Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermide come Hasankyef ? Maddai ! (Similitudini solo aeree ;-)

Turkish Town Has Hosted 12,000 Years of Human History & Stunning Biodiversity

This spring and summer, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2% of Turkey’s power.  
Almost nowhere in the world is human history as densely layered as it is in Hasankeyf. Strange sights greet its visitors: thousands of caves carved into limestone cliffs, children playing on the remains of a gargantuan medieval bridge, the towering minaret of a 15th-century mosque.
The first known inhabitants of this place on the banks of the Tigris River in Southeastern Turkey settled here in Neolithic times, 12,000 years ago.
Since then, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited by every major Mesopotamian civilization, though it reached its cultural and commercial apex between the 12th and 15th centuries when it served as the capital of the Turkmen Artukid and Kurdish Ayyubid dynasties.
Caves pockmark the cliffs along the Tigris River and modern-day houses neighbor medieval monuments in Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.
From the caves pockmarking the cliffs along the Tigris River to the medieval mosques and monuments near the town center, history is always present in Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.
Compared to the popular interest in the Ottomans who came after them, medieval Islamic civilizations in Mesopotamia are little understood, partly because few of their major settlements and monuments have been preserved.
But their history is far from dry. From the Mongols to the Byzantines, far-flung cultures met, fought, and traded here, leaving a unique artistic and architectural legacy. ”Because of this, Hasankeyf is a very important and rare place, for humanity and for archeology,” says Necdet Talayhan, a local archeologist who has worked on many of the past decade’s excavations in the area.
Until the 1960s, many of Hasankeyf’s residents lived in ancient caves built into the cliffs along the river, according to John Crofoot, co-founder of a group devoted to raising awareness about Hasankeyf.
“They have a very near memory of life in the caves,” says John Crofoot, co-founder of Hasankeyf Matters, a group devoted to raising awareness about the ancient town. ”Some of the people alive today grew up in the caves on the Citadel Mount. They remember playing there; they still go back there regularly to visit the graves of their ancestors.”
Mehmet Tilki is seen in the main room of his cave. Photo by Julia Harte.
Mehmet Tilki is seen in the main room of his cave. Photo by Julia Harte.
Only one man still lives in the caves: Mehmet Tilki. More than a century ago, his grandfather, an Ottoman postman, moved here from what is now Syria.
Growing up, Tilki’s entire extended family lived in the caves surrounding his own. He left Hasankeyf as a teenager to work in Adana, and was there during the 1970s and 1980s when the Turkish government evicted most people from the caves, citing safety concerns about crumbling rock.
Tilki returned to his cave 15 years ago. The government also tried to evict him, but Tilki responded with straightforward logic.
“This is my house. Whose house is it? The state’s. Whose state is it? Mine. Who am I? The state. That’s how it was handled. May they be healthy, our government,” he says cheerfully, mending a sack in the main room of his cave.
Photo by Julia Harte.
A Turkish flag is seen on a cliff overlooking a valley in Hasankeyf riddled with caves that were inhabited until a few decades ago. A few are still used to keep livestock. Photo by Julia Harte.
Tilki’s Arab roots are typical of Hasankeyf residents, most of whom are trilingual. Most speak Arabic as a mother tongue, in addition to Kurdish and Turkish.
One of five Arabic-speaking micro-cultures in Southeastern Turkey, according to Crofoot, Hasankeyf Arabic is related to the Arabic spoken by Bedouins in Iraq.
Even the name “Hasankeyf” derives from what it was called by Arabs who seized it from the Byzantine Empire in 640 CE: Hisn Kayfa, or “rock fortress” in Arabic.
Hasankeyf women are seen conversing over a lunch of meat-stuffed grape leaves and salad. Photo by Julia Harte.
Hasankeyf women are seen conversing over a lunch of meat-stuffed grape leaves and salad. Photo by Julia Harte.
Hasankeyf’s biodiversity is as remarkable as its cultural composition. One hundred and thirty types of birds live here, including 18 threatened species, as well as endangered raptors, big mammals, and marine life.
