Around 1830, beloved literary giant Victor Hugo learned that the old Gothic pile in the middle of Paris was to be pulled down. A crooked filthy church like a brokeback dragon, built piecemeal over centuries, it had been badly damaged in the French Revolution and blackened in great fires. The government planned a big new development there on the Seine once the eyesore was gone. The eyesore was Notre Dame. Horrified, Hugo set about creating something that would make everyone love the place as much as he did, enough to let it live. He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and saved the cathedral. He told it as a story, and afterwards there was no question of its being destroyed, for all the world had come to love it. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, is one of the most visited places in the most visited country on earth. Oh would to the gods that I could be as Victor Hugo, as influential in his time as Steven Spielberg is in ours. There are so many things I would save. I would start with Hasankeyf.
THE CRADLE Imagine a place in the land of beginning. A place shaped like a cradle, in the Cradle of Civilization. All civilization, not just Middle Eastern. This is the Fertile Crescent; Sumeria, Mesopotamia: the birthplace of writing, cultivation of food, domestication of animals and other cornerstones of life as we know it. Earliest examples of writing are from the third millennium BCE, in nearby Ur, just across the border in Iraq. Cities then looked like this.
But people were much the same. Writing was invented to keep track of temple contributions, and there was undoubtedly some poor schmo accountant working overtime in some ziggurat, as shown here in Mac clip-art as comparatively ancient in computerdom as the scene it shows.
Thinking in these terms, it’s only yesterday: In a vast golden valley the road winds through gentle hillocks, many pierced with ancient caves.
Soft swells blend upward into one horizon. The other horizon is a fantasy landscape of canyons and cliffs carved by the Tigris over hundreds of thousands of years. At its most spectacular point sits Hasankeyf.
Ur was a great trade center of the plain, buried for centuries. Hasankeyf is a small lively hill town of caves and artifacts that have accumulated over time through many civilizations. Nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping sight of the massive monolithic ruins rising out of the green water, caves and arches and one enormous rounded tower next to sheer cliffs soaring up from the edge of the river, everything ruddy gold in the late afternoon sun.
I first saw Hasankeyf in 2007. I was the only foreigner on the Hasankeyf Train, a four-day excursion to protest the drowning of this cherished spot by the Ilisu Dam Project.
Hasankeyf’s execution has been stayed many times, yet the dam has begun and progresses. People must have their electricity, and dams are the mode of the day in Turkey. This dam will last about forty years. Hasankeyf has likely been around for about 9,500 years, according to testing of artifacts found last summer in a Neolithic mound at the end of the ancient bridge.
This means that Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the Tigris River in the southeastern corner of Turkey, has been around, and likely occupied, through the various reigns of Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mesopotamians, Arabs, Byzantines, Romans, and everyone before and after and in-between. At present, it’s of particular significance to the Kurds, and most of the present inhabitants are Kurdish.
That jaw-dropping initial sight of the town has been mitigated in recent years. New highway and bridge constructions mar the pristine setting, with a huge dirt pile dumped in front of an ancient tomb. This zigzag staircase I so loved has, I am told, fallen off the cliff.
Across the valley they’ve begun the new town. Everyone in Hasankeyf is to move into it. I’m told it looks like a college campus or new projects; in short: generic group housing. It’s probably okay. It just doesn’t look like this:
People have left part of a castle, piers of a bridge, a giant cave, a zigzag staircase, a huge Muslim minaret, carved writing, tombs and many, many caves. Most important, the place is still alive. This isn’t Aphrodisias or Ephesus, resurrected from the sands of time. Human beings live and work here.
It’s a functioning town, which ebbs and flows around visitors in a jocular manner. Children cavort at the waters’ edge, near the two great piers of the ancient bridge. There’s archeology going on at that 9,500-year-old site. Young pine trees shoot up to the sky. Below a rock face like a giant griffin, topped with a ruined Byzantine castle, shops are full of business, and excavations prove they always have been.
The Tigris, snaking along the edge of the valley as it has from time immemorial, has carved the rocks into fantastic sculpture. Streams run down through it from the mountains to the river. So Hasankeyf is naturally protected and watered.
A place of topographical geological magic, inherently attractive and inviting to human beings, to quote my friend John Crofoot. A longtime fellow-advocate of saving Hasankeyf via Cultural Tourism, he came over today to update me on Hasankeyf. He was there all last week. We are hoping, all of us, that the Powers That Be can find a way to have their dam and preserve Hasankeyf. I believe they can do this. I have faith in their ability.
THE HASANKEYF TRAIN
Last week there was a court order to save Hasankeyf. There have been many stays of execution, followed by more development, so people are wary. Atlas Magazine and Doga Dernegi organized a protest train in 2007, the one pictured here. Hasankeyf continues to quiver on the edge of destruction, absolutely unique, a monument to the past, a hope of the future. But Turkey is about right now, and dams are the order of the day. Dams are sexy. Lots of water, lots of electricity, lots of jobs, and fast. Detractors say solar power is sexier, that dams dry out the country. There’s a lot of pro-dam noise right now. Articles sing the praises of the many dams and say they’re creating all kinds of great sites. I dunno. I sure saw a lot of dead rivers.
Dam detractors argue that river valleys would, if cultivated, provide more money than the dams, prevent more overcrowding in the cities, and the most fertile and beautiful country in the Middle East would continue to provide plentifully for its people. In Mesopotamia, the origins of civilization would endure as they always have. This dam will cost over a billion dollars. It was the approval of the loan of this sum by European banks that inspired the 2007 train trip, one of several. Three hundred and seventy-four Turks and one American traveled with little sleep and no showers to celebrate this diehard ancient town.
The people on the train were educated hip Turks who love antiquities and nature enough to give up a four-day beach weekend for a rackety train with smelly bathrooms, intermittent air-conditioning and only a brief overnight in antiquity before the return. But did we care?
Not a harsh word, and on the next-to-last night, a raucous party stretching through both dining cars with loud singing and people dancing in the aisle and everyone screaming with laughter.
I never met nicer people.
You might think that being the only person who couldn’t speak Turkish, I’d feel left out, but no. Drawing On Istanbul had just come out, and people made me feel swell. Several had seen articles in the papers, They stood around and watched me draw, and I only wish I had taken fifty copies with me because I sold every one that I had.
I was there thanks to Celal Ogmen at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. My first year in Turkey, I designed Kalamar’s logo and drew pictures of the place while eating fish dinners. Never did I pay for one. The art has variously decorated the tablecloths, napkins, walls, brochures, ads, menus, business cards, waiters’ T-Shirts and the packet holding the refreshing towelette.
Celal and his horde of relative-employees are from Van, to the north of Hasankeyf. He originally wanted me to go and draw his birthplace, but found the trip to Hasankeyf instead and coughed up my fare. It can be easier to get a pubic hair off of a gorilla in a wetsuit than to get cash out of a Sultanahmet entrepreneur. I told the organizers of the trip that if this guy was on the bandwagon to save Hasankeyf from the dam there was a lot of hope. Right, they said, Hasankeyf is one of the most beloved places in Turkey. Covering it with water is considered sacrilege.
So I drew and I drew. First out the window, dozens of tiny thumbnails.
A woman tugging at a sheep, a door in a hillock, a long mud-brick barn, olive trees and grassy knolls and forlorn dusty riverbeds, sad bridges unused, in the distance the bright hard blue of the huge dams. Toward Malatya, known as Turkey’s breadbasket, the land began to look like the Garden of Eden.
I drew sheaves of poplar trees, tiny houses, orchards everywhere. The very air was full of essence of apricots. Here, the rivers have water.
There was a conference on the train with the two prime movers of this demonstration: Guven Eken of Doga Dernegi and Ozcan Yüksek, the editor of Atlas Magazine. I couldn’t follow the conference but I drew the passion on the faces as the train roared into the gathering dark. In the middle of the night, indigestion kept me up to see a full moon on the loneliest train station in the world. Was it called Sapak?
