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