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Hasankeyf – Another Ancient City to be Destroyed

12,000 years of history vs. 4,200 gigawatts of electricity.

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HASANKEYF, Turkey- The history of Hasankeyf goes back 12,000 years. This is over two times longer than the Giza pyramids and Stonehenge, and makes the glorious civilizations of the Maya and Inca seem as if they were flourishing just yesterday. Hasankeyf is one of the oldest places in the world. But this ten millennium run will soon meet its ending point: the city will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam.

Ancient City of Hasankeyf

This is regular news in Turkey, a country where the greatest and earliest examples of human civilization are often washed away in the flood tide of dams or otherwise demolished in the name of modern progress and development.

But this has always been the case here. People have lived in the southeast of Turkey since the dawn of civilization, and one group of people simply built their wares upon those of the groups that came before them into infinitude. Each successive civilization destroyed the works of earlier civilizations in their own pursuits of progress.

New bridge spanning the Tigris River in Hasankeyf

I tell myself that these modern dam projects are simply in keeping with the onward flow of human history, but some point of logic catches at the back of my throat: this is not an example of a civilization leaving their mark upon the etching board of history, this is an example of a civilization destroying the etching board all together. This is not just another laying of a new cultural layer upon older layers, but an erasing of history all together. The Ilisu Dam project will wipe the historic dry erase board clean as the modern age exerts its mighty fist upon all notions of the past. A dam destroys everything.

I rode into Hasankeyf from Midyat on a bright sunny day. The hour long mini-bus ride went past dozens of little ancient stone villages and places of times long passed. I looked out the window as a spectator as I watched the living ruins of multiple civilizations roll past in the landscape. Greeks, Romans, Asyrians, Mongols, Arabs, Ottomans, and Kurds, and have all left their mark on this region in turn.

The southeast of Turkey has always been the central meeting point of the Old World, the southeast of Turkey is the proverbial X that marks the place where civilization was born and prospered for ten thousand years. Each civilization destroyed and rebuilt the one that came before it. But our civilization is to be the first that will not rebuild. Rather, we will use this area that was once the heart of the civilized world as an industrial backwater. This huge international dam project led by the Swiss will take energy from the squalid guts of Mesopotamia to power the modern cities of the West.

Door used to shut a cave home

The door is being closed on the past ages, the mysterious treasure trunk is being sealed for eternity. The old village of Hasankeyf, where the people lived in limestone caves, was evacuated thirty years ago by the Turkish authorities. The people were moved to a more modern part of town, as their cliff side homes were left behind as tourist attractions. Now, with the Ilisu Dam project, the newer area of Hasankeyf will be flooded over with by the buck-bellied Tigris River, and the people will be forced to move again.

Ancient Caves of Hasankeyf

Prior to arriving at Hasankeyf, I thought that I may have been entering into a village steeped in gloom about their future prospects, but this is not what I found. Conversely, I entered into a place that was full of smiles and people who would say hello as they walked by you on the street. Off duty tour guides would greet me as I passed and introduce themselves and welcome me to their village. This was a place full of smiles, not a glimmer of doom was present anywhere.

These people seemed to love their little village next to the old cave city. Perhaps the thought if it being washed away was far too much to dwell on. The children played here in the streets as children do everywhere outside of the first world fringe, the woman would giggle as their kids would shout inquisitive hellos at passing foreigners, and the men all seemed to work seasonal jobs in other tourist areas of Turkey.

Shelves cut into a cave home in Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf is cool. I spent two days just walking through the now abandoned ancient city of caves that were carved into the side of limestone cliffs and into the hills that stretched beyond. The fresh air here was just what I needed, and the Tigris River was as beautiful as I could ever expect it to be. I watched fishermen fish with large nets and actually catch large fish, and they smiled and waved once they caught sight of me. This place is good.

I must say that if the Ilisu Dam project really goes through, that so much here will be missed. I will remember the smiles of Hasankeyf. This is perhaps all a modern man can do.

Photos from Hasankeyf

Old bridge across the Tigris River.

The old cave city of Hasankeyf.

Cave home dug into the limestone.

Sunset over the Tigris River.


