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