The build­ing of a dam in Ilisu has been under con­sid­er­a­tion for over six­ty years now, with the offi­cial goal stat­ed as soil improve­ment and water resources for the Tigris val­ley. And for sev­er­al years, work has been car­ried out on the qui­et, with no infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed to the public.

It must be men­tioned that reser­voir impound­ment will cause the destruc­tion of sev­er­al her­itage and arche­o­log­i­cal arte­facts in the small town of Hasankeyf, 80% of which will be cov­ered by the waters. Not to men­tion the hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres drained in Irak, and the tens of thou­sands of per­sons who will be displaced…

If one gives cre­dence to the leg­end relat­ed by a Kur­dish prince of Bitlis at the end of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, the town of Hasankeyf was named in hon­or of an Arab pris­on­er by the name of Hasan. Sen­tenced to death, he would have asked the local lord as a final favor to allow him a few moments on a horse before his exe­cu­tion – using the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a dar­ing escape, at which the aston­ished spec­ta­tors cried out: “Hasan keif” (“how Hasan”). For their part, arche­ol­o­gists see a con­nec­tion with the Ara­bic “Hisn Kayfà”, lit­er­aly “for­ti­fied rock ”. And with good rea­son. In medieval times, this town in south­east­ern Turkey indeed grew at the foot of a cliff on the shores of the Tigris. But Hasankeyf also ben­e­fit­ed from the heights on which a fortress-citadel was built in the fourth cen­tu­ry, as pro­tec­tion against the enemy.

The enemy’s face has changed how­ev­er. For it is no longer war but a huge dam that threat­ens the town. At a cost of more than 1,2 bil­lion euros, it is Turkey third largest hydro­elec­tric project. It aims to pro­vide 3,8 bil­lion kilo­watthours of elec­tric­i­ty, some 3% of the nation­al pro­duc­tion, while irri­gat­ing 1,7 mil­lion acres of land. Ankara has made of it a major issue for the region’s devel­op­ment. The project is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial nonethe­less, both local­ly and abroad. And with good reason…

Once oper­a­tional, the dam, built some six­ty kilo­me­ters down­stream from Hasankeyf, could cause the total dis­ap­pear­ance of a true arche­o­log­i­cal trea­sure: besides the numer­ous his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments, the site is dot­ted with a quan­ti­ty of troglodyte caves dug into the rock over ten thou­sand years ago and almost con­tin­u­al­ly occu­pied since. Today, the old­est con­struc­tions date back to the twelfth cen­tu­ry. They are the last wit­ness­es of Hasankeyf’s gold­en age, of a time when it was an impor­tant stag­ing point on the Silk Road. To cross the riv­er, mer­chants con­gre­gat­ing there made use one of the Mid­dle Age’s great­est bridges – it is said to have spanned 200 m: there now remains two pil­lars and an arch. A great palace of which sub­sists a tow­er and many ruins was built north of the ancient citadel, giv­ing region­al author­i­ties a vista from which to keep an eye on cir­cu­la­tion below.

In those days, Haz­ankeyf was in the hands of the Artuqids, Turk­men war­lords who were vas­sals of the great Seld­juk empire, after hav­ing been the prop­er­ty of eight dif­fer­ent dynas­ties: at first an Assyr­i­an strong­hold, Hasankeyf fell under the dom­i­na­tion of Alexan­der the Great, then of the Parthi­ans, the Sas­sanids, the Romans, the Byzan­tines and of two caliphates (the Umeyyad and the Abbasid), before becom­ing the Artuqids’ bas­tion. It was then trans­ferred to the Ayyu­bids, an impor­tant dynasty of Kur­dish ori­gin whose pow­er extend­ed from the west­ern part of the Mid­dle-East all the way to Egypt.

Hasankeyf then resist­ed attacks from the Mon­go­lian empire and sev­er­al build­ings were erect­ed. Ruins of a small palace still stand on the edge of the cliff: above one of its win­dows, one can still dis­tin­guish a low relief depict­ing two lions and texts in Kuf­ic. Low­er down, near the riv­er, the El-Rizk mosque rais­es its impos­ing minaret some 30 meters toward the sky. Close by in the heart of Hasankeyf, the Süley­man mosque has a minaret divid­ed into four storeys, dec­o­rat­ed with plant orna­men­ta­tion and Kuf­ic script. To the east, the Koç mosque is said to have been part of a com­plex includ­ing a school, a can­teen, a dis­pen­sary and a library. To these remains one must add those of the Ak Koyun­lu Turk­men dynasty that briefly occu­pied the town in the fif­teenth cen­try: with its love­ly turquoise enam­eled earth­en­ware and inscrip­tions, the mag­nif­i­cent Zeynel Bey mau­soleum leaves no one indifferent.

The town then fell under the con­trol of the Ottoman empire. All told, it holds 300 mon­u­ments rang­ing from the twelfth to the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry and over 4000 troglodyte dwellings. “A price­less cul­tur­al her­itage », says Ercan Ayboğa, a for­mer hydrol­o­gist who is now the spokesman for the col­lec­tive « Ini­tia­tive to save Hasankeyf », cre­at­ed in 2006.