Filed under: Archaeology, Articles, Current Events, Turkey

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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10 comments… add one

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  • All Inclusive Excursions May 24, 2010, 7:54 pm

    This is a horrible loss. I guess what it boils down to, are are there any options and is the dam going to help the people. I realize the people come first, but at what price? Is there any talk of making it a World Heritage Site to try to save it? People always say how easy it is to make them. If that is true, it would probably save this amazing heritage.

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  • roslyn halperin June 27, 2010, 1:35 pm

    is there anyone with any type of petition to sign to try to save this city
    seems to me tourism should be promoted. but more than that the people who live there should be allowed to stay
    i hate to see this be destroyed i cant afford to travel but i just
    would hope people should come before profit.. in the end profit just
    creates more problems –look at the US. People will not benefit if profit comes before people

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  • TMoney August 13, 2010, 12:25 pm


    A petition? Profit creates problems? Holy moly!

    Wealth = health my friend. These people want progress, not tourists taking pictures of their crappy stone huts and waxing poetic about how “quaint” and “beautiful” their very short, and very hard lives are.

    Get your head out of the clouds hippie.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 26, 2010, 11:56 am

      What background of experience or knowledge do you have to make this statement? Have you had extensive experience in Eastern Turkey, know the people there, know what is going on? If so, please write more. If not, then let your comment stand as is.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 6, 2011, 9:56 am

      Honestly, TMoney has a good point.

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      • Rozina June 14, 2012, 5:00 am

        This is not an economic issue. It is a political one. There’s not much more to it. It meets almost all of the requirements to be classified as a World Heritage Site, but only the government of a particular country has the authority to nominate a site as a World Heritage site, and this is not being done because it is in the Kurdish part of the country. Most of the people that will be displaced are Kurds. Because there is a pending dam project, no investment is going into this area for fear that a dam will be put up soon enough.
        The history between the Kurds and Turks is not so nice and if one only looks a little bit at the history it is very clear that the Ilisu Dam is a political issue, not an economic one.
        Alternatives to the Ilisu Dam have been proposed in an effort to save Hasankeyf, which include the building of 5 mini dams and if it were an economic issue, this would undoubtedly have been accepted and agreed upon.

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  • aydan kayserili November 2, 2010, 6:00 am

    I have been to Hasankeyf. It is gorgeous. It is a heaven on the earth. I cannot believe the Turkish government is trying to destroy the cultural heritage. They do not understand what the value of history and archeology is. All they think is how to destroy the nature and history. I am protesting two Turkish banks who provide financial support to this project. Akbank and Garanti Bankasi. They are part of ruining this great history. Hope one day I want to see the justice.

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  • Ming March 20, 2011, 7:32 pm

    If it were an ancient Jewish, Christian, or Muslim site, you can bet it would be untouchable to modern expansion!

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  • Bert Aktar August 21, 2011, 3:23 pm

    I am just fresh out of Hasankeyf. Travel notes later on but first a clarification. Ilisu dam is not about money; it is designed exclusively for the purpose of submerging HasanKeyf. an alternative location for a dam that will not submerge HasanKeyf has been proposed over and over by various experts but Turkish regimes, no matter of which inclinations refused it. This is part of Turkish national project of destroying everything Kurdish; from people to language to history.
    What can be done. We must stop any activity that helps Turkish economy. Boycott every product made in Turkey, don’t vacation in Turkey except for seeing these threatened places, make sure your money is not invested in any Turkish assets. Write you congressman/woman/senator not to cast any vote favorable to Turkey at any context until she stop her criminal activity.
    What Turkey is doing is nothing less than a crime against the collective humanity; she must be ostracized and condemned. Any harm to Turkish economy is a helping hand to Hasankeyf and all other ancient cities, people and languages under treat. STOP TURKEY NOW!
    Here is the rest of my observations.
    I went to HasanKeyf as part of a self guided tour of this corner of Kurdistan. I traveled in a rented car with three teenagers, more often than not sharing roads with Turkish armor. I talked to all kind of people; it sure helps to speak Kurdish in addition to Turkish.
    My 13 year old son was beyond himself seeing all that armor occupying every conceivable hill near every ancient castle we visited; all the writings of Turkish army on hillsides pronouncing the greatness of Turkish nation. Of course he does not know about naming of military bases after Turkish generals known for and sometimes convicted of mass murder of Kurdish civilians.
    I knew about Hasankeyf, I knew why it was being destroyed; seeing the town up close changed my perception of Turkish regime altogether. This regime is evil incarnate; no less!

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