For Hasankeyf the Bell Tolls | Guest blog by Gokce Sencan

Gokce Sencan


Gokce Sencan, a Turkish water policy researcher based in California, shares the experience from her recent visit to the ancient town of Hasankeyf along the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey. Hasankeyf, which has been continuously inhabited for the last 12,000 years, is slowly being drowned as the reservoir behind the recently completed Ilisu Dam is filled. To help you can follow her @GokceSencan on Twitter or go to the website Hasankeyf Matters: How to Help to learn more.

A demolished restaurant in the çarşı area (bazaar) of Old Hasankeyf by the Tigris River.
A demolished restaurant in the çarşı area (bazaar) of Old Hasankeyf by the Tigris River.
Gokce Sencan

Part I – Dispatch from the Field

I went to Hasankeyf to experience its cultural legacy with my own eyes and have a chance to mourn before it all disappeared under water. Instead I found myself sucked into the political fights and fears that mirrored what the rest of Turkey struggles with. As the waters of Tigris are slowly creeping into the old town, those must vulnerable are left behind on their own.
When I arrived in Hasankeyf on a mild winter day, I had endured more than two hours of commute in three different minibuses. As if that was not enough, the minibus driver dropped me and my guide Sadullah at the top of what is now the new Hasankeyf – miles away from where we intended to go.

When I was talking to Sadullah on the phone the night before, he reminded me multiple times: “Just so you know, there is nothing to do or see in Hasankeyf now.” “I know, I know.” I replied impatiently – every single person I talked to up until that moment had told me the same thing already – a book seller, a wine merchant, a café owner, my friend’s friend… But after telling him that I intended to write an article about what was happening there, his tone changed: “Ah okay, then. We should go.” Later on our way, Sadullah told me that he was actually scared to go to Hasankeyf, because he did not want to ruin his memories of what was a breathtaking sight for him as a kid. His hesitation was contagious. When we got dropped off so far from where we wanted to go, my hesitation also surfaced. But I took my camera out and we started walking towards the new Hasankeyf.
Indeed, there was not much to see in Hasankeyf – neither the new nor the old. But there was a story: a town divided, people uprooted, and history destroyed.

The first person we talked to, a middle-aged female shepherd, was without a home in the new Hasankeyf and would be displaced, along with her animals, once the water level begins to rise and subsumes the old Hasankeyf. She also complained that they receive water service for one hour each week, believing that it is a tactic to force the last remaining old Hasankeyf residents to leave – but to where?

The main problem with the new Hasankeyf settlement is that it was obviously constructed haphazardly. The roads and open spaces, as well as the backyards of new houses are still filled with piles of rubble. There is a housing shortage as well, and the government found the solution with a lottery system. The lottery excluded renters and single people however, and allegedly prioritized larger families, the police, the army members, and those with close ties to the government. But even those who got new houses are worried. The backyards are small and need to be cleaned up (paid by the homeowners) before anyone can attempt gardening, let alone small-scale farming. There is enough space for a coop but definitely not for a barn. With the nearest pasture miles away and open spaces filled with rubble, it marks the end of animal farming for Hasankeyf residents. 

We met a man in the new Hasankeyf who was moving into his new house and let us see the inside. “It is very nice, very pretty.” he insisted, “Much better than all the houses I have ever lived in. I don’t complain about the house. I like it, it feels like a palace.” From my privileged Istanbulite perspective, the house was far from a palace but more like a cheap illusion designed to look appealing and capture the residents’ imagination. Its bathrooms and kitchen are very modern-looking and shiny, but the material is not good quality – the house that we saw some roof problems that the newly settled owner was trying to fix himself. I could not help but wonder how long before the “palace” illusion loses its grip on his imagination.
(on the right) The Old Hasankeyf Bridge (on the left) the stone wall that seals the historical caves, which are now filled with debris.
(on the right) The Old Hasankeyf Bridge (on the left) the stone wall that seals the historical caves, which are now filled with debris.
Gokce Senca

By the way, those houses are not for free. Although the residents were provided with low-interest, long-term payment plans, the house values far exceed the cash compensation that many property owners in Hasankeyf received from the government. And many complain that the compensation process was not fair. Those who could afford it took their cases to court and obtained as much as six times the initially assessed amount for their lost properties. And even the homeowners are worried, because there are no other houses for their children to move to when they grow up. Maybe the government got the news – there are new houses being constructed as of now. But no one knows if they will be ready before the Tigris River swallows the old town.

It is also unclear how the residents will be able to pay for the houses. After we completed the house tour and stepped outside, the man pointed to the house next door. “See that one? It’s sold.” “But to whom? Who would want to move back here after everything?” I asked. “Tourists, for summer vacation.” he replied. He then went on to explain that there was a good number of people who sold their houses right away. Some did not even attempt to enter the lottery – they just took their compensation and left for Batman, the nearest city.

He went on to tell his own story: Born and raised in a cave near the castle, he had always lived in Hasankeyf. His restaurant right by the Tigris was shut down. Now it is unclear what work he will do. He was also clearly upset about the whole ordeal: “Some people took it as an opportunity to leave the village life behind and seek a new life in the city. But we lost our history, even had to carry the graves of our deceased. They flattened historical sites and built roads over them. People will regret it. They will look back and say ‘What did we do?’, but it will be too late.

