Thursday, Dec 9, 2021

The Place Where it All Began: Exclusive Interview with the Mayor of Charan

“Yaakov departed from Beersheva and went toward Charan.”

It’s more than 3,500 years later, but the village in Turkey’s southeast region is still animated by the illustrious guests who passed through their gates. The well from which Yaakov removed the stone covering and watered Rochel’s sheep is still there, according to local legend. The names Ibrahim and Sarah are abundant in the village of some 10,000 Turks and Arabs. The beehive-shaped houses of the type that Avohom and Yaakov likely saw are still standing.

This according to Mahmut Ozyavuz, the belediye baskani, or mayor, of Charan. In an exclusive interview, the mayor told the Yated that he “thanks G-d for giving me this gift” of leading Charan, which the local official webpage calls the “finest city in the world.”

This is where it is believed that Avrohom Avinu lived, where his grandson Yaakov Avinu lived for 20 years and where 11 of the holy Shevotim were born. A millennium later, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Roman emperor usually identified as the Antoninus who was friends with Rabi Yehuda Hanosi, was assassinated in Charan. The Yerushalmi says that he was megayer prior to his death.

Ancient Charan was built on a hilltop about 20 miles away from the modern village. It is surrounded by a wall, said to have existed since Avrohom Avinu’s times, though the breaches in it are larger than the enclosures. It was restored in the 12th century, but only five of its dozen original gates survive. You can still see the ruins of the ancient University of Charan, the first founded under Islamic rule, which was destroyed 800 years ago.

Aside for what the Torah documents, local lore runs deep. There is an underground area which is said to be the home of Yisro. The mayor said that local tradition has it that Adam Harishon planted the first crop in his village. And a sign still marks the house of Horon, Avrohom’s brother and the father of Sarah Imeinu.

Charan, as it was when Avrohom lived and when Yaakov Avinu visited, is an agricultural village, with an equal amount of Turkish and Arabic heard in the market. It is located 10 miles north of the Syrian border. This proximity has hurt its tourism market ever since the Iraq war began two decades ago.

Interestingly, the two places associated with Avrohom, Ur Kasdim and Charan, were the southernmost and northernmost points of the Mesopotamian Empire. Ur in southern Iraq and Charan in southern Turkey bookended the central economic engine of the known world at the time.

A royal highway was built to connect these two cities, which is possibly why Terach went to Charan on his way to Canaan, as recorded in Parshas Noach. The distance between Ur and Charan is approximately 665 miles, which would take 216 hours, or nine days, to traverse by foot. If they walked a third of the day, the trip would have taken nearly a month, far less if they rode on camelback or on ox-driven wagon.

The next part of Avrohom and Sarah’s journey, going from Charan to Canaan after Hashem told him “Lech lecha,” was about 620 miles and would take 165 hours, or nearly seven days, of continuous walking.

Charan is mentioned several times in Neviim — by Yechezkel as one of the main suppliers of Tzur, and by the messengers of Sancheriv to Chizkiyohu as one of their conquests which was destroyed.

Another name for Charan is Padan Arom, which Rashi understands to mean (in his second interpretation) as the field of Arom, or the area where Arameans lived. In close proximity are hilltops with names such as Tel Terach, which possibly is where Terach is buried, and Tel Nachor.

When I interviewed the mayor, he was seated on a cushioned floor in a large room decorated with rich red velvety drapes, his phone in one hand and a long cigarette in the other. He just came back from a few weeks in the capital city of Ankara, and dignitaries periodically came in to greet him, despite the late hour.

“See?” the mayor’s aide, Mehmet Ozyavuz, tells me. “Even at night, he is working.”

The mayor and his aide are related and share the same name, except the mayor spells his first name Mahmut and the aide spells it Mehmet. The mayor does not speak English; his eponymous aide interpreted.

Mayor Ozyavuz, 35, is a member of the Nationalist Movement Party, a rightwing party which claims to be the rightful heirs to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ideology in founding the modern Turkish nation. These days are busy ones for modern village of Charan. Ozyavuz has been on a building spurt since taking office in 2019, with his social media account showing daily videos of roads being repaved and buildings erected.

 

Charan is one of the most historical places in the world. It is one of a handful of cities that were continuously populated since the prehistoric period.

Charan has a history of 5,000 years, even before the known history of the world. In 1260, the Mongolian Empire occupied Charan and destroyed it. Many of the prophets settled in Charan. One of them is Jacob — we still have the well where he found his wife Rochel. We call it Jacob’s well. Another prophet who lived in Charan is Jethro (Yisro), who was the father-in-law of Moses. The Prophet Abraham was born in Sumer (modern day Iraq) and came here to Charan where he lived for many years. He married Sarah here.

Here in Charan, in many houses you can hear the names Sarah and Ibrahim.

People name their children Sarah and Ibrahim?

Yes.

You mentioned Jacob’s well. Is it certain that this is the same well that was there when Jacob was there 3,500 years ago?

This is the real one, sir. This has been known for many generations until today that that is Jacob’s well.

