Despite the recent halt in construction work on the controversial E1.2bn Ilisu dam in the Anatolian province of Batman in southeastern Turkey, following the suspension of E450m of financial guarantees by German, Swiss and Austrian credit agencies, the future continues to look bleak for the cultural heritage of the area. Under particular threat are the spectacular ensemble of monuments at Hasankeyf on the River Tigris, a once thriving crossroads on the silk route between Europe and Asia which has seen 10,000 years of continuous human occupation, giving it a longer cultural history than almost anywhere else on earth.
Should the dam be built, over 200 known archaeological sites will be submerged beneath the waters of a vast 170km long reservoir, but recent surveys point to the existence of far more and it is this undiscovered corpus that will be the even greater loss. In addition to the 900-year-old ruined bridge which has become emblematic as the natural focus of the vista at Hasankeyf, the remarkable series of monuments under threat include the 3,000 year old caves dug into the cliffs on top of which are the Ayyubid fortress and palace built on a fourth-century Byzantine citadel, the 15th-century tomb of Zeynel Bey, the Koç and Sultan Süleyman Mosques, and tomb of the holy Imam Abdullah, grandson of Cafer-I Tayyar, the prophet Muhammad’s uncle, which still draws large numbers of devotees. Plans to dismantle and move these monuments to a cultural park have formed the basis of Turkey’s efforts to justify the dam yet there are few who believe this is feasible.
However, Turkey remains determined that such a symbolic project should not be derailed and has insisted that it will press ahead unilaterally should funding be withdrawn. It is widely believed however that Turkey will turn to China for backing, a scenario European governments would be keen to avoid at all costs.
The 180-day hiatus ordered by the European credit agencies follows Turkey’s failure to meet a 12 December deadline to comply with a list of World Bank-defined conditions relating to the impact on the environment, cultural heritage sites, neighbouring states and the relocation of up to 65,000 Kurdish people in the flood zones.