On the drive to the village of Halfeti, from the city of Gaziantep where I was living, the morning air was warm and breezy as the car wound through the Turkish countryside. It was early May. Pistachio and olive groves popped up here and there along the road. Red poppies grew wild, in full bloom. Stone arches every few miles, remnants of the Roman empire.
The car began to descend toward the Euphrates River, or Fırat as it is known in Turkey. The winding road narrowed and the icy turquoise water came into view. Cliffs rose from the water. Ancient ruins of homes long uninhabited were carved into the stone cliffs. The car quickly slowed as we rounded a corner. A child stood fearlessly on the edge of the road; behind her, a sheer drop to the ancient water below. She shared a friendly smile with the foreign faces that drove past.
The old Citroën we were in slowly rolled into the village of Yeni Halfeti (translated as ‘New’ Halfeti). The old city and its inhabitants had re-located to higher ground along the steep grade of the river due to the construction of the Birecik Dam in the late 90s. The old village was one of many to be flooded, forcing the inhabitants to abandon their homes and built new ones up the hill; creating a new life as their old one was lost to the Fırat.
We parked the car along one of the side streets, and made our way down to the river where we found a waterfront cafe that was open and serving breakfast. We found our way onto the floating, covered dock, and seated ourselves in the shade. The morning hadn’t quite worn off and the village wasn’t yet up and about. Drinking Turkish tea, I sat on the edge of the dock, letting my feet dangle into the river, admiring the trees and roofs still visible under the milky blue surface.
Looking further down river, a minaret rose from the water, the mosque that holds it up disappeared with the rest of the old village. A minaret that has become one of the most identifiable symbols of the village.
Since business was slow, and we were obviously tourists to the town, the owner of the cafe came out to greet us and to proudly make his recommendations of what to see nearby. Conveniently, he had an employee with a boat which, for a reasonable price, was able to take us around to show off these sites. Once we cleared every crumb of our traditional Turkish breakfast of local cheeses, freshly baked bread, olives, cucumber and tomato salad, eggs and tea, the young man who would be our tour guide had arrived at the dock with his prized toy – a rickety motor boat that I wasn’t sure would survive the day.
We bought some beers from the kind cafe owner, placed them in the young man’s cooler, piled into the small boat and off we went.
The river was calm near Halfeti. My Turkish friends, our guide and I rode upriver in what felt like slow motion. We couldn’t help but pull the boat over about half way to Rumkale – one of the destinations recommended by the cafe owner – to explore some of the ancient cave houses carved into the steep hills. Observing them from a distance wasn’t enough. They smelled stale and there was evidence of fires built long ago inside the dusty rock walls.
Carrying on upriver, the imposing Roman fortress of Rumkale came into view high above the water, dominating the peninsula on which it was built, created by a wide turn made by the Fırat.
Ibrahim, our guide, tied the boat to the small floating dock on the Eastern side of the castle as we all cautiously climbed the worn steps to the fortress. The top of the seemingly never-ending hill was grassy and overgrown. We explored the crumbling ruins of the Church of St. Nerses, built in or around the 12th century.
After loafing around in a nearby man-made cave, drinking the beers we brought from the cafe, in preparation for the trip back down to the boat, we sat on the edge of the grassy ledge and looked out onto the bend of the technicolor river that flowed through the ancient and untouched land that protects it.
Back into the boat, we crept our way back toward the cafe dock where we started off the day’s adventure. The thought crossed my mind that one of the enormous ancient fish of the Fırat could have gobbled up the little boat and its passengers in 1 bite should it like; moving so slowly, we were no competition.
Burnt from the Anatolian sun, and exhausted from the climb and exploration, our group, including our beloved Ibrahim and the cafe owner, enjoyed locally caught fish, beef kebab and rakı (an anise-flavored liquor – a favorite among Turks).
For hours, we lazed about on the dock, enjoying the late-afternoon breeze. Few patrons visited the cafe that Tuesday afternoon. As the sun began to set, over the steep hills, we all lined up at the edge of the dock, rakı in hand, dangling our feet into the chilly water as I had that same morning. The perfect way to round out a beautifully adventurous day before a star-filled drive back to the city.