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Since February 2020, the old town of Hasankeyf has been submerged under the waters of the Tigris, retained downstream by the Ilisu dam, a flagship project of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Several major monuments of this 12,000-year-old historic site have been moved to be preserved. But in recent weeks, an episode of winter drought has lowered the water level, exposing damage already done by less than a year of submersion. For the already traumatized residents, this is yet another blow.

The city of Hasankeyf, located in southeastern Turkey, has been inhabited for nearly 12,000 years and has seen the many civilizations that have alternately controlled the region. This historic site, still inhabited and visited in the XXIe century, was engulfed in February 2020 under water after the construction of a dam 40 kilometers downstream, the Ilisu Dam.

The authorities have built a new city a little higher up to rehouse the inhabitants and create a tourist site where several major monuments have been moved, such as the tomb of Zeynel Bey or the Al Risk mosque.

The artificial lake formed by the water reservoir in January 2021 and, in the distance, the new town made up of new housing estates and businesses and an open-air museum where several remains displaced before the engulfment are exposed.
The artificial lake formed by the water reservoir in January 2021 and, in the distance, the new town made up of new housing estates and businesses and an open-air museum where several remains displaced before the engulfment are exposed. © Süleyman Agalday

The construction of the Ilisu dam is part of a broad development strategy for south-eastern Turkey, a poor, landlocked region and site of clashes between the army and Kurdish PKK fighters. This project and especially the sinking of Hasankeyf have been strongly criticized and the subject of controversy in Turkey since the beginning of the 2000s. But protests and petitions did not prevent the construction of the dam. The structure was completed in 2018 and commissioned in early 2020.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: In the thousand-year-old Turkish village of Hasankeyf, authorities destroy precious historical remains

While the precipitation at the end of 2020 was particularly low, the water level gradually dropped, revealing part of the historic site submerged.

“We didn’t know we would see the damage so quickly”

Asuri coffee, managed by our Observer until it was swallowed up in February 2020. Photo taken in December 2020, when a drop in the water level revealed the damage.
Asuri coffee, managed by our Observer until it was swallowed up in February 2020. Photo taken in December 2020, when a drop in the water level revealed the damage. © Süleyman Agalday

Our Observer Süleyman Ağalday was born in Hasankeyf, he is a tour guide and runs a cafe there. His house and business were swallowed up. He now lives and works in the new city, where tourists aren’t as numerous as they used to be.

When the city was swallowed up, we knew that the buildings that remained at the bottom of the valley would be destroyed in time. What we didn’t know was that we could see it with our own eyes that quickly.

For about two months the water level has been very low and it has been noticed in recent weeks that several important buildings have already collapsed due to their submersion. There is for example the mausoleum of Baba Haydar[themausoleumofthisSufisaintdatesfromthe14th[lemausoléedecesaintsoufidateraitdes XIV[themausoleumofthisSufisaintdatesfromthe14th[lemausoléedecesaintsoufidateraitdes XIVe-XVe centuries, NDLR]which had been covered with earth before the waters rose, and which completely collapsed. Only the burial had been moved to the new city.

On the left, the mausoleum of Baba Haydar in January 2020, covered with earth. On the right, the same site in ruins in January 2021.
On the left, the mausoleum of Baba Haydar in January 2020, covered with earth. On the right, the same site in ruins in January 2021. © Hasankeyf Matters, Süleyman Agalday

We also saw all the dead trees after they were submerged and many fish got trapped when the water went down and died.

Fish trapped in Hasankeyf, January 2021

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. © Sül

According to official government data, the winter drought episode strongly affected the national production of electricity from dams with a drop of 11.5% compared to 2019.

“When I see Hasankeyf swallowed up, I cry”

Atmosphere in Hasankeyf after the engulfment, January 2021

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. © Süleyman Agalday

This sad spectacle reminds us of what we have lost, our homes, the history of our ancestors and all who came before them in this city which was a central point of Mesopotamia. Even today, when I see Hasankeyf swallowed up, I cry.

Most of the residents have now left or have moved into the new Hasankeyf, higher up. The problem is, this city is not at all as attractive to tourists as the original. Foreign tourists no longer come, only a few people come from neighboring towns. Added to this is the Covid-19 pandemic which has also affected us. The inhabitants are helpless, I myself have not had an income for about a year.

Several tourist sites highlighting Hasankeyf’s past have been erected in the new town, as well as a museum. In a video published on December 20, 2020, Turkish YouTuber Yigit Can Iç shows the facilities, some still under construction, and historic areas still accessible like Hasankeyf Castle. A boat connects it to the new town, located on the other side.

According to the activist group Hasankeyf Koordinasyonu (Coordination Hasankeyf), 80% of Hasankeyf and 289 archaeological sites have been submerged – some of them located in surrounding rural areas and, according to the British daily The Guardian, only 10% of the city has been excavated by archaeologists.





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