The sound of lapping waves fills the air as Professor Kutalmış Görkay frantically sweeps away some eye-stinging dust. He and his team are hoping to uncover a wondrous archaeological find – but it’s a race against time. If they don’t work fast, after all, the treasure they’re trying to retrieve may be lost forever.
Görkay and his crew are archaeologists tasked with sifting through the ruins of ancient Zeugma. This is an old city, the remnants of which are today situated within the borders of modern Turkey. The group’s work got under way back in 2007 – but the possibility of flooding in the area has brought a sense of urgency to proceedings.
The city of Zeugma was first established by the ancient Greeks in around the third century B.C. Over time, the location became fantastically rich – and it still carries considerable historical significance to this very day. All things considered then, it’s no wonder that Zeugma is a favorite of contemporary archaeologists.
The city’s founder was Seleucus I Nicator, a man who once acted as one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Following the legendary ruler’s death in 323 B.C., Seleucus was one of those vying for power over parts of Alexander’s domain. Eventually, he went on to rule over an empire of his very own.
Throughout his 77-year life, Seleucus managed to establish a variety of different cities across his Seleucid Empire. One of these was Antioch, the remnants of which are today situated quite close to modern Antakya in Turkey. At its peak, ancient Antioch was an important urban center of the Near East region.
Another city set up by Seleucus was the modestly-named Seleucia, located along the western banks of the Euphrates river. Over time, this center would go on to become known as Zeugma. Initially, however, it was set up to serve as a type of outpost for the military called a katoikia.
Seleucus was also responsible for establishing a settlement on the other side of the Euphrates. In honor of his spouse – who was a woman from Persia – the ruler named this second city Apamea. What’s more, the centers of Seleucia and Apamea were linked by a bridge built over the river.
The city of Apamea was ultimately lost to the ravages of time and history. But Seleucia, meanwhile, managed to survive. The Romans, however, wrested control of the place from the Greeks in 64 B.C. Its new rulers then renamed the settlement Zeugma – which derives from the old Greek word for “bridge.”
Under Roman control, the city of Zeugma thrived. Soldiers were stationed there, which added to the place’s overall strategic significance. And on top of that, a number of different roads used for trading crossed paths at Zeugma. Indeed, Zeugma is thought to have been the final Roman location before crossing into Persia.
Over the centuries, Zeugma was an important city within the context of the Roman Empire. At its height, in fact, the city’s occupants supposedly numbered as high as 30,000. It was a leading center of commerce and religion, and it was consequently considered to be the most important city of the empire’s eastern lands.
But as the Roman Empire finally started to crumble, outposts such as Zeugma fell prey to invasion. And in 253 A.D. Sassanid forces from nearby Persia razed the settlement, ultimately leaving the city’s beautiful townhouses in ruins. The time of Zeugma as a vital location had come to an end.
After its fall, the city lay in obscurity for almost two millennia. But in the year 2000 renewed archaeological interest in Zeugma was sparked. This latest enthusiasm for the place coincided with a major project that threatened its ruined treasures. These planned works related to the construction of the Birecik Dam.
Situated barely a mile from ancient Zeugma, the Birecik Dam is just one of numerous dams now found along the Euphrates. Constructing it was a big job, with about 6,000 people living within its vicinity having to be permanently relocated. And on top of this, the resulting reservoir threatened the site of the ancient city.
By 2007 archaeologists had been forced into action. After all, the building of the dam had initiated floods within the vicinity of Zeugma. So, aware that time was very much of the essence, the experts set to work excavating the site. And they ultimately ended up making some remarkable discoveries.
A number of constructions from the Roman Empire’s imperial period were dug up from under the ground. These, it was posited, dated as far back as the first and second centuries A.D. The director of the works – Ankara University’s Professor Görkay – must surely have been ecstatic at such finds.
The ornate nature of dwellings studied by Görkay and his crew gave clues as to who once had lived within them. Indeed, it was suspected that they may have belonged to well-to-do Roman citizens. Examples of such people might have been senior members of the military or successful traders who had become rich.
The Roman houses were found by the archaeologists to possess advanced water and sewage systems. In addition, they were equipped with open, well-lit courtyards, which would have permitted fresh air to flow through the dwellings. But there was another altogether more spectacular reason why these courtyards were so exciting to investigators.
Görkay and his team of archaeologists discovered that many of the courtyards actually featured incredible decorative mosaics. These intricate and beautiful adornments had been skillfully created from fragments of colorful glass. And all things considered, it appeared that the ancient mosaics were some of the best surviving examples of their kind.
Naturally, Zeugma’s waterside location apparently inspired many of the elaborate mosaics which were discovered inside the old houses. Some of these, for instance, depicted river-dwelling animals and dolphin-riding deities such as Eros, the god of love. Tiled artworks of this kind may have been essential features of a wealthy Roman’s abode.
It seems apparent that the mosaics were not merely throwaway designs and that some serious thought had one into them. Görkay, in fact, believes that the Romans carefully considered which subjects to depict in mosaic form. And many of the works were seemingly chosen in relation to the purpose of the specific rooms within which they were placed.
