The Submerged History Surrounding Turkey’s Black Rose (2023)

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The roses are a deep, rich, wine-colored red when in full bloom, but as buds they look black. Alaattin Aydın smiles and summons his grandchildren over to take pictures among them in his garden. He keeps the roses in large tin cans that used to contain tomato paste. He, like many old men in Halfeti, makes much of his living cultivating roses and selling them to visitors who have come seeking the black rose.

Tourists flock to buy these roses, which are called kara gül in Turkish. They have an almost mythic quality, particularly within Turkey, and particularly within the last decade. A Turkish TV show was named after them; a novel and a perfume are produced in their names. According to locals, they only grow in the small southern town of Halfeti. As knowledge about them has spread, more and more tourists have made their way to the town to see the roses for themselves. In the springtime as the weather warms, Halfeti transforms from a sleepy town into a bustling hotspot, with vendors hawking black rose magnets, keychains, and spritzers.

Perched on the edge of the Euphrates river, Halfeti looks like something out of a film; the blue of the water is hyper-real in its intensity, the picturesque stone buildings seem timeless and perfectly at ease on the steep hills surrounding the river.

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But under the shining turquoise water lies another version of the town. Farther into the valley a minaret rises out of the water like a ghost. The rest of the mosque ripples beneath feet of water. Closer to the main town, other roofs and walls glimmer under the waves.

The majority of Halfeti was flooded in 2001 in the aftermath of a massive state project to dam the Euphrates. The dam cost thousands their homes and their livelihoods. It changed the shape of the town, dividing it into “New” and “Old” Halfeti. New Halfeti lies on the hill above the Euphrates and its houses are all recently built; it does not have a view of the water.

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For the older inhabitants like Aydın the memory of the village prior to the dam stays as strong as if the flood was yesterday. He and four of his friends gather at his balcony at night, drinking endless glasses of tea and speaking of the years prior to the dam.

“In the winter times, the Euphrates would rise with the rain and snow, and would withdraw in the spring little by little…We would plant watermelons and cucumbers in our kitchen gardens,” says Salih Aybek, a grey-haired man wearing a blue-checked shirt, his tone wistful. “In springtime, when the rain would start, the Euphrates would start to rise again without fail. We would have these beautiful, golden views. Now, these views are gone and everything is concrete. All that is under the water.”

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In the last few years, as tourism has boomed, Turkish news outlets have largely painted Halfeti as a hidden paradise. Articles and social media posts from visitors highlight the unique beauty of the black rose and the sunken mosque, without delving into the town’s deeper histories.

The older men’s oral histories show how state decisions have fundamentally reshaped Halfeti for generations. After a few hours slide by on his balcony, Alaattin brings out some home-brewed wine and words flow more loosely. The old friends become comfortable and start telling stories about the Armenians who helped shape their town. The village mosque was built by an Armenian architect in the 1800s, the old men say. They remember stories their fathers would tell about him: “He was a man who drank alcohol,” they say. “One night he even climbed up to the top of the minaret.”

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The pale-stone mosque is a reminder of a different, much uglier history that points to why Armenians do not openly live in the town anymore. From 1915 to 1917, the Ottoman state massacred millions of Armenians. Many were systematically taken from their homes, and those who did not flee often faced death marches.. Reports from that time say that for 25 days, corpses of Armenians killed further up the Euphrates floated past what is today Halfeti. The modern Turkish government vociferously denies that this was a genocide—though scholars and historians label it as such.

In Halfeti, the old men concede that Armenians lived there prior to 1915, and point out the markers of their long history in the area. But they say that the Armenians “left” or “migrated,” leaving the details vague. According to the official Turkish narrative, Armenians were casualties of a violent conflict and not targets of extermination. Over a hundred years later, the villagers are careful about what they say.

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Halfeti is marked by the physical traces of state decisions. Many of its buildings were shaped by Armenian hands, although the town’s Armenian community no longer exists to take credit for them. Eight decades after the genocide, the flood took the homes that families had lived in for generations, leaving the half-submerged minaret as one of the few indications that the ruins of a town lie under the waters.

Today, the old men of the town take pride in Halfeti’s beauty and popularity, but the glossy image that tourists see is at a dissonance with their own memories of town’s past. “Tourists come here and spend three hours, eight hours, but you can’t learn the history in that time,” says Adnan Aydin, Alaattin’s brother—a cantankerous old-timer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Halfeti.

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Like Alaattin, Adnan loves the roses, but he takes a more leery view of the tourism that they attract. He willingly points out sites where Armenians used to live, as well as the places flooded by the damming. He sits on an armchair on the front of a barge making its way through the gorge as he talks, gesturing at the ruins of the village. He angrily snaps that while tourism can support around 50 families, thousands of people in Halfeti used to be able to support themselves off what grew in their orchards.

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“Everyone was able to sustain themselves through raising animals and agriculture. Everyone had their own orchards and they earned their income from this.” He points to the dry, brown walls of the valley. “Do you see any animals there? There aren’t any left. There should be sheep, goats, and cattle. There aren’t even any birds.”

Adnan says that Turkish documentaries about Halfeti only show positive views of Halfeti and wilfully ignore the negative sides of the dam. “If there is a good side, they should also show the bad side. They should show the level of happiness of the people here, that is what we want,” he explains.

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Each day boats take crowds of tourists on a tour of the drowned city. They sail down the valley from the remnants of Old Halfeti to the sunken mosque, which is only a few kilometers away and only reachable by boat. Next to the underwater mosque an old man runs a tea-house in a cave that gives a clear view of the minaret emerging from the water. Adnan points to him as an example of both the benefits and drawbacks of tourism. The reason the tea-man, who is in his late seventies and goes back and forth with a bent back, has to work at his age is because the property that sustained his family was destroyed with the dam, he says.

Adnan leaves the tea shop to sail back to Halfeti and is greeted by a town that glitters in the sunlight. It is spring and the black rose is in full bloom. Small pots of them line the pier, their dark petals framed by the aqua-marine of the river behind them. Tourists buy potted versions of the flower, children spritz the perfume on passers by in return for a few lira.

Their beauty and the town’s beauty is all tourists see, Adnan says, which is far from his memories of the place. “The events that we lived were different [than what tourists see] from an economic and political perspective. A generation was punished. They finished everything.”

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