What in Blog’s name is it all about?! How to blog like a God!?!

Passion and Purpose in this Ancient Manuscript

Passion and Purpose in this Ancient Manuscript

Gone Blogg’n Crazy!

I piously lit a candle someone had given me to join in with prayers in a wee church in Russia, placed it in front of my chosen saint, and found myself sending out the fervent wish that my blog stats take off.  I immediately looked up to see Jesus looking down at me, blood running from his mouth and chest,  gaunt and in agony, nailed to a cross. I was completely horrified at what I had become!

In Beijing, a group of us travellers (including the speaker) had sat in wide-mouthed silent shock when someone had actually said, “What’s the point of doing that? There’s no Facebook here to share it on anyway!” Huh!?!

Why do we blog? Why do we tweet? Why do we upload our virtual innards on Facebook day in and day out? What do we get from all this? A sense that we exist? A sense of celebrity? Reassurance that we are liked? It fascinates me! Please comment below!

My reasons for blogging

I’d love to say that I started my blog to keep my friends back home updated on my trip. That would be reasonable. But, I know it was not the only reason!

I also started my blog to explore what a “blog” actually is and how it all works with social media and the like.  I figured I needed to get my head around all this, to make it in the world we live in, and it looked fun!

I also wanted to explore whether I was “good” at writing or just liked it. Plus, I had heard about all these people out there making money blogging and travelling and who wouldn’t want to join them?!

Some lessons learnt

I have learnt a few things and still have a lot to learn.  But, here it is so far!

1.      Blogging is hard work!

My dream of travelling the world somehow earning money online and living the life of Riley quickly hit a reality check when I was having to fit in blog posts between sightseeing, hotel and train bookings, sharing dorms, teaching myself Russian, and keeping up with my friends and family on social media and Skype.

Gone are the old days when you went travelling and had no contact with your life back home other than an occasional expensive phone call and a few letters sent via post restante! These days everyone has multiple devices and are virtually “at home” and “busy” a good chunk of the time! Time “away” has been lost! But that’s another post!

Anyone managing to travel and work is a Houdini in my opinion (not to mention those with kids, full time jobs…!).  I have learnt that for me, it probably needs to be more a case of travelling, then living somewhere interesting for a bit to “work” (if I make that come off!), then travelling again…. certainly travelling slower anyway!

2.       It helps if you have decent IT!

Part of my frustration in Russia was a really slow laptop and not having accepted Google Chrome into my life! Once someone got me onto that, and I did some google searches to iron out bugs (for example, why my smartphone photos would not open in my photo preview screen – I was having to make lists of the ID numbers of photos I wanted to upload and then go through and upload them by number!!), everything became a LOT easier! Doh!! (Of course, you also need to be in places with decent WIFI too!)

3.       Checking your blog stats can be addictive!

I am ashamed to admit that as my blog grew a bit (and it barely exists compared to most!) I found my fingers uncontrollably directing my phone to my blog stats virtually on waking! Smart phones are addictive anyway and when you are using one as your watch, alarm clock, email, and everything else… it is only one small step between checking the time in the middle of the night and then finding you have been on WordPress, Facebook and who knows where else for an hour or three!

But, it’s also those stats that add a lot of the excitement to blogging. It’s awesome to feel like others are reading your stuff, and when you also get comments, and likes and make connections with other bloggers and people around the world  – check this one out here with a fascinating lady I actually just met in person last week by sheer coincidence! – then it gets really really good!

4.         It helps if your blog has passion and purpose!

Passion

If I’m not interested in my subject and enjoying what I write, why would anyone else? If I am positively bored with it, well…. Readers can tell!

For example, I love travelling and seeing new places but what I love the most about it is the people, politics, culture, language, psychology and philosophy. I love learning, the pursuit of happiness, seeing people live their dreams, having time to muse and to let the ideas flow! I’m going to try to feed these interests into my writing more to see what happens!

Purpose

There are also zillions of blogs out in the world which is a fabulous thing! But, from what I can gather, the really successful ones  have a purpose. They give something to their readers. It might solve problems they have, give them information they need or give them a moment’s escape in a busy day. It is about the reader not the writer!

