As we climbed the slope toward one of the world’s most momentous archaeological sites in a gusty December drizzle, a futuristic shape loomed into view. It was the swooping white canopy erected over the main excavation at Gobekli Tepe, a group of Neolithic structures up to 11,400 years old in southeastern Turkey. Their unearthing in the mid-1990s caused a reconsideration of the standard timeline of human civilization. From under the space-age canopy, my partner, Anya, and I stared down into the monumental Stone Age panorama before us, like awed and slightly spooked time travelers.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2018, Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) has spawned sensational Netflix shows and the woolliest of speculative theories. Recently, the site and its mysteries have been drawing record numbers of visitors to this place near the provincial capital of Sanliurfa in the borderland with Syria — 850,000 in 2022. February’s earthquake, which devastated other parts of Turkey, only minimally damaged the site, which reopened in April.
A short flight from Istanbul, Sanliurfa is an ancient Mesopotamian Silk Road city, richly textured with multicultural tradition and history. It has important religious pilgrimage sites, a vivid food culture and a historic bazaar quarter that resounds with Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish.
The city is a palimpsest of civilizations as well. It was called Urhai under the Aramaeans; Edessa under Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs; and then renamed Urfa by the Ottomans in 1607. Its honorific title, Sanli, meaning “glorious” in Turkish, was bestowed in 1984 for itsheroics in the Turkish War of Independence, but locals still call it Urfa.
This history was laid out for us by our tour guide, Emine Yesim Bedlek, a vivacious former assistant professor of English literature at Turkey’s Bingol University, whom we’d hired through Istanbul Tour Studio, a boutique agency. She picked us up from the Tessera Hotel in Sanliurfa’s Eyyubiye district. Formerly an Armenian monastery, built of the ubiquitous local limestone, Tessera opened in 2021, one of a number of small, atmospheric hotels in the neighborhood, most of them renovated 19th-century konaks, or Ottoman mansions.
“Our Urfa is famed as the city of prophets, of Abraham and Job and others,” Dr. Bedlek began her exposition on our way to dinner in the vast courtyard of a many-centuries-old Ottoman inn, turned into a restaurant called Cevahir Han. It is run by…