But what happened to the Jews?

Next to the bazaar of Urfa, between the patinated limestone palaces of the Ottoman-era Syriac Christian and Jewish merchant quarter, there is a small gap: the Square of the Fifty-Eight (Ellisekiz Meydanı). It got its name from the fact that a bath stood here until the late 19th century, which buried fifty-eight people when it collapsed.

The Square of the Fifty-Eight in a photo from around 1980, from the Facebook page dedicated to old photos from Urfa. This building is the tomb of the Sufi dervish Şeyh Abdülkâdir Erbilî (by full name, Ebû Muhammed Muhyiddin es-Seyyid eş-Şeyh Abdülkâdir b. eş-Şerif Muhammed Muhydiddin es-Sıddıkî el-Hüseynî, 1808-1898) (entrance to the left). He also has a commemorative plaque under the façade arch, which I have included below. The wooden door opened to Hajji Abadji’s grocery store both then and now. In the summer heat, an important bit of knowledge is that you can get the cheapest cold soda water here in all of Urfa. Some commenters note that the holy fool in the picture was called Buki.

There is also a small bilingual information board on the square, which says that the square, located between the Muslim holy places, the Christian Regie church and the Jewish prayer house is a symbol of tolerance between religions and cultures.

The name of the nearby Regie church comes from the French Regie, “administration”, and this from Société de la régie co-intéressée des tabacs de l’empire Ottoman, that is, the name of the jointly managed tobacco growing and distribution company of the Ottoman Empire. This company, backed by a consortium of European banks, was the largest foreign investment in the empire. But what does it have to do with the Syriac Orthodox Peter and Paul church in Urfa?

The square in front of the church could easily be called the Square of the Thirteen Thousand, on the model of the Fifty-Eight, after the thirteen thousand Syriac Christians who were massacred here during the pogrom of 1895. I could not find any data on how many Syriacs were killed during the genocide of 1915. It is certain that by the end of the war, so few – if any – Syriac Christians remained in Urfa, the cradle of Syriac Christianity, that their church could be confiscated and used as a tobacco warehouse for the Regie company. The company was nationalized in 1925, but its name remained on the church, which was later used for various warehouses. They wanted to demolish it in the 1950s, but the Urfa Office of Monument Protection saved it by moving into the parish building. In 2002, this latter was given to the pious fundation of the Islamic theology in Harran, whose name is displayed in metal letters above the street entrance. It really takes much religious and cultural tolerance to accept all this.

The long rectangular courtyard of the church was until recently used as a parking lot. It was closed from the traffic only after the restoration of ten years ago, and a small fountain was erected in the middle. The side facing the street is the former parish building, now the Urfa headquarters of the Harran Islamic theology. Opposite rises the huge, fortress-like building of the cathedral. The entrance opens under its façade arcades. It is usually closed, but if you ask the porter, he opens it without a word, and then withdraws. What we do in there is none of his business. This is already progress, because only a few years ago, groups of Armenian tourists who said a prayer in the cathedral on Akhtamar Island, which had been renovated as a museum, were punished.

The founding inscription in Syriac above the gate says: “The whole world worships You and kneels before You, and every tongue says thanks to You. This church of St. Peter and Paul, where the faithful enter, was built in the time of Patriarch Jacob II and Metropolit St. Gregorius David, from the contributions of the Syriac-Jacobite believing people, in the 2112. year of the Seleucid era [1861]. May God reward all its supporters.” And the modern label below: “Multifunctional room. Concert, conference, theater, slide show, cinema, congress.”

According to the founding inscription, the church was built in 1861, but this only refers to its current form. The first church was built in the 6th century, and over the centuries it was remodeled again and again. This last stage is strongly neo-Gothic, but it seems to have preserved earlier elements as well.

The altar was transformed into a stage

The entrance wall, with a gallery above it

The sanctuary seen from the gallery

Even in this looted and desecrated form, the interior of the church radiates peace. Its familiar architectural forms suggest a sense of home-coming. Being in Turkey is good anyway, but here, strangely, you feel at home.

The information board of the church states that the inscriptions and tombstones found here were transported to the museum of Urfa. We hope they are indeed there. In any case, there is no trace of them in the exhibition, just as in the exhibitions of the Anatolian museums there is usually no trace that Christians and Jews ever lived in this region.

