HASANKEYF, TURKEY -- Ifyou half-close your eyes and squint at the citadel, you can almost see the medieval flags flying from the turrets. That's how well preserved the ruins are on the closely massed hillside of this ancient village, which lies in an elbow-bend of the fabled Tigris River, just north of the Syrian border. Hasankeyf, population 3,000, is an unexcavated old capital of eastern Anatolia, a now-desolate region where early Christian and Moslem civilizations flourished. An 11th century stone bridge crumbles at the riverbend; near it, contrasting, the 12th century tomb of the Seljuk Sultan Zeynel gleams with blue and green enamel zigzags. Even if the region settles down from its current, Iraq-generated turmoil, the view won't last much longer. Hasankeyf is slated for submersion beneath the waters of a giant dam.
Dams-versus-ruins is an old conflict in the Middle East. It's just one variation of a problem familiar worldwide, from a London struggling to preserve its newly dug up Globe Theatre to the Athens of a Parthenon wreathed in air pollution. How can the past's monuments be preserved in the face of economic development; how can present cities be dissuaded from devouring them? The present, here, is the Ankara government, striving mightily to complete a massive 21-dam regional development project that will citify the southeast while erasing an impressive catalogue of Islamic, early Christian and Hellenic ruins. The past's partisans -- many of them novices -- are archaeologists and photographers who have launched a "Save Hasankeyf" movement.
Hasankeyf -- the name is Arabic for "Castle in the Rock" -- has caught on with Istanbul and Ankara intellectuals because its beauties are photogenic, and also because they offer a politically palatable mix of Islamic and pre-Islamic ruins. Turkey's past and present are sufficiently complicated so that politicians who support archaeology with too eclectic an enthusiasm nowadays run the risk of being attacked as un-Islamic by the fundamentalist far right; at the same time, medieval Islamic ruins, like Hasankeyf's, are sniffed at as recent by the mainstream classical archaeologists. An incomplete understanding of the sort of history Hasankeyf represents led to an early suggestion from the government that Hasankeyf's important historical ruins simply be moved, as was done in Egypt for the Aswan Dam. The suggestion ignored the difference between a temple complex built of massive stone blocks and one that, besides being still buried, is made of mortar and many-leveled caves.
In this part of the world, of course, it's not just in lost and buried cities that history and industry collide. If Hasankeyf is one end of a spectrum of problems, then the other extreme within Turkey is Istanbul, the old imperial capital, 24 hours away by bus at the country's western end. Nerve center of two empires over almost 2,000 years, later a mysterious jumble of a city on the edge of the West, Istanbul in the last half decade has undergone a tourism boom, and it is slowly becoming evident even to the most hospitable Stamboullis that this galloping appreciation for their culture and history could be the force that finally destroys it. There has been a mad rush of hotel construction. Ancient landmarks -- the crumbling Byzantine city walls, the aqueduct built by Constantine -- have fallen prey to eager, unskilled restorations that make them look jarringly crisp and new. Five-star hotels threaten to interrupt the most beautiful and historical views -- logically enough, since the Ottoman sultans and the Byzantine emperors built palaces with a finely honed instinct for what today's real estate people call "location, location, location." A civic group last year narrowly derailed a plan to make a hotel out of a famous old Ottoman university building -- one that would have involved evicting the current occupant, the Istanbul University Faculty of Architecture.
In Hasankeyf, there are few tourists and fewer jobs, and people flee to Istanbul and Ankara to find work. The 21-dam Southeast Anatolia Project -- GAP, in Turkish acronym -- is supposed to remedy that by developing the southeast. But this region has not always been what the Ankara government calls "backward"; it has nourished great cities before, some of them mentioned in Genesis, and it is carpeted in archaeological remains. A Turkish newspaper counts GAP-related threats to 86 tels, five tombs, 36 ancient settlements, six mosques, two palaces, four baths, three caravanserays, three churches, a monastery, a cemetery and a Roman aqueduct. Not to mention whatever may lie hidden.
The government has heard all the arguments. "I love history," declares an assistant foreign minister in Ankara. "As a Turk I am proud of all 27 civilizations of Asia Minor of which I am the inheritor. But for the happiness of my fellow man I am willing to sacrifice even history."
Turkish preservationists, sounding like American preservationists, make the economic counterbid: Tourism too is an important source of revenue. Olus Arik, the Ankara University archaeologist spearheading the Hasankeyf protest, doesn't criticize GAP; instead he stresses "cultural riches" and says often that the country shouldn't "spend 2,000 years of history to buy 100 years of progress." About Istanbul, he is a good deal more worried: "We have not taken the time to find a moderate way, and the merchants are impatient."
Hasankeyf, at least, may have more time than was first expected. External factors are slowing GAP down; the Hasankeyf flood, originally scheduled for 1992, has been pushed off for a decade more, which gives archaeologists time to establish the site's importance. Damming the Tigris and Euphrates, even temporarily, brought squawks from Iraq and Syria to the south. Of course, recent developments along the Iraqi border have put the government and its budget under a whole different series of pressures. Meanwhile, a Japanese feasibility study of GAP last winter produced a strong suggestion to "put on the brakes."
And then? "You know it doesn't matter what we want," says the kebab maker in Hasankeyf's tiny main square, who is pleasant but cautious, unused to serving strangers. "But no -- we don't want any dam." Asked about tourism, he shrugs. The minibus stops here with commuters to and from Batman, the nearest medium-sized town. The road climbs past a very few storefronts and then between dramatic stone walls to the summit; the old city overlooks the village and the Tigris, wandering toward a powder blue horizon between brownish folds of hills. The lower cliff holds shells of old mosques and two- and three-story cave eyries -- "luxury duplex apartments," Arik calls them, "from the 14th century." A few are still inhabited by squatters, and a 3-year-old in striped pants says solemnly to the climbers, "Welcome to the castle; I'm the king."
The 18-year-old leading the impromptu tour sits, stretches his legs out and says quietly in Turkish, "It's too bad." If the dam is built, the Hasankeyfers will be evacuated, probably to Batman. If the region settles down and tourism prevails instead, the town may yet survive to face a miniature of Istanbul's problems. It's another question whether that's a happy ending, or whether there is one.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.