How to get mistaken for an Arab Pilgrim

A travelogue from Sanliurfa, Turkey (6-9 Nov)

First, make plans to travel to Southeast Turkey. My friend Ants and I decided to visit Sanliurfa, a city in Southeast Turkey, during a trip in November 2014. However, we learnt not to tell people we were going there because it brought out all sorts of strange questions:

“What are you going there for? Are you going on a pilgrimage?”

“Are you going to Syria to join IS?”

The best reaction came from a bus attendant. When he learnt of our destination, he rubbed his eyes and stared at us before telling our bus driver in Turkish, “These two don’t look like Arabs.”

Second, do research. We learnt that Sanliurfa is a city with a reputation. Previously called Urfa, it was given the Turkish suffix ‘Sanli-‘ (‘Glorious’) to honour the city’s resistance against the French during the First World War. Located amidst wide, tree-less plains, the city was once known as Edessa and was a Greek Byzantine outpost until Arab armies conquered the city for Islam in the 7th century. The city is mainly Turkish, with sizeable Arab and Kurdish minorities.

Two Greek pillars on top of Urfa Castle are all that's left of Biblical Edessa
Two Greek pillars on top of Urfa Castle are all that’s left of Biblical Edessa

As the largest Turkish city near the Turkish-Syrian border, today Sanliurfa has become the focal point for refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Since 2014, the city has been in the news for the battles going on 50km south at Mursitpinar (also known for its Kurdish name ‘Kobani’), where the local Kurdish militias are fighting ISIS.

However, during our stay there, Ants and I felt completely safe. The people we met showed us incredible hospitality despite our limited knowledge of Turkish. During the course of our stay there, strangers came up to us to practise their English and Mandarin.

Ridvaniye Cami and Madrassah (right) sits on the shores of the Balikigolu (Fish Lake)
Ridvaniye Cami and Madrassah (right) sits on the shores of the Balikigolu (Fish Lake)
Sacred carp in the Balikigolu
Sacred carp in the Balikigolu

Third, do as the locals do, which meant spending time at the Balikligolu (Turkish for ‘Fish Lake’), in Sanliurfa’s old city. This lake is a large pool, surrounded on all sides by mosques, madrasahs and shrines, and guarded by the ruins of a 1000-year old castle.

The lake and its buildings are sites of pilgrimage. According to the locals, thousands of years ago, God rescued the prophet Abraham from being burnt alive by a local king called Nimrod by turning the lake of fire into a lake of water, and the coals into fishes. Because of this miracle, the fishes in the Balikligolu are sacred and are not to be touched or caught. Many pilgrims buy fish food to scatter over the lake as part of their pilgrimage.

Our circuit around the sites at the Balikligolu included visiting the shrines of Muslim saints, climbing the long road to the castle and paying our respects at Sanliurfa’s holiest site, the Cave of Abraham. The cave shrine is called the Hazreti Ibrahim Peygamber Dogdugu Magaradir (Turkish for ‘The cave where the Prophet Ibrahim was born’) and can be found in the courtyard of the Mevlid-I-Halil mosque.

To pay our respects, Ants and I followed a simple ritual: take off shoes, enter the low entrance and view the cave. In a small room overlooking a water-filled cave, we watched as the men prayed and kissed the glass separating the cave from the room. We kept our silence while they cried, the mood heavy with the wailing of women in the divided room next door. Then, following ritual, we washed our hands in the holy spring at the site, and walked out of the cave butts-first, being respectful by not showing our backs to the shrine.

The men who exited the cave with us were Turkish. But upon seeing us join them, they greeted us with “Salaam aluekium” (Arabic for ‘peace be with you’)

The sign that divides men and women's quarters at the Hazreti Ibrahim Magrasi ('Prophet Abraham's Shrine)
The sign that divides men and women’s quarters at the Hazreti Ibrahim Magrasi (‘Prophet Abraham’s Shrine)
"Please observe respectable behaviour" - The low entrance to the inner chamber of the Hazreti Ibrahim Magrasi  
“Please observe respectable behaviour” – The low entrance to the inner chamber of the Hazreti Ibrahim Magrasi

Fourth, observe and learn the culture. So Ants and I spent a lot of our time people-watching at the Balikligolu, where we learnt everything had its place and everything and everyone had a kind of order.

We learnt that Arab men wore red keffiyehs, and Arab women wore purple headscarves and jewellery. Kurdish women were likely to have face tattoos. Turks wore modern-dress. Iranian pilgrims were more likely to wear black, but they were friendly and talkative, even if they did not speak English.

Our English-speaking guesthouse owner liked to remind us to look only. “Remember,” he always said, “Arab women dowry very expensive.”

Then, there were the Syrians: refugee children selling bread in the streets and families sleeping in abandoned warehouses. Their faces were fairer than their Turkish counterparts and spoke better English. They named their shops after places they had left behind: Halep (Aleppo) Fafafel, Ash-Sham (Damascus) Kebab. We could tell we were not in a Turkish establishment if the people there spoke English and had Al Jazeera News on the TV and not CNN.

We also learnt that no one wanted to talk about the war. Those who did painted a picture of near complete anarchy: Arabs fighting Arabs fighting Kurds fighting ISIS, with the Turks watching from across a barbed wire border fence.

The war might have been an abstract concept in Singapore, but how could we not stop and feel sad when a Syrian child asked us to buy his oranges?

The Halil-Ur-Rahman Cami at the Balikligolu appears to be built over the site of a former church. Clue: it's main minaret looks clearly like a church tower/steeple
The Halil-Ur-Rahman Cami at the Balikligolu appears to be built over the site of a former church. Clue: it’s main minaret looks clearly like a church tower/steeple

Finally, accept what the locals do to you. We were having our final lunch at the Balikligolu on a Friday when an elderly gentleman in red-chequered keffiyeh came up to us after prayers.

“Pakistani?” the old man said.

“Huh?” went Ants.

“Turke Bilmiyorum.” I told the old man. We don’t speak Turkish.


“Hayir…emmm… Singapore.” No. Singaporean.

The old man seemed confused. Perhaps he didn’t speak Turkish at all. But then he took the prayer beads from his hand, roped them around his thumb and pressed both his thumbs on both our foreheads. He muttered a brief prayer, smiled and said, “Salam aluekium”.

It seemed only polite to say in return, “Alekium salam”

“Why does everyone think we’re Arabs?” Ants asked.

But we continued people-watching: the men, women and children walking out from the mosques. Everything seemed to have an order in Sanliurfa, as it had been for thousands of years before. And for now, we were part of it.

Urfa's skyline, looking north
Urfa’s skyline, looking north

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