Turkish Bath

A new dam could submerge one of the world’s richest historical sites.

turkish dam
Après le déluge: This 14th century tower would remain above water—unlike almost everything in this view from it.
(Photo credits: Christina Davidson)

Life moves slowly in Hasankeyf, a town on the banks of the Tigris in the heavily Kurdish region of far southeastern Turkey. Geography and political unrest have kept the modern world largely at bay. During my recent visit, Ali, a local artisan, demonstrated his trade for me—weaving rugs on a loom built by his grandfather, working in a room hewn from the limestone cliffs by a more distant ancestor.

Then the 21st century intruded, in the form of a lumbering Ankara Express bus. A group of Chinese tourists filed out, then stood in silence, absorbing the centuries of history before them. Archaeologists believe Hasankeyf may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, dating back some 10,000 years. The cliffs lining the river are speckled with gaping black holes—homes carved out of the soft rock by cave dwellers thousands of years ago. What remains of a citadel built by the Byzantines in the fourth century A.D., and later expanded and reinforced by the Artukids and Ayyubids, rises above the city. Other ruins show the influence of Assyrians, Romans, Seljuks, Mongols, Ottomans—successive waves of conquerors who fought for dominance of the lucrative trading routes in northern Mesopotamia.

Hasankeyf may soon be hit by another conquering wave—this time, a watery one that could drown its history. Fifty miles downstream, near the village of Ilisu, a consortium of German, Swiss, Austrian, and Turkish contractors is preparing to build a massive hydroelectric dam that would catch water from the Tigris just before the river spills into Syria and Iraq. If all goes as planned, most of Hasankeyf will be submerged by a reservoir. Ali pointed out the projected waterline—about halfway up the spire of a 15th-century minaret.

It’s not that the ruins went unnoticed during discussions about the dam. In 1978, the Turkish government declared Hasankeyf a “first degree” site for archaeological conservation, mandating legal protection for its ruins. But within five years—a period that saw the birth of the militant Kurdish group known as the PKK and the escalation of fighting between Kurds and Turkish security forces—Ankara had approved plans for the proj­ect. The government argues that the dam will bring power and irrigation to the region; opponents contend that much of the electricity generated will go to other parts of the country, and some view the dam as part of an overall effort to eradicate Kurdish culture. In 2001, the proj­ect faltered after an international campaign persuaded a foreign export-credit agency to withdraw its support, prompting the contractors to pull out.

Turkey did not give up, however. In August 2006, Prime Minister Recep Tay­yip Erdogan broke ground on the dam. His government had assembled a new partnership of European contractors and announced proposals intended to appease foreign critics. Residents of the affected areas would be relocated; artifacts deemed to have historical or cultural significance would be moved to higher ground. Of course, it’s not that easy: some things cannot be moved, and because little of the area has undergone archaeological excavation, experts can only speculate about what lies underground. Last year, in a chamber at the base of a cliff, a security guard uncovered, purely by chance, a remarkable Roman mosaic—one of several newly discovered artistic works contradicting previous assumptions that the Roman presence was strictly military.

Foreign underwriters have warned Turkey that funding is contingent on certain conditions pertaining to resettlement, the protection of artifacts, and the project’s environmental impact. Meanwhile, the World Monuments Fund has added Hasankeyf to its list of the 100 most endangered sites on Earth. But plans for the dam are proceeding, and Hasankeyf is on schedule to be flooded in five to seven years. When this happens, the government says, the area will find itself with new tourism opportunities: visitors will be drawn by water sports in and around the reservoir. And although history-minded tourists may no longer be able to explore Hasankeyf’s archaeology on foot, they might strap on scuba gear and take a dive through the ruins instead.