Monday, February 17, 2020

The disappearing Christian heritage of Hasankeyf

The recently opened Hasankeyf Museum in the new town offers visitors an extraordinary glimpse of everyday life in the Neolithic age – when humans first began living in settled communities. Its collection of archaeological and architectural remains from Hasankeyf also includes rare examples of early Islamic gravestones, Roman and Late-Roman/Byzantine jewelry and coins, and architectural decorations from the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when Hasankeyf was ruled by a succession of dynasties: Artukid, Ayyubid and Akkoyunlu.

While the historical scope of the museum is impressive, its presentation of artifacts from Hasankeyf’s Christian community is surprisingly weak. Indeed, many visitors will no doubt leave with the idea that the city’s Christian history ended with the advent of Islam in the 7th century. But ample evidence shows that a significant portion of Hasankeyf’s population remained Christian for more than 1300 years afterward.

In the 10th century, for example, Arab geographer al-Muqaddisi notes the city’s numerous churches,* while Ottoman records from the late 16th century indicate that of 1700 households in Hasankeyf, nearly 60 percent were Christian.**

There is also considerable physical evidence attesting to a vibrant Christian community enduring into the later centuries of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, most of this has been left unprotected beneath the waters of the new Ilısu Dam reservoir.

Take, for example, the cave church at the foot of Ra’s Kayim, the hill at the eastern edge of Hasankeyf’s lower city. Its interior walls are adorned in a pattern of crosses carved from the stone.

Cave church at foot of Ra's Kayim

Cave church interior walls

In the cave chapel of Saha Valley, at the southwest corner of the lower city, there is a distinctive cross and a number of graves.

Cave chapel in Saha Valley

Cross inside Saha Valley cave chapel

There are also stone masonry churches in the heart of the city and its outlying districts, such as Tareke Church, hidden among the houses above the recently demolished Hasankeyf market. This church, which reflects a building style common throughout southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, is believed to have been the only structure to survive the demolition of a Christian neighborhood during construction of a highway bridge in the early 1970s.*** 

Tareke Church

Tareke Church detail

While Tareke Church and the cave churches on the edge of the lower city will soon be flooded, Deiriki Church (which stands behind the Citadel) and Mor Aho Monastery (on the outskirts of Defne or Üç Yol Village) will both remain on dry land. However, without proper conservation, these monuments will likely succumb to the forces of time and vandals. They require urgent attention to ensure that they are preserved in a way that safeguards both their structural viability and historical authenticity.

Mor Aho Monastery

Mor Aho Monastery interior

Deiriki Church
Deiriki Church

Deiriki Church detail

The Hasankeyf Museum’s display of five crosses from the Byzantine period in no way suffices to document the long, rich history of Christianity in the region. It is particularly disturbing that the caves and stone masonry structures attesting to the contribution of Christian communities to the cultural life of Hasankeyf across millennia are largely undocumented, unprotected and absent from the new Hasankeyf Museum and Archaeological Park. The museum also completely ignores the important role Christians played in the city’s social and cultural history under Muslim rule, missing the opportunity to explore how these communities interacted with one another throughout the ages.

Today, the region’s Christian population is dwindling rapidly. This fact only heightens the urgency with which the Turkish Government must act to conserve the cultural heritage of diverse civilizations in Hasankeyf, rather than allowing it to disappear – either due to flooding by the Ilısu Reservoir or to benign neglect.

We call upon the Turkish authorities to stop the filling of the Ilısu Reservoir so that work may continue to research and document the important aspects of cultural heritage, including Hasankeyf’s Christian past, that have been neglected or omitted from the historical narrative presented in the Hasankeyf Museum. 

Notes on sources:

* “Hisn Kaifa,” Encyclopedia of Islam, 1st edition, Leiden: Brill, 1913-36.

** According to the İslam Ansiklopedisi (“Hasankeyf,” İslam Ansiklopedisi, 16. Cilt, İstanbul: Diyanet Vakfı, 1997).

*** Oluş Arık, Hasankeyf: Üç Dünyanın Buluştuğu Kent, p. 188-90.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Latest news from Hasankeyf

The waters of the Ilısu Dam reservoir are starting to rise, but people are still fighting to save Hasankeyf and let the world know about the irreparable damage being done to cultural heritage, ecosystems, and communities.

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates. We are also compiling recent media coverage of Hasankeyf on our In the News page.

Additional resources on Twitter for those who understand Turkish include the accounts of Hasankeyf'i Yașatma Girişimi and Hasankeyf Koordinasyonu and the hashtag #HasankeyfİçinGeçDeğil -- It's Not Too Late for Hasankeyf.