Doomed life of the dammed Ancient treasure is doomed

The Tigris: Turkish dam scheme will destroy valleys where civilisation was born
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The Independent Online
UNDER THE huge ruins of an ancient bridge, a shepherd drives his flock down to drink from the waters of the river Tigris. Nearby, children are playing in the river. Locals watch from cave-houses carved out of the hills. The Islamic call to prayer echoes from a beautiful decorated minaret.

Life in Hasankeyf, one of the oldest settlements in the world, goes on much as it has for centuries. Some historians claim the first settlers came here as long as 10,000 years ago. But in a few years, Hasankeyf will be lost for ever, submerged beneath the waters when the Turkish government builds a new dam on the Tigris.

"Our way of life will be drowned," says Ali Abdullah Tatus, who grew up here. He is sitting in one of the caves which is used as a cafe, drinking the local speciality, Turkish coffee with milk. Outside it is fiercely hot, but the cave remains cool.

"Of course we're against the dam", he says. "But if the state wants to build it, what can we do?"

You meet the same helpless resignation all over Hasankeyf. This region, once ancient Mesopotamia, is very poor. Mr Tatus, like many others here, travels to western Turkey for work, returning to his beloved Hasankeyf only periodically.

The dam will bring jobs, and the government will pay generous compensation to thosedisplaced. "People here don't want the money," says Mr Tatus. "We want to stay here."

The Ilisu dam, which will end Hasankeyf's long history, is part of the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), Turkey's grand scheme to revitalise the economy of the troubled south-east.

Ankara says the 14-year Kurdish rebellion, which has torn the region apart, is fuelled more by poverty and unemployment than by political repression. Eventually, 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will provide irrigation and hydroelectric power, transforming the local economy.

There is more at stake. The dams will allow Turkey to control the flow of water to Syria and Iraq and give Ankara important political leverage in the Middle East. Syria and Iraq have already protested at the threat to their water supplies, and there are fears that GAP could spark a regional war.

And little attention has focused on the plight of the thousands like Mr Tatus, who will be displaced by GAP. The completed Ataturk dam alone has already affected more than 50,000 people. The Ilisu dam will submerge 50 villages and displace 20,000 people.

Turkish intellectuals have founded the Friends of Hasankeyf to save the ancient town. Recep Kavus is the local representative. "Tourism could have saved Hasankeyf," he says. But there is no hotel in town. Ironically, it is illegal to build one because Hasankeyf is a protected area of historical importance. "They made Hasankeyf a protected area in 1978 and decided to submerge it in 1982," says Mr Kavus. "The people are in an impossible position. They can't build here, but the state can destroy the place."

Only now are local authorities putting up tourism signs. The news that Hasankeyf is about to be destroyed has prompted a mini-boom, as Turks come to see the town while they can.

There is another reason why foreign tourists do not come here. The town is on the edge of a war zone, where Turkish security forces fight the Kurdish rebels. The road south closes in early afternoon, and foreigners staying in the troubled next-door town of Batman are likely to be questioned by paranoid police. Hasankeyf is being destroyed by the fighting between the state of Turkey and the Kurdish rebels. Yet it has little stake in the fight: here the population is 80 per cent ethnic Arab.

It is hard to believe that Turkey can squander so valuable an asset as Hasankeyf. Turkey claims in its tourism promotions that Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilisation, yet here it is preparing to wipe out a visible part of that heritage.

The small town is littered with historical sights: there are cave churches from the period when Hasankeyf was an important centre for Syrian Christians, and ornate mosques and Islamic tombs. It is believed that the ruined bridge was once a giant drawbridge, protecting the town from attack. Archaeologists are hurriedly digging to find what they can before the waters arrive.

But in the feudal society of south-east Turkey, most of the land belongs to a few powerful landlords who stand to collect huge compensation from the state. "We want the dam," one of them told me. "We're going to sell our land for good money and go west."

Mr Kavus of the Friends of Hasankeyf says: "When that happens, the traces of a civilisation will disappear along the Tigris."

Osman Turhan stared out over the river from the ruins of the old citadel. "It's not just the beauty and history of the place that we'll miss," he says. "It's our traditional life. We water our fields from the river and catch fish to eat from the river. Hasankeyf is the Tigris."