Brother Sun, Sister Moon

I did not want to go to Harran. It does not matter that Abraham lived there, that Eliezer asked for Rebekah’s hand at that well for his master Isaac, that Jacob served fourteen years there for Rachel, that it has the castle of the moon-worshiping Sabeans and the centuries-old beehive houses, if the measure of arrogance and ripping-off practiced by the locals – and euphemistically formulated by touristic sites like “the locals go to great lengths to take care of the visitors” – is almost unbearable. You have not even gotten out of the car or the bus, and a multitude of self-appointed tour guides are already clinging to you, offering, in poor English, their services which amount to guiding you to the cafe-cum-open-air-museum set up in the nearest beehive house, where they sell coffee at the price of gold among the scenery of copperware and kilims bought in he Urfa bazaar, and on the way out they heavily rip you off under the pretext of an entrance fee. I’ve been there three times, and not one bit of me wants more.

I present my aversion to the group, but I also report honestly about the sights. Finally, the decision is made to leave after all, once we are just forty kilometers away here in Urfa, and that everyone would vigorously defend themselves against the onslaught. In the evening, I am still browsing the internet and Sinclair’s Eastern Turkey for some more attractions to add to this tour, and there are indeed a few locations that promise to be interesting.

Harran is as I expected. As soon as we stop at the Byzantine castle, a tour guide arrives by car. In such cases, refusing him in English or Turkish is not an option, but neither is not talking to him: he just sticks to you like a fly. The solution, in a strange way, is to only speak to him in Hungarian, slowly, articulately, and persuasively. He loses thread, while the group laughs in a circle, and after a while he wears off on its own.

The Byzantine castle in the center of today’s settlement may have originally been a palace. Perhaps it was fortified only after the Muslim conquest. It is first mentioned in 958 by the historian Al-Maqdisi, who claims it to be “comparable to Jerusalem in beauty”. And this is no small compliment, because Al-Maqdisi came from a family of architects in Jerusalem, and he was very proud of the architecture of his hometown. The current state of the castle dates from the time of the Ayyubid dynasty around 1200: beautifully carved stones, carefuly designed geometric shapes, strong walls.

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The most characteristic buildings of the surrounding settlement are the beehive houses. These were erected by their inhabitants from bricks mined from the ruins of the ancient city, and bound together with clay. They provide excellent protection against the summer heat. A family center consists of dozens of such beehives, built closely together and opening into each other, like a multi-domed peasant palace. According to Turkish tourism mythology, this building type has remained unchanged for thousands of years, and they even show you one that belonged to Abraham himself. In reality, the current inhabitants of Harran were tent-dwelling nomadic Bedouins just a few centuries ago, so this type may be more of a vernacular version of the bazaar dome, created recently due to the abundant availability of raw materials. Since the turn of the millennium, the Atatürk Dam has transformed the surrounding steppe into well-watered, abundantly productive lands, and the sudden wealth has caused the locals to move into “regular houses”. The beehives are used as stables, and more recently many of them have been arranged as folkloristic tourist traps.

That Harran, this dirty and poor settlement was one of the most important cities of the ancient East, is now only evidenced by the incredible dimensions of the Roman and Ayyubid city walls. Inside the walls, there is only barren land, and around the former city gate the ruins of the Great Mosque and of the Islamic Theological University.

The Great Mosque was, of course, built on the site of the former Moon Temple. And this moon cult is perhaps the most interesting thing in all of Harran’s history. As early as the 8th century BC, the Harranians are recorded as worshiping the stars (i.e. the planets, including the Sun and the Moon), and this cult of Babylonian origin gradually focused on the Moon. The Assyrian kings, who had Harran as their second largest city after Nineveh, rebuilt the local temple of Sin, the moon god, even twice. But Sin’s most ardent admirer was Nabunaid, the last Babylonian king (556-539), who must have been as original and stubborn a religious innovator as Akhenaten. Not born into a Babylonian family, he came to power through a coup. His father was probably from among the Assyrians (defeated only fifty years earlier at Carchemish, recently visited by us), and his mother an Aramaic from Harran, even a priestess of Sin. Nabunaid wanted to replace the Babylonian cult of the sun god Marduk with the veneration of Sin, and he also rebuilt his lunar temple in Harran, but Marduk’s priests invited the Persian king Cyrus as their ruler, out of fear of losing their bread. Cyrus marched into Babylon without a blow of the sword, and as a wise ruler he first left Babylon in the cult of Marduk, secondly he appointed Nabunaid as governor of a distant province, and thirdly he released the captive Jews to Jerusalem, who out of gratitude portrayed him in their holy books as a good boy, and Nabunaid as a bad boy. True, the name of the Babylonian king appears as Nebuchadnezzar in the 4th book of Daniel, but on the one hand this is the name of a previous bad boy, the Assyrian king who destroyed Northern Israel, and on the other hand, as Géza Komoróczy points out in the introduction to his translation of the Dead Sea Scroll entitled Nabunai’s Prayer, Daniel’s story is actually about Nabunaid.

