City Journal

Claire Berlinski
Silencing the Djinns
A dam project threatens the world’s oldest city.
Summer 2013
Hasankeyf has been inhabited since 9500 BC.
Dick Osseman (3)
Hasankeyf has been inhabited since 9500 bc.

Ali Ayhan is a shepherd in the ancient city of Hasankeyf, nestled between the Tigris River and the steep cliffs of the Tur Abdin Plateau in southeastern Turkey, about 65 miles from the Syrian and Iraqi borders. The waters of this river gave rise to the first settlements in Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization. Old shepherd paths trace the canyons of the city; thousands of caves, churches, mosques, and ancient cemeteries are carved into its limestone cliffs.

Ali is only 33 but already a grave old man, with the face of a decayed railway porter. We are lazing on cushions by the river and drinking tea. The valley is lit from behind by the falling sun and from the front by the rising moon. Rounded foothills, twinkling here and there with amber lights, roll away from the ruins of a castle. In 2002, Ali tells me, he was tending his sheep in the valley just behind this one. “I wanted to rest in a cave. There are lots of caves in that valley, and the one I was looking for was underground, with a well. I was sure there was no one else in the valley. No one lives there. Only the shepherds go there. Yet as I approached the well, I began to hear the sound of voices, a crowd.”

“What did they sound like?” I ask.

“They were talking to each other like this.” He makes an odd, untranscribable noise, something like shhhhhhshhhhhhshhhhhh. “For a moment, I thought there were people there . . . but then the voices began to scream and wail.”

“Were they women’s voices or men’s?”

“Both.”

“Could you understand what they were saying?”

“No, it was a jumble. I couldn’t make sense of it.”

Just as abruptly, he says, the crying stopped. Then the music began. “They started singing, as if it was a wedding ceremony.” He was terrified. He never went back to that valley. “The way the voices changed so quickly—that’s the signature of djinns.”

“What creates djinns?”

“There are as many djinns as there are people in the world,” he says firmly. “But we live in the shining places, and they live in the dark places. That valley is for them.”

The castle, though, is for those who live in the shining places. It was built as a center for the Assyrian archbishopric in AD 351, during the rule of Constantinius II, when the Byzantines made Hasankeyf their stronghold in southeast Anatolia. The designs and the writing in the sand-colored stone are still visible; the secret steps still lead to the Tigris. Ali tells me that once he brought an infirm woman there. She was too ill too walk, so he placed her on the back of a donkey. “She slept there for half an hour,” he says, “and she walked back on her own two feet.”

Hasankeyf is full of stories like this, and they seem quite natural when you’re there. It was inhabited first, perhaps, by the Assyrians or the Urartians, and then most certainly by the Romans, the Byzantines, and then the Turkic and Arabic dynasties. Recent excavations suggest that it has been inhabited since 9500 BC. It may be the oldest continuously organized human settlement on the face of the earth. And now is the time to see it, for when Turkey inaugurates the Ilısu Dam in 2014, Hasankeyf will drown.

Hasankeyf reached the height of its prosperity between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, when it served as the capital of the Artuqid Turk and Kurdish Ayyubid empires. Unparalleled examples of early Islamic architecture remain—a congeries of ruined mosques, madrassas, khans, baths, churches, cave dwellings, mansions, palaces, public kitchens, ceramics kilns, graveyards, and tombs.

There are the ruins of a bridge built in 1116 by the Artuqid ruler Fahrettin Karaaslan; Marco Polo probably crossed it on his way to China, and the thirteenth-century Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote, “I have not seen a bigger [bridge] in any of the lands I have traveled.” There are the Koç Mosque, with its arched entryway, and the onion-domed tomb of Zeynel Bey, with its faded turquoise geometric mosaics and calligraphy, the only example of Timurid tomb architecture in Anatolia. These structures display the Central Asian virility that synthesized two distinctive phases in the evolution of Islamic architecture: the Persian style and the Arab. Hasankeyf is a city frozen in time but marked by the audacity of true invention. Here one can see every aspect of urban life in the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when power shifted from Baghdad and Cairo to Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that there are djinns here, too.

