For those among us who suffer from procrastination, there’s always tomorrow, or next month, or even next year, to accomplish the things in life we want to achieve in order to reach ‘self-fulfillment’ or ‘inner happiness’ (things we never needed until self-help books came along). And for the most part, we have the luxury of putting things off until we can be bothered getting off our arses. However, if visiting the ancient town of Hasankeyf was on your ‘Top Ten’ list, procrastinate too long and you’ll have to grab your swimmers and snorkel and hope to hell you can hold your breath a long time; this ancient town is set to disappear under tons of water in order to make way for the much debated Ilisu Dam.
What was once a hot spot that attracted the settlement of some nine civilizations, Hasankeyf is now a sleepy town located in the Batman Province in southeastern Turkey. Its once strategic location on the Tigris River has laid it vulnerable to the floods that will result from the creation of Ilisu Dam in several years time; the dam is just one of twenty-two that are included in the government’s regeneration GAP plan (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi/Southeastern Anatolia Project). Although it won’t be a flood proportional to that of Noah’s days, it will be enough to submerge a fair chunk of this town and its historical sights.
Hasankeyf holds a mixture of antiquities remnant of the civilizations that have passed through it over the last 10,000 years. From Roman settlement under the Byzantine Empire to Arab occupation in 640A.D; from Artukids and Ayyubids, (of which period the majority of sights date back to) to the mighty Mongols, true to their reputation, who came through and destroyed the city so thoroughly in 1260 that it never regained its glory. The city later became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century.
If you manage to summon the energy to visit this beautiful town (and I fully recommend that you do), the first thing to catch your eye will be the high rock walls that tower over the city centre. The cliff that rises vertically from the Tigris River support the remains of an ancient roman castle, believed to have been built in the 4th Century BC, as well as the 14th century Ulu Mosque, built by the Ayyubids. Lucky for travellers, its prominent position will most likely ensure its preservation from the floods of Ilisu Dam.
Unfortunately though, it’s not such a happy ending for all. Down in the valley in the shadow of the roman castle, the main hub of Hasankeyf along with its historical relics are all destined for submersion; such sights will disappear like the 15th century El Rizk Mosque, built by the famous Ayyubid Sultan Süleyman, and the cemetery with tomb stones dating as far back as the Byzantium. On the East bank of the river, the rare 15th Century tomb of Zeynal Bey with its intricate coloured tiles will also be submerged.
The ancient bridge, considered to be one of the largest stone bridges of its time, will also vanish under the waterline; should you be a seasoned traveller, you will realize that the ancient bridge is not in fact the metal contraption in function but rather the impressive thick brick phallic remains that rise up from the river.
If the disappearance of all these sights still hasn’t caused you to shed a tear, may I remind you of the hundreds of caves and rock houses that have been carefully carved out of the soft rock over the years. Although not as well preserved as the cave houses and churches seen in Cappadocia, you are pretty much free to roam around them as please; you could probably even set up house in one of them if you so desired. The rock houses were actually inhabited until the 20th century, when pressure from the government resulted in the locals being forced to move to more modern structures in the valley. Ironically, the valley is this very area that will be covered upon completion of the Ilisu Damn, whilst the old rock houses will most likely keep their heads above water.
The biggest selling point of all, and for a limited time only, you can finish your sightseeing with a relaxing meal and raki right on the banks of the Tigris River; alternatively, if you want to escape the heat, there are a number of restaurants set up in cooling caves along the river.
Hasankeyf is situated on the road between Batman and Midiyat and is easily accessible from both towns. However, seeing you’re already making the effort, I recommend killing two birds with one stone and staying at the nearby impressive town of Mardin; from here you can access Hasankeyf on a day trip and possibly even squeeze in a few of the surrounding monasteries on the way.
So, in my final words of wisdom for the town that is set to disappear, get in while it’s hot, don’t wait until it’s not.
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