by Anne Van Bruggen:

On a regular day, the streets of Hasankeyf would be bustling. An ancient city on the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, Hasankeyf usually brims with tourists enjoying its fish restaurants and myriad of archaeological wonders. But on June 20, stones fell down the cliff of a third-century Byzantine castle, one of the main tourist attractions, and killed a local man, prompting the Turkish government to shut down the site. Now, the restaurants are empty. A handful of tourists loaf about the main street, which is cordoned off by a fence. Turkish police deny access to the famous castle.

The site’s closing is only one of many problems besieging Hasankeyf. In 2006, the Turkish government began construction on the Ilisu Hydroelectric Dam, a U.S. $1.7 billion project which, if completed as planned by 2013, would submerge Hasankeyf under 200 feet of the Tigris’s waters.

A view of the Tigris as it flows through Hasankeyf. (Courtesy Senol Demir/Flickr Creative Commons)

The dam would generate 3.8 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, enough to provide for over a million and a half Turkish people each year. The reservoir created would keep water, a precious resource in the region, inside Turkey’s borders and out of neighboring Iraq and Syria. The newly available water would also support the population of the Hasankeyf region, who are mainly of Kurdish minority and earn their living from agriculture. According to Mehmet Acikgoze, the regional coordinator of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the dam would enhance the employment capacity of the rural sector and thereby raise income and standards of living.

The people of Hasankeyf and local NGOs, however, have expressed skepticism towards the government’s assertions, pointing to more sinister reasons for the dam’s construction. Ufuk Karakus, a resident of Hasankeyf and the city’s main tourist guide, said that the government hopes to stop movement of Working Party of Kurdistan (PKK) rebels who cross the border from Iraq and find support among the marginalized people of Hasankeyf. “But these reasons are more speculative,” he admitted.

According to a 2005 study conducted by Irish National University, the Ilisu Dam Project would displace between 25,000 and 78,000 people. Hasankeyf has grown poor since the government banned investment and construction of new houses when the dam plans were first presented in 1977. Volkan Pirinççi, who worked for the national Turkish Nature Association, Doga Dernegi, added that “even if you want to register for a new electricity or water line, they won’t give it to you.”

The government has instead begun construction on new houses further up the hills surrounding Hasankeyf intended for future displaced people. But in these settlements, “agriculture will be impossible,” Pirinççi said. Hasankeyf’s residents have been migrating to bigger cities like Batman and Diyarbakir for years, but Karakus explained that now that tourism, another main source of income, has been cut off, it is even more common for people to search for jobs elsewhere.

Karakus speculates that by shepherding the people out of their caves and impoverished houses and into a planned urban area, the government can better control the people. Furthermore, it hopes to attract support away from the Kurdish rebels by providing the people new wealth, industries and farms. “We in Hasankeyf believe that the dam is part of a plan to obliterate Kurdish culture,” Karakus stated emphatically.

Conspiracy theories abound about reasons for the dam’s construction. One revolves around a professor at the University of Batman, Abdüsselam Uluçam, who happens to be the chief archaeologist at the Hasankeyf site. According to Pirinççi, Uluçam has publicly voiced his opinion that Hasankeyf’s inhabitants should move even if the dam construction stops because they are ignorant of the archaeological sites they live on and destroy them. According to Pirinççi, Uluçam has said that “Hasankeyf’s destiny cannot be left to the Hasankeyf people.” Karakus also raised the possibility that the authorities will move the people without building the dam so that the archaeologist can have his way. As for how an archaeologist could have such sway in forcing migration in the area: “Uluçam is good friends with the Turkish president,” said Karakus. Pirinççi confirmed they had a background together as classmates.

Distrust between the government and the residents of Hasankeyf runs deep. Restaurant owner Nurullah Sevinc even questioned the falling rock incident. “The authorities threw that stone down on purpose, so that they have a good excuse to close the restaurants, drive us out of business and force us all to move,” he said. Sevinc’s reaction is not uncommon. Selin Unluonen, a Yale freshman from Istanbul, echoed the theory: “I wouldn’t be surprised; such things do happen in Turkey.”

The Ilisu dam would not only displace the people of Hasankeyf but also destroy the monuments that have made the city famous. The site has been home to nine different civilizations. Doga Dernegi’s report, “Outstanding Universal Value of Hasankeyf and The Tigris Valley,” presents the most important arguments for its importance: “Hasankeyf is a masterpiece of human creative genius, an outstanding example of certain architecture, and the habitat for threatened species of outstanding universal value for science.” In 1978, the Turkish government even declared Hasankeyf an important and inviolable historical site, which temporarily halted the Ilisu plans. Last July, the European Court of Human Rights voiced the same concerns, pushing the project’s German, Austrian, and Swiss financial backers to withdraw their support. Recently, the plans moved forward again after two Turkish banks, Akbank and Garanti, promised their financial support.

“The best way to save the people and historical value of Hasankeyf,” Pirinççi explained, “is to include it on the UNESCO World Heritage list.” However, UNESCO membership has to be requested by the Turkish prime minister, who has yet to do so.

Instead, the government has promised to save Hasankeyf by transferring the monuments to a new site. A big billboard in Hasankeyf presents an image of a beautiful new town, reigning over a lake where tourists ride jet skis and swim. But according to Caglayan Ayhan, a spokeswoman for the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, that vision is “ridiculous and impossible, because the monuments are made of soft stone which will crumble when moved. Even with scuba diving gear, nobody will be able to see its marbles.”

Other efforts to save Hasankeyf are NGO-based and are aimed at raising awareness of the city and its potential destruction. Doga Dernegi’s newest project is a petition asking the Turkish Prime minister and the presidents of Akbank and Garanti to stop the Dam project and propose Hasankeyf as a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to Pirinççi, some 2,000 people have signed to date, including a handful of Turkish celebrities. The same group has also made a map showing all the other treasures of Hasankeyf besides the closed castle in order to encourage tourists to continue visiting.

Despite the controversy, the people of Hasankeyf have remained strangely silent. The locals “have lost all hopes and are fed up with this issue which has been going on for many years,” said Pirinççi. “They don’t believe anything can be done, instead they are looking for a new life start.”

Karakus explained that only fear of the government keeps the people from protesting. The many active NGOs, however, are still fighting to stop the destruction of Hasankeyf in favor of a dam, which will last a short 50 years before becoming nonfunctional. For the people of Hasankeyf, who have faced the threat for 33 years, nothing remains to be said. Hasankeyf has been under siege throughout history: first from the crusaders and Ottomans, to the battle of Kurdish rebels, and now the looming construction of the Ilisu Dam. Even though it is uncertain if the dam will ever be built, the slowing of tourism is, for many, the last straw. People are finding themselves with no plans for the future and only one alternative: “to move,” explained a gloomy Karakus.

Anne Van Bruggen ’13 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at anne.vanbruggen@yale.edu.

*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources