Driving down the road south from the city of Urfa in Turkey, once known as Edessa, towards the nearby Syrian border, we approach the ancient town of Harran. The landscape is flat, a vast and dry plain, with light brown being the predominant color, apart from the bright blue sky from which a scorching sun burns down on the shadeless terrain. It is terribly hot already now, in the morning. „Harran“ means „hot place“. Sheep and goats graze on the meager and dry remains of vegetations they manage to find. In the distance ahead of us a town begins to appear, not much higher than the rest of the plain, with flat houses, as if they wanted to blend into the landscape.
Entering Harran from the North, we pass through a nondescript modern neighbourhood like so many. Only then do we arrive at a vast, flat hillside in the center of town, rising only marginally from the surrounding area, completely void of modern buildings, spottet with ruins, and surrounded by beehive-shaped houses, like trulli. Children walk between the spiky shrubs, plastic bags or containers in their hands, apparently picking and collecting something. When asked about their business, the children show us their harvest: Some of them collect capers from wild bushes, which they sell for very little money to local middlemen who again sell them off to export companies. Later I am told that quite some of the capers we buy in European supermarkets have their origin in these parts. Other children pick the pods of the Syrian rue (ruta siriana) which is used to fabricate amulets against the evil eye or is burned as incense. This empty plain in the center of Harran is the site of the old city, the visible ruins belong to the academy of Harran, one of the oldest universities in the world, and its mosque – the lower part of the minaret still standing – supposed to be the oldest mosque on Turkish ground, dating to mid-8th century.
Traditional beehive houses surround the historic site. They commonly consist of one or two rows of corbelled domes over a rectangular ground plan, not uncommon to the architecture of trulli, the main difference being the material: mudbricks instead of stones. Mudbricks are the most common traditional building material in Mesopotamia. But nowadays many of the domes are in a sorry state: most of the naturally air-conditioned beehive houses are not inhabited, their inhabitants having moved to scorchingly hot but „modern“ concrete flat-roofed houses, the cool beehive domes now being used as animal stables. The cows, sheep and goats must be happy animals. Only a few beehive houses are freshly restored: the tourist center and souvenir shops. Old wooden cart wheels and antique handmills stand in front of them. You see, Harran is not that different from Alberobello.
Harran nowadays has little over 7,000 inhabitants. But it once was a religious center as much as a center of culture and learning. Written sources mention Harran as early as the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. It once was the center of the moon good Sin to whom a substantial temple was dedicated, attracting pilgrims from all over Mesopotamia. The Biblical Abraham is said to have dwelled here with his family after having left Ur of the Chaldees.
Harran even became the capital of the Umayyad Empire for a few years in the 8th century AD. The acadamy here was the most important scientific center until the foundation of the famous house of Wisdom in Baghdad by Kalif al-Maimun. (Both were destroyed by the Mongols – a great loss for posterity.) In Harran, the spirit of the Greek academy lived on, here antique knowledge was translated and handed down. Some scholars speak of a refuge of classical antique philosophy. The inhabitants of Harran constituted the last influencial group that was neither christianized nor Muslim but nevertheless respected by both groups. The Sabians, as they call themselves, not only followed the tradition of the Greek philosophers, they propagate research through empirical studies, on the other hand they are deeply involved in magical-mystic traditions.
Accoding to lore, the above mentioned Kalif al-Maimun arrived in Harran with his army in 830 AD and asked the inhabitants about their religion. As they were neither Muslims, Christians, nor Jews („religions of the book“), they were in danger of being forcibly converted to Islam. But the inhabitants of Harran instead claimed to be Sabians: the Quran writes that the Sabians are a faithful and godly religion, although nobody knew at the time who or what were the Sabians. So the Harranians took the title for themselves, claiming its origin from Abraham, thus avoiding conversion. Famous scientists and philosophers who originated from or taught in Harran were Thabit Ibn Qurra, a Sabian polymath of the format of a Leonardo da Vinci, or Al-Battani, an astronomer and mathematician who introduced the zero and the Indian numerals which we now use under the name of Arabic numerals. Jabir Ibn Hayyan is considered the father of both alchemy and chemistry. Alledgedly he invented a fluorescent ink, a rustproofing paint, fireproof paper, a waterproof textile impregnation, and the Aqua Regis, an acid that can dissolve gold and that is still used today for the extraction and chemical purification of gold.
During the first crusade, Boemondo di Taranto tried to capture the city but was defeated in the Battle of Harran in 1104, after which he returned to Puglia to organize a new army. He died before returning to the Middle East and is buried in Canosa inside an orientalizing burial chapel attached to the cathedral.
Harran was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, all its buildings, including its famous university and mosque, raised to the ground. Being thus obliterated, Harran never lived up to its former glory again.
Beehive houses can be found on the other side of the border as well: in fact, it is a Northern Syrian tradition of architecture which can still be found in a few small villages around Aleppo, like Qalayah or Rasm al-Nafl. But the war in Syria, namely the so-called Islamic State, has forced its inhabitants to flee into refugee camps. The villages are now disintegrating, used only as shelters for soldiers and combatants.
There is one tiny glimpse of hope, only a drop on a hot stone, but still: A school for refugee children from Syria in the Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatari has won an architectural price for its ingeniutiy. It is built in adobe technique as a beehive dome, inspired by the beehive houses from the home region of many of the refugees. Architecture is much more than just a practical feature: it is part of human culture and identity. Its salvation as part of a living environment which goes beyond tourist attraction and souvenir shops cannot be underdetermined.
This article was previously published in Italian in the magazine “DA QUI”, poiesis editrice publishing house, 2/2018. Magazine title photo by Reza.
The history of Harran, the Sabians, and their connection to Apulia play a role in my novel “Die Spur des Emirs” (“The emir’s trace”), soon also available in English and Italian.