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History threatened as Turkey prepares to flood ancient city

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Hasankeyf, Turkey – The rumble of heavy machinery is a background cacophony as the call to prayer rings out over this ancient town on the banks of the River Tigris in southeast Turkey.

The crash of rocks being shifted to prepare for the start of a hydroelectric dam that will see the town submerged is another cause of anxiety for residents who face eviction in the coming days.

The preparation work, which coats the 12,000-year-old settlement in dust, has neared completion and locals now face the uncertainty of not knowing exactly when they will be forced from homes and businesses that have been in their families for generations.

“Everybody is traumatised by this,” said Bulent Basaran, 50, from his restaurant overlooking the river. “We feel like we’re in a coma. I don’t see any light, just negative things and problems.”

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For years, the people of Hasankeyf have lived with the threat of their town being swallowed by waters behind the $1.3bn Ilisu dam, which lies 75km (47 miles) downstream.

Although they were given until Tuesday October 8 to leave, the town’s market and streets showed little sign of an impending evacuation at the weekend, despite a lack of customers for the stalls and shops selling local rugs and crafts.

“There’s no date to leave now,” Basaran said. “I guess it will be at the end of the tourist season next month. The district governor has threatened to cut off the electricity and water if we don’t leave in a month.”

Hasankeyf is one of the world’s oldest settlements and has been a centre for numerous cultures and empires since the Bronze Age, including the Assyrians, Romans, the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates, as well as the Turkic Seljuks and their Ottoman successors.

Relocated minaret from 15th century Suleyman Han mosque

A relocated minaret from the 15th century Suleyman Han mosque [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]

An ancient citadel, once an important Mesopotamian stopover on the Silk Road, overlooks the town and its limestone cliffs are dotted with thousands of man-made Neolithic caves.

“For us, the flooding of Hasankeyf is like the destruction of Palmyra by the Islamic State and the Buddha statues by the Taliban,” said Ercan Ayboga, from the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, referring to Syria‘s ancient ruins and the Bamyan monuments in Afghanistan.

Since its foundation in 2006, the initiative has led the campaign against the flooding of Hasankeyf and the surrounding region, organising protests, lobbying politicians in Turkey and Europe and preparing reports.

The group tried to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the site. Although it fulfills nine of the 10 necessary criteria, the Turkish government has not applied for protection. A bid at the European Court of Human Rights also failed with the court ruling it did not have jurisdiction.

With the impending arrival of the floodwaters, the residents are now being told to turn their backs on millennia of history and move across the river to a new town of identikit houses.

Many of the town’s 3,000 inhabitants, most of whom rely on tourism for a living, have moved to the new settlement from their two-story brick houses in the old town as a glum mood of resignation has taken over. Others are waiting to the last minute before leaving.

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Ayboga said the town’s population had been “misled on purpose” by the authorities over claims of renewed prosperity with the coming of the dam, which will displace 15,000 people from 199 towns and villages as the Tigris rises by 60 metres.

The government did not respond to emailed questions but two months ago Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli, whose department is supervising the project, said New Hasankeyf would have better services, larger homes and a revitalised tourism industry. He added 500 million lira ($87.8m) had been allocated for resettlement.

Ankara has long maintained the Southeastern Anatolia Project, of which the 3,800 gigawatt-a-year dam is a part, will improve life in Turkey’s poorest and least developed region.

The construction of a reservoir embankment along the cliffs facing the Tigris has seen many businesses relocate from the riverside into the town in recent years and now they face further upheaval.

‘Forced out’ 

Osman Turan, 69, runs the Konak restaurant with two partners. They have already been forced to move twice in the last decade because of the dam.

“This will be the third time I have been forced out of my business,” he said. “We haven’t been provided with a business in the new town. What can I do?

“We can’t stop the dam but they should give us a future. I’ve done this work for many years. I just want to carry on.”

Co-owner Ali Aslankilic, 43, is one of those who has not been offered one of the new town’s 710 homes.

“I haven’t been given a new home because I’m not married,” he said. “When this is gone I will do nothing. I used to have two stores in the old bazaar for 25 years. I was doing the same crafts that my grandfather taught me.”

He added: “I just want them to give me my life back. I don’t want to be a refugee in my own country, being forced away from my family’s home.”

For centuries, the residents of Hasankeyf have lived among a treasure trove of archaeological remains.

As well as 5,500 caves that dot the cliffs, the town was home to home to the 15th century mausoleum of Zeynel Bey, the son of a Turkic ruler killed in battle.  The 17-metre high tomb, with its intricate blue and turquoise tiled exterior, is a striking example of historical Anatolian architecture.

The cliff-top remains of a 4th century Roman fortress, a 900-year-old Seljuk palace and the El Rizk mosque built in 1409 by Ayyubid Sultan Suleymen are some of the other outstanding monuments.

Father-of-three Mahmut Yildirimer’s family is one of 250 families – about half of Hasankeyf’s population – to have moved to the new town.

Sitting in his back garden – barren apart from a few recently planted shrubs, a chicken coop and a breeze-block shed for his prized pigeons – the unemployed 33-year-old said the new home cost 150,000 lira ($26,300) but he would not have to begin paying the instalments for five years.

New home owner Mahmut Yildirimer

New home owner Mahmut Yildirimer said his kids must walk 30 minutes to get to school [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]

Despite such seemingly preferential terms, he said the house, which his family moved into shortly after completion less than a month ago, was already showing cracks in its walls that he blamed on nearby dynamiting to provide rocks for the dam’s embankment.

“Also the water was cut off for a week recently and sometimes it’s more,” he added. “My children’s school is very far away and they have to walk half-an-hour to get there.”

Each applicant for a home in the new town faced a wait of more than a year before finding out if they had been successful, with many refused a place because they did not fulfill criteria such as being married.

Some who moved away briefly for seasonal work found they were excluded by not being continuous residents during a specific period.

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The authorities, however, have provided trucks to help transport household goods to the new houses.

The new town boasts a museum sitting among eight relocated archaeological structures, including a 15th century minaret and the Zeynel Bey tomb that were reassembled piece-by-piece or transported intact.

Other sites, such as a pre-historic underground city where the townspeople would shelter in times of war, have been concreted over to protect them from the water.

Gazing across at the new town, Mehmet Tilki, 66, is the final resident of the caves lying on the south side of the Tigris, where he has lived with his dog, cat and chickens since retiring as a local government worker.

“If they let me, I will stay here,” he said between mouthfuls of water melon harvested from his small garden. “This place belonged to my grandfathers in the Ottoman times so now it is mine.”

He appeared relaxed about the fate of the town. “No one knows the exact history of this place so what is happening is bad for the world, not just Hasankeyf,” he said. “But maybe the dam will bring jobs and stop people going to Europe or Istanbul to find work.”

However, Suleyman Agalday, who runs a small open air cafe below Tilki’s cave, was less sanguine.

“My family has been here for countless generations and I can’t begin to explain what this place means to me,” he said. “Moving from here is like God taking Adam from the Garden of Eden and putting him in the world, although we didn’t even eat the apple.

“I will be the last one to leave Hasankeyf. I will be here until the end. I have a family and life has to continue but wherever I am in the world, my heart will be here. This is where we come from and this is our land, we belong here.”

Hasankeyf

A vacated house on southern bank of the Tigris in Hasankeyf [Andrew Wilks/Al Jazeera]

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