Some of the cube-shaped, flat-roofed, square-stone houses of Medyat bear stone plaques reading “Restored in 1959,” “Restored in 1962.” The curious thing about these restorations is that the houses are still low and small; the restoration changed nothing about the size or height or material or access to light of houses originally built maybe 1000 years ago. The taller houses have exterior staircases to the second floor and the roof. And virtually all the flat roofs are equipped with heavy blue iron beds with thin mattresses. How stifling it must be to live in these tiny cubes with scarce a window while the dark flat roof absorbs the baking sun all day. But then, especially for the more remote houses out on the plain, how magnificent to sleep on the roof under such a desert star-shine.
The narrow streets can still entertain but one cart (or small bus) at a time. The streets splay off at forks so steeply angled they could probably provide a history of frightful accidents and overturnings. Children (the colonial term for them was ‘street arab’; we’ve now graduated to considering important the attitudes of the ‘Arab street’) flock to the opening door of the bus. They greet us with a merry Hello and What is Your Name, and they drape arms over each other’s shoulders to pose for pictures. Then they croon “Photo Money, Photo Money.” The more jaded merely stand next to you and chant “Money money money money.” The hotel manager shushes them away and they gleefully charge down the street the required 41.34 yards where they resume their chants.
It is autumn, so you can’t expect the landscape to be green. The gray-brown of the stone houses matches the color of the surrounding fields accented by scatterings of olive trees whose two-toned green leaves relieve the eye and the spirit here just as much as they do on the green mountain sides of Volterra and Siena. There are also oak trees, most of which stand no more than five or six feet tall and no more than a few inches round because the goats stunt them by eating every sprig of life they can find. The result is a dwarf forest on mounds of floating dust. There’s a kind of beauty to this, like a promise you know can’t be kept but whose generosity startles you. And then you discover the promise is kept. This is still, after all, the Fertile Crescent, and it still produces three harvests a year. The highway, to prove the Crescent’s worth, is lined with permanent if flimsy lean-tos where melons and squashes are sold day and night.
The Fertile Crescent, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was the birth place of domestic agriculture and, as agriculture demanded it, domesticated animals. While tractors and temporary green houses are visible along our route, the ancient villages, the sense of an imminent desertification of the farms, the withered, twisted, wizened oaks where great and sturdy trunks should grow—all these suggest time stopped a millennium ago.
Which brings us to Hasankeyf.
Hasankeyf is a thriving market town on the banks of the Tigris. The river has done its timeless duty by cutting a deep ravine to mark its route. An ancient bridge records an ancient history. A new bridge shows the way to, believe it or not, Batman, the larger city some 80 km away. Rising high above the town, the mosque’s single minaret is surmounted by a great pile of twigs and branches, a stork’s nest whose occupants bring good luck to the city. Rising even higher loom the stone walls of the cliffs created by the Tigris’ million-year flow. And in the cliff walls are caves hewn into a community, a town turned on its side and running vertically above the river like a modern high-rise.
Like the Chinese government in its decision to build the Yangtze Three Gorges Dam, the Turkish authorities have decided to dam the Tigris and, therefore, to flood the town, the mosque, the ancient bridge, and the cliff dwellings. The dam, officials say, will provide electric power to stimulate the economy of the area. It will provide jobs. Generously, the government has already built a new town nearby to house all the residents who choose to stay in the area. As for the historical relevance or value or importance of the caves, it’s better to flood them than to allow terrorists to continue using them as hideouts.
Opponents reply that the government makes this final, newest argument because it knows that there is simply not enough water in the Tigris to generate an economic boom, so it must fall back on that last bastion of modern politics: terrorism. Indeed, even as our guide speaks, we can see a child wading across the river 150 feet below us.
A few years ago, the foreign banks who had guaranteed loans for the project backed out, citing concerns voiced by preservationists and United Nations agencies. The Turkish government responded by asserting it did not need foreign money; it would proceed alone “at any cost.”
For the outside observer, the same old questions of cultural heritage versus modern politics arise. Just this week, the NY Times has published an article about the aggressive manner in which Turkey is now demanding that the Metropolitan and other great museums around the world return cultural artifacts. Turkey does not argue that these works were looted or otherwise acquired illegally. Turkey concedes the legitimate acquisition. The only issue now is that their origin is Turkey, so their home should be Turkey.
But what if the work is in Turkey and the world considers it a work or an area to be preserved? If UNESCO deems a place a World Heritage Site, is the home country obliged to accept the world’s homage? Does it matter that the development project may be a failure? And what of the simple village? Is it less worthy of preservation merely because this generation’s crop of inhabitants does not yet wear the sash of ancient history?
The government replies: look at the widening cracks in the cliff walls. In a generation or two, the whole shebang is going to collapse anyway. Ah, then: repair the crack say the preservationists. And we continue in the endless round.
For me: I would not want to live in a sunbaked cube on a dusty road filled with donkey shit. But sleeping on the roof on a cloudless night chilled by a breeze off the Tigris. . . . That’s a trivial case, for sure, until something like historical necessity coughs and reminds us that one god or another promised us this land, this river, this olive grove, this starlit rooftop in perpetuity.