There are two small courtyards behind the church. In one of them, deep below the level of the church, a fountain springs up, constructed as a well. In the other, linked by stairs to the lower one, a Koran study room opens under the arcades, in which an exhibition on Urfa’s Islamic past has also been organized.

I could not find the Jewish house of worship mentioned on the information board in the area, nor did the locals I interviewed know about it. It was transformed into something more useful without a trace or memory. We know the fate of the Syriac Christians. But what happened to the Jews? They once lived in large numbers here in Urfa, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of medieval Judaism, the site of Abraham’s birth and glory, about which the Mishna tells an adventurous story. Where did they go?

“They assimilated”, says Vedat, the Kurdish rug seller in the bazaar, with a commiserate face. “They faced so many difficulties and persecution that they saw it as the best thing to blend in and assimilate.”

* * *

On the other side of the bazaar, at the top of a high limestone rock, in the side of which there are many thousand-year-old cave dwellings, the first memories of the inhabited Urfa, stands the former Armenian merchant district. Its magnificent, ornately carved palaces with balconies and large inner courtyards clearly show the economic power of its former inhabitants.

The genocide reached the Armenians of Urfa relatively late, so by then they already knew what had happened to the Armenian communities in Anatolia. Only on May 27, 1915, four hundred of their representatives were arrested and later executed. In August, hundreds of Armenians were again killed in the bazaar during pogroms instigated by the government. Then the community decided to choose armed resistance instead of deportation, which would mean a long and hard death. Locked in their well-fortified clifftop quarter, they repelled the siege of the government troops for several weeks beginning from the end of September. The Turkish commander, Pasha Fahreddin, finally requested the help of the allied German artillery “to put down the rebellion”, which was granted by the artillery colonel Eberhard Wolffskeel. The survivors of the German total bombing were tortured and then hanged or shot dead.

The burial of the victims of the 1915 massacre in the St. Sarkis monastery outside the city, 1919. The Armenian text at the top of the picture is the message of the Armenian politician Krikor Zohrab, who was murdered near Urfa: “We die, but four hundred thousand orphans of our people remain. Save them.” I will write about the history of the photograph later.

Today, Kurdish proletarian families live in the Armenian palaces. The doorways have piles of waste and stench, the sewage with excrement from the first-floor drains in some places flows directly among the children playing on the street, and flows all the way to the sewers opening at the foot of the cliff. But several palaces have been renovated into elegant boutique hotels, like the Elçi Konaği, where we stayed.

Elçi Konaği is built in the corner of a large plot of land, in the center of which stands a beautifully renovated old mosque. The site is open to the main street, so the unusual late Gothic forms of the mosque, the half-columns and triple-arched blind arcades, the corner towers and the gables of the donkey-backed gate are clearly visible.

All this is no wonder, because this building was also a Christian church: the Church of the Twelve Apostles, built in 1865 by the Protestant Armenian community of Urfa. Its current name, Fırfırlı Camii, i.e. Weathervane Mosque, also refers to the former top decoration of the church. According to the inscription of its mihrab, it was converted into a mosque in 1956.

In 1985

The original function is also indicated by the original entrance to the site, which is hidden behind Elçi Konaği, and opens from the side street, avoiding attention, as is usually the case with minority houses of worship. The wall facing the main street was probably demolished only after its conversion into a mosque, so that the new prayer house could appear in all its dignity, showing that the quarter that had become Muslim.

The interior of the church is an elegant space with three naves, divided by slender neo-Gothic pillars, very similar to the Syriac Peter and Paul church. After all, they were built a few years apart, perhaps designed by the same architect. A row of domes runs above the main nave in accordance with the Armenian architectural tradition. When it was converted into a mosque, the mihrab and the pulpit were built against the south wall, but it does not change the predominantly longitudinal impression.

We are walking with Vedat up to our accommodation, Elçi Konaği, to pay him there for the carpets. “This was the Armenian quarter”, Vedat points around. “The richest neighborhood in the whole city.” “And what happened to them?” I ask out of routine. “They assimilated”, says Vedat with a commiserate face.

I get a bad feeling. I heard this answer once today. Was it then the same euphemism for something terrible? We know the fate of the Syriacs and Armenians in Urfa. But what happened to the Jews?

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