April 29, 2019

Halfeti. Black Roses on the River Euphrates

I had managed to sprain both my ankles, not easy to do I can assure you, and it requires an expertly timed trip and a twisting fall into a roadside drain. Something a stuntman would be proud of. Unfortunately, I'm no stuntman and the pain meant I could barely walk, and could only just drive. I needed to rest up. Not far away was Halfeti, a place I had heard mentioned as being a beautiful destination on the River Euphrates.

I have found that the unplanned places you visit can often be the most memorable. And this was certainly true of Halfeti. In my research for my travels in Turkey I had read very limited information about Halfeti, it seemed nice enough but did not have the impact of the intricate beauty of the Zeugma Mosaics or the spectacular statues of Mount Nemrut.

It was also not that conveniently located and would require a major detour from my planned route, so Halfeti was crossed off the list of my places to visit in southern Turkey.

And now, sitting in my car with both ankles beginning to swell, it was back on. As luck would have it, it was only two hours away and offered the promise of a place to lay up for a while and watch the world go by on the banks of the River Euphrates.

Cruising down the River Euphrates
The drive was longer as it was punctuated by me stopping every fifteen minutes to rest my ankles, and by the number of horses and tractors on the road, tending to the groves of pistachio trees which grew either side of the road.

I had not booked accommodation but had found a placed that looked really good. The Kasr-i Canan Hotel located above the restaurants and shops on the main river facing street. Built in 1907 it used to a mansion belonging to the cities first mayor. It has now been carefully restored with each room uniquely furnished in antique style.

Experience has taught me not to use the internet behemoths of hotel booking sites, except for the first night of a trip after arriving exhausted from a long distance plane journey. They take 20-25% commission from the hotel, and you can often get a much better deal direct. Especially in low season and in the middle of the week, as most tourists from nearby Sanliurfa arrive at the weekend.

I managed to get 50% off the booking.com advertised price and was the only guest. The hotel was magnificent, with an unforgettable view of the Euphrates and the boat traffic travelling on it, with an old stone deck perfect for sipping a cold Efes beer as the sun went down. And the bed was massive and comfortable, so I did little more than hobble around the hotel for the first couple of days as my ankles got better. I could not think of a better place in which to convalesce.

A minaret pokes out of the water at 'Old' Halfeti
The enforced rest was perfect, and I was able to explore Halfeti further. The old part of town in which I was staying was full of crumbling houses and narrow streets, with little local hole-in-the-wall cafe's serving up Turkish tea and coffee, and delicious kebabs.

Although technically it could be argued that I was not in Halfeti at all. The original town had been lost to the waters of the Euphrates as a result of the construction of the Birecik dam in 2000, which also drowned the ancient Roman city of Zeugma.

Halfeti was too important to lose, it was the capital of the large surrounding district, so a nearby village high above the new waterline, Karaotlak, was renamed Halfeti. It would have been painful for the local population to be made to move and to lose their livelihoods, although one benefit has been that the fast flowing Euphrates has now become a calm aquatic playground bringing with it local tourists with their Lira.

Walking down the street close to the river, ship captains rushed up and tried to sell me a trip on their boat. Most walked away disappointed when they realised I was not fluent in Turkish. By far the best option to avoid paying inflated prices (200 Lira was one quote made to me in English) is to walk to the southern end of town, where there is a small harbour and booth with a swing gate at the entrance. Here you buy a ticket for 15 Lira and go on the next available boat. It means you have to wait until the boat fills, but that is likely to be only ten minutes or so.

A tourist boat passes Rumkale
The journey down the Euphrates takes you to the old Halfeti. You know you have arrived when you see the solitary minaret from the underwater mosque sticking out above the water, and remains of buildings can be seen through the clear water. At least one old resident has remained and built a tea garden facing the minaret, where the boat pulls up and gives you thirty minutes to explore or just sit back, enjoy the view, and sip a Turkish coffee.

One of the highlights of the boat trip is passing by Rumkale. This ancient fortress was built by the Romans and then enlarged during the middle ages by Armenian warlords. It has an imposing position on a point where the Euphrates is joined by a tributary, which gives the appearance of the fortress being on its own island. Trips to it can usually be arranged from Halfeti, although it was closed (August 2018) as major maintenance works were taking place.

Walking back through Halfeti, I stopped off at one of the many riverfront restaurants offering fresh seafood. Totally recommended, and ridiculously cheap (thanks to the plunging Turkish Lira). Behind them are stalls heavily geared to the local tourists, which vie with each other to sell oils, perfumes, soaps and even ice cream made from the black Halfeti Rose.

Whether the black Rose exists or not seems to be up for debate, with some saying it is a hoax and a result of dyeing, while the shopkeepers here clearly beg to differ. I am far from being an expert in horticulture so I will happily sit on the fence on this one. Whatever the origin, the small jars of black perfume did have a wonderful aroma, and as for the ice cream, if you are a fan of Turkish Delight you would be very happy.

Rumkale Fortress

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