This 11,000-Year-Old City Is Steeped In History, But Turkish Authorities Want It Destroyed

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The ancient city of Hasankeyf is surely one of the world’s wonders. With the settlement dating back some 12,000 years, evidence of its long history can be found everywhere you look. Featuring 15th-century mosques and fourth-century Roman relics, the city is an archaeologist’s dream. But if the Turkish government has its way, this incredible place won’t have the chance to get any older.

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Located in the superbly named Batman area of Turkey, Hasankeyf sits on the banks of the Tigris River. The picturesque spot features nearly 200 different hamlets, with altogether around 2,500 residents calling the place home. Given that the town has been around for a long time, it’s no surprise that some families have resided there for 300 years. Nor is there any lack of evidence of centuries’ worth of human activity.

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Over about 12 centuries, Hasankeyf has been home to a number of different and incredibly important cultures, and relics from that rich past form a large part of the town’s attraction. Indeed, to date, more than 300 archaeological digs have taken place in the area. The resulting finds, some of which date to the Neolithic age, prove the significance of the location.

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Among the important areas are the thousands of caves dotted around the cliffs in Hasankeyf. Entirely man-made, some have multiple stories and running water. These modern-day dwellings, though, are based on the Neolithic-era caves dug by what were perhaps the area’s original settlers. As well as homes, the people also carved mosques, churches and cemeteries out of the rock.

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The cave-dwelling residents eventually began to farm the land around the Tigris. And the new settlement that they formed would later become part of various ancient kingdoms, including those of the Hurrians, the Neo-Assyrians and the Medians. During the Middle Ages, Hasankeyf became an important trade hub. As a stop on the famous merchant route, the Silk Road, the town thrived.

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Because of that, there are those who believe that Marco Polo, famous for his journeys along the Silk Road from Europe to China, could well have visited Hasankeyf on his travels. And that’s not an end to the famous visitors that the town had. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire chose to build a fortress in the area. Having created this military base, which housed the legionaries who patrolled the empire’s Persian border, they left quite a mark on this place.

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In fact, digs in the area in 2005 revealed that the Romans had not only a presence, but an established way of life. Excavations found empire-era wall and floor mosaics, the remains of an enormous gate and even a row of shops. That any of this survived the centuries is incredible.

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The city went on to become important in the Byzantine Empire during the fifth century. From there, Hasankeyf became a part of the Islamic world when Arabian forces took control in the mid-600s. After several Muslim dynasties had ruled the area, the Mongols conquered the town around 1260. Just over 300 years later, the Ottomans became the last of the settlement’s invaders, and their empire eventually became modern-day Turkey.

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Over the centuries, around 20 civilizations left their mark on Hasankeyf. In addition to the Roman artifacts discovered there, the ancient ruins on display beautifully illustrate that cultural history. For instance, there’s the ruin of a medieval bridge, said to be the largest built during the period. Dating back to 1116, archaeologists believe that its wooden construction allowed it to be removed during an attack.

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Elsewhere in the settlement lies the ruin of a 15th-century mosque, which was built by a sultan, whose towering minaret still stands. The El Rizk Mosque is just one of five ancient Islamic places of worship dotted around Hasankeyf. And one of those temples, the Kizlar Mosque, is in use today.

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As you might expect of a city that’s been around for 12,000 years, olden cemeteries and tombs abound. And during a 2017 dig in Hasankeyf, archaeologists found some very unusual remains. In fact, some of the excavated skeletons were, erm, stripy. To be more specific, researchers found bones that had red and black lines painted on them.

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It seems that, when a death occurred in Hasankeyf all those centuries ago, Neolithic settlers waited for the remains to sufficiently decay to expose the bones. Once that had happened, they then added the black and red decorations before burial. Bizarrely, this particular ritual only appears to have taken place in around 30 percent of the graves that researchers discovered.

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Elsewhere in Hasankeyf, death is commemorated in a very different way. The Zeynel Bey Mausoleum is an almost intact tomb dating back to the 1400s. It’s a beautifully decorated, round building typical of central Asian burial places of the period, highlighting the town’s links with the East. And the incredible architecture doesn’t end there.

