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Village of the Dammed

Part 6 in "Village of the Dammed," a blog mini-series from Turkey, on the country's controversial Ilisu Dam. Our first...

Part 6 in "Village of the Dammed," a blog mini-series from Turkey, on the country's controversial Ilisu Dam.

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Our first glimpse of Hasankeyf was from across the Tigris. Through the dusty air, a colorful town is gouged into the steep topography of the riverbank. The mosque's minaret towers over a cluster of houses and a few shops, and above that is a cliff face punctured with gaping caves and speckled with the crumbling remains of an ancient city. The Ilisu Dam won't destroy all of it; estimates of the reservoir's height anticipate that the graveyard, the castle, mosques, churches, prisons, domiciles, and a field of other buildings atop the cliffs will be out of the water's reach. As for the bridge pillars and other ruins along the lower banks, one Turkish engineer aspires to save them by dragging them Fitzcarraldo-style up the mountain to a memorial park where they'll be safe from the flood. Other experts scoff at this rescue mission. Abdusselam Ulucam, the Turkish archaeologist leading excavation at Hasankeyf, is one of many who believes they're too fragile: "The stone would crumble to dust in your hands."

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Ishak Pasa, 500-year-old Ottoman palaceTurkey has a lot of Important Ancient Stuff. It hosts two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the last residence of the Virgin Mary, not to mention countless decrepit stone structures (visible from any nearby highway) which, at a glance, could have just as easily been built in the 1980s as 380. Prioritizing the meticulous excavation and restoration of all of these points of archaeological interest would be more or less impossible. With outside funding, the most renowned sites-like Ephesus-are being properly restored. When I saw the 5-century-old Ottoman palace Ishak Pasa (left) near Do?ubeyazit, it looked as if it were simply being, well, rebuilt. Often, there is no admission charge and there are no guards, no tour guides and no fences. The underwater remains of the city of Myndos, rumored ancient hang-out for Brutus and Cassius, is protected predominantly by a field of sea urchins (which I learned, unfortunately, from "first-hand" experience, sigh).Hasankeyf has been affected by the local population for decades. It was declared a conservation area by Turkey in 1981, well after discussion of Ilisu Dam had started amongst GAP's planners. However, it was recognized as special by the local community well before that-the caves winding up the mountainside still shops and cafés to cater to tourists as early as 1972, according to a current shop owner. And for centuries prior, the site-as most old world archaeological treasures are-was picked over and rearranged by imperial powers and passers-through.When I visited, the archaeologists were nowhere to be seen. They had moved on from recovering artifacts to photographing and archiving their finds. But excavation sites were scattered like open graves around the riverbed. Anyone can prod through them (painted shards of pottery are lying around in the dirt), and all that stands between a curious wanderer and the freshest dig is some plastic tape and a 'do not enter' sign. The only place our (12-year-old) guide wouldn't take us was a zig-zig stairway up the face of a cliff, locked up after a visitor recently fell and died. Everything else was fair game.Tourist season was apparently over, but kids had yet to return to school, and it was still a bright, sunny, 85-degree day in Hasankeyf. (The aforementioned sandstorm finally blew over Batman.) Our guide, Bar??, had been giving tours since age nine. Both his brothers, one older, one younger, offer tours as well, in Turkish and Kurdish, for whatever pay their clientele feels is appropriate. There is some international tourism-the bulk of visitors we saw on our visit were Turks and Germans of Turkish descent. Bar?? recited memorized passages at various points on our hike; he'd learned the bulk of what he told us from books and the elders around him, so truth value was questionable, and details were scant, though his company was pretty endearing.

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Our 12-year-old tour guide, Bar??. His name means "peace" in Turkish.The site may be relatively neglected by the tourism industry because it's overshadowed by the development and accessibility of other more tourist-friendly sites like Ephesus, which has the added advantage of being a quick trip from eurotour hotspots Izmir and Bodrum. Or because rumors of its fate have been on the horizon for decades now, and no one has bothered to build the necessary infrastructure to support foreign outsiders. More likely, it's just that Turkish-Kurdish violence has made the region difficult (sometimes completely unsafe) to traverse. Were the political climate less tumultuous, it's anyone's guess whether Hasankeyf, in the less-developed east, would draw more international attention. Were it not highlighted by the Ilisu project, it's anyone's guess whether it would have been properly excavated and protected from the elements. Those who lament its impending disappearance seem to think it would. And still, some say drowning it is the only way to save it: that the ruins should be dragged up the mountain to an eerie ancient sculpture garden and the rest is safer as a scuba attraction.

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Locals pump water out of the algae-filled Tigris for agricultural use.We weaved our way down from the ruins to a three-story cave restaurant on the river's edge for some Fanta. The restaurateurs gave their handcrafted souvenir merchandise to us for free: "gifts," unusual given the fierce barter economy that characterizes the rest of the country's commerce. The gift-giving is sad, though; it seemed like they'd already given up on tourism. Up the road was the main stretch of Hasankeyf village-one commercial strip: clothing and souvenir shops, a general store, a row of fruit bins with old men in rocking chairs watching us pass, a loom, a storefront full of watermelons, a few bowls of carp on the sidewalk. Carp is pretty much the only fish that can thrive in this stretch of the Tigris, as its algae-laden waters trickle between the feet of livestock. The water siphoned out through makeshift water pumps into the village on either bank isn't potable for humans. The residents pump their drinking water from wells.

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In anticipation of the dam, Bar?? knows he'll have to leave soon, but it's yet to be decided where. His hope is Istanbul, city of 15 million, about as far (in every sense) as you can get in Turkey from Hasankeyf village. Abdullah, who makes his home in the remains of the ancient bridge that flanks the Tigris at Hasankeyf, was born here. Along with the troop of 12-year-olds who take the opportunity to practice their English ("see you later" is the trophy phrase in their catalog), Abdullah is on the self-appointed welcoming committee, and opens his arms to a chance to share his pride in his home.A woman, walking with her son to the doctor in the village, balanced out his enthusiasm with marked reserve. Many reporters and researchers have been through the area asking about Ilisu, and people are afraid to give their names or discuss how they felt about the dam with visitors. It's safer not to have an opinion, she says. She didn't know when her family would have to leave or where they would go; she only knew it would probably happen in the coming year. She sums up the feeling of the whole place with a beleaguered sigh: "We are just waiting."
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