View of Hasankeyf with the castle in left foreground, in southeastern Turkey.

Destruction of Hasankeyf Begins as Ancient Caves Are Collapsed With Explosives

The destruction of historical caves with the use of explosives in the ancient town of Hasankeyf by the Turkish government has drawn anger and disappointment to many people from all over the world. Unfortunately, the early Mesopotamian settlement is due to be submerged by a hydroelectric dam project.

Turkish Government Destroys 12,000-Year-Old Settlement

Authorities have started to collapse cliff faces around the ruins of the settlement, in order to press ahead with the construction of a dam around 50 miles downstream. The destruction of the Mesopotamian town which has evidence of first settlement 12,000 years ago, has moved a step closer as The Guardian reports .

The construction of the Ilisu dam is very controversial, as it is expected to raise the level of the Tigris by nearly 60m (197ft), which inevitably will submerge 80% of the ancient city and several villages nearby. It will also destroy more than 300 historical sites that have yet to be excavated, and ruin the fragile ecosystem of the Tigris, as The Guardian reports . This is seen as an incredibly tragic event by many archaeologists worldwide, as no temporary government (anywhere in the world) has the right to destroy our ecumenical human heritage.

Some of the caves are still in use by local people

Some of the caves are still in use by local people ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The 12,000-Year-Old Mesopotamian Town of Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf is one of the oldest ancient sites in the world with evidence of human settlement. Dating back 12,000 years, it has been home to virtually every major Mesopotamian civilization, and it has seen immense transformations over its long life-span, from a Byzantine bishopric to an Arab fortress and an outpost in the Ottoman Empire. Hasankeyf is rich in history throughout the ages and thousands of caves exist in the cliffs that surround the city. Many of the caves are multi-storied and have their own water supply. Churches and mosques were also carved into the cliffs and numerous ancient cemeteries exist throughout the area.

However, all this history is about to be lost. As we reported in a previous article , the Turkish Republic ordered the construction of a hydroelectric dam a few years ago. The 12,000-year-old settlement of Hasankeyf is located on the banks of the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey, not far from the border with Syria. The Ilisu Dam is expected to generate nearly 2% of Turkey’s electricity and create an 11-billion-cubic-meter reservoir, sinking the ancient city and dozens of towns on the Tigris River in the process.

It is expected the Tigris River level will rise by 60 meters (197ft)

It is expected the Tigris River level will rise by 60 meters (197ft) ( CC BY 2.0 )

Thousands of People Will be Displaced Because of the Dam

Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer with the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive , told The Guardian that around 80,000 people would end up displaced because of the dam. Many will lose their livelihoods as well, and because of the need to take out loans to pay for new homes, thousands will be left impoverished.

Turkey Proceed with the Project Despite Pending Court Decision at the European Court

During the summer of 2009, Germany, Switzerland and Austria removed any financial support for the Ilisu dam, expressing fears about the negative impact the project could have on a social, environmental and cultural level. The Turkish authorities, however, have managed to secure €1.1 billion in domestic financing, and proceed with the project despite a pending court decision at the European Court of Human Rights.

The international community openly challenges the Turkish government’s arbitrary decisions as the Ilisu dam isn’t expected to last a hundred years, even though the catastrophe of the flimsy natural environment will be irreparable. “The Tigris river basin is one of the last areas where a river runs freely in Turkey without having been dammed. The dam will completely destroy the river banks. The microclimate will change due to the dam, a phenomenon we have already seen after the dams on the Euphrates. The biodiversity will suffer; the rich variety of plant and animal life will be severely diminished,” a concerned Ayboga told The Guardian .

Zeynel Bey's tomb has already been removed from the area in preparation for flooding

Zeynel Bey's tomb has already been removed from the area in preparation for flooding ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Turkish Government Bans Protests in the Area

Ayboga also pointed out how the bad relations between Turkey and Iraq made it easier for the Turkish government to ban every protest regarding the Ilisu Dam in the area, taking advantage of the hostility between the two nations, “There has always been a serious lack of transparency and accountability,” Ayboga tells The Guardian . And continues, “But now the Turkish government uses the conflict in the region and the state of emergency to speed up the project and to silence all opposition. Many locals are scared to protest now.”

Ultimately, no other could describe the disaster better than a local resident. He tells Deutsche Welle , “They are not only destroying our past, but also our future by taking away this as a source of income and heritage. We would like to apologize to the future generations for allowing this."

Top image: View of Hasankeyf with the castle in left foreground, in southeastern Turkey. ( CC BY 2.0 )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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