School of Humanities

Zeugma in the 1990s

Further information

Posted by David Kennedy


updated 2000

There has been a tragedy and a second is in progress.

  1. The tragedy
  2. Background
  3. Postscript
  4. Reading

The tragedy

A decade ago the waters building up behind the massive wall of the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates in Turkey began to flood the streets of the little deserted village of Samsat. It was a disaster for the poor villagers who had been expropriated and obliged to leave ancestral homes in the interest of a greater and wider good.

More important, the floodwaters were lapping over the fields beneath which lay the remains of the ancient city of Samosata. The city had been the capital of allied kings of the Roman Empire one of whom, Antiochus IV, was described as a man "who had inherited great wealth and was the richest client-king of all" (Tacitus Hist 2.81.1). In the first century AD, the kingdom was annexed by Rome to the province of Syria, the city flourished as a frontier town of the Roman Empire, and an entire legion of 5000 soldiers was placed there. Written sources provided occasional insights at various points during its subsequent history but the flesh for these bones was to be found within the town wall circuit of five kilometres, enclosing some 250 ha (600 acres), and beyond it in the remains of the ancient villages, farms, aqueducts, quarries and roads of its hinterland.

A number of Turkish and foreign teams did carry out surveys and excavations, but for so large an area it was modest. None of the foreign institutes undertook any major project at Samosata itself which was left to the valiant but limited resources of Turkish archaeologists. Today it is all under a deep and vast lake – readers might look at the superb aerial view by Ed Kashi of the lake where once it stood (National Geographic May 1993) – and if, a century hence, the dam were to be drained the traces of what was once one of the handful of second-rank cities of the Roman Empire will have been further eroded and contaminated by not only the decades of waterlogging but now a vast accumulation of silt too.

Nothing more can be done about Samosata but something could yet be done about Zeugma.

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During several centuries of first Greek then Roman rule, Zeugma was the location of the first and only permanent bridge over the Euphrates between the Taurus Mountains and Babylonia several hundred kilometres away. That in itself made the twin cities of Seleucia and Apamea at either end of the bridge of signal importance.

In the first century BC it too passed under Roman rule and received a legion in garrison. There were only eight legions in all of Rome's Asian provinces between the Black Sea and the Red and two of them were located at Samosata and Zeugma within 70 km of one another, an indicator of the military significance of these places. For several centuries Zeugma ("the bridge", or, as we might call it, Bridgetown), as the twin towns came to be known, flourished as a fortress city, urban centre, trade centre, garrison, nodal point of several key routes, and meeting point of East and West. Here more than anywhere the Roman and Parthian Empires met. Here too the Semitic cultures of Syria mingled with those of Iran and Anatolia.

The existence of ruins of the Classical period around the little Turcoman village of Belkis upstream from the modern bridge of Birecik has been known to western scholars for over two centuries. By the beginning of the 20th century, a growing awareness of the extent of the remains indicated a major city but there was no consensus as to which it was, since many scholars believed the ancient bridge had lain at Birecik. Since the 1970s, however, it has been indisputable that the ruins at Belkis and opposite, around Tilmusa on the other bank, had to be those of Zeugma, a town at least as large as Samosata, twice the size of Roman London and three-and-a-half times that of Pompeii.

In the 19th century, looters carried off superb mosaics and works of art fine enough to be coveted by the world class museums of imperial Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The potential of the site was revealed further by the systematic recording of visible features in the 1970s by Jőrg Wagner. And now looters have again been at work, this time leading to the accidental discovery of a well-preserved villa with not just stunning mosaics but with glass and bronze household items still scattered across the floors from when the building was burned.

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In a western country it would have attracted TV cameras and large funds. Turkey, however, is like as a vast outdoor museum and, although it attracted media attention, not least through the efforts of Mrs Ayfer Ãœnsal of the Gaziantep newspaper, it has received less than its due and the implications have been given inadequate international concern. Turkey, nothwithstanding its strong antiquities legislation and vigorous archaeologists, lacks the resources to meet all of the many daily threats to its material heritage.

More alarming still, however, the Turkish government built yet another dam to provide water for irrigation as part of its vast South-east Anatolia Development Project to revitalise the region. The Birecik Dam it is located at Zeugma, 500 m downstream of the city. All of Apamea on the east bank and half of Seleucia on the west, as well as scores of other sites of every period further up the valley have disappeared under a new lake.