We used to make our local yogurt, produce local eggs, raise grapes, figs. How are we going to do that now? Who are we going to sell them to? The tourists don’t come here anymore. The tour buses pass by the town.” referring to the new road that circumvents Hasankeyf, which does not have any exits for anyone traveling from Midyat to Batman – the old road, which passed right through town and Hasankeyf an unmissable sight for the passers-by, has been shut down for quite some time.

Indeed, another massive problem unfolding in Hasankeyf is lack of jobs. The local economy collapsed soon after the famous Hasankeyf caves were filled with rocks and soil, and sealed with a stone wall. The “çarşı” area (the bazaar in the old town) was demolished in order to relocate the El-Rizk Mosque and its minaret to the archeological park that is under construction near the new settlement, along with many other historical artifacts of value. Displaced store, café and restaurant owners were guaranteed a storefront in the new bazaar, but with a caveat: They had to cover the renovation expenses. Which may have not been much work, had the new bazaar not been a construction zone with no running water and no tourists. With no tourism revenue flowing into town, shop and restaurant owners face a gamble: hoping the tourism will rebound and renovating the new shop, or leaving it all behind seeking work in Batman – the closest city center.

When asked if any element of this colossal infrastructure project contributed to the local economy at all, many locals respond with a bitter expression. Many were promised, or at least expected, some contract and gig work in the construction sites or in the new museum, but to no avail. The construction companies sourced labor from the larger cities nearby. Security guard positions for the museum were filled with candidates from Batman, even though there are licensed security guards in Hasankeyf.
As for who is to blame for Hasankeyf’s doom, everyone points fingers at the others. All the intra-town tension preceding the dam construction seems to have seeped into the town’s divides woven in its fabric – just like water falling through the cracks of a rock, bursting it eventually. Some argue that the thousands of dollars spent on moving the historical artifacts to the higher ground was unnecessary, especially while the real, living humans were suffering. Some accuse the other locals of being sellouts. Some accuse HDP, the Kurdish opposition party, for not being a good enough opposition and bringing investment to the region. The HDP supporters blame the AKP supporters for being puppets. The Kurds accuse the Arabs, and the Arabs accuse the Kurds.

But it would be unfair to put all the burden of Hasankeyf’s destruction on the residents. I would be blind to my own privilege if I were to judge people for choosing to own flush toilets and a nice bath tub over their heritage – the latter does not put food on the table or fix your toilet. And to their credit, some still took the fight to court, risking intimidation and being profiled, showing faith in a highly dysfunctional judiciary system, and willing to spend their precious, and these days very scarce, financial resources.
While everyone is still pointing fingers at each other and even the artifacts, the fact remains: The local economy is essentially destroyed. The community is uprooted. Their way of life is forever lost. The waters of Tigris is rising day by day, swallowing the shoreline. And the rest of the civilization, present and future, will never have a chance to see the world’s oldest continuous settlement as it once was.

Part II – Who is to blame for Hasankeyf’s demise?

Frustration among Hasankeyf residents about the project management is obvious, but many interviewees elaborately avoided criticizing the government, or the state, often retracting their statements or adding “Don’t get me wrong, I love my country.” Or “Don’t get me wrong, I am not a terrorist.” In a region where people can be arrested on charges as vague as “displaying sympathy for terror”, people blame anyone but the government.

After years of intimidation and harassment by the state, the locals have mastered the art of picking your battles – which is to never pick a battle with the state in the first place. Many who were not willing to take risk, stuck between putting up a legal fight against the mighty “father state” (thus risking being labeled as terrorists or traitors) and defending their heritage, only had a non-choice. 
So, who is responsible for Hasankeyf’s demise? From my observation, it is our broken political system – not just the current government. Listening to the locals and accounting for historical or environmental values of our heritages are simply not woven into Turkey’s fabric of public project governance. Input from the civil society is simply discouraged, if not outright suppressed. Participation is perceived as pestering. Activists are perceived as obstacles.
An abandoned shop in the çarşı (bazaar).
An abandoned shop in the çarşı (bazaar).
Gokce Sencan

Many in Turkey, especially the opposition, find comfort in thinking that the old times were better, different. Maybe in the old times, some may even find themselves thinking, the Ilısu Dam project would not have gone forward, but they would be wrong: This project has been in the planning since 1980s as part of the country’s Southeastern Anatolia Project, and the AKP government only propelled it. Hasankeyf – with its history and people – has been deemed as collateral damage from hydropower development long before I was even born. An understanding of its heritage value was missing from the beginning, back when the project was first designed. Why should the current government, latching onto every possibility to exploit natural resources for simplistic economic gains, take it into consideration?

It is correct that this project’s management is utterly flawed and the fault would be with no one else but the current government, who has seen the dam to completion. But until we take a long hard look at and reform how the state undertakes public infrastructure projects, Hasankeyf will not be the last casualty of our unresponsive governance system.
Thursday, February 13, 2020