Goodbye to Hasankeyf

Arianne Shahvisi

The ancient town of Hasankeyf has been wiped off the map. Nestled on the bank of the Tigris, it was one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, its artefacts dating back 12,000 years. You can still find it online and admire photographs of its spectacular ruins, or of the thousands of human-made caves that studded its limestone cliffs, but in real life it’s gone. As Turkey’s new Ilısu hydroelectric dam has been brought to full capacity over the last year, the level of the reservoir has inched upwards. In April, Hasankeyf was quietly swallowed.

The people of Hasankeyf, who until recently lived alongside the archaeological site, are mostly Kurds, Turkey’s largest persecuted minority. Many have had to move their homes further up the hill; others have left the area. Flooding has also affected dozens of other villages and towns, whose inhabitants are likely to be pushed towards nearby cities, further depopulating the Kurdish region. It’s estimated that around 80,000 people will be displaced. It has been speculated that this was the plan all along, part of Turkey’s long-term strategy to undermine and disempower Kurdish people, culture and heritage.

The Ilısu dam will also effect another marginalised group hundreds of miles south: the Marsh Arabs who live in the alluvial plain of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, downstream of Turkey’s Taurus mountains, and rely on the wetland ecosystem for agriculture and fishing. The dam will soon provide colossal amounts of clean energy – as much as a nuclear reactor – but its effect on the biodiversity of the wider river basin will be catastrophic, leading to the extinction of many native species.

Turkey has lately found other ways to weaponise water. Last month, the Turkish government cut off the supply to Hasakah, a city in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), leaving a million people without drinking water. It has also reduced the flow to areas around Kobane by two-thirds, reducing the water available for irrigation and electricity and in turn threatening the local food supply.

This is the latest in a series of attacks on Kurdish regions that resumed in earnest last October, when Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Rojava, home to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units once lionised for driving Daesh out of Kobane. Since mid-June, Turkey has intensified attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians, and crops have been burned. Last month, three women’s rights activists associated with the Kongreya Star network of feminist organisations, Zehra Berkel, Hebûn Mele Xelîl and Amina Waysi, were killed by a Turkish missile as they sat outside a house in Kobane together.

Alongside racism and state violence, Kurds in Turkey have long fought attempts to suppress and annihilate their language and culture. In the face of relentless humiliation, the magnificence of Hasankeyf, and its reminder of the ancient heritage of the Kurdish people, was a source of dignity and pride.

About seven hours’ drive north-east of Hasankeyf rises Mount Ararat, the supposed landing place of Noah’s Ark. It lies just a few miles off the geodesic joining London and Tehran, and is almost a quadripoint between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. I spent my childhood summers in Iran, and spotting the snowy peak of Ararat poking above the clouds was the high point of the plane journey. Ararat is just inside Turkey’s eastern border, but is also visible from Yerevan, where it is sacrosanct, and a symbol of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (which Turkey still refuses to recognise). The border is not officially contested, but many Armenians claim the mountain as theirs.

It is perhaps a strange thing, to claim a mountain, especially one on the territory of another state, but Kurds understand. One of their sayings is ‘no friends but the mountains’. The recent US about-turn was no surprise: Kurdish history is a long list of betrayals by former allies. That leaves little to depend on beyond the vast mountain ranges of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, which have assisted the guerrilla tactics of freedom fighters and remain home to around 30 million Kurds, whose future is as uncertain as ever. Mountains can’t be taken away; they’re the natural monuments of those whose history and culture is always under threat.

So goodbye, Hasankeyf. One of the oldest towns in the world may have been drowned after 12,000 years, but the jagged peaks above it will still be here 12,000 years from now, when the dam is rubble and all our monuments have sunk back into the lone and level sands.


  • 11 August 2020 at 8:06pm
    P Lawton says:
    What a desperately sad piece of writing. How small and insignificant we are and yet we will despoil and destroy,

  • 12 August 2020 at 12:24am
    Lyn says:
    A sad story indeed. Here in Australia the Federal Government persecutes Kurdish refugees by holding over them in indefinite detention. They made an error in judgement and arrived seeking asylum by boat just as the Government announced its diabolical PNG Solution. These people, along with others from Africa and other places of war and persecution, have been in indefinte detention for seven years. One month ago they began their 8th year without freedom.

  • 12 August 2020 at 4:43pm
    Gareth Evans says:
    An extremely powerful piece - elegy, advocacy and resistance - and a damning indictment of Turkish government policies on numerous fronts over decades. I was fortunate enough to visit Hasankeyf and the surrounding Kurdish and Historic Armenian area in September 2000. It was an unforgettable encounter in the most positive of ways and, for a number of years after, it seemed as if the campaign against the dam had been successful. It is surely inevitable now, given the scale of failings ecologically, socially and historically, that what offers one positive outcome (clean energy) still has so many disastrous impacts. Solidarity did not 'work' in this instance, but we can at least remember, and continue to act in ways for communities and regions striving for their own autonomy and justice.