News

Hoping for Hasankeyf

By SIYA SCINDIA, senior

5,671 MILES away from JP Stevens, on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, lies the historic village of Hasankeyf. Located in southeastern Turkey, Hasankeyf is home to one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, dating back approximately 12,000 years. Hasankeyf hosts ancient monuments and architecture built by over 20 different cultures and empires, a unique canyon and aquatic ecosystem, and human-made caves that are still home to people today. Unfortunately, this gem of a village is at risk of being inundated by more than 200 feet of water due to the nearby construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam—the Ilisu Dam—by the Turkish government to help Turkey meet its energy needs. Constructing the Ilisu Dam to supply the country with a mere two percent of additional power is not worth risking the obliteration of a village with thousands of years of history and an ecological community that hundreds are proud to call home.

More than 20 cultures have left their mark on Hasankeyf over the past few millennia. Between the ninth and seventh centuries BCE, the ancient Assyrians carved out caves in the cliffs. 1,000 years later, the Roman empire moved into the area; after another 350 years, the Arabs took control of the region. Hasankeyf was then ruled by the Artukid and Aayubud dynasties, as well as the Mongols.

From those created by the Assyrians to the Mongols, 20 different historical sites throughout Hasankeyf will be destroyed by the proposed Ilisu Dam, some of which are the best preserved historical sites in Turkey. These sites include the 12th-century ruins of palaces built by Artuqid kings; the El Rizk mosque built by Aayubid Sultan Suleiman; and the tomb of Zeynel Bey, another Aayubid king. The Turkish government has proposed moving 12 monuments to a newly created cultural park a mile north of Hasankeyf, but its efforts will likely prove fruitless, as the buildings are made from ashlar masonry that cannot be taken apart or reassembled without compromising their structural integrity. It is clear, then, that the government’s only viable option to preserve a significant part of Turkey’s—and humankind’s—history is to abandon the construction of the Ilisu Dam.

Hasankeyf ’s historical significance, however, isn’t the only thing in danger of being lost. The area serves as a unique habitat for several species of wildlife that will be affected by the construction of the Ilisu dam. 18 of these species are already at risk of extinction, including the Mesopotomaian barbel fish, red-striped hyena, red-wattled plover, and Euphrates soft shell turtle, which has been laying eggs in the neighboring river banks for centuries. Over 130 species of birds, including Bonelli’s eagles, lesser kestrels, and Egyptian and Griffon vultures, will lose nesting areas in caves and cliffs that will be cemented. Experts also claim that damming will diminish fish populations, many of which have been facing dangerous decreases in the past few years. As the planet is already facing a man-made extinction crisis, every effort should be made to preserve wildlife in Hasankeyf, not to destroy it.

Though Hasankeyf is commonly known for being a focal point of great historical and ecological importance, it is often overlooked as a home to hundreds of people. In order to construct the Ilisu dam, the government is evicting residents of Hasankeyf, many of whom have ancestors who have lived in the region for decades. And residents of Hasankeyf won’t be the only ones affected by the dam’s construction—over 199 settlements in the surrounding area will be impacted too. The government has built a new town with 710 homes for the displaced, Hoping for Hasankeyf but this is not nearly enough to accomodate everyone who will have to relocate. More important, however, is the fact that many residents simply do not want to resettle because of their attachment to Hasankeyf. Firat Argun, a resident of Hasankeyf who owns a small bed-and-breakfast and whose ancestors have lived in the area for 300 years, told The New York Times that he would have to “start all over again” if the government goes through with the dam. For Mr. Argun and his neighbors, the completion of the dam will mark the perishment of the only village that they have ever known and loved.

According to the Turkish government, the hydroelectric Ilisu Dam will bring jobs and development to Hasankeyf and will allow Turkey to rely less on imported oil, natural gas, and coal. However, the amount of additional energy that the dam produces is so minuscule when examined in comparison to Turkey’s energy consumption as a whole, making it clear that the costs that come with the dam clearly trump the advantages. Local archeologists, architects, environmental preservationists, and residents have protested against the dam for years, but it has not been enough to sway the government. Activists have even tried to get Hasankeyf UNESCO heritage status, but UNESCO has stated that the local cultural ministry has to apply for the status itself. The ministry has had no response to people reaching out to it. And the fight against the construction of the Ilisu dam isn’t just about ancient history, a valuable ecosystem, or local people; it’s also about the precedent that the dam sets. If the Ilisu Dam project can jeopardize this much, who’s to say that similar projects won’t be stopped from doing the same in the future? With the major risks that the dam’s construction poses to the people of Hasankeyf, it is clear that the greater good of the public lies in ceasing development of the dam.

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