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Home to the black rose Population: 400 (Eski Halfeti); 8,500 (Yeni Halfeti)
The opening of the Birecik Dam on the Euphrates in 2000 spelt the end of life as people in the villages around this part of southeastern Turkey had known it. Around 6,500 people had to be relocated, including many of those who lived in Halfeti in honey-coloured houses that resemble those of Cappadocia.
Two-thirds of the locals agreed to move to new homes above the level of the new lake, but one-third continue to occupy a much-reduced settlement whose abandoned mosque now crouches at the water’s edge.
In spring siyah güller (black roses) used to flower in a red so deep as to appear black from a distance. Unfortunately since the coming of the dam only the buds are black; when they open they flower red.
None of that has stopped the filming of the television series Karagül (Black Rose) being filmed in the village.
The main reason to come here is to visit the ruins of Rumkale (Greek Castle), perched on top of a rock upstream from the village. In 2014 the ruins were closed for restoration.
Otherwise you might be directed to Değirmendere, an attractive rrocky valley that is supposedly home to several interesting species of birds including the pretty wall creeper. Unfortunately there is so much little in the valley that I abandoned my walk after about 100m.
On the waterfront the mosque ought to be another attraction for visitors but when I visited in May 2014 its gates were locked and peering into the partially flooded interior I concluded that it was no longer in use. It's a great shame visitors are not allowed inside to admire its fine mihrab.
In what was once the Armenian neighbourhood straggling up the hill at the northern end of the village some of the houses have fine carvings on their facades that echo those of nearby Şanlıurfa and even Mardin.
Nine km inland from Eski Halfeti (Old Halfeti) Yeni Halfeti (New Halfeti) is an utterly depressing mess of concrete. There's a market here on Wednesday and you might need to come here to use the bank. Otherwise there would be no reason to stop.
The PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was born in the nearby village of Ömeriye which you might or might not be allowed to visit.
Halfeti is signed up to the Slow City movement hence the quantity of snail signs you'll seen about town.
The waterfront is lined with restaurants, most of them with decks out into the water. They are reasonably atmospheric although the fish I was served was dry and uninspiring.
For a better choice of hotels, aim to stay in Gaziantep or Şanlıurfa. There is also accommodation in Birecik and Nizip.
Gül Konağı. Tel: 0541-534 6219
Şahin Hotel. Tel: 0414-751 5251
Buses from Gaziantep to Şanlıurfa pass through Birecik. From here you can pick up another dolmuş to Yeni Halfeit. The driver will probably agree to run you onto Eski Halfeti for a "taxi" fee. Likewise they will pick you up from Eski Halfeti if given half an hour's advance notice.
This article first appeared in Sunday’s Zaman on 11 November 2007
THE ROAD TO RUMKALE
“You were the land of black roses. What happened to your land, Halfeti? You surrendered yourself to concrete-walled waters. What happened to your black roses, Hallfeti?”
As our boat makes its slow way along the limpid waters of the Euphrates to Rumkale, the words of Kaptan Mehmet Erdoğan float on the stillness of the air. Here there is nothing to mar the beauty of the landcsape – not one ugly building, not one piece of dropped litter, not one thoughtlessly placed advertising hoarding – but in this tiny piece of untouched paradise Erdoğan’s poetic words hint at something more unsettling: the story of a people displaced in the interests of progress.
Back in the 1990s nearby Birecik was a dusty all-but-forgotten town on the banks of the Euphrates (Fırat) river, the sort of place where people changed bus en route to somewhere else, thanking their lucky stars that they hadn’t been born there. But Birecik had three potential claims to fame and all of them are slowly bulldozing their way onto the tourism agenda now.
The first was, of course, Belkis-Zeugma, the riverside site of a hugely wealthy Roman city whose existence had long been known but which had remained sadly unexcavated. Faced with the urgent need to provide irrigation for southeastern farmers and electricity for everyone else, the government decided to build a dam at Birecik which would inevitably flood the site. Work began on the dam in 1985 but it was only when completion was near that there began a desperate mission to rescue what could be snatched from the site before the waters closed over it forever.
