Despite residents’ protests, the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf in south-east Turkey will soon be submerged as part of a controversial dam project. Just a half-hour drive from Batman appears the oasis of Hasankeyf on the banks of the Tigris River thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, dating as far back as 12,000 years and comprising thousands of caves, churches, and tombs.
But this jewel of human history will soon be lost as most of the historical settlement is about to be flooded as part of the highly controversial Ilisu dam project. Construction of the dam and its hydroelectric power plant started back in 2006 and Hasankeyf is maybe a few weeks away from destruction, in spite of a fight by residents and environmental campaigners to save it. The Turkish government has directed the residents to evacuate by 8 October.
An attempt to challenge the dam project at the European court of human rights on the grounds that it would irrevocably damage the country’s cultural heritage failed. Conceived as far back as the 1950s, the project has always been mired in controversy and its completion will make it the fourth-biggest dam in Turkey, projected to generate 4,200 gigawatts of electricity annually. But this will come at a huge price as the scheme will cause the flooding of 199 settlements in the region, thousands of human-made caves and hundreds of historical and religious sites. Activists warn that close to 80,000 people will be displaced. They also caution of terrible damage to the natural environment, claiming biodiversity will suffer, and that numerous vulnerable and endangered species will be put at risk by the construction of the dam.
Sixty-year-old Ridvan Ayhan was born in one of the caves in Hasankeyf and is an active member in the ‘Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive’, founded in 2006 as a grassroots campaign to stop the dam project.
Walking along the mountainside facing the town, Ayhan reached a cave clearly marked as an ancient church with an engraved cross but its origins are yet unknown as only 10% of the area has been explored by archaeologists.
He said, “It’s not just our story, Hasankeyf, it’s also your story, because it’s the human story. We’ve asked for the area to be an open-air museum but the government wouldn’t accept it. If you dig here you will find cultures layered on top of one another.”
There is tomb below the church where piles of human bones have surfaced.
Ayhan laments, “The government doesn’t even respect the dead. They are barbaric.”
Hasankeyf has witnessed many different cultures in its long history from ancient Mesopotamia, Byzantium, Arab empires to the Ottoman empire, but Hakan Ozoglu, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, claims that the settlement predates all these civilizations.
He explained. “We have references to the town in several ancient texts in different languages such as Assyrian, Armenian, Kurdish, Arabic. Hasankeyf is a laboratory that could provide many answers about the past. Such rare physical evidence of the human past must be protected at all cost”.
Only eight historical monuments viz. a tower from possibly the oldest university in the world, half of an old Roman gate to the city and a women’s hamam dating back to 1400, have been protected from Hasankeyf by moving them 3km away on a vast plain.
“It’s meaningless for us to see these historical pieces there,” Ayhan shared.
With the evacuation deadline handed down by the government, residents from the surrounding areas have come to say farewell to the historical site, knowing it will be their last chance to see it. However, very few tourists visit the area due to its inaccessibility.
Ozoglu states that all the benefit possible from the dam cannot come close to the potential of tourism had UNESCO’s name been attached to the region.
“I cannot see very many other places on Earth that deserve [more] to be on the list of Unesco’s protected sites,” Ozoglu remarked.
Ayhan shook his head when UNESCO was mentioned as the ‘Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive’ had already applied unsuccessfully for the settlement to be officially listed.
Ayhan elaborated, “UNESCO said the culture ministry has to apply for it. We wrote to the ministry but no answer … It’s their duty but they didn’t do anything.”
The Turkish ministry of culture and tourism did not provide any comment.
A spokesperson at the ministry of energy and natural resources commented, “Why do you want to talk about Hasankeyf when we have so many other projects?”
The Turkish authorities’ clampdown on protests has also hindered Hasankeyf residents’ endeavor to stop the dam.
Ayhan who was arrested in 2012, said, “If we protest, they take us to prisons. There’s no democracy here. If there was democracy, maybe we could do something.”
The Turkish government has built a “new Hasankeyf” to accommodate 700 households, 3km away from historical Hasankeyf, in a bid to relocate residents before 8 October.
But 27-year-old Eyup Agalday and his wife were not offered their own home in the new settlement, as the government has a cutoff for those married after 2014.
“I will have to live with my parents again– the whole family of 10 members will be in the one house,” he complained.
Like his ancestors, Agalday is a shepherd who currently lives in one of Hasankeyf’s many caves. He will also not be allowed to take his animals to the new village and has started selling his goats.
“I am forced to do something and be in a city where I don’t want to live,” he protests.
Agalday said around a fifth of Hasankeyf’s residents have already moved to the new settlement, with five or six families moving each day. A green pick-up moving truck could be spotted from below with belongings and furniture piled high, making its way out of Hasankeyf.
Sitting under the shade of generous grapevines on the opposite side of the river, Hediye Tapkan, 38, shared that she had no idea where her family with five young children, will go as they were also not offered a replacement home, even after allegedly being forced to sell some of their lands at 900 Turkish lira for 1 dunum, or £125 for 1,000 sq. meters, for the construction of the new village.
She said, “We like our place, we make our bread here, we have lots of grapes and figs which sometimes we sell, our lands are productive”.
As the residents wait helplessly for Hasankeyf to be slowly submerged by the rising river, they say they will continue to protest and spread the message of the settlement’s history, even after the area is banned for entry in October.
Ayhan sighs, “[If we don’t,] when we die, our children will come and spit on our graves and say, why didn’t you save Hasankeyf?”.