The last summer of Turkey’s Hasankeyf
Istanbul - Turkey has begun to collapse cliff faces around the ruins of the Hasankeyf Citadel, marking another step bringing the 12,000-year-old settlement closer to being flooded out of existence by a Tigris River dam about 80km downstream.
Local authorities announced that rocks were broken off the honey-coloured walls “for safety reasons” and that 210 caves — a fraction of thousands of man-made caves in the area — would be filled in ahead of the town’s inundation to prevent erosion.
A Hasankeyf resident, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, said demolitions had been under way for more than two weeks. “There were explosions. It impacts on people who live and work close to the rocks. There is a lot of noise, a lot of dust,” he said, adding: “This is the last summer for us in Hasankeyf. I am really heartbroken to have to watch this.”
The Ilisu Dam, part of the South-eastern Anatolia Project, one of Turkey’s largest hydroelectric projects, has been mired in controversy since it was first drafted in 1954. The dam will raise the level of the Tigris by 60 metres, submerging 80% of Hasankeyf, numerous surrounding villages and more than 300 unexplored historical sites.
Architectural elements of other buildings have been scheduled for removal to a cultural park north of Hasankeyf.
The 15th-century tomb of warrior Zeynel Bey, with its Kufic tiles of glazed turquoise, was moved on a special wheeled platform to a new location in May. Preparations to move other monuments, including the minaret of El Rizk Mosque, built by the Ayyubids in 1409, as well as Imam Abdullah’s tomb and the Artikel Bath, were reportedly under way.
Zeynep Ahunbay, a Turkish scholar of architectural history and preservation, criticised the plan, saying: “To transfer monuments and arrange them in a new setting is not a good way of saving heritage according to international conservation principles.”
Germany, Austria and Switzerland withdrew financial support for the Ilisu Dam in July 2009, citing concerns about the social, cultural and environmental effects but the Turkish government secured domestic financing for the $1.1 billion project. Arguing that the dam would help produce much-needed energy and bring investors to the predominantly Kurdish area, Turkey pushed ahead with the project despite a pending decision from the European Court of Human Rights.
Preservation experts, activists and opposition politicians have harshly criticised the government’s collapsing of cliff faces with dynamite, while the Batman governorate insisted that all the rocks were broken up manually.
Local experts pointed out that damage was caused by rocks falling on artefacts below. Ferhat Demir, head of the Batman Chamber of Civil Engineers, told Turkish news organisation Bianet: “The caves and ancient wine cellars we have inspected have been damaged. The caves have been blocked. They should at least have used steel nets to protect the area below.” It is said that remains of ancient churches have also been damaged.
Ahunbay called the destruction “criminal” and warned that the collapsing of cliffs would also seriously damage the natural environment, itself “the result of millions of years’ erosion by the Tigris.”
Damming the river would dramatically change the fragile ecosystem of the area and the effect is expected to be “catastrophic” on neighbouring Iraq, said Ercan Ayboga of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive. “The Ilisu Dam will further decrease the flow downstream and the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq will completely dry up,” Ayboga said.
The Turkish government said it expects to relocate 15,000 people but Ayboga said the real number is closer to 80,000. He said that 199 villages are expected to be submerged, “their homes and livelihoods will be destroyed; 40,000 people will lose their lands and will have to leave. Then there are about 3,000 nomadic families who are not registered anywhere who will be affected.”
Ayboga said that, despite controversies surrounding the construction of the Ilisu Dam, all protests and public meetings were banned under the state of emergency declared more than a year ago. “There has always been a serious lack of transparency and accountability,” he said, “but now the Turkish government uses the conflict in the region and the state of emergency to speed up the project and to silence all opposition. Many locals are scared to protest now.”
The anonymous Hasankeyf resident said he did not want to live in New Hasankeyf, the satellite settlement built on the opposite bank of the Tigris to house those displaced by the rising water levels. “It’s awful,” he said. “I really don’t like it. It’s nothing but concrete.”
He said members of the town’s older population found the new homes “more comfortable.” However, the current houses of residents have been valued at much lower prices than the houses and apartments at the new site, leaving many of those who will move there in considerable debt.
The resident added that he did not know where his family would go once Hasankeyf is flooded. “We cannot afford to move to a big city, either. It’s even harder with children. I really don’t know what to do,” he said.