History threatened as Turkey prepares to flood ancient city

Residents of Hasankeyf are apprehensive as the deadline to evacuate their 12,000-year-old village looms.

Turkey dam
For centuries, the residents of Hasankeyf have lived among a treasure trove of archaeological remains [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Hasankeyf, Turkey – The rumble of heavy machinery is a background cacophony as the call to prayer rings out over this ancient town on the banks of the River Tigris in southeast Turkey.

The crash of rocks being shifted to prepare for the filling of a hydroelectric dam – that will see the town submerged – reminds residents that they face eviction in the coming days.

The preparation work, which coats the 12,000-year-old settlement in dust, has neared completion and locals now face the uncertainty of not knowing exactly when they will be forced from homes and businesses that have been in their families for generations.

“Everybody is traumatised by this,” said Bulent Basaran, 50, from his restaurant overlooking the river. “We feel like we’re in a coma. I don’t see any light, just negative things and problems.”


For years, the people of Hasankeyf have lived with the threat of their town being swallowed by waters behind the $1.3bn Ilisu dam, which lies 75km (47 miles) downstream.

Although they were given until Tuesday, October 8 to leave, the town’s market and streets showed little sign of an impending evacuation over the past few days, despite a lack of customers at the stalls and shops selling local rugs and crafts.

“There’s no date to leave now,” Basaran said. “I guess it will be at the end of the tourist season next month. The district governor has threatened to cut off the electricity and water if we don’t leave in a month.”

Hasankeyf is one of the world’s oldest settlements and has been the centre of numerous cultures and empires since the Bronze Age, including the Assyrians, Romans, the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates, and the Turkic Seljuks and their Ottoman successors.

Relocated minaret from 15th century Suleyman Han mosque
A relocated minaret from the 15th century Suleyman Han mosque [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]

An ancient citadel, once an important Mesopotamian stopover on the Silk Road, overlooks the town and its limestone cliffs are dotted with thousands of man-made Neolithic caves.

“For us, the flooding of Hasankeyf is like the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State and the Buddha statues by the Taliban,” said Ercan Ayboga, from the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, referring to Syria‘s ancient ruins and the Bamyan monuments in Afghanistan.

Since its foundation in 2006, the initiative has led the campaign against flooding Hasankeyf and the surrounding region – organising protests and lobbying politicians in Turkey and Europe.

The group has campaigned for UNESCO World Heritage status for the site but, although Hasankeyf fulfils nine of the 10 criteria, the Turkish government did not apply for that protection. A bid at the European Court of Human Rights also failed with the court ruling it did not have jurisdiction.

With the impending flooding, residents are being told they will be moved across the river to a new town of identikit houses.

Many of the town’s 3,000 inhabitants, most of whom rely on tourism for a living, have moved to the new settlement as a resigned mood takes over. Others are waiting until the last minute before leaving.


Ayboga said the town’s population had been “misled on purpose” by the authorities over claims of renewed prosperity with the coming of the dam, which will displace 15,000 people from 199 towns and villages as the Tigris rises by 60 metres.

The government did not respond to emailed questions but two months ago Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli, whose department is supervising the project, said New Hasankeyf would have better services, larger homes and a revitalised tourism industry. He added that 500 million lire ($87.8m) had been allocated for resettlement.

Ankara has long maintained the Southeastern Anatolia Project, of which the 3,800 gigawatt-a-year dam is a part, will improve life in Turkey’s poorest and least developed region.

The construction of a reservoir embankment along the cliffs facing the Tigris had seen many businesses relocate from the riverside into the town in recent years, they will now have to move again.

‘Forced out’ 

Osman Turan, 69, runs the Konak restaurant with two partners. They have been forced to move twice in the last decade because of the dam.

“This will be the third time I have been forced out of my business,” he said. “We haven’t been provided with a business in the new town. What can I do?

“We can’t stop the dam but they should give us a future. I’ve done this work for many years. I just want to carry on.”

Co-owner Ali Aslankilic, 43, is one of those who have not been offered one of the new town’s 710 homes.

“I haven’t been given a new home because I’m not married,” he said. “When this is gone, I will do nothing. I used to have two stores in the old bazaar for 25 years. I was doing the same crafts that my grandfather taught me.”

He added: “I just want them to give me my life back. I don’t want to be a refugee in my own country, being forced away from my family’s home.”

Treasure trove of history

For centuries, the residents of Hasankeyf have lived among a treasure trove of archaeological remains.

As well as 5,500 caves that dot the cliffs, the town was home to the 15th-century mausoleum of Zeynel Bey, the son of a Turkic ruler killed in battle. The 17-metre-tall tomb, with its intricate blue tiled exterior, is a striking example of Anatolian architecture.

The cliff-top remains of a 4th-century Roman fortress, a 900-year-old Seljuk palace and the El Rizk mosque, built in 1409 by Ayyubid Sultan Suleyman, are some of the other outstanding monuments.

Father-of-three Mahmut Yildirimer’s family is one of 250 families – about half of Hasankeyf’s population – to have moved to the new town.

Sitting in his back garden – barren apart from a few recently planted shrubs, a chicken coop and a breeze-block shed for his prized pigeons – the unemployed 33-year-old said the new home cost 150,000 lire ($26,300) but he would not have to begin paying the instalments for five years.

New home owner Mahmut Yildirimer
New home owner Mahmut Yildirimer said his kids walk 30 minutes to get to school [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]

Despite such seemingly preferential terms, he said the house, which his family moved into shortly after completion less than a month ago, was already showing cracks in its walls that he blamed on nearby dynamiting to provide rocks for the dam’s embankment.

“Also the water was cut off for a week recently and sometimes it’s more,” he added. “My children’s school is very far away and they have to walk half an hour to get there.”

Each applicant for a home in the new town faced a wait of more than a year before finding out if they had been successful, with many refused a place because they did not fulfil criteria such as being married.

Some who moved away briefly for seasonal work found they were excluded by not being continuous residents during a specific period.


The authorities, however, have provided trucks to help transport household goods to the new houses.

The new town boasts a museum sitting among eight relocated archaeological structures, including a 15th-century minaret and the Zeynel Bey tomb that were reassembled piece-by-piece or transported intact.

Other sites, such as a pre-historic underground city where the townspeople would shelter in times of war, have been concreted over to protect them from the water.

Gazing across at the new town, Mehmet Tilki, 66, the last resident of the caves on the south side of the Tigris, where he has lived with his dog, cat and chickens since retiring as a local public servant.

“If they let me, I will stay here,” he said between mouthfuls of watermelon harvested from his small garden. “This place belonged to my grandfathers in the Ottoman times so now it is mine.”

He appeared relaxed about the fate of the town. “No one knows the exact history of this place so what is happening is bad for the world, not just Hasankeyf,” he said. “But maybe the dam will bring jobs and stop people going to Europe or Istanbul to find work.”

However, Suleyman Agalday, who runs a small open-air cafe below Tilki’s cave, was less sanguine.

“My family has been here for countless generations and I can’t begin to explain what this place means to me,” he said. “Moving from here is like God taking Adam from the Garden of Eden and putting him in the world, although we didn’t even eat the apple.

“I will be the last one to leave Hasankeyf. I will be here until the end. I have a family and life has to continue but wherever I am in the world, my heart will be here. This is where we come from and this is our land, we belong here.”

A vacated house on the southern bank of the Tigris in Hasankeyf [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera