Panorama of the ancient city of Riha/Urfa. Mosque with large dome and two minarets in foreground. Minaret of the 12th century Halil ul-Rahman Mosque is visible. City gardens. Old honey-colored buildings in the background.
Panorama of the ancient city of Riha/Urfa. © 2019 –

Ground Zero of History

Riha was the final big city on my Mesopotamian road trip. This city has been known under various names throughout its lengthy history. The earliest known records refer to it as Callirhoe and later as Antiochia, Justinopolis, and Edessa. Riha Province is considered “Ground Zero of History” for the world’s oldest known archaeological sites, such as Girê Mirazan aka Göbekli Tepe, are located here.

The city was conquered by the Kurdish Ayyubids in the 12th century. This influential Kurdish dynasty was established by the celebrated Kurdish leader Saladin. Sultan Saladin is famous for having defeated the Crusader States and his liberation of Jerusalem in 1187. With the Kurds’ capture of Riha and the collapse of the Crusader state County of Edessa, the city’s name sort of returned to its roots. Kurds call the city Riha and Arabs call it Ruha – it is not difficult to see how “Callirhoe” became “Riha” or “Ruha” after thousands of years of cultural exchange.

Photos 1 – 3 are of the Citadel with its famed Pillars of Edessa. Legend has it that these pillars are remnants of a catapult King Nimrod used to catapult the Prophet Abraham into a fire. The fire turned into a pool with Sacred Fish, saving the prophet from certain death. The Pool of Sacred Fish and the adjacent 12th century Xelîl el-Rehmen Mosque (Halil ul-Rahman Mosque) are the city’s main historic attractions; more about that follows later.

The video below provides an overview of the Old Town’s mains quare, with in the background the Citadel and Pillars of Edessa, on the right side the Kurdish-built Xelîl el-Rehmen Mosque and Pool of Sacred Fish, and on the left the cave where the Prophet Abraham was born.

The 21-rayed Kurdish Sun.

Urfa’s Demographics

Before delving into visited attractions, I want to talk about this province’s demographics. From this point on, I will refer to Urfa by either its Kurdish name “Riha” or its historic name “Edessa.

Riha is located close to the Syrian border. Or, to be more precise, the border of Rojava: Syrian Kurdistan. In recent years, the city of Riha has been heavily Arabized: according to some figures, over 400,000 Syrian refugees have settled in and around Riha since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. This wave of migration has changed the city’s demographics as well as the city’s vibe considerably, for most of the Arab refugees are extremely conservative. In fact, many have questionable sympathies, such as to the terrorist organization ISIS.

One thing I noticed while in Riha was the dominance of Arabic street signs and the complete absence of Kurdish ones, even though Kurds are natives and made up at least 80% of the province’s population (prior to the migration wave).

This is intentional. Any reference to the Kurdish language is outlawed by the Turkish state. Arabic signs, on the other hand, are abundant. Even though native Arabs make up, at most, only 15% of the province’s population.

I have rarely experienced such blatant discrimination. Many Kurds we met while in Riha pointed this out. They would point at Arabic streets signs and billboards and voice their frustration. These policies are intentional and part of the fascist Turkish state’s century-long efforts to diminish Kurdish culture, language, and identity.

The Syrian refugees are very conservative. Many are from former ISIS-strongholds such as Raqqa, which was the capital of the so-called “Islamic Caliphate”.

The “refugees” resent Kurds because Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG, YPJ, and SDF) destroyed their beloveth Turkish-backed terrorist “caliphate”. The refugee children were also incredibly impolite and assertive. They would harass you until you gave them money. And if you did not, they would use tactics clearly thought to them by adults. For example, they threw souvenirs at me, hoping that would guilt me into buying.

Riha’s historic city center is largely Kurdish. Elderly Kurdish men men walk around in their traditional baggy shalwar trousers and rock bright-purple headscarves. The color of headdresses is one way to distinguish Kurds from different districts or tribes or even from other ethnic groups, like Arabs and Turkmen.

I spoke to many Kurds while in Riha. They were very open about their political views. Even the conservative Kurds disliked the government and clearly regretted their past choices (conservative Kurds used to vote for Erdogan’s AKP).

Younger Kurds would criticize their conservative parents and didn’t seem to take religion as seriously. Many Kurds, even in public state-controlled spaces, were eager to talk politics, but were very careful in their approach.

According to a 2020 “Europe Elects” poll, the pro-Kurdish HDP would win this province if elections were held today. The tide is changing, even in conservative provinces.

The 21-rayed Kurdish Sun.

City of Prophets

Riha is perhaps the world’s most important historic center. The city’s nickname, “City of Prophets”, gives a clue to why that may be. Riha carries this honorific nickname because the Prophet Abraham, eponym and patriarch of the Abrahamic religions, is alleged to have been born here. In other words: Riha is at the roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam!

