A view of Hasankeyf from the Old Town (Credit: Nur Banu Kocaaslan)

For many years, the first thing Süleyman Ağalday used to see in front of his house in the ancient city of Hasankeyf when he left home for work were the remains of two mosques, nearly 600 years old and dating back to the Ayyubid dynasty.

But that changed in 2018 when both the Sultan Süleyman and Koç mosques that Ağalday grew up with were moved to a new settlement nearby, because Hasanakeyf will soon be flooded as a result of a dam project conceived and built by the Turkish state. An enormous undertaking that will cost two billion US dollars and submerge a 12,000 year-old city in southeastern Turkey, the Ilısu Dam will be the fourth-largest in the country. 

A Concrete barrier built under the Hasankeyf Castle (Credit: Caner Şenyuva)

Local residents and international groups, however, are extremely concerned about the destruction of millennia of heritage and local ecosystems.

Ağalday, who runs a café, will have to move to a new settlement nearby along with the rest of the town’s 3,000 residents.

Süleyman Ağalday, a café owner from Hasankeyf, doesn’t want to move to a new location. (Credit: Nur Banu Kocaaslan)

“I feel like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple and being thrown out of heaven into the world,” he said. “What have we, Hasankeyf residents, done to deserve being kicked out of this paradise?”

Hasankeyf, on the Tigris in Batman province in southeastern Turkey not far from the Iraqi border, boasts more than 5,500 man-made caves, churches and mosques, as well as a castle and unexcavated mounds dating from ancient Mesopotamia to the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras. The continuously inhabited settlement, with its unique combination of historical and natural heritage in the Tigris Valley will soon be largely destroyed.

Some of the ancient monuments have been moved to a new settlement where they will be displayed in an open-air archaeological park. (Credit: Caner Şenyuva)

“If you excavate my current house, you will find Ottomans, Ayyubids, Artuqids, and today me, from the Republican era,” said an archaeologist from the city who asked not to be named. “This is the most beautiful part of it. Culture takes root inside you. This continuity is what makes Hasankeyf, Hasankeyf.”

Officially named the Ilısu Dam and Hydroelectric Power Station (HES), the project was first conceived in the 1970s, but construction began only in the mid-2000s after decades of controversy over its expected impact on historical monuments. It is expected to flood 80 villages in five provinces, in addition to Hasankeyf. 

Hasankeyf city center is not ready to be relocated to the new settlement. (Credit: Nur Banu Kocaaslan)

The State Water Works Directorate (DSI) has expropriated households in the town and built more than 700 residences along with schools, shops, a hospital and a museum in a new settlement just three km away from the historical ruins. The town’s residents are now in the process of relocating to their new homes.

The dam will flood an area of 313 km² and is expected to produce 4,200 GWh of electricity per year, contributing 412 million dollars per year to the economy, according to DSI.

Seven historical monuments, including tombs and mosques, were also moved to the new settlement as a concession by the government, a plan that has already cost some 43 million dollars. The last monument, 600-year-old Er Rızk Mosque, will be moved to the new settlement soon.

Houses in the new settlement near Hasankeyf. (Credit: Nur Banu Kocaaslan)

“It is like plucking the rose from its branch and putting it on a fig tree,” said Ağalday, the café owner. “How can that rose live on a fig tree? How can it look beautiful there?” 

Hasankeyf Coordination, a civil campaign launched by several NGOs, has warned that the Ilısu Dam will not just affect the area’s cultural heritage but will also transform the ecosystem of the Tigris Valley. A recent report published by the consortium states that there are 266 plant species endemic around Hasankeyf, of which 129 are endangered elsewhere in Turkey. 

Ali Ergul, a member of Hasankeyf Coordination, said damage to flora and fauna in the Tigris valley was difficult to predict because the wildlife in the area has never been fully analysed. 

“Unfortunately, we are talking about an area of 400 km2,” he said. “A study by Dicle University found that many endangered endemic species and fishes and birds would not be able to continue living there. The dam will turn Tigris River into a cesspool.”

According to Hasankeyf Coordination, the dam may also affect the Ahwar of southern Iraq, a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of three archaeological and four wetland marsh areas. 

Experts have also long expressed doubt about the utility of the project, saying energy demand in Turkey has changed since the plan was first conceived, and alternative energy sources like solar power that could preserve the region have not been properly vetted.

But the Turkish government argues that the Ilısu Dam’s hydroelectric power generation will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help combat climate change.

“River water flowing into Iraq and Syria will not be polluted because the use of water for hydropower is non-polluting,” a statement issued by the foreign ministry read. “Ilısu does not involve irrigation.  Ilısu will have major environmental benefits. It will avoid the emission of millions of tons of greenhouse gases from alternative thermal power plants.”

Houses in the ‘new’ Hasankeyf. Photo Credit: Nur Banu Kocaaslan

Local residents are also concerned about the impact on tourism, currently the town’s main source of income. Hasankeyf’s souvenir shops have been evacuated as well, and the government in Ankara has prepared a new tourism plan as part of the resettlement.

According to the new plan, tourists will be brought to Hasankeyf castle by boats, since it is expected to remain largely above water. The monuments relocated to the new settlement will be opened to visitors in an open-air archaeological park near the museum. 

Ilısu Dam Project and affected cities/districts. (Credit: Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive HYG)

One shopkeeper, 60, who did not want to be named, was optimistic. 

“If it goes as planned, there will be boats, groves of trees, cable cars near the lake,” he said. “Tourists will come to see that.” 

But other residents remain sceptical about the future of their new town.

 “People come here to see history, to see nature.” said Bülent Başaran, 50, a café owner. “They will not go to the new town where there is nothing to see but concrete.”