HASANKEYF, Turkey (Reuters) - Every day hundreds of people gather on the banks of the Tigris river in southeast Turkey to watch a 12,000-year-old town disappearing before their eyes.
Rising water levels from the giant Ilisu Dam further downstream are slowly submerging the town of Hasankeyf and flooding an area which was settled by humans for millennia.
The dam, approved by the Turkish government in 1997 to generate electricity for the region, will uproot nearly 80,000 people from 199 villages and has alarmed authorities in neighboring Iraq, who fear the impact on their water supplies from the Tigris.
After years of setbacks, the dam started filling last July. Water levels in and around Hasankeyf have already risen some 15 meters and continue to rise by around 15 centimeters per day.
The dam forms a key part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project, designed to spur economic growth in its poorest and least developed area.
Residents have left Hasankeyf, many of them moving to a new town, Yeni Hasankeyf, on a nearby hill which will sit on the shores of a newly created lake once the dam is completely filled.
For now, they can see the stone pillars of an ancient bridge which once spanned the Tigris, and the concrete arches of its modern equivalent, both being slowly subsumed.
Dirt has been piled at both ends of the modern bridge, which leads into Hasankeyf, to prevent entry to the town. Village guards wait at the end of it.
The water has crept up on the shores of the town near the end of the bridge, swallowing some houses. Sections of roads in the town are also under water.
Reuters was turned away from another entrance to Hasankeyf by police who said only residents moving their last belongings and people with permission from local authorities could enter.
Once the dam is filled, proposed plans for the area include ferries shuttling tourists between the new town to a section of the old town that will remain above the water. Several historical structures including a massive tomb, an ancient Turkish bath, a historic mosque and its minaret, have already been moved to Yeni Hasankeyf.
The Ilisu Dam will generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity, making it Turkey’s fourth-largest dam in terms of energy production.
Below the historic Hasankeyf fortress, where Romans, Mongols and Seljuk Turks fought or settled, a canyon that housed hundreds of caves in which people lived and worked has been filled with concrete some 50 meters of depth.
A waterway was constructed on top of the concrete to drain the rain water into the dam. Further above the waterway, shepherds still take their herds to graze on top of steep cliffs.
The dam is now 20-25% full, according to the Hasankeyf Coordination group, and the water will likely rise around another 50 meters in coming months, reaching just below the top of the fortress and submerging thousands more caves.
Eyup Agilday, a 27-year-old shepherd, recently moved to the new town. He still visits the old village everyday to take care of his sheep, which he left behind because there is no land for farming and husbandry in the new town.
“When I see Hasankeyf being left under water, I am torn up inside. We have memories there but our history is there as well. We are talking about 12,000 years,” he said, adding that around five families were still coming to the town to take care of their animals, which they still keep in caves.
Ramazan Sevik, originally from the nearby village of Gercus, came with his two children to visit the town before it is submerged.
“We saw the history here but our children didn’t see those dusty beautiful caves. They’ll only a see a version of it with make-up,” the 45-year-old said, sitting at a cafe on the banks of the Tigris that will be submerged in the coming weeks.
“Those who opposed (the project) were accused of being political. Even if you’re an environmentalist, a patriot, or animal lover, they labeled you as something else when you said ‘Stop!’ to the project,” he said.
“Now, we’re watching history slowly disappear.”
Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alexandra Hudson