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|Zeugma Nears Extinction
by Ozgen Acar
|Had Alexander the Great, while on his way to the Persian campaign with his army, not crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma, and had contemporary engineers not decided to build a dam at that very point, we would not be facing this problem today. Either there would be no Zeugma, or it would not be in danger of imminent inundation.
Zeugma was founded by Seleucus I Nicator, who was one of Alexander's generals, in ca. 300 B.C. after Alexander's death. Here the Euphrates narrows at a crucial point on its journey from Anatolia (now modern Turkey) to Mesopotamia. Zeugma meant bridge, connection or crossroads in ancient Greek. It could be rendered as Bridgetown or Bridgeville and was first known as Seleuceai on the Euphrates. Trade between the fertile "golden crest" of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and later, for centuries, that of the "Silk Road" established between China and the West went over the Euphrates at this point. Although a major part of this road is now under water, remains of it still could be seen in places.
The Roman Empire posted eight legions to Anatolia, both to oversee the trade route and to protect the eastern borders of the Empire. "The Scythian Legion" later known as the "Fourth Legion," was a 5,000-strong army unit based in Zeugma and entrusted with deterring incursions by the Parthians from Persia. So these soldiers afforded protection to the bridge, which was built of wood on stone supports, as well as to the town that bore its name.
The yearly budget for the expenditure of a unit of troops was 1.5 million silver Denarius. With this contribution to the local economy, the population of the city rose to 70,000. As the inhabitants grew wealthier, they began to decorate the floors and walls of their single- and double-story villas along the riverbank with mosaics and frescoes. In the second century A.D., the appreciation of fine art brought by prosperity attracted artists from all corners of the Roman Empire. Zeugma, built overlooking the river on quite a steep hillside, grew to a size three and a half times that of Pompeii and twice that of Roman London. The riverside wharf enabled trade to be conducted along the river.
The splendor of Zeugma fell into decline in the middle of the third century with the decline of the Roman Empire. Traces of the fire and destruction suffered by the city during attacks by the Parthians from Persia in 256 can still be seen today and this damage, coupled with severe earthquakes, completed the city's total fall. Even though inhabited in subsequent centuries by the Byzantines, Arabs and Turks, the city never fully recovered.
In the 19th century, with the exhibition of mosaics plundered from here in the museums of St. Petersburg, Berlin and London, the historical and cultural heritage of Zeugma re-emerged. In the early 1970s, other mosaics started appearing in the art markets of New York. Villagers had removed them using tunnels dug into the rubble, which in places reached a height of four meters.
A mosaic of geometric design is in the museum of North Carolina. Another one, depicting Centaur together with Deianira, the wife of Hercules, is in a Madison Avenue gallery in New York, while other mosaics have been put up for sale at various auctions.
Having been alerted on several occasions, the regional museum authorities at Gaziantep began rescue excavations. In 1992, the museum director, Rifat Ergeš, discovered a mosaic depicting the wedding of Dionysos and Ariadne along with two large geometric ones. The mosaics were to be preserved in situ with the restoration of the villa. However, two-thirds of the Dionysos mosaic was stolen in 1998. Interpol is now investigating its whereabouts. Tesserae were used In this mosaic, which was made around the end of the second or beginning of the third century. The artist used the smallest pieces for the faces, and thus created the impression in the work of a picture rather than a mosaic.
David Kennedy, a professor of archaeology at the University of Western Australia, worked at Zeugma in the summer of 1993. He found in a villa mosaics depicting the eternal lovers, Parthenope and Metiokhos. However, smugglers cut out the couple's portraits. The mosaics later turned up in the Menil Collection in Houston, Tex. The museum returned them to Turkey on June 20, 2000. Staff at the Gaziantep Museum are now trying to put the pieces together.
The State Water Department of Turkey decided to construct a series of dams along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to foster development of the impoverished Southeast Anatolia region and also find a solution to the energy crisis. Then in 1986, the construction of the Birecik Dam, one mile from Zeugma, was proposed. In 1990, a feasibility report was submitted to the Turkish authorities and international construction companies.
As many as 45 places of historical importance, which would be submerged under dam water, among them Zeugma, was brought to the world's attention by Dr Guillermo Algaze from Chicago University, who conducted a survey of the region in 1998. However, no foreign institution or university showed any interest.
In 1994, the Gaziantep Museum gave notice to the world and the international archaeological community that work on the dam would start in 1996. The "Save Zeugma" campaign got off the ground. The museum, using the limited resources supplied by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, started sporadic rescue excavations. These were not part of a concentrated, systematic or scientific excavation program.
In 1995, the French Foreign Ministry provided funds for Professor Catherina Abadie-Reynal from Nantes University to assist with the rescue efforts.
Traces of mosaics were found a mile from Zeugma in 1996 when bulldozers started work on the construction of the dam. Archaeologists from the museum uncovered Roman baths together with the mosaics. Construction work was postponed for the duration of the excavations. When recoverable artifacts had been taken to the museum, work restarted on the main body of dam, rising over the Fourth Legion's baths.
