Hasankeyf: A City in Peril

By Young, Penny | History Today, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Hasankeyf: A City in Peril


Young, Penny, History Today


`TRY TO IMAGINE A STEEP CLIFF rising from the water and crowned by a decaying castle, the whole face of it perforated with cave-dwellings of a very early date in which the present inhabitants five; and at the end of the cliff a ruined mosque with a minaret, from the side of which a grandiose and now broken medieval bridge stretches over the majestically winding river to the opposite shore.'

This is how Dr S. Guyer described his first sight of Hasankeyf as he sailed down the River Tigris through south-eastern Turkey, heading for Iraq. The German adventurer made his journey in the early 1920s, although if he went back today, little would have changed. What he would find is a small army of Turkish archaeologists working against the clock to discover the secrets of ancient Hasankeyf before it is flooded by the waters of the proposed Ilisu dam. The Turks say their aim is to have the dam operational by the next decade.

`Ephesus is celebrating its 110th anniversary of excavations,' says Professor Olus Arik, who is leading the dig at Hasankeyf. `We need a minimum of fifty years here and we have just nine or ten -- unless of course we can stop the dam.'

Few people have even heard of Hasankeyf. For the past decade, the small town and much of the area around it in south-eastern Turkey has been practically inaccessible because of the Turkish-Kurdish civil war. Now, owing to the row over the building of the Ilisu dam and its potential impact on the environment, archaeologists and journalists are flocking to Hasankeyf to see what Professor Arik describes as the most `valuable, exciting, unique historical site in Turkey'.

The ruins and rock-cave houses of Hasankeyf tell of a history going back 2,000 years, although the original settlement could have dated back to the seventh century BC and the late Assyrian and Urartu times,The Romans called their frontier town Cephe (Rock) and fortified it against the Persians. In the Byzantine period, it was called Kiphas and became the seat of a Syriac Bishopric in the fifth century AD, and the centre of the Eastern Christian churches in the sixth and seventh centuries before it was occupied by the Arabs, who called it Hisn Kayfa.

The town was a staging post on the Silk Road and was fought over by the Damascus-based Omayyads, Abbasids from Baghdad and various Turkoman Seljuk tribes. It had its Golden Age as the splendid capital of the Artukids throughout the twelfth century. It was during this period that Fahreddin Kara Arslan built the magnificent bridge across the Tigris. The four monumental remnants of the sturdy archways are those that are seen today.

The Ayyubids, descendants of the great Kurd Saladin, captured Hasankeyf at the beginning of the thirteenth century. They were succeeded by the Mongols in 1260, who smashed the city badly, although Lt Colonel Chesney still described it as one of the `principal towns of Mesopotamia' in the first of his four-volume survey of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which he carried out by order of the British government in the 1830s.

There are three distinct areas in Hasankeyf: the citadel, the middle and lower towns. At all levels, there are remains of ancient hamams, water systems, mosques, monasteries and churches and public and private buildings. On the southern bank is the beautiful Ayyubid cylinder-shaped Zeynel Bey Tomb, decorated with blue-glazed brick and crowned with an onion-shaped dome. …

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