Tomb of fallen warrior to move before dam floods ancient Turkish township

by Jennifer Hattam | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 April 2017 13:00 GMT

The 15th century Zeynel Bey Tomb in Hasankeyf, seen here before work began to prepare the structure for relocation to a cultural park, on May 18, 2014. TRF/Jennifer Hattam

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"I don't know where we're going to go. We don't want to move, but there's nothing to be done about it"

By Jennifer Hattam

HASANKEYF, Turkey, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - T he 15th century tomb of fallen warrior Zeynel Bey is due to be moved from the banks of the Tigris river in southeast Turkey on Tuesday, marking the symbolic end of a decades-long battle to stop a new dam and inundation of a 12,000-year-old settlement.

The ancient stone monument's foundations have been embedded in a concrete platform ready for the move - and local residents fear their homes and livelihood are next.

"I don't know where we're going to go. We don't want to move, but there's nothing to be done about it," said Murat Tekin, 37, a shopkeeper in the ancient town of Hasankeyf.

The Ilisu Dam is Turkey's largest hydroelectric project and has generated international controversy since it was first proposed in the 1950s. Official government figures estimate 15,000 people will need to be resettled while activists believe up to 100,000 people are expected to be impacted by the project.

The remains of an early 12th century bridge cross the Tigris River in Hasankeyf, seen here before recent restoration work aimed at preserving the ruins underwater. TRF/Jennifer Hattam

Work began in 2006 but in 2008, the German, Austrian and Swiss governments pulled out of export credit guarantees citing social, cultural and environmental risks with the project.

However Turkey has pushed ahead with the US$1.1 billion project, saying the dam will help meet the country's burgeoning energy needs, producing 3.8bn kilowatt hours of electricity a year and encourage investment in the predominantly Kurdish area.

BENEATH THE WATERS

Once finished the project is expected to submerge the majority of villages making up the ancient Hasankeyf settlement, which dates back to the Neolithic period, and surrounding villages.

Important stone monuments including two tombs, the Sultan Suleyman Mosque and former cave dwellings will disappear under water. Some are earmarked for relocation or reconstruction.

Only the rocky citadel and fortress ruins on higher ground overlooking the river will escape the waters.

The town of Hasankeyf, with the new settlement to which residents will be located seen in the background. TRF/Jennifer Hattam

Hasankeyf District Governor Faruk Bülent Baygüven said in March that the dam is 85 percent complete and construction has begun on a new township with 710 new homes and 150 'workplaces'.

"We're working on Yeni Hasankeyf so that the tradesmen can do their best business there," Baygüven said. "Following the re-location of its citizens and historical monuments, Hasankeyf will become the attraction centre of the region."

Construction has continued despite a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights citing a threat to the region's cultural heritage, including yet-to-be excavated archaeological sites.

ENVIRONMENTAL FEARS

Damming the Tigris also threatens to further restrict the river's already scant flow downstream in Iraq, according to Ismaeel Dawood, a co-founder of the Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign.

"In many of the places around the river in Iraq, people already cannot grow rice because there is not enough water," he said. "Especially in the southern marshlands, there is a continuous displacement of people forced to move to the city and change their way of life."

A shepherd and his flock near the old cave dwellings around Hasankeyf. TRF/Jennifer Hattam

Local activists in Turkey say the number of people facing displacement in the Hasankeyf area is much higher than official estimates.

"An additional 40,000 people will lose a lot of land [under the dam waters]; most of them will probably have to leave too," said Ercan Ayboğa of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive.

"There are also some 2,000 to 3,000 nomads who use the Tigris valley to graze their livestock, but they are not registered in any way."

Ayboğa estimates up to 100,000 people will be affected by the dam if population growth is factored in along with the possibility of land claims by returning families who fled the region during armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.

LEFT HIGH AND DRY

Residents said only a third of those in Hasankeyf who applied qualified to buy homes in the new town. Initial property valuations were assessed at far below the asking price for properties in the new settlement sparking widespread criticism.

A lawsuit challenging a rule that only families, not single people, were eligible to move to the new area has been filed.

Abdullah, 49, is among those who qualified to buy a home, but is not happy with the pay-out for his current residence.

"The cash was nowhere near what you would get for a similar home elsewhere," said the father of five, who buys and sells goods in the market, and did not want his full name published.

"But we will move to the new town; we have no other choice," he said, acknowledging the new homes may be more comfortable.

Restrictions on construction in Hasankeyf due to its historic status and a reluctance to invest in a place with such an uncertain future meant many homes had fallen into disrepair.

In the hills above the town, land could be used to graze livestock and gather greens and herbs for cooking in stark contrast to the dusty surrounds of new Hasankeyf.

"The land is not fertile [over there] - it's barren," said Abdullah, concerned about making a living in the new town.

"Lots of tourists used to come to Hasankeyf, but then the government made it forbidden to go up to the castle," shopkeeper Tekin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They wanted to weaken our economy, to create social and economic pressure to move to Yeni Hasankeyf."

Turkish officials say there is significant potential for tourism income from boat tours, as well as from visitors to a yet-to-be created archaeological park where the Zeynel Bey Tomb and other historic structures will be moved or reconstructed.

But with few concrete plans for the new project revealed, most residents express little more than a cautious optimism.

Ahmet, 50, a kebab shop owner who did not want his real name used, said he has agreed to buy commercial space in the new settlement because he doesn't want to move to a larger city.

"I think the new town has a 50-50 chance of success," he said. (Reporting by Jennifer Hattam, Editing by Paola Totaro and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

The Tomb of Baba Haydar in Hasankeyf. TRF/Jennifer Hattam