Next day: a row of people standing next to sacks full of potatoes in a field, a flock of turkeys, a flat-topped mound with a rectangular cut in it and trucks drawn up: an archeological site. A long line of goats walking along the bottom of a cliff, and in the dawn, the full moon showing a different face.
Near Mt. Aegeis, the highest point in Turkey, we racketed past mesas and ramparts of stone jutting out of the dry grassy hills. A giant, many-pointed black rock loomed near a green hilltop community. Its citizens in antiquity must have believed that the gods lived there.
The mountains grew higher and sharper as we started into tunnels. Spectacular vistas shot past: jagged peaks soaring into the clouds and dizzying glimpses down bottomless canyons covered with cedar trees.
Stunned, I stopped drawing and just gaped along with everyone else on the train. None of this can be seen from the road, only the rails. A sudden thatched roof on a terraced hodgepodge of brick and wood near some olive trees, and the whole family out taking the sunset air, a little boy and girl up on a cistern, waving.
Near Diyarbakir, the copper in the hills shadows blue into the rust of the mountain towns. We had been warned that malcontents might attack our train in this area, and they did: several windows were hit with rocks, the shatterproof glass spiderwebbed behind the posters that said THE HASANKEYF TRAIN.
My new friend Buket (pronounced Boo-Cat) saw the malcontents: three little kids. In the dining cars everyone drank coffee and tea and ate kebap and grinned at the waiters and charged their telephones at the outlets. By now many of us women had bright scarves over our flat sweaty hair. By the end of the trip these had bloomed into fantastical headdresses.
LITTLE GIRL DRUM
Although the very Minister of Transportation had been involved with this journey, the train was all-day late. The railroad town of Batman, adjacent to Hasankeyf, waited seven hours in the thick heat to welcome us with brass bands, banners, crowds of shouting children, and the mayor himself passing out red carnations to every woman on the train.
In the fierce heat I wore a small black shirt, a huge black hat and shades. Where are you from? The little boys screamed in Turkish. I was never so glad to be from Los Angeles, because it is so far away. And because of the movies everyone knows what it is. So I screamed back, Merhaba from Los Angeles, Hollywood, California, USA!! The head of the brass band put down his trumpet, stuck out his hand and said ON BEHALF OF THE CITY OF BATMAN WELCOME, and gave me two red carnations.
The kids made us cry, singing and wringing our hands. Little boys pressed sweaty wads of salted watermelon seeds into our hands and kissed them. Little girls in tribal dress banged huge tambourines. I thought of them out there in the searing sun all day, dressed up and waiting. We were hustled into buses and half an hour later we were winding through Mesopotamia when the bus slammed to a stop and there it was, Hasankeyf, the fantasy in the late afternoon sun.
Buket and I wandered as much as possible in the time before sunset.
IN THE TOWN
Three young men, students from Izmir, held still on the edge of the castle for portraits, staring down into the vista of caves and lantern light. “We read Atlas,” they said, “and so we travel Turkey this summer and learn our history.” Buket and I climbed down the slippery stones from the top of the Byzantine clifftop castle to dinner on the beach below.
Dinner was river trout barbecued and served at tables set up in the shallows. A jolly crowd sat at a tilting table with our feet in the Tigris, eating the fish caught in the river and throwing the bones back in to repay the river. Girls in trailing headresses waded out into the rushing water, legs glowing in the gloom.
We were going to sleep on railed platforms set up in the river. I hiked across the rocky beach toward the vast sheer cliff with the zigzag staircase and the castle on top, to use the pay restroom set up in a cave and manned all night by two hardy kids.
