What’s Turkey’s most incredible sight that most people have never heard of? A wonderful little gem called Hasankeyf, that every visitor to Turkey’s Southeast should put on their map right now! Don’t worry, I’ll wait here while you do it….
See, I’d never heard of Hasankeyf either until I found myself looking for CouchSurfing hosts in a city called Diyarbakir, a major transit hub from which I’d planned to make my way to Iraq. Except I never made it to Diyarbakir, for the wonderful potential host there gave me the best advice of my trip. “Don’t come here,” he said, “go to Hasankeyf before its too late.” Too late?
Next thing I knew I was in a city called Batman (no joke, it’s really called that, but pronounced Baht-mahn), where regular minibuses originate en route to Midyat that pass right through Hasankeyf.
Arrival in Hasankeyf
I can’t say I knew what to expect when I arrived, but soon the cliffs the minibus passed were honeycombed with little caves. Next thing I knew we were crossing the mighty Tigris River into ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and ahead of me lay one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. This was Hasankeyf.
Hugging the bank of the Tigris, the golden-colored stone village looked as if it was carved straight out of the cliff it sat on. The remnants of ancient bridge spanned the river, leading straight to the most prominent point in the mini skyline, the tall, skinny minaret of the local mosque, which was complete with a stork nesting atop it!
But picturesque buildings were not all this tiny little charming town had to offer. Its surrounding cliffs hold hundreds of caves that date way back in human history. Are you sitting down? These caves are over 10,000 years old!
Can you fathom that? I ask because I really couldn’t. I mean, you hear about old stuff, sure. In the Americas it’s maybe a few hundred years. In Europe it’s maybe 1,000 years. Istanbul’s famous sites don’t seem so old, at least compared to this. Heck, even the Citadel in Erbil, Iraq, the oldest continually inhabited spot in the world, only dates back 7,000 years! But I have to tell you, being surrounded by 10,000 years of human history is truly humbling.
You could spend days exploring the surrounding area. But I started out with Hasankeyf Archeological Park, which sits right next to the mosque. Inside, there was a nice assortment of man-made caves, along with a renovated palace. There were also some also some epic vistas, like this one, where I had a meditative few minutes, the wind sweeping by my face, before I was told it was too dangerous to be off the trail.
But I also wandered around outside of the park, where the caves scattered throughout the surrounding cliffs were still inhabited by farmers, perhaps nomadic (or perhaps not). And across the Tigris, lay a majestically restored Madrasa, with a gorgeous elaborate pattern in its brick design.
Let’s face it, I totally fell in love with Hasankeyf while I was there. I fell for its charm and its people. I fell for its history. And I fell for its tragic story.
Hasankeyf in Danger
See, Hasankeyf won’t be around for much longer… In fact, when Turkey completes its Ilisu Dam project next year (at least that’s the current estimate), Hasankeyf is supposed to be completely under water, all part of the reservoir that the dam will create. We’re talking over 10,000 years of human history under water here! If that sounds criminal to you, you’re not alone.
Many people seem to think that the reason Turkey is proceeding with this dam is because the area due to be flooded is almost entirely Kurdish, and, until very recently, the Turkish government did not think very highly of the Kurds (a cease-fire was recently signed with the Kurdish resistance movement, the PKK). A court put a hold on construction in January 2013 but construction has since resumed.
Turkey has also said that they will relocate the historical sites in Hasankeyf to higher ground, though how exactly you move entire cliff sides is beyond me. For its real beauty lies in its setting. It’s not just about the historic buildings. It’s about the sweeping cliffs that surround the city. The famous river at its edge. And those remnants of the old bridge across the Tigris.
In the meantime, life in Hasankeyf goes on. People go about their business (much of which is reliant on tourism) and children run and play in the Tigris. And in the meantime, you should visit Hasankeyf before its too late! Trust me, you won’t regret it!
Oh, and if you need a place to stay, I would highly recommend Hasbahçe, often simply known among travelers “The Garden” for its large, family-owned garden that is the centerpiece of the property. Here chickens roam free and the family chills and enjoys meals together. Their hospitality is truly superb! To find it, go down the first street on the left right after you cross the bridge.