Travels among the Antiquities of Eastern Anatolia

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Travels among the Antiquities of Eastern Anatolia


Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review


HIGH on a hillside, above the derelict remains of Tushpa is a plaque commemorating the Persian king Xerxes who passed that way en route to his failed invasion of Greece in 480 BC. It is written in the wedge-shaped cuneiform script invented here and used throughout the Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires. On the hilltop stands a ruined castle originating in the ninth century BC and added to by Ottoman and Armenian architects.

Tushpa, capital of the Urartian Empire, is said to have been one of the most attractive settlements in Anatolia. It was home to some 80,000 Armenians and Kurds until destroyed in the battle for independence (1915-20). Tushpa was never re-built but about a couple of miles away is the modern city of Van, its concrete and grid-plan structure dating from a post-1950s earthquake.

Those paragraphs encapsulate eastern Anatolia. Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, was the birthplace of civilisation and an important route, where power frequently changed hands resulting in destruction and a diverse cultural mix.

A reliable water supply from the rivers enabled agriculture to flourish; the surpluses produced then allowed diversification so some people began developing non-agricultural skills, making town life feasible. This, and the resultant trade, necessitated a system of government and record keeping. Relics of the Urartian Empire indicate that this way of life was well established by the ninth century BC.

A few miles south of Van, at Cavustepe, Urartian irrigation channels are visible from the remains of the royal palace built by King Sardur II between 764 and 735 BC. Here the curator enthusiastically produces ancient barley grains from huge storage jars and translates a plaque whose cuneiform script records the names of the builder and other local people. There is even a Urartian toilet -- the same hole-in-the-ground system as is used today. The skill of Urartian craftspeople is manifest in Van museum exhibits: terracotta figures, ornate bronze belts and some very covetable gold jewellery.

Yet simple irrigation channels were inadequate to support a twentieth century population at a comparable level, so the South Eastern Anatoian Project was inaugurated in 1974. When complete -- some doubt it ever will be -- there will be 22 dams in the Tigris--Euphrates basin, 17 of which will also generate hydro-electricity. The resulting lakes will cover an area the size of Austria. The Ataturk dam, fourth largest in the world, is an impressive sight: 80 m high and 20m wide at the top, broadening to 800 m at the base.

It has already begun to transform the landscape and economy of the region. Irrigation has extended the area formerly under cultivation: pistachio nuts, olives, fruit and cotton are produced on a commercial scale and processed in nearby towns using electricity supplied from the dam.

This has not been without controversy however. An estimated 50,000 farmers were evicted from their small riverside plots as the water rose, engulfing their homes; many migrated to towns to seek low or unskilled work in the new factories. Malaria and dysentery have increased about ten-fold. The habitats of entire populations of animals, birds and plants have been destroyed. Neighbouring Syria and Iraq have been adversely affected by the reduced flow downstream. Archaeologists are aghast at the drowning of important sites.

Major settlements were too great a challenge for even international teams to save in the time available and have been lost for ever. The remains of the Roman city of Zeugma, for instance, (founded c. 300BC) stand forlornly on a promontory waiting to be submerged. Desperate digging against the rising water level managed to salvage a tiny fraction of its priceless mosaics, now displayed in Gaziantep museum.

Zeugma was one of the two easiest crossing places on the Euphrates, where east-west and north-south routes converged, so it became home to wealthy merchants, government and army officials. …

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