The jewel in the
crown of archaeological sites in south-eastern Anatolia is about to be lost
forever under 300 square kilometres of water. Both the past and the present will
be devastated, as undocumented ancient sites are flooded and thousands of ethnic
At the heart of the Ilisu dam project is the flooding of Hasankeyf, a centre for
Kurdish culture. It is the largest town which would be destroyed by the dam.
Today it is home to over five thousand people. Some families still live in the
man-made cave dwellings in the cliffs and hills around the town.
But the key to Hasankeyf lies in its past. Remains date back 10,000 years. Here,
in Upper Mesopotamia, the world of the Middle East met the civilisation of
Anatolia, and brought about a flourishing of cultures that survive today in
countless ruins and monuments. The ancient city was occupied by nine major
civilisations, stretching from the Assyrians through to the Ottomans. Each
period has left its own unique mark upon the city. Untouched by tourism,
artefacts are discovered daily. Mosques, castles, a twelfth century palace, a
citadel, a monumental bridge, and much more that has barely been studied,
testify to a magnificent history. Thousands of astonishing cave dwellings, lived
in through the ages, are tucked into the cliffs and hills around the city.
Many perceive the destruction of Hasankeyf as part of a wider scheme of ethnic
repression of Kurdish people by the Turkish state.
As a holy site, Hasankeyf is extremely important. It holds the tomb of the holy
Imam Abdullah, grandson of Cafer-I Tayyar, the prophet Mohammed’s uncle. Around
30,000 pilgrims visit the tomb each year. Women pray for fertility here and the
sick come to be healed. Nearby is the Mausoleum of Zeynel Bey. For the
surrounding villagers, Hasankeyf has a unique and priceless appeal. As one local
villager said: "How much would I be prepared to accept [in compensation] to see
Hasankeyf drowned? It is an absurd question. No amount of money could compensate
for the destruction of the town."
The Ilisu dam will flood the entire valley, leaving almost no trace of
Hasankeyf’s long and glorious history. Turkey has not applied to UNESCO to
designate the town a site of world importance, and the government has shown
little interest in a city whose ancestry it does not consider ‘Turkish’. Yet the
Turkish Ministry of Tourism produces a guide to south-east Turkey that
acknowledges the "rich history and cultural heritage" of the region, and
Hasankeyf’s particular significance.
As long ago as 1978 the entire town was given special archaeological protection
by the Turkish Department of Culture, although very little excavation work has
since been carried out. Now this special protection has been swept away by
Turkey’s passion to ‘develop’. If the Ilisu dam goes ahead, this treasure trove,
largely unexplored and unexamined, will be lost forever.
An extensive survey and excavation of Hasankeyf is urgently needed. One expert
estimates that 50-60 years of work remains to be done. A group of Turkish
archaeologists from the METU Centre for Research and Assessment of the Historic
Environment (TACDAM in Turkish) is officially in charge of archaeological work
at Hasankeyf. In 1998 a special protocol was signed between TACDAM, the Ministry
of Culture and the State Hydraulic Works, agreeing a salvage project for the
site. But TACDAM admit that so far only a fraction of the total area to be
flooded has been explored.
Their website pleads: "If necessary measures are not implemented, the cultural
heritage of the region will be destroyed without having even been documented …there
is an urgent need to undertake rescue projects". German, American, French and
Italian universities are involved. Yet it is obvious that the team have little
hope of carrying out more than a tiny fraction of the work required before the
site is flooded.
If traditional archaeological surveys are not enough, what can be done?
Proponents of the dam have put forward the idea of recreating Hasankeyf on a
CD-Rom. If only it were that simple. Balfour Beatty, the British company which
wants to help build the dam, has another idea. They say that they could keep the
top of the citadel in Hasankeyf above water level while the rest of the city is
flooded … A pity, then, that no-one will be around to see it, in the middle of a
And what about the other unique historic remains, which are of more significance
than the citadel? Balfour Beatty has suggested physically moving certain
buildings – but moving the ancient cave dwellings is clearly not an option. At
no point has this giant company shown a true understanding of the historical and
cultural importance of Hasankeyf. For all their ideas, the dam will cause
irrevocable loss to the world of archaeology and to Kurdish people everywhere.
Nothing will be able to make up for depriving future generations of this
magnificent religious, cultural and historical site.
One local resident summed it up to researchers from the Kurdish Human Rights
"Civilisations are the common goods of all people. Their remains should be
protected by all of us for all of us," he said. "Destroying Hasankeyf would be a
loss for humanity as a whole."
In the end, just one simple idea is enough save the archaeological treasures of
Hasankeyf – the cancellation of the project.
As another commentator told the researchers, "It is illogical, both economically
and morally, to argue that the destruction of a town with nearly 10,000 years of
history is justified by a project with a projected life span of 40 years."
What must be done.
A group of Irish and British archaeologists is already petitioning the
government to reconsider its position on granting export credit to the project.
They are calling for a new independent assessment of the dam, full consultation
with the people to be affected, and a detailed consideration of the cultural
heritage which will be destroyed by the project, via a panel of indigenous
representatives and national and international experts.