The crumbling tower of Harran’s Great Mosque, visible from a distance, stands vigil over the ruins of one of Turkey’s first mosques and once-illustrious university.
Harran’s once-splendid Great Mosque (8th century, Umayyad) was among the first mosques ever built within the borders of present-day Turkey. Today, its stark remnants include a crumbling archway and one lone minaret, mistaken for a church belfry by T.E. Lawrence during his visit to the “City of Abraham” in 1909. His confusion is understandable, as the mosque, like many places of worship in this region, blended late antique architectural forms (capitals, friezes) with characteristically Islamic ones (arabesques, square minarets). The mosque’s visible remains include a Byzantine capital engraved with grape vines and leaves, which was incorporated into the mosque during a 12th century restoration, and was likely brought to Harran from a ruined church in Edessa.
The mosque also incorporates far older remnants, perhaps belonging to the renowned Sin temple that would have been standing when Abraham emigrated to Harran. In the 1950s, an archaeological team sent to survey Ulu Cami discovered neo-Babylonian tablets dating from the 6th century BCE. They had been used, face down, as the steps of the mosque. These became known as the Nabonidus tablets for the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus who rebuilt the Harran temple. The find suggests that the temple of Sin may well have been located beneath the mosque. The remarkable black tablets, one of which depict Nabonidus worshipping the sun, moon, and Venus, are on display at the Sanliurfa Museum.