Standing outside his beehive-shaped mud-brick house in the ancient Mesopotamian town of Harran, 17-year-old Mustafa Arslan is all smiles. His conical abode has 18 small rooms. The primitive structure, unique to this part of the world, doubles as a museum — complete with Turkish handicrafts, artefacts, traditional clothes and jewellery.

“Come, let me show you my home,” Arslan says in fluent English, asking us into the 300-year-old structure.

The design for this traditional dwelling, known as kümbet , dates back thousands of years. The conical structure with an aperture in the ceiling, and mud bricks for roofing help keep the house cool in the region’s harsh summers, and warm in winters. The cluster houses are said to withstand earthquakes, violent wind storms and heavy rains.

“Legend has it that hens hatched more eggs in our special homes and onions sprouted faster,” says Arslan, “but not anymore.”

Located 15 km from Turkey’s border with Syria, Harran, once a major tourist attraction, has been struggling to survive owing to the turmoil in the war-torn neighbouring nation. According to Sehzat Kaya, a local tourist guide, the number of visitors has declined drastically in the last four years — from two million annually before 2015 to nearly none. This forced many families in Harran to migrate to cities such as Adiyaman, Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep, says Kaya. Those who stayed back took up small jobs as well as animal husbandry to keep the pot boiling at home.

“In the past, we would have 60 to 70 families visit us every day in summer,” says Arslan, “but now, no more than five or six.”

One of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on Earth, Harran, which means “the place where roads meet”, found its first mention in the Elba tablets 6,000 years ago. The town is located on an important trade route to Anatolia, and several civilisations — Roman, Babylonian, Persian, Hittite, Greek, Umayyad and Assyrian — are known to have settled in Harran since the Early Bronze Age. The city is also where the Roman Empire suffered one of its most dramatic defeats against the Persians, and where Roman emperor Caracalla was assassinated. Harran’s most famous resident, however, continues to be Abraham, who is said to have lived here for a few years around 1900 BC. Unesco points out that the city finds mention in the Bible.

“Harran was the last capital of the Assyrian and Umayyad dynasties,” says Kaya. “Throughout history, the ancient city has been a centre of religion as well as trade. It’s still old, still traditional — like an open-air museum, with its ancient architecture, mausoleums, the castle, the city walls and its mosques. The Arabic culture is still predominant, visible in the local food, lifestyle and clothing.”

A visit to Harran brings about a feeling of deep antiquity. The Harran Great Mosque is the oldest Islamic-styled shrine in Turkey, built between AD 744 and 750. Its 33.3-m high minaret still stands, and excavations have led to the discovery of a Turkish bath, a well, cisterns, a courtyard with a water tank and a fountain, and a covered bazaar. The Harran castle, meanwhile, is a reminder of the Sabians, or worshippers of celestial bodies, who find three mentions in the Quran. Located in the southeastern part of the city, the three-storey structure was built by the last Umayyad Caliph, Mervan II. It is said that he spent 10 million gold dirhams on the construction. The castle was also home to the Sin (Moon) temple of Harran, which was considered to be as magnificent as the Serapeum of Alexandria.

Harran’s archaeological riches, ruined as they are, still attest to the grandeur of the city. Hoping to revive tourism, the Turkish ministry of culture recently restored four kümbets , turning them into museums. Locals, however, claim that little has changed.

Hatije Pegambir is a 31-year-old woman who lives in her ancestral home, which is 200 years old (one of the four culture houses in the city). She says that the town suffers mainly because of the “jihadi highway” — the road that leads to the city also leads to Syria.While her family was one of the richest in Harran once, today she doesn’t make enough to pay for her eight-year-old daughter’s vitiligo treatment.

“When I was as old as Jamila [her daughter], there were at least 500 kümbets in my town,” says Pegambir. “Now, they’re down to a few dozen.” She knows that things won’t be the same again, but, like the rest of the town, Pegambir is not giving up on Harran yet.

Puja Changoiwala i s a journalist and author based in Mumbai

Travel log

>Getting there

Harran is best experienced as a day trip from the city of Sanlıurfa, located 48 km away (a 45-minute drive). There are daily direct flights from Istanbul and the Turkish capital of Ankara to Sanlıurfa.

>When to go

The best time to visit is spring (March, April, May) and autumn (October, November).


If you’d like to stay in a culture house, air-conditioned rooms in Harran Kültür Evi are available for booking on Airbnb for a daily tariff of ₹1,600. Sanlıurfa, meanwhile, has a host of hotels.


Despite its proximity to Syria, no safety concerns have been reported from Harran. In fact, the absence of security forces vouches for its safety.

>BL Tip

Southeast Turkey is known for copperware and pistachios. Also, souvenirs are much cheaper here than in the bigger cities.