Having a “successful” blog is not just about trying to turn it into a money making scheme. Knowing that what you enjoy and find interesting is also helping and bringing enjoyment to others is the biggest buzz of blogging.

I’d love to know what parts of my blog you have liked and want to see more of, or if you have questions you’d like answered or topics covered – please comment below!

Help me find my purpose, for you! Hopefully one that reflects my genuine care for the world and not just a selfish wish for higher stats!! Although with high stats, you can achieve great things… which I like to think is what I meant in that Church!

5.         Shut up and Listen!

Finally, online life is not that different to offline life. You get a lot more out of it by giving than receiving, by asking about and being interested in others rather than being focused wholly on yourself and what you will get out of an exchange. The world really does turn on “Giver’s Gain”.

This works not just because you build trusted connections, collaborations and friendships with people all around the world, as well as learn a lot (see some of the links below to blogs about blogging for an example)!

It’s also because (and I’m being cheeky here!), from what I have read so far, the more links you have coming to your blog from other sites, the more Google puts you to the top of their search list! Even Google is working to reflect how real life works!

What now?

So, what has called me back to my blog after such a long break? Guilt at not completing my trip report? Curiosity about how I could blog better and how it might evolve? Is it the odd exciting idea that makes my heart beat faster and my fingers want to type, for the sheer fun of it!? Or, is it you kind reader telling me you like reading my posts and want more? Thank you!

Perhaps I just miss seeing the “Wordpress” notification pop up on my smart phone and feeling like a superhero?! So be it! Hopefully those stats and practice will help me become a better writer…

An Invitation to You

Come with me to Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Dubai and Oman, as well as gorgeous Old Blighty, and please be part of the journey and conversation. Help me make this blog your special escape treat, your encouragement to make your dreams come true, or just a nice place to hang out while exploring our world and lives! What would YOU like it be? 🙂

If you think you would like to start or improve a blog of your own, there is a lot of great information on this WordPress site and elsewhere online. You might like to start at How to start a blog – Blogging Basics 101 and Blogging for Beginners – Problogger.com. I have a lot of reading to do! Enjoy!

If you are already blogging, I’d love to know your purpose too! Why do you blog? 🙂

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Georgia, Armenia and Iran – Happy Holidays!!!

My sister and I met up with another good friend in Trabzon. Full circle for me, this is where I had arrived in Turkey from Russia almost a month earlier.

We had each done long trips before but now these three solo women travellers were going to have a go at travelling together! What would ensue??!!!

Iran was the destination and Trabzon was the Iranian embassy of choice. We arranged new passport photos with headscarfs and headed in. Excitement guaranteed!

It turned out that one of us needed to apply for a code from Iran before getting a visa while the others got visas on the spot.  The code would take two or more weeks.

Disappointment turned to glee however when, after a session of beer and brainstorming, it was decided that we would all wait out the code together, in Georgia and Armenia, then cross the mountains into Iran from there!! A “city break” tour to be fair but still a bonus!

The plan to head asap for the South and sun was off the table however and coat buying began. .. not to mention some new longer baggier items being needed for our main destination!!

Before we knew it we were braving minus 7 degree temperatures in Turkey’s mountain city of Kars, then a freak snow storm in the summer seaside resort of Batumi in Georgia, before enjoying the now chilly capitals of Tblisi in Georgia and Yerevan in Armenia. Visa 3 all going well soon to be in hand!

Tomorrow we head to Iran for a month,  we hope! I still plan to blog in due course about all of these incredible places and I have loved sharing this journey with you so far. It makes my journey so much richer! But for now I have decided to have the month off.

When I left New Zealand earlier this year, I was ready for a break. Next year, it is time to gather my thoughts and enthusiasms together and to generate some income again. In the meantime, I want an (albeit wintery) summer holiday, one like kids have, with no worries!!

As great as travelling with the Internet is, it sucks up a lot of time when in the ‘old days’ I might have been meeting other travellers, reading a book, meditating, creative writing, maybe even stretching a bit or doing my nails.

