Life In Hasankeyf & The Dam Construction Submerging Its Ancient History


Photojournalist Salvo Buffa  is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography.  From the ‘Hasankeyf’ project.  To see Salvo ’s  projects click on any image.


The Dam


Ilısu Dam


The construction is part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project. When complete, the dam will support a 1,200 MW power station and will form a 10.4 billion m3 reservoir. The construction of the dam began in 2006, but has soon drawn international controversy because it will flood the ancient village of Hasenkeyf and will cause a resettlement process that will involve 55,000–65,000 people living in the region. Because of this, the dam lost international funding in 2008. In January 2015 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) threatened the lives of workers at the dam site. On 3rd February 2015 a convoy of supplies for the dam was attacked and injured three.


The Village


Hasankeyf reached the height of prosperity in the 12th-15th century, when the city was capital of the Artukid Turks and the Kurdish Ayyubids. Up to today, the town keeps several exceptional examples of Islamic architecture, including the 200 meter Artukid bridge, the Koç Mosque, with its rare combination of central dome and arched entryway, and the onion-domed Zeynel Bey Tomb: the only example of Timurid tomb architecture in Anatolia and a poignant memorial to the long struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Akkoyunlu Tribal Confederation.


The castle of Hasankeyf and the Tigris river


The caves that shape Hasankeyf are as old as the human being. Some of them keep inside some extraordinary examples of paleochristian churches, unfortunately, in bad state of conservation and barely studied. The elderly of the village still remember the time they lived in caves without water nor electricity. Today a few of them are used as stables or warehouses.



Tigris river wrote the history of populations that lived in this region during the centuries. Nowadays the fate of the river and those who rely on it is going to be written by political decisions and a few people’s economic interests.



Fares Ayhan (on the left) is one of the last weavers in Hasankeyf. This photo was taken inside the primary school N.60 during the local elections. In the background there are a series of images of Atatürk. In all turkish public buildings the exhibition of a portrait of the Father of the laic state is compulsory and only in 2013 wearing headscarves in offices and schools stopped being forbidden by law.



The Byzantine tower that soars over the village will be the only structure safe from submersion. However, due to the total lack of maintenance the general conditions of the structure are precarious and to this day there are no projects of restoration. In its current state it is unlikely that it will resist to a flood wave or to the process of water erosion.



The Community


Nowruz (Newroz in Kurdish language) celebration in Diyarbakir. Newroz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar. The holiday is considered by Kurds to be the most important one of the year, a strong political symbol and an essential opportunity to reclaim their identity. Only in 2000 Turkey government legalized the celebration of the spring holiday, spelling it Nevruz and claiming it as a Turkish spring holiday. However using the Kurdish spelling Newroz rather than Nevruz has been officially forbidden by law. Diyarbakir is considered the capital city of the Turkish Kurdistan and during the celebration it attracts about one million people from all over the region.



People dancing during a traditional wedding party. Even if no one knows what could happen to the community, life flows ordinarily despite a present that leaves no room for the future. In a way, everyone knows the sentence but ignores when the execution will take place.



National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, as is usual during any official ceremony, a portrait of Atatürk has to be exhibited. In Turkey Atatürk is considered a heroic,  god-like figure so much that in 1951 Turkish parliament issued a law outlawing insults to his memory. However his figure is controversial especially in the south-eastern regions of the country.
In 1934 he issued the Turkey’s resettlement law that caused the Dersim rebellion and, in 1937 and 1938, the massacre of thousands of Kurds, Alevi and Zazas. Only on November 23rd 2011 Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized on behalf of the State for the Dersim massacre describing it as “one of the most tragic events of our near history”.



The AKP’s mayor of Hasankeyf, Abdülvahap Kusen (sitting on the right), the kaimakal, Temel Ayca, and the elite of the town attending a show during the celebration for the National Sovereignty day. Kusen is a main supporter of the GAP project and has recently decided to live in the near city of Batman.