King Nabunaid worships the Sun, the Venus and the Moon on the Harran Stele in the Urfa Museum (another version is in the British Museum). Its text (excerpt): “Sin, the lord of all the gods and goddesses residing in heaven, has come down from heaven to (me) Nabonidus, king of Babylon! For me, Nabonidus, the lonely one who has nobody, in whose heart was not thought of kingship, the gods and goddesses prayed (to Sin) and called me to kingship. At midnight, he (Sin) made me have a dream and said (in the dream) as follows: «Rebuild speedily Ehulhul, the temple of Sin in Harran, and I will hand over to you all the countries.»”

And perhaps the most interesting thing about the Harran moon cult is how well it survived all religious changes. In the 2nd century AD it was even able to convert among the Arab tribes immigrating here, and when Christianity became the state religion in 395, the mostly moon-worshiping Harranians bribed the local governor so that they could continue to practice their religion. And after the Muslim conquest, they preserved their faith by making the Arabs believe that they were the Sabaeans from among “the religions of the book” – Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Sabaean – mentioned by Muhammad. Since by that time the real Sabaeans – probably a sect venerating St. John the Baptist – had long since disappeared, but the locals did have books – mainly astrological books –, so the Arab governor accepted this. This is how the religion, now called “Sabian” (in Arabic sabi) survived until the 1200s, when the Mongols relocated them to Mardin, where they finally merged with the Muslims. But in the meantime, they gave shelter to the Neoplatonic philosophers exiled from the Christian Roman Empire, who created here the school of “esoteric Islam”. It is telling, that the greatest astronomer of the Arab world was al-Battani as-Sabi, “the Sabian Battani” (858-929), who never converted to Islam, and who, due to his upbringing in Harran, could rely on two thousand years of astronomical experience.

Al-Battani’s astronomical tables in a Latin edition, Nuremberg 1537

After Harran, our next stop is Han el-Barur, “the Caravanserai of the Well”, located thirty kilometers to the east. The caravanserai was built in 1229 by Husam ed-Din Ali, probably a local Ayyubid provincial chief. On its façade, to the right of the gate, there was a lion, the royal animal of Persian origin of the medieval Mesopotamian dynasties, whose belly and legs are only visible now. The well has long since dried up, but today there is no more need for it, because the water comes from the swollen Euphrates through canals and pipes. The resulting increase of population is flocking to us from the surrounding farms within minutes. Among them, a teenage girl brings a key and opens the gate. The courtyard of the caravanserai is a spacious, empty square space. A vaulted corridor runs around it on four sides, where people and animals stayed once. The entire building has been over-restored according to Turkish custom, as is evident from the fact that two vault sections were left unpolished, and the original surface is full of graffiti accumulated over the centuries: horsemen, camel with her foal, men dancing in circles. It is painful to imagine how much history might have been removed from the other four dozen vault sections under the name of “restoration”.

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The late antique city of Şuayb is only ten kilometers after the caravanserai. The city was built on a hill. At the hilltop is the still-standing façade and straight back front of a church. And all around it, to the bottom of the hill, are cave dwellings that are half carved into the rock and half built of stone or wood. Remains of arches and buildings made of large ashlars are also visible.