So, with many sites blocked in Iran anyway (without a sneaky VPN download) and wanting to reclaim ‘time’ before it is not all ‘mine’ again…. I am signing off for Christmas and the month of Jan (if I can ‘disconnect’ myself that is!!).

I look forward to reconnecting with you all again on the other side… and wish each of you a truly lovely and love-filled Christmas and a relaxing holiday that is all that you want it to be!

2014 is going to be a Bonza! So rest up for a bit…. and then get ready to rumble!!! 🙂

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Diyarbakir – Mourning Songs, Sticks and Stones

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Man takes his turn singing Dengbe with friends

The clicking of prayer beads, round and round in the fingers of the old men, lends a soft background beat to the heartfelt songs of their Kurdish history. One by one the men take their turn in this centuries’ old routine, singing the past as the others listen quietly, occasionally mouthing the words or letting out a call in support.

Diyabakir is the heart of the Kurdish homeland in Turkey and our last stop in South East Turkey.  On a hilltop in town, there is an army base.  Military helicopters fly overhead more than once as we have our stunning breakfast of mezze pieces upstairs in an old caravanserai. The meal goes straight into our top ten meals of all time.

The Turkish tourists are back here now too. But somehow you can still feel the underlying tension… bored young guys with sticks hang behind old city walls waiting (supposedly) to hassle tourists and friendly locals wave us back to the main streets.  Police stand in groups chatting and watching on corners.

The old town is almost completely enclosed by basalt walls nearly 6 kilometres long, the current version apparently dating from AD 330-500.

Kids scamper up to us asking for “money, money” as we explore the ramparts with views over the Tigris River valley.  They show surprise when we are not from Istanbul.

A boy on a colourfully decorated horse gallops past almost knocking us over and others just want to practice their English.

The walls and gates, narrow streets, old mosques and Armenian churches make fun places to wander.

We sit quietly listening to the songs, privileged to be invited in.

Someone brings the singing men throat-soothing tea.

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Caravanserai – we breakfasted upstairs

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Clotted cream and honey, eggplant puree, tahini spread, fresh bread, cheese and herbs, stringy cheese… many dishes still on their way! Oh yeah – breakfast for two!!

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Alleyways and Gates

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A four-legged minaret?!!

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Church window from the inside out – Armenian “squiggles”

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“Photo! Photo!”

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Ruins overlooking the Tigris River Valley

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A tidied up part of the city walls.

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Erbil – Capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

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The Kurdistan Flag,  (apparently)  banned in Syria, Turkey and Iran, some Kurds question the right of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to use it

I am not going to lie. I was petrified going into Iraq.

Actually, we were going into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq which is semi-autonomous and not considered to be “Extreme Risk” like the rest of the country. Many governments mark it out as safe.

I did a lot of research, not only for Iraq but for the whole of South East Turkey.  This corner of Turkey has a volatile history being largely inhabited by Kurds who seek independence or at least basic cultural rights. Civil wars have raged here in the past and care is advised.

“It is dangerous here”, said a Turkish border official as we re-entered Turkey from Iraq.

It was an interesting time to be learning about the Kurdish situation. In Syria, a Kurdish group had just declared autonomous government over part of the North East. They appear to have been fighting alongside (or at least not contesting) Assad and the government and in so doing were able to carve out a bit of land for themselves.  Presumably the current issues in Syria have made the Kurdish ones less of a priority for its government for the time being.

The President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region however denounced the Syrian group’s claim.  In his view, the group was purely seeking power for itself and did not acknowledge other Kurdish groups.  Human rights abuses against other Kurds were alleged.  Social networks were running hot denouncing one or the other for seeking to further their own power rather than the Kurdish cause.

About the same time, that very Kurdistan Regional President had historically met with the  Turkish Prime Minister to the chagrin of some.

