Aysegul Gurgezoglu Tuzun visits Kahramanmaraş Archaeological Museum in Turkey
Mosaic from Germanicia, at the Kahramanmaraş Museum.
Germanicia, beneath the modern city of Kahramanmaraş in southern Turkey, played host to many civilisations during a long and illustrious lifetime that stretches back to the Stone Age. Hittites, Urartians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, and Seleucan kings have all ruled here, each conquering and renaming this important city, which sits on the crossroads of so many major ancient trade routes. Both the Spice Road and the Silk Road pass through here. The city’s final name Germanicia Caesarea – probably in honour of Emperor Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – was bestowed by the Romans, who conquered the fertile and geopolitically significant region.
Eventually conquered by armies, with landslides and fire finishing the place off, the city was buried below ground, and remained hidden for nearly 1,500 years. Though it is mentioned in historical sources, its location remained a mystery until the 21st century.
Into the light
In 2007, illegal excavation within a modern house unearthed some spectacular mosaics. Alerted, the museum of Kahramanmaraş conducted a field study that revealed still more. Beneath a collection of modest one- and two-storey modern houses, magnificent mosaics lay awaiting discovery. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism reclaimed the land, and intensive rescue excavations were initiated by the Museum. About 20 different mosaics were revealed during the excavations.
Preliminary studies showed that the mosaics belonged to Roman villas inhabited by the local elite and military leaders. The houses were built into the sides of the hill, which not only enabled their owners to keep a watchful eye over their property in the countryside below, but also ensured a cool mountain breeze during the hot summer months. There are probably about 100 residences, each comprising several interconnecting rooms. The mosaics, which were laid over the ground-floor levels and are mostly intact, date to the Late Roman Period in the 4th-6th centuries AD.
The works of art reflect the culture and fashions enjoyed by these wealthy members of the Germanicia social elite, with sophisticated designs depicted in fine detail through the use of thousands of tiny coloured glass, marble, and limestone tesserae. The tiny squares are smaller than most other known examples, and the designs deploy three-dimensional effects.
The Germanicia examples are unusual for Late Roman mosaics in that they depict mythological scenes. But we also find floral and geometric motifs, as well as scenes of daily life and architectural representations. We see what the people of the day were wearing, what they ate and drank, and the animals that formed part of their world. But what sets these mosaics apart is the high level of skill required by their makers to create such realistic portraits in such a variety of different designs: one example, the image of a rooster, is one of the best examples of realism executed in Roman mosaic art.
Now that the rescue excavations are close to completion, the emphasis is on preservation. So, though excavation will continue in 2016, the site is to be developed as an archaeological park, adding to the rich heritage already enjoyed by the modern city of Kahramanmaraş , and ensuring visitors to the region can add the stunning Germanicia display to their itinerary, which might already include the mosaics at Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, and Hatay.
The past on display
The city’s first museum, in a 16th-century building in the heart of the city, was opened in 1947 to house ancient and historical artefacts gathered throughout the region. But the collection grew steadily, and it became clear that a new, larger building was required. In 1975, a modern, purpose-built home better equipped to look after the many ancient artefacts was erected. Today, it displays more than 30,000 exhibits in seven exhibition halls.
Visitors are welcomed to the building via the Ancient Elephants Exhibition Hall, where two great elephant skeletons take centre stage, surrounded by features that recreate the environment in which they lived so long ago. Direkli Cave and Domuztepe Mound Exhibition Halls hold the prehistoric artefacts found during excavations at their namesake sites, and reconstructions inform visitors about the daily life of their Palaeolithic and Neolithic inhabitants. The Late Hittite Period Hall displays bronze and stone finds from the city, including sculptures of deities and animals, and relief inscriptions.
Continuing through the building, you arrive at the Mosaics Exhibition Hall, one of the museum’s most spectacular, and worth the visit for its sake alone. Floor mosaics from the Germanicia Roman Villas, along with those from other sites in the city, fill the hall. Leading off it is another gallery with stone stelae, sarcophagi, and Roman marble portraits discovered in the locality.
Beyond is the Main Exhibition Hall, where artefacts are displayed in chronological order from the Palaeolithic right through to the Byzantine Age. Each period is given its own room, each with its own collection representing every aspect of daily life, with tools, jewellery, cult objects, glass and bronze pieces, pottery, and armour. A further room showcases coins from the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman Periods.
It does not end there. Wander into the courtyard for a burst of sunshine, and admire the huge exhibits of monumental architecture too large to be contained within the confines of the building: columns, stelae, sarcophagi, terracotta pithoi beneath wooden porticos, and even the entrance to an Ottoman castle. There is certainly much to admire from this rich region, with its long and illustrious history.
Dr Aysegul Gurgezoglu Tuzun writes about culture and travel.
All Images : Regional Directorate of Culture and Tourism Kahramanmaraş