Dam Town: Visiting Hasankeyf Before the Flood

Upper part of the town of Hasankeyf and construction work to the right (Photo: George Aghjayan)

For over a decade, Hasankeyf has been the focus of international attention due to the soon-to-be-completed Ilısu Dam project that will flood much of the historic town. Last Saturday, June 8, I made the side excursion to the town of Hasankeyf, a town between Midyat and Batman in current southeastern Turkey thought to be continuously inhabited for over 10,000 years.

The Tigris River runs through Hasankeyf with its ancient structures rising high above overlooking the cave dwellings along the opposite shoreline. Armenians are one of the many people who have had a presence in the town, especially when it was a major point along the silk road. On the eve of the genocide, few Armenians remained; though even late in the 19th century, the head of the Christian community there was an Armenian.

After a decade in the works, the dam shut down this week to begin the flooding stage. The water level will ultimately rise by approximately 200 feet, submerging much of the historically significant remains. The Turkish government has built a new town on the hillside above and will force the remaining residents to relocate.

one could argue this is one of the few ways to actually preserve heritage in Turkey.

The dam project has been controversial not only for the cultural impact, but also for the political leverage resulting from limiting the flow of the Tigris to water-deprived Syria and Iraq, particularly in areas heavily populated by Kurds. Four days after I was there, 33 activists were arrested during a protest of the flooding.

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While it will take six months or longer for water for rising water levels to reach Hasankeyf, one could feel the sense of urgency of hawkers to sell their tourist trinkets before time runs out. All the while, construction workers and their equipment buzzed along the hillside making the final preparations moving large amounts of gravel and dirt.

The controversy around building dams is nothing new in Turkey, or elsewhere for that matter. Here in Massachusetts, we have the towns impacted by the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs. In Turkey, the Keban dam submerged a number of previously Armenian villages in the Kharpert region in the early 1970s. Today, you can just see the highest point of the village of Habousi above the waterline. My own grandmother’s village of Uzunova in the Palu district was also submerged by the Keban Reservoir, thus preserving it for posterity.

Of course, being underwater does not protect Armenian historical sites from misrepresentation. The Armenian monastery on Lake Goeljuk [Hazar] is being billed as a “sunken city” with no reference to Armenians – euphemisms are the norm.

As my friends and I contemplated the soon-to-be life altering changes, it occurred to us that instead of viewing the dam as another destruction of a cultural site, one could argue this is one of the few ways to actually preserve heritage in Turkey. All too often, looters, treasure seekers and ultra-nationalists purposefully destroy any accessible cultural site in search of Armenian wealth or to purge evidence of an Armenian presence. Much of Hasankeyf will no longer be under threat of such a fate.

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George Aghjayan

George Aghjayan is the Director of the Armenian Historical Archives and the chair of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Central Committee of the Eastern United States. Aghjayan graduated with honors from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Actuarial Mathematics. He achieved Fellowship in the Society of Actuaries in 1996. After a career in both insurance and structured finance, Aghjayan retired in 2014 to concentrate on Armenian related research and projects. His primary area of focus is the demographics and geography of western Armenia as well as a keen interest in the hidden Armenians living there today. Other topics he has written and lectured on include Armenian genealogy and genocide denial. He is a board member of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), a frequent contributor to the Armenian Weekly and Houshamadyan.org, and the creator and curator westernarmenia.weebly.com, a website dedicated to the preservation of Armenian culture in Western Armenia.

3 Comments

  1. Thousands of articles have been produced on the destruction of Hasankeyf without needing to invent a spurious Armenian connection as a justification. Hasn’t anyone told the author the Keban dam was a 1960s thing. There have been hundreds of new dams in Turkey since then. Here are some recently constructed ones in which Armenian sites were lost. Last year the Mezra dam flooded a large area north of Kars, two formerly Armenian villages are now underwater. Many minor archaeological sites were also lost, plus a Russian era iron bridge. Also in Kars, the vast Karakurt dam is due for completion this year – most of Karakurt will be flooded, and who knows what else because no archaeological survey has been done. Fortunately, multiple dams planned between Erzincan and Kemah were legally halted locally last year because no archaeological survey had been produced. However, there is nothing to stop a higher judicial decision giving the go ahead regardless. Further downstream, north of Kemaliye/Egin, over the last decade a series of dams have flooded dozens of formerly Armenian settlements and mumerous Armenian / Roman / Byzantine archaeological sites on what was the historical border between Rome and Armenia. Not a word about any of this destruction has appeared in any Armenian publication to my knowledge.

    • I am not really sure what the beef is with the article. I did not invent an Armenian connection or over-emphasize it. I simply noted that Armenians did have a presence in Hasankeyf which is relevant as this is the Armenian Weekly. While thousands of articles may have been written, they have not been written in the Armenian Weekly and the topic was thought to be of interest as it relates to the overall condition of Armenian cultural sites in Turkey, which I gather from the commentator agrees with. While the Keban dam project had begun earlier, flooding began in 1974, thus my comment was correct. It was not my intention to document every dam project in Turkey (or around the world for that matter). Obviously, I welcome other articles on the topic, particularly as they impact Armenian cultural sites, and their implications.

    • Some corrections to my comment – just back from the area and the two villages in Kars that were flooded by the Mezra dam were actually formerly Molokan (though they were probably originally Armenian before that). The Mezra Dam itself is built on the site of a medieval Armenian settlement, the ruined church of that settlement still survives at the base of the (dry) side of the dam. I think the impact of the Karakurt dam is going to be far greater than I first imagined. A completely new high level road is being built at great cost and effort that bypasses the entire Aras / Arax gorge (which contains the existing road). The new road starts at Horasan and runs north of and parallel to the gorge almost as far as Kagizman. There is no need for this massive construction effort unless multiple dams are planned that will flood almost the entire Aras gorge, a landscape feature that is as majestic as it is stunningly picturesque. My beef is that an article that could have been about contemporary events, about events that could still be stopped or mediated if publicized enough, instead chooses to just dwell on long finished events.

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