Home – Harran
I believe it was the end of 1988 when Franco Lattanzi first told me about Harran. At the time we both often went to Turkey in late summer, and of course Lattanzi (we all called him by his surname only), had spotted the mention in the Guide Bleu of this ancient site, not far from the Syrian border, near the great bend in the Euphrates.
There’s a touch of French affectation in elaborating a learned discourse starting from something simple like a rock, and the long page about Harran in the travel guide is a good example of this literary model. This however does not mean that it is impossible to take some beautiful photos there: the characteristic trulli of the modern shepherd village of Acakale near the archaeological area, or the remnants of the fortress mentioned by Lawrence in his piece on Crusader castles are enough to justify a not-so-comfortable visit. But apart from the usual fascination stirred by ruins, there was something different and more powerful emerging irresistibly from those pages. Even though it may seem banal to say so, in this case I wouldn’t hesitate to speak of a fatal attraction, of enchantment.
Lattanzi was thinking big, and immediately started organizing ambitious projects: he wanted to make a documentary with the help of a director he knew; he drafted the plot of a novel about Harran and the mystery of Sabians, taking me to an editor; he involved me in a pleasant trip to Ferrara to see up-close the famous astrological cycle of frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia.
On my part, I started studying, 25 years ago now, the circa 1700 pages of Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus written by Daniel Chwolsohn in mid-19th century, the only “modern” monograph offering complete and most importantly meticulous information on this topic
Some time passed before we decided to actually go to Harran. The journey wasn’t planned in advance, yet it turned out to be not only full of surprises but also entertaining, because Franchino, who at the time lived in Istanbul, came with us and played host with his usual welcome. I will not mention here the details of the elaborate approach by public transport along the Mediterranean coast, the impervious canyon towards Tarsus, the bridge over the Euphrates, Djarbakir. We stayed in Sanliurfa, the Turkish Assisi, the only centre with some accommodation within miles of range from Harran, 40 km away. Obviously in a grand hotel, with an observation deck and a breathtaking view over the town and the Balikh plain. As already mentioned, Franco liked to travel in style, and never held back when it came to paying, also because he was the possessor of the fabulous American Express Gold credit card that nobody refused, something of which he was justly very proud.
The news he innocently gave me a few hours later succeeded in surprising me completely: the local press and authorities had been warned of our arrival, interviews and institutional meetings had been planned, including a car with a chauffeur at our disposal. I still cannot believe what he managed to invent: the point is, we were treated like important scholars on an official mission from Italy. Members of the Academy of the Lincei? Professors emeritus from the University of Rome “La Sapienza”? Who knows!
By then we had to play along, but it required a good dose of fantasy or nerve not to make any false moves and thus cut a sorry figure. Like for example the following day, when we met a team of very serious British men doing scientific measurement on the tell of Harran, with whom, to avoid further problems, we got off lightly by claiming I was an author writing a fictional account of the city. Which was more or less the truth. Definitely less stressful was the party organized later in our honour by the mayor of Atcakale: under a big tent, sitting on the ground on carpets and cushions in the Bedouin fashion, the clan leader offered us a truly royal banquet complete with lutes, flutes and drums as background music (so to speak!); at a given moment there was also the inevitable belly dance to end with, but maybe my memory is faulty, for wine flew freely on that occasion. Islamic fundamentalism still hadn’t appeared in Turkey, and the nation chose to show its lay and pro-Western soul that the Father of the Nation Kemal Atartuk had given it at its birth.
To call “memorable” the trip on the following day to Sumatar Harabesi doesn’t give a full idea of what it was like. The place, completely isolated, is on the bare hills of Tek Tek, and to reach it we had to go down a dirt road and ate quantities of dust. But it was worth it, it certainly was. Because rather than arriving at the open-air Moon Sanctuary that Sumatar in fact is, the first impression we had was that we had instead literally landed on the Moon!
It didn’t take us long to realize that the place wasn’t deserted at all. The local Arabic children, dressed in bright, mended clothes, merrily surrounded us in a few minutes, leading us for a few coins along the itinerary that had no secrets to them and that they could describe quite ably, despite the scarce number of visiting foreigners giving them all too few occasions to practice. Sheep and goats kept us company or grazed sleepily among the monuments. In the distance, the still air echoed with the regular lilting song of the stern and free people of the desert.
A lifetime has passed since those days. Lattanzi has left us on an April night seven years ago during a holiday/convalescence on the island of Ventotene in strange circumstances, to say the least: “Accidental death of an anarchic banker” was the title of a Panorama piece shortly after in memory of Sbancor (the pseudonym he took for the web), and I believe it is a right choice of words to describe a fall from the stairs at home. It is pointless to specify that of his great plans for Harran, he made nothing. Yet I took up the baton, and still today, while I work on my research on the Sabians, I can sometimes see the bright green eyes, the open, gentle and melancholic look of my old friend.