Middle East 2012 Turkey

The Endangered City of Hasankeyf

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

Hasankeyf Welcome Sign

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!

Hasankeyf Minaret

Mindboggling History

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!

Hasankeyf Archeological Park

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.


The Sights

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.

Hasankeyf Archeological Park

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.

Carvings on a Mosque

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.


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

15 replies on “The Endangered City of Hasankeyf”

Incredibly humbling. I mean, there’s old…and then there’s OLD! And to be standing right over the Euphrates river when I took that first shot was absolutely thrilling. Mesopotamia. I learned about that in school and I was standing right there. It was way more impactful even than visiting the Pyramids or Petra!

Hasankeyf is gorgeous. Many people are told not to go there, but oh..what they are missing. I love your photos! Let’s hope the government does move some of the key sights…let’s just hope!

SO gorgeous! Many people have this perception about southeastern Turkey being incredibly unsafe. Before the cease fire was signed, when I visited, the rebel groups were isolated WAY further Southeast than Hasankeyf is, so those fears are really unfounded. The government has said they will move some of the key sites. We’ll see how well that works out.

That’s horrible! One of the drawbacks of North American archaeology is that our well-preserved sites aren’t usually very old. I’ve been working in places where the area is endangered by climate change, and it’s sad and frustrating to see history being lost – but I can’t even imagine someone choosing to let a place like that be flooded on purpose.

I suppose in a land where there are so many ancient sites priorities can be a bit different. And it’s amazing to me that a government would willingly flood a historic place in part due to the ethnic group that lives there. I have to wonder though…every time a dam is built anywhere in the world, history is inevitably flooded and we forget what was once there. This case matters so much to me as I was there and saw what would soon be lost. But what about everywhere else? Sure, it may not be quite as old, but still. And yes, I agree, this is horrible…

Indeed it was stunning and the advice that I head to Hasankeyf was the best advice I got the entire time I was in Turkey. And from Istanbul I went straight for Eastern Turkey, skipping over Ephesus and Cappadocia, which I’m sure I’ll hit up int he future. Gotta say though, I really loved eastern Turkey! So many wonderful little gems!

Fantastic article!! And the photos- wow. I also traveled to Turkey but unfortunately did not make it there. I did get to visit Cesme, Izmir and Istanbul which were all amazing (well, Istanbul did not take so kindly to my kindness as you can see on my new blog- ) and I left soon after for Africa. I love your blog and look forward to more of your writings!! Thank you for sharing 🙂

I LOVED Turkey and would go back in a heartbeat. Didn’t make it to Izmir or Cesme and I’m ok with that. I know I’ll be back soon enough! I’m glad I decided to venture East as fewer travelers make it out there. Where in Africa did you go?

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