Richard Hodges: Zeugma’s last secret

8 mins read
A mosaic featuring bearded Oceanus and his wife Tethys – an aquatic scene with sea creatures including different types of fish and dolphins ridden by cupids.
A mosaic featuring Oceanus and his wife Tethys – an aquatic scene, which was to prove ominously prophetic in the summer of 2000, when a new dam left rising waters threatening the ancient city of Zeugma. Could a rescue project be mounted before a sizeable chunk of the town disappeared?

Zeugma – now a name to conjure with. Site of a bridge across the Euphrates, connecting the Mediterranean to Persia and, by way of the Silk Road, inland Asia. For those in the know, this Roman town possessed mosaics equal to those at ancient Antioch’s mosaic museum and in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Unlike those mosaic museums, full of French colonial trophies, Zeugma’s countless polychrome pavements have historical colour and context, courtesy of our excavations in the summer of 2000. Like any place, its history and antiquities were not retrieved by textbook methods. Instead, serendipity played a huge part in the Zeugma project. With Turkey in greater political turmoil than at any time over the past 50 years, I look back with awe at how much we achieved that summer.

My Zeugma began on a train, when my mobile phone rang. It was the Californian philanthropist supporting our project at Butrint, Albania – he was calling way after midnight his time. Had I seen the front page of The New York Times about this Roman town being submerged by the waters of a new dam in Turkey? It was fabulously rich. Could the dam be halted? Would I go there on his behalf and start a project? I stuttered about my dig just getting under way at Butrint in Albania. Leave it to the others, he commanded, so I meekly mumbled that I’d go. Clearly relieved, he signed off.

Ill at ease, with the train racing along, I opened my newspaper and – abracadabra! – there was Zeugma, the very article to which he’d alluded so passionately. Penned three days before in mid May, the journalist conjured up the menace of the waters, rising a few centimetres each day, threatening untold damage to numerous spectacular mosaic floors. By October, ancient Zeugma would be underwater. The reporter captured the chaos – a treasure left to its fate; a government unable or unwilling or just too destitute to save its patrimony. Only a lone French archaeologist was defying these forces. This heroine was cast as challenging the odds for her beliefs to safeguard a place that, judging from the illustrated mosaics, ranked with the very best from the Roman Empire.

Aerial view of the site of Zeugma, with the new dam shown across the water top left. Pistachio orchards speckle the hillside.
The site of Zeugma, seen from the air, with the new dam visible top left. Pistachio orchards speckle the hillside.

Rising waters

First, I had to square matters in Albania. Apart from the digging team; long-scheduled visitors had to be attended. In the Atlantis Hotel in Corfu’s harbour, I met up with a delegation from the US Parks Authority led by Brooke Shearer. I had first met Brooke the previous autumn at a conference in Florence and persuaded her to visit Butrint and Albania to offer guidance, as the new Butrint National Park (only weeks old) and the concept of parks in general was attracting newsworthy attention thanks to the energetic Minister of Culture, Edi Rama. Brooke was a trouper. A pint-sized woman with a shock of black hair, she possessed an engaging, serene West Coast approach to life. She spoke in crisp sentences, shaped no doubt at college then Oxford, followed by responsible time in the Clinton court.

Bronze statue of the god Mars wearing a helmet and holding a bow in his left hand and a pole - for a spear - in his right
Zeugma has produces spectacular finds, including this glorious bronze statue of Mars.

Undeterred by weariness from a long flight and lost luggage, she was eager to see a country that was new to her. Next day, in blissful spring weather, we took an old pleasure-cruiser, the Kamelia, to Saranda. We settled in the bow on the ribbed wooden benches ahead of the 90-minute journey. In this stasis, I quizzed her gently. A college friend of the Clintons, she and her husband – the Deputy Secretary of State – were facing the final months of a wounded administration. Gossiping about salacious politics was irresistible, and somewhat surreal as we glided across the placid Corfiot waters.

Everyone loved Butrint, radiant with its carpets of flowers and first butterflies. As we were excavating on the far shore of Lake Butrint, at the site of the Roman maritime villa of Diaporit, after a fish-lunch a boat was ordered up to visit the dig. Our boatman manoeuvred us through the fish traps in the Vivari channel and then headed into Lake Butrint. Far in the distance, our team of worker ants was resisting the wind on the shore-side. Puffs of dirt exploded into the air as wheel-barrows were emptied. Landing at a makeshift dock, we found our feet and hastened to the first of several trenches. Here, Will Bowden – the site director – launched into a tour omitting any reference to the exotic absurdity of digging in this improbable place. With gusto, he described how the compact Hellenistic farmhouse was transformed in the Neronian period into a large maritime villa. Could this have been the home of Titus Pomponius Atticus, friend and correspondent of Cicero, opulent patron of Butrint? As his words were muffled by a gust of wind, my mobile phone rang. Quite how I had a connection puzzled me. So I answered hesitantly, as though I was being spied on.

Sumptuous mosaic showing Love and Psyche
Today, Zeugma is justly famous for the sumptuous mosaics. Here we see Love and Psyche, from the so-called ‘House of Poseidon’.

‘This is the White House here. Is Brooke Shearer with you, Professor Hodges?’

