People say that things happen for a reason.
Even as a staunch believer in this notion, a visit to Şanlıurfa – in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey (near the Syrian border) – will forever stand as a reminder. Because had it not been for Turkish Airlines and a fortune rabbit (just trust me) deciding my fate and sending me to an off the beaten path area in Turkey that I would probably never have chosen for myself, I would have missed out. On the smiles, the laughter, the colors and the people that came to life in my mind in Şanlıurfa – the Prophets’ City, or Urfa, as it is known by some.
Although most Americans travel to more commonly known areas of Turkey when venturing outside of Istanbul, this somewhat off the beaten path destination has a rich religious and cultural history that attracts many local and religious tourists. It is in Şanlıurfa where Muslims and Christians have come together through time and space, where multiple empires have tried to stake a claim. It is impossible to deny the importance of sites like Gölbaşı and the Pool of Sacred Fish (Balıklı Göl), where it is believed by Muslims to be the place where Abraham was thrown into the fire by Nimrod, or the Göbekli Tepe, an archeological masterpiece from the 10th- 8th Millennium BCE that is still being unearthed.
And while I could launch into the history and legend that put Şanlıurfa on the map – as a pilgrimage town and spiritual center – I walked away knowing that a part of my heart will always be in Urfa for other reasons.
It is hard to describe the smiles, the laughter, the vibrant colors and the people that came to life in Urfa. Would I have chosen to visit Urfa on my own? Probably not. If I am being honest, I had hoped to explore Cappadocia or Pamukkale. But now? My day in Urfa stands as my most treasured memory from my time in Turkey. We experienced borders and refugee camps, ancient buildings and a cruise down the Euphrates, poppies and music, food and smiles, connection, contemplation, and beauty – all leading to a unique journey, and a new sense of wellness.
Although you might not think of Şanlıurfa specifically as a wellness travel destination, I realized that in many respects it absolutely has the potential to infuse spiritual, relational and emotional wellness.
Why go off the beaten path to Şanlıurfa, Turkey? Better yet, why travel to a town just miles away from Syria?
Why would a day in a town that is a stone’s throw from Syria, where you drive right by a Kobani refugee camp, now serve as a symbol for what I love most about Turkey? And how could one day in Urfa infuse such a deep sense of wellness?
Admittedly, my family at home was nervous about my destination, and yet there was nothing to be nervous about. I felt safer walking around Urfa and Mardin – where we spent our second day – than in other major cities around the world. After all, Urfa is considered a holy site and there was an energy that surrounded me – like the soft pashmina that I bought in Urfa’s Grand Bazaar. and which offered more than just warmth. Vibrance and tranquility enveloped me in its embrace, as if the patterns woven into the threads extended off the scarf and into my soul.
Reasons to visit Sanliurfa
I could tell you that that my love for Şanlıurfa came from having the wind in my hair as I looked out along the banks of the Euphrates to the nearby fortified town of Halfeti.
I could tell that you that the depth of my affection for Şanlıurfa came from running wildly in a sea of poppies.
I could tell you that it was helping to cook Çiğ köfte during a “Sira” night of music, food and dance that made the day stand out at Turkmen Konagi restaurant.
I could tell you that I fell head over heels with Sanliurfa walking to the top of Kale (Urfa’s fortress), where the wind danced with the Turkish flag to an intricate choreography high above locals that were still walking along the Dergah complex of parks.
The reality is that it was all of those things plus one very special ingredient.
The individuals that I traveled with, whose energy made it possible for us to laugh until we cried.
The locals, whose facial expressions and generosity made it seem like we were long lost friends.
The voices of musicians whose notes vibrated in my belly. The children running and playing outside the mosque, and the women cruising along the river on a girls’ day out.
Each and every moment was made that much more spectacular because of people. (Which I suppose makes sense, since more often than not, travel is about the relationships you make with people as opposed to landmarks.)
In the end, I think what stands out about Urfa, and why it will always be one of my favorite places in Turkey (which I realize is a stretch, given that I have not traveled widely around the country) is the sense of connection.
Connection between people. Connection with nature. Connection among different perspectives and religious beliefs. Şanlıurfa comes together like a melting pot – despite a history that includes conquering empires and war – as a place of reflection, contemplation and beauty.
Bearing witness to individuals as they prepared themselves for salah (prayer) by performing the ritual of Wudu outside the Mevlid-i Halil Camii mosque was like a gift, watching each methodical step. Imagine taking the time each day, five times a day, to be mindful in a way that prepares your heart and mind for what is to come. Even the adhan (call to prayer) at 3:48 in the morning was a reminder of connection, intention and beauty as it echoed through the streets of the Grand Bazaar and against the walls of the fortress (although admittedly, I would not have minded connecting more with my own sleep at that hour).
I suppose it always comes down to being fully present in the moment. Having awareness of your place relative to your surroundings. Having the ability to open your mind and heart without any expectation. In many ways, Şanlıurfa became the ultimate wellness destination.
Everything does happen for a reason. For me, Urfa was a treasure that I never expected. A symbol of happiness and the importance of connection. A reminder that despite the barriers of time and space, we are part of a larger journey. As someone who is very goal oriented, I needed this reminder. I needed the wake up call to remember the transformation that comes from laughter and spontaneity. I probably even needed the time for reflection that came when I could not go back to sleep after the early morning adhan.
And while yes, that might sound a bit hokey and deep – the bottom line is that Şanlıurfa offers pilgrimage and meaning no matter who you are or what you believe.
*I was a guest of Turkish Airlines during the U.S. Blogger Summit. All opinions are my own. Afterall, non-stop smiles and laughter cannot be bought.