Hasankeyf: Civilization Condemned to Death

The countdown has started for unique, 12,000-year-old historical monuments in the Tigris Valley to be submerged by the waters of a dam promising an annual revenue of 300 million Turkish lira.

al-monitor A citadel perched atop 100-meter-high rocks on the banks of the Tigris marks the beginning of the story of Hasankeyf. There are 5,000 to 7,000 cave dwellings carved into rocks at the citadel and in the adjacent canyon. About 14,000 people lived in these dwellings in the 1970s. Photo by Fehim Taştekin.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin

@fehimtastekin

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turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, history, dam, akp

Oct 24, 2013

Would a country sacrifice more than 550 historical monuments from various Mesopotamian civilizations to a dam? It appears Turkey is determined to do just that. It is no joke. The Ilisu Dam project — under discussion since 1958, approved in 1982 and accelerated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2006 — will swallow Hasankeyf, a major juncture along the Silk Road.

A town now condemned to death, Hasankeyf has seen Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Artuqids, Ayyubids, Aq Qoyunlus and Ottomans come and go. The sites destined to bid farewell to the world include a 12th-century double-deck stone bridge with only four feet surviving, the El Rizk Mosque, the Mardinike Palace ruins, the Zeynel Bey Mausoleum, the Syriac Quarter, the Sultan Suleyman Mosque, the Koc Mosque, the Inn and the Arasta bazaar, a number of shops and kilns, and countless cave dwellings. The Batman Municipality organized the Hasankeyf Culture and Arts Festival for Oct. 18–20 to draw attention to the looming disaster.

A president unmoved by ancient civilization

A citadel perched atop 100-meter-high rocks on the banks of the Tigris marks the beginning of the story of Hasankeyf. There are 5,000 to 7,000 cave dwellings carved into rocks at the citadel and in the adjacent canyon. Until the 1970s, the settlement remained alive as an ancient “citadel town,” with its mosques, churches, cemeteries, tombs and markets frozen in time. In 1966, President Cevdet Sunay happened to pass through the region and was appalled. “How could people still be living in caves? Homes should be built for them immediately!” The townsfolk were moved into houses built on the grounds the citadel overlooks. The old town is now derelict, in ruins.

Decades have passed, but, unfortunately, many are still of Sunay’s mindset, belittling the civilization of a rock-dwelling community as “living in caves.” In 2009, Yasar Agyuz, a main opposition lawmaker, submitted a parliamentary inquiry, asking the government whether it would “sacrifice Hasankeyf to a dam with a lifespan of 40–50 years.” The Environment Ministry defended the plan to annihilate a civilization, stating, “The water will submerge only ‘the lower town’ where structures are [already] destroyed.” Hasankeyf Mayor Abdulvahap Kusen, though a member of the ruling party, raised heartfelt objections. “We would not exchange our caves even for villas. We are against projects that would destroy history and culture,” he said.

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