A few weeks ago, I wrote about the construction of the Ilisu dam that is scheduled to flood the ancient city of Hasankeyf. The dam will bring electricity and water to the region, but will destroy the city’s extraordinary ruins, including a medieval bridge, Roman fortress and an extensive network of caves where local residents lived until the 1960’s. The controversy over the dam raises a tricky question. In a region that has long suffered from unemployment and poverty, which is more important: economic development or preservation of cultural heritage?
Since the 1980’s, when the Southeastern Anatolia Project (also known by its Turkish acronym “GAP”) was implemented with the aim of raising income levels and living standards in Southeast Turkey, this exact controversy has played out repeatedly throughout the region.
The GAP project initiated the construction of dams, power plants and irrigation schemes in nine provinces located in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The same provinces are home to some of the first settlements in Mesopotamia and contain hundreds of sites of archeological importance. Since the project began, many of these ancient sites have been flooded. Still others, like Hasankeyf, are slated to vanish soon.
Many locals feel they have benefited from the GAP project. When I stayed with a family of shepherds in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa, I marveled at the modern conveniences the family could afford, including a car, washing machine and indoor bathroom. Our Canadian guide and translator, Mary, told us many of the rural families she worked with in the area attributed their rise in living standards to the GAP project.
There is no question the goals of the GAP project are laudable. But can they be achieved without destroying the region’s enormously significant archeological sites? In the case of Zeugma– an ancient Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates famed for its magnificent mosaics — the answer was yes.
With the completion of the Birecek dam in 2000, the ruins at Zeugma were deluged. Archeologists banded with the Gaziantep Museum to salvage hundreds of square meters of mosaics, columns, fountains and small artifacts that were now under water. Later, they succeeded in building a museum to house the rescued artifacts and preserve the memory of Zeugma. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which opened in Gazientep in 2011, recreates the architecture, streets and fountains of Zeugma and exhibits its 1700 square meters of mosaics, making it the largest mosaic museum in the world.
Walking around the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, I was amazed by the hauntingly beautiful mosaics and the richness of the city’s history. I felt grateful that the city’s relics had been rescued despite the fact the actual site had been submerged. At the same time, I thought sadly of all of those nameless cities that have disappeared without a trace due to flooding by the dams.
I then remembered Hasankeyf. There is still a chance for Hasankeyf to go the route of Zeugma rather than vanish like so many other sites. If construction of the dam cannot be avoided, then a compromise should be reached. A restaurant owner I met in Hasankeyf told me that the city’s monuments could be saved by simply lowering the level of water in the dam. If this is the case, there is no excuse for allowing Hasankeyf to disappear.