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Published: November 13th 2011
Mardin is a city unlike any other I’ve seen. It’s a city of nooks and crannies; of cobbled, twisting, narrow lanes; of archways and stone houses rising in layers up a steep mountain. Stone in Mardin, however, is more than just stone. It lives and breathes and guards centuries of secrets. It plays with the sun, changing colors from rose at dawn to honey at dusk. It sings the glory of God and recites the poetry of the Koran. I’d like to say that I gave the city and its vast cultural diversity all of the attention it deserved, but instead it received only a cursory look before I hit the road for the old Roman city of Dara.
Nine kilometers outside of the city walls, I got picked up by the rickety Saab of the town’s museum curators. After making a brief stop to snatch a few corncobs off their stalk, we drove to the remains of the imperial city, where they showed me all the sites – even the ones closed to visitors. With a magical set of keys they unlocked closed gates and opened rooms full of archaeological tools and bags of bones. When the tour was
over, we returned to the office to eat the pilfered corn, drink tea and talk about Turkey’s best archaeological sites. From what I could understand, Hasankeyf was, “Çok güzel! Very beautiful!” I’d never heard of the town before, but I wrote the name down as they drove me back to Mardin.
I had planned on touring Mardin in the morning, but instead I skipped town again for the mysterious Hasankeyf. Spanning 4,000 years and nine civilizations, the small Kurdish town is thick with history – literally. Each conquering empire built their markets and places of worship directly on top of those of their vanquished foes, leaving a stratified chronology that can be read like tree rings. Together with over 5,000 cave dwellings carved into the mountainside, the entire area is going to be flooded in a few years under the waters of the Ilısu Dam. Despite the risk of inundation – officials are unsure of how high the water will actually rise – the Turkish government is still funding the reconstruction of many of Hasankeyf’s disintegrating buildings. Eland, the Kurdish man overseeing the restoration efforts explained the controversial project to me over a lunch of kokereç (lamb intestines), which
was far tastier than my first hesitant bite expected it to be.
The construction of the Ilısu Dam is part of the Southeastern Anatolian (GAP) Project, which itself has a noble goal: to establish the foundations of a sustainable development program that will raise the standard of living for the nine million residents of southeastern Turkey, mostly Kurds and Arabs. The venture has already made substantial progress and fields of barley and cotton now fill the once barren, desert landscape. The Ilısu Dam will impede the flow of the Tigris River to supply the water needed for these crops. It will also power a hydroelectrical plant, and inundate the venerable (if Kurdish) city of Hasankeyf.
Relations between Turks and Kurds have been tense since in the 1920s when they valiantly fought, side-by-side, during the battle for independence. Unlike Greeks, Jews and Armenians, the Kurds were not guaranteed rights as a minority under the 1923 Treaty of Lauanne. In fact, a unitary Turkish nation was decreed, denying the cultural existence of the Kurds. Census forms still don’t allow for people to identify themselves as Kurdish. The Kurds have constantly rebelled against their cultural and political marginalization, establishing the PKK
(Kurdistan Worker’s Party) in the1980s to fight a low-key armed struggle for an autonomous Kurdish state. Their tactics have grown increasingly militant to the point that they are now considered a terrorist group. The construction of the dam would not only destroy a city of extreme cultural significance to the Kurds, but would also hinder movements of the PKK through southern Turkey.
Most Turkish people had looked at me like I was crazy when I told them of my plans to travel into Kurdish territory. Ignorant of the history between the groups, I had no response to their misgivings. Armed with a new perspective on the “Kurdish problem,” I’ll no longer remain silent on the subject. Although I never truly experienced the wonders of Mardin, I don’t regret my decision to travel around it. I made many new friends and was reminded that every story has (at least) two sides. It has always been my goal to listen to every viewpoint with a quiet heart and an open soul, without passing judgment.
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