The Kurdistan Region is wooing Western companies and tourists, and seeking economic deals, to further its economy.   Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, has been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s Tourist Capital for 2014.  There are malls, five star luxury hotels and a citadel now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A difficulty however is that Turkey, according to what I have read online, does not recognise “Kurds” as a cultural group or in its statistics although apparently 25% of Turkey’s population are Kurds.

Despite the Turkish Prime Minister taking a major step forward by actually using the word “Kurdistan” in a public address for the first time at the meeting with the Kurdistan Region President, many Kurds are highly suspicious of a relationship between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey. Again, some consider that the President is furthering his own interests (or those of the Iraqi Kurds only) while other Kurdish groups in Turkey, who lead the uprisings that potentially brought Turkey to the negotiating table in the first place, have been excluded from discussions.

On top of all this, in the Kurdistan Region, negotiations were still ongoing to decide final seats following a recently held election and, in September this year, the first terrorist attack in Erbil since May 2007 had occurred, with suicide car bombs and an armed attack against governmental security offices there.

All attacks in recent years however appear to have targeted government institutions, and in response to specific events, not civilians or foreigners. Further, I read that Kurds in Kurdistan actually love Westerners as the Americans assisted them to secure their semi-autonomous status during the Gulf wars and regime against Saddam.

After all of this reading, I knew intellectually that there was very little chance of an incident in Iraqi Kurdistan affecting my safety.  I was as likely or more likely to die in a car accident, from a stress-related illness or from an attack in Moscow or London than from three days in Erbil!  But, after a wee incident in a town-that-will-remain-nameless earlier on this trip where I had arrived in town just hours after a completely unexpected suicide bomb attack on a bus there, I was also well aware that bad things do happen in the most unlikely places and that life is precious!

My heart beat fast and I took many deep breaths as we followed the Syrian border, a fence right beside the road, along to the border crossing.

Perhaps from nerves or adrenalin, we broke all of the normal rules, unable to resist photographing the “Welcome to Iraq – Kurdistan Region” sign in immigration and were promptly told off.  From that point on though, excitement took over and I felt completely safe (although a little wary when passing government offices or wandering in the Bazaars).

It was amazing to be in Iraq, albeit the Kurdistan area of it.  It’s funny sometimes when you have no expectations of a place but when you get there you think “Of course its like that!”

Many men had traditional baggy pant suits and great cumberbunds. Moustaches a la [a certain famous Iraqi] were de rigeur.  There were not so many women in the streets but those we saw ranged from full shador covered Islamic women to modern looking young women in western dress.

The area is said to be quite distinct from the rest of Iraq in that, for example, Kurds do not consider themselves to be Arabs and there is a large and historic Syriac Christian community there, as well as other non-Muslim groups.

We explored the citadel (6000 years old and, as with the rest of Mesopotamia, ancient and long inhabited….), rose gardens and parks, old minarets, an archaeological museum and a Syriac Christian community (Ainkawa) and museum.  The town had a confident and proud vibe and we would have loved to stay longer.

Apparently the surrounding countryside is also stunning and there is a sign hidden somewhere on a river marking the start of a “Kayak to Baghdad”. That is now on the list for a future trip!

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Delicious and warm stewed marrow for breakfast

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People enjoying the fountain park in front of the Citadel

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An ornate minaret on the Mosque in the Citadel

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One of many statues lining the path in Minaret Park leading to the 12th century AD minaret in the background

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Is that the All Blacks doing a Maori Haka???!!!

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Deliciousness everywhere… I also found Anchor Dairy Products from New Zealand (my home country) in the supermarket…

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Go Kurdistan!

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A Christmas Tree in a flash foodie shop in the Christian District

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Gorgeous! Love the waist cumberbunds around here!

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It was a toy gun shop… or at least looked it from the doorway!

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Sunset after a great few days!

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Mardin Markets, Dara Ruins and an old Monastery….

Related Blog: Marvellous Mardin – Alleyways and Arches

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Marvellous Mardin – Alleyways and Arches

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Still in Mesopotamia, Mardin is amazing.  Its original habitation apparently dates back to 4000 BC  and, like Harran, it is considered one of the longest continuously inhabited places on earth.