Thankfully, quite a number of Zeugma’s beautiful mosaics have been uncovered since the turn of the millennium. But it’s thought that plenty more remain in their original positions. Indeed, years after excavations first began, new discoveries continued to be made. In November 2014, for instance, Görkay and his team uncovered three more tessellated artworks.
One of these artworks depicted the nine muses – goddesses who inspired humans to feats of artistic and scientific achievement. Apparently, this particular piece was found inside a property in Zeugma which experts have aptly called the House of Muses. This mosaic’s focal point is Calliope, the divine embodiment of epic poetry.
Archaeological works at the House of Muses are ongoing to this very day – but they’re set to finish up soon. In fact, the Daily Sabah newspaper reported in August 2019 that excavations should be completed by late 2020. And from that point on, the dwelling will be open to the public.
In addition to the numerous works found inside the House of Muses, the building itself is of particular interest to archaeologists. After all, it’s also considered to be indicative of the type of dwellings built during the ancient Roman period. This is because of the mosaics, painted artworks and architectural flourishes which define it.
Speaking to the Anadolu Agency, Görkay detailed what people showing up to the House of Muses should expect to find. “When visitors come here, they will be able to see a well-preserved Roman house,” he said. He elaborated that the specific artistic and architectural elements of the structure would depict a typical property of the time.
On top of the nine muses mosaic, archaeologists in 2014 also found another which depicted Tethys and Oceanus. According to ancient mythology, these were a pair of sibling gods who ultimately ended up marrying one another. The final mosaic found that year was remarkably well-preserved, bearing the image of a young male.
It has been suggested that such mosaic masterpieces were made possible because of ancient Zeugma’s extraordinary wealth. Indeed, as we’ve already discussed, the city was something of a Roman commercial and military hub at its height. And at one point its population might well have touched upon the 30,000 mark.
Owing to its easterly location, Zeugma was also a place where Roman, Greek and Persian cultures mixed. Indeed, Persian gods were celebrated alongside Roman deities in the city. And given that it changed from a Greek city into a Roman one, it’s a vital spot within which to study the differences between the two civilizations.
Back in the present day, however, significant portions of the settlement are now submerged underwater. This, sadly, means that some of Zeugma’s mysteries may well lie hidden away forever. But fortunately, some of the ancient city’s mosaics have already been relocated to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum – and thus saved from flooding.
The Zeugma Mosaic Museum is considered to be the largest institution of its kind on Earth. Having opened up to the public back in September 2011, the museum is comprised of a number of buildings. A variety of spaces are contained within these walls, including a library and places to be utilized for exhibitions.
Perhaps the most significant exhibit within the Zeugma Mosaic Museum is a piece known as the Gypsy Girl. This is a mosaic which reports have suggested was first discovered underneath a toppled pillar in Zeugma back in 1998. However, large portions of the artwork were noted to have been missing at this time.
This was down to the fact that bits of the mosaic had been taken away by people many years beforehand. Indeed, after the fragments had been initially excavated during the 1960s, they were shipped abroad to the United States. Here, an institution called Bowling Green State University reportedly purchased them for $35,000.
For several years, the mosaic fragments were held at the Ohio center of learning. But in 2012 a couple of researchers released reports which ultimately went on to change that. The first study established that the pieces had originated from Zeugma. And the second article identified the fragments as having been parts of the Gypsy Girl.
In the wake of these revelations, the Turkish government put in a request to have the fragments returned to their homeland. Eventually – after more than five years of bargaining– the pieces finally made their way back to Turkey. Here, they were placed beside the other section of the Gypsy Girl at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum.
After the pieces had been returned, some Turkish officials spoke to the press to express their pleasure at the repatriation. The minister for culture and tourism, Mehmet Ersoy, proclaimed, “It is a very important day for Turkey.” And the mayor of Gaziantep, Fatma Şahin, said, “[The pieces have] returned to Gaziantep, to [their] nation. The Gypsy Girl has been reunited with her family.”
After the pieces had been brought to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, they were put on display – along with the rest of Gypsy Girl mosaic – as part of a unique exhibit. After all, as previously mentioned, the piece as a whole is thought by some to be among the most significant in the whole museum. Indeed, it’s said to serve as a symbol for Gaziantep and Zeugma.
This story of an archaeological find being removed from Turkey is far from unique. In fact, between 2003 and 2018, well over 4,000 items were reportedly returned to Turkey from foreign lands. Many of these pieces had once been within the country’s borders, but had been taken away and exhibited abroad.
Just one example would be an ancient coffin depicting the mythological figure of Hercules. This item, it’s thought, originally hails from Perge, an ancient Greek city located near the Mediterranean in modern Turkey. It was apparently stolen from the country during the 1960s, eventually making its way to the U.K..
In 2010 the Hercules coffin was taken in by authorities from Switzerland. A study of the artefact then followed during the following year, eventually leading to Turkey being contacted on the matter. From this point on, plans were made to send the piece back home. It arrived in September 2017.
So in recent times, Turkey is beginning to see the return of some of its rightful treasures. Yet beneath the waters which now engulf large parts of Zeugma, many more are likely submerged. And with all that we know of Zeugma’s rich and colorful history, who can guess what else archaeologists could be missing?