Turkish town gets a splash of color with local black rose

Turkey's southeastern town of Halfeti claims to be the home of a rare black rose grown only on the riverbeds of the Euphrates River.

al-monitor A still from a video shows what is claimed to be a semi-mythical variety of black rose found only in Halfeti, Turkey. Video uploaded Dec. 17, 2013.  Photo by YouTube/geobeats.

Feb 13, 2019

“Of course, it is not a myth. See for yourself!” The 19-year-old captain points impatiently toward the blackish, dried rosebud that hangs above the cockpit of his boat. Tourists on board immediately start snapping photos. Two of them are already carrying rose saplings carefully wrapped up in white plastic that they want to take home, plant and see whether they’d yield the famed black buds.

The black rose of Halfeti is an enigma for the tourists who visit this picturesque town on the banks of the Euphrates River. It may well be the best-known feature of this southeastern town, along with the fact that it is the birthplace of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Abdullah Ocalan. Locally known as the Crying Arabian Girl, the rose has inspired a romance novel, a long-winded TV series that went on for three years and a perfume. Yet a quick Google search shows a sharp division between Turkish officials quoted in local media who cite the beauty of this rare rose, and foreign sites — including Snopes — that say it is nonexistent beyond doctored photos on the internet.

Captain Mehmet Erdogan, whose boat is aptly called “Black Rose1,” is a firm believer of the black rose’s existence. “I guess the reason people doubt it is that it cannot be grown anywhere out of old Halfeti,” he told Al-Monitor. “It is the microclimate and the quality of the soil here that makes the rose black.”

He added, sadly, “Many of the rose gardens are gone after the old town was left under water when the Birecik Dam was finalized in 2000.”

The Halfeti agricultural office, the local arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is determined to keep the rose alive. “Four years ago, we started building glass houses in Halfeti that grow roses,” Hakan Akmese, head of the agriculture office, told Al-Monitor. “Today, we grow 500 saplings in three different greenhouses. We do not sell the roses; we put them in special boxes and gift them [to VIP tourists, journalists, officials, etc.] as a souvenir of the town when they visit.”

Halfeti, located between two major cities — Gaziantep and Sanliurfa — of southeastern Anatolia, is now divided into two due to the Birecik Dam. The “new town” is a messy, ugly lump of architecture perched on the river banks, while more than half of the old town — with old Armenian and Greek stone houses — is under water.

"Black Rose1" is one of the many boats that take tourists from “New Halfeti” on a tour over the Euphrates River, passing through the abandoned fortress of Rumkale, a powerful Roman structure that dates from the 11th century. It stops at a makeshift cafe in the semi-sunk village of Savasan, which is locally known as “Beresul,” meaning “near the walls [of the fortress].” A minaret rises above the water, creating a surreal vision. In one of the old, abandoned houses, a simple engraving can be made out: “Nothing lasts forever.”

The minaret in the partly underwater village of Savasan on the Euphrates River (Nazlan Ertan/Al-Monitor)

The only inhabitant of the village is 80-year-old Hasan Mutlu, whom a TV documentary called the "Robinson of Halfeti.” Mutlu runs a cafe for tourists. “I do not know how long I can keep this up,” he told Al-Monitor, adding, “I am on my own here, and the job is not getting easier as I age.”

The number of tourists who visit his cafe is on the rise as the town goes through a touristic revival, local authorities say. In 2013, the city became part of the cittaslow network, an Italy-based movement aimed at slowing down the pace of life in cities and promoting ecological harmony. Seref Albayrak, the town’s district governor who was appointed in 2016 as the town’s acting mayor after the elected mayor was ousted, appears in local media almost on a daily basis to boast about how the town has become one of the key stopovers in heritage-rich southeastern Anatolia. Albayrak, currently running for mayor on the Justice and Development Party ticket, was quoted by the state-run Anatolia News Agency as saying that more than 10,000 tourists come to the small town on a weekend on summer. He said the town had hosted half a million people in 2017, and they expect that number to double in 2019.

Albayrak explained that the town is capitalizing on the fame of the black rose. “We have built glass houses across the coastal front where we grow the black roses so tourists can see them as they tour the town,” he told Anatolia News Agency in August 2018. “[The town’s] womenfolk make chocolates shaped like the black rose, or black rose jam. We make soap and Turkish delight from the black rose.” Halk Egitim, the local adult-education center, teaches women to make anti-aging facial creams from the black rose as well.

“It is not a hybrid, it is a local breed,” insisted Akmese. “It is black when in bloom in spring and in autumn. In other months, it comes out as a dark red. It belongs to this land — to its microclimate and terroir.” The one seen by the Al-Monitor correspondent is a deep dark red and not entirely black.

But Hasan Akan, dean of the education faculty at the University of Harran, traces the roots of the rose to France. Citing a study by Turhan Baytop, a professor of pharmacy at Istanbul University, Akan told Al-Monitor that the black rose of Halfeti came from Lyon to Turkey in the 19th century and was from the same botanical family as the roses known as Louis XIV. “How did it come to southeastern Turkey? No one knows,” he added. 

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