In July 2012, the site was temporarily closed due to safety aspects. It is unlikely this site will be re-opened to the public as this is the year scheduled for completion of the hydroelectric Ilisu dam. The reservoir created by the dam will flood the cave dwellings and most of its structures; they say the dam will raise the water level some 200 feet.
So, let me take you on a journey to a place soon to be lost. A place we may never see again in our lifetime.
We already know the banks of the Tigris River were home to the first settlements in Mesopotamia. The area generally believed to be the very cradle of civilisation.
I have already blogged about Gobeklitepe, a site thought to be used for worship but Hasankeyf was an actual city of cave dwellers initially. It has an impressive list of former residents; The Assyrians, The Romans, Byzantines, Mongols and a collection of Kurdish, Turkish Armenians and Arabic dynasties. The site is a mish mash of era’s. Thousands of rock caves (some still in use), the remains of brick houses, a sprawling ottoman cemetery, a Roman cemetery, several mosques (El Rizk,Ul, Koç, Kizlar Mosque to name just a few), tombs, hamams, a small and a great palace, medieval monuments a mausoleum and a fascinating canyon ecosystem. Phew!
How I would love to roam around the site with a metal detector!
The Assyrians called the site Castrum Keyfa – ‘’Castle of the Rock’’, The Byzantines ‘Cephe’ and the Arabs Hisn Kayfa ‘’Rock Fortress’’ and the Romans built a Rock Fortress there to keep an eye on those naughty Persians. It became an important commercial centre along the Silk Road with traders carrying their wares across the massive stone and wood bridge (built around 1116).
Hasankeyf was once imposing, majestic and undoubtedly important and it’s a crime that soon it will become a sunken treasure. Still, that’s enough of history for the moment. Let me tell you about our trip……
We set off early in darkness, a two car convoy. In the lead are Yilmaz Amca and his family with me, Murat, Hasan Amca and his daughter Ceylan following closely behind. I gaze out of the window for a couple of hours as the sun comes up on the rolling countryside and remote villages before we stop for a leg stretch and food break. Semiye (Yilmaz’s wife) unwraps parcels of white breakfast cheese and tomatoes and loaves of bread are torn and passed around. No-one has brought a sofra (tablecloth) but it doesn’t really matter as we are not sitting. The family perform the squat they have perfected. Feet flat to the floor, bum over heels as they get on with their meal. I wander around with Ceylan and we eat as we go. Sated and refreshed, we are back on the road for another 30 minutes or so until we spy a roadside café. Café is too big a word actually; it’s a shed, a pagoda, a couple of plastic tables and a wc.
The pagoda is for grapes and these are used to make bread. We sit and drink hot sweet tea and eat warm grape bread wrapped around walnuts. It’s divine.
Fortified, we are back on the road for another hour, with a stop in Mardin for petrol and the smallest of stops in Midyat for a few photos. It’s not enough for me, I am desperate for a proper look around but Yilmaz is on a mission. He has decided that while we are heading that way, we really must visit the Veysel Karani Mosque. We are also supposed to be stopping in Hilvan on the way back where relatives are making us dinner. (I’ll tell you about that later).
Around six hours after we leave Sanliurfa, we drive through the entrance to Hasankeyf. I am out of the car, eyes wide open and camera at the ready before anyone else has caught their breath! I don’t really know where to look first.
The mosque sits at the entrance to the site and the caves are literally all around, accessed by steps carved into the rock. We take the normal stairway up to the top of the site. Looking around its massive at 123.6 sq. miles (I looked that up after) and goes off in all directions. We split up, the kids run off, Yilmaz Amca and Hasan Amca pace with their hands clasped behind their backs (the mandatory walk of an elder Kurd/Turk), Semiye and Ceylan are nattering away and myself and Murat head for the sphere shard structure that sits on the edge of the site, the remains of the fortress.
It’s crumbling and in a sorry state but it does have the best view. Looking out over the edge surveying the remains of the bridge and the stunning Mausoleum of Zeynel Bey – Son of Hasan the Tall of the White Sheep Turkomans (don’t you just love that!)?
We peer over the edge, me very carefully! Murat’s not bothered though so I use him as a model and make him sit on the edge while I take photos.
We find the others mooching around one of the mosques. I get them all in a group and take some photos before wandering off again. Murat is used to my wandering. I am trying to get round everything as I know Yilmaz is on a mission.
Fascinated with all things ancient, I will spend hours, day’s even, combing sites and photographing all the nooks and crannies but I know it’s not possible when I’m on a family outing. They love the novelty of the sites but they’re not really into the history side of things, once they have seen the big stuff, they like to get back to their çay drinking.
I shoot gravestones, mosque stairs and inscriptions before turning a corner and gasping. Sitting there in a dip is house, or what’s left of one. It sits among a backdrop of mountain and sky on a bed of emerald green grass and it’s shining. I have walked into a fairy-tale.
Murat calls me then, it’s time to move on. We return to the tea house by the entrance for a ten minute sit down before leaving.
I want to stay and explore but I am now really curious about the need to visit the tomb of a payganber (prophet). I feel we are on a pilgrimage and indeed we are but I’ll tell you more about that next time.
We leave Hasankeyf and I think I will just return in the future to get to know it better. Of course, I had no idea at the time it would be lost to us just a few short years later.
On leaving, we drive through the narrow streets of a small town and have to stop for a bit of traffic. We are stationery next to a carpet shop. Sitting on the steps is an elderly Turkish man in charge of the wares and I am so close to him I could stick my hand out of the window and tickle his nose. I have a thing about old men…nothing perverse you understand, no. It’s their faces; carved into every line is a story waiting to be told and for some reason, this always makes me want to cry. I want to sit with them and hear their stories before they too are lost to us.
Of course I am in the South East of Turkey, it is a place where men rule in all aspects, a place where you respect your elders, a place where slouching or loudness is a sign of bad character, a place where men and women eat in separate rooms and women really do do as they are told. It is no place to be rude and risk the wrath of both the Dede and my family so, what choice do I have? All I can do is slowly raise the camera, slowly sink lower into my seat so that I can see the viewfinder, carefully hit the zoom just a tad and click……..
Vallah!! Here he is, isn’t he magnificent?