In the late 1990s, residents of the ancient town of Halfeti, situated on the east bank of the Euphrates, found themselves in a dire predicament. The Birecik Dam was set to flood the town, forcing residents to flee while destroying millennia of cultural heritage. But fortunately, not all was entirely lost. Tourists now flock to what remains of Halfeti to take in the exotic sunken city as they cruise the Euphrates.
Cruising the Euphrates
After a wild journey from Gaziantep (read the full story below), I arrived in town just as a river cruise was about to depart. The marina was filled with boats, and they presumably leave pretty regularly, though no timetables exist online.
The particular cruise I joined normally costs 25 TL – a very reasonable price. But the kind local with whom I hitchhiked the last leg of the journey was able to get me on for free.
In total, the excursion lasts about 90 minutes, including a stop for tea by the sunken minaret.
Despite the flooding, there are still a fair amount of buildings, both old and new, left in Eski Halfeti (Old Halfeti). And the shore is now lined with lively restaurants and tea shops.
Fortunately for those residents who managed to stay, the recent tourism boom has partially replaced income from the lost pistachio industry.
But it can never fully make up for what was destroyed. Those who had to move now live in the drab town of Yeni (New) Halfeti, some 9 km uphill. As you’ll see when you pass through on your way, nobody’s likely to consider it an upgrade.
Aside from the river cruises, many Turkish tourists flock to Eski Halfeti for another reason. It’s believed to be the only place where a mysterious black rose, known locally as kara gül, can grow.
Quite a few tourists come solely to buy these roses or kara gül-related merchandise. And there was even a popular Turkish soap opera of the same name which takes place in post-flood Halfeti.
As the boat made its departure, I stood on the deck to take in the views of the town. Halfeti’s most striking landmark is its half-submerged mosque which locals still hang out on when the tide is low. It’s said to date back to the 19th century and was built by, of all people, an Armenian.
Halfeti is just one of many towns in eastern Turkey to have been historically majority Armenian. But following the events of what we now call the Armenian Genocide, the entire community vanished by the 1920s.
The Turkish government still claims that the Armenians voluntarily left to flee war. But historical evidence suggests they were forced. And more gruesomely, the bodies of those who were killed in these parts could once be seen floating down the Euphrates.
As we’ll go over shortly, the Armenian influence on Halfeti dates back centuries. But the town was originally established as far back as the 9th century BC by the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III.
On such a hot summer day, the cool breeze on the deck was more than welcome. As we cruised through the valley, I took in the natural scenery on either side. But it was somewhat bittersweet knowing that so much history was lost beneath the water.
While the river wasn’t especially clear during my visit, in some parts one can look down and see old rooftops below the surface.
But not all has been submerged. About thirty or forty minutes into the journey, we approached the ancient fortress known as Rumkale. And as we were getting closer, we passed by a series of holes carved out in the distant rocks.
According to local legend, John the Apostle, credited with authoring multiple books of the New Testament, wrote and made copies of the Bible in one of these rock-cut rooms. If true, that makes this area pivotal in the rise and spread of Christianity.
And soon the old walls of the fortress came into view. While Turkey is home to countless historical fortresses, Rumkale was of special significance, as it long marked the frontier of the Byzantine Empire.
Later, the Count of Edessa (Urfa) sold it to the patriarch of Armenia, Gregory III in 1147. And a few decades after that, Armenian Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali established the Barşavma Monastery here.
The monastery was even the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate throughout much of the 13th century. It was from here that Catholicos Nerses sought to negotiate with the Byzantine emperor in an attempt to unify the two churches. But talks ultimately fell through.
Supposedly, the remains of a Syriac Orthodox monastery exist in the fortress as well, but they can’t be seen from the water.
Not long after passing the ancient walls of Rumkale, we could spot the next prominent landmark up in the distance. This also marked the farthest point of our journey.
The Sunken Minaret
Situated within the village of Savaşan is the sunken minaret. As opposed to the half-sunken Halfeti Mosque, here we see nothing but the minaret’s top half. And one can only imagine what the structure below once looked like.
It’s an oddly haunting sight and one that probably can’t be witnessed anywhere else.