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Indeed, the enormous ruins of the Citadel, sitting high on the cliffs above Hasankeyf, take a couple of days to explore. On top of that, visitors can see the remains of not one, but two, ancient palaces. So it’s clear that the area is bursting with archaeological treasures. And according to some researchers, it could take decades to fully unearth all of the ancient history buried beneath the city.

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And Hasankeyf isn’t just an archaeological treasure. Its location near the basin of the Tigris means that it’s an important environmental site as well. Home to a unique microclimate, the river’s banks feature a huge variety of animal and plant life, including rare bats and birds. Located miles from Turkey’s big towns and industrial centers, the area has pretty much been left alone in the modern era, allowing the wildlife to thrive.

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So it’s clear that Hasankeyf is not just a showcase for history but is also adorned with a surrounding natural wonderland. Indeed, the entire location was officially designated as a protected archaeological site in 1980 and a conservation area in 1981. Consequently, research has been ongoing in the town for nearly 40 years.

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As a result of those archaeological and natural wonders, a modest tourist industry has sprung up in Hasankeyf. Drawn in by the history and an off the beaten track feel, visitors to the area tour the caves, shop in the market and generally drink in the culture. But none of this incredible treasure will be visible after 2019 if government plans go ahead.

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Indeed, the homes and livelihoods of 3,000 residents, as well as several thousand in the surrounding areas, encompassing ways of life that have barely changed for centuries and thousands of years of human history, are now under serious threat. On top of that, all the wildlife and vegetation, and part of the Tigris itself, could disappear for good if the Turkish government has its way. And it’s all down to electricity – more specifically, hydroelectricity.

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Considered a relatively environmentally friendly way to generate power, hydroelectricity uses vast amounts of liquid to create energy. After water from a reservoir is released into pipes, as it rushes through, it then turns a turbine. This leads to the movement of a generator, which produces the electricity.

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This form of energy production accounts for about 16 percent of the planet’s electricity. And given its advantages, it’s easy to see why countries such as Norway produce the bulk of their power this way. Safe and powerful, with no resulting waste, hydroelectricity’s potential is limitless – as long as there’s a healthy supply of water, of course.

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That provision of water generally comes from a reservoir, which is often a man-made lake. But the way that authorities create reservoirs, usually by blocking off a naturally occurring flow of water, can be problematic. Aside from the greenhouse gases produced during the construction of a dam, the impact of the blockage of rivers or streams on local wildlife can be huge.

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Electricity, however, is a necessity in the 21st century, and using water to generate power is certainly effective, which is why the Turkish government has constructed a series of dams around the country in recent years. In total, it planned 29 dams, and so far, it has put 19 into operation. And those structures feed up the same number of hydroelectric plants.

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The government designed this enormous infrastructure project, started in the 1970s, to help boost Turkey’s economy. But it was also meant to give Hasankeyf’s region, in the southeast of the Anatolian peninsula, a reliable electricity supply and provide a water source for farmland irrigation. In practice, though, this turned out not to be the case.

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Indeed, power from 13 of Turkey’s 19 new dams that have been finished finds its use in other parts of the country. In addition, the economy of local communities has not improved, and lots of people have ost their homes thanks to the project. And then the Turkish government announced plans for another dam. This one would block the Tigris river.

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At a height of over 400 feet, the Ilisu Dam will create a reservoir large enough to hold billions of gallons of water. The dam will produce almost 2 percent of the country’s electricity. In addition, the government says that it’ll help create jobs and bring tourists to the area. There’s just one hitch. For the dam to be fully operational, Hasankeyf must cease to exist.

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Yes, to complete the Ilisu Dam, the Turkish government will flood Hasankeyf, submerging some 80 percent of the town below billions of gallons of water. Due to take place in late 2019, the idea has caused uproar both locally and internationally. Indeed, if the plans go ahead, almost all of the settlement’s ancient history will be lost.

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Not only will most of the visible relics be lost, so too will all the current excavations, along with who knows how many undiscovered treasures. The locals were so incensed that they petitioned the Turkish authorities to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for Hasankeyf. Protesters even took the government to the European Court of Human Rights. Both attempts to save the town, however, proved unsuccessful.

