The price of progress? Turkey’s Ilısu Dam and Hasankeyf

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - By He­len South­cott

The an­cient city of Hasankeyf in Turkey’s south­east faces in­un­da­tion by the Ilısu Dam. The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the dam is not sim­ply one of the preser­va­tion of cul­tural her­itage vs. the de­mands of a rapidly de­vel­op­ing coun­try. Whether the his­toric site will be sac­ri­ficed in the name of the re­gion’s fu­ture pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity, in­deed, whether this lat­ter goal will it­self be achieved, re­mains un­clear Set amid sheer rock faces and tucked into a long and gen­tle curve in the River Ti­gris, there is no ques­tion­ing the skill with which the lo­ca­tion for this an­cient seat of civ­i­liza­tion was cho­sen. A small ham­let of ’60s state-built hous­ing ad­heres to one side of, but does not en­tirely mar, the re­mains of the lower city, it­self built from the golden lo­cal lime­stone that forms its back­drop. Over­look­ing the val­ley is a ci­tadel, pro­tected by river and cliffs alike and watch­ing over the sur­round­ing land­scape as well as the nearby hill­sides, pocked with hun­dreds of caves that that were once home to the city’s in­hab­i­tants.

The city is Hasankeyf in Turkey’s south­east, part of Me­sopotamia. Its strate­gic suit­abil­ity was grasped by the Ro­mans, who de­vel­oped it as a gar­ri­son post for de­fense against the neigh­bor­ing Per­sians, but it was later en­larged by Em­peror Con­stan­tine, and sub­se­quently ruled by the Ar­tuqid, Ayyu­bid and Aq Qoyun tribes, be­fore its ab­sorp­tion into the Ot­toman Em­pire when it was con­quered as part of the east­ern cam­paigns of Sul­tan Se­lim I.

While it has sur­vived the ebb and flow of dif­fer­ent civ­i­liza­tions -- changed but not lost -- over the com­ing decade Hasankeyf will all but van­ish un­der the wa­ters of the Ilısu Dam, cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion on the leg­endary Ti­gris some 45 kilo­me­ters from the bor­der with neigh­bor­ing Syria. When com­plete the Ilısu Dam will have a ca­pac­ity of 1,200 MW, pro­duc­ing ap­prox­i­mately 3,833 GW an­nu­ally, mak­ing it Turkey’s fourth largest dam in size, and sec­ond big­gest in gen­er­a­tive ca­pac­ity.

Thanks to this de­vel­op­ment the name Hasankeyf, once scarcely heard out­side the con­text of cul­tural tours in the re­gion (it’s just a short bus or dol­muş trip from Bat­man, Turkey’s an­swer to Dal­las), is now in­trin­si­cally tied to that of the newer set­tle­ment of Ilısu by the dam that will in­un­date them both. The an­cient city is the sub­ject of cam­paigns by both lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal groups such as the Na­ture As­so­ci­a­tion (Doğa Derneği) and their in­ter­na­tional sib­lings like the Ger­many-based Man­fred Hermsen Stiftung foun­da­tion. Pleas for the site’s preser­va­tion can be found ev­ery­where from Face­book to T-shirts in Turk­ish jeans store Mavi, while prom­i­nent per­son­al­i­ties from pop­star Tarkan to Nobel lau­re­ate Orhan Pa­muk and film­maker Fatih Akın have thrown their support be­hind op­po­si­tion to the dam project.

