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TURKEY: Dam threatens to inundate heritage, livelihood of Kurdish town

September 25, 2010 |  9:42 am

Empty bazaar Hasankeyf

The historic town of Hasankeyf on the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey was once an important stop on the Silk Road connecting Asia to Europe, part of a rich history that sustains some 3,000 residents who depend on tourism to make a living.

But Hasankeyf will soon be completely submerged, along with its many archeological treasures, as the government hastens to complete a huge hydroelectric dam just 45 miles downstream.

On the foothills of a nearby hill, heavy machinery is busy constructing the foundations for a new town where the government plans to resettle the mostly Kurdish residents of Hasankeyf once the Ilisu Dam is completed, but support for the resettlement plan among locals is low.

“The authorities will pay us 30,000 lira ($20,000) for our homes but they want to charge us 70,000 lira ($46,850) to move into the houses up there,” said local retailer Muhyettin Talayhan, pointing to the machinery in the distance.

The massive 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric dam is part of a wider development called the South-East Anatolia Project (GAP), which, when completed, will be one of the largest regional projects in the world. The $32-billion project will provide much needed electricity, and, the government hopes, undermine Kurdish opposition groups galvanized by popular resentment over poverty and poor infrastructure.

But local residents and archeologists claim the government is ignoring the human cost, as well as the damage to historical sites.

“It will directly devastate up to 78,000 people and many more indirectly, cause environmental problems, cut off water supply downstream to communities in Iraq and Syria and cause great destruction of cultural heritage,” Maggie Ronayne, the acting head of archaeology at the National University of Ireland in Galway, told Babylon & Beyond.

“This is all in a war zone where the mostly Kurdish population has faced and continues to face serious repression from the Turkish military.”

Hasankeyf castle remains closed

Once the dam is finished, water will cover the Hasankeyf castle, other local ruins and several ancient caves that attract some 2 million tourists a year, the town's economic lifeline. Already, poor maintenance and heavy traffic have led to the death of a worker inside the castle in July, forcing authorities to shut it down just as the tourism season was peaking.

Now, the normally bustling road leading to the castle is empty as vendors stand around waiting for busloads of tourists that do not appear to be coming. Several shop owners have closed their stalls completely.

“They say, ‘You are leaving anyway so you don’t need anything here,’” said Talayhan, the vendor, frustrated by the attitude of local authorities.

Reputedly a settlement of between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, preservationists say Hasankeyf is one of the region’s most important archeological and cultural sites. In the 12th century, the city was successively captured by the Artuqids, ushering in a golden period of prosperity that saw the building of the castle and the Old Tigris Bridge, the remains of which are still visible today.

“Hasankeyf is protected by Turkish national heritage law and by extension by European law and directives. So the state as the developer for this project is breaking its own law as well as European law and other regulations,” said Ronayne.

-- Stephen Starr in Hasankeyf, Turkey

Photos, from top: The main tourist thoroughfare has been empty since Hasankeyf Castle closed following a deadly accident; locals complain the government is doing nothing to reopen the castle because the area will be flooded once the Ilisu Dam is completed. Credit: Stephen Starr

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