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Turkish Dam Project Threatens to Submerge Thousands of Years of History

A contentious dam project that dates to the 1950s is more than 80 percent complete, and the filling of a reservoir will swamp much of the town of Hasankeyf.


ISTANBUL — For five generations, Firat Argun’s family has lived in Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the Tigris River in southeast Turkey where he runs a small bed-and-breakfast with a well-appointed garden.

“I have everything in my garden,” he said recently. “I have already found my heaven.”

But his little heaven will soon be lost.

Mr. Argun’s garden, along with thousands of years of history, will be submerged when Turkey completes a hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River, a project that dates back to the 1950s. The dam is more than 80 percent complete, but the part that will force Mr. Argun, and thousands of his neighbors, from their homes awaits: the filling of a reservoir that will cover much of the city.

“It’s going to ruin a historic city,” said Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architectural history in Istanbul, who has opposed the project.

Hasankeyf (pronounced has-AN-kayf) has an abundance of history, more than 12,000 years of it, dating back to the Neolithic period, when it was the site of one of the world’s first organized human settlements. The empires that came later all left their imprints: Byzantines, Romans, Seljuks, Ottomans. The archaeological highlight is a citadel, on high ground overlooking the river, and while that will stay above the water, scientists worry that over time its limestone base, which is porous, will erode and ultimately collapse.

The dam project has its roots in the ambitions of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who envisioned a constellation of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to meet the country’s energy needs.

Turkey’s control of the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris, rivers that feed Syria and Iraq, has long been controversial in the Middle East, with critics saying decisions made by Turkey have led to water shortages in both other countries that have contributed to instability and wars.

The dam, in the village of Ilisu, has raised alarms in Iraq, where activists warn it will reduce the water flow to the marshlands in the Iraqi south. “If the marshes don’t receive an adequate share of water, they will vanish,” said Nadia al-Baghdady, an activist in Baghdad.

Engineering plans for the Ilisu Dam were first drawn up in the 1980s. There have been many delays — work stoppages, resistance from environmentalists and even sabotage. In 2009, European creditors pulled their funding over fears that the project would destroy the area’s cultural heritage.

For decades the residents of Hasankeyf, many of whom speak Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish and make a living herding sheep or weaving rugs, have lived with the knowledge that, at some point, they would be forced from their homes. To accommodate them, the Turkish government is building a new Hasankeyf and buying up homes in the old city, even though, given so many delays, no one can say for sure when the reservoir will be filled.


“It’s very sad,” said John Crofoot, an American who has lived for several years in Hasankeyf, and has been an outspoken activist opposing the dam, saying its costs to the local population, and to history, are too great. “They are dejected. They love their town and are proud of the history of Hasankeyf. It’s where their grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.”

Mr. Argun said he has no interest in moving to the new city. “I am going to throw myself to the mountains like Robinson Crusoe,” he said. “Just a makeshift cabin is enough.”


Source: New York Times


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