Mardin began its current life as a fortified hilltop castle (built around 330 BC) which then grew and expanded down the hill in breathtakingly gorgeous honey-colored layers.  The town was positioned in such an important location on the Silk Road that it often gained protection and benefits from the different rulers that regularly rampaged and reigned across the lands.

We loved wandering the alleyways and arches, getting lost and found, and joking with the local kids.

We also walked to, and hitched back from, a nearby monastery, Deyrul Zafaran, once the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate (now in Damascus), and taxi’d out to Dara, the ruins of an old Persian or Roman city (depending on whom you consult!) where amazing dams and irrigation canals were built but most impressively cathedral like underground aqueducts and water cisterns!

Mardin is also special for the way Muslims, Christians, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Iraqis and others have lived together for centuries, and continue to live together, (mostly) in cooperation and peace.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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A hilltop castle with a town cascading down, down…

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…and down out to the plains of Syria

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Left or right… choose your own adventure!

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…make new friends…

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…explore old Assyrian Churches…

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… cruise in the Bazaar….

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…where is the old Mosque?

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There! With more of those gorgeous teardrop carvings that seem to pop up everywhere!

For more photos, click here.

 

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Behind closed doors…. Run down on the Silk Road?!

The two young Turkish guys that welcomed us into our chosen hostel in Mardin must not have known what hit them when these two girls turned up around six o’clock at night and turned down cups of tea and a chat to go to bed.

It was Friday night and the boys were having a small party in the reception area just through our old wooden door, playing the same Western pop over and over at top volume, with singing.  Occasionally the guffaw of one of them would echo through the door and around our windowless stone cavern.

Silence from the foyer came in the small hours. Then, inside the room, the heater on some sort of thermostat would turn itself on at regular intervals to bring itself back up to heat.  Whirring as it turned up the force, it would gradually send a bright orange glow around the room. Just when you were fully woken up to the noise and light, it would click off again!

It was the only time we had been (or were ever) sick in Turkey and it had lasted a few days.  We were tired.  It was not until we felt better a few days later that we realised how low in energy we had been, and maybe just a little unusually sensitive and on the grumpy side!

I also suspect that our tiredness had coincided with the hostel boss being away and the mice playing…. “here’s your dry washing back”, not!

Turkey had lulled us into a false sense of  “top-class-service” security – which is what made this rare lack of it stand out so much!

Best advice: Always try to get a room away from reception on a Friday night when young guys are in sole charge! Unless you are not sick of course! 😉

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More Mesopotamian Magic… without words.

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Harran Mosque and University Site

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Modern mosque in the distance seen through the door of an old one

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Cotton Fields

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The piece of cotton that got away

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Cotton ready for market

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Crossing the Euphrates

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Peppers, eggplants and more drying in the Bazaar

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Backgammon and tea in an old caravanserai

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Pressing newly made trousers at top speed upstairs in the arches

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Competition intense while we have an extra spicy “Urfa Kebab” in the shadows

For the related post and more photos, click here.

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Mesopotamia – The Cradle of Civilisation rocks!

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A lady carting cotton plants home – many women here wear this particular blue coloured head scarf and many also have blue tattoes on their chins from childhood

Mesopotamia.  Land between the great fertile valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Often referred to as the Cradle of Civilisation.

We are buzzing, skirting the Syrian border, and eventually we will have crossed both rivers.  Aleppo is just 100k away from Urfa.  Iraq and Iran are nearby.

Kurds live in this area carved apart by lines drawn on a map somewhere far away, split now between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and at times by their own internal struggles.  Some groups are designated as “terrorists”.

“Arabs” are here too and deserted Assyrian churches tell a silent tale. Languages mix in and over each other, as do cultures and histories.

In 1963, an unsuspecting survey of the land near Urfa found a possibly neolithic site, Gobekli Tepe.  In 1995, excavations began.  Circles of T-shaped stone pillars are slowly being revealed, calculated to date from 9,500 BC. That’s 6000 years earlier than Stonehenge! The site is said to “change everything” in terms of our understanding of human activity at that time.