The site which extends over a large area has only been stud­ied for the past forty years, and the war against the Kurds ham­pered exca­va­tions in the nineties. The digs have only received pal­try fund­ing since then, most­ly allot­ted to the medieval mon­u­ments : there would still be much to dis­cov­er. In the mean­time, work on the Ilisu damn start­ed in 2006 and was inter­rupt­ed on numer­ous occa­sions due to the con­flicts in the region. The build­ing pro­gram con­tin­ues nonethe­less: if the hydro­elec­tric sta­tion has not been com­plet­ed yet, the struc­ture of the dam would now be done. Hasakeyf’s 7000 inhab­i­tants are thus con­demned to wit­ness the dis­ap­pear­ance of the major part of their town in the catch basin. What has been planned to sal­vage the remains?

Almost noth­ing », answers Ercan Ayboğa. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment announced a pro­tec­tion pro­gram. But the troglodyte dwellings are not includ­ed in it. Offi­cial­ly, only thirten medieval mon­u­ments would be pro­tect­ed. They are to be moved, piece by piece, to a future arche­o­log­i­cal park. Accord­ing to Zeynep Ahun­bay, pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry at Istanbul’s Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty, this can­not be done with­out dete­ri­o­ra­tion: the dec­o­ra­tive wall coat­ings will be lost, for instance. More­over, the Turk­ish author­i­ties will not nec­es­sar­i­ly keep their word. Since 2009, large for­eign investors (Switzer­land, Ger­many, Aus­tria) have pulled out of the project, Turkey not hav­ing respect­ed some of the required cri­te­ria con­cern­ing the envi­ron­ment, cul­tur­al arte­facts and pop­u­la­tion transfers.

Thus far, although the Turk­ish law for the pro­tec­tion of cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al goods states that « irre­mov­able cul­tur­al arte­facts must be pro­tect­ed », a sin­gle mon­u­ment has been saved: the mau­soleum built for Zeynel Bey, son of Uzun Hasan, the founder of the Ak Koyun­lu dynasty. After two years of prepara­to­ry work, a Dutch con­trac­tor car­ried out the oper­a­tion, using a spe­cial plat­form set on over 150 wheels. A meter-deep con­crete pedestal was poured under the mon­u­ment pri­or to its trans­fer onto the plat­form by hydraulic cranes. On May 12 last, the mon­u­ment was trans­ferred to a loca­tion some two kilo­me­ters fur­ther, out of reach of the waters, thanks to a sys­tem of rails and a spe­cial road coating.

Europe was against the dam, but we will move eight more ancient build­ings » proud­ly announced Vey­sel Eroğlu, the Turk­ish min­is­ter of Waters and Forests. He added: « It will con­sti­tute an exam­ple for the world. » An exam­ple? Oh no! Besides the troglodyte dwellings that will be lost for­ev­er – entire por­tions of the cliff were destroyed mid-August – some 670 000 acres of marsh­land will be drained in the ancient land of Sümer (the south­ern part of ancient Mesopotamia, the present-day Irak). And if, for lack of sup­port from the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, Hasankeyf was not added to the Unesco’s list of World Her­itage sites despite being one of the only sites in the world meet­ing nine of the ten required cri­te­ria (a sin­gle one is usu­al­ly suf­fi­cient!) the Ira­ki marsh­lands are list­ed since the sum­mer of 2016. And final­ly, when the major part of Hasankeyf and some ten vil­lages will be sub­merged in Turkey, tens of thou­sands will be deprived of water in Irak…

The Turk­ish author­i­ties couldn’t care less. Espe­cial­ly since, after the with­draw­al of for­eign coun­tries and con­trac­tors, some multi­na­tion­als remained as part­ners and Turk­ish banks have pitched in with loans to the con­sor­tium build­ing the dam. Worse yet, the State claims it is pro­vid­ing work to the inhab­i­tants (and some are indeed work­ing on the dam) and relo­cat­ing them: in fact, it buys back their homes at low rates (500 Turk­ish lira per square meter) and sells them oth­er homes at twice the price on the heights in the new town, offer­ing them – such roy­al treat­ment! – the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an inter­est-free loan…It is there­fore unlike­ly that cam­paigns in sup­port of Hasankeyf or of the Ira­ki marsh­lands will make the gov­ern­ment back down. Besides, as some have point­ed out, if the gov­ern­ment is so attached to the dam project, it is cer­tain­ly not devoid of polit­i­cal afterthoughts.

In destroy­ing Hasankeyf, the Turk­ish State deprives the Kur­dish inhab­i­tants of their resources, the rich her­itage of the area hold­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an open air muse­um. What’s more, the build­ing of dams in south­east­ern Turkey com­pli­cates the pur­suit of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions by the Kurds. Car­ry­ing out actions in sup­port for Hasankeyf is dif­fi­cult. The arrest of French jour­nal­ist Math­ias Depar­don last May is proof enough: more than ever these days, it bodes ills to dis­play curios­i­ty over what is going on in that part of Turkey.


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Trans­la­tion by Renée Lucie Bourges
En français : “Hasankeyf, un pat­ri­moine unique bien­tôt sous l’eau” Cliquez pour lire

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