There is no secret about this dam. The American archaeologist Guillermo Algaze included it in the non-intensive survey he made over the land to be flooded by five such dams. More recently, and much to his credit, Rifat Ergeç of the Gaziantep Museum stretched his slim budget to rescue the villa being looted by treasure hunters. But there has been no major fieldwork project. I undertook a brief preliminary season in 1993 and there are at present limited projects being carried out by Catherine Abadie-Reynal of the French Institute in Istanbul and some further rescue excavation by the Gaziantep Museum.

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Major fieldwork seems unlikely. After more than two years I had to admit defeat; publicity brought numerous offers of physical assistance by people from a score of countries. Major institutional funds were not forthcoming, however, and none of the businesses approached was willing to offer support. A little further work may well take place as construction inadvertently discloses new long-buried features. The dam, however, is scheduled for completion in 1998 but may be a little later – millennial. There is – just – still time for a major program of fieldwork but none is likely.

Samosata – and presumably now Zeugma – seem victims of two trends in Classical archaeology. First the continued excavation, decade after decade, at a handful of major city sites which are under no threat but absorb substantial resources. Classical archaeology has been criticised for devoting its energies for so long overwhelmingly to the towns and to the monumental buildings at that. The reaction to this may be behind the second trend, the recent focus instead on the countryside of the Graeco-Roman world and the unfashionableness of city excavation amongst younger Classical archaeologists.

In 50 years our successors, with different philosophies and objectives, will be aghast that we allowed either of these cities to be inundated without major efforts at investigation. Everything in archaeology may be significant but not everything is of equal significance. This is not a matter of exposing yet more theatres or temples; either would be interesting (after two centuries of visits the theatre at Zeugma has only recently been identified by Algaze's survey) and valuable (where are the pagan shrines and Christian churches of Zeugma?) but could certainly add greatly to what we already know about both types of structure from the Classical of a Gerasa to the Syrian versions of a Dura Europus. Zeugma, however, holds part of the key to several major questions which should have drawn the attention of many different and overlapping groups of scholars. A few will illustrate the point:

  • Zeugma was one of the second-rank cities of Seleucid Syria. Although not overbuilt since the Middle Ages, we have little more idea of its overall shape much less of its layout than we did 100 years ago. Not a single street is known and our knowledge of hellenistic town-planning in Syria which might have been signally enriched here remains slender.
  • Hundreds of scholars specialising in Roman military studies have for years lamented our appalling ignorance of the entire Near East. Roman military structures of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD are virtually unknown and not a single one of the handful of early imperial legionary fortresses has ever been excavated. Even the precise locations of those at Samosata and Zeugma are unknown or uncertain and nothing is known of their character.

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In the late 1st century BC, a Graeco-Syrian town of perhaps 25,000 inhabitants and a small garrison, was abruptly transformed by the insertion of 5000 Roman citizen soldiers, many perhaps Latin-speaking Europeans. Thereafter, tens of thousands of legionaries soldiered, married and died there for generation after generation. Along with the soldiers came a legionary legate and his tribunes; the former one of the 600 members of the Roman senatorial elite, the latter of the imperial equestrian aristocracy. The presence of these men and their families for a few years at a time for two centuries could not but have altered the character of the place. The evidence for this important element in urban life and of Roman control and impact at this interface with the Parthian Empire is a handful of inscriptions.

Zeugma was on the major crossing of the Euphrates below the Taurus Mountains, on a great trade route, of the Mediterranean world and of Mesopotamia, and a fortress city on a cultural and political frontier. Yet we can say little about its economic life or the nature of its society. To what extent was it Greek, Roman, Aramaic, Iranian, Mesopotamian? What was its identity at any point in its history; how and why did it change?

The town had been founded at a bridge-crossing but was also a military colony. The inhabitants were originally primarily farmers and many probably remained so, but we have the merest hints of the villages and farms which were always the basis of the economy. The recent brief survey by Algaze has shown what may yet be learned of the rural context but no intensive survey has ever been carried out. As the present inhabitants are obliged to move away the opportunity emerges for unrestricted fieldwork of the kind carried out by Wilkinson downstream of Samosata.

Zeugma is well-known as the source of literally hundreds of figured and plain tombstones, and as many mosaics and other works of art, scattered now across a dozen countries. They have generated scores of scholarly works analysing their quality and place in scholarship.

