School of Humanities

Zeugma 2000

Further information

Posted by David Kennedy

15 May 2000

About the author

David Kennedy is Professor of Roman History and Archaeology

He published his findings in:

  • The Twin Cities of Zeugma on the Euphrates, Portsmouth, RI, 1998
  • "Drowned cities of the Upper Euphrates", Aramco World, Sept/Oct 1998: 20-7

These are the words of Ayfer Tuzcu Unsal a Turkish friend and local journalist who visited Zeugma in eastern Turkey this week.

At the moment the water is already rising. There are many beautiful beams beside the mosaics. There are two big halls where the mosaics stay beautifully. One was covered and was ready to move, I saw the other one which was also [of] Dionysos. I went into every room [in] every part of the building and all the walls are covered with beautiful pictures and inscriptions. I visited the [modern] villages which are going to be under water shortly. They are all terrified and cutting their old trees for wood. It is the green plum season now, they cut the tree and pick up the plums. Just awful! They will move into the city, where they've never lived before. All the children are used to play outside and pick up the fruits themselves. Now, they will have to live in the awful buildings and never have a chance to pick up fruit.

The waters are already rising behind the Birecik Dam on the Euphrates and will immerse almost all of the Graeco-Roman city of Zeugma - a site described by the local provincial governor as a "2nd Pompeii" (New York Times, 7 May 2000). It is certainly a most important site - on a scale of one to ten, Zeugma would be a seven or eight.

The lake will also drown hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller sites along the valley for some 40 km to the north, and, almost forgotten in the current hand-wringing and stone-throwing, displace thousands of people from the villages at Zeugma and upstream.

The media have rightly stressed the importance of the ancient city. It was large – two or three times the size of Pompeii (which, of course is unique – a functioning city, frozen at a point in time). It supported the only bridge across the Euphrates in Antiquity, carrying a major trade and communications route. It was a cultural meeting point of East and West. Finally, it was a Roman frontier fortress city and base of an entire legion for two centuries. All of this sets it apart.

Contrary to the claims in the New York Times and other newspapers, archaeologists did not "belatedly (discover) that it was an important site" only this past winter. In 1988 some forty archaeologists visited the site as part of a conference devoted to the Roman frontier in Turkey and discovered that a dam was already getting under way just 500 m downstream.

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The American archaeologist Guillermo Algaze did sterling work in a rapid survey of the areas to be flooded by this (and four other dams on the Euphrates and Tigris) in the late 1980s. Turkish archaeologists from the Gaziantep Museum became involved in salvage work on a small scale in 1992, and the Turkish Department of Antiquities was already accepting the help of foreign archaeological teams the same year. The discovery of a superb, partially looted mosaic spurred wider efforts by Turkish archaeologists and led to my own preliminary season of excavation and survey in 1993.

Despite extensive publicity in Australia and an item in The Times (London), I was unable to raise further funds either from individuals, corporations, grant-making bodies, companies working in Turkey or even the European Community. With great regret I was forced to withdraw.

The publicity, however, worked to some extent. The French archaeologist Catherine Abadie-Reynal saw my article in a French magazine and began the first of several seasons of excavation as did, briefly, a Swiss team.

The New York Times and now The Telegraph (UK, 11 May) make the seemingly irresistible point: Turkey rightly claims back those parts of its cultural heritage stolen or exported illegally; it has a corresponding "obligation to protect that patrimony" by not "allowing a site of priceless value to be destroyed."

Turkey is no better than rich western countries in spending too much of its wealth on the military and too little (in my opinion) on culture. It is in the position, however, of presiding over a vast archaeological treasure house of sites and material of every period. The responsibility is huge - and expensive, far beyond the resources of the Department of Antiquities.

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. With a few honourable exceptions, often individuals rather than the organisations, they did little or nothing.

From my own experience - from a country not represented by an institute in Turkey and no previous personal fieldwork there - I can affirm the willingness and practical support on offer from the Department of Antiquities and the welcome given by the relevant provincial and sub-provincial governors.

But what of the builders of these dams and their financiers? Western companies, agencies and governments have been involved in such projects regularly. In Western countries it would be a requirement of any such project that a detailed survey would be carried out with extensive excavation and conservation as necessary. And it would be built into the budget and not left to the modest resources of the Turkish Department of Antiquities or any foreign institute.

As someone who diverted his research interest from Jordan to Turkey for three years and failed to obtain adequate support, the present outcry is exasperating and unimpressive. There are many culprits in this unhappy episode but Turkey should not be at the head of the list.

Zeugma is not about to be destroyed. The greater part of it will disappear beneath a lake. We don't really know what half a century of flooding will do: we may guess it will do no harm to some items (mosaics?), damage others (wall paintings?) and preserve some things rather well (if sealed away from oxygen). More immediately worrying is the damage that will be effected daily at the water's edge as it rises and falls where the lake cuts those a very large site. Some of that should certainly be investigated now before the lake has fully formed.

Any work is important - especially after the disappearance of the equally important Graeco-Roman city of Samosata under the Ataturk Dam just a short distance upstream. Ignorant of the effects of inundation, both sites should have been the focus of major programmes of research designed explore that question, determine the character of the sites themselves, and rescue evidence of all kinds that might otherwise be lost. Part of the problem is that even now, after many lakes on the great rivers of Western Asia, we still do not know what it is we may be losing.

Zeugma publications

Publications relating to this page can be found at Zeugma Bibliography.

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