Hasankeyf: state-building versus humanity’s heritage

Despite a protracted and fierce international struggle to save the valley of Tigris river where tools of farming were first used according to scientific sources, most significantly the 12000-year-old settlement of Hasankeyf on the riverbank (which fulfils nine of UNESCO’s ten World Cultural Heritage criteria), it has now started to be buried under the water of the Ilisu Dam.

The project is being carried out as part of Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), one of the country's most ambitious water projects, on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Hasankeyf was awarded complete archaeological protection in 1978 by Turkey. But, the destruction has begun despite the article of the Turkish Constitution and international standards relating to human heritage and ecological and environmental protection. 

It is crucial to ask why sites of such vital importance to humankind’s heritage have been, and continue to be, targeted by both legal actors and terrorist organisations. As well as the Turkish state’s destruction of Hasankeyf, we have recently seen actors ranging from the so-called Islamic State which destroyed the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra to legitimised actors such as the U.S. President Donald Trump who recently threatened treasured Iranian cultural sites, taking pleasure in the demolition of cultural heritage sites.

The answer is straightforward: radical terrorist organisations want to cement up memorials of civilisations which they see as impediments to their ideologies, and recognised actors such as the U.S. president want to undermine the dignity of opposing actors by demolishing their historical heritage. However, the Turkish state’s flooding of Hasankeyf goes beyond sealing memories and assaulting the people’s dignity; it also involves multiple political and strategic dimensions. In a nutshell, while Turkey intends to instrumentalise the Ilisu Dam to produce 4 percent of the country’s total energy and to use it as a domestic security tool against the Kurdistan Workers' Party which has waged a decades-long insurgency in the country. The dam is also important for geopolitical reasons in relation to water flow to downstream riparian states such as Iraq and Syria.

In southeastern Turkey, where the PKK is active in the mountains, the dam project has served the Turkish state by creating a barrier to interaction and connection between the PKK and local Kurdish inhabitants in the region. More importantly, the Ilisu and Cizre dam which lays next to the Syrian border and Mount Cudi, are very close together, reflecting the state’s desire to create what would amount to a water border.

Thus, while they generate energy, the principal aim is to utilise the dams for security in the region. For example, 11 dams have been built on Tigris in Hakkari and Şırnak provinces, close to the Iraqi-Turkish border, with security in mind, both to block the PKK from having relations with the locals and to prevent a possible attack on Turkish military stations in the region. 

Moreover, the Mosul Dam in Iraq is entirely dependent on water flow down Tigris from Turkey, a significant example of how the building of the 11 dams puts downstream states such as Syria and Iraq in a tactically and substantially disadvantageous position, and therefore threatens their national security and particularly their future water security. So the Ilisu Dam project has the extra benefit for Turkey of enhancing both internal and external security and contributing to the long-term military-political goal of macro-regional hegemony.

In terms of environmental security, the Ilisu Dam constitutes a major threat. In Iraq two million people face fresh drinking water shortages, hydro-electric power production has been significantly reduced due to low water levels, and crops of grain, barley, mint and dates have been reduced. It has also impacted on wildlife such as ducks and geese, and most importantly the fishing industry, vital for the income of local inhabitants, has drastically declined. The dam also led to the resettlement of some 34,000 locals and ultimately it will hurt the lives of up to 78,000 people, destroying about 52 villages and 15 towns. 

To recap, Hasankeyf was a cradle of civilization, indeed hosting several civilizations, and was capital of many medieval cultures such as the Artukids, had links to the Romans, and contributed to the early development of irrigation practices dating back to the Sumerian and Akkadian periods around 4000-5000 BC. It is argued that dams usually have a life of only about 50 to 70 years. So, to reiterate the question, why has Turkey not been interested in saving all this from flooding by the Ilisu Dam?

One of the crucial reasons is that the relevant historical sites are not seen as part of Turkish history by the state, most of them being seen as part of ancient Greece or ancient Mesopotamia, because Turks did not migrate to Anatolia from Middle Asia until the eleventh century. The negligence of Turkey towards valuable historical sites is very obvious, the most noticeable sites including Allianoi, a Roman bath in Izmir area (flooded in 2011 by the Yortanlı Dam), and the 3,000-year-old Greco-Roman city of Zeugma, which disappeared with its valley under the Birecik Dam.

When building huge dams in the region, Turkey has never concerned by the destruction of cultural heritage, focusing only on energy supply, domestic politics and geostrategic advantage. This carelessness arises from the unspoken Turkish state mentality towards such historical sites as Hasankeyf, which represent a heritage belonging to ‘others’.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.