Shuayb was a prophet mentioned in the Qurʿan who was sent to a city called Madyan, but the people there rejected him, for which they received their due punishment. As Maydan, located on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, was also a cave city, perhaps for this reason it was identified with this city, which was thus called Şuayb Şehir – Shuayb’s city – after the Arab conquest. The few miserable houses around the ancient city – through whose courtyard you have to pass to it – are still called Şuayıpşehri. A cemetery once belonged to it, but its stones were broken by the locals. Some of their remains can be seen in the museum in Urfa. According to their testimony, the city was inhabited by Christian Arabs and Syriacs even centuries after the Muslim conquest.

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Local children cling to us here as well and they loudly demand money, but I only communicate with them in Hungarian. They also draw attention to the prophet’s former visit here, and then ask us if we are Muslims. When the eldest decides that we are not, he stands on a rock and begins to prophesy loudly in Turkish that all non-Muslims (kafirs) will go to hell. When nobody answers, he starts cursing us personally. He is screaming in an amost hoarse voice, revealing to us the deepest layers of the vocabulary of the besiegers of our fortresses in the 16th century. It is an amazingly archaic experience. This boy will become a priest. Obviously, he did not produce this hatred by himself, but from adults, parents, relatives and Muslim teachers. It breaks my heart to think that the local Syriac and Armenian Christians had to and must live with such neighbors and die at their hands. When I am fed up with him, I stand in front of him and tell him loudly, articulately, in Hungarian: “Listen to me, you infidel heathen. According to the teachings of the Holy Catholic Mother Church, anyone who does not accept and follow the decisions of the Holy Counciil of Trent is anathema and goes to hell. Give the idea some thought, allright?” He may not understand the teaching in its purity, but he feels its weight in my voice, and falls silent.

The prophet and, as a counterpoint, two kind children

However, the most amazing experience awaits us another ten kilometers away, in the village of Yağmurlu. Sinclair’s Eastern Turkey indicates here the ancient settlement of Sumatar. It was actually a well in one of the valleys of the Tektek Mountains – now a national park – around which the 1st to 3rd-century semi-nomadic Arab tribes gathered and established a common place of worship. The object of it was precisely the star and moon cult of Harran, which clearly  indicates how natural the reverence of the moon was among the nomadic Semitic peoples, including the Jews and Arabs, whose religious calendar is still based on the cycles of the moon. From my previous readings I know that there will be a cultic cave and some kind of carvings.

Arriving in the village, we look at the surrounding barren limestone hills at a loss. On some of them there are natural caves as well as man-made cave dwellings, or remains of built structures. But which was the cult center? The local children are gathering around us, but here they are much more tactful than in the previous places. I ask one of the bigger boys if he knows where the statues are. “Yes”, he points firmly to the north. “They are there. They are twelve.” We’re off. Mehmet soon stops. “This is the well of Moses.” “Of the prophet?” “Yes, his.” He points at a deep square well carved in limestone, with a pump so old that even Moses could have used it. Apparently, this was the well around which the Bedouin tribes following the cult gathered at the time.

We continue for about two hundred meters along the marshy stream that flows from the well. The houses of the village follow the road on the right, and gardens surrounded by stone walls on the left. Most of them are made of carefully carved large stones, apparently taken from ancient cultic structures. However, most of the houses are now uninhabited and empty.

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We arrive at a cave. Mehmet goes forward.

The three walls, floor and ceiling of the cave were carved out straight. And the three walls are in fact covered with sculptures, or more precisely, reliefs. Standing men in tall, peaked hats and knee-length tunics, in the style of the Parthian – i.e. Hellenized Persian – art of the 2nd and 3rd century, of which they are thus the westernmost representatives. Next to the heads of the states are eloquent Aramaic or rather Edessan (Urfan) Syriac texts. I look it up, and these inscriptions were published with translation and commentary in Brill’s Handbook of Oriental Studies series, in The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene (1999). We have it in Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek, so as soon as I get home, I will borrow it and report the exact text. Until then I will have to rely on the brief summary of Eastern Turkey.