Un­tapped tourism po­ten­tial

Hasankeyf is simultaneously vic­tim and ben­e­fi­ciary of its rel­a­tive re­mote­ness. The city has none of the

com­mer­cial­iza­tion that so de­tracts from other sites re­mark­able for both their his­tory and jaw-drop­ping scenery. Un­like the lit­ter-strewn banks of the rivers flow­ing in oth­er­wise pic­turesque fash­ion through the sec­ond Ot­toman cap­i­tal Edirne, this stretch of the Ti­gris is by com­par­i­son re­mark­ably clear of man­made de­tri­tus. Sim­i­larly, give or take the odd lin­ger­ing bricked-up open­ing or im­pro­vised front door, the ru­ins are largely un­en­cum­bered by later struc­tures. This is de­spite the fact that they re­mained in­hab­ited un­til the late ’60s, when in a move by then-Prime Min­is­ter Sü­ley­man Demirel, the peo­ple of Hasankeyf were re-homed in hous­ing built in, on and around the an­cient city’s re­mains.

The city’s ar­chi­tec­tural attractions are nu­mer­ous. The best-known is the 15th cen­tury tomb of Zeynel Bey, built for the el­dest son of Uzun Hasan, head of the Turk­men Aq Qoyun tribe. The domed tomb re­cently un­der­went a some­what ro­bust restora­tion, which has robbed it of some -- though far from all -- of its character, hav­ing dulled the bril­liant ceram­ics with which it is adorned. Other ma­jor re­mains in­clude the ru­ins of an Ar­tuqid­built great bridge over the Ti­gris; struc­tures form­ing the ci­tadel, the neigh­bor­ing Great Mosque (Ulu Cami) and the Koç Mosque in the lower city (12th cen­tury); and the Ayyu­bid Al-Rizk Mosque (early 15th cen­tury). This is by no means all: The city is also dot­ted with other build­ings and tombs. More still may un­der­lie the “new” vil­lage, while re­cent excavation works in the area un­cov­ered a burial mound that could date back as far as 15,000 years. In the sur­round­ing area ap­prox­i­mately 300 an­cient sites have been un­cov­ered, and decades would be re­quired to ex­am­ine the 313 square kilo­me­ters the flood­plain will cover. The “Stop Ilısu” cam­paign quotes Prof. Adolf Hoff­mann of the Ger­man Archaeological In­sti­tute in İstanbul as say­ing that no more than 5 per­cent of ex­ist­ing sites have been ex­ca­vated and sig­nif­i­cant find­ings may still re­main, yet to be un­cov­ered.

Mean­while, the caves -- of which there are in the re­gion of 4,000, con­cen­trated on the city it­self but spread­ing out into the neigh­bor­ing val­leys -- are also im­pres­sive. Equally strik­ing is their set­ting amid swathes of close cropped grass, wild flow­ers and pre­cip­i­tous rock faces, a warm yel­low where ex­posed and fad­ing to grey where shel­tered from the el­e­ments. Then there is the Ti­gris, long a source of life and liveli­hood for the re­gion, and for mil­len­nia the sub­ject of legend. Fit­tingly enough for a river

with such an­cient res­o­nance, ear­lier in the year it was re­ported that an ex­cep­tion­ally rare fish (Lu­cio­bar­bus sub­quin­cun­cia­tus, thought ex­tinct in the re­gion) had been found there close to Hasankeyf.

With all this to at­tract vis­i­tors, par­tic­u­larly those will­ing or even keen to en­joy a spot of light hik­ing, it is per­haps sur­pris­ing that the majority of tourists come here in coach loads on or­ga­nized tours of the re­gion. Dropped off for an hour or so, they see the city’s edited high­lights be­fore con­tin­u­ing on their way to nearby Mardin or Bat­man. Yet to re­duce Hasankeyf to “a cas­tle, a tomb and a mosque or two” is to do it an in­jus­tice. The mon­u­ments and their set­ting com­ple­ment each other, both in their rel­a­tive and to­po­graphic plac­ing, which makes op­ti­mal use of the land’s con­tours and nat­u­ral de­fen­sive fea­tures, and es­thet­i­cally, with the use of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als mean­ing the build­ings har­mo­nize per­fectly with their sur­round­ings. The happy pair­ing of an­thro­pogenic and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments, to­gether with the man­ner in which the city’s mon­u­ments pro­vide a tan­gi­ble time­line of ma­jor de­vel­op­ments in the re­gion, make Hasankeyf a cul­tural re­source that is as strik­ing as it is unique.

