Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Zeugma's Plundered Mosaics
by Ozgen Acar
The Zeugma "Mona Lisa"
Plundered from Zeugma
The Marriage of Dionysios and Ariadne
Parthenope from the Menil Collection
Metiochos from the Menil Collection
Smugglers put Zeugma on the international agenda long before dam construction began. Since the 1970s, the Gaziantep Museum has received several warnings of smuggling activities and has conducted sporadic rescue excavations.

The plundering of mosaics from Zeugma stretches back to the 19th century. One of the most important of these older depredations is a panel depicting the sea god Poseidon surrounded by personifications of Roman provinces within medallions. This mosaic is currently on exhibition in pieces in St. Petersburg and Berlin.

The terms used in museum catalogues to describe the origins of this plunder include "East Mediterranean," "near Syria," "said to be from East Turkey" and "possibly from South East Anatolia." In fact, these circumlocutions all refer to Zeugma or sometimes Antioch. For example, catalogued in the inventory (79.6.9), in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is a square-shaped marble and glass floor mosaic of geometric design that is referred to as "Roman, probably from East Turkey."

On July 2, 1992, the Gaziantep Museum was alerted to an illegal dig at Zeugma. Archaeologists from the museum who were called in to investigate found that a tunnel big enough for a person to get through had been excavated. They reached a building dating from the Roman period at its other end.

On the floor of the building was an extremely well-preserved mosaic, depicting a scene from a feast. In this scene half-naked gods and goddesses were drinking while music played. This mosaic, measuring 3.25 by 1.45 meters, was subsequently identified as the wedding scene of Dionysos and Ariadne. The artist took great pains in the depiction of the faces, using approximately 400 tesserae. The mosaic dates the end of the second century A.D.

Next to this feast scene was found a second panel, which was smaller and marked with geometric designs. The excavations uncovered a Roman villa. The news was published. The mosaic was to stay in situ and locked up. Six years went by. One night, thieves came, cut out two-thirds of the mosaic and made off with it. Interpol has been searching the entire world for it since 1998.

Acting as a result of an application made by the Turkish government, agents from New York FBI Art Theft Department went to the Fortuna Gallery on Madison Avenue in 1993 to confiscate a marble statue of a young man and fragment of garland smuggled from a Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in Turkey. Here they saw a piece of mosaic. This told the tragic story of Dionysos' daughter, Heracles's wife, Deianira, and the Centaur Nessos.

While Turkish archaeologists were examining a picture of the mosaic, by coincidence, another photograph of the mosaic turned up in Nizip, a town near Zeugma. This was among a local photographer's color negatives and in the photograph, standing next to the mosaic, was a tin of Turkish oil paint. Selim Dere, owner of the Fortuna Gallery, had previously been arrested for the smuggling out of a marble sarcophagus with the 12 Labors of Heracles from Turkey. Nobody knows the current location of this mosaic.

Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, worked in Zeugma in the summer of 1993. In September of that year, archaeologists joining his team from Glasgow University found another tunnel left by looters. Excavations revealed a villa containing a mosaic eight feet square. However, the heads of two seated figures, one man and one woman, which had been in the middle of the mosaic had been cut out at the upper chest level and looted.

Later on, the Canadian mosaic expert Shelia Campbell, from the Menil Collection in Houston, came upon mosaics of the eternal lovers, Parthenope and Metiochos, known as the Romeo and Juliet of the ancient world. She established that they were pieces of the mosaic found in Kennedy's excavation. The matters passed to the attention of the Turkish Government and Bernard Davezac, director of the Menil Collection. Both mosaics were returned to Gaziantep Museum on June 20, 2000.

Archaeologists discovered a piece of mosaic with a portrait of a woman on it two years ago. This is the piece called Zeugma's Mona Lisa or sometimes Gypsy Girl, as its nickname goes. Some archaeologists believe that it might be the portrait of Alexander the Great. The plunderers previously looted its surroundings. Private collectors were ready to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for these and thus encouraged smuggling, but were, on the other hand, stone deaf to appeals for help for the rescue bid except Packard Humanities Institute. Zeugma's Mona Lisa or Alexander, whose looks of astonishment are dashed with anger, must be expressing her fury at the thieves!

OZGEN ACAR is a Turkish journalist.