A major site of religious visitation today, the Birth Cave is carved into the base of a mountain. According to local Muslim tradition, Abraham was born here, hidden from the pagan King Nimrod.
In Abraham’s time, Urfa was ruled by Nimrod, a pagan king famed for his skill as a builder. Nimrod ruled from a castle high above the city -its twin pillars still stand imposingly over the Balikligol holy sites. Nimrod dreamed that a child born in his kingdom would come to end his rule, and so he ordered all male children born that year to be killed. Abraham’s mother managed to hide her pregnancy, and she gave birth to Abraham in a cave near the foot of Nimrod’s castle Here Abraham passed his first seven years in hiding, after which he emerged and joined the life of the city.
One day, Nimrod held a festival outside of Urfa, and all of the city’s inhabitants attended. With the city empty, Abraham descended on Nimrod’s idols, and destroyed all but the largest one. When Nimrod returned, he was enraged. He asked Abraham who was responsible for the idols’ destruction. Abraham feigned ignorance, and suggested that Nimrod ask the largest of the statues; perhaps it had destroyed the others out of jealousy. Nimrod retorted that it was only a statue, and could do no such thing of its own power. Abraham replied: “You yourself have said it. If the statue is powerless over the other statues, what power can it have over you?”
Infuriated, Nimrod prepared a great fire on the ground below. He made a catapult of the castle’s twin pillars, and from there cast Abraham to the ground. But God saved Abraham: where he landed, a spring gushed forth (the spring is currently inside the Halil ul-Rahman mosque), and the firewood was transformed into fish—the sacred carp that swim in the Fish Lakes today.
Urfa is not the only place where Muslims claim Abraham was born. Other traditions locate the place in Ur, in present-day Iraq, the same place that many Christians claim is Ur of the Chaldeans as mentioned in the Bible. In Urfa, the story fascinates in its richly layered quality, which incorporates the varied traditions of those who lived and worshipped here over the past two millennia, including pagan, Christian, Jewish and Muslim sources.
Entrance to the Birth Cave if free and open to all who respect the same conventions as when entering a Mosque (taking off one’s shoes, women covering their head) and you can make a donation as you enter or exit. There are separate spaces for visitation and prayer for men and women.