The story is well known: how the archaeologists uncovered many gorgeous floor mosaics and wall paintings; how one particularly lucky man discovered a statue of the war god Mars, his brow creased in anger over eyes piercing enough to chill the heart of any onlooker; how the finds were removed to Gaziantep where they are now housed in a snazzy new museum.
Such was the publicity attached to the rescue dig and the new museum that it would be easy to assume nothing remains of Belkis-Zeugma itself. However, a relatively short deviation north from the main Gaziantep-Şanlıurfa road along the banks of the river soon brings you to ongoing excavations near the small town of Nizip. As archaeological sites go, this is not perhaps the most exciting – certainly not a second Ephesus or Aphrodisias. However, there is something very romantic about standing on the site where the mosaics were found and gazing out over the river which gave life to the city in the first place.
On its own Belkis-Zeugma might not be enough to justify a trip so far off the beaten track, but just north of Birecik it is also possible to visit the site of a captive-breeding station for the northern bald ibis (kelaynak in Turkish), an ugly black fowl with a naked face and red beak that is the Middle East’s most endangered bird. Despite mutterings about the Gulf War, the reality is that most of the ibises had been wiped out by the use of pesticides as early as the 1970s.
In the early 20th century Birecik was home to at least 500 breeding pairs of birds that migrated every winter to the Horn of Africa. Written accounts describe the villagers turning out open-armed every February to welcome the returning birds, but in 1989 only three birds reappeared and all of them died, rendering the ibis effectively extinct in the wild. Now, however, a captive-breeding program has brought numbers back up to around 150 birds, some of whom are released every year. It would be nice to rave about somewhere that is doing such valuable work, but unfortunately visitors are kept so far away from the birds that only diehard ornithologists are likely to get much satisfaction from a visit.
Birecik itself contains the remains of an 11th-century Crusader castle and a small fortified city gate. However, it is what lies beyond it, and especially around the village of Halfeti, that really justifies the diversion to get here. The opening of the Birecik Dam in 2000 spelt the end of life as local people had known it in many of the surrounding villages. Around 6,500 of them had to be relocated, including many of those who lived in Halfeti in honey-colored houses that resemble those of Cappadocia. Two-thirds of the locals agreed to move to new homes above the level of the new lake, but one-third continue to occupy a much-reduced settlement whose mosque now crouches at the water’s edge. It is here in spring that the “siyah güller (black roses)” of Kaptan Mehmet’s poem flower in a red so deep as to appear black from a distance.
Moored on the banks of the Euphrates small boats wait to take visitors up the river to visit Rumkale (Greek Castle), a spectacularly sited ruin right in the middle of nowhere. The boats carve their leisurely way through a gorge which is reminiscent of the better-known Ihlara Valley in Cappadocia only with a great deal more water in it. Then, on the western bank of the river, you begin to make out the shattered walls of what must once have been a magnificent seven-gated medieval castle built over the site of a church where some believe that St John made a copy of the Bible and hid it until it could be smuggled out to Beirut. Some people even believe that St John died and was buried here although his remains have never been found.
But the site at Rumkale was occupied long before St John may or may not have passed by. As Hromgla/Sitamrat, it is thought to have been settled by the Assyrian king Salamassar III in 885 BC at a time when it stood some 500 meters above the river. In 1113 a bishopric was established inside the castle but in the early 13th century the site was captured by the Mameluks of Egypt. Then in 1516 it was captured by Sultan Selim I, whereupon it fell under the control of the Ottoman governor of Aleppo (Haleb).
These days the ruins of the castle stand on a peninsula just 150 meters above the level of the water. The truly adventurous can land on the far side and scramble up a treacherous path to explore the remains of some old houses, the 17th-century church of St Nerses, a cistern and a deep well into which the mythological character Narcissus may have tumbled while admiring his own reflection; the less adventurous can settle for a quick lunch at a nearby cafe with a view overlooking the ruins.
Most boat trips continue a little further north to Şavaşanköyü, where a minaret jutting up from the water stands as a poignant memorial to a drowned village now abandoned by all but two of its families.