A stork wheels over the ancient mosque, flying solo in a sky of seamless blue. Circling lower it executes a seemingly impossible landing on a nest precariously perched atop the minaret. Far below, the Tigris is flowing lazily towards Iraq, its sparkle extinguished by the lengthening shadow cast by cliff and citadel. This is Hasankeyf, fortress of rock, in Anatolia, Turkey’s far east. Dug into the southern slopes of the Raman mountains, the small town has for millennia guarded the river crossing, though perhaps not for much longer. “It is a jewel of history,” says my guide. “Soon it will become sunken treasure.”
For two decades Hasankeyf has lived under threat of inundation by the waters of the Ilisu Dam, the country’s largest hydroelectric project. More than a mile long and 443ft high, when completed this year it will hold back the waters of the Tigris, creating a reservoir that will cover 121 square miles. In Hasankeyf, water levels are expected to rise by some 200ft, enough to lap the minaret’s upper balcony.
It was the waters of the Tigris that gave rise to the first settlements in Mesopotamia and Anatolia – the cradle of human development. Hasankeyf alone bears the mark of nine civilisations, including Persian, Hittite, Sumerian and Assyrian. Rome constructed the fortress, the Byzantines built churches, the Ottomans a mint and a hamam. The reservoir will submerge not only the honey-coloured lower town but render inaccessible hundreds of sites of archaeological importance, including evidence of our earliest origins as a species and the beginnings of agriculture. Gone, too, will be a medieval bridge believed to have been crossed by Marco Polo and holy places from several traditions within the Muslim and Christian faiths, some dating back more than a millennium. Zoologists fear the project will also put endangered species at risk, including the rare striped hyena and the Euphrates soft-shelled turtle.
From our viewpoint in a café commanding a panorama of the rock citadel, the bazaar and a gorgeous jumble of gardens and semi-ruined mosques, it is all too evident what will be lost to the rising waters. This rare example of a medieval Islamic city frozen in time – yet still inhabited – is laid out in three districts: the fortress; the commercial and theological centre; and the residential quarter. Among the survivors of Hasankeyf’s golden age are three principal mosques representing a distinctive phase in the evolution of Islamic architecture, the “Turkish synthesis” of central Asian, Persian and Arab styles. It is El Rizk Camii, built in 1409 by a sultan of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty – strategically close to the base of the citadel – that provides a home to the stork. The carvings on its minaret are inscribed with what scholars believe to be the 99 names of Allah.
A little higher, a portal marks the ascent to the clifftop fort and palace. An essential stopping point en route is Ulu Cami, a romantically dilapidated mosque built in 1305 by Saladin’s descendants. Below it, teetering on the cliff’s edge, is the palace of the Artuqid Turkish rulers presently undergoing archeological investigation. Disentangling the atmospheric complex of Roman fort, Byzantine bishop’s palace and Ottoman barracks from earlier remains has provided archaeologists with a challenge. Yet, as my guide suggests, the mystery is half the charm. It is arguable that fame would have protected Hasankeyf if Victorian artist David Roberts, whose record of ancient monuments popularised travel to Egypt and the Holy Land, had made it a little further north.
The threat has certainly not gone unnoticed by scholars in Turkey and abroad, although the town and, indeed, Anatolia remain curiously unfamiliar even to adventurous travellers. “Imagine the outcry if it were Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat that was at risk of obliteration,” says Alex Mudd, sales director at Steppes Travel, a tour operator that specialises in the region. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex, has lamented the impending loss of “one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world”, while the EU deplores the archaeological impact upon some 200 sites of historical and cultural interest. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed Hasankeyf on its watch list of the 100 most endangered sites.
So why is Turkey courting international opprobrium with a project that has seen the withdrawal of big construction firms such as Balfour Beatty and Skanska in response to public pressure, and the suspension of support by European export credit insurers? The answers are buried within the pages of the Southeastern Anatolia Project for sustainable development, intended to raise the living standards of 9m people. Its aims – to stimulate development of an impoverished area, create jobs and promote tourism – seem irreproachable. About 6,500 square miles of parched agricultural land are due to receive irrigation under a scheme that envisages the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydraulic power plants.
Despite budgetary pressures, the scheme is proceeding apace and the dam is due to be completed this year. The Housing Development Administration is building a settlement with homes to be sold to the 2,900 displaced residents of Hasankeyf. A dozen of Hasankeyf’s most cherished monuments have been earmarked for relocation before the flooding, along with many smaller artefacts. The Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs told the Financial Times that the spend in the Ilisu Dam area since 1998 exceeded TL78m (£21.2m) on archaeology and research, plus just under TL8m on restoration, with more promised. Following the withdrawal of international banks in 2009 the entire investment is being underwritten by the Turkish state, to which the Ilisu Dam has become a project of national honour.
As we sip intense Turkish coffee back in the town my eye is caught by a flash of movement above us. From the southern riverbank the cliff rises precipitately, its face pocked by caves. At its apogee is the citadel, largely carved from the living rock. Many of the 8,000 caves in the area were in use until the 1970s as homes, grain stores and even churches, with Hasankeyf remaining home to a generally cheerful coexistence of Orthodox Christians, Arabs and Kurds. Today it is the latter who predominate in the town; tough, hospitable people with limited trust in Ankara’s goodwill. Despite the official line that the cave houses have been vacated, half a dozen local families are whispered to retain a talon-hold on their eyries.
At one point protesters threatened to take up troglodyte residence in protest at what is locally regarded as inadequate compensation, now the subject of last-ditch negotiation. It might not have been as uncomfortable as one would expect, for some of the cave houses are duplex and enjoy running water. Cool in summer, when outside temperatures can reach 43C, and – with a fire – comparatively warm in winter, the caves provide accommodation by no means as primitive as might be anticipated. In Cappadocia to the northwest, tourists flock to stay in new cave hotels, some almost luxurious. Could it happen here, above the water level?
Today visitors are few, in spite of Hasankeyf’s location on the old spice route linking some of the most intriguing sites in a region replete with historical interest, and an increasing number of boutique hotels. To the east is Lake Van, an inland sea; to the west the dramatic hill town of Mardin commanding the Syrian Desert with the Orthodox Saffron Monastery on its outskirts; beyond is Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital. Brooding over all this are the giant stone heads of Persian deities on the summit of Mount Nemrut. “There is simply more of interest hereabouts than almost anywhere else in the Middle East,” says Alex Mudd. “And unlike neighbouring countries it is both accessible and safe.” The best advice then has to be go, but go soon.
Julian Allason was a guest of Steppes Travel (steppestravel.co.uk), which offers five nights’ accommodation in boutique hotels, including flights from London, transfers and sightseeing, from £1,595 per person. Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies from Istanbul to Batman, 36km to the northwest of Hasankeyf and the nearest airport