Three years ago, looters were disturbed tunneling into a house in Zeugma and the site has now been excavated. as has part of a second by my own team. What we have revealed in these houses is a wealth of such works of art in situ. Not only could scholarship be presented with more such works of art but with many still in the locations intended where they could be studied as part of the indigenous culture. Instead, many continue to be torn out of context and sold off illicitly to buyers probably ignorant even of the site from which they came.

Sadly, too many people would see funding aimed even in part at excavating rich town houses as dangerously close to treasure-hunting. Would it not be better done professionaly than ripped out by looters and sold clandestinely? Where are the outraged art historians and why have those who appreciate the importance of well-preserved houses at Pompeii not been agitating for those at Zeugma, some standing 2-4 m high beneath the fields soil, to be investigated? Examples of this sort could be multiplied: personally I would be enormously interested in the rural economy, the water supply of Seleucia, the impact of a generation of Commagenian rule, analysis of skeletal evidence from the poorer and as yet undiscovered cemeteries, the character of manufacture at the town, the interaction of cultures, and the processes of development and decline.

These and many other questions could transform Zeugma into the late twentieth century counterpart of the remarkable discoveries at Dura Europus in the 1920s and 30s. But applying now the techniques and approaches of a rather different subject. The opportunity is still there but rapidly narrowing.

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Since writing the above two years ago [c.1995], Catherine Abadie-Reynal has continued her work at Zeugma and, since 1997, been joined by a team from the University of Bern under Professor Michael A. Speidel. Now, too, my own work at the site has been published together with related essays (Kennedy 1998).

This rutted Roman road – discovered by Dr Christopher Lightfoot – runs up the side of a steep hill upstream of Zeugma to one of several Roman quarries in the region. The rock face on the left has a graffito in Greek letters.

Update (15.5.2000)

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Algaze, G., Breuninger, R. and Knudstad, J. (1994) The Tigris-Euphrates Archaeological Reconnaissance Project: Final report of the Birecik and Carchemish Dam survey areas, Anatolica XX: 1-96

Amalfi, C. (1993) 'Rescue mission', West Australian (Earth 2000), December 27: 4-5.

Cribb, J. (1993) 'The ancient digger', The Australian Magazine, June 12-13: 18-20.

Cumont, F. (1917) Etudes syriennes, Paris.

Kennedy, D. L. (1992/93) 'Zeugma Archaeological Project', in C. E. V. Nixon (ed.) Chronicle of Excavations, Mediterranean Archaeology 5/6: 167-8; Pl 51.4

(1994) 'Zeugma. Une ville antique sur l'Euphrate', Archéologia, 306: 26-35

(1994) 'Zeugma Archaeological Project', in C. E. V. Nixon (ed.) Chronicle of Excavations, Mediterranean Archaeology 7: 127-129; pl. 13.1-4.

(1995) 'Zeugma Archaeological Project: Preliminary Season 1993'. XVI Kazi Sonuclari Toplantisi, Ankara II, 207-215.

(1998) The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates. Rescue Work and Historical Studies, 1998. Portsmouth, RI (JRA, Supplementary Series 27) (ISBN 1-887829-27-0; ISBN 1063-4304 (for the supplementary series)).

Kennedy, D. L. and Freeman, P. W. M. (1994) Zeugma Archaeological Project: Preliminary Season, September 1993. Anatolian Studies 44: 18-20 = British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, Forty-Fifth Annual Report, 1993: 36-38

Kennedy, D. L., Ergeç, R. and Freeman, P. (1995) 'Mining the mosaics of Roman Zeugma', Archaeology , March/ April: 54-55.

Stark, F. (1966) Rome on the Euphrates. The story of a frontier, London.

Wagner, J (1976) Seleukeia am Euphrat/ Zeugma , Wiesbaden (Reichert, Beihefte TAVO B10): 132-46

Wagner, J. (1985) Die Rőmer an Euphrat und Tigris, Jona (Antike Welt, Sondernummer 16)

Wiltshire, T. (1993) 'UWA scholar mounts international rescue', Uniview Magazine. The University of Western Australia, 12.3: 10-11.

Wiltshire, T. (1995) 'Time runs out for treasures', Uniview Magazine. The University of Western Australia, 14.1: 3