2020 Photo Taken, Mustafa Bilge Satkin

Mustafa Bilge Satkin “Drowned History”

Mustafa Bilge Satkın

Portrait by Gökhan Ünlü


This project tells the story of people forced to abandon their ancestral city – Hasankeyf.  It is located on the route from Upper Mesopotamia to Anatolia, along the Tigris River in Batman, Turkey. Here, aligned with the state’s water policies the Ilısu Dam was constructed despite the fact that, inevitably, historic and cultural heritage would be buried, its precious riverine habitat would be flooded, and people would be de-territorialized.

The city, also known as Rock Fortress, is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements in the world, spanning an estimated 12,000 years. Being home to thousands of human-made caves, hundreds of medieval monuments, and a unique canyon ecosystem in the Tigris Valley, this urban establishment was like an open air-museum.

The fact is, the river ensouled life on its banks once and this time it swallowed centuries of history and nature. The dam built inundated the site’s caves and most of its structures, it also threatened hundreds of species. Additionally, more than 70.000 anguished inhabitants, most of whom are Kurdish and Arabic, were displaced. The inhabitants of Hasankeyf abandoned their homesteads, sold their livestock, and moved to the hastily built new town. They even had to exhume the graves of their loved ones and carry their remains so future generations could visit their ancestors. The process of the move led to many emotional moments as people re-confronted their past agonies.

Facing the loss of their livelihoods and culture, people are still trying to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances they have not experienced before the forced migration and to overcome the challenges to establish a new life in the new town. One woman carried her husband’s grave, while another eighty-year-old got on a boat for the first time in her life.



M. Bilge Satkın is an award-winning documentary photographer based in Istanbul. He received his doctorate degree from the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. He teaches as an Associate Professor in Marmara University Photography Department.  He has participated in solo and group exhibitions in diverse countries in addition. His photo reportages that were taken in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Lebanon were published by Anadolu Agency, Middle East Images, Redux Pictures, and Getty Images. He is a member of Diversify Photo. He works for the United Nations Development Program (Turkey) as a volunteer photographer. He mostly focuses on social injustice, climate change, and migration.

Drowned History Captions

1- A view of 12000 years old Hasankeyf, before it is flooded. Evidence of numerous civilizations will vanish under the reservoir of the Dam.

2- The sun lights up the new residential area that is built at the foothills of Mount Raman. The new Hasankeyf was built on the foothill of the Raman Mountain, which is 2 kilometers away from the old town center, and provided to residents for a certain fee. Right below the new residential area, the caves from ancient times and old Hasankeyf houses can be seen.

3- A newlywed man moving to his new house before the ancient city is submerged. Forced to leave his inherited house, the young man now has to pay rent for the new settlement.

4- The exhumation of a man who died 50 years ago. The granddaughters and their sons are carefully watching as their grandfather HALIL’s grave is being opened. HALIL died 50 years ago. Two granddaughters’ sons only know HALIL through their mothers’ stories. The remains are moved as they have a spiritual value and so people do not forget their past. Although this process deepens people’s agony, they do this to be able to show their ancestors’ graves to future generations and to be able to visit them on special days.

5- Houses that were once filled with children, now inundated with water. Owner of the houses will not be able to see them anymore in a week, since that water rises 1.5 meters a day.

6- Praying woman – watching the exhumation. She is deeply sorry to hassle the dead with this process of removal.

7- Three siblings are waiting tensely as their mothers’ grave is being undug. It had not been easy for them to bury their mother, however, exhuming is the most bitter. The people of the region had to completely leave their homes, lands, memories, and cultural history behind. The most agonizing part of this process is that they also have to undug their lost loved ones’ graves and carry their remains with them.

8- Last time on the bridge, from ancient Hasankeyf to the new town. The entrance of the ancient town will soon be flooded. A family is going across the bridge to reach the new settlement.

9- Locals are looking at the Cradle of Civilization for the very last time.

10- Despite all the negativities, the trees that do not stay underwater welcome the spring.

11- The old lady has to move from her house to an unknown address, the state has not made the arrangements for her yet.

12- Two boys are watching the evacuated Hasankeyf from the higher points.

13- Village residents watch the snowfall at the old bus stop. The bus will no longer pass from this stop since the roads of this village have been flooded.

14- Nuri, at the age of 73. He will have to abandon her house within a week.  All that he has are the memories, now they will have to get used to a new way of living.

15- Turkey’s the one and only oil refinery is in Batman. This refinery and the dams on Tigris River has a contribution to the economy. However, the city is one of the five poorest cities in Turkey.

16- Dinner of a Kurdish family who has lived as nomadic for years.

17- Ayşe is the youngest member of a family of eight children, and she has to work at harvest time like all family members. In the past, these people were able to do irrigated farming on their land near the Tigris river. Now the farmers are forbidden to use the water in the dam. Drought caused a decrease in the amount of grain in the region.

18- Photos of the old settlement are located inside this coffee house. By looking at these photos, they ensure that the memories are always alive.

19- Koçer Serif and his wife are resting in the tree shade at Tigris valley. The Ilısu dam has a negative impact on the lives of the Kocer(nomadic Kurds) people who are engaged in animal husbandry in the region. Approximately five thousand Kocer families dealing with animal husbandry cannot make a living as many crossing points in the Tigris valley have disappeared.

20- As it is not running, the water of the dam pond is not clean and cold enough during the summer days. Until it was realized that the water was overheated and polluted, small cattle perished. So, the shepherds which are mostly the seasonal workers started to take them to the waterside at night when the weather and water is colder.

