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Sunken treasure

HASANKEYF, TURKEY - OCTOBER 02: People enjoy the water on the banks of the Tigris, which will be significantly submerged by the Ilisu dam on October 02, 2019 in Hasankeyf, Turkey. The ancient Silk Road trading post of Hasankeyf, which sits on the banks of Tigris River in southeast Turkey, will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam. Hasankeyf is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, dating as far back as 12,000 years. It will be completely submerged when a reservoir behind the new Ilisu Dam causes the river to rise some 60 meters in a few months. Ilisu is the fourth biggest dam in Turkey and is a key part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), designed to improve its poorest and least developed region. In 2006 the Turkish government officially began work on the giant dam across the Tigris River, which will lead to the submerging of an estimated 80 percent of Hasankeyf and the displacement of its 3,000 residents, as well as many other people. The Ilisu dam and the Hydra Electric Power Plant will help fulfil the country's energy needs and provide irrigation to the agricultural lands surrounding it. Once activated, the power plant will generate 3,800 gigawatts hours of electricity annually. The project will affect 199 settlements in the area and push thousands of people out of their homes and away from their livelihoods. The government has built a new town with 710 houses for the Hasankeyf residents 3 kilometers away from the ancient town. Eight monuments have also been relocated to safer ground near the new settlement but the rest of the city, with all its rich history, will be inundated. Only the citadel will still be visible above the water. The Turkish government has given residents until 8 October to evacuate. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

People wade in the Tigris at a riverside café in Hasankeyf, Turkey, a week ahead of a deadline for residents to leave the town in preparation for its flooding

On Tuesday 8th October 2019 the last residents of one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth reluctantly packed their belongings onto trucks and headed north. The ancient city of Hasankeyf has sat on the banks of the Tigris for almost 12,000 years, but the river’s waters are soon to engulf the city’s ancient monuments, churches and tombs along with the surrounding limestone cliffs, which are home to thousands of man-made caves.

Hasankeyf has not fallen victim to extreme climate change, nor is the flooding an act of god. It is intentional, the result of work on the $1.3 billion Ilısu Dam hydroelectric power plant which, when completed, is set to provide 4,200 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually, two percent of Turkey’s power requirements. But for John Crofoot, who has lived in Hasankeyf for the last eight years, the destruction of the area’s heritage is too high a price to pay.

“There are so many ways to satisfy Turkey’s energy demands,” he says. “The sun, the wind… To sacrifice this biological diversity, this cultural heritage, for the sake of an obsolete design for hydroelectric generation is really incomprehensible. People in Hasankeyf never believed that this magnificent town would be flooded. It is just too valuable, too beautiful, too rich in history. But now the water is rising.”

A man rides his motorcycle past historic cave dwellings, many of which will be significantly submerged by the new reservoir

An aerial view of Hasankeyf on 1st October 2019. Four months later the rising waters would reach the top of the bridge

A river runs through it

Millennia of human history have left their mark on Hasankeyf, where archaeologists have found evidence of organised human settlements dating back to 9500 BCE. It has been part of the Neo-Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Mongol and Ottoman empires. It was among the great swathes of territory conquered by Alexander the Great on his march east in 331 BCE, and, situated on one of the Silk Road’s major routes, its bridges are believed to have been crossed by Marco Polo. “As a laboratory for exploring and examining the evolution of an urban space over millennia, Hasankeyf is really incomparable,” says Crofoot, an independent researcher of heritage conservation. “There’s archaeological evidence from the medieval period, the Islamic period, the late Roman, the classical period. These remains have not been extensively disrupted. They are in a relatively pristine state. It’s just a tragedy for a government to destroy this.”

The potential of this stretch of the Tigris as a suitable location for a hydroelectric power plant was first identified in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1997, when the Ilısu Dam was formally proposed, that Hasankeyf came under threat. The planned 138 metre-high dam would hold back the river just upstream of Syria and Iraq, strangling the supply into those countries and creating a 10.4 billion-cubic-metre reservoir in Turkey spread over 313 square kilometres. The water levels in Hasankeyf would rise by more than 60 metres and it would be one of 199 settlements to be submerged, displacing 78,000 people. Nevertheless, funding was secured from European credit agencies and a ground-breaking ceremony was held in 2006.

Opposition quickly formed and campaigners made their case to the project’s Austrian, German and Swiss underwriters, stressing that the proposal did not meet World Bank environmental and heritage standards. With pressure mounting, the three creditors withdrew their support in July 2009. “That was unprecedented,” says Crofoot. “It had never happened before, public agencies having extended guarantees and then pulling them back. It was a great success.”

The victory, however, was short-lived. The Turkish government secured local financing to continue the work and in 2012 the first foundations of the dam were laid. Crofoot and his fellow residents formed an organised resistance group, Hasankeyf Matters. But they found the Turkish authorities far less sympathetic than the European creditors.

