- October 7, 2020
“…Enki stood up full of lust like an attacking bull,
Lifted his penis, ejaculates—
He filled the Tigris with flowing water.”1
How many rivers in the world hold the honor of being worshipped as the semen of God? For Sumerians, Tigris was the gift of their libidinous god Enki, and it was for a good reason. By pouring fresh and sweet water through Mesopotamia, Tigris brought life to the region’s otherwise arid soils, offering an irresistible terra firma to settle. Countless nomad clans settled along the banks of these divine waters and started building with an unconventional agenda: being permanent.
Those interventions of permanence date back over 10,000 years in Hasankeyf, an ancient town in southeastern Turkey. Obsessed with staying on those sacred grounds, every single soul who set foot on the town left signs of their existence. Neolithic men carved caves on cliffs for shelter while Roman Christians carved rock-cut churches. The Byzantines built citadels for military fortification and the Artuqids, bridges for transportation. Akkoyunlus commemorated war heroes with tombs while Ayyubis erected mosques to pray in.2 All these interventions morphed Hasankeyf’s landscape delicately, each adding a new piece to the puzzle to create an unparalleled anthropological texture. There is a reason why Assyrians called the city “Castle of Rock.” It was out of the question for them to detach the human-made caves from the riverside’s rocky landscape. Even the most outstanding artifact, the Artuqid wooden bridge, was built to be taken down.3 Although every mark on Hasankeyf aimed to be permanent, none dared to stand out. All that has been built has become part of the Tigris’ topography, spawning a unique cadavre exquis that is impossible to read in separate parts.
One could argue that after enduring the entire Holocene, Hasankeyf is immortal. Yet, after coming into power in 2002, the AKP government could not resist the charm of Tigris and proposed the largest intervention the site has ever seen: a dam project that would flood all of the entire cultural heritage built over the course of one hundred centuries. Despite protests from the Kurdish population still living in the ancient town, an opposition deputy self-chained to rocks on the hills, and countless lawsuits by NGOs, the dam was completed in 2018. With the rising water, over 300 artifacts of the historic town are now sunken treasures. Simultaneously, the Neolithic caves and the unique landscape of the hills were either turned into debris by the detonations to build the dam or now face slow erosion by the water and humidity. As of today, Hasankeyf is almost entirely underwater as a result of the dam, and the cumulative record of the town’s cultural history has been inundated. Tigris, which kept feeding life to arid Eastern Anatolia for over a hundred centuries, has swallowed all she nurtured.
But the worst is yet to come. It would have been easier to come to terms with the poetic destiny: Tigris giveth and Tigris taketh away. Unfortunately, the highly inadequate officials who chose 2% of the nation’s electricity over an internationally renowned cultural heritage were also involved in “saving” Hasankeyf’s monuments from the catastrophe they created. Zeynel Abidin Tomb, a unique example of Timurid architecture, was put on a vehicle and trundled to a new location (ironically called Hasankeyf Culture Park), along with seven other monuments.4 For the artifacts deemed not worthy enough to put on a car to carry, authorities came up with another “brilliant” solution: covering monuments with concrete shells so that they are protected underwater. In other words, an underground monument cemetery.
Inundation caused by the dam did not only cause the displacement of eight monuments. Over 80,000 people, mostly
Kurdish minorities, were forced to leave the place they had called home for generations.5 To add insult to injury, government officials designed a housing complex – New Hasankeyf – singular houses sitting on a perfect grid and defiling all the vernacular texture that came before. Locals, whose ancestors lived in Hasankeyf for centuries, were forced out from the dusty caves they cherished and put into mundane housing units with vapid promises of increased living standards.
The dam project, which has a predicted lifespan of 30 to 50 years, and the new settlements built by the Turkish government are concrete examples of how not to seed a landscape that had been seeded meticulously for thousands of years. Hasankeyf is now underwater and its inimitable landscape is unrecognizable. The water of the dam will keep rising and the monstrosity that is New Hasankeyf – which now stands on a hill – will one day be on the bank of Tigris. Time will pass, the dam will be long gone, but New Hasankeyf will remain. One day, it will be old enough to lose the prefix “new.” It’s going to be Hasankeyf.