Ali fixing the canopy of the café where he works as a waiter. In the background the minaret of the Ayyubid’s Rizk mosque with a nest on the top that every year welcomes a couple of storks. To this day, in spite of its small size, Hasankeyf preserves a worthy mixture of different cultures. Arabs, Kurds and Turkish people live together in concord; however, the clan-like structure of the families produces much friction especially in business.



The Construction Impact


The very monuments of Hasankeyf itself were carved from the limestone close to hand, creating a deep sense of harmony between the city and its surroundings. Hasankeyf has the potential to provide a sustainable anchor for local and regional economic development, but at present, there is no internationally recognized plan for the conservation, preservation or relocation of the city’s monuments. In 2018 the central government started to close the caves with concrete.



People in Hasankeyf are frustrated by unkept promises made by the government and find it hard to make plans for the future. A relevant part of population, bound to pastoralism, is in a condition of deep resignation because to this day no areas of the new town are assigned for livestock.



Since the construction of Ilısu dam began, the quantity of fishes in the river is considerably decreased. Local environmentalist group, Doğa Derneği, denounces the intense damage that the dam will produce for the ecosystem.



Kadir and his friends hanging out in the forbidden city: an area of the old citadel closed in 2010 by decision of the central government. This choice, due to a landslide that killed a man, caused a severe drop of tourist presence resulting in closing for a lot of shops. In particular this area was renowned for its workshops specialized in silver manufacturing.



In 2014 local administration decided to move some of the shops from the bazaar to a new area where buses heading to Iraq usually stop. According to merchants this decision not encouraged travelers to visit Hsankeyf and created some friction among business owners causing a dangerous rift in the community.



Daily Lives – Living Space


The new town of Hasankeyf rises at about 6 km from the old village and it’s only composed of tower buildings. Public opinion is that this housing typology doesn’t tend to the needs of the population.
In particular, the total absence of private green spaces leaves families are perplexed about how to grow the produces they need for their livelihood.

Yeni Hasankeyf (new Hasankeyf) . A 3 rooms flat in the new settlement costs 170000 TL (about 60.500 €) while the compensation for a traditional house in Hasankeif is around 20000 TL (7.100 €) and that drops to 5000/10000 TL for commercial buildings or cafés. In this situation, even the families that intend to move to the new town say that they cannot afford the cost.



Pomegranate is a typical produce and a symbolic fruit of this area, almost every family in Hasankeyf has one of these trees in the garden. In the new town there are no agricultural allotments (with the exception of those designed for large scale production) or private green spaces that families could use to grow the  produces they need for their livelihood.



Daily Lives – The People


A nomadic shepherd entering in Hasankeyf during autumn. He doesn’t know exactly his age nor where he was born. He remembers his mother telling him that she used to eat a lot of watermelon when she was pregnant with him so he assumes that he was born during summer, somewhere in the area of the Van lake.



Two horses run away from a nomadic encampment settled on the Tigris bank. Nomads have been stopping in Hasankeyf for rest and making business there since the dawn of time, when they started heading south during winter. Hasankeyf, in its golden age, was a reference point for merchants and travelers from all over the area; it was also an essential stop-over along a Silk Road during the early Middle Ages.



Ercan Tarhan, after his studies, chose to work in the Marmara region where the huge western tourism offers many job opportunities. At the end of Summer he always returns to Hasankeyf, where his parents and sisters still live. When he’s away, he says he misses something and even if he loves the freedom and the European lifestyle of the west coast, he believes that staying away for too long takes its toll.



Jamal, who has been an Army soldier for several years, owns one of the internet cafés of Hasankeyf.
He used to be a tourist guide when he lived in Antalya, a canoeist in Marmaris region. He returned to Hasankeyf to start a family in the same place where his parents had given birth to him and his siblings.



Firat, a worker involved in the construction of Ilısu dam, calling his family living in Hasankeyf during a break.



All images © Salvo Buffa


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By Salvo Buffa




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