Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bathed in controversy

The world's oldest known thermal spa is at the centre of a conflict between Turkey's drive for modernity and the protection of its heritage, writes Helena Smith

Helena Smith in Allianoi, Turkey
Wednesday October 4, 2006

The Guardian

The floodwaters have not arrived yet but the Yortanli dam is ready. As his team of tireless diggers ignores the sizzling Anatolian heat to uncover the secrets of Allianoi, Dr Ahmet Yaras had the look of a condemned commander about him.

It would, he said, be death by drowning for the world's oldest known thermal spa. "And still," he exclaimed, his eyes scouring the wooded hillocks of the ancient settlement, "there is so much to find."

Days after Turkey's government gave its blessing to the construction of the controversial Ilisu dam in the south-east of the country, archaeologists in western Allianoi have accelerated efforts to salvage a 1,800-year-old health centre that is arguably the most impressive and best preserved on the continent of Europe.

Not since excavations began in 1998 has the quest to unearth the mysteries of the complex been so fraught with the knowledge that time is running out. The Yortanli project was completed last November and only pressure from both inside and outside Turkey has kept the floodgates closed.

Laying the foundation stone for the Ilisu plant - a project that campaigners claim will wreak "cultural mass destruction" on the historic site of Hasankeyf while displacing thousands of Kurds - the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, summed up the dilemma thus: "On the one hand, you have the increasing demand for energy and a bright future for Turkey; on the other history, culture and an inheritance that belongs to all humanity. We have to find a solution. We have to make peace between the two sides."

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