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And it’s not just the archaeological community that loses out in these plans. Thousands of Hasankeyf’s residents will be displaced, forcibly moved out of ancestral homes with little in the way of compensation. The fully operational Ilisu Dam would see water levels in the area rise nearly 200 feet, swamping the town and the surrounding area.

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But the Turkish Government has pressed on with the planned deluge despite global condemnation. The project even lost international funding back in 2009, over environmental impact concerns and inadequate provision for relocating Hasankeyf’s residents. That same year, three huge banks pulled their support as well, citing the same reasons.

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As a result, Turkish authorities decided to finance the Ilisu Dam themselves. Indeed, Forestry and Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu called it “a project of honor” in 2009. Since then, the dam’s construction has reached its final stages, which include filling the 121-square-mile reservoir and flooding Hasankeyf in the process.

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But residents and archaeologists aren’t alone in worrying about the flooding of the area. Scientists are also deeply concerned about the dam’s environmental impact. As Ercan Aboyga, environmental engineer and vocal member of the Initiative to Hasankeyf Alive, told The Guardian in 2017, “The dam will completely destroy the river banks. The microclimate will change due to the dam… The rich variety of plant and animal life will be severely diminished.”

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And the southeast Anatolian region of Turkey won’t be the only one to suffer the effects of the Ilisu Dam. Neighboring Iraq will also bear some of that environmental impact. Indeed, the Mesopotamian Marshes, located in the south of the country, are in line to lose a significant portion of their area, as the dam will dry them up.

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In addition to Iraqi wildlife, its people will also suffer. Indeed, during summer 2019, the Turkish government postponed filling the reservoir after a request from the Iraq authorities. Water levels in the Middle-Eastern country were already low, and any further reduction could have been dangerous. As a result, the planned reservoir filling was postponed to prevent a drought, and Hasankeyf got a reprieve.

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Perhaps as a way to address criticisms of the planned flooding of Hasankeyf, Turkish authorities agreed to preserve some of the town’s ancient relics. To do this, they constructed “New Hasankeyf,” ostensibly an open-air museum, to hold the area’s treasures. Despite concerns that moving any of the ruins could damage them beyond repair, some of the settlement’s treasures were relocated to the new town.

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That relocation, however, was only partly successful. Just a handful of relics were moved to the new town, including the 15th-century Zeynel Bey mausoleum. Other archaeological treasures, though, weren’t quite so lucky. For whatever reason, some were destroyed, while others were covered in concrete to prepare for the coming deluge.

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Indeed, many of the hand-carved rocks in Hasankeyf’s surrounding cliffs were obliterated, blasted into the river below. And the medieval bridge was encased in stone, an act that some experts say will have ruined it. Whether the intention was to protect it from the deluge or not, the 12th-century bridge will never be the same.

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And in August 2019, the Turkish Government announced that a cordon around Hasankeyf, making it completely out of bounds to all, would come into effect October that year. After the opening of a new road, according to a statement from Batman Governor Hulusi Sahin, “We will take the old settlement completely into the security circle [of the dam].” And this leaves residents just under two months to vacate their homes.

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After that announcement, the flooding of Hasankeyf looks set for November 2019. And while the fight for the town continues, the state of emergency in Turkey, lifted as recently as 2018, along with President Erdogan having compared those who oppose the dam to terrorists, protest is now far harder than it was.

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The potential loss of so much cultural history under the guise of modernization has, of course, angered many. As Aboyga told the Smithsonian magazine in 2009, “This dam will bring only destruction for us. There will be no benefit for the people of the region. We will lose cultural heritage on the highest level, not just local heritage, but world heritage.” And the academic community agrees.

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Indeed, with the dam’s lifespan topping out at 100 years, some see it as a poor reward for the irreversible damage that it would cause. As Istanbul Technical University’s archaeological professor Zeynep Ahunbey told the Smithsonian, “When the very short useful life of the dam is set against the long history of Hasankeyf and its potential to live for eternity, one without doubt must choose the survival of Hasankeyf.” Let’s hope the Turkish government eventually agrees.

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