Turkish history to sink to oblivion
By Stephen Starr
HASANKEYF - In Turkey's Kurdish heartland in the southeast of
the country, locals of a small town face a bleak future. Hasankeyf, with a
population of about 3,000 people on the banks of the River Tigris, is to be relegated to
being a historical record when the Ilisu dam is built downstream in the coming
years - it will submerge the entire town under a lake of water.
Hasankeyf is close to both the Syrian and Iraqi borders, a 45-minute drive from
the nearest major Turkish city of Batman. According to local reports, three
million people visited the area in 2008, attracted by its numerous sites,
including the tomb of Iman Abdullah, said to be a close relative of the Prophet
Hasankeyf contains an ancient bazaar and castle, cave dwellings
1,000-year-old churches and mosques. Anything from nine to 20 civilizations
have come and gone through Hasankeyf, evidenced by the dozens of caves on both
sides of the Tigris.
A wealth of archaeological material has been keeping researchers from
universities around the country busy for several years as they seek to uncover
the town's history before it is washed away. Around 55,000 people along the
Tigris are expected to be affected by the Ilisu hydroelectric dam.
Today, the Tigris flows calmly through the northern side of Hasankeyf, where
children catch fish and goats drink from the river's edge.
On the banks of the river four young boys have constructed a pool where dozens
of small trout swarm. While two boys go out fishing with a small net, the
others sell the fresh fish in plastic bags to locals preparing for Iftar, the
evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.
"Money, money, money. Smoke, smoke, give me," the boys cackle. "Fish, fish,
fish!!" When the dam is constructed, this way of life, undoubtedly thousands of
years old, will be ended.
"Syriacs and Arab Christians were originally living in the caves along the
river but many left for France, Germany and Switzerland in the 1980s because of
the violence between the army and fighters that started here," said local
guide, Osman Batihan.
"When people came here 40 or 50 years ago, they were told by the authorities
they would have electricity and running water, this never happened. They ended
up living in the holes in the rock and in the castle," said Batihan, who, like
most people in the town, is bitter towards the government.
Hundreds of Christians have, however, returned to the towns of Medyat and
Mersin further south, raising 600,000 Turkish lira (US$399,000) to refurbish
the Syriac Orthodox churches of Mor Esayo and Mor Kuryakus in Medyat.
People forced to move
Hasankeyf is not listed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO's) list for protected sites in Turkey because the
government has not requested its presence as culturally important. Yet a site,
area or building must meet only one of the 10 criteria of UNESCO's World
Heritage List. Hasankeyf, it is reported, meets nine of the 10 elements,
illustrating its clear and unique importance to both local and international
Outside interest covers more than archaelogy and the pros and cons of the
threatening dam. "People representing an American oil company were here a few
weeks ago to see about the possibility of drilling for oil in the hills to the
north of the town,” said Batihan.
Initial construction work on "New Hasankeyf", the proposed relocation site for
the town's residents, can be seen from a bridge that spans the Tigris at the
foothills of the Raman Mountain. Locals are expected to move to this new
settlement, and while many residents look up at the machinery digging out land
and grimace, being able to see the construction of the new town from basically
any advantage point in the old one seems to have strengthened the locals'
resolve to accept their collective fate quietly.
Although Ramadan is usually a quiet time for business in the town, the number
of foreign tourists visiting is down on previous months and years, and the
outlook is not positive, says one businessman. "When they read in newspapers or
see on television that the town is about to be covered in water, foreigners
will not come," said Fikret Altug the owner of the Hasankeyf Motel located on
the banks of the Tigris.
"No tourists come through here since they shut the castle about a month ago,"
said Osman. "I have no business now, and the restaurants on the banks of the
river are empty because the main attraction for tourists - the castle - is
Rights groups preparing to fight
The Ilisu dam, 75 kilometers downriver in Kartalkaya, is expected to be
operational within two to three years and throughout its construction will
employ around 800,000 people at a cost of around US$1.52 billion. When
finished, it will be a source of 1,200 megawatts of electricity and will form
part of a wider project involving 20 other dams.
Though initially designed 57 years ago, demand for a local source of power in
recent times prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to revive the idea as
part of government attempts to develop the country's southeast region.
In 2007, the Austrian, Swiss and German governments had agreed to support
export credit agencies to finance the building of the dam in Ilisu but pulled
out following pressure from international human rights and environmental groups
in July of last year. Since then, the Turkish government has managed to source
two Turkish banks, Garanti and AK Bank, to provide capital for the dam's
According to one Turkish newspaper, the dam project has been exempt from the
preparation of an environmental impact report while other reports say a number
of non-governmental organizations were denied access to the official documents
about the dam project.
Both Turkish and international rights groups, including Photographers without
Borders, have called for the government to back down on the project and several
campaigns are under way to raise awareness about the future of Hasankeyf.
For locals, few are positive about the future of their livelihoods or about
their town. "We will probably move west, to a city in western Turkey," said
Altug. "As you can see, there is nothing for us here."
Stephen Starr is a Damascus-based Irish freelance journalist.