In the remarkable interfaith city of Urfa, the author is surprised by extraordinary generosity which exemplifies the city's "living faith."
Sanliurfa, known to the Turks as "Urfa the Glorious," is often described as a city of many faiths. It is indeed glorious, for a more impressive interfaith site than this one would be hard to find outside of Jerusalem. Legend has it that Adam met Eve on the Göbekli Mound outside of town. The two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, were born in nearby Harran. Isaac met his wife Rachel while drawing water at a well in Harran, and their love story charted the destiny of the world, for their descendants included Moses, King David and Jesus. The descendants of his brother, Ishmael, included Mohammed, founder of the Islamic faith. The name of Urfa is scattered countless times throughout the verses of the Old Testament. The city later became known as Edessa, seat of the first major Crusader state of the Outremer, established during the First Crusade of Baldwin II in 1096. Edessa became an important center for the spread of Christianity and the revival of Greek learning, through translations made here into Syriac, the local language spoken by Jesus, then into Arabic, and finally into Latin and the European languages.
On my recent visit to this very hot city in southeastern Turkey, I could not help but be impressed by the cultural, historical, spiritual and mystical atmosphere of this capital of many faiths. When I walked through the rose gardens of the Hasan Padishah Mosque on my way towards the Pool where Abraham's Sacred Fish swam, I could feel the memory of the prophets of many faiths. As I trod on stones polished by centuries of Biblical footsteps, I observed the crowds coming on pilgrimage to the site, many of whom would continue on to Mecca to complete the Hajj.
Yet faith does not just lie in the historical past of Urfa. Today, it is still a city of living faith, as I recently experienced.
Urfa is dotted with several splendid bazaars, reached by narrow backstreets just wide enough for one donkey to pass. These bazaars echo with the sounds of Turkish, Kurdish, Persian, and Arabic. Djellabias, facial tattoos, keffiyeh scarves, Salvar pants, tee-shirts and tennis shoes all mix in a colorful jumble of traditions and cultures. I went to the Kazzaz Bazaar to watch the silk weavers and to hear the hammering of its famed coppersmiths. I went to the Sipahi Bazaar to admire the bright Kurdish rugs. I went to the Ucuzluk Bazaar to buy some isot pepper.
I had read about isot, the celebrated red pepper of Urfa, and was fascinated by it. What did it taste like, I wondered, and is it really as scorching hot as the infamous palate-exploding habanero pepper of my southwest United States? Just what is it that makes it so special – so special that the people of Urfa consume 70 tons of isot pepper in their kebabs per day? It is certain that it is not just the 46 degree centigrade (115 F) weather that heats up this city, but all that fiery red powdered fuel, too. Isot would also appear to have something more explosive than its blazing taste. A team of scientists from the University of Nottingham, in England, intrigued by the link between the heavy consumption of isot and the very low cancer rates in this area, has carried out research on the pepper. Their research has provided conclusive evidence that isot pepper does indeed possess substantial anti-cancer properties.
I stopped in a spice shop where I was immediately taken in hand by the young owner, Abdulhekim. A tower of colorful spice sacs made from striped kilims rose in a tower against the wall, many of them containing different varieties of isot. When I asked to buy some, I first received a lengthy and informed lesson on their different qualities and textures from Abdulhekim: wetter vs. drier, big flakes vs. small flakes, sweeter vs. smokier, and so on, including his confirmation of its proven effectiveness against cancer cells. Tea was shared, stories were exchanged, politics were discussed and jokes were told, for that is the way business is done in Turkey, even for a handful of pepper. He told me I definitely needed to purchase the most expensive variety; the "best quality kind" he assured me. He knew his stock, so I took his word, and I wanted the best quality for sure.
As he scooped out my order of the searing pepper flakes into a paper bag, I said in a low voice, "I am bringing this pepper back for my friend Enciğim who lives in America. She was sick this past year, but she has bravely finished her treatments and is healthy once again. But I would like her to eat some of this pepper every day to keep her that way, just like you do here in Urfa."
When he finished weighing out the pepper and wrapping it up, I took out my wallet to pay. He flicked his head up in the emphatic Turkish gesture to say "No!" He brushed my wallet away and placed the package in my hands.
"This is a gift. This is my gift to your friend. May Allah's mercy and the city of Urfa and its pepper keep her healthy and strong for many, many years to come. That is my wish for this gift. Take it home to her from me."
Yes, all the way from the dawn of time until today, Urfa is a glorious city of living faith.