Watery graves

Gaziantep, Turkey, The Economist, April 29th 2009

When Turkey’s Birecik dam begins filling up at the end of the month, thousands of archaeological treasures are likely to be lost. Does anyone care?

A CORAL-PINK prawn, a frolicking dolphin. With each gentle prod of the pick, another brilliantly coloured sea creature springs from the earth to reveal an elaborate mosaic floor featuring Oceanus, a mythological god of the seas. The mosaic lies within the atrium of a lavish villa in Zeugma, a strategic port city of the classical period that was built on a terraced hillside overlooking the Euphrates river.

With a bit of luck, and much painstaking work, the small clutch of archaeologists that is working on the site will soon lift the panel and remove it to the museum in the southern city of Gaziantep. But countless other treasures-some recorded, others still awaiting discovery-will be buried under the waters of the Euphrates when the newly completed Birecik dam, just 500 metres downstream, starts filling up on April 29th. At least 82 other sites, some dating as far back as the Palaeolithic period, will also be engulfed. So, too, will nine villages, displacing thousands of local inhabitants.

The Economist:Zeugma, Gaziantep, Turkey

Archaeologists who have studied Zeugma believe that the size and richness of the site make it unique. “We are about to witness a great tragedy,” says Catherine Abadie Reynal, a French archaeologist who has been digging there since 1996. “A second Ephesus is about to be lost. And no one seems to have lifted a finger to stop it.”

While Mrs Reynal and her fellow archaeologist, Daniel Frascone, are speaking, Hakki Alhan, director of the Gaziantep museum, is furiously working the telephones to secure official permission for the pair to join the Turkish excavation team for a last minute effort at salvaging what they can. “Their papers are in order, the foreign ministry has them our culture] ministry has them, but the Security Directorate in Ankara says they don’t,” Mr Alhan explains, throwing his hands up in despair. Earlier this month, the French team was given 15 days to work in Zeugma; five have gone already.

The scene is an example of the sort of bureaucratic inertia which has allowed so many of Turkey’s historical riches to disappear, including the remains of Samosata, the glorious regional capital of the Roman kings, which was submerged in the early I990S under another Euphrates dam, the Ataturk.

Back in Ankara, Guzen Koksal, a culture ministry official, insists that the “real problem” is not red tape and negligence, but a shortage of funds. “Don’t ask me why,” she said. “But our budget is shrinking all the time, and nobody ever consults us before they decide to build darns.” The ministry’s share of the national budget has been reduced this year to an all-time low of 0.02%. “We can barely afford to pay our employees let alone finance excavations,” said Mrs Koksal. “We are helpless.”

Zeugma has attracted little international attention over the years; few Turks, let alone foreigners, are even aware that it exists. The only recent Turkish reference to its imminent demise appeared last month on the back page of a Little-read Islamic newspaper. Yet western scholars have known for more than two centuries that Zeugma was built by Seleucus I(358~280 BC), one of Alexander the Great’s successors, as the site of a crucial bridge linking Anatolia and Mesopotamia on the silk route to China. To secure the bridge, he also founded another city on the river’s opposite bank, naming it Apamea after his Persian queen.

Later, Zeugma (a Greek word for “bridge”) was taken over by the Romans and turned into an opulent fortress city that housed 5,000 soldiers and stretched across an expanse twice the size of Roman London and three-and-a-half times that of Pompeii. In the 19th century, looters began removing Zeugma’s mosaics, some of which are now to be found in museums in Berlin and St Petersburg. Ironically, it was not until 1992, when a local peasant discovered a looter’s tunnel leading to the remains of a Roman villa, that the Turkish authorities were alerted to the significance of the site. The splendour of the mosaic floor depicting the “Wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne”, which was stolen six years later (see next story), galvanised the Gaziantep museum into action. Three more villas were uncovered when the first official excavations were begun.

“It was around that time that we heard the dam would be built,” recalls Rifat Ergec, a former director of the Gaziantep museum and an archaeologist who has worked at Zeugma. “We were horrified.” Despite calls for additional funds to speed up and broaden the excavations, it was not until 1996, when the dam began to be built, that the culture ministry launched an international appeal to help save Zeugma’s treasures. Dr Reynal was among the first to respond. Over the past four years, more than 15 mosaic panels have been rescued, together with scores of bronze figurines, tens of thousands of clay seals and other artefacts now on display at Gaziantep. Among the new treasures still being uncovered is a voluptuous ivory statuette of Aphrodite.

“The big question now,” says Dr Ergec, “is whether the tragedy will be repeated.” He is referring to Hasankeyf, a medieval town straddling the Tigris River (see page 51). With the exception of a citadel and some troglodyte dwellings, much of the site, including the remains of a stone bridge that once linked the two parts of the town, is set to vanish once a proposed darn four times the size of Birecik is built there by a British-led consortium.

Unlike Zeugma, Hasankeyf has elicited a flood of international sympathy, in part because it lies within the Kurdish heartlands. A widely publicised campaign mounted by Kurdish activists and British environmentalists and expediently embraced by a group of Conservative MPS, is already causing a stir. The Labour government recently indicated that British export credits for the multibillion pound project would not be released unless the Turkish government first submitted “a detailed plan to preserve as much of the architectural heritage of Hasankeyf as possible”. Cansen Akkaya, a senior Turkish official linked to the project, says: “We fully accept that condition. Preserving what we can of Hasankeyf has become a matter of our national pride.” sadly, this is not true of Zeugma.