Savaşan was almost entirely submerged by the Birecik Dam, and the agriculture-based lifestyle which locals once relied on is gone forever.
Now, the only industry left is the cafes set up beside the minaret for optimal viewing. Here you can order tea while a small group of musicians plays traditional folk music, going from table to table to ask for tips.
Aside from the minaret, there are even more rock-cut rooms over on the opposite side. Perhaps as restorations in the area continue, and as tourist numbers increase, more archaeology-focused tours will become a thing in the future. But one can only hope.
The çai I ordered never actually came. But that was fine, as I was just happy to have made it after such a long journey from Gaziantep.
After fifteen minutes or so, the 40 or so other passengers and I started to board the boat. And we made our return journey to Halfeti, once again passing Rumkale on the way.
Eski Halfeti seems like a pleasant, laidback town – rather reminiscent of Mardin. I would’ve loved to linger, as many tourists do. There are several hotels to choose from for those who want a place to relax in between Urfa and Antep.
But given the unpredictable nature of my journey over, I decided to head back as soon as possible. I tried looking for the man who hooked me up with the river cruise to thank him once again. But he was nowhere to be found.
And so I hopped in the first minibus I saw – just one of several required to make the long trip back.
Here’s a basic rundown of the steps required to get to Halfeti. Further below, I’ll provide a very lengthy first-hand account of my experience.
From central Gaziantep, find a bus taking you to the otogar (bus terminal). From there, you’ll want to find a minibus taking you to the city of Birecik, which lies in Şanlıurfa Province, right on the east bank of the Euphrates.
If you’re coming from Şanlıurfa, you can also take a bus to Birecik from the main otogar there. In addition to minibuses, it seems that a few coach buses head there as well.
The next step is to find a minibus from Birecik to Halfeti. You will likely get dropped off under a bridge, and you’ll need to walk 10-15 minutes north until you get to a market (you should notice a castle on your right along the way).
The market area is where you should find a minibus for Halfeti. However, most will only go to Yeni Halfeti, not Eski Halfeti, some 9 km further away.
Arriving at Yeni Halfeti, you will need to find another minibus for Eski Halfeti. It’s best to wait by a bus stop along the main road.
Ideally, you should find a bus which says Eski Halfeti on it. But in my case, after a long wait, I saw one that just said ‘Halfeti’ and decided to hop on. But halfway there, it ended up turning down a random side street and I had to get off.
From there, I ended up hitchhiking to reach Eski Halfeti.
Getting back, you should find buses with ‘Şanlıurfa’ on them. If you’re headed to Antep, these buses should stop at either Yeni Halfeti or Birecik. At Birecik, return to the same spot where you were first dropped off. (It’s best to mark the location in your GPS app as soon as you arrive.)
In three months of traveling throughout Turkey, relying almost entirely on public transportation, I had my fair share of difficult experiences. But looking back, my journey to Halfeti from Gaziantep really takes the cake.
Not only did I need to ride in five different vehicles just to get there, but something seemed to go wrong at every step of the way.
I’ll include the following details not merely as a rant, but also to let you know what to expect should you be daring enough to try it yourself.
First of all, just getting to the otogar from central Antep was a challenge. The guy at my hotel assured me I wouldn’t need to buy a transport card, and that I could just pay the driver a few lira in cash. But after getting rejected by two different bus drivers, I knew I’d need a card.
I asked a few people working by the bus stop where I could get a transport card, and they pointed in a random direction behind them. But walking around, I couldn’t find anything. I asked more people who pointed in other random directions, and again I found nothing.
I finally noticed one of the machines on the other side of the street. I was baffled why nobody just pointed there, sending me the wrong way instead. Anyway, I got the card and hopped on the next bus bound for the otogar.
But instead of taking the main road, the bus took an extra long route through residential side streets. It was a long and slow journey, and by the time I got to the otogar it was already 11 am.
Once there, I managed to find the dolmuş for Birecik with no issues. And thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long before it departed.
But it was the hottest time of the year, and the driver kept stopping along the way to let more and more people on. The minibus was filled way over capacity. And despite people’s complaints, the driver refused to open the windows or turn on the AC!
