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World Perspective | TURKEY

Dam Threatens 'Bridge' to Ancient Past

May 27, 2000|AMBERIN ZAMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ZEUGMA, Turkey — A pair of perfectly shaped lips. The tip of a tilted nose. From under the rust-colored ground, a delicate face begins to emerge.

"It's Aphrodite," cries a young man covered in dust as he gently unearths the figurine. "And she's in ivory."

Umit Alagoz is among a handful of archeologists battling to salvage whatever treasures they can from Zeugma, a unique Greco-Roman site in Turkey's southern Gaziantep province near the Syrian border. The area soon will be engulfed by the waters of the Euphrates River as a lake created by the new Birecik hydroelectric dam located a third of a mile downstream continues to fill up.

Over the past year, the team affiliated with the Gaziantep Museum has uncovered what has been described as one of the world's finest collections of Roman mosaics. Recent finds include a mosaic depicting Oceanus, the mythological god of the seas, accompanied by a sea nymph and a variety of brilliantly colored aquatic creatures.

The panels are the floors of a sumptuous Roman villa that once stood here on the banks of the Euphrates. These and many other extraordinary artifacts, including a life-size bronze statue of Mars, are being hauled to the Gaziantep Museum.

"There must be tens, perhaps hundreds, of more villas out there with just as beautiful floors and objects," says Alagoz. "But we will never know. A second Pompeii is soon to be lost."

A last-minute appeal that the team made to dam officials to suspend filling the artificial lake so that further excavations can be made at Zeugma was rejected as "technically impossible." And Turkish Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu said during a recent visit here that the government is not about to intervene.

"We're sorry about what's soon to be lost, but there's not much that can be done about it," he said. The site probably will be flooded by the first week of June, dam officials say.

Zeugma, which means "bridge" in Greek, is thought to have been built by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great's generals, around 300 BC. At one time home to an entire Roman legion, the city featured antiquity's only bridge across the Euphrates, which linked Europe to Mesopotamia along the ancient silk trading route to China.

As many as 60,000 people are thought to have eventually lived in Zeugma.

In the 19th century, looters spirited superb mosaics and other artworks from the site. Many are now on display in museums across Europe, Russia and the U.S.

But it wasn't until latter-day looters resumed tunneling in the area that a local villager stumbled upon the remains of the first villa uncovered at the site, in 1992.

"I immediately alerted the museum authorities," recalls Nusret Ozdemir, a farmer from the nearby village of Belkis.

Further excavations revealed a stunningly beautiful mosaic panel of the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne, with artifacts scattered across it.

According to David Kennedy, a British archeologist who was among the first to dig at Zeugma, the imminent loss of the city could have been avoided. He says Western scholars have known of the wealth of Zeugma "for centuries."

Kennedy says a survey of the areas to be flooded by the Birecik and four other dams planned on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers--conducted in the 1980s by U.S. archeologist Guillermo Algaze--established Zeugma's importance beyond doubt.

"Several foreign countries, including the United States and Britain, have long maintained institutes in Turkey to support the activities of their nationals in archeology there," Kennedy says. "They knew what was happening."

Yet "they did little or nothing," despite repeated appeals for funding from the cash-strapped Turkish Ministry of Culture, he says.

Museum authorities sought to carry on excavation at the site but had limited success. The site was so poorly protected that, in 1998, smugglers had no trouble stealing the wedding mosaic, which experts say could be worth as much as $50 million.

Not only Zeugma is destined to be lost. When the Karkamis dam, being built farther downstream, is completed in the next two years, many more archeological riches lining the Euphrates Valley--some already uncovered, others awaiting discovery--also will be submerged.

"There are many culprits in this unhappy episode," Kennedy notes. "But Turkey should not be at the head of the list."

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