21- Abdullah is a young man of Kurdish origin living in the village of Kilic. The places where he was born and grew up were underwater. Like other young people living in the area, he helps his family build their new home.

22- A young Diyarbakir with a Kalashnikov tattoo and stab scars is sunbathing on the dam pond in the Tigris valley.

23- Hasankeyf’s elders often come to this hill to watch the old settlement that was underwater. They do this to keep their memories fresh.

24- An endangered “striped hyena”. This creature, which is thought to live only in the northern Mesopotamia region in Turkey, has considerably decreased in number as its habitat has been destroyed. The passageways in the Tigris valley are closed with water, and the living spaces of these creatures have narrowed considerably. A depiction in the newly built Hasankeyf museum.

25- The local people who lost their land had to find another way to make a living by organizing tourist boat trips on the dam. This certainly is a radical change in the traditional way of living.

26- Since the highway is underwater, transportation is now provided by the boat. This certainly is a radical change from the traditional way of living. Despite it being a loud and shaky (four-hour) trip, villagers are still taking a nap on the way back home on the boat.

27- Drought decreased the water level in the dam, in some areas even to forty meters. Tens of thousands fish were stuck in these areas were perished.

28- Koctepe, four km. away from the main dam (body of the dam), is the very first inundated village Remains of ceramics from the archaeological excavations indicate a history going back to 3000-2700 BC.



When and how did you get started in photography?

I was a 14-year-old when I first started playing with my father’s camera and photo printing equipment of black & white. In the beginning, the mechanical instruments lured me, and I was trying to figure the working principles out obsessively. As soon as I took my first photo as a kid, actually, I knew that I had to study photography at university.

What does photography give you? What is it that you try to achieve with photography?

I always consider a photographic image as the poetry of the time whatever we have been through a good or bad experience. Photos are incredibly crucial not only to perceive what is happening around us but also for future generations to understand who we were and how we got where we are. My aspiration to take photos gives me limitless ideas to explore new communities, integrate with them, and learn more about life. In my photos, I look for answers to various questions such as “Who am I? and what is my role in this world?”  Doing my job is my way of seeing and comprehending the world.

What do you think makes a truly great image?

It is extremely difficult to describe what makes an image perfect. Some photos can trigger the same feelings in many people with their aesthetic and technical features and be liked. In my opinion, making an image ageless and timeless makes it tremendously valuable.  Hence, photos containing the intensity of emotion can be truly great images.

Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?

There are many names, I have always been influenced by Diane Arbus, Vanessa Winship, Simon Norfolk, and James Nachtwey. Nonetheless, my true inspiration has always been the people that I’ve photographed. I have learned a lot from those people who trusted me to tell their stories and allow me to visit their lives.

 What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?

As a photographer, I mostly preferred to focus on long-term environmental stories that include climate crises and environmental migration to see the cause and effect of universal problems and demonstrate their serious impacts on common problems of all humankind. Ultimately, these familiar issues in the geography I was born and live in built my interest in this area.

 What is your shooting process and work flow? How much of the project is staged vs documenting candid moments?

Planning the shooting process and workflow is the foundation of the project. First of all, I do a detailed field study. Who are these people? What is the main problem? Am I the right person to tell their story? Secondly, in compliance with these questions, I write my article which is my road map. I am looking for the photos that correspond to every sentence of it. However, I must say I come across many surprises outside the road map as well. Ultimately, I know that all these photos will create unique expressions with great harmony.

Furthermore, the photos in the project do not consist of staged images, however, we know that when the camera comes into an environment, it affects the event’s natural flow. I paid attention to eliminating this situation making people get used to my presence and spent time as much time as possible among them. I believe this is a crucial rule of slow journalism. It is necessary to create an atmosphere to build mutual trust and persuade them that I am the right person to tell their stories. Once these conditions were met, I had already become a family member and my presence in that place wouldn’t have been questioned anymore.

How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?

My first photo for this project was taken in 2013 in Tigres valley where mostly Kurds and Arabs people dwell. From 2013 to 2019, I had visited the region every year to record the changes over time. These photos were mostly related to the daily images of the people who lived in the region which would be underwater in the future.

Between 2019 and 2021, I took pictures in 20 separate settlements whilst the construction of the dam was completed, and people had been forced to leave their dwellings.

After the construction of the dam, historical monuments, cities, and the vegetation of the valley would be eventually submerged hence people had to carry their remains thus future generations could visit the graves of their ancestors. This process had brought people to encounter their past sufferings, actually, I had emotionally hard times witnessing these moments

In the last year of the project, I followed people’s efforts to adapt to their new lives, living spaces, and livelihoods. Since the project was a government project, high-security measures were taken into place, and I was not allowed to take pictures freely. Despite all these challenges, I pursued my dreams to finish my project no matter what and I never gave up documenting the inevitable end of the Tigres Valley.

What do you find most fulfilling about this project?

What satisfies me the most about this project is that the locals whose stories I told have shared their positive thoughts about my photos with me.

 Has receiving a Lucie Foundation Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?

Absolutely, yes. Being awarded the Lucie Foundation scholarship by an influential institution and jury of photography greatly increased my motivation. In the meantime, thanks to the Lucie Foundation, my work has been recognized by the top curators and editors in the world.

What’s next for you?

My priority is to complete this project by creating a photo book. I have been working on finding the right design and proper editing. Besides, there are different environmental projects in place that I am also considering to document another photographic story about the sociological, cultural, and destructive environmental impacts.  I intend to keep my enthusiasm fresh by switching my focus between different projects from time to time.


Mustafa Bilge Satkin