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HASANKEYF

Sentenced to drown?                 Population: 3,000

hasank1Other names: Hisn al-Kifa, Heskif (Kurdish)

For some years now Hasankeyf has been a cause célèbre for environmentalists who are horrified at the idea that the planned Ilısu Dam will flood the ruins of this lovely ancient settlement on the banks of the Tigris (Dicle) river.

Such was the international outcry a few years ago that the British government was forced to backtrack on plans to support the dam. By pulling the financial plug they left the project temporarily high and dry. Unfortunately that was not the end of the story and work is now almost complete both on the dam and on Yeni Hasankeyf (New Hasankeyf), the new settlement to which the much reduced local population will be moved.hasan2

The result of all the publicity has been to bring Turks, especially from the east, rushing to visit Hasankeyf. For the time being the single biggest problem for visitors (apart from a heavy heart) is that the cloud hanging over the town has removed any incentive to develop much of a tourism infrastructure. In particular the accommodation situation is grim. 

Linguistically Hasankeyf is interesting since many of the population are trilingual, speaking Arabic or Kurdish as their primary language with the other as a second language and Turkish as a third. 

Backstory

Just as in Cappadocia, some of the cave dwellings at Hasankeyf date back to the centuries before written records. However, the expanding settlement didn’t really come into its own until the 12th and 13th centuries when it was governed by the Artuklus, an offshoot of the Selcuks who also held sway in Mardin.

hasan7Eventually their place was taken by the Ayyubids who were, in turn, replaced by the prettily-named Akkoyunlu (White Sheep) dynasty. It was their king Uzun Hasan (Tall Hasan) who built the imposing palace on the summit of the rock, but tempting as it is to imagine that he also bestowed his name on the settlement, Hasankeyf actually appears to be a corruption of the Arabic Hisn al-Kifa, meaning ‘fortress of the rock’.

In 1260 the Mongols roared into town and undermined the White Sheep rulers who nevertheless managed to cling onto power until 1416 by which time the Ottomans also had Hasankeyf in their sights. However, once they had eliminated the threat to their borders from Safavid Iran the Ottomans lost interest again and left the town to fall into the slumber from which it was eventually awoken by the dam furore.

Around town

Of all the sites in south-eastern Turkey Hasankeyf’s is arguably the most spectacular. As you approach across the flat plain from Batman, a dramatic sweep of curved rock suddenly juts up above the cool blue waters of the Tigris, while the abandoned struts of the old Artukid bridge hint at the treasures to come.

hasan5The approach from Midyat is less dramatic since it sneaks you in at the rear where the souvenir stalls are a tad offputting. However, you have only to walk past them to find yourself in an echoing gorge riddled with old cave homes. To the right the ruins of the old town straggling up the cliff-face offer an unignorable invitation to commence climbing.

A cobbled path zig-zags up to the top of the gorge, passing through a graceful monumental gateway dating back to the 14th century. Eventually you arrive at the remains of the Small Palace built by Uzun Hasan, currently inaccessible.

The path continues to wind ever upwards until it deposits you near the ruins of the Big Palace and the Ulu Cami. The mosque dates back to the 12th century and had survived with its dome intact into the 21st century when misguided protestors against the dam clambered on top of it and caused it to fall in.hasan3

Up near the mosque stand the remains of stone-fronted cave houses very like those in Cappadocia. These continued in occupation into the 1970s when the residents opted to be rehoused back at ground level.

The main attractions at Hasankeyf are grouped together around the gorge, but it’s worth finding time to inspect a few outlying sites as well. These include a cute domed tomb covered in green and blue tiles that housed the remains of Uzun Hasan’s son Zeynel Bey and dates back to c. 1480. This is now scheduled to be taken apart and moved to a new location.

hasan4Also worth a look is the graceful stone minaret of the El Rizk mosque, which rises up near the bridge in the heart of the modern village. With teardrop-shaped panels of calligraphy dripping down its façade, it looks very like the minarets in Mardin.

The mosque itself is less interesting, the original having long ago slipped into the river. However, the elaborate carved panel over the entrance is said to represent the 99 names of Allah. 

Frequently overlooked by visitors since they're isolated in a part of the village apart from the main path are the remains of the lovely 14th-century Koç and Sultan Süleyman Camis

Although there are plenty of specific sites to explore at Hasankeyf, the real joy of a visit lies in the chance to explore its spectacular location. It’s hard to know which is the more beautiful – the stunning, unspoilt rural view from the summit of the gorge looking inland, or the beautiful vista down over the river with the curving rock throwing a protective arm around it. In high summer the latter view is best appreciated from simple çardak (shelter) restaurants set up right in the river so that you can tuck into your fish lunch with cooling water lapping around your feet.

It is almost impossible to believe that a place as beautiful as this could actually vanish but the loss of the Roman site at Belkis-Zeugma to the Birecik Dam suggests that it is still a real possibility. The government is apparently prepared to pay for some of the monuments to be moved elsewhere, but such would be the cost that it is hard to believe a replacement site could ever be a patch on the original.hasan9What will the future hold for these Hasankeyf children?

Sleeping

The threat of the dam has blighted development in Hasankeyf so that there is little worth mentioning in the way of sleeping options. There are plenty of business-class hotels in Batman, or you can stay in much more inviting Midyat.

Hasankeyf Motel. Tel: 0488-381 2005

Hasbahçe Guesthouse. Tel: 0488-381 2674

Transport

Regular dolmuşes from Batman to Midyat pass through Hasankeyf. You can also organize a taxi excursion from Mardin – it takes two hours in each direction.

Day trip destinations

Batman

Gercüş

Malabadi

Mardin

Midyat

Silvan

Read more about Hasankeyf's likely future: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-265336-going-going%E2%80%A6-last-days-for-hasankeyf.html

Read more about a dying tradition: http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/pat-yale_350057_the-last-caveman.html

hasan8Tiles on Zeynel Bey Türbesi

hasan6Elaborate carvings in Sultan Süleyman Cami

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