The ruins of a mosque that could be annihilated by the Ilısu Dam
The ruins of a mosque that could be annihilated by the Ilısu Dam

The valleys surrounding the city are unspoiled. As I speak to Ali, the evening light subtly changes the reflections on the water and the shadows on the cliffs from cream to gold, and then to bruised plum and smoke. But the next morning, the light is brilliant, and the rocky hills above the city, streaked with pink and lemon, are covered with wildflowers: poppies, thistles, and anemones, the biblical lily of the field. Herds of lambs and goats frisk beside me as I hike, as do curious children; red-rumped swallows swoop above; the ruins rise from the caves and arches. A tower bearing a striking resemblance to the portrait of the Tower of Babel by Brueghel the Elder looms up from the valley. A courting couple offers me fresh quince fallen from a local tree.

For hundreds of miles, the Tigris flows serenely as it always has, passing sandbanks, bluffs, gorges, and fertile wetlands. In its shallows, local women wade; children splash and wrestle. Platforms on the riverbanks, elaborately carved of wood, are furnished with low cushions; locals eat grilled river fish there while dangling their feet in the water. This isn’t an Ephesus, reconstructed as a museum. Human beings have lived and worked here uninterrupted since the dawn of recorded history. Genesis informs us that the Tigris was one of the four branches of the river that watered the Garden of Eden. The Tigris is also where Daniel saw his vision of a mighty man: “Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz. . . .”

Dicle Tuba Kılıç, of Turkey’s Nature Association, describes the Tigris as “not only of our nation but of all of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the last wild river in this region, really the last.” The residents of Hasankeyf, for the most part, speak Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic, but she tells me that the Arabic dialect used in the region is isolated and unique. “People here still live in the caves; they use fishing techniques they’ve used for centuries. We have the last examples of the culture of Upper Mesopotamia. We have Yazidis living behind these mountains—they are pre-Islamic, pre-Christian, they pray to the sun.” She is wrong about this; Yazidism was introduced to the area by Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in the twelfth century. It is a highly syncretic complex of local beliefs: a bit of Zoroastrianism; a dash of Sufi Islam, Gnosticism, and Judaism; some neo-paganism for good measure. Yazidis believe that God created the world and then placed it under the care of seven holy beings, chief among them Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. But they do pray in the direction of the sun, in magnificent white robes.

Assyrian Christians live in this region, too, speaking and writing dialects of Eastern Aramaic and using the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity. They trace their history to a Christian community established in the first century by the Apostle Saint Peter. And this region also holds the last traces of the Armenians who once called it their homeland: a scattering of ruined churches and monasteries.

Dicle tells me that the local lore is rich with tragic love stories. “Here is a strange story, like Romeo and Juliet,” she says. “There was a Muslim man living on this side of the river. He was in love with an Armenian girl living on the other side. They communicated every night with lights. The man swam across the river every night to see her. Then, one day, he noticed a blemish on her face. The girl was distraught. ‘Now you cannot see my beauty,’ she said, ‘because you’ve seen my flaw. You mustn’t try to cross the river, because you won’t be strong enough.’ Too proud, he refused to listen. But the next day, he tried to swim across the river and drowned.” Dicle meditates on the meaning of the fable. “I think it means that if you love somebody, you must accept them completely—their nationality, their religion. When you start to see their flaws, you lose your power.” Sadly, this is not a part of the world where that moral has ever been taken to heart.

To date, researchers have uncovered nearly 300 ancient sites in the area surrounding Hasankeyf; many more presumably wait to be discovered. Only a fifth of the area has seen any form of archaeological survey work. Archaeologists estimate that it will take them another 30 to 50 years of excavation to uncover all the buried treasures.

But they will not have the chance. If the construction of Turkey’s Ilısu hydroelectric dam continues as foreseen, 80 percent of Hasankeyf’s historic monuments will be flooded within the next decade. There is no credible plan for the conservation, preservation, or relocation of these monuments. The dam reservoir will flood more than 115 square miles of the Upper Tigris Valley basin, obliterating precisely those areas that have seen the most concentrated settlement in the region since the Middle Paleolithic era.