“They’re so valuable, because this is the last wild, free river in this region — not only in Turkey, but also whole Middle East region,” says Dicle Tuba Kılıç, the Hasankeyf Campaign Coordinator for Doğa Derneği, Turkey’s Nature Foundation.
But this unusual ecosystem may soon be no more, says Kılıç, thanks to the Ilısu Dam.
A Turkish government-backed hydroelectric project 60 kilometers downstream from Hasankeyf, the Ilısu Dam would submerge Hasankeyf and displace more than 25,000 people living in Turkey’s Upper Tigris Basin. Part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a regional development plan, the dam is projected to generate nearly 2 percent of Turkey’s electricity when it is complete.
Doğa Derneği fears the extinction of several important species after the dam: the Euphrates soft shell turtle, the red-wattled plover, and the Mesopotamian barbler fish.
Black kites are seen flying around Hasankeyf's iconic 12th century bridge. Photo by Julia Harte.
Black kites are seen flying around Hasankeyf’s iconic 12th century bridge. Photo by Julia Harte.
If the dam is finished on schedule, Hasankeyf will be completely under water by 2016, says Talayhan.
“It is impossible to excavate all the unexcavated areas before then,” he points out. “Ten percent of that area has been done, and at most, we can finish five percent more. All the remaining historical areas will stay under water and be destroyed.”
The Turkish government has declared plans to move a handful of Hasankeyf’s monuments to higher ground, build water sporting facilities around the reservoir, and promote Hasankeyf as a new center of tourism and leisure. But this does not sit well with many residents of Hasankeyf.
Tilki, the last cave-dweller of Hasankeyf, states his opinion bluntly: “If I leave and move away, and the state sets up a touristic place here, and people pay rent to live here, it will be an injustice to me,” he explains. “Because my ancestors lived here.”
But as construction continues, Hasankeyf’s fate looks ever grimmer.
Hasankeyf is seen at dusk. Photo by Julia Harte.
Hasankeyf is seen at dusk. Photo by Julia Ha


A citadel perched atop 100-meter-high rocks on the banks of the Tigris marks the beginning of the story of Hasankeyf. There are 5,000 to 7,000 cave dwellings carved into rocks at the citadel and in the adjacent canyon. About 14,000 people lived in these dwellings in the 1970s. (photo by Fehim Taştekin)

Hasankeyf: Civilization Condemned to Death

Would a country sacrifice more than 550 historical monuments from various Mesopotamian civilizations to a dam? It appears Turkey is determined to do just that. It is no joke. The Ilisu Dam project — under discussion since 1958, approved in 1982 and accelerated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2006 — will swallow Hasankeyf, a major juncture along the Silk Road.
Summary⎙ Print The countdown has started for unique, 12,000-year-old historical monuments in the Tigris Valley to be submerged by the waters of a dam promising an annual revenue of 300 million Turkish lira.
Author Fehim TaştekinPosted October 24, 2013
Translator(s)Sibel Utku Bila
A town now condemned to death, Hasankeyf has seen Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Artuqids, Ayyubids, Aq Qoyunlus and Ottomans come and go. The sites destined to bid farewell to the world include a 12th-century double-deck stone bridge with only four feet surviving, the El Rizk Mosque, the Mardinike Palace ruins, the Zeynel Bey Mausoleum, the Syriac Quarter, the Sultan Suleyman Mosque, the Koc Mosque, the Inn and the Arasta bazaar, a number of shops and kilns, and countless cave dwellings. The Batman Municipality organized the Hasankeyf Culture and Arts Festival for Oct. 18–20 to draw attention to the looming disaster.
A president unmoved by ancient civilization
A citadel perched atop 100-meter-high rocks on the banks of the Tigris marks the beginning of the story of Hasankeyf. There are 5,000 to 7,000 cave dwellings carved into rocks at the citadel and in the adjacent canyon. Until the 1970s, the settlement remained alive as an ancient “citadel town,” with its mosques, churches, cemeteries, tombs and markets frozen in time. In 1966, President Cevdet Sunay happened to pass through the region and was appalled. “How could people still be living in caves? Homes should be built for them immediately!” The townsfolk were moved into houses built on the grounds the citadel overlooks. The old town is now derelict, in ruins.
