HASANKEYF is a study in contrasts. Here in this remote southeastern corner of Anatolia, the blinding brightness of midday gives way to the pastel shades of evening, hills assume a lavender tint and the horizon fades to smoky indefinition. History is everywhere but it is swamped by the tackiness of modernity: electrical wires cut across a skyline punctuated with minarets; cheap plastic seats and tables are arranged against aged limestone walls; mosque facades are embellished with the most intricate stonework, the tracery of Kufic calligraphy , and in front will be set up a promotional umbrella of a soft drink company or a groaning refrigerated, glass-topped cabinet with ice creams for sale. In these juxtapositions and contradictions it is like so many towns in Turkey’s southeast. Ramshackle, chaotic, these towns are unsightly in parts, but buzzing with an undeniable vitality.
Hasankeyf’s most significant contradiction is that it boasts a wealth of architectural and archaeological treasures, legacy of a history that dates back millennia, yet it apparently has no place in the Turkish present. On the banks of the Tigris, Hasankeyf may once have been an important regional hub, seat of Byzantine bishops, Ayyubid emirs, Artuklu and Akkoyunlu beys, but it is slated to disappear under the waters of the Ilısu dam project.
The Ilısu is part of a decades-old GAP project aimed at developing the southeast, bringing water and hydroelectric power to these troubled largely Kurdish-populated provinces. The GAP project is well advanced; other treasures have been submerged by other dams in various southeastern provinces. The Ilısu has been held up largely due to controversy over Hasankeyf. In 2009 European creditors withdrew funding due to concerns raised about the impending destruction of the town’s important cultural heritage as well as lack of adequate compensation or planning for the significant numbers of locals who would be forced to move should the dam go ahead. The Turkish government has since secured alternative funding and forged on with Ilısu, and until recently it appeared that Hasankeyf’s days were numbered. Progress on the dam project had gathered such momentum that at the end of last year, a group of international sculptors agreed to create marble sculptures in Hasankeyf that would be inundated as the flood waters rose to claim the town.
Hasankeyf squarely qualifies as being within the Mesopotamia of old, that is ‘between the rivers’. To the west is the Euphrates, while the town itself sits on a stretch of the Tigris which trundles eastward for a while then plummets south towards Syria and Iraq. The Tigris in Hasankeyf sluices past in a leisurely fashion. In its shallows, local women wade fully clothed and kids scamper, splash and wrestle. Enterprising locals have set up çardaks on the river’s edge. These are raised platforms, some in elaborate carved wood, furnished with low cushions and tables and shaded with brushwood greenery, where diners can enjoy kebabs or grilled river fish while dangling their feet in the cool waters and tossing scraps to strutting geese. In my experience, local lads are wont to throw their empty soft drink cans into the river as well.
The town itself is a patchwork of historical treasures (nicely offset by some modern tack… as I mentioned earlier). The ruined arches and columns of a bridge built by the Artuklu Turks (12th century) straddle the river. The minaret of the Rizk mosque punctuates the skyline. This was built by the Ayyubids, descendants of perhaps the world’s best known Kurd, Saladin. On the left bank of the river is the tomb of Zeynel Bey, son of a Akkoyunlu bey. On the opposite shore, and lording it over the town, is the citadel, doubtless a stronghold for a millennium, and longer.
All this is set to be submerged. In the name of development. The lust for economic growth outweighs any shortcomings that the loss of the cultural heritage would involve, even though the benefits of the Ilısu are far from certain, and even though there is considerable local opposition to the project. The implications of the dam extend beyond the immediate region as well: if it goes ahead there will be significant impacts stemming from the loss of water flow downstream in Iraq. From an official viewpoint, development must be allowed to unfurl, growth is the only and eternal panacea, and consequences be dammed… (forgive the appalling pun!)
However, in a recent development, the Turkish State Council ruled in favour of a case brought by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers claiming that the project did not have the requisite environmental clearances. For now, it appears that the Ilısu is stalled, however, bearing in mind similar halts to the project in the past, locals remain relatively unmoved by the ruling and fearful that any immediate celebration may be misplaced.
The plight of Hasankeyf is all the more puzzling bearing in mind a recent announcement of a project to rebuild the Ottoman-era Manisa Palace. Here, in the Aegean hinterland, is a building of which only a single element, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet tower, remains yet which is seemingly important enough to rebuild from scratch. In the southeastern marches, meanwhile, an array of existing treasures are deemed expendable.
That Hasankeyf could be lost forever is mind boggling to me. To lose it would be an unspeakable tragedy. The wholly admirable website Hasankeyf Matters brings together an array of information about the town, its people, its architectural and cultural riches. The website is also aimed at raising the profile of Hasankeyf and its plight. If you’re Turkish (or Kurdish, or Syriac, or Turkmen, or anything…), if you live in Turkey, have travelled to Turkey, or if you just would hate to see such an important place lost, then visit Hasankeyf Matters and please, please, please sign the petition at the right-hand margin that is addressed to the UNESCO World Heritage committee.