Trip Start Sep 29, 2006
36Trip End Ongoing
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I traveled from the Turkish city of Mardin to the small town of Midyat, where I stayed for a night at a cheap local hotel. The next morning I got up early, so early that the hotel manager was still asleep on a cot in the front room and the day's first buses were beginning their maiden voyages.
I had planned on asking the manager how to get to Hasankeyf, but since he was sound asleep I ended up asking a nicely dressed old man on the street. He walked me about 200 meters down the street to one of Midyat's two main bus stations. I asked to go to Hasankeyf, and within 10 minutes we were off. We drove around Midyat until the mini-bus was full, and then we began the 50 kilometer drive to Hasankeyf (the bus was bound for Batman but stops momentarily in Hasankeyf).
I wish I could have captured on film the ride from Midyat to Hasankeyf. The land was a perfect mixture of rocky steppes and grassy knolls, the houses were all of different varieties: tasteful little villas made from the abundant natural stone, old ramshackle bungalows, houses built on stilts so as to avoid falling rocks; there were arid plots of dirt converted into farmland, cordoned off by retaining walls built stone by stone, and which were being plowed, sometimes by hand and donkey and sometimes by tractors bought from the Sanliurfa tractor company.
At the fortieth kilometer there was a traffic jam. A dozen trucks, cars, and mini-buses were brought to a halt by a group of shepherds herding thousands of sheep and goats. The road was utterly congested, and the large trucks were laying on their horns and revving their engines menacingly as the shepherds tried to kick, click, push, and otherwise shepherd their flock away from the road.
A half hour later I was in Hasankeyf, a small, nondescript village in the Batman province of Turkey. Nondescript, that is, until you look up.
I had no idea what to expect from Hasankeyf. I had seen only one picture. I was here mainly from word of mouth, and the word from every mouth was "You must go to Hasankeyf. It won't be there for long."
Hidden in the heights of the mountains surrounding the city of Hasankeyf is one of archaeology's greatest secrets. 10,000 years of civilization are nestled within the mountain walls. The Romans built a fortress on the site to guard the Tigris River. Under the Byzantines it became a bishopric, and cave churches can still be seen around the area. The Arabs conquered the site in 640 A.D. and built a bridge over the Tigris, the remnants of which are still standing. The city was later ruled by the Ayyubids, who built the citadel which currently dominates the cliff top, and who in 1325 also erected the Ulu Camii, the old mosque that is the best preserved structure on the mountaintop. After the Ayyubids, the area was ruled by Kurdish chieftans and is considered one of the Kurdish people's most important cultural sites.
The citadel perched on top of the huge limestone cliff overlooking the Tigris river is in ruins. Despite a 1981 declaration by the Turkish government proclaiming Hasankeyf an important and inviolable historical site, there has been no government work to preserve the city. This is not surprising considering the instability in Southeast Turkey over the past thirty years.
Hasankeyf is a Kurdish city, and in the late 1960s the Kurdish people were still residing in the caves as they had been for hundreds of years until they were forced to move from the caves and settle in the city proper, only ten years before the decision was made to build a dam that would essentially wipe out most of the city's important historical sites.
The Ilisu Dam Project, which lies within the framework of the Southeast Anatolian Project, has come under fire from many groups and organizations for apparent human rights and environmental concerns. Since the first day funding for the dam was being collected from creditors and governments in the international community, the overall effectiveness and lawfulness of the project has been an issue of contention. The Turkish government claims that the project will displace 8,000 to 16,000 people, and that it will increase the financial welfare of the region's people five-fold only several years after its completion. However, other census figures by the Kurdish Human Rights Project and a 2005 National University of Ireland research project have put the figures of displaced people as low as 25,000 and as high as 78,000, proving the true lack of definite information about the people of the region.
In its 2001 Human Rights Audit, Amnesty International criticized the apparent disregard for human rights of the companies that invested in the Ilisu project, and Italian and UK construction firms decided in that same year not to pursue interests in the dam project due to similar human rights, environmental, and social concerns. UK NGOs were denied access to the official documents about the project while trying to decide whether it would violate human and environmental rights. Other international governments, companies, NGOs, and local government officials have been denied access to the same documents. The prolonged withholding of information led two of the biggest stakeholders in the project, the UK construction company Balfour Beatty and the Swedish company Skanska, to pull out of the project after investing hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Ilisu dam should be made a key issue by the European Union in their consideration of Turkey as a potential member, especially since the project does not meet the standards of, and indeed violates, EU laws in the areas of forced relocation, property compensation, preservation of cultural areas, and political discrimination. Furthermore, domestic law in Turkey dictates that the state is required to provide for the relocation of people and compensation for losses, including land and property. Even so, no relocation plan has been made and many citizens do not have anywhere to go after their cities and homes are flooded. Many more people, almost all of them impoverished, do not hold the deeds to their land and so can expect no compensation from the government since they do not have the financial or legal resources to take legal action. Alternatively, it is not surprising that the region's main supporters for the project are the wealthy landowners, many of who no longer live in the region and stand to benefit heavily from government compensation.
