” protected with the utmost care,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Hasankeyf during the inauguration of the Ilısu Dam on May 19, 2020

Regarding the dam construction, all of the historical and cultural heritage, especially those of Hasankeyf, has been protected with the utmost care.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the inauguration of the Ilısu Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant on May 19, 2020

The Ilısu Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant was officially inaugurated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on May 19, 2020. Turkey’s fourth-largest dam is part of the Southeast Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP), a development project implemented in 1984 to improve, according to its planners, the economic and social conditions of the country’s impoverished, mostly Kurdish, southeastern provinces. During the opening ceremony of the Ilısu Dam, President Erdoğan declared that all historical and cultural heritage threatened by the rising waters of the recently built mega-infrastructure, including the medieval town of Hasankeyf, had been “protected with the utmost care.” 

The opening ceremony took place inside the hydroelectric power plant itself. Two red mushroom-like buttons, ready to be pushed in order to ignite one of the eight Austrian ANDRITZ Hydro turbines, were placed for the occasion on top of a futuristic-looking table bracketed by two white podiums on a large aqua blue stage. A short promotional film projected in the background during the inauguration showed high-flying cinematic drone shots of the mega-infrastructure and its recently filled reservoir, as well as scenes of water gushing down abundantly from the dam’s flood gates, high voltage switchyard and transmission lines sending electricity across the country, and boys and girls running through irrigated fields of pesticide-covered vegetables. The clip then ventured inside the belly of the beast with stylized shots of pristine cables and wires, close-ups of rapidly spinning turbines, and a quick peek inside the control room’s state-of-the-art monitoring equipment. High-energy technology aestheticized to its fullest shown in perfect harmony with its surrounding environment. Nature, in other words, tamed for the good of the nation, or at least for its political and economic elite. 

The event was aired live on most government-controlled news channels, including TRT HABER, as well as on President Erdoğan’s Facebook page. Not present inside the power plant amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Erdoğan delivered the inaugural speech from his office in Ankara by video-conference with a small Turkish flag pinned on his pickle green, plaid suit and the official seal of the Presidency (a sixteen-pointed sun surrounded by sixteen five-pointed stars standing for the sixteen Great Turkic Empires as mythologized in pan-Turkist ideology) behind him. The ceremony provided Erdoğan with an occasion to rewrite the past by placing his Justice and Development Party’s reign (the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) in power since 2002 at the pinnacle of Turkish history. During the AKP’s eighteen-year rule thus far, Erdoğan reminds his audience, Turkey has gone from 276 to 861 dams, from ninety-seven to 778 power plants, from 202 to 587 irrigation ponds, and from eighty-four to 331 drinking water facilities and other facts. He announces during the same speech the future construction of one dam per month for a total of seventeen in the next year or so. “In energy and water, do you know what this means?” Erdoğan concludes, “Turkey can be counted as one of the top revolutionary countries in the world in renewable energy.”

His AKP, Erdoğan claims, has done more since its ascension to power in 2002 than any other party since the founding of the Republic in 1923. This might sound like pumped-up electoral rhetoric, but it also indicates how Erdoğan places himself historically above Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. Elsewhere, Erdoğan reminds us all how his rule has not only boosted the country’s democracy and economy, improved education, health, justice, safety, and transportation, but also satisfied the needs of local farmers whose soils were hungry for the dam’s water. Ilısu, he adds, will not only irrigate fields but these farmers’ hearts as well. Elsewhere, he calls the newly built infrastructure a necklace adorning the Tigris River. It not only embellishes the river and its surroundings, according to Erdoğan, but will also blow a wind of peace, brotherhood, and wealth that will be felt in the region for centuries. Finally, he claims, the magnificence of the dam will crush terrorism. It is the best answer, he adds, to anyone in Turkey who complains about their country to foreigners.

In this inaugural speech, President Erdoğan not only delves into what Brian Larkin (2013) has called the politics and poetics of infrastructures, but also lists some of the dam’s more technical attributes (for example, it is 135 meters high and possesses a reservoir capacity of more than 10 billion m3 and a total established power of 1200 MW). The Ilısu Dam, combined with the soon-to-be-built Cizre Dam further south near the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border, will have a total energy capacity of 1,1 billion KW/h and irrigate at least 765,000 hectares of land. According to the speech, it will make 2,8 billion Turkish liras every year. Much of the speech, in fact, consists in enumerating all of the dam’s benefits in comparison to its cost. He states, for instance, how:

[t]he cost of the Ilısu Dam, including the resettlement, the protection of historical and cultural heritage, the construction work and other spendings, reached a total of 18 billion liras. Regarding the dam construction, all of the historical and cultural heritage, especially those of Hasankeyf, has been protected with the utmost care. Just for the works at Hasankeyf, a total of 200 million liras was used.

This is a rare occurrence in the speech where Erdoğan refers to Hasankeyf flooded just a few months prior to the inauguration. Here, however, the medieval town represents just another cost for him. More generally, the protection of cultural heritage is equated to so many million Turkish liras, but how exactly this large sum was used is not detailed. For Hasankeyf, the amount itself (200 million liras) seemed to be proof enough that the town had indeed been saved. The sum is not negligible of course, but it is relatively small compared to the 2,8 billion liras the dam will bring each year. What is more important for Erdoğan, however, is how the money spent on the protection of cultural heritage allows him, in the end, to make the claim, true or false, that indeed Hasankeyf “has been protected with the utmost care.”

This is a part of a longer article “Hasankeyf, the Ilısu Dam, and the Kurdish Movement in Turkey” published in a volume edited by Stephen E. Hunt titled Ecological Solidarity and the Kurdish Freedom Movement.