Hasankeyf is one of the oldest human settlements in the world, located on the banks of the Tigris River in Turkey. It has been continuously inhabited for the past 12,000 years yet this cultural treasure is about to be erased forever. 

Located in Turkey’s restive south-eastern Kurdish region, the town of around 3,000 inhabitants sits below limestone cliffs that are porous with thousands of cave dwellings carved by neolithic settlers, some of which are still used by locals. On top of a hill above the city an ancient citadel with Byzantine ruins and an Ayyubid mosque command the valley and the meandering river below. Thousands of further archaeological treasures are thought to lie beneath the surface.  

More than 20 different cultures have left their traces in this place - from cave dwellers to Mesopotamian settlers, a stone castle from the Assyrian period and a Roman watchtower from the empire’s wars with Persia . The region was controlled by Byzantium in the 5th century AD, then conquered by Arabs and finally invaded by Mongols and Turks. The piles of a medieval bridge attest to its importance along the early trade routes between Europe and Asia. 

Now the imminent completion of the nearby Ilisu Dam, begun in 2006, is threatening to inundate all of Hasankeyf’s historical treasures and nearby villages under a 135 km long reservoir while displacing some 100,000 people. The Turkish government has built a soulless new town called New Hasankeyf nearby, providing housing for the displaced. Some of the most prominent historical remnants have been hauled from the river valley into the new town and plonked among the rows of identical new-builds on top of a hill on the opposite bank. The local mayor has given the remaining residents until 8 October to evacuate the old town. 

The official line is that the dam will have a capacity of 1,200 megawatt and will contribute over USD 400 million to the country’s economy while providing irrigation for the agricultural sector. Yet most of the local population lives off tourism and animal husbandry and the disappearance of the historic patrimony under the waters of the Tigris spell the end for this remote yet popular destination for foreign travellers, forcing many to abandon their villages and move to the cities in search of work.  

Turkey’s government is determined to see the project through to the end, even following the cancellation of funding by three European banks that had approved USD 610 million of loans and the withdrawal of European construction firms that had initially signed up for the project. Opposition to the project is also coming from neighbouring Syria and Iraq who are worried that the dam will reduce the flow of the Tigris further downstream. 

The dam is also a pawn in the Turkish government’s battle with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which has been fighting the state for the past four decades. Hasankeyf and the surrounding region used to be a stronghold of the party but with tens of thousands of mainly Kurdish people being moved out of the area, the government hopes to disrupt PKK networks and local support for the movement. 

Opponents of the mega project contend that Turkey could just as easily increase power generation by building wind and solar farms. It was water, and the control over the flow of water, that potentially gives Turkey the most leverage in a region plagued by water shortages and due to become even drier as a result of global warming. Locked in a struggle for dominance with neighbouring countries, Turkey’s control over the flow of water could give it a decisive advantage in decades to come. 

One of the only things that could save Hasankeyf would be its elevation to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its extant treasures should mean that it qualifies. Ironically, however, only a national government can put a site on its territory forward for UNESCO’s consideration and Turkey’s current administration has very different prio

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