Despite international pressures from governments and NGOs, alternatives to the dam project have not been considered inside Turkey. The state stands to benefit too much from it, and more efficient methods of energy do not hold the added benefit of increased security and control over a volatile region that the dam provides. Turkey has been at war with Kurdish guerillas in southeast Turkey since the late 1970s, a conflict which has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Given this sociohistorical backdrop, the project takes on a new benefit for the state. The UK Defence Forum notes:
"From the outset, the South-east Anatolia Project has had profound security implications. It is no coincidence that the project is situated in the Kurdish region of Turkey - where a bitter civil war rages between the Kurds and the Turkish military. The expected security benefits are twofold, by increasing the income of hitherto impoverished Kurds the government in Ankara hopes the new wealth will induce the people to support the government. More pragmatically, the project will transform the geography of Turkish Kurdistan. Improved communications, combined with new industries and farms, will shepherd the Kurds out of their traditional mountain fastness into planned urban areas where the government can keep greater control over them. An underlying motive of the project is to deny the Kurdish guerrillas the environment in which they operate."
Despite the ebbing of violence between Kurdish guerillas and the Turkish military, the desire for security has not become any less pronounced. The United States' war in Iraq has destabilized the border between Turkey and northern Iraq, which is considered by Turkey to be a US-supported PKK stronghold. One of Turkey's greatest political concerns is the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which many fear will give rise to a renewed separatist Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey. The Ilisu dam would give Turkey a powerful weapon to wield against a Kurdish government in northern Iraq, where the Tigris River is integral in an area with few water resources.
Many Kurdish people feel that security measures are not the government's only motive for flooding the region. The Kurdish Human Rights Project, which conducted a 1999 human rights report, has said of Hasankeyf : The town is of particular cultural significance to the Kurdish people: the delegation found a widespread perception that the GAP project, and Ilisu in particular, is motivated primarily by a desire to destroy the Kurds as an ethnic group by destroying their most important cultural sites.
But critics of the project must tread warily. In a country where speaking against the state and military can be considered illegal, criticism is often silenced if it is even voiced at all. The number of Kurds in Turkey facing sedition charges and other "crimes by association" dropped from 10,000 in 1999 to 4,000 in 2002, the same year when the ban was lifted on instruction and broadcasting in Kurdish. In 2003 Mahmut Vefa, who was the General Secretary of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and is a lawyer for human rights, was accused of "overtly insulting the moral personality of the Government and the military and security forces" for writing an article criticizing the dam project. He formally agreed with the UK government's assessment that the project violated fundamental environmental and human rights.
I knew the ancient and recent history of Hasankeyf, but I did not have a guidebook or a map, and when I got off the bus I didn't know where to go. I walked down the nearest street. In the distance I could see houses built into the mountainside, and the tourist stands lining the street seemed to point me in the right direction. They were just beginning to open, sleepy little shops that sell specialized Hasankeyf nicknacks and where the men don't heckle you (at least, not at 9 in the morning!). I asked one young man if there was tourist information available and he just laughed.
I kept walking up that same street until I came to a small cluster of hillside cafes. I saw the word "Kale", or Castle, painted on a yellow sign that pointed in the general direction of up. I proceeded up the limestone stairs past the cafes and the graffiti and garbage-strewn lower half of the ridge. A man with blue tickets in his hand asked me for 2 YTL ($2.50 US). To this day it is the best 2 lira I have ever spent.
I began by taking camera shots of the valley, wondering how much water it would take to fill this whole place up. As I continued walking, I realized that there was not only a castle but a whole city built up on the mountain top. There were houses, a couple of which were still in use, mosques for worship, and walkways that circumvented and cut through the city. I was reminded of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings of the Pueblo Indians and the houses etched into the soft tuff (consolidated volcanic ash) landscape of Cappadocia. The architecture reflected a variety of different styles from different time periods, the most noticeable of which were the Syrian and Persian influences in the form of two mosques, an old house, and a graveyard with headstones inscribed in Arabic.
Who on earth would rather bury this marvel than develop its touristic potential?
I left town the same way I came in. As I waited for a mini-bus, I asked a local doner kebab vendor named Cengiz (like Genghis Khan) how he liked living in Hasankeyf.
"This is a beautiful place," he said. "I love it. But you know, they're putting in a dam. In four years this whole place will be underwater." He had an angry but resigned look on his face when he told me that, as if he had long ago come to grips with the inevitability of the city's fate.
"What will everyone do?" I asked him.
He pointed to a cleft in the mountains off in the distance. "We will go there."
"What do you think of all this?"
"The government wants it. What can we do?"
That statement has echoed with Turkey's Kurdish population for a long time now, and embodies the impotence they feel.
After only three hours at Hasankeyf, I realized that three days of hiking over the mountains and through the ridges would not show me everything that the area offered. I had not even seen the old Christian churches, the caves being excavated on the banks of the Tigris, or some of the areas' oldest and most famous mosques. I promised myself to return to Hasankeyf again someday to see what I missed. There are still four years left, after all.
I thought it would be unwise to leave my luggage unattended at the hotel in Midyat any longer, a hunch that proved correct. When I got back, the hotel manager was waiting for me on the corner.
"Get your bag quickly!" he said. "We're closing!"
I didn't ask why he was closing his hotel, and I grabbed my bag and headed back to the bus station for a ride back to Mardin.
At this time it was still only noon