This post originally appeared on Medium.
“Quick, through here.” Our guide Turgut produces a key and ushers us through a large iron gate surrounded by Arabic inscriptions. Soon, we are in the Byzantine castle looming over the tiny village of Hasankeyf in South-East Turkey. Turgut had managed to procure a key from a local after the castle was closed by the Turkish government for “safety reasons”. We scramble up some rocks just in time to witness a glorious sunrise over the Tigris river. The first rays of the sun peek over the range, basking the town in golden light. The morning call to prayer sounds, echoing off the dramatic cliffs, signalling the beginning of a new day. Slowly, the 3,000-odd inhabitants of Hasankeyf stir to life. Shepherds begin to move their goats to a new paddock. The rough sound of metal doors on rollers as the souvenir shops on the main street open for business. A fisherman casts his net in shallows of the Tigris. Birds chirp among the small yellow flowers that have sprung up everywhere. We sit in silence, contemplating the knowledge that in less than two years this will all be underwater.
In Turkey’s south-east, the struggle between man and water has been a long one. After all, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers is known as the ‘cradle of civilisation’ for its rich soil and reliable water supply. Hasankeyf, nestled among the cliffs of the Tigris, has been inhabited for almost 5,000 years. It has survived the rise and fall of seven different empires, from the Artukids to the Ottomans. But the town’s prime location has also caught the eye of the Turkish government, who earmarked the valley as a perfect place to build a dam as part of the country’s massive South-Eastern Anatolian Project (commonly known as GAP, its Turkish acronym). GAP was the brainchild of Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founding father, as a way of providing water and irrigation for the country’s slice of the Fertile Crescent. The dam has been decades in the making; today, only the finishing touches are needed before the valley can be filled with water.
Within minutes of arriving in Hasankeyf from the fabulously named provincial capital of Batman, we are are invited to sit with some locals to escape the baking midday heat. It’s the middle of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), the Muslim holy month where everyone fasts from dawn to dusk. There isn’t a single restaurant or cafe open, so our newfound friends lead us on a hike into the cliffs and treat us to a homemade feast of locally produced cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and watermelon, deliciously cool after sitting in the little stream nearby. Turkish hospitality is renowned, but in this part of the country it’s on another level. We sit and watch the sun set, but even the beauty can’t distract from the knowledge that this an experience with a time limit.
Later that evening we meet John Crofoot, Hasankeyf’s sole expat. John helps to run an English-language website called Hasankeyf Matters that aims to raise awareness of the town’s plight. The site also works with the local community in order to preserve the culture of the village, even if the town itself ends up underwater. As we tuck in to our Iftar feast, he explains that even religious holidays like Ramadan help with the morale. “This is a badly traumatised community, but Ramadan gives them a chance to do something together. They love it, they look forward to it”.
Across the valley, further up the hill above the proposed waterline, is Yeni (New) Hasankeyf. This is where the government proposes the residents move to. At the moment it’s little more than a bunch of high rises and empty streets. Recently, government workers came to Hasankeyf and marked every house in order to determine compensation for the flooding. But most locals agree it’s nowhere near enough. According to Hasankeyf Matters, apartments in Yeni Hasankeyf are selling for 170,000 TL (around US$85,000), but the compensation offered for a three-bedroom apartment in the old town is as little as 20,000 TL.
There are five Arabic-speaking micro cultures in eastern Turkey, and Hasankeyf is one of them. Having been isolated for centuries it has managed to keep its language and culture, even during the Turkification of the republic’s early years. The locals worry that there won’t be any work in new Hasankeyf; tourism is one of the biggest industries in the town, and no-one wants to visit some soulless high rises. Many will likely end up in the larger cities in the south-east, where there are more opportunities for work. If the town’s residents scatter, one of the most unique cultures in Turkey will disappear too.
Early the next morning we set out on a hike, hoping to explore the region before the baking summer heat becomes unbearable. We hug the banks of the Tigris, weaving in and out of the caves sunken into the cliffs. There are over 4,000 caves in the region, some dating as far back as 2,000 BC. Passing under the new stone bridge gives us perfect views of the remains of the Eski Köprü (old bridge), built by the Artukids in the 10th century. Across the river from the citadel is the Zeynel Bey tomb, a cylindrical structure adorned by Central Asian tiles which is due to be moved by the Turkish government by the end of the year. Exhausted, we return to the oasis of our guesthouse, but not before being stopped by more locals keen for a chat along the way.
If anything is going to save Hasankeyf it’s tourism, and people are doing their best to promote it to both domestic and international tourists. But the town has a branding problem. Being only 100km from the borders of Syria and Iraq, the area doesn’t exactly scream ‘toursim’. What’s more, the big attractions of Turkey all have that money shot — the minarets of Istanbul, the fairy chimneys of Cappdocia, Ephesus’ grand library — something Hasankeyf lacks. There are beautiful sights no doubt, but the real draw of the town is the lifestyle, but that’s difficult to capture on a postcard. The tour buses can shuffle people in and out within two hours but they don’t get to see what Hasankeyf life is like.
In 2013 the High Court of Turkey submitted an injunction to stop the flooding of the Hasankeyf valley because the government had not conducted the required Environmental Impact Assessment. It was a promising sign, but the construction industry in Turkey often holds such legal matters in low regard, and work on the dam has continued despite the warnings. In the meantime, locals and expats like John are doing all they can to sway the court of public opinion. Like 2013’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, they hope that if enough people campaign against it then the government may change its mind. But to do that, people need to come and experience Hasankeyf for themselves.
On our final day in Hasankeyf we float in the cool waters of the Tigris, looking up at the cliffs that will eventually hold the water level. Despite the impending flood life still goes on as normal. Farmers go about their business. Restoration work continues on the old bridge. Shepherds herd their goats across the road while cars patiently wait for them to cross. Birds call to their young from the nests atop the castle walls. The evening call to prayer sounds, once again echoing off the cliffs. If the town floods the people of Hasankeyf may move, but these are the things that cannot be transported.