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Untouristed SE Turkey

Beauty and Hospitality in an Ancient Land

When the sun pouring through the bus windows woke me, I could see that we were following a valley of spectacular proportions. Sheer golden sandstone cliffs dropped sharply into the Tigris River below, and other gorge valleys cut horizontally into the cliffs revealing a vast area of deserted hilltop rock-cut settlements. As we entered the ruined settlement of Hasankeyf, a small Kurdish settlement of about 5,500 inhabitants in southeastern Turkey, the immense beauty of the place became apparent.

Remants of the Artukid bridge rise out of the Tigris River in Hasankeyf.

The main town was originally built on a rocky spur high above the Tigris, and rock-cut dwellings in the river's cliff faces line the valley sides. Some families still live in these rudimentary houses; downstream are the four grand pillars of an Artukid bridge that in its day was said to be the finest in Anatolia.

During the 1980s and ’90s, fighting between the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, and the Turkish army destroyed the economy of the eastern half of Turkey and caused widespread loss of life, mostly Kurds. Throughout this period those who dared to venture into PKK territory were putting their lives at risk. Years later, normality is at last returning, travel restrictions have been lifted, and it is quite safe for foreigners. Southeast Turkey is yet to be discovered, and the absence of tour companies makes the area an extremely attractive destination: it is ideal for the visitor seeking real adventure and direct contact with the local communities. And who hasn’t heard of Turkish hospitality?

The locals realized Hasankeyf’s huge potential and they themselves have taken charge of tourism. Many families depend upon it as their primary source of income. Shops sell rugs, scarfs, and other hand-made crafts. At small riverside cafes on wooden platforms along the water’s edge the visitor is able to lounge lazily on the cushions, sip chai, sample the local fish from the Tigris, and watch the sun set while the water swishes below them.

Hasankeyf’s remarkable medieval remains date back 10,000 years. Nine major civilizations, from the Assyrians to the Ottomans, each left its own distinctive cultural layer on the landscape. In the hill-top fortress, with its spectacular views of the river valley, I was able to wander among the ruins and the deserted dwellings on the hills beyond the fortress at my own pace, undisturbed. The medieval tiled domed tomb on the edge of the Tigris is also well worth exploring, as is the small white mosque on a hill opposite the main village. My photographing the mosque caused great interest among the locals. One woman offered me sweets; another asked for me to take a photo of her disabled son.

Zeynal Bey tiled tomb, built in the 15th century, in Hasankeyf.

But Hasankeyf will soon disappear. In 2000, the Turkish government began building the Ilisu Hydroelectric Power Project on the Tigris River, part of the GAP project, a highly ambitious venture utilizing the waters of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to generate electricity for Turkey’s growing industries and at the same time to irrigate vast areas of land previously lacking water. The countries of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq are involved and the project calls for the construction of 22 dams and 19 power plants. It is the world's largest project of its kind and will cost at least $2 billion.

The Ilisu Dam itself will submerge 90 villages, including Hasankeyf. In total, 25,000, mainly ethnic Kurds, will be forced from their homes; another 11,000 will lose their farmlands and livelihoods. Not to mention the loss of thousands of years of Roman, Byzantine, Abaside, Merwanid, Sassanid, Seljukian, and Eyuubid history.

So what hope is there for Hasankeyf? Lobbying from environmental groups and non-governmental organizations such as the Kurdish Human Rights Project, the Free Hasankeyf Association, and Friends of the Earth has had limited success: one of the main sponsors withdrew its funding, and the project has been delayed considerably, but only time will tell if it will be halted for good. Until then, Hasankeyf remains a place not to miss. I especially remember the wonderful friendliness and hospitality of these humble people.

For More Info

Practical Matters: Hasankeyf winters are extremely cold, summers unbearably hot. For this reason, it’s better to go in the months of May and June, or late September and October. As of this writing visas are necessary for U.S. citizens but can be obtained easily at the port of entry in Turkey for a fee of $45. Turkey is still a cheap travel destination and one is able to eat, sleep, and travel at very reasonable rates.

Accommodations: There is only one small hotel in Hasankeyf, very clean and adequate, right where the bus drops you. Ask for a room on the riverside.

Transport: Hasankeyf is well connected to the town of Batman. Six buses make the 1-hour run daily.

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