The world is shrinking, it has become a global village. These information-age platitudes give voice to the idea that low-cost airfares and global communications allow us to access places that were once reserved for only the wealthiest or most intrepid. However, just as the world has opened up, conflicts and acts of extremism threaten to close those doors and burn the bridges.
The list of places I wished I’d have visited sooner, is growing longer: Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Baghdad, Balkh, Bamiyan. With this burning bridges and closing doors metaphor in mind, my most recent travels took me to the south-east of Turkey and a province called Urfa.
In an ode to his hometown, singer-songwriter Gerard Kennedy suggested that New York was so good they named it twice. If plurality of naming is any indicator of merit, then Urfa must be outstanding. Some of Urfa's many previous appellations include Ur, Ruha, Edessa and, my favourite, Justinopolis – which kind of makes it sound like a Justin Bieber-themed amusement park, which it isn't.
Reflecting its many names and the many civilisations that have ruled it, Urfa is architecturally diverse. This structural variety is enchanting, rather than visually cacophonous. Seljuk-era mosques and madrasas sit happily alongside old Byzantine churches, while Roman, Ottoman and Mamluk structures also punctuate the cityscape. If ISIL ever captured Urfa what would they rename it, and what would be their creative legacy?
At the heart of Urfa is Balikligol, the famous fish lake. The lake is overlooked by the imposing Urfa castle and surrounded by beautiful rose gardens, mausoleums and mosques. According to local legend, this is the place where the prophet Ibrahim/Abraham was to be cast into a fire as a punishment for his iconoclastic monotheism. Through divine intervention, so the tradition holds, the punitive fire was transformed into water, which became the Balikligol lake, while the would-be firewood was transformed into fish; the distant ancestors of the sacred carp that populate the lake today.
Urfa's other attraction is actually 7,000 years older than the great pyramid of Giza. Gobekli Tepe (potbelly hill) lies about 15 kilometres east of the city and is the oldest known place of worship anywhere. In 2011, Gobekli Tepe made the cover of National Geographic, with the article's headline reading: The Birth of Religion.
This neolithic site still has the archaeological community buzzing. Gobekli Tepe challenges much of what we thought we knew, which included: first came cities (large settlements) then came temples. But Gobekli Tepe – the temple – predates large-scale human settlements, and its builders are thought to have been nomads. So, perhaps, temples came before cities,
Although the site is still being excavated (90 per cent remains unearthed), the standing stones are open to the public. The simplest way to describe this Neolithic structure, is to say: think Stonehenge, but with pictures. Many of the cleanly carved limestone pillars at Gobekli Tepe have animals – snakes, foxes and lions – artfully etched into them.
Walking around the standing stones filled my mind with questions: Who? Why? What were they thinking? The enigmatic Gobekli Tepe raises more questions than it answers. But these are important questions, the answers to which may shed light on the very origins of civilisation.
I feel very fortunate to have visited Urfa and Gobekli Tepe when I did. Around the time of my visit to Urfa, in July last year, a suspected ISIL suicide bomber killed at least 32 people, most of them university students. Suruc, the town where this atrocity occurred, is part of the greater Urfa province. For the less intrepid traveller, I suspect the south-east of Turkey is now off the map. The world is getting smaller, but not in a good way.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas