The legend told by Cheref-Ouddin, Kurdish prince of Bitlis, in his book “Cheref-Nameh” (Marvels of the Kurdish Nation), written exactly 400 years ago, recalls an Arab prisoner called Hasan.

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Hasan, who was had been sentenced to death, requested a last favour. He asked if he could he ride, for one last time, his beloved horse in the courtyard of the fortress, towering above the waters of the Tigris river, where he was incarcerated? His last request was granted — and during the course of his ride, the prisoner jumped his horse over the wall of the fortress into the Tigris — a formidable leap of 150 meters. The horse died on landing in the waters but the prisoner escaped, to the astonishment of all who witnessed the scene. According to legend, the spectators exclaimed: “Hasan Keif?” (Hasan, How), and from that day on the name was bestowed on the fortress which has kept it through the centuries.

An old citadel built by the Ayyubids

Zeynel bey's tomb

Today, the old citadel built by the Ayyubids in the 13th century and later occupied by many Kurdish chieftains, lies in ruins on the top of the huge limestone cliff rising vertically above the river Tigris. The old city of Hasankeyf, built besides the old mosque of the fortress, also lies in ruins. Some 30 years ago its inhabitants were forced by the government to abandon their centuries old houses, many of which were carved in the limestone, to come down and settle in the valley. The bitter irony of the story is that now the new city of Hasankeyf is under threat, doomed to disappear under water in 5 or 6 years after the new Ilisu dam is built farther down the valley within the framework of the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP).

Had its inhabitants stayed in their original homes, they could have remained without problems in a place that will stil lie several dozen meters above the new level of water. But the whole new city, the old bridge, and many historical monuments, will all disappear under the flood of the dam.  The locals will disperse to look for new homes and jobs in Batman or elsewhere, without any help from the government.

Every summer week-end the small city is invaded by huge crowds of local tourists coming from Batman, a large industrial Kurdish city, some 30 km away. For two days, Hasankeyf is full of people looking for some shade and relaxation on the bank of the Tigris, where they can eat Kebab and drink a cold soda while dipping their feet in the river. Others prefer to enjoy the cool atmosphere of huge caves dug in the cliff, where local entrepreneurs have set up cafes, with carpets, cushions and old wooden couches, where tourists can lay for hours listening to traditional Turkish music, waiting for the time of the day when the worst of the day’s heat has subsided and they can climb the amazing steps dug centuries ago partly on the flank of the cliff, partly inside the cliff — and reach the ancient ruins of the old fortress.

Spectacular ruins

The cliff and the old city

The ruins of the small palace located at the north-east end of the fortress are spectacularly perched at the extreme end of the cliff, dominating the valley like the stern of a huge stone ship. Looking down at the Tigris and the valley through one of its remaining windows one can understand why the Kurdish chiefs who lived there until the end of the 19th century felt so proud and so secure: perched up there, almost in the clouds, one had not much in common with the poor human beings toiling down in the valley below. Alas, little is left of the great palace, except a standing pillar of the old gate. But the ancient Ulu mosque, built by the Ayyubids in 1325 over an antique church, still rises amonst the ruins of the city and one can still pick out a very ancient inscription at the base of its minaret.

Down in the valley, many beautiful historical monuments are destined to disappear for ever, like the old bridge. The El Rizk mosque, built by the famous Ayyubid sultan, Suleiman,  will also disappear under the water which will rise up to half the heigth of its minaret. On the other bank of the Tigris several old monuments will also be submerged, like the tomb of Zeynel bey, the son of Uzun Hasan, of the Akkoyunlu dynasty which ruled shortly over Hasankeyf. One can still see some of the beautiful turquoise and dark blue glazed tiles which adorned the cylindrical body of the tomb — a rare example of its kind in Anatolia. But this “turbe” is in a very poor condition, like most monuments of Hasankeyf. Since the decision to build a dam was taken 40  years ago, the whole site has badly deteriorated from neglect.

One has only to stay in Hasankeyf after the week-end to see that after the departure of the tourists the small city is falling asleep — a sickly sleepiness. The hotels that used to cater for the tourists have close down several years ago, and except for a few youngsters like Ali, 15, the son of the “muhktar” (mayor), who loves his old city and has mastered enough English to guide the occasional foreign tourists around — all the young men have already left the city, to look for a job in Batman or Izmir. Paradoxically, the police do not help to foster tourism and harass the rare foreign tourists who occasionally obstinately decide to stay overnight and sleep in the old caves of the fortress.

All the inhabitants of the city — and all the local branches of the political parties — are against the building of a dam which will destroy their life. But their efforts to avert the crisis have been to no avail. While the the ministries in distant Ankara decided to finance a project to “rescue Hasankeyf’s cultural and historical heritage” — by preparing a data base and archive the site itself, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, will be “lost forever”…

(The Middle East magazine, November 1998)