Not far away lie the ruins of an ancient mosque and “university” at  Harran, dating back to the third millenium BC.  Harran is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth.  Mentioned in Genesis in the Bible with Abraham visiting a few years around 1900 BC, scholars here translated texts on astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences, and medicine from Greek to local languages.  Mud beehive houses hark back to the past and two camels stand ready for tourist photos.

In the Bazaar, you can watch the bread being kneaded, the copper being patterned, the leather being worked into saddles, … all by hand, in small dark shops under arches of old.  All just as it has always been.

Kids play football and tell me their name is “Arsenal”, oblivious to the incredible walls and history around them.

We are all small. We live together.  Borders do not limit  language, culture, nationhood or hopes for a homeland.  The Cradle keeps rocking…

…and wow what a place to visit!

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Gobekli Tepe: Two rings of T-shaped pillars and the painstaking process of uncovering them and protecting them (now undercover hence the shadow)

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Gobekli Tepe: Depiction of a hanging fox-skin and some cute ducks on the bottom of one huge pillar

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Gobekli Tepe: More carvings

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Gobekli Tepe: Photo of  more detailed carvings – almost 12,000 years old!

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Women working in the Olive Grove

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View over the beehive houses from hill near Harran

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Beehive houses reconstructed – they join together inside to form long curvy rooms

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Main remaining wall of Harran mosque with top of crumbling minaret in background – where can I water my camel?

For more photos of Mesopotamia and Harran, click here.

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Urfa – Birthplace of Mankind

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Balikli Gol – Lake full of Sacred Fish

The muezzin are calling us to prayer.  From at least seven minarets I would say, at first in sequence coming closer and closer to our beds, then away again, then all calling over each other.

It is 4.30am. There is an ancient mosque on every corner here. This is believed to be the oldest city in the world.

My name is Sarah. I was barren. Then, after years of service and childless sadness as Abraham’s wife, God said I would have a son. I laughed at God. “A son at my age?!” But God was right. Isaac was born.

Abraham is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is his birthplace. He was hidden as a baby in a cave to save him from the King’s order to kill all new born baby boys. The King had  received a prophecy that someone was newly born that may challenge his position.

The cave where Abraham was born and hidden is now graced at its entrance by a beautiful mosque.  Inside the cave, prayer mats are laid out in separate quarters for men and women to pay their respects, as they may have been doing for over 2000 years.

Elegant gardens nearby harbour two famous ponds of fat fish… where God had later turned a fire into water and the burning coals into fish to prevent Abraham from being martyred by the jealous King.

Much later, God requested Abraham to kill our only son Isaac. You may know this story – it has captured the imagination of artists and writers for centuries.  Abraham had had another son by my maidservant, at my suggestion – I had not coped well with that – but God chose our son.  Abraham took Isaac up a mountain to offer him to God but at the last moment God stopped the sacrifice and provided a sheep for use instead.  Imagine the heart break and intense emotion for us both at this event!

Scholars have not been able to prove to their satisfaction that I (Sarah) existed or even Abraham himself, considered by some to be the father of all mankind.  Isaac had gone on to beget many generations.  But for a once earnest little girl that grew up reading Bible stories and trying to figure out if she believed, and if so what, and for one having perhaps an over-active imagination, this sacred place made me want to fall to my knees!

Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am!

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Drinking Fountain at the Gate to Dergah Complex (Mosques and Courtyards in front of Abraham’s Birth Cave)

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Entrance Area in Dergah Complex – On the right is the area where Muslims wash their hands, mouth, throat, nose, ears, arms up to the elbow and feet before they pray.

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Inside the Main Mosque (Mevlid-i Halil Camii) in front of Abraham’s Birth Cave

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This is the Cave where Prophet Abraham was born

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Happiest Fish in Turkey – well fed and definitely safe from harm!

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View over Mevlid-i Halil Camii Mosque, Town and the Gardens

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Another view from the Kale (Castle) on the hilltop – try counting the minarets (towers) of the many many mosques in town!

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