In Search of Prophet Abraham – the Fish Lake

Turkey > Urfa

February 2013

We continue with our Prophet Abraham quest … just 160m west of Hasan Padisah Mosque (and Abraham’s Cave), we come to another landmark in the Abraham-Nimrod legend — Balikligol or ‘Pool of the Sacred Fish’, or simply ‘Fish Lake’.

Let’s read the inscription first. There are variations in the Christian and Jewish versions but they share a common theme. Note the story about the twin lakes of Halilurrahman (Balikligol) and Zeliha (Zulaikha).

And here’s the famous lake of 4,000 years ago … quite a nice setting, this 21st century version.

… with its equally famous  inhabitants, some sort of carps, sacred though.

There’s a pleasant footpath along the southern edge of this rectangular lake.

Well-dressed Kurdish ladies in blue head coverings are everywhere. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s an auspicious day for them. Urfa is mainly a Kurdish city, in this southeastern corner of Anatolia.

The Rizvaniye Mosque lines the northern edge of the sacred lake. It’s a much newer Ottoman building, but on an ancient sacred site.

Behind me, the tomb of revered man — Sheikh Ali Dede — possibly a saint, who died almost 400 years ago. It’s like a shrine and the locals come and pray — quite popular in Turkey these things.

Just past the tomb, we come to Halilurrahman Mosque, built 1211 on the site of a Byzantine Church. It’s believed this is the spot Abraham fell as soon as God turned the fire burning him into water.

Adjoining the above mosque, there’s an oldish chamber with some serious notice, in Turk, which I do not understand one single bit. People are reading it in serious mode. I’m intrigued.

After reading, some enter the chamber to pray. The only clue in the above notice is the mention of ‘Surah Al-Anbiya, Verse 69’ of the Holy Koran, which means: We (Allâh) said: “O fire! Be you coolness and safety for Ibrâhim (Abraham)!”. The same verse is repeated above the entrance — so now I realise this must be the exact spot Abraham fell as soon as God changed the fire into water.

I peer into the chamber … it’s cold even though the wall heater is at full power.

There’s a side-story to the above attempted burning of Abraham by Nimrod — the story of Zeliha or Zulaikha, the daughter of Nimrod. The twist is, Zeliha not only believed in Abraham’s prophethood, but she also loved him, which obviously was awkward for Nimrod. So when Abraham was tossed into the fire, Zeliha jumped into it as well, and when God changed the fire into water, Zeliha fell into a pool of that fire-turned-water … which is a lake now.

It’s more like a largish pond with popular eateries and picnic spots around it, maybe a lovers’ haunt too, but it is just adjacent to the Fish Lake.

In fact a short canal connects both Fish Lake and Zeliha Lake. Anyway what a beautiful story this Abraham-Zeliha relationship was. Of course I must qualify that there are various versions of  the tale, and what is presented here is solely the one I like. Please google for other versions.

In any case, we end the Abraham-Zeliha-Nimrod story here and cross the Fish Lake to Rizvaniye Mosque.

It was built in 1736 by Ridvan Ahmet Pasa, the local Ottoman governor.

Typical Ottoman design for the entrance. There used to be a church on this site, dating from 52 AD, dedicated to St Thomas (‘Doubting Thomas’), one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, who spent some time in Urfa. It is said that when St Thomas died in India, his body was brought back and  interred at this very spot.

Inside the mosque, the original mihrab is still there.

Next to me, in the morning sun-rays, a youngster is beautifully reciting the Holy Quran. I pause to listen …

We leave Rizvaniye Mosque and stroll uphill into town. I look back at the remnants of Urfa Castle which stands atop a rocky hill overlooking the whole historical Abraham park (and ancient Urfa). Fortifications of the hill started in antiquity (about 3,000 years ago), but the wall we see come from the Abbasids of the 9th century. The two columns come from Roman time.

Looking west past the minaret of Rizvaniye, the dwellings sprawl across the hills. This is truly ancient land, the Land of the Prophets they say, connected to Abraham, Jacob, Ayub, Joseph, Lot, Elyasa, and also Jesus.

Further up the high ground, we pause at a picnic area to admire the castle and of course, Hasan Padisa Mosque. Abraham’s Cave should be at the rocky cliff  just to the left of the minarets. It’s cool but sunny, a bit too bright for me.

We walk up the street to see another interesting building — the Selahaddin Eyyubi Mosque. Sounds familiar? That’s the famous warrior Saladin (1174-1193). This mosque was formerly an Eastern Orthodox Church, built on a earlier St John the Baptist Church from 457 AD. It was converted into a mosque in late 1700s. Saladin used to be a governor of this region, so this is to honour him. A common spelling of his name is Salahaddin al-Ayyubi.

As I enter the mosque, I face the east and I can immediately see the altar and sanctuary area in front of me. By tradition all eastern orthodox churches face the east, and I am now standing in the nave area.

In Urfa, Mecca is to the south, so to change this church into a mosque was easy — just face the southern wall of the building to pray, and that’s where they constructed the mihrab and the minbar.

Very intricate Ottoman mihrab (left) and minbar, at the southern wall of the building.

This is a very nice and pleasant mosque — the distinctive white interior makes it even more soothing. I like it very much.

I can still discern the original church architecture. As I leave, people start arriving for midday prayer — Zuhur.

It has been a long morning outing, so we decide to return to the hotel to rest before going out to find lunch and to do more walkabout. We pass by a modern bazaar.

There’s a spice shop and I’m always impressed with these Urfa specialties!

 

> TO BE CONTINUED

 

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