With the cor­rect man­age­ment, the en­tire site is more than ca­pa­ble of be­ing trans­formed into an ope­nair mu­seum in which the re­gion’s com­plex his­tory (in­volv­ing Ro­man, Byzan­tine, Assyr­ian, Kur­dish, Mon­gol and Tur­kic rule) can be both the­o­ret­i­cally and phys­i­cally ex­plored in the set­ting it has oc­cu­pied for mil­len­nia. In­deed, the sec­tion of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s “Tar­get 2023” de­vel­op­ment plan deal­ing with tourism in south­east­ern Ana­to­lia specif­i­cally men­tions that “the re­gion will also house large-scale cul­ture/faith tourism de­vel­op­ment ef­forts.”

Re­gional de­vel­op­ment, lo­cal im­pact

Just as much as en­vi­ron­men­tal groups have taken “Save Hasankeyf” as a flag­ship cause, so too is the new dam a key project for the gov­ern­ment. The de­vel­op­ment is part of the state-funded South­east­ern Ana­to­lia Project (GAP), which has its ori­gins in the early days of the repub­lic when plans to uti­lize the Euphrates and Ti­gris rivers for en­ergy gen­er­a­tion and ir­ri­ga­tion schemes were first con­ceived. Since the ’80s, how­ever, GAP has be­come a multi-sec­toral pro­gram tar­get­ing the re­duc­tion of re­gional in­equal­ity, fo­cus­ing on ev­ery­thing from health and ed­u­ca­tion to in­fra­struc­ture. Un­rest in the re­gion dur­ing the ’90s saw GAP grind to a halt, but in the new mil­len­nium it has been

cham­pi­oned by the in­cum­bent Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AK Party), for its abil­ity to boost liv­ing stan­dards and re­gional sta­bil­ity (re­duced re­gional dis­par­i­ties also help­ing in the EU ac­ces­sion process) and its po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate rev­enue through later pri­va­ti­za­tion projects (over the past few years the gov­ern­ment has been pri­va­tiz­ing Turkey’s elec­tric­ity dis­tri­bu­tion net­works and is now mov­ing to­wards do­ing the same for its en­ergy gen­er­a­tion as­sets).

The Ilısu Dam project dates back to 1954, when it was first pro­posed by Turkey’s State Wa­ter­works Depart­ment (DSİ). Moth­balled for decades, the project plan was for­mally ac­cepted in 1982, with pre­lim­i­nary works start­ing in 1997. How­ever, from 2000 on­ward for­eign firms be­gan to with­draw their support from the project; be­gin­ning with Swedish firm Skan­ska and fol­lowed by Bri­tish en­gi­neer­ing company Bal­four Beatty, Ital­ian build­ing firm Im­pregilo and Switzer­land’s largest bank, UBS. This was com­pounded by the 2009 with­drawal of Swiss, Ger­man and Aus­trian banks from a con­sor­tium with Turk­ish banks (en­tered into in 2007) on grounds the Ilısu project did not meet World Bank stan­dards on the en­vi­ron­ment, preser­va­tion of cul­tural her­itage and re­lo­ca­tion. So far this has not proved suf­fi­cient to de­rail progress on the dam, with Turk­ish banks Garanti and AK Bank mak­ing up the short­fall in fund­ing for the ca. 1.1 bil­lion euro project in 2010.

After the flood

Ini­tial plans for the project es­ti­mated com­ple­tion of the dam in 2016, but speak­ing at the con­struc­tion’s in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony in 2010, Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Erdoğan ex­pressed his hope that this date could be brought for­ward to 2014. Once the dam lake starts to fill, the an­cient city will not dis­ap­pear al­to­gether. The



Chil­dren play in the vil­lage of Hasankeyf with Koç Cami vis­i­ble be­hind them.

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