopotamia. There are sacred fish also in Palmyra and Hierapolis, both of which lie along this caravan route, in present-day Syria. After Urfa became Christian and later Muslim, these old pagan practices likely continued alongside the new religious practices.