The cliff shone pale in the moonlight, impossibly high and huge, like something from another planet, like something glimpsed near sleep. Near the bottom of the zigzag staircase was a huge natural arched entrance all lit up and hung with tapestries. I peeked in: a vast multistoried cavern fitted out for lounging. Reaching all up inside the cliff, natural stone passageways and staircases and wooden platforms covered with cushions and little tables, halogen lamps hanging here and there showing the top of the cave high above and the water sluicing down the far wall from the natural cistern. They called it Transpassers’ Cave. Hmph. It’s Ali Baba’s cave from Arabian Nights– Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
I don’t know if the cave is still accessible, so I’m very glad that I ran and got Buket and that we slept there, along with a litter of flea-free month-old kittens, up on the second platform high above a slumbering company from the train. I expected to dream of Ali Baba or to channel the ancients, but all I heard was Celine Dion on the sound system until they shut it off around dawn. No matter! Stiff from sleeping doubled up on the train, I sprawled in bliss on the cushions. A night to cherish, and in the morning they only let us pay for our breakfast.
These kids interviewed Buket and me for a show on Hasankeyf to run on Iz TV. In the background, three young guys and their grandmother held a sit-in.
Most of the people of Hasankeyf aren’t happy about losing the cave homes they’ve occupied for generations.
There’s a fatalism about most of the town. Still, there were townsfolk protesting with us. Ozcan Yuksek, editor of Atlas, climbed up a radio tower and got a photo of all 374 of us cohorts standing around a huge sign: HANDS OFF HASANKEYF.
Two guys sitting under a protest sign said in Turkish We will live under water if we have to. There are now scuba tours of the fabulous mosaics at Zeugma, the ancient trading port now covered by Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates years ago.
Turkey wants to be one of the most visited places on earth. Right now it’s Number 7. The most visited place is France. Hm, I wonder why. Perhaps it’s the presence of exquisitely preserved cultural treasures– Notre Dame!– and the absence of billboards, trash and Walmarts. People don’t cross oceans and continents to see what they can see at home. Sure, people shop. But cultural tourism combined with shopping is huge money, and it doesn’t destroy your cultural heritage, it preserves it. Turkey has absolutely unique places, important to the whole world, for Turkey is geographically and historically in the center.
Imagine six years later. Buket and I are still great friends. Iz TV interviewed us both back in Hasankeyf, and the show has been aired about a hundred times on public TV in Turkey. I know because delighted strangers stop me in the street and tell me. Hasankeyf seems to bring out the best in people.
Trying not to think about Hasankeyf being flooded or ruined with bad promotion, I imagine Victor Hugo’s vexation about Notre Dame. It created Quasidmodo, gibbering in hideous rage on the tower as he pours molten lead on the mob hammering at Notre Dame’s doors, trying to get in and destroy the unique and exquisite Esmeralda. Snatching her from the moronic maw of the ravening mob, bearing her into the church, screaming Sanctuary! Sanctuary! That’s just how I feel: Lon Chaney as the fearsome Hunchback, and how I wish I was strong enough to ring his bell. Rage can make Quasimodos of us all, but he did save the church.
Now imagine Hasankeyf as the center of a cultural tourism Renaissance in the troubled Southeast of Turkey. Chronic upheaval makes for fascinating history, which can mean great tourism. Imagine a fine life for the poverty-flattened people of Hasankeyf, with government sanctioning of their town as a regular tourist destination, with UNESCO backing and with the kind of money that educated tourists are willing to spend to see something unique and irreplaceable.
There’s that great big highway they’re building, there’s that great big bridge. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it led to a better life for all. In situ. Just imagine! As they say in Hasankeyf, the rose is most beautiful on the branch.
All road drawings, spot illustrations and portraits Plein Air. All other drawings Plein Air with some augmentation from photos in places due to time constraints. All art, including most photos © Trici Venola. These drawings are part of the Drawing On Istanbul™ Series by Trici Venola, produced with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format. Large drawings are 18 cm X 52 cm. Special thanks to John Crofoot, Buket Sahin. and to Celal Ogmen and the staff at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. We love their fish, and we love your comments. Thanks for reading.