By Ben Holland
Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Hasankeyf in southeast Turkey has been home to Assyrians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans over the past 3,000 years, and has the monuments to prove it. Visitors may soon need scuba gear to see them.
Turkey plans to build a $1.7 billion dam to generate power from the Tigris River, which flows through Hasankeyf en route to Iraq. Archaeologists are fighting the project so they don't have to choose between moving fragile structures like Hasankeyf's Silk Road bridge or seeing them submerged under 100 feet (30 meters) of water.
The town's history unfolds down the sandstone cliffs that line the Tigris. On the plateau above the river lie the ruins of a castle built by Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great. Caves carved into the sheer walls three millennia ago were inhabited until the 1960s. Near the river, archaeologists have uncovered a complex of medieval mosques, palaces and shops.
``It's tragic and it's outrageous'' to flood the valley, says Tom Sinclair, a history professor at the University of Cyprus. ``You can just walk in there and immediately get the idea of a medieval city.''
Archaeologists and environmentalists last year asked the European Court of Human Rights to stop the dam, known as the Ilisu project. The court in April rejected the case because European human rights laws don't protect cultural heritage, says Murat Cano, the lawyer who filed the action.
The government sidelined an earlier project six years ago after protests by environmental and human rights groups. In response, planners agreed to build a new town for Hasankeyf residents and move some of the monuments.
``These structures are already collapsing,'' says Yunus Bayraktar, who oversees the project for Turkish builder Nurol Holding AS. ``If there wasn't a dam project, they'd all be going to hell.''
Unfurling maps and plans across the table in his Ankara office, Bayraktar describes the future Hasankeyf: marinas, an open-air museum and a steady flow of tourists drawn to the monuments and water sports on a lake six times the size of Manhattan. The caves can be transformed into luxury apartments, and ``the world's billionaires will come and buy them,'' he says.
Present-day Hasankeyf straddles the Tigris. Above the town rise the minarets of the 15th-century El-Rizk mosque, which has a twin spiral staircase leading up the tower. Children compete to tell visitors how the architect escaped down one stairway as his angry master, sword in hand, pursued him up the other.
Three pillars survive from the stone bridge once used by travelers on the Silk Road from China to Constantinople. On the river's north bank sits an onion-domed tomb inlaid with blue tiles that was built for the son of the Turkmen King Hasan the Tall in the 14th century.
`Stone Would Crumble'
``I don't think they can be moved,'' says Abdusselam Ulucam, the Turkish archaeologist in charge of excavation at Hasankeyf. ``The stone would crumble to dust in your hands.''
There is probably more to be found. Last month, a security guard stumbled across a Roman mosaic on a wall buried behind the rubble inside a chamber at the base of the cliffs.
``It just shows you what else could be discovered,'' says Sinclair, author of a four-volume study of east Turkey's antiquities published by Pindar Press.
The dam's builders and financial backers, including Societe Generale SA and export credit agencies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, say they'll pay for archaeologists to keep digging until the waters rise.
Turkey has made ``fundamental improvements'' in the project, with social and environmental criteria to be monitored by independent experts, Paris-based Societe Generale said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Some locals welcome the project because it will create jobs.
Sait Tekin, a local shopkeeper, says there is now work in Hasankeyf because investment dried up after the dam was first proposed half a century ago.
``It's better that it should be flooded than stay like this,'' Tekin says as he chats with friends at his general store on the city's main street. ``We just want to know what's going to happen.''
Others aren't convinced.
``This is my home. Of course I don't want to leave it,'' says Cigdem Kayalar, 16, as she milks goats in the shade by the river's edge. Kayalar admits life in Hasankeyf isn't easy: her father can only find work when archaeologists are in town, paying locals about 1 lira (81 cents) an hour to dig for them.
Ilisu is one of 13 dams planned for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as Turkey strives to meet the needs of its growing economy. When completed in about seven years, the project will generate 3,800 gigawatt-hours of power annually, or 2.4 percent of Turkey's current output, according to Energy Ministry figures.
Lawyer Cano recognizes that Turkey needs power and that the latest Ilisu project will relocate or compensate the 55,000 people who'll lose their homes.
Still, he says, Hasankeyf shouldn't be flooded.
``Each civilization has a duty to pass on what has survived from its predecessors,'' he says. ``Invest, for sure, but also protect.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Holland in Istanbul at email@example.com .