Fighting to Keep Ancient Turkish City from Becoming a Sunken Treasure

hasankeyf tigris river ruins turkey photo

A last look at Hasankeyf? Construction of the Ilısu Dam in Turkey would drown the city's ancient ruins. Photo via Doğa Derneği

One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, the town of Hasankeyf, located along the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, boasts more than 10,000 years of history and hundreds of archaeological sites. Its dramatic canyon setting is also home to endemic and threatened species such as the Euphrates soft-shell turtle and the striped hyena. But both its cultural and natural richness could be lost by 2013, drowned in the reservoir for the Ilısu Dam, a controversial project that has lately drawn renewed political, journalistic, and artistic attention.

A watery future
I got a glimpse of the likely future of Hasankeyf last summer on a boat trip down the Euphrates River near Gaziantep, some 300 kilometers to the west. The small mud-colored dwellings scattered down the hillside toward the water seemed normal at first, but we realized there was a lot more we weren't seeing when we spotted a mosque's minaret poking out of the river--the only part of the building not entirely submerged underwater by construction of one of the three dams on the Tigris. The stunning Roman mosaics we had seen the day before at the Gaziantep Museum had narrowly avoided the same fate, being relocated at the last minute before the Birecik Dam inundated the ancient city of Zeugma--and destroyed pistachio fields and orchards and forced 6,500 residents to resettle.

The Ilısu Dam could uproot ten times as many people throughout the Tigris valley, affecting 400 kilometers of river landscape to supply 2 percent of Turkey's electricity need. If built, the 453-foot-high hydroelectric dam would hold back a 121-square-mile reservoir that would raise the water level in Hasankeyf by more than 200 feet.

submerged minaret euphrates river turkey photo

A dam on the Euphrates River submerged all of this mosque except for its minaret. Photo: Jennifer Hattam.

Although a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the project in 2006, operations were suspended for three months starting in December 2008 due to concerns by its international funders that the project did not meet global standards "involving the environment, relocation, cultural heritage, and neighboring states." Activists with the "Stop Ilısu - Save Hasankeyf" campaign last week began circulating a petition asking Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodoğan to stop the dam project permanently and propose Hasankeyf as a UNESCO Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site. The petition also aims to influence international funders Austria, Germany, and Switzerland to pull financing from the project, as public pressure succeeded in getting the United Kingdom to do.

World Bank pulls support
Andrew Vorkink, the former Turkey director for the World Bank, said earlier this month that "he believes cutting off the external sources of funding for the controversial Ilısu Dam project is the only way to postpone, and eventually stop, its construction, which endangers the archaeological sites located in the Hasankeyf area," reported the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. The World Bank initially backed the project, but has since cut off funding, "deeming that [Turkey] did not meet standards for preservation of archaeological sites" and citing a new policy of not providing financial assistance to any "initiatives that will have a negative impact on cultural heritage, population, or the environment"--including China's massive Three Gorges Dam.

Pop superstar Tarkan has thrown his weight behind the effort to defeat the dam, working with Turkey's Doğa (Nature) Foundation and supporting the UNESCO World Heritage bid. In March, Smithsonian magazine featured Hasankeyf as one of its "15 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures," a list of "the world's most precious historic and artistic sites [that] can be visited today--but might be gone tomorrow," detailing some of the 20 cultures that made their area their home throughout the centuries:

The first settlers probably lived along the Tigris in caves carved into the rock cliffs. (The ancient Assyrian name for the place was Castrum Kefa, meaning "castle of the rock.") The Romans built a fortress there circa A.D. 300 to patrol their empire's eastern border with Persia and monitor the transport of crops and livestock. In the fifth century A.D., the city became the Byzantine bishopric of Cephe; it was conquered in A.D. 640 by the Arabs, who called it Hisn Kayfa, or "rock fortress." Hasankeyf would next be successively ruled by the Turkish Artukid dynasty, the Ayyubids (a clan of Kurdish chieftains) and the Mongols, who conquered the region in 1260. Hasankeyf emerged as an important commercial center along the Silk Road during the early Middle Ages. Marco Polo likely passed over its once-majestic stone, brick and wooden bridge, built around 1116 (only two massive stone piers and one arch remain). In 1515, the city was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and has since remained a part of modern Turkey.

The population of Hasankeyf has dwindled from 4,000 to 2,500 over the last couple of years, and the remaining residents are weary of the uncertain fate of their homeland, which has been threatened since the dam was first proposed five decades ago. They are "fed up, but they say they are not giving up," reported Hürriyet Daily News.

Film tribute
Their plight came to the silver screen in Turkey this month with the release of a new film, "Benim ve Roz'un Sonbaharı" (Roz's and My Autumn), that tells the fictional story of a local journalist who is trying to stop the dam. Director Handan Öztürk cast many actors from nearby Batman and Diyarbakır and shot the movie largely on location. "The sun was setting in this amazing environment, with man-made caves and the Tigris flowing," she said. "Whoever sees the beauty of Hasankeyf would do his or her best to stop the dam."

More about dams:
China Wants 20 More Dams on the Headwaters of the Yangtze River
China Builds Dam on Indus, Doesn't Tell Pakistan
Scientist's Hunger Strike Halts Work on Himalayan Dam
Politics Matter: 4 Governors Oppose New Dam in Central Japan
PacifiCorp To Remove Four Dams On Klamath River In California
Iraqi Dam Collapse Could Result in Half a Million Deaths
Mexico Tries to Float Big Dams to Meet Renewables Goal
Explosive Boom Signals End Of Dam, Rebirth Of River
More Damming Evidence in India: Dams Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Fighting to Keep Ancient Turkish City from Becoming a Sunken Treasure
One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, the Turkish town of Hasankeyf, could see its cultural and natural richness lost by 2013, drowned in the reservoir for the Ilısu Dam, a controversial project that has lately drawn renewed attention.

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