Riha is also home to Girê Mirazan (Göbekli Tepe), an ancient and UNESCO-listed archaeological site that dates back to 10,000 BC. This archaeological site’s significance can not be overstated: its discovery has even forced historians to rethink/rewrite the history of human civilization!

To put Girê Mirazan aka Göbekli Tepe’s antiquity into perspective: the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed around 2600 BC. So when those pyramids were built, Girê Mirazan had already existed for over 7400 years! We are closer in time to the Pharaohs than the Pharaohs were to the builders of Girê Mirazan.

Truly, Kurdistan is Ground Zero of History.

Besides its historic and religious importance, Riha is also an important cultural and political center for Kurds. Many Kurdish artists and influential contemporary politicians hailed from this province, including Şivan Perwer (musician), Yilmaz Güney (film director), and Abdullah Öcalan (politician).

The photos below are of the Pool of Sacred Fish that was mentioned earlier and of the adjacent 12th century Xelîl el-Rehmen Mosque (Halil ul-Rahman Mosque), which was built by Saladin’s Kurdish Ayyubid Dynasty. The mosque is a unique and rare example of Kurdish-influenced Islamic Architecture: you won’t find a similar mosque anywhere else in the world.

The other photos are of the exteriors of the aforementioned monuments, the Old Town’s main square, and of the towering Citadel.

Archaeology and Mosaic Museum Complex

Riha has, besides ancient monuments, also some interesting museums to offer, such as the Archaeology and Mosaics Museum Complex, which is Kurdistan (and Turkey’s) largest museum complex. The Mosaic Museum is the world’s largest.
Some of the world’s most famous and recognizable ancient mosaics are on display in Riha’s Mosaic Museum. Both buildings are modern, but the Archaeology Museum is clearly inspired by the city’s traditional architecture. The museum buildings are attractions in their own way.

The photos below are of the Archaeology Museum’s exterior (photo 1), of statues and other artifacts in this museum (photos 2 – 6), of the Mosaic Museum’s interior (photo 7), and finally of three mosaics (photos 8 – 10).

*Steles are stone slabs that were erected as monuments in antiquity.

Riha’s Archaeology and Mosaic Museum is the third largest museum complex in the world. Here, one can admire an impressive collection of Roman mosaic floors and other archaeological treasures found across the Kurdish province.

The 21-rayed Kurdish Sun.

Xelfetî / Halfeti: Sunken City

The road trip’s final destination in Mesopotamia was Xelfetî (Halfeti), a small historic town on the banks of the Euphrates River. Half of Xelfetî is unfortunately gone; it was submerged under the waters of Turkey’s Birecik Dam. Sound familiar?

In Xelfetî, you can take a boat tour and admire many historic remains, like the Rumkale Fortress.

Xelfetî is best known for its black roses. This little Kurdish town is the only place in the world where these flowers can grow. Thinking about the town’s sad fate and state that it is in, one can not help but wonder why black roses grow only here.

To build on the above: the Turkish state has been building destructive dams in othe country’s Kurdish and formerly Armenian regions for decades. The state’s primary aim is to destroy non-Turkic history and heritage, which is part of its efforts to rewrite history. Other aims are uprooting Kurds from their ancestral lands and forcing them to go West; to Turkish cities. Turkey hopes that by doing this, Kurds will be forced to abandon their culture and assimilate into artificial Turkish society.

But Turkey has far more insidious aims: these dams limit the water flow to Iraq and Syria. In other words: Turkey is weaponizing water, which is against international law and human rights. The people of Iraq and Syria, who have lived along and off of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for millennia, are now at the mercy of Turkish fascists. In addition, these dams will increase drought, failed harvests, and inevitably cause further destabilization of an already volatile region.

The consequences of Turkey’s conscienceless savagery and inhumanity will become clear in the coming years. Right now, though, the world seems to be blind and deaf to Turkey’s crimes. These dams are the ultimate proof of Turkey’s moral bankruptcy.

The photos below are of Xelfetî (photos 1-2), the submerged village of Belasor (photo 3), Rumkale Fortress (photo 4), and a general view of Xelfetî (photo 5).

The first clip provides a view of Xelfetî from an elevated vantage point. The second clip shows Belasor, one of many partially submerged historic villages along the boat tour. Over 8,000 (!) Kurdish villages have been destroyed by the Turkish and Iraqi armies between 1985 and 2003.

Closing Paragraph

Xelfetî was the last destination in Mesopotamia, Kurdistan. I took the plane to Istanbul the day after. This was one of the best road trips of my life and I will never forget the places visited and the people met.

Within a very short period, I learned and saw more of my native homeland than I could have ever hoped for.

And to think this was just the tip of the iceberg of Kurdistan’s incredible history and cultural wealth. To be continued…

Road Trip Destinations & Route


City, Town or VillageRiha (Urfa)
Other Places VisitedXelfetî (Halfeti)
Year(s) Visited2019
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Publication Date2019-09-13
Last Update2021-09-02


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