In January, Turkey’s highest administrative court ordered work on the dam to cease, on the grounds that the government had not provided the legally required environmental-impact assessment. The government did the kind of thing it usually does: it amended the environmental laws to exempt the dam. Construction in and around Hasankeyf continues at a frantic pace, monitored by video cameras that feed directly to the prime minister’s office. The Tigris has already been diverted through tunnels at the dam site, altering the landscape and damaging the monuments.

The people of Hasankeyf will soon be forced to leave their homes, possibly within the next year. About a mile from the city, the Turkish housing agency has begun the construction of New Hasankeyf, a village that will contain 596 modern houses. The only word for it is “horrible.” Concrete apartments squat like upended coffins on a hill without water or fertile land. Their baffled future residents have been assured that New Hasankeyf will have shopping malls. If you have been following Turkish news of late, you will know that this may not provide as much consolation as the government believes.

Specialists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have determined that water released by the dam will be about ten degrees colder than river water, badly polluted, and oxygen-deficient. Few species can adapt to this; it will result in ecological catastrophe. The project will threaten hundreds of species, including the rare striped hyena and the Euphrates soft-shelled turtle. And we will all lose cultural heritage of the highest level—not just local heritage but world heritage.

The damage will not be limited to Hasankeyf. More than 60,000 people from 199 settlements will lose at least part of their property. Many will have to relocate to surrounding cities, such as Diyarbakır, or to desperately overcrowded Istanbul, where they will face isolation and impoverishment. People who have never known any way of life beyond the agricultural will be hard-pressed to find work in the cities. Resettlement will tear families and villages apart, leaving them socially uprooted.

In fact, the dam will wreak destruction far beyond Turkey’s borders. When completed, it will lower the level of the Tigris, increase the water’s salinity, and more than halve the flow of the river where it enters Iraq, devastating the regions that rely on it. One of these—far to the south and east, near the Iraqi city of Basra—may be the most important cultural landscape in the world. Here, the Sumerians developed the first writing, the first laws, and the principles of agriculture. This area, it is believed, was the Garden of Eden; Abraham is thought to have been born in the nearby city of Ur. For millennia, the Marsh Arabs lived here in reed huts, fishing, hunting, and tending water buffalo. But in the 1990s, after the Shiite uprising that followed the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein determined to destroy the rebellious wetlands. He drained huge tracts of the marshes, using barriers to block the tributaries of the Tigris. As the water levels dropped, the Marsh Arabs were displaced by the hundreds of thousands.

When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the barriers were breached, and the marshes have since experienced a substantial recovery. The wetlands have partly recovered; fish, birds, and thousands of the Marsh Arabs who survived Saddam’s campaign have returned. But this victory—like so many in Iraq—will apparently be short-lived. The Marsh Arabs fear that they will yet again be sent into diaspora, probably to northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government there may receive more migrants from the south than its own water resources can support; the consequences are only too easy to imagine. In a region of incendiary ethnic hatred and political volatility, playing with water is playing with fire.

Turkey is desperately and legitimately in need of energy. Its economy is growing, and energy consumption has risen by 46 percent since 2000. No one in his right mind would argue that the country should not strive vigorously to generate electricity. And just as obviously, there are many situations in which environmental concerns must be subordinated to the more pressing urgency of sustaining modern human life (see “California’s Promethean Past”).

But this particular dam will produce just 1,200 megawatts of power—less than 2 percent of Turkey’s total energy needs, perhaps not more than 1 percent. There are better ways of generating power. For example, Turkey and China have just finalized a contract to build a coal-fired thermal power plant in the northwest that will produce more than twice as much power as the Ilısu Dam will. The government also just announced plans to build a 3,500-megawatt thermal plant in the western province of Afyon, blessed with 950 million tons of lignite. Turkey, a coal-rich country, aims to build its thermal capacity to 30,000 megawatts in the next ten years.

Moreover, the country will have more than 4 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity by the end of 2017. Turkey has far more potential for solar success than most European countries do, for the obvious reason that it’s sunny. Similarly, solar technology in sunny Israel is nearly cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Nuclear power, far less ecologically damaging than hydropower or coal, will also soon arrive in Turkey. The government recently concluded two major plant tenders—one with the Russian company Atomstroyexport, the other with a Japanese-French consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and France’s Areva—and it is already planning a third.

