12,000 years of history submerge underwater


The young Ridvan Karabulut has been observing for months how the landscape changes before his eyes without being able to do anything, following the decision of the Turkish Government to build a dam that will submerge his home underwater, Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old city.

“I don’t want to go and for now I don’t have anywhere to go,” Karabulut tells Efe by phone.

Twenty cultures

More than twenty different cultures have left their mark throughout history in this small city of 6,700 inhabitants, located in the province of Batman, in southeastern Turkey, next to the Tigris river bank.

Two huge stone pillars in the middle of the river, remains of a 12th century bridge that Marco Polo used on his silk route to China, open the way to Hasankeyf, which stands in a valley with numerous remains from the Neolithic, Roman times and byzantine.

The cliffs above the Tigris are pierced by caves and passages, and the banks of the river are habitat for a rich fauna of birds, reptiles and amphibians, which will not adapt to a reservoir.

In recent months, Turkish authorities have moved seven monuments to another location, including tombs and a 15th-century mosque, but the rest will disappear underwater when the construction of the dam is completed, something planned for next February.

“It is a disaster that could have stopped long ago. Hasankeyf meets nine out of ten possible criteria to be considered a World Heritage Site, but Turkey has never submitted the request to UNESCO,” environmental engineer Ercan Ayboga tells Efe.

Ayboga directs a platform of activists that has been trying to stop the Ilisu dam project, almost 100 kilometers downstream from Hasankeyf, which is part of a plan to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants throughout the country.

The new Hasankeyk

“It is a disaster to look where you look. A disaster for historical areas, for the environment and for the inhabitants of Hasankeyf,” says Ayboga.

According to the Hasankeyf Initiative grouping, the Ilisu reservoir will completely or partially flood about 200 villages where 15,000 people live, but it is estimated that the increase in the water level will ultimately end up affecting about 100,000 people.

In response, Turkish authorities have built “New Hasankeyf”, an entire city with 710 houses and 100 government buildings, but many neighbors consider it insufficient.

“The situation is very dramatic. With the change of city, many people have lost their jobs. There are not enough houses for everyone and most families have had to ask for credits and pay part of the new house because it was more expensive that the home they have sold to the State, “says Ayboga.

Only families who were registered in Hasankeyf until 2013 have the right to access a new home.

“Young couples who have not yet married, single people or who have always lived here but were not registered are left homeless,” laments the activist.

This is the case of Ridvan Karabulut, who has not got a house in New Hasankeyf but has to leave his house in the old city.

“I am more concerned with work than the house. Here I managed a ceramic workshop with my father and we sold to tourists. Who will want to buy me something in the new city?”

At the end of November the authorities demolished one of the oldest markets in the area and began to restrict access to the city.

The government also wants to turn the flooded Hasankeyf into a tourist attraction because part of a Roman citadel will be exposed, although the project does not convince the neighbors.

Iraq against

“Turkey does not want to depend on other countries and wants to generate its own energy but this project does not make sense because of the environmental and historical destruction that it entails,” says John Crofoot, urban planner and member of the platform to save Hasankeyf.

According to the Turkish Ministry of Urban Planning and Environment, the project, valued at 1,500 million euros, will generate energy for 1.3 million homes.

The Turkish government believes that the construction of the Ilisu dam could help economically the inhabitants of Batman province, where unemployment reaches 25%, compared to an average of 14% in Turkey.

“The dam can generate employment for the locals on a temporary basis. Once finished they will be left without work again. We need stable jobs. Not a dam,” says Karabulut.

Crofoot also wonders how the management of the Tigris River will affect the countries of the region because once the dam was built, Turkey could regulate its flow to Iraq.

Iraqi authorities also oppose the construction of the dam. Last year the flow of the river was reduced so much that the inhabitants of Baghdad could cross the Tigris on foot.

“The dam could become a weapon for Turkey. They can control the flow of the river and affect Iraq. Its management will create diplomatic frictions in the future, ”warns Crofoot. Lara Villalón / Efe.

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