Claim: Proposed Ilisu Dam in Turkey will destroy ancient site

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On the slow descent into the Tigris valley, steep cliff walls rise 100 metres on both sides at the confluence of seven natural gorges. The winding road continues into the Kurdish heartland of south-east Turkey until the Mesopotamian plain unfolds, revealing the first scattering of rock caves, of which there are thousands in the area. On the southern bank of the Tigris the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf overlooks the scene.

The town’s history dates back at least 7,000 years, with traces of Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Artuqid, Ayyubid and Ottoman civilisations. Though dilapidated from years of neglect, Hasankeyf still enchants – fish seem to jump into the nets of fishermen, storks roost on the peaks of ancient minarets. It is fitting that they nest here: Kurdish children learn that storks, leg leg in Kurdish, come from the south, the direction of Mecca and Medina, and so are referred to as hajis – one who has made the pilgrimage – or haji leg leg.

But 80km downstream from Hasankeyf – which means “rock fort” from the Arabic hisn, rock, and keyfa, fort – lies a very serious threat to its future. At the village of Ilisu, a huge dam is being planned and constructed by the Turkish government. When the project is finished, Hasankeyf will be inundated, submerging thousands of years of history.

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