A wide, empty niche opens in the middle of the western wall opposite the entrance. On its two sides, in two narrower niches, two men are standing. Both are called Aurelius Haphsai, but the one to the right was commissioned by Bar Nahar, son of Rinai, while the left one by the son of Tiridates. Both pilasters separating the niches have a crescent moon, above which a cross was carved probably much later. Rinai and Tiridates were successive Arab rulers of the region, which explains the function of the reliefs. They probably immortalize the memory of important political figures and offer them into the protection of the main deity, the moon god Sin here, in the cult place of the dead. The reliefs were commissioned in different times of the 2nd and 3rd century by donators who were relatives or friends of local rulers. All this indicates that the local Arab elite did not adhere to the desert religion of their subjects, but adapted the Harran moon cult instead, which was considered nobler, as well as the Aramaic/Syriac language of Edessa, and certainly tried to fit in with the Edessa elite.

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The southern wall has in the middle a low arched entrance into a smaller room. To its right stand two figures, father and son, both named Waʿel. The father was a ruler of the area. Both were commissioned by a third Waʻel, probably a relative. In the smaller room, on the left side of a wide, empty niche similar to that of the larger one stands, in an arched niche, a very worn figure, without inscription.

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On the right (northern) wall there are four figures. The relief of the first, Abgar, also a local ruler, was commissioned by Manu, Grand Vizier of Edessa, who lived at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, and whose name also figures on one of the columns of the citadel of Urfa. The next one is Bar Nahar, son of Rinai. Next to him is Tiridates, who founded the entire cult place in 165. Next to him stands his younger brother. On the narrow section of the wall next to the entrance there is a niche for a very worn figure without any inscription.

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It is a poignant feeling to stand here, on the borderlands of vanished empires, in the unknown cave of an abandoned village, the last witness of a forgotten religion that was so powerful and extraordinary in its time that, while it survived world religions for millennia, empires declined because of it, and its lunar calendar is still used by two great religions; and the knowledge it created, al-Battani’s tables recording the changing distances between the Sun and the Earth, led Copernicus to the idea of a heliocentric world model.

The children who have accompanied us up to this point probably don’t understand the reason for our emotion, but they seem to feel something of it because they too are silent. Only the gecko hiding in the cracks of the wall distracts them for a while.

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Mehmet leads us ahead, first back to where the bus is standing, then further south. Meanwhile, his younger brother Ahmet points to the surrounding heights, on which there are some ruins, perhaps former observatories, and lists their names: the mountain of Venus, of the Moon, of Mars. It is as if he were looking at them through the eyes of Nabunaid standing on the Harran Stele. It is amazing how this knowledge has been preserved here in the village for three thousand years.

And in the middle, ahead of al-Battani’s tables and Copernicus’ model, is the Hill of the Sun, surrounded by the remains of former ashlar walls.

We pass through the garden of the only brick building in the village, the school, and climb the limestone hill behind the Hill of the Sun. A chamber carved into the side of the hill is yawning before us. Inside there are niches in the wall, with a cross scratched above them, and nothing else but dry sheep manure thickly covering the floor.

Climbing even higher, you can see that a rock wall rises on the flat top of the hill, through which stairs lead up to the plateau. On the wall of the right side of the stairs there are two reliefs, a worn bust in a semicircular niche, on which five folds of clothing can still be seen, and next to it, in a higher semicircular niche, under a conch, a standing male figure. Both are accompanied by a Syriac inscription carved deep into the wall. Ahmet steps up to them and, as if performing a ritual play, asks them: “Tell me, Suryani, Syriac, who are you?” Then he answers in a high voice in the name of the bust: “I am Sin”, and translates it as “Ay”, meaning the Moon. And in the name of the full-figured statue, in a deep voice: “And I am Shamal, that is, Güneş”, i.e. the Sun. Ahmet’s knowledge is impressive, but the literature disputes it, considering both reliefs to be images of Tiridates, the local ruler who founded the cult site in AD 165. Only their inscriptions dedicate them to the god Sin.

A moon sanctuary once stood on the plateau, the center of the entire cult site, but today only a few ashlars remain on the western edge. But nine Syriac inscriptions were also carved into the plateau. The two outermost are founding inscriptions in the name of Tiridates, and the other seven perpetuate the memory of living persons.

From the plateau, we once again look around the barren limestone hills of the Tektek Mountains, the heights dedicated to the stars, and the valley, where once lived a people who were tent-dwelling nomads, but they knew and venerated the movements of the planets, and passed this knowlege on to their late descendants.

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