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The Sinking Treasures of Zeugma

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J. W. Stewart
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Image: David Kennedy

MOSAIC from a wealthy Roman villa in Zeugma is one of numerous panels unearthed there.

In the first week of June, a lake created by southern Turkey's new hydroelectric dam at Birecik is expected to completely fill, swallowing what remains of two ancient Greco-Roman cities known together as Zeugma. These towns, Seleucia and Apamea, marked either end of the first and only permanent bridge across the Euphrates River during antiquity. As such, Zeugma served as the meeting place between East and West, much as Istanbul does today.

Because of its location, Zeugma is undeniably an important archaeological site, which many have compared to Pompeii. There some 60,000 people -- including Alexander the Great's general Seleucus I -- are thought to have lived, first under Greek and then Roman rule. As a strategic fortress city, Zeugma was home to one of only eight Roman legions stationed in the Empire's Asian provinces.

Given Zeugma's geographical and cultural significance, its imminent flooding has drawn much 11th-hour attention from the media. And this coverage has spurred furious digging to salvage buried treasure, as well as outrage at the Turkish authorities who didn't postpone the dam's contruction. But according to some experts, both responses are too little too late.

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Image: DAVID KENNEDY

BRONZE ARMOR -- rare from anywhere in the Roman Empire -- was found in a bulldozer's track in Zeugma.

David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia notes that historians have suspected Zeugma's importance for centuries, and any doubt vanished after Guillermo D. Algaze of the University of California at San Diego surveyed the area in the late 1980s. Archaeologists from the local Gaziantep Museum began excavating the site in 1992, and the Turkish Department of Antiquities soon accepted help from foreigners. Kennedy was among the first outsiders there but couldn't raise sufficient funds to continue his work. French and Swiss recovery teams met with similar fates.

These projects, as well as an emergency effort launched last October, have saved magnificent artifacts, including a richly colored Roman mosaic depicting Oceanus, an ivory figurine of Aphrodite and a life-size bronze statue of Mars. And looters in the 19th century indirectly guaranteed that art from Zeugma now safely resides in museums around the world. Moreover, as Turkish ambassador Baki Ilkin stressed in a May 22 letter to the editor printed in the New York Times, not all of Zeugma will be inundated, and excavations will continue on the shores around the dam-made lake.

But many wonders are bound to be lost under water -- for which Kennedy puts the blame west of Turkey. "Several foreign countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, have long maintained institutes in Turkey to support the activities of their nationals in archaeology there. They knew what was happening at least 12 years ago," Kennedy writes, and "with a few honorable exceptions ... did little or nothing. There are many culprits in this unhappy episode, but Turkey should not be at the head of the list."

What may be saddest of all, Zeugma is not the first such site to drown. A decade ago, the Greco-Roman city of Samosata succumbed to the Atat¿rk Dam, built a short distance upstream from Birecik. Farther downstream, the Karkamis dam is due for completion in two years -- and hopefully history will not repeat itself yet again.

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