Ilısu is the fourth-biggest dam in Turkey. Supporters of the dam say it will improve the country’s poorest and least-developed region by providing power and irrigation to agricultural land, and by offering tourists water sports on the new reservoir

A member of the Aydag family, who have lived in Hasankeyf for generations, prepares to leave her home as the eviction deadline approaches

Against the tide

“People who were opposed to the dam were harassed and threatened in various ways,” says Crofoot, who as an American feels he is freer to discuss the situation, with less risk of reprisal. “It was made clear that life would become difficult if they spoke out against the project or even if they spoke with people who were collecting information about the project. There are a lot of different ways for the government to exercise its influence on people.”

Crofoot says he saw fellow campaigners arrested and imprisoned, and that protesters who worked for the government, or for companies working for the government, had been told that they faced losing their jobs. It was also implied that organisations that vocally stood against the dam could have their funding cut. “[The NGO] Doğa Derneği, the association of nature, was very heavily involved [in the campaign], and continued to be involved up until 2013 or 2014,” Crofoot says. “It published some very important studies, organised some very successful publicity campaigns to call for the protection of the natural ecosystem and suddenly it just backed away.”

A chorus of disapproval was soon reduced to a few voices. “There are people and organisations that at one time were outspoken and then fell silent,” says Crofoot. The residents again looked to the international community for help, but while cultural heritage group Europa Nostra included Hasankeyf in its 2016 “Seven Most Endangered” programme, attempts to gain the site Unesco World Heritage status were unsuccessful. Crofoot was told that the UN insisted that applications had to come from the country’s cultural ministry.

“Unesco is a big part of why this battle has been lost,” he says. “There are rules, there are procedures, we understand this. But Unesco is also a human rights organisation, and there are local populations that cannot organise to save their own cultural heritage because the owner of a cultural heritage property is the government – whose actions have put the site in danger in the first place.”

When a last-ditch appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to halt construction, on the grounds that it would damage the country’s cultural heritage, failed in February 2019 the result seemed inevitable. The people – and even parts of the city itself – would have to move.

Workers carry a coffin from the old Hasankeyf cemetery to the new Hasankeyf cemetery three kilometres away

Koctepe village, one of 199 settlements to be submerged

Transplant operation

New Hasankeyf is three kilometres north of its historical namesake. Laid out atop an area of landfill, the town comprises 700 homes for former residents of Hasankeyf, a new museum and eight historical monuments dug up from the old town and transported in their entirety on huge trucks. “They claim that they are saving the cultural heritage of Hasankeyf. What they’ve done is take a handful of buildings, or parts of buildings, and put them on display,” says Crofoot. “They’ve completely lost the fabric of the town.”

While 8th October 2019 was the deadline for residents to leave the old town, a few families on higher ground remained, hoping to delay the project. Many who had relocated continued to visit despite the rising water levels. “So much had been destroyed and has moved,” says Crofoot, who has now returned to his native US, and was last in Hasankeyf in January 2020. “But they go back because it’s beautiful. It’s home.”

In February 2020 even these visits were stopped. The town was officially closed, with the police barring anyone without permission from the district government from entering. “Even residents whose families have been there for generations are not allowed to enter,” says Crofoot. “The water is rising now anyway and is about to overtake the highway bridge that has served as the link from one bank to the other for decades. That physical link is about to disappear.”

On 14th February 2020 a group of activists issued an update on New Hasankeyf: the tap water is apparently undrinkable, unemployment is rife and there isn’t enough housing for all the people forced from their homes by the dam project.

Despite Hasankeyf’s fate apparently being sealed, Crofoot holds on to hope. “The city faces death by unnatural causes and the moment of execution has been drawing closer,” he says. “A stay of execution is unlikely. But many people facing death have a resurgence in the last moments and want to hold on. We love life and we don’t want to let go. There are important treasures that have not been adequately researched and documented, and we have a responsibility to insist that they must be preserved. The flood has to stop.”

The shrine section of Imam Abdullah Zawiya, an Islamic complex dating back to the 12th century, is moved to New Hasankeyf, three kilometres from the original town

Flood of memories 

Crofoot’s own photographs from January show a town submerged, with just the tops of buildings and arches peeking above the water, which continues to rise. For all his optimism, you sense that Crofoot is beginning to accept that Hasankeyf is lost. When asked what people can do to help the town, he stumbles. “I don’t have a good answer for you,” he says. “This affects all of us; it’s part of our shared cultural history. This is really one of the oldest towns that we as human beings have ever had. So remembering Hasankeyf and remembering the injustices that have led to the destruction of Hasankeyf, that’s the first thing. What we need to be aware of is that there are mechanisms for cultural heritage preservation, locally, regionally and globally, and these mechanisms have failed.”

“This is a battle that’s been lost because the attempts at public consultation, the attempts of different stakeholders to speak out and to make their views known have been repressed,” Crofoot says. “They have been actively suppressed by the government. Part of the point of holding on is that there is a wrong being committed here and we need as many voices as possible to endorse the observation that this is wrong and it is unsatisfactory. We may be losing this battle, but it doesn’t mean we don’t try to change things so that people in their future struggles have a better chance at preserving their cultural heritage than we’re facing with Hasankeyf.”

Hasankeyf on 24th February 2020, as flood waters threaten to submerge the road bridge and what is left of the town

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