On the Tigris: Hasankeyf—Walk into History

In the southeastern corner of Turkey near the Iraq and Syrian borders, where the Tigris River ambles south across the green plains of Anatolia, a major skirmish was won this month by environmentalists and human rights organizations when Swiss, German and Austrian firms pulled out of their contract with the Turkish government to build the Ilisu Dam. The Dam is a cornerstone in a larger project to develop Turkey’s electrical capacity over the next decade.

At the heart of the controversy is Hasankeyf–one of the cradles of civilization—claimed to be the oldest continuous settlement on the globe. Just this month archeologists have found relics they say date the site even earlier than the 10,000-12,000 years recorded; they are now speculating Hasankeyf may be 15,000 years old.

In the Kurdish region of southeastern Anatolia, Hasankeyf and its ruins rise up the limestone cliffs along the Tigris River,  where at least nine civilizations have passed through, including  the Assyrians, the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Mongols, and the Ottomans.  In ancient Mesopotamia, Hasankeyf was on a central trading route. The area boasts over 4000 caves, which were used as shelter and also as protection from invaders. Some of these caves are still occupied with artisan workshops and restaurants.

As one journeys up the hillside, up the stone steps to the ruins of Hasankeyf Castle, built by the Byzantines in 363AD, the visitor passes the minaret from El-rizk mosque and the circular Zeynelbey Tomb with its blue bricks in geometric designs. One can follow the secret water passageways through the rocks. Visiting Hasankeyf is a journey into antiquity with more than 300 medieval monuments and 83 archeological sites. Today the hillside is also dotted with artisans’ stalls and children on donkeys and restaurants inside the caves. During the controversy over the Ilisu Dam, the mayor in protest  chose to live in one of the caves.

If the Ilisu Hydroelectric Dam is constructed as planned fifty miles downstream, much of Hasankeyf will be buried under 400 feet of water. The flooding will also submerge 80 surrounding villages in what would be Turkey’s second largest reservoir. While the  government has said that it will move and preserve some of the antiquities, the Hasankeyf residents insist that it is impossible to move caves and many of the ruins.  Those from other villages  have also protested that the compensation being offered isn’t enough to resettle them.

The European firms, which pulled their $1.6 billion loans and loan guarantees earlier this month, claim that Turkey has not sufficiently met World Bank standards to preserve the environment, the population and the culture in its planning for the Ilisu Dam. The Turkish government has charged that the withdrawal is political and has said it will proceed anyway, with potential funders from China, Russia and India or on its own.

Those who want to preserve Hasankeyf, which has already been listed by the World Monument Fund as one of the world’s 100 Most Endangered sites,  urge that the town be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. However,  that request must come from the Turkish government,  an unlikely step as the government moves forward with its $32 billion Southeastern Anatolia Project that includes 22 dams and 19 power plants. The southeast is one of the poorest areas in Turkey and one which has been fraught in the recent past with political strife with the Kurdish PKK. The government says it is developing electrical and water resources by building the Ilisu Dam; opponents charge that this particular dam will destroy Kurdish and world culture as well as the environment.

The battle over the building of the Ilisu Dam also engages Turkey’s neighbors, particularly Iraq, which has claimed that the damming of the Euphrates  River and now the Tigris River upstream further exacerbates Iraq’s already problematic water supply.

For the moment Hasankeyf  goes on with daily life. Though summer is hot there, the caves of Hasankeyf are cool. A visitor can sit back on the cushioned sofas, listen to Turkish music, eat kebabs and hear about and see the last 15,000 years of history before the future washes it away.
(Larger JL-A article  Portal to Antiquity: Hasankeyf, Turkey  in World Literature Today,  July-August, 2009)

Further Commentary


  1. Julia Malone on July 30, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you, Joanne, for highlighting this endangered gem from antiquity, not to mention the current inhabitants. I hope the delay gives the Turkish government time to find other solutions for their electrical needs rather than flooding such a site.
    The richness of the many layers of civilizations in Asia Minor is astounding, as I found recently when exploring some of the ancient sites along the Turquoise coast. It would be a shame to destroy some of this heritage.

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