When Director Ergeš and his assistant Mehmet Ínal started work on the riverside (A) area, destined to be underwater, they found three villas. These two-stores villas overlooked the river. Not only were they built onto soft rock, but this rock was also carved out to form cave rooms which kept cool in summer and warm in winter. The floors of the cave rooms were covered with mosaics and the walls with frescoes. No place in the villas was without a mosaic or fresco. One of them depicts Poseidon along with Oceanos and his wife Thetis and sea creatures. On another, Achilles, one of the heroes of Troy is depicted departing for war. There was a fountain in the middle of this mosaic, which decorated the bottom of a pool. The dining room of another villa is decorated with a figure of Dionysos in a carriage drawn by leopards. At his side is the little goddess of victory, Nike, and the dancer Bacchae. There are other mosaics depicting mythological subjects such as the birth of Venus in a seashell, Eros and Psyche, the river god Achaelous, Medusa, Andromeda and Acrotos. The Venus mosaic was recovered at the last moment as result of an extraordinary all-night-long effort.
Professor Abadie discovered a mosaic of the Cretan architect Daedalus and his son Icarus in the same villa. The beauty and original composition of this piece has been called "the mosaic find of the century."
Ínal, who has supervised excavations even in falling snow, said that from September 1999 to the present time, approximately 60 artifacts and 550 square meters of mosaic have been rescued. One of the mosaics found by Ínal has been called "the Zeugma Mona Lisa" or, alternately, "Alexander the Great" -- in any case, the person in the mosaic stares back at the view with a look what is a mixture of fury and astonishment. The fury must be due to the theft of the rest of the mosaic of which she was once a part of. The smugglers overlooked this portrait. As many as 50 frescoes, 1,500 square feet in all, were rescued from these three villas.
Ínal discovered a 1.55-meter-tall bronze statue of Mars in one of the villas. From the same villa, 3,750 Greek and Roman silver and bronze coins were uncovered. Abadie rescued a hoard of 116 coins the day before flooding commenced. Ergeš-Ínal found approximately 65,000 Roman sealed clays in a previous excavation. This was a world record (the previous record find was on the island of Crete in Greece). The Zeugma seals made up the state archives.
These clay seals are like the negatives of black and white photographs. On the stones of rings were gods and goddesses, emperors and empresses, portraits of kings, stories from mythology and pictures of animals and plants. When pressed onto clay, they produce a positive image. On the front face of the seals were the prints from the stones, while on the other side were traces of fabric, papyrus and parchment. There were small holes in them through which string could be passed (as with beads). With these were tied cargo and letters coming from all parts of the Roman world. These seals might shed light on the trade and communication network of those centuries.
While this work was proceeding, the basin of the dam started filling up, and water began to rise in all Zeugma's dried up wells. The rising water first wiped Belkis, a village lying between the dam and Zeugma, off the map. Next, as the river behind the dam turned into a lake, it started lapping at the waterside residences of the one time Roman elite and all the art works they contained. On June 20, river water from the Euphrates appeared on the floors of the three villas in Zeugma from which mosaics and frescos had been removed. Just the previous night, mosaic experts and skilled workmen had worked until the break of day and managed to rescue the last mosaic from a cave. The mosaic depicted the birth of Venus in a seashell and two sea creatures carrying her. While a large part of the mosaics and frescoes in the riverside residences of Zeugma have now been rescued, some remain under water. An estimated eight per cent of Zeugma is now covered with water.
The water is expected to rise again by a further 36 feet on Oct. 3. Archaeologists refer to the area to be affected as zone (B). At this point the Packard Institute of Humanities in California has given a $5-million grant to the Turkish government for a rapid excavation of the area within this zone.
In comparison to the earlier excavations, those in zone (B) are proceeding more meticulously, but again with the utmost possible haste, given the circumstances. Turkish archaeologist Kemal Sertok, in charge of coordinating the excavations, said, "The aim of works at this stage is to document the social and economic life of the town." Sertok added, "Due to lack of time, we're once again undertaking a very fast rescue effort not really in accordance with the concepts of classical archaeology."
The area of zone (B), whose topography was once valleys but after flooding could better be described as a series of small bays, has been surrounded by nearly a mile of barbed wire. With the funds provided, a British-Australian group of archeologists (which includes German and New Zealand experts) has started work at six different sites. Some 40 archaeologists and experts, together with 130 workmen, are presently concentrating on the rescue efforts. In the coming weeks the number of sites will increase to ten.
At the site of the Turkish excavations, the government archeological team is investigating possible connections of the now submerged villas with the upper terraces. First of all, they uncovered early Byzantine walls and ceramic pieces. Going further down, they discovered some traces that would indicate the Roman connection, among them a marble statuette of a goat from the Roman period. They also unearthed a Greek burial place under the Roman level.
In one of the four exploratory digs by the British-Australian group, they found evidence of a Roman villa. However, only after removing some ten feet of rubble will they be expected to reach the site. In this villa, they found a helmet, spearheads and an armored piece protecting the soldier's knee. Archaeologists think this villa might have belonged to a Roman commander.
The water will stop rising after Oct. 3, at which point archaeologists will carry out more systematic and scientific excavations and so transform Zeugma into an open-air museum. Meanwhile, plans call for the cultural center being constructed next to the small museum in Gaziantep to be expanded and enlarged. Gaziantep would thus be able to host the third largest mosaic museum in the world after Carthage in Tunisia and Antioch in Turkey.
The water to put out the fires lit by the Parthians in Zeugma has finally arrived, albeit delayed by some 1750 years. It has, however, brought a further disaster in its wake.
OZGEN ACAR is a Turkish journalist.