To make matters worse, a girl sitting not far from me was puking into a plastic bag the entire way. While the ride to Birecik only lasted about an hour, it felt more like ages.
Getting off in Birecik, I was aware of where I needed to go to catch my next bus. However, not far from where I got dropped off, I noticed a van that said Halfeti on it, but it drove away as I approached. Nearby was a minibus bound for Urfa, and I asked the staff if Halfeti-bound buses were indeed stopping in this area.
He said yes, and that I’d just need to wait a bit longer. As time went on, I repeatedly checked my watch, and the guy kept telling me to relax and wait. But eventually, this guy’s bus took off, and I was left there with his partner.
By then, 15 minutes had passed, and this other guy told me to walk with him. This whole time I thought I was waiting for a normal public bus, but this other guy wanted to take me to Halfeti as a private driver!
He asked for 50 lira and I refused. While not a bad price for private transport, I didn’t like that I’d been misled, and I didn’t want to deal with him at all. And so despite having wasted over 20 minutes, I followed my original plan and walked north toward the market.
As expected, I found a dolmuş with Yeni Halfeti written on it. After a several-minute wait, the bus filled up and we were off. The drive to Yeni Halfeti from Birecik took about 30-40 minutes.
Arriving in Yeni Halfeti, I presumed that the final leg to Eski Halfeti would be simple, as they were only 9 km apart. But I was wrong.
My driver from Birecik knew I was going to Eski Halfeti, and he pointed me to a parking lot with a bunch of minibuses. Many of them had Eski Halfeti written on them, but they were all empty. Waiting around for awhile, I figured none of them would be departing anytime soon.
And so I decided to wait at the nearest bus stop. But no vehicles with Eski Halfeti on them drove by. Two local guys were waiting for the same bus, and they flagged down a vehicle that simply had ‘Halfeti’ on it, and we all got on.
(Oddly, the same family with the puking girl was somehow on this one.)
Thinking it would be a quick and easy drive to Eski Halfeti, the minibus suddenly turned down a random sidestreet in another direction! The guys and I told the driver to stop, and we all got off.
The next thing I knew, I was walking with these two guys who didn’t speak any English. But they seemed friendly and we communicated a bit via translation apps. One of them introduced himself as Mustafa, and said he worked for the ferry companies that do the river cruises.
We hitchhiked with the next car that drove by. A local woman was kind enough to give us a ride. But for some reason, she didn’t want anyone in the front seat, so we were all crammed in the back. And finally, after several minutes downhill, we arrived at Eski Halfeti.
Mustafa then told me to come with him. I knew I wanted to get on a boat as soon as possible, but no sites online provided info about timetables or prices.
Mustafa took me to a riverside cafe where he knew all the staff and told me to sit down. I was growing impatient, but decided to just go with the flow.
After 10 minutes or so, Mustafa returned and guided me to the marina. He talked with his friends at the ticket gate and they let me on for free! (I caught a glimpse of a sign which seemed to list the normal price as 25 TL).
I asked a few times if I needed to pay anything, and each time he told me no, as I was a guest.
After such a difficult journey, outstanding Turkish hospitality once again came to the rescue.
Or in other words, is seeing Rumkale and the sunken minaret worth the tremendous hassle required to get there by public transport?
While looking back, I remember the day fondly overall thanks to the kindness and hospitality shown to me by Mustafa. And getting to cruise the Euphrates River is definitely a cool experience.
But knowing what I went through, I couldn’t honestly tell other people that the journey is entirely worth it. But if you’re the adventurous type who’s also on a budget, then go for it.
And if you’re renting your own car, then yes, you should definitely consider a trip to Halfeti from either Gaziantep or Urfa.
Gaziantep has an airport situated about 20 km southwest of the city. It connects with most major cities in Turkey and even some international locations.
Gaziantep has a rail system, but service has been suspended for the past few years. Be sure to check for updates closer to your visit.
As the southeast’s largest city, Antep is very well connected by bus. You can get here from all over the southeast region as well as long-distance from other areas. Leaving the city, I was even able to travel directly to Göreme in the Cappadocia region.
For those coming by bus, the otogar (bus terminal) is about 6 km north of the city center. As of 2020, a taxi ride should cost about 25 TL.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.