HASANKEYF is an ancient town and district along the Tigris River in the Batman Province in south-eastern Turkey.
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, who had been sentenced to death. He requested a last favour. He asked if he could ride , for one last time, his beloved horse in the courtyard of the fortress, towering above the waters of the River Tigris 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 in the Tigris —— a formidable leap of 150mts. 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, KEYF ?” (Hasan, how ?), and from that day on, the name HASANKEYF was bestowed on the fortress.
Predominantly Armenian and Arab before, a steady and significant Kurdish immigration from surrounding villages in the last 20-30yrs, combined with the effects of the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide, has shifted the “ethnic balance”. Kurdish people form the majority of the city centre today.
This ancient settlement has borne many names from a variety of cultures during its history. The variety of these names is compounded by the many ways that non-Latin alphabets such as Syrian and Arabic can be transliterated. By the Roman Period, the fortified town was known in Latin as CEPHE, CEPHA or CIPHAS, a name that seems to derive from the Syrian word ——- KEFA or KIFO (meaning ‘rock’). Following the Arab conquest of 638 –640, the town became known under the Arabic name ———— HISN KAYF ——– HISN means ‘fort’, so the name overall means “rock fortress”.
Today the old citadel built by the AYYUBIDS in the 13th century and later occupied by many Kurdish Chieftains, lies in ruins on top of the huge limestone cliff rising vertically above the River Tigris. The old city of HASANKEYF, built beside the old mosque of the fortress, also lies in ruins. Some 30yrs 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 and doomed to disappear under water in 5 or 6years after the new ILISU DAM is built farther down the valley within the framework of the Southeast ANATOLIA PROJECT.
Had its inhabitants stayed in their original houses, they could have remained without problem in a place that will still lie several dozen metres 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 dispense to look for new homes and jobs in Batman and elsewhere, without any help from the government.
Every summer weekend the small city is invaded by huge crowds of local tourists coming from Batman, a large industrial Kurdish city, some 30km away. For 2dys, 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 the huge caves dug in the cliff, where local entrepreneurs have set up cafes with carpets, cushions and old wooden couches, where tourists can lie down 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 cliffs, partly inside the cliff and reach the ancient ruins of the old fortress.
The ruins of the small palace, located at the northeast 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. 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 amongst the ruins of the city and one can pick out a very ancient inscription at the base of the minaret. Down in the valley, many beautiful historical monuments are destined to disappear.
The EL RIZK MOSQUE, built by Sultan Suleiman will also disappear under the waters of the dam which will rise to half the height of its minaret. Then there is the Tomb of ZEYNEL BEY, which has some beautiful turquoise and dark blue glazed tiles which adorn its cylindrical body. Since the decision to build the ILISU DAM was taken 40yrs ago, HASANKEYF has badly deteriorated from neglect.
The threat of the ILISU DAM Project prompted the World Monuments Fund to list the city on its watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. It is hoped that this listing will create more awareness of the project and prompt the ILISU Consortium to develop alternate plans that are more sympathetic to this site of exceptional historical and cultural significance.