What does it look like?

A hole in the ground. Some years ago, some Jewish people restored it and built a metal gate around the well.

I see that Charan has a lot of houses in the shape of cones. I assume they are ancient.

Yes. After the Mongolians destroyed the city, the Ottoman Empire took the land. The people who were here were very poor. They took the rubble from the ruins and rebuilt the beehive houses. That shape helps keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Every room has 1,500 bricks. These homes are almost a thousand years old.

People lived in these homes, without electricity, without running water; they were very poor. About 60 years ago, the people left those houses and moved into modern houses.

Those houses are now used for kitchens or for animal stables. We kept four houses for tourists to be able to visit and see how people lived many years ago. Every year, those houses undergo maintenance to keep them preserved.

Do many tourists come to Charan?

Yes. The past two years, we had the pandemic situation around the world, so tourism was bad for this time. But this season everything is getting better. The 20% rise in tourists coming to Turkey come to visit Charan also.

Do Jews ever come to Charan?

One month ago, a group of Jews from Poland and Hungary visited Charan.

 

Why don’t you advertise tourism to Charan around the world, among religious people?

Charan was so famous many years ago. The war between Iraq and the USA broke the tourism of Charan, because Charan was colored red on the maps. This means that it is a war zone. But it’s famous among religious people, all the time. It is only because of the war that it stopped.

Charan used to be a big metropolitan area.

Yes. It used to be part of the Babylonian Empire, when it was a major intersection.

The name Charan was never changed, all the way to today. The holy books call it Charan. In the Arabic language, it means a very hot place.

Charan has a deep history. A wide variety of civilizations have settled here — Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, the Roman Empire, many civilizations that we don’t even know their name. Later, Islam took it — the Abbasid, the Buyids, until in 1260 when the Mongolians destroyed Charan.

Charan was the shining star of the Mesopotamia. We had the first Islamic university in the world in Charan. Now we can only see the ruins of the university. Many famous scientists studied there — one of them was Al-Battani, the ninth-century mathematician who discovered the distance between the earth and the moon. Another is Jabir ibn Hayyan, who lived at the same time, who first discovered the atom.

 

(People began approaching the mayor, so I address the interpreter.)

Please tell me about the mayor — isn’t he young?

He’s the youngest mayor of Charan and the most successful one. He’s hardworking.

 

(The mayor returns.)

How did you get to this position?

My father was also mayor of Charan. I got my start in politics when I was seven years old. I learned from my father, and I am now more successful than my father.

What are your future plans?

I would like to be the mayor of the big city, Sanliurfa. Charan is a village in the province of Sanliurfa, and I would want to be mayor of that.

What is the population of Charan today?

The city center has about 10,000 residents, and including the surrounding villages and towns, it has 90,000.

When is the next election?

The next local election in Charan is in March of 2024.

In the last election, 60% voted for me. In the next election, it will be 90%. I will crush my rival with my foot.

I see a lot of construction going on in Charan now. What’s happening?

I am pouring new asphalt on the road. I also built a stone road in the village. Until now, when it rained, you could not ride or drive a tractor because of the mud. I paved new roads for the people.

What are Charan residents’ biggest concerns?

The people of Charan mostly work in agriculture. They only care about getting their produce to market. Charan grows 50% of the cotton in Turkey. They only care about making their money from this. They are happy with my work in Charan.

We have a tradition that the first wheat planted by Adam, the father of humanity, was in Charan. This is in documents and we also heard this from our ancestors. This is not something we heard remotely.

Every important thing that happened was in this area. Even the holy books, such as the Torah, talk about this.

In the Jewish religion, we divide the Torah into 54 parts, and we read one part each week. Next week, when this interview will be published, we will be reading about how Jacob came to Charan and met Rochel.

Yes. He married Rochel and Leah.

From the Torah, it seems that the people of Charan speak little. Is that today also?

Only because they don’t speak the English language. But they are friendly. If they don’t speak much, it is because they don’t speak the language.

In Turkish, they speak a lot? Yes. We speak a lot in Turkish and Arabic.

Interpreter: The only one who speaks a little English is me.

What languages does the mayor speak?

He speaks Arabic, Turkish, a little bit English. Not too much. He graduated from the Sisli University, in Istanbul. It’s a very diverse school — you can meet Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Sisli.

Do any Jews live in Charan today?

Mayor: No. But there used to be Jews here. Many Jews. This was during the Ottoman Empire.

Do Jews visit often?

Every year we have about 500 or 1,000. They go to the beehive houses, Jethro’s cave, Jacob’s well.

What do you see in Jethro’s well?

They go to the cave where he lived. They pray there.

Is he buried there? What do you see in the cave?

No. He just lived there. You see some writing there. It seems that it’s Jewish writing.

How do you feel being the mayor of such a historic village?

It’s very special to be mayor of this historic place, which all religions look up to. This is the zero hour of history. Many Islamic scientists also lived here, as well as Jacob and Jethro. I feel very special as a private man to be mayor of such a place. I thank G-d for giving me this gift, inshallah.

 

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