I travelled to the ancient town of Hasankeyf in southern Turkey, an ancient Mesopotamian settlement in the cradle of civilization that may soon be completely flooded.
“Hasankeyf is old”, Arjan tells me over a cup of steaming hot Chai on the banks of the Tigris River. “Really old”, he adds. “Some historians say maybe the town is 12,000 years old, here in Hasankeyf we think it’s been inhabited for 70,000 years!”
Either measures of time are too old for me to really contemplate, with my personal age span not yet even in triple figures. Hasankeyf is, as Arjan said, old. Really old. I was visiting Hasankeyf to see for myself the town that would soon- or so the rumours I’d heard went– be underwater. It is scheduled to be completely flooded by the Turkish Government as part of the huge ‘GAP‘ project and the building of the Ilisu Dam, which will provide energy and infrastructure to the South Eastern Anatolia region.
If the flooding went ahead, then this ancient town which has stood for so long on the Tigris River would be lost. The history, its place in the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, countless buildings dating back centuries would all be washed away and inundated by the waters. The local people who live and work here, would be forcibly relocated.
Arjan, a local Kurdish man who runs the small tourist information centre in the town, was demonstrating the famous hospitality his people were known for, and had invited me over for Chai. He also wanted me to know what was going on in his town right now.
We were sitting by the Tigris, looking out over the new bridge which spans the river and the remains of the old bridge, a medieval creation from the 12th Century AD. In the background were the cliffs the town is built on, with the castle watching over the old minarets of the mosques below. And built into the cliffs themselves are old cave dwellings, used for thousands of years by the local people to live and shelter in. There was truly a remarkable historic array set across the river before me.
Arjan reminds me though, that no matter how culturally and historically important the town of Hasankeyf is- particularly within Kurdish culture- there is the human cost to remember too when the dam opens its flood gates.
90% of the town will be submerged. Arjan pointed to the tallest minaret across the river, and said that the top would be the only thing still visible. And with so much flooding, the 3000 or so residents of Hasankeyf would need new homes.
“We have been offered 80,000 Lira for our homes by the government”, Arjan says as we order more Chai. He points away from the town, and into the hills, where the new settlement will be. “Houses in the new town will cost at least 130,000 Lira though! They are trying to make money from us too!”
It’s unclear when the actual flooding will occur though. “It was supposed to happen 2 years ago”, I’m informed by Arjan. And indeed, it seems as though the plans are currently on halt, as human rights groups took the fight to the European Court Of Human Rights, and legal battles continue to be waged. The construction of the dam was halted for a while, but it is unclear how long the Kurdish lawyers will be able to keep the tide at bay in this battle. “We are in limbo, we don’t know when the flooding will happen now”, but Arjan is certain that it will happen.
Turkey’s need for a reliable, domestic energy source will, inevitably, outweigh the loss of Hasankeyf I expect. But for many Kurdish people, they see this as further destruction and violation of Kurdish rights and culture by the Turkish government.
Until the flood is loosed upon the town, the locals, like Arjan, can only carry on with their lives.
Arjan learnt English in Sheffield, and at the holiday resorts of Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast, but he moved back to his home town to take up the local tourist information job, when he was in search of a slower pace of life. And life in Hasankeyf is quiet, subdued almost.
Things weren’t always this way. Years ago, before the energy projects, the town was a huge tourist spot. It’s beautiful, historic and important. Tourism has dwindled though. Geographically the town is close to the violence- although not particularly affected- in the south of Turkey. The ongoing conflict between the Kurdish militants of the PKK and the Turkish Government. Indeed, as we sat down drinking Chai, basking in the sun, fighter jets periodically roar over head.
The war wasn’t here, but across coastal and northern Turkey, I’d previously been warned to stay away from this region, from the heartland of Turkish Kurdistan. The government and media doesn’t exactly advertise the town well anymore. Arjan wanted people to know that his town was still safe to visit, that everyone just sat around, as we were, drinking Chai all day. The Kurds, “We are a friendly people, there are just a few who want violence”.
The castle atop the cliffs was also closed to visitors, another dampener on tourism numbers here. Arjan reckoned it was closed to specifically to stop people from visiting, and to help the government to quietly close everything before flooding it all discreetly. A guard, who stopped me from climbing up the castle, said that it was closed for our safety. It was dangerous, and needed restoration work to make it safe for visitors again.
A curious recent development in Hasankeyf, has in fact been the level of restoration work that’s being carried out. The old bridge was undergoing work while I visited, being renewed and restored, as were several tombs and mosques along the river bank. It seemed completely mad, for the government to be spending money on restoration as they also spent more money building the dam which would flood that restoration work. Perhaps there was hope for Hasankeyf after all, or perhaps it is just a distraction. If flooded, the ruins here may still be a tourist site, just underwater, so the preservation might not all be in vain. Some of the buildings may be completely relocated if possible too.
An area that is still open in Hasankeyf, are the cave dwellings and the network of valleys that reach out of the town and into the surrounding countryside. The caves are similar in style to the widely known Cappadocia dwellings. They are built into the cliffs by the Tigris, and along the deep valleys that I could walk through from the town. I followed the old paths into the countryside, paths that have been trodden for thousands of years, and found an incredible view point from which to look out over the hills and the valleys of Southern Anatolia.
Back in town, I sat down for lunch at one of the riverside restaurants. There were a few tourists keeping a trickle of money slowly coming in still, and the vendors along the streets and the waiters in the restaurants didn’t seem to pay much attention to Hasankeyf’s impending doom. As Arjan had said, they were in limbo, waiting for the outcome of the legal battles. But perhaps already resigned to their fate.
I left Hasankeyf, knowing that the flooding of this ancient, and truly significant town would be a huge loss to not only the residents, and the Kurdish people, but to those who would never even have the chance to visit. I also knew that, in the convoluted, crowded and energy and consumer driven world that we now lived in, Hasankeyf wouldn’t be the only sacrifice that would need to be made to keep the modern lifestyles that we value so dearly.
Hasankeyf Travel Advice!
The town of Hasankeyf is best visited from the excellently named city of Batman. There are regular minibuses from the dolmus station in central Batman. They stop by the bridge in Hasankeyf and journey time is about 40 minutes.
I reached the stunning viewpoint in the hills by simply following the trail for about 40 minutes from the cave dwellings in the town. There was only one path, so just keep walking.
The minibus station in Batman is located here: