The drowning of the Kurdish historical and artistic heritage

By Prof. Mehrdad R. Izady

The late Dr. Henny Harald Hansen (1900-93) will long be remembered for her many authored and co-authored works on Kurdish women. What is little known of her is that Dr. Hansen first introduction to Kurdistan at the ripe age of 57 was when as a member of a Danish team she visited the historic sites in Raniya plain and the middle Zab river valley east of Arbil which the Dokkan hydro-electric dam was soon to drown.

In the ever-more thirsty Middle East, the rich water resources and effluent rivers of Kurdistan are treasures coveted by all. To optimize the use of Kurdish water, the local states have rushed to dam every and all myriad rivers that meander through Kurdistan. Over a dozen of major dams and scores of smaller ones have thus been built since Henny Hansen visited Dokkan in 1957. Since there is plenty of rainfall in Kurdistan—whence the abundance of rivers—the dams are built to expressly benefit other peoples outside, not the Kurds inside that land. As shall be seen, even the well-trumpted GAP project in Turkey is not excluded from this basic rule.

Dams are naturally built in the river valleys. It is well known that river valleys are where human civilization first took hold, Kurdistan not being an exception. With every valley that is flooded behind a dam in Kurdistan, is therefore drowned a part of its history.

This destruction of Kurdish past has happened every time a dam has been thrown up and a historic Kurdish valley turned into a lake. Never has the drowning of Kurdish historic sites generated any thing like the international enthusiasm in the late 1960s which saved the Egyptian historic monuments from the rising waters of the Asswan dam on the Nile. Dams built for the benefit of the non-Kurds are drowning Kurdish heritage every day. But no international or Kurdish outcry has been ever heard.

The policy on archaeological study of a given place before its flooding has varied from state to state, and time to time. Even when the archaeologists are called in to excavate the to-be-flooded site, they can obviously work only until the dam is completed. Never has the reservoir of a completed dam been left unfilled for the sake of any archaeological work that might have been going on at the time. These archaeological studies are therefore hasty and rudimentary. Now-a-days, these “archaeological studies” have ceased to be studies at all. They have become organized looting parties that hack and rip what they can from the site, justifying it by the fact that what is not removed is drowned.

Once drowned, the loss of an archaeological site is permanent, even though the dams themselves are not. Under the best of conditions, the useful life of a dam—any dam—hardly ever exceeds 75 years. Due to natural silting process, a vast majority have shorter life spans. Silt and top soil washed by rainfall and deposited into a river, accumulate behind any dam man makes. In time, the silting reduces the reservoir capacity of a dam to the point where it ceases to be useful. Even if such a silted-up dam were to be torn down at great cost, any archaeological material that has not been destroyed by water, would be buried under hundreds of feet of silt, and lost to prospecting for ever.

Usually, when a dam is silted up, new dams are built down stream to repeat the self-defeating process. Judging by the ever-increasing thirst for water in the Middle East, in time, one should expect for every river valley in Kurdistan and its archaeological wealth to be destroyed in this way. Thus while the damming of the Kurdish rivers benefits primarily non-Kurds and for a finite period of time, it exclusively destroys the Kurdish historical heritage and for ever. This destructive process must stop now.

Dam projects in Iraqi Kurdistan

Coming back to the Dokkan, the hasty archaeological digs showed the area to be the most important valley in the mid-course of the Lesser Zab river—one that was the heartland of two ancient kingdoms of Simurrum and Kharkhar. From the pre-drowning excavations and simple browsing on the Raniya plain (a 4,100-year-old royal rock inscription of Simurrum was “found” by just looking up at the cliff walls), were discovered enough material to reconstruct a portion of the history of these two states, including partial king-lists. The discoveries at the Shemshara Mound there, has since become one of the milestones in the prehistoric archaeology of the Middle East and the world. Dokkan destroyed Shemshara and the rest of that historic valley, for ever eliminating the chance of uncovering any direct information about those two kingdoms from the Hurrian phase of Kurdish history.

Tellingly, the name “Dokkan,” meaning “grotto,” refers to the ancient grottos and chambers carved into the cliff faces in that area, serving as the royal tombs. They all are now under water.

We need not involve in measuring the extent of importance of those two ancient kingdoms to the history of the Kurds. Suffice to say that the within radius of 50 miles around Dokkan Dam are found—today—Kurdish clans with revealing names such as Karkar, Khorkhora and Gargar. The Kharkhars are still around, and living today as constituent parts of the Kurdish nation, while their ancient home was forever destroyed before our uncaring eyes by the Dokkan.

After Dokkan, Iraqi authorities continued on with their damming program. Being an arid country, Iraq depends for nearly all its water resources on the Kurdish highland rivers. Tigris and Euphrates are just the two most important ones. Lesser and Greater Zab rivers, and Sirwan-Diyala are three major tributaries of Tigris that are for an appreciable part of their course inside the Iraqi sector of Kurdistan. To secure a more reliable water flow, Iraq had embarked on damming all these highland rivers to the fullest extent. Baghdad nevertheless found it in its heart to call in archaeologists to dig and salvage what they would, before an area was drowned.

Similar last-minute archaeological expeditions were carried out at the site of the Darbandikhan and Hamrin dams on the Sirwan-Diyala river, and Bekhma on the Greater Zab. Darbandikhan dam west of Halabja is in the heartland of the historic district of Shahrazur that has served as the cradled of numerable Kurdish dynasties and religious movements. The region was known for its dense habitation and rich economy, as early as the time of the Sumerians. It served as one of the centers of the Hurrian culture. Hurrian immigrant from Shahrazur district were responsible for the construction of the city of Arap’he which now after 3,800 years is known as Kirkuk.

Archaeologist E. Speiser reminds us that in that district “the number of ancient mounds…is probably larger to the square mile, than anywhere else in Iraq.”(Speiser, 1928:26) Realizing the renown richness of archaeological mounds in the Iraqi lowlands, Speiser’s observation is not short of astounding. The Darbandikhan’s reservoir ultimately covered most of the area described by Speiser, drowning one of the richest archaeological sites in all of Kurdistan and, if Speiser is to be trusted, perhaps the world.

Remains of two more ancient Hurrian Kurdish cultures of Zamua and Namri thus were obliterated behind Darbandikhan. But it was not Hurrian Kurdistan alone whose history was being obliterated. Naturally, along with ancient layers of each archaeological site, there was also drowned records of the subsequent millennia of culture that had overlaid them. The heartland of the historic district of Shahrazur, the area had been celebrated for its wealth and urbanity by Muslim authors since the 7th century, which is now known as the district of Sulaymania. It is ironic that while the ancient records and heritage of the district was being drowned, its living cities like Halabja were being simultaneously bombed or gassed by the Iraqi army.

To the southwest of Darbandikhan, the archaeological digs at Hamrin dam site near Khanaqin were carried out in much more haste than usual. Under orders from impatient President Saddam Hussein, the construction of the Hamrin dam was given highest possible speed, as it directly regulates water and hydro-electric power coming into Baghdad metropolitan area, only 50 miles away. The hasty archaeological digs unearthed material telltale of an overlap between Zagros cultures such as those of the Lullubi and Hamban and the Mesopotamian such as Ishnuna, Akkadia and Babylon. The ancient layers were topped by remains of the classical Kurdish kingdom of Shatrapan and the medieval Ayyarids. Of the Shatrapan culture and kingdom we perhaps, shall never know any thing more than its name, now that its very heartland lies at the bottom of the vast Hamrin reservoir. Of the medieval Ayyarids, fortuitously we have more information, since their cities in the neighboring river valleys are not similarly drowned—yet.

Dams in Iran and Syria

The dams in the Iranian Kurdistan have been few and very small in comparison to those in Iraq and Turkey. Small dams near Hamadan, Saqqiz and Mahabad did not even see the minimum archaeological prospecting and digging that Iraqis afforded their dam sites. Even though these Iranian dams did not drown any known archaeological sites, from their location alone one would be safe to presume losses of historical importance. While Mahabad and Saqqiz are located at the heartland of the historic Manna, Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana), was the capital of the Medes. The renown archaeological sites of Hassanlu and Ziwiya are at the stone throws from Mahabad and Saqqiz respectively. Hamadan is simply besieged by ancient mounds, rock inscriptions, mausolia, exposed ruins etc. What these nearby dams drowned shall never be known beyond reasonable assumption that they did destroy a part of the Kurdish past.

In Syria, some minor dams in the Jezira region—the largest Kurdish enclave in that country—have been constructed. None has seen any known archaeological prospecting before filling their reservoirs. The train of spectacular findings in that Kurdish region to include early Hurrian cities like Urkish with impressive remains and earlier Halaf archaeological sites, all point to the historic richness of the region and the perils of building dams. In north-central Syria, the huge Assad dam on the Euphrates drowned primarily Syria’s own past, Arab as well as pre-Arab Aramaean, Eblan and even Hurrian. It did cause, however, a disruption of the Kurdish community of the Mahmudis who occupied the territories to northeast of the resultant reservoir, the Lake Assad. Most were summarily removed from their ancestral farmlands and dispersed into Arab dominated town of Raqqa and villages built by the government for housing the displaced peoples. The Mahmudi Kurdish community is thoroughly disrupted and is unlikely to avoid assimilation in the face of their thin dispersal.

Turkey and the GAP project

All the destruction committed against Kurdish historical heritage in the Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian sectors of Kurdistan fade into insignificance in comparison to the apocalypse taking place in Turkey.

In what follows, you will encounter the adjectives “world’s oldest” and “worlds’ first” far too often. This is neither an accident nor an overstatement. Being one of the primary loci for humanities first experimentation with settled life, domestication of basic farm crops and animal, earliest copper and bronze works, weaving and fired pottery, development of earliest cities, invetion of token systema of record keeping which evolved into invention of writing, significance of Kurdistan a place in need of utmost care in preserving of its archaeological sites.

As early as 1882, Encyclopaedia Britannica notes: “It may indeed be asserted that there is no region of the East at the present day which deserves a more careful scrutiny and promises a richer harvest to the antiquarian explorer than the lands inhabited by the Kurds, from Erzeroum to Kirmanshah.” (9th edition). The results of scanty excavations taken place prior to all the drowning listed below, give credence to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s proposal. But let the “antiquarian explorers” hurry before all is drowned.

In 1967 the first of the major dams in Turkish sector of Kurdistan was in the process of being built in front of the mighty Euphrates at Keban. Impressed by the trends of the time such as the Danish team’s work at Dokkan, an archaeological expedition was arranged by the University of Ankara to investigate the historic remains of the area that the mammoth Keban was to flood. The archaeological team from Ankara University was so euphoric that it invited another one from the University of Michigan. Rich remains of the ancient Hurrian Kurdish kingdom of Hazo of the 2nd millennium BC, turned up in profusion. Here laid the remains of a culture and kingdom hitherto known only through occasional mentioning in the early Mesopotamian tablets. The Hazo/Hadho are the people who in the subsequent two thousand years spread out to form the kingdom of Adiabene (Hadhabani) in central Kurdistan (in Iraq), and become the forbears of king Saladin and the Ayyubid dynasty. Beneath the Hazo layers were found those of the world-renown neolithic culture of Kurdistan, while above it was the remains of the subsequent cultures of classical, medieval and early modern Kurds. By 1970, 256 square miles of northwest Kurdistan and these archaeological remains were deep under Keban water.

Meanwhile, the joint discoveries of these two archaeological teams at Keban proved to be too good for their own good—and that of the Kurds’. Papers appeared from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University with incriminating titles such as, Doomed by the Dam: a Survey of the Monuments Threatened by the Creation of the Keban Dam Flood Area (Ankara, 1967), listing a shocking number of standing cultural monuments that were being doomed. The Michigan group, meanwhile, produced a survey of the buried cultures and, ancient mounds (Ann Arbor, 1979). The Anakra team even suggested the erection of a small, inexpensive diversionary earthen dam at the entrance to Altinova plain east of Elazig that could have saved from flooding some of the richest of the discovered archaeological sites. None of these “meddling” were viewed by amusement in Ankara. As a consequence, the Karakaya Dam and later the Ataturk dam saw little archaeological activities before works on the dam itself had begun.

The large dams on Euphrates had their counterparts built on the Tigris, with the largest being the great Ilisu dam shortly below the confluence of the Bokhtan river and the Tigris. It is hard to assess the magnitude of the archaeological loss in the areas flooded by the Ilisu, as no true archaeological expedition short of the official and semi-official looting were carried out. The dam however, came to drawn a city, and the city turned out to be the living museum town of Hasankeyf—a well-preserved jewel of Kurdish urban architecture and the last capital of the renown Ayyubid dynasty.

Hasankeyf consisted of a fort, perched on an enormous rock that protrudes into the Tigris flood plain from the south, whence the more accurate form of the city’s name, Hisn Keyfa, “castle of the rock.” The city per se, including mosques, churches, mausolea, caravanserais, colleges and bazaars were below the castle on the Tigris flood plain. The city was connected to its suburbs on the north bank by a massive but richly decorated stone bridge, much commented on by medieval geographers like Yaqut, who described it as one of the most beautiful architectural works he had ever seen in the Islamic world. Even though the cliff-top fort contains some smaller Ayyubid monuments of various types and the Artuqid-Ayyubid palace, most of the Ayyubid monuments were naturally in the town below. Until 1992, these included in addition to the bridge, the richly decorated multi-domed, congregational mosque of Ayyubid king Sulayman I and the additions made to it in 1351; the grand mosque and its 100-foot-high ornate minaret, built in 1409 by Sulayman II, many beautifully carved-stone or tiled mausolea, including that of Zaynal Beg and the vast college of Imam Abdullah. The extensive monuments and some excavated sites were given to the due looting prior to their drowning, giving the as-ever unsuspecting Western visitors the impression of “archaeological” study of aplace (Ward 1990).

When faced with the defiant protest of the Kurdish citizens of Hasankeyf over the callousness of a government that permits historical and artistic vandalism on such scale as drowning a living museum town, the mayor of Hasankeyf, Esref Basaran, and apparently a Kurd, stated sadly to the American reporters of the National Geographic Magazine in May of 1994: “I want to stay here for my children and my grandchildren. Something has to be done to save [Hasankeyf].” “When I talked to the visionaries of GAP, they saw little hope.” added the National Geographic reporter. “Takeoff! We are in takeoff.” were roaring the euphoric Turkish engineers, “That dam is at the best site in terms of hydroelectric power generation.” Lacking any industry to consume the generated hydroelectricity, Ilisu power is indeed being taken off and out of Kurdistan via three 380kw power lines to Ankara and western Turkey. Ilisu was constructed for the sole purpose of generating 1.2 megawatts of cheap hydroelectricity annually for western Turkey’s “takeoff.” The drowning of the east’s heritage was irrelevant.

A year later as the wretched inhabitants watched from the hill top, the ancient city with all its history and monuments began to sink below the rising waters of the Ilisu dam. The town and all its historic monuments were gone by 1995, leaving only the cliff-top castle like a tombstone for what was buried below.

Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,— A city in the twilight dim and vast, With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,— And hear above me on the autumnal blast The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Henry Longfellow
“Mezzo Cammin”

Ilisu is just the biggest of the dams on the Tigris. Many others have drowned vast portions of that river’s historic basin. Below Ilisu, Cizre dam drowned among others, the remains of the Biblical Kurdish cities of Bazabda and Baqarda alongside the historic sites belonging to the longevous Kurdish Bokhti dynasty of the medieval and early modern times. Above Diyarbakir, Devegecidi, Dicle, Kralkizi and Dipni dams drowned regions represented by the archaeological site of Cayunu—the world’s oldest “industrial site”—where evidence for world’s earliest copper, bronze and fired pottery works are coupled with man’s oldest records for domestication of many of our basic farm products such as goats, sheep, wheat, barley and oats. The Bataman tributary, meanwhile, has been dammed by Kayser, Silvan and Batman dams. Being constructed at the entrance to some flat valleys, these have flooded an inordinately large areas of the historic Silvan/Miyafariqin region. Here was born the medieval Kurdish dynasty of the Marwanids, followed by the Slimani, Sasoon, Ziriqi and Hazo dynasties in the early modern times. Of the earlier historical sites, we shall never know the full extent, as little scientific digging was afforded before flooding these rich valleys.

In 1994, an international team lead by Michael Rosenberg of University of Delaware, Richard Redding of University Michigan and Mark Nesbitt of University College, London, reported to have discovered at Hallan Cemi, a Neolithic site north of Silvan, the world’s oldest evidence for domestication of pigs, dated to 10,400 years ago. Their discovery became even more of a landmark in human history when it became apparent the community at Hallan Cemi had become a settled “agricultural” community without, strictly speaking, engaging in agriculture. By domesticating and raising pigs, the community was providing for its basic nutritional needs. This discovery turned the common understanding of formation of settled village communities based on cereal plantation upside down. Here we had a Neolithic community in Kurdistan inventing village life based on animal husbandry. This is more fascinating when realizing that 100 miles west of Hallan Cemi at Cayunu and a thousand year earlier, the ancestors of Kurds had already established the oldest known farming communities on this planet, based on more conventional cereal plantation. The discovery at Hallan Cemi of “an alternative way” to human settlement than plantation and farming, and so early in time, has now fully revised the old, very narrow view of the origin of food production and human settlement. Hallan Cemi showed that transition from foraging to farming did not necessarily include intensive use of cereals as a crucial first step.

The “excavations” at Hallan Cami and neighboring mounds scheduled to be drowned in the Batman river basin involved a good deal more surface collection than digging: There was little time or money to do a systematic excavation of such a vast area of about 80 square miles that was going to be drowned. Remember, these were last minute “search and seize” operations, allowed in only after the construction of a dam had begun, lest the authorities might face an unforeseen discovery that might call for the postponement or cancelation of the precious hydroelectric dams. Despite the haste, among the remains of 10,000 years old small stone houses at Hallan Cemi were found exquisitely executed sculptures, including those of pigs and goats. Evidence for long-distance trade also surfaced at Hallan Cemi.

True to the practice, the reports which appeared in the news of the landmark discovery were devoid of terms “Kurd” or “Kurdistan,” but unabashedly referred to the Hallan Cemi as “Neolithic Turkish village of 150 inhabitants.” (NYT, 5/31/94) Thus while Turks were busy drawing the peerless Hillan Cemi, they were receiving honor and credit by the discoveries.

Back on the Euphrates, meanwhile, two new dams were ringing the death knells for other segments of Kurdish past. About 40 miles below Keban dam was constructed the Karakaya whose reservoir backs up all the way to the foot of Keban, in effect creating a continuous abyss of doom stretching from the Karakaya’s base all the way to the city of Palu behind Keban dam, drawing many historic valleys and their archaeological heritage for over 100 miles. Meanwhile, the most destructive of all these dams, the Ataturk, was still being completed below Karakaya at Samsat.

Of all dams in the GAP project, Ataturk stands out for the enormity of the loss it inflicted on the Kurdish past heritage. This is as much the result of measuring the value of the known archaeological sites drowned by this dam as by scanty knowledge available on the other dam sites: Ataturk drowned several world-class archaeological sites, living historic cities and standing monuments that needed no excavations to reveal their value.

The work began on the Ataturk in mid-1983. The archaeologists—and looters—from around the world were allowed in the same year. The area designated for drowning was 315 square miles—one third as large as the country of Luxembourg. Hundreds of known and suspected archaeological were heading for certain doom. The diggers divided into many teams, digging at various archaeological cites, and carrying off, truck loads after truck loads of artefacts, marbles, with little or no study of the trench context or the relational matrix of the sites. The area was being given to a loot and vandalism than archaeological study. Diggers—the archaeologists included—had five years to do all they could with this one of the richest and least known archaeological sites in the upper Mesopotamia.

At Nevali Cori, the earlier excavations conducted under the supervision of Harald Hauptmann from University of Heidelberg had unearthed a rich 9000 year- old temple which contained numerous cult sculptures. Astonishingly, the structure at Nevali Cori proved to be the world’s oldest methodically-built structure with a preconceived floor plan. This world treasure and landmark monument in the development of human civilization and architecture awaited drowning behind the Ataturk while hasty excavations—complete with hacking and pillaging—were being carried out with frenzy down river at Samsat.

Southeast of Adiyaman and west of Urfa on the Euphrates laid ancient Samosata modern Samsat, the capital of the Kurdish kingdom of Commagene and the birth place in AD 120 of one of the greatest Kurdish literati of all times, Lucian. The ancient city was of Hurrian foundation, and already around 4000 years old when it was rebuilt by the Kurdish Zelanid king of Commagene, Sames II, circa 130 BC. He renamed the city after himself, Sames Sate, old Kurdish for “Sames’ city.” It was further adorned with many monuments and palaces by Sames III Antiochus (64-38 BC). The city continued to live and accumulated archaeological records and monuments until 1990.

By 1985 the 180 feet high ancient citadel of Samsat “layer upon layer, of artifacts of at least six millennia of history,” had been uncovered. This included the famed palace of Sames III Antiochus himself. Many mosaics and frescoes from the palace were reportedly removed to the near-by town of Adyaman, with hand-drawn sketches and photographs being all that was to be left of royal Samsat itself, so briefly revived from the earth before its ultimate destruction by water. “Under normal conditions,” stated Nimet Ozguc, an archaeologist from the University of Ankara who directed the excavation at Samsat, “I would make an archaeological program of more than 50 years. But we had to make a fast program.” (NYT, 9.2.95)

This meant a mere three years of digging instead of 50. None of the archaeological aspects of the site had been discussed in the many years the dam was under study, and for a simple reason. This is not the Turkish history in Anatolia that is being annihilated. Theirs began a mere 800 years ago, and has not had time to become “archaeological.” It is Kurdish heritage which stretches to the down of human civilization and the invention of agriculture in its river valleys 12000 years ago that is being drowned. To a state that is openly bent on destruction of Kurdish identity, this is a welcome bonus, not a loss. “This is the largest [dam in the GAP] project, and nobody thought about archaeology.” crowed Ozguc, “Now everybody is weeping….” Henry Kamm, the New York Times’ reporter at the dam site mildly bemoaned: “Gains in human well- being in this region where much of history was born are achieved at immense cultural loss.” The vast palace and its architectural remains were at last left to the looters who carried off what they could in the face of the rising water.

What did we learn from these last minute “archaeological” digs under the Turkish supervision? The chief archaeologist Ms. Ozguc summarized the information gathered thus: “Surface finds at the mounds went back to the chalcolithic age of the 4th millennium BC. Finds dating to more recent ages have show the presence, among others, of Byzantines, Frankish crusaders, the Turcomans, Umayyad and Abbasid Arabs, Seljuks and finally Turks.” Seemingly, Ms. Ozguc found no evidence of Kurds—the indigenous inhabitants of the region and the founders of the city—anywhere in her digs. We can hardly contest this oddity, since Samsat is now 300 feet under the waters of the Ataturk. One may come to almost believe the British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler who once wrote, “Archaeology is not a science, it’s a vendetta.”

What were and are the Kurds doing when all these are happening? In diaspora, nothing; at the sites, naturally participating in the looting of what had been pronounced by the esteemed archaeologists digging the site, as belonging to anyone from the Frankish crusaders and the Turcomans to the Abbasid Arabs and Turks, but never the Kurds.

All these were happening at a stone-throw from Cayunu. It is numbing to guess what insight into humanity’s past were drowned without a study, in order to light the bulbs cheaply in western Turkish cities. It is a tragicomic irony, that the dam that caused so much damage to Kurds’ history and cultural legacy should bear the name of the man whose legacy has caused the greatest damage to the Kurds’ life in this century.

It is befitting to remember at this point the most famous son of Samsat before closing the page on that city for ever. One of the stars of the Graeco-Roman literature, Lucian was born a “Suran” Kurd, learned Greek by working at a Roman villa in Samsat, and dazzled people for generations to come with his whit, insight and humor. Despite his prominence in the Graeco-Roman world, Lucian never fails in his writings to invoke the name of his lovely home town of Samsat with special affection, and take pride in his ethnicity which he reiterates every chance he gets (Harmon, ed., 1991). The Latin form of his name, Lucian, means “light,” as does his probable Kurdish name, Roushin. In 1990 light was for ever put out from Lucian’s beloved Samsat, and without a flicker from his modern compatriots or others.

The Last of the looters.

Down river from Ataturk, two new dams are now being constructed at Birecik and Carchemish. Upon completion in 1997, Birecik dam will drown the magnificent ruins of the twin classical cities of Apamea-Seleucia, known to the Graeco-Roman authors simply as Zeugma, “bridge.” This name was given to it by the outsiders in reference to the only masonry bridge that spanned the mighty Euphrates river in its entire course. The twin cities rose on both sides of the bridge during the reign of Seleucus I, the founder of the Seleucid Empire in the 4th century BC. He renamed the already existing town on the west side after his beloved aristocratic Zelanid Kurdish wife, Apamea, and built a matching city on the east bank, naming it after himself. The bridge jointed the two cities, as the classical authors wrote romantically, “as if the couple were reaching out with their arms, holding hands over the Euphrates.”

The strategic bridge soon turned the twin city into a major international commercial emporium, bringing in enormous wealth. This in turn propelled vast construction projects and artistic decoration of the city. Zeugma surpassed both Samsat and Aleppo in importance, and only behind Antioch. The rich city was inherited by the Kurdish Zelanid dynasty of Commagene, when Sames III Antiochus, annexed it to his kingdom. The Romans took over the city in 73 AD, and turned it into a major garrison town, which brought even more wealth into it. The city was sacked by Persian king Shapor I in the 3rd century, and gradually lost its importance as the imperial borders moved eastward. The famous bridge, however, only fell some times in the 11th century. The ruins of Seleucia and Apamea are now respectively overlaid by the little Kurdish villages of Belkis and Tell Musa. The land around is covered by pistachio and olive trees, “among which one can find marble column drums, pieces of statuary, finely cut masonry blocks, and sometime part of a bath building, cistern, fallen triumphal arch, or aqueduct…” (Kennedy, 1995:55) Ruins of villas, farmsteads, temples, family mausolea, aqueducts, and civic centers abounded in the area. Inscribed stone blocks littered the ground.

A last minute “archaeological expedition” was called in in 1992 from University of Western Australia, University of Glasgow and Antep museum to see what can be learned at the sites while this looting of the historic heritage of the Kurdish nation was going on at Zeugma. Their activities, admittedly compromised by the lack of time, turned out to be the same looting only by another name. They removed through quick tunneling a wealth of bronze and marble statuary and art objects that less scientific looters had not yet cared to remove. The head of the expedition informs us that a mosaic panel of similar artistic sophistication as those at Zeugma, but of much later Byzantine age, had been just sold for $1.08 million in the black arts market in the West. The chances of Kurds ever seeing what is being hacked and ripped from their archaeological sites in here must be dim indeed.

Realizing the immanent drowning of remains of this magnificent city, it has been given to the usual loot. Archaeologists D. Kennedy, P. Freeman and the director of the museum in the nearby Antep, Rifat Ergec, document this pre-drawing looting. Perfectly preserved mosaic panels, some as large as 23 by 11 feet, were hacked out and stolen. In case of the larger panels, only the faces and upper bodies were ripped away, leaving behind the rest. No one in the local administration is said—implausibly—to be aware of the identity of the looters who continued their activities unmolested by the police or the army.

What was learned from the this last-minute archaeological expedition to Apamea-Seleucia is just that here is being drowned a magnificent city with all its wealth in information and material. A part of the history of the Kurdish nation is again being destroyed, with the last-minute looting taking the place of a study. “Our excavation was exploratory,” admit Kennedy, Freeman and Rifat Ergec, “the preliminary work for future seasons. A great new dam is being built across the Euphrates only 180 feet downstream. Eventually a lake more than 12.5 miles long will flood the site. Only the higher part of Seleucia and its acropolis will remain above water; the rest, plus Apamea and other sites upstream, will be under water. Time is running short. Our efforts and those of our Turkish colleagues would benefit from private or international assistance.”

Meanwhile, few miles north of Zeugma at Hacinebi a team lead by Gil Stein of Northwestern University had discovered the remains of a major commercial city over 5000 years old. The city compared to the oldest cities of lower Mesopotamia such as Uruk and Ur, and was in sustained commercial contact with them. William Sumner, the director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago was quick to call the finds at Hacinebi “the first opportunity for archaeologists to investigate the role of indigenous [mountain] societies in these trading centers and determine their relationship with the foreign [traders].” Up to the finds at Hacinebi, it has been the staple of the established archaeology and history to presume that it was lower Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians and Akkadians who introduce high urban culture into Kurdistan and neighboring regions. Hacinebi gives a lie to that.

Faced with complex indigenous constructions and material culture, the team leader of Hacinebi’s excavations, Gil Stein, observed that the finds “could undermine the assumption by many scholars that Mesopotamian trade and colonization led to the emergence of complex societies in these resource-rich… regions of Anatolia. Ruins of monumental public buildings, the kind usually associated with more advanced urban centers, suggests that these local people had evolved a much more complex society than we have given them credit for up to now.” (American Archaeology, June 1993)

Recalling the local seals on business clay records, Stein adds one more iconoclastic observation that the “local people and not just Mesopotamians, participated in an official capacity in the trading system. Several lines of evidence suggest that existing models of the Uruk [lower Mesopotamian] expansion [into Kurdistan] may have underestimated the role of the local cultures. First, the locals were already relatively developed before contact with the Uruk culture. Second, they were not pawns in the trading system, but more or less equal partners. So you see, the classic colonial model does not really work.” (Ibid.).

G. Johnson went further in destroying the old model which depicted the mountain cultures in Kurdistan subservient to the lowland cultures of Mesopotamia, and presumed to have been, at times, a colony of the latter. “The colonial hypothesis simply does not hold water.” observed Johnson. “Scholars tend to forget that this was a period of severe population decline in many southern Mesopotamian cities. When you are losing half your population something nasty must be going on, and the collapse could be behind the sudden appearance of Mesopotamian settlements in the highlands. It was not an empire expanding, but people escaping [to Kurdistan].”

Hacinebi added a new page to the ancient history of Kurdistan, one that shows for the umpteenth time that mountain cultures were neither subservient nor inferior to those of the lower Mesopotamia. This nothwithstanding, the resilient old view still is held by many dogmatic historians and archaeologists. Hacinebi is not, however, going to be around to produce further proof to convince these traditionalist, die-hard group. As these lines were being written, Zeugma, Hacinebi and all other irreplaceable archaeological sites in the area were being drowned behind the Turkish dam at Birecik.

A new dam is under construction farther down from Birecik, practically on the Syrian border, at Carchemish. When finished, it will drown the Mitanni and Neo-Hittite ruins of the Biblical Carchemish, one that was once visited and serenaded by T.J. Lawrence.

What now?

The entire archaeological heritage and many living towns and communities of the Kurds in the upper Euphrates valley, from Turkish-Syrian borders to Dersim and Palu have now been annihilated under a continuous, winding lake created by five dams listed above. On the Tigris, only 100 miles of the river immediately above and below Diyarbakir remains not drowned at present. From Cizre on the Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish border to Bismil is all drowned. The simultaneous damming of the tributaries of Tigris and Euphrates has nearly completed this destruction of all that were to be found in way of artistic and archaeological remains in western and northern Kurdistan.

At an enormous cost to the Kurdish heritage, history and dislocated populace, reliable hydro-electricity to light up the homes and run the industry in western Turkey is now flowing smoothly and cheaply. The expensive irrigation projects trumpeted as the main benefit to the local Kurds, meanwhile, remains illusive. As ever, Kurdish water is benefiting non-Kurds: in this case, hydroelectricity for the Turks, water for the Arab Harran plain.

Why with all the dams?

The Southeast Anatolian Project (or GAP, from its Turkish acronym) was conceived, we are told by the Turkish government and all Western writers on the project, to help lift the lot of the Kurds in eastern Turkey. The utterances to this effect are too cliche and uniform to have been generated by the authors and reporters themselves: they all seem to be repeating the “wish list” of some official source, naturally the one in Ankara. None have thus far looked for themselves into the veracity of all these Turkish claims. “For the best interests of the Kurds,” for “the manifold expansion of Kurdish agriculture,” for “industrialization of Kurdistan” are phrases most commonly parroted in every report on GAP.

Lost in all the grandiose media claims are the facts on the ground: 1) 1300 square miles of productive Kurdish farmland on the river banks—an area one sixth of State of Israel—has been drowned to be sure, while the GAP-irrigated farms are yet to even match these farmlands that were drowned; 2) single largest chunk of land to be irrigated by GAP is outside Kurdistan and in the Arab-inhabited plains of Harran on the Syrian boarder; 3) the only tangible production by the dams has been electricity—24 megawatt hours of it—or more than half of Turkey’s needs. Kurdistan uses less than 5% of the electricity of that state. Turkish industry flooded by cheap electricity of GAP has been booming since 1990. And since 1990, to defend the GAP facilities against Kurdish insurgence, several thousands Kurdish villages and towns have been violently depopulated and destroyed by the Turkish army. Reportedly 2.5 million peasants have been herded off the rural land and pushed as refugees into major cities of Kurdistan and western Turkey. One may wander: Are these the same Kurds whom the media have so long called the main beneficiaries of GAP?

In short, of all the ‘bestest’ and ‘mostest’ trumped for GAP—the biggest dams in the world, the vastest construction sites, the hugest machinery, the bestest opportunity for Kurdish progress, the mostest bloated ambitions by Ankara—only two have come to pass, and neither one were included in the original list: 1)The single most destructive act committed against the humanity’s cultural heritage since the WWII, and 2) creating the world’s largest group of internal refugees—far larger than those in Rwanda or former Yugoslavia—to safeguard the power generated by GAP for the industrial western Turkey. Meanwhile, the purportedly “main aim” of GAP—to uplift the Kurdish economy—remains words of fantasy generated for the benefit of the Western media and writers. There is a gaping gap separating the real achievements of GAP and the media hype created by paid Western public relations firms and fanned the Western writers on GAP—paid and unpaid.

Meanwhile, the world’s and Kurdish indifference:

The list of historic cities, archaeological sites, monuments, records and documents that have drowned in the past three decades since Dokkan project is simply horrific. The only thing more horrific has been the utter indifference of the Kurds and international community and academic circles to these monumental acts of vandalism. Here is being drowned Kurds’ equivalent of national archives, national museum, and national library, not to mention their single most important deed to their native land, and no Kurdish organization, group or individual have protested. Not a minute of the Kurdish satellite television, MED-TV, has be dedicated to discussing this national calamity. A precious few Kurdish intellectuals have shown any thing like a concern for this. In a study of Kurds’ opinion over the GAP project in the Turkish sector of Kurdistan, Carl Nestor finds among twelve prominent Kurdish figures and organizations in Europe, North America, and Australia, some mild “concern” over “GAP…destroying historical sites in attempt to obliterate the Kurdish presence.” (The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, 9, 1-2, 1996). Hallelujah!

A primary cause of this manifest Kurdish callousness is history itself. After four generations of state-sponsored concealment of their history and artistic heritage, the Kurd simply is not sure what is his, even if the thing in question is dug up from underneath his feet. Kurds feel they are inheritors of big things; what big things exactly, none seems to know. None have been given the needed education on their extent of their heritage or the course of their history. They are losing vast portions of their historical records without even knowing they are. The loss is, however, as much that of the Kurd as the rest of humanity. Open any recent archaeological publication, and Kurdistan looms large in their pages. In the last three years alone the Kurdish homeland has revealed evidence for world’s oldest planned architecture, oldest evidence for common weaving, oldest records for making of wine and beer, oldest evidence for domestication of hogs, discovery of cities in Hurrian Kurdistan vaster than their contemporaries in Sumerian Mesopotamia…etc. The reckless obliteration of so many archaeological sites of obvious importance to all humanity should shock not just the Kurds but everybody. But it has not. We are engrossed in superlatives churned up by western public relation firms like the London-based Saatchi & Saatchi in support of the Turkey’s achievements. Iraq, meanwhile, is implicated in so many of the real or imaginary vices in the world, that its drowning of the Kurdish past is not high on the list of its accusations.

World however, is not just indeferent or too busy to care: it is openly encouraging the perpetrators of the distruction. Only a few months ago a United Nation’s world conference on human habitat was held in Istanbul. A conference presumably aimed at improvement of the habitat for humanity, by omission or commision bestowed indirect approval on the horrific distruction of humanity’s collective heritage in the river valleys of Kurdistan and the parallel immulation of Kurdish habitant per se.

Was, or is, the world uninformed? No. I met personally with some of the participants to the UN conference—a group of “concerned architects and urban planners”—to whom I gave chapter and verse on what has been transpiring and forewared them of what would their mere presence bestow on the perpetrators of all that distruction. Munching away at their designer sandwiches, they found listening to my passionate admonitions concerns enough to justify the name of their group. They all then proceeded to Istanbul to munch at the exotica lavishly prepared for them by the state. If they uttered any words of concern over destruction of the Kurdish habitat or drowning of its heritage there, it must have drowned in the clicking of the toasting chalices.

Is it the duty of civilized people at all to prevent such vandalism? Perhaps. For the Kurds, however, it is the matter of their identity, proof of their native habitation of their homeland for which the evidence is being so hurriedly drowned. Sites like Dokkan, Hacinebi, Hasankeyf and Samsat are primary pages to the Kurds’ national book of identity. Let Kurds and non-Kurds abort this destructive curse upon the Kurdish and human heritage. Let there be peaceful mass protests by Kurds on the model of American and European environmentalist and concerned citizens that were mounted against felling of old forests, pulling down city monuments, and bulldozing old cave dwellings. There is not much left from all the drowning. Let us save what is left before it is too late. There must be some one who cares.

There is no solace to this calamity befallen the Kurdish national heritage. Lucian’s 1800-year-old words in a piece he calls “My Native Land,” is probably the most fitting eulogy to the drowning of his home town of Samast and other pieces of his mountainous mother-country which he praises—like a true Kurd—above all the afluent plains of foreign lands he had seen:

“Those who have a real mother-country love the soil on which they were born and bred, even if they own but little of it, and that be mountainous and impoverished. Indeed, when they see others priding themselves on their open plains and prairies diversified with all manner of growing things, they themselves do not forget the merits of their own country, praising its fitness for breeding men. To such an extent do all men seem to prize their own country that lawgivers everywhere, as one may note, have prescribed exile as the severest penalty for the greatest transgressions. In battle no other exhortation of the marshalled men is so effective as ‘You are fighting for your native land!’ No man who hears this remains a coward, for the name of the native land makes even the dastard brave.”


Archaeology magazine (May/June 1996) reports that twenty people were arrested for looting archaeological treasures in Iran’s western Kurdish province of Ilam. Authorities confiscated a second-century BC sword and various statues. “Last year Iran introduced the death penalty for people convicted of illegal trade in antiquities,” adds Archaeology.

In its March/April issue, that magazine featured a complete story on the drowning by Turkey of the entire archaeological remains of the ancient twin city of Zeugma in western Kurdistan, west of Urfa. Anticipating the immanent destruction by the filling of the Birecik dam on the Euphrates, the two-square mile archaeological site (now known as Tell Musa-Belkis) was visited by an Australian archaeological team. In their report they report of open looting of Zeugma’s marbles, mosaics and frescoes by civilians and local officials, using jack hammers.

At the time when the records of the Kurdish past, their role in formation of human history and culture, and proof of their native habitation of their land are being literarily drowned, in western and eastern institutes of higher education, they are being figuratively drowned under the flood of appropriation unleashed by the advocate area-studies academicians and vacillating Kurds. These last, I am sure, would be the first to deny Lucian his Kurdishness in fear of being labeled “Kurdish nationalists.”

Perhaps Lucian was wrong after all: men do forget the merits of their own native land, specially when it is being drowned by water and ignorance.


  1. Synopses from Lucian are from the set, entitled Lucian, ed. A.M. Harmon, (Cambridge: Harvard Loeb Classical, 8th edition, 1991). Also, Faculty of Architecture of Ankara University, Doomed by the Dam: a Survey of the Monuments Threatened by the Creation of the Keban Dam Flood Area (Ankara: Middle East Technical University, Publication, No. 9, 1967);
  2. Kennedy, David, Rifat Ergec, and Philip Freeman, “Mining the Mosaics of Roman Zeugma,” Archaeology 48, 2 (1995);
  3. Nestor, Carl, “Dimensions of Turkey’s Kurdish Question and the Potential Impact of the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP), Part II,” The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, 8, 1-2, (1995);
  4. Speiser, E. “Southern Kurdistan in the Annals of Ashurnasirpal and Today,” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 8 (1926-27); Ward, Diane Raines, “In Anatolia, A Massive Dam Project Drowns Traces of an Ancient Past,” Smithsonian 21 (August 1990);
  5. Whallon, Robert, An Archaeological Survey of the Keban Reservoir Area of East-Central Turkey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979).

Source: M. Izady, “The drowning of the Kurdish historical and artistic heritage”, the Kurdish Life, Number 19, Summer 1996,

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