Decades have passed, but, unfortunately, many are still of Sunay’s mindset, belittling the civilization of a rock-dwelling community as “living in caves.” In 2009, Yasar Agyuz, a main opposition lawmaker, submitted a parliamentary inquiry, asking the government whether it would “sacrifice Hasankeyf to a dam with a lifespan of 40–50 years.” The Environment Ministry defended the plan to annihilate a civilization, stating, “The water will submerge only ‘the lower town’ where structures are [already] destroyed.” Hasankeyf Mayor Abdulvahap Kusen, though a member of the ruling party, raised heartfelt objections. “We would not exchange our caves even for villas. We are against projects that would destroy history and culture,” he said.
A view from the citadel at Hasankeyf. The ruins of the bridge and minaret will disappear if the project goes through
Why is sightseeing banned?
The culture and arts festival gave me the opportunity to tour Hasankeyf before it is flooded and joins the mythical club of “lost cities.” Visitors arriving in Hasankeyf, 37 kilometers from Batman, are greeted by the Zeynel Bey dome, which is famous for its tiles. The essential part of town is on the opposite bank of the Tigris. We passed through the exotic souvenir market at the entrance and reached the gate of the old town, where the guard lazing in the security booth stopped us:
“Going up to the citadel is forbidden.”
“A rock rolled down last year, killing three people. There is a ban now because it could happen again.”
We thus decided to take a break at a café perched on the hill. Accompanied by Batman Municipality Cultural Director Yunus Celik, we sipped Turkish coffee, boiled on cinders, while taking in the minaret of the 600-year-old El Rizk Mosque, destined to go underwater.
One of the café’s employees, Bilal, explained that the minaret, where storks now nest, would be submerged up to the level of its balcony. He dismissed the reason for the citadel ban, offering another explanation: “If the place remains out of the public eye, there will be no public awareness. That’s why they don’t want tourists.”
The world of Ali the shepherd
Ali the shepherd dropped in at the café just in time. He instantly recognized us as Hasankeyf visitors barred from sightseeing and made an offer: “My house is on the citadel. If you wait for a while, I’ll take you there.”
Ali is the only person who continues to live in one of the cave houses that the state evacuated. He is also an officially accredited tour guide. The ban, however, has made his business a “clandestine” affair. “Let me first read your coffee cups, and then I’ll show you around,” he said, before vanishing into thin air.
Bilal stepped in, offering to take us to the citadel via a clandestine route, so we breached the ban and sneaked in. Mi and Bizin, from Ali’s herd, joined us at the riverbank. I gave them these names: mi means “goat,” and bizin means “sheep” in Kurdish. We climbed the steps carved into the rocks and walked to the other side of the hill. To stop trespassers, the gate on the back side of the citadel has been encircled with a makeshift wall. Leaving Mi and Bizin behind, we resolutely climbed over the wall. The site is no longer a citadel, but rather a plateau of ruins.
Bilal pointed to the homes carved into the rocks at the citadel and the stone mosque and church. “There are at least 5,000 homes here. The water will rise to a height of at least 65 meters, submerging the homes in the valley. It will not reach the homes on the citadel, but they will eventually melt away because the rocks are so soft,” he said. Bilal showed as around the palace, the Ulu Mosque (converted from a church), a building that he described as the place where “the first-ever coins were made” and a mausoleum, where he said a prayer. He explained how residents used to get jars of drinking water up the hill with the help of a pressure mechanism.
As we climbed down from the citadel, Mi and Bizin were waiting for us. We went on climbing in the valley, where the mosque and church were. At a tomb carved in the rocks, we quaffed water that we drew from a well. Mi and Bizin were not forgotten.
