Residents of doomed ancient town have nowhere to go

The small ancient town of Hasankeyf in southeastern Turkey.

The small ancient town of Hasankeyf in southeastern Turkey.

ISTANBUL – Hasankeyf, an 11,500 year-old town in southeastern Turkey with vestiges of 20 distinct cultures, is slated to be under 60 metres of water in the near future. As construction of the controversial Ilisu Dam nears completion some 80 kilometres away, the government is encouraging the 3,000 mostly poor residents to move into apartments they can’t afford.

“They killed Hasankeyf,” says Ercan Tarhan, who works at a café in the village. He says he doesn’t have much hope for saving his town, and isn’t sure what he’ll do after it’s flooded. “We don’t want to leave.”

The government has started construction of New Hasankeyf, a settlement of modern-style apartment buildings above the flood line further up the hills nearby. The new accommodation will cost between $40,000 and $90,000, but the state will only pay most residents $5,000 to $10,000 for their soon to be destroyed homes. Half of the town’s residents have a monthly salary of $330 or less.

The 'New Hasankeyf' settlement can be seen at the foot of the hills in the distance on the right hand side, with the ruins of the 12th century bridge in the foreground.

The ‘New Hasankeyf’ settlement can be seen at the foot of the hills in the distance on the right hand side, with the ruins of the 12th century bridge in the foreground.

According to a 2012 survey by Doga Dernegi, an environmental group, 68 per cent of Hasankeyf’s residents don’t want to move to the new town, though almost half are planning to. Almost one third don’t know where to go after the flooding, and nearly half have no idea how they’ll pay for new homes.

Tarhan’s café, like all of Hasankeyf – Arabic for ‘rock fortress’ – is built into the soft limestone of a cliff overlooking the shallow waters of the Tigris River. The slender minaret of the 600 year-old El Rizk Mosque, product of the Muslim Ayyubid Kurdish dynasty, towers nearby. But the Ayyubids were not the only ones to leave their mark on ancient Hasankeyf, one of the oldest continuous settlements on earth.

Last year a Japanese team discovered 11,500 year-old painted graves from the Neolithic Age. Little is known about those pre-historical cultures, but there are about 6,000 human-made caves dating from that period, some of which are still inhabited. Since Emperor Constantine had a fort built on the site in 300 AD, the former Silk Road staging post has been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Mongols and Turks.

About 300 medieval monuments remain. There’s the crumbling grass-topped pillars of a 12th century bridge that Marco Polo allegedly once crossed, a fourth century Byzantine citadel looming 100 metres above the Tigris, and the 15th century glazed blue tile mausoleum of Zeynel Bey of the Turkic Akkoyunlu dynasty, the only example of Timurid-style Central Asian architecture in Turkey.

The 15th century Timurid-style Zeynel Bey mausoleum.

The 15th century Timurid-style Zeynel Bey mausoleum.

The construction of both the new town and the dam has been done with little consultation or openness. “The government’s making all these plans, and no one knows what they are,” says Banu Aydinoglugil, an archaeologist studying Hasankeyf. “They’re not being transparent.”

There are rumours the government is planning on developing tourism in the region after the flooding, converting some of the remaining caves into hotels, and even turning ruins into underwater attractions, but there are major doubts.

“There won’t be any tourism when Hasankeyf floods,” Aydinoglugil says, echoing the view of many experts and activists. “In the new settlement, you’re not going to have this view, you’re not going to have the Tigris.”

John Crofoot is one of the founders of the website Hasankeyf Matters, an information portal and group that advocates for heritage preservation. He says the town could be more valuable as a tourist site if it were developed properly, and could even generate more revenues than the dam. He says tourism attracts foreign currency and spurs other sectors as well.

“It’s not too much of a stretch in our opinion of thinking of Hasankeyf as potentially rivalling Cappadocia and Ephesus as one of Anatolia’s top three tourism destinations,” Crofoot says, but he agrees with Aydinoglugil that flooding would destroy the area as a tourist attraction.

Arif Ayhan, a local rug-seller in the town, is frustrated with politicians and experts paying more attention to ancient ruins than the people living in the town now. “They talk about the history – the castle, the bridge – but nobody talks about the people of Hasankeyf,” he says.

The town is a rare example of “living heritage,” because people still live on the site, practicing a unique culture that includes animal husbandry, weaving and sewing. Their homes have gardens, stables and tandoors for making bread. The flooding will destroy fertile agricultural land, and the new settlement in the hills doesn’t have land that’s flat enough for farming.

“Nobody wants an apartment,” Ayhan says. “We live in houses. We have gardens and fields.”

There are also regularly visited holy places that will be flooded. “In the new settlement, they’re not going to have all these sacred places, rituals and their social life,” Aydinoglugil says.

Ayhan says it’s hard to make plans for the future when no one knows when the flooding will happen. The government has been talking about building the dam for the past 50 years, and completion dates for both the dam and the new settlement keep changing. The last completion date for Ilisu was mid-2014, but that has been recently delayed for another 19 – 24 months.

Ayhan wants to expand his business, but can’t until he knows when the flooding will occur, and whether or not the area will still be a tourist destination. Many people are leaving because of the uncertainties. There are 3,000 residents now, but Ayhan says there were 15,000 in his father’s time.

Flooding from the Ilisu Dam will displace 25,000 people and cause massive environmental destruction. The flooding will also be “an ecological disaster,” according to Ercan Ayboga, an activist with Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive. Water quality will decrease, many species will disappear, and diseases like Malaria may reappear. The dam will also affect southern Iraq, where “hundreds of thousands” of farmers will have to leave their land because of 40 – 45 per cent less irrigation.

The dam will generate $500 – $600 million in revenues and two per cent of Turkey’s electricity, but the people of Hasankeyf won’t see any of that money or power.

“The local population will not benefit from it,” says Ayboga. He says the electricity goes to national grids and local authorities don’t receive the revenues.

The displaced people in rural areas will mostly move to cities such as Diyarbakir and Batman, losing their distinctive rural Kurdish culture in the process.

“Kurdish culture is undergoing assimilation.” Ayboga says, but rural Kurds are the least assimilated. “Many stories, songs, and poems are related to the nature of Kurdistan,” especially along the Tigris, but these will be forgotten as these Kurds are forced to urbanize.

However, these cities won’t receive extra funding or infrastructure, and Ayboga says unemployment will increase. “The cities will grow, but they don’t offer much to the people.”

Instead, Ayboga says, “you should support the people where they are,” with rural development and small local projects. “Give them opportunities.”

The 4th century Byzantine citadel towers 100 metres above the Tigris.

The 4th century Byzantine citadel towers 100 metres above the Tigris.

One Response to Residents of doomed ancient town have nowhere to go

  1. rabirius says:

    Thank you for the article – I really like it and think it is really interesting.
    I visited Hasankeyf several time and really love that place.
    Earlier this year I could also speak with some people how they feel about the dam – and I had the feeling that no one is happy about it.

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