I was not prepared for the allure of Hasankeyf. My guidebook had called it a “heartbreaker” and I had seen the photos of its famed minaret and stone bridge. Yet, I had not expected much from this village strewn with rubble from a forgotten civilization—a story so commonplace in Turkey that it loses its wonder after a while. I reserved only an afternoon of our two-week trip through Southeast Turkey to visit the ruins of this ancient city.
Jorge and I arrived at 1:00 p.m. and, from the moment we stepped off the bus, I was taken by the tranquility of Hasankeyf. The main street of the village consists of a collection of teahouses and kebab shops perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the Tigris River, the site of the stone bridge I had seen from the photos. I peeked through one teahouse and felt a rush of cool breeze. Around me, old men on low wooden stools sat sipping their tea, their faces glowing from the warm light that emanated from the waters below.
We wandered beyond the main street and bazaar and reached the perimeter of the village. There, we discovered two steep cliffs with caves carved into the sides and large boulders littered between them. The cliffs narrowed into a gorge, which we followed along stairs and ladders built into the rock. Out of nowhere, a young man from the village ran up to us and offered to show us the way to the top of the mountain. We followed him and, as we ascended the gorge, verdant mountains spiraled around us.
At the summit, we beheld the most spectacular sight: a vast city of caves, complete with a mosque and castle, spread across the top of the mountain that faced us. Our guide told us that this was the old city of Hasankeyf, where 5,000 people had lived in caves until the 1960’s when the government forced them to relocate to a new village by the river. This old city remained perfectly intact, tantalizing in its proximity. Officially, it was closed to the public, but our guide told us it would have been possible to visit if we only had more time.
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. Realizing we had less than two hours left in Hasankeyf, we rushed down the mountain, still bewitched by what we had seen. At the foot of the mountain, we entered an open air café, facing the castle of Old Hasankeyf, where men sat cross-legged on large flat cushions drinking coffee and smoking. There, we met an an American journalist and learned about the construction of the dam scheduled for 2015 that will flood Hasankeyf and force its residents to resettle once again. This time, the ancient city will vanish.
We had heard about the dam before coming to Hasankeyf, but had not understood the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold until we had seen the city for ourselves. We left on the 6:00 p.m. bus, as planned, but were so captivated by Hasankeyf that we changed our itinerary and returned the following day. Even after a second day of exploring this city and talking to its residents, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Hasankeyf is one ancient city in Turkey you must visit while you still have the chance. Though the construction of the dam is currently scheduled for 2015, residents told us it likely won’t be built for a few years, which means you still have a few years to see this city before it disappears.