Beyond the citadel, cave houses dot both banks of the valley. Pointing to a place in the middle that used to be a marketplace, Bilal said, “That was my grandfather’s barber shop.” He then returned to the subject of the rock that fell from the gate the Ayyubids had added to the citadel. “An excavation was under way. They were using sledgehammers, and the owner of the café up there warned them that a rock might roll down, but they didn’t listen. Then a rock did hurtle down and killed three people,” Bilal recalled.
As we finished our tour, completing a full circuit of the citadel, Bilal gave us a piece of advice: “If the officials ask any questions, don’t mention the citadel. Just tell them you went to the mausoleum to pray.” When we reached the entrance, it was Bilal who had to mollify the officials. There were no questions for us, nor for Mi and Bizin! The brief expedition into history left me profoundly shaken.
Why locals are uneasy
So, what happens next? Western financial institutions had managed to disrupt the Ilisu Dam project for a time, by refusing to grant loans for the dam after the issue was taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The current, ongoing construction, however, is financed through domestic funding. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set 2014 as the deadline for completion.
Thus, the countdown for the people of Hasankeyf has begun. They have two options: to migrate or to move to a housing complex erected by the state Housing Development Administration (TOKI) along the skirt of the Raman Mountains, opposite the old town, an area spared from flooding. TOKI claims it has built the new Hasankeyf in the style of Artuqid architecture.
The locals are exasperated by life in a place deprived of investment for decades, first because the area was an archaeological site off-limits to construction, and then because of the anticipation that the area would be flooded anyway. “Incidents of snake and scorpion biting are commonplace here, but there is no doctor. Life is unbearable. The flow of tourists has died down since the citadel was closed,” Bilal said.
A shop which was used as a hairdresser existed in the community.
Initially, most Hasankeyf residents saw the dam project as a savior. For them, it meant cash and jobs, but the expropriation payments for their properties have been a disappointment. In addition, as construction has advanced, they have come to realize what a treasure they are about to lose. On Oct. 10, Hasankeyf residents held a demonstration blocking the bridge.
“My shop was valued at 7,000 Turkish lira [$3,500] and my house at 20,000 Turkish lira [$10,000]. They want me to move to the TOKI complex. The price of a house there is 180,000 Turkish Lira [$90,000]. So, they are telling me to contract a debt of 160,000 [$80,000],” grumbled a shopkeeper in the historic bazaar.
Before he disappeared, Ali the shepherd also expressed apprehension. “Fourteen thousand lived in the caves until the 1970s. Now I’m the only one. My parents lived with me until 2008. I was promised a house and jobs for my family, but none of the promises materialized. I’m accustomed to the history and climate up there. I can’t give it up,” he said. Ali believes there are still two ways to save history. “The bend and the dam lake could be kept away from Hasankeyf, or two dams could be constructed instead of one in order to have a lower water flow,” he said.
The Wise Men group that Erdogan formed as part of the Kurdish peace process has also recommended that the project be stopped or modified. “It should be taken into account that if Hasankeyf is declared a world historical heritage site, the revenues it will generate will far exceed the dam revenue. Thus, at least decreasing the water retention level must be considered to save the historical and natural riches,” the group said in a report on the issue.
The government, however, rules out investment in Hasankeyf's heritage on the pretext of terrorism. The people of Hasankeyf counter that the area is free of “terrorism.” Radikal correspondent Serkan Ocak, who's familiar with the issue, told Al-Monitor, “Some 10 to 15 year ago, the idea was to flood the caves and the passages on the grounds they were used by the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party]. In order to save Hasankeyf, a proposal was made to build five small dams instead of a large one, but no one ever lent it an ear. They launched the construction even though the impact of terrorism has significantly subsided.”
Erdogan’s promise that the monuments would be relocated is met with a bitter smile among the locals. Hasankeyf is not just tombs and minarets. Moreover, experts have warned that moving the monuments would amount to smashing them into smithereens. As someone just back from Hasankeyf, I would only add this: The rock-dwelling civilization is silently crying out. It is high time to hear its voice.
All photos by Fehim Taştekin
Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Dogu Divanı" on IMC TV. As an analyst, he specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and European Union affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.

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