Ancient history and rare species swept away by Turkey’s Ilisu Dam

In the middle of an ancient city, there is a huge concrete sarcophagus. Inside is a religious school.
Workers turned up a few weeks ago to pile sand over the building, which dates back centuries, before pouring concrete over the whole thing in the hope of preserving it from the imminent flooding.
Hasankeyf on the Tigris, one of the oldest human settlements in the world, according to experts, is expected to disappear by the end of the year as the waters held by the Ilisu Dam rise and a 300-square-kilometre reservoir eventually floods the town.
People were living in this region when hunter-gatherers began creating permanent settlements, right at the start of civilisation.
Close by lies Hasankeyf Hoyuk, which is around 12,000 years old, according to the archaeologist Gul Pulhan, who conducts digs in the region.
Today the city contains mainly traces from the Middle Ages. Zeynep Ahunbey, an expert on Hasankeyf and a professor of architecture, calls the region a “unique cultural landscape.”
“There was still such a lot to study and excavate,” she says.
German environmentalist Ulrich Eichelmann is more forthright, describing the flooding as “barbarism in the 21st century.”Eichelmann spent years coordinating international resistance to the controversial dam, up until 2010.
He is sitting in one of the cliff-face restaurants over the Tigris river. Soon, equipment will arrive to move earth and level the promenade, so that one of the last monuments can be transported away on low-loaders.
Eight are being rescued, and shifted to an “archaeology park” nearby.They include a 15th century tomb, a bathhouse and a minaret. Some of the activists believe there are hundreds of artefacts worth conserving.
European countries withdrew from the project in 2009, once it had become clear that Turkey did not intend to meet commitments on conserving the cultural heritage or the nature in the area.
Eichelmann points out a tree of hope that he planted in front of the town hall in 2006, recalling a time when the protests drew in celebrities like Bianca Jagger and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Local hotelier Firat Argun is one of the few still resisting. He has lodged an appeal, claiming that the compensation he is to receive is too low. His rather run-down establishment is the only hotel in the town.
“Every holy book has a version of this paradise, with pomegranate trees, figs, animals and rivers,” Argun says, casting a sad eye around his garden, as the earth-moving equipment rumbles nearby.
The base of the castle, which is said to have once served as a Roman military post, is being reinforced with concrete in order to prevent it from collapsing into the dam waters. “I had my own paradise on earth,” Argun says.
Argun sees the new town built by the government as “hell.” It lies on the opposite bank on a bare slope open to the sun, replete with rows of houses built by the Toki construction firm renowned for its standard construction style throughout Turkey.
Many are angry at the building quality. Argun points to walls that are skewed and power lines pointing up out of the dirt. He has yet to secure a licence for his new hotel, he says.
“No livestock allowed,” the shepherd says, and baking traditional bread is also banned, as the smoke from the tandoor oven is regarded as unacceptable in a modern city.
The townspeople of Hasankeyf are not only losing their green home with its view out on their own history, but being uprooted culturally as well.
Weeks before the waters rise, Hasankeyf residents have opened up graves to carry the dead across to the cemetery in the new town, to the disgust of the older people.
The government sees things very differently. Omer Guzel, who represents Hasankeyf in the provincial parliament for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP, believes the community had long been in poor shape.
The rising waters had resulted in low investment for decades, he says, pointing to Argun’s dilapidated hotel as an example.
And Guzel predicts that the new Hasankeyf will survive. The castle, now surrounded by water, will draw visitors, and “underwater tourists” will come to dive to inspect the sunken ruins.
Turkish media envisage holidaymakers on jet skis. “Yes,” says Argun ironically. “It will be another Hawaii here.”
For the government, the Ilisu Dam 70 kilometres down river is a monument to progress that will bring water, electricity and work to impoverished regions.
But Eichelmann points to the country’s immense potential to use solar energy instead, and to the rare species — such as the Mesopotamian barbel, the Euphrates softshell turtle and the Euphrates poplar — that he says will be under threat.
The dam will have effects well beyond Turkey, perhaps as far as Basrain southern Iraq. When the spring waters are held back, the Mesopotamian Marshes will no longer be replenished.
Concerns about the Ilisu dam go well beyond Argun and his small hotel. Turkey’s move to control the Tigris could have geopolitical consequences in a region where water is scarce.
Residents have until October 8 to leave. The promenade, which lies at the heart of Hasankeyf, will be evacuated after that. But Argun, the hotelier, intends to stay in his patch of paradise until the waters come. — dpa