Even if the dam must be built, it could be done in a far less destructive way. Emrah Yalçin, a civil-engineering postgraduate at the Middle East Technical University, wrote a dissertation considering multiple proposals for reducing the dam’s destructive impact. Citing formidable evidence, he concluded that the best way to do it would be to build five smaller dams instead of one enormous one. That would not only rescue Hasankeyf and the surrounding monuments but provide almost the same amount of electricity at the same cost.

So why is Turkey pressing ahead with construction? The reason is military. The government has openly proclaimed that the dam’s main function is to create a physical barrier against terrorists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which mobilizes from the mountainous Iraqi-Turkish border. These vast canyons and their caves are not only visually spectacular; they are ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. The dam will hinder them by forming a massive, impassable wall of water. Now, nobody is more sympathetic to Turkey’s campaign to defeat the PKK than I am; the group nearly killed me two years ago when one of its splinter groups bombed Taksim Square in Istanbul. But the terrorists, we are told, are withdrawing from Turkey. Peace is nigh. So why must this project continue? Is it not a provocation, in fact, to the Kurds with whom Turkey insists it is trying to make peace?

Citing concerns about the dam’s social and environmental impact, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland withdrew their financial support for the project in 2009, marking the first time in the history of export finance that export credit guarantees were canceled on humanitarian, cultural, and environmental grounds. The Turkish government nonetheless managed to secure the necessary funding from two of Turkey’s largest private banks, Akbank and Garanti. Last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shaved two years off the dam’s official opening date, from 2016 to 2014.

Germany, Austria, and Switzerland withdrew their financial support for the project because of the damage it would do to structures like this fifteenth-century tomb.
Germany, Austria, and Switzerland withdrew their financial support for the project because of the damage it would do to structures like this fifteenth-century tomb.

To qualify for World Heritage status from the United Nations, a site must meet one of ten criteria for outstanding universal value in an area of cultural or natural significance. Hasankeyf is the only site in the world that meets nine of the ten criteria. But for a site to be listed, the country in which it is located must submit an application to the United Nations—which Turkey has refused to do, probably because World Heritage status is considered prima facie evidence that a site’s destruction would violate both the Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

John Crofoot, an American who volunteers as an international coordinator for Hasankeyf Matters, one of the many groups trying to save the city, is so well known in Hasankeyf that all visiting Americans are asked immediately whether they know him. Residents here consider him one of their own. I ask him why the government has remained so strangely indifferent to Hasankeyf’s fate. He couches his words tactfully. “In my view,” he says, “what makes Hasankeyf particularly important, historically and archaeologically, are the remains of the Seljuk period—the twelfth to fifteenth century, the middle period of Islamic civilization. The biggest challenge is that this is premodern. Turkey is in a process of rediscovering and exploring its Ottoman past. The Seljuks were important because they were their precursors, but this is really hard to understand. To understand it really takes a huge investment of time and study, spanning Persian and Arab culture as well as Turkish culture. It was a period of cross-fertilization between Christianity and Islam, and the monuments of Hasankeyf bear witness to the syncretic intermingling of Sunnism and Shiism. It’s difficult today to find champions to endorse and support this.”

I will put this less tactfully: Turkey’s government is largely composed of Sunni Muslims. They are uninterested in Shiites, Christians, and what they deem repulsive syncretic heresies. As for Kurds, when Turkey’s Kurdish party, the BDP, introduced a law to allow women with headscarves in the parliament, the prime minister said: “Are they really sincere? Can anyone who is a Zoroastrian like them be sincere on this subject?” (For what it’s worth, the BDP’s officials are also, for the most part, Sunni Muslims.)

Dicle tells me that she is optimistic. Until the area floods, she says, there is hope. But the prime minister is a stubborn man. When he gets an idea in his head, not much can change it. I think about this as the sun slowly sets behind the Raman Mountains and Hasankeyf turns honey-colored in the fading light. The city survived the Crusades, the Mongol hordes, and the brutal conqueror Tamerlane. But I doubt it will survive Tayyip Erdoğan.

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