Like a puppet on a long string, I of course replied in the affirmative. And the voice politely but firmly asked if I might hand my phone to Brooke, which I promptly did.

A curtain of darkness crossed her face, ending any levity, and coursed through the rest of the day. Brooke’s nephew and godson had died in a tragic accident. Brooke was certain of one thing: her ambassador brother in Boston needed her support. So began the challenge of returning her from the estates of Atticus to Butrint then Saranda then Corfu. Even with a diplomatic passport, nothing was straightforward, but with determined purpose she made the afternoon flight from Athens to the USA. As she left, the last time I saw her, she said with weary affection that if she could help my new venture in Turkey, I should be sure to call her.

Mosaic showing Achilles armed with shield and spear as he reveals himself to Odysseus on the island of Skyros. A pipe for the spring of water is to the left of the figure of Achilles.
A detail of Achilles on the island of Skyros, when he revealed himself to Odysseus. This pavement was originally beside the fountain in the House of Poseidon – to the left of Achilles, you can see the pipe for the spring of water.

Later that week, while I was in an anonymous hotel in Ankara, she emailed me her heartfelt thanks. If she could ever repay my help, please let her know. As it turned out, within days this offer was to prove vital. Turkey’s capital has little to commend it apart from the Anatolian Museum and, while awaiting my companions to set southwards to Zeugma, I felt at a loss. My principal companion was an old colleague, Dave K. We had been junior professors together for a dozen years before he set sail for Australia and I had gone to Rome. Zeugma had been a brief episode in his life five years before, when he gallantly answered the call to excavate here once its aquatic fate was known. The dig had been grievously punishing. Despite this, his elegant report, just published, cast him as an obvious partner in any immediate campaign. But from the beginning, it was patently clear in his understated mien that Turkey and Zeugma were not for him. Once bitten, twice shy: the Turkish Ministry of Culture would crush any philanthropic initiative, he advised at regular intervals.

Destination Zeugma

Coordinating this bid to save Zeugma was Olcay, the genial, long-suffering director-general of GAP, the government’s dam coordinating body. He greeted us encouragingly on the Friday and early the next morning, with Mustafa, GAP’s point person, we flew to Diyarbakır. Soon over scorched mountains and emptied hills, it was evident summer had arrived. Taxiing to the diminutive terminal, we eyed British fighter-jets lined up on the far side of the airfield. Mustafa looked me straight in the eyes: they’re patrolling Iraq, he said without further comment. Cars were found and we headed south-west for the three-hour drive to Birecik and our destination, the excavations at Zeugma.

External view of the Zeugma Mosaic Museum
Zeugma Museum today. It has come a long way since the summer of 2000. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/atomsakal [CC by SA 3.0])

On the Diyarbakır–Urfa road, the heat was already up. After skirting Urfa (ancient Edessa), we dropped down off the plateau into the canyon containing the Euphrates. Our destination was unmistakeable. The biblical works at Birecik included not only the storied dam with its dinky-sized operations, but a small town of prefabricated huts to house the construction teams. From here, across the rising water, the monstrous dam was nearing its conclusion in an otherwise unblemished pastoral setting. Looking more closely past the jumble of cranes and moving ants, a dusty scar lay just above the waterline on the far shore. Running up behind the scar were pistachio orchards, rising by ragged troughs and scarps to a saddle-backed summit: the acropolis of ancient Zeugma.

View of reconstructed rooms in the house of poseidon, with mosaics on the floors, and fragments of wall
Reconstruction of the rooms in the House of Poseidon: Antiope, Satyr, and Galatia (bottom right) and a mosaic depicting Andromeda and Perseus (bottom left). (Image: Flikr/Casal Paritu [CC by SA 3.0])

After lunch in the canteen, we set out for the dig that had won worldwide attention. Our driver manoeuvred us around the dam, past colossal dumper trucks and packs of sunburnt men in yellow hard hats. Once on the south side, we pursued the battered old road past the old village of Belkis, whose shabby squat houses lay deserted and ruinous, sheltered by a clump of dusty trees. Come October, the abandoned village would be gone, submerged. Mustafa proudly informed us that the villagers had been moved to apartment blocks higher up. Later, he admitted that the community was heartbroken; many had moved to the anonymity of Nizip nearby and even to the thriving metropolis of Gaziantep, an hour’s drive to the south-west.

Archaeologists treating mosaic showing the Rape of Europa
The discovery and immediate treatment of the mosaic representing the Rape of Europa. (Image: CCA-Roma)

Emerging out on to the flank of the hill, we suddenly came upon dozens of cars, as well as tractors and openbedded trailers, coated carelessly with the ubiquitous white powder of Zeugma. Television vans with satellite dishes were in among them. Then, improbably, my eye was drawn to columns: the columns of Roman houses still standing bolt upright on the shore of the Euphrates. There were people milling around everywhere, some with television cameras, as the sparkling river was spilling inexorably towards this unexpected house. It was more like a riverside marketplace than an excavation.

Media circus

This dig was theatre. Despite the afternoon heat, there was a lingering sense of hysteria. The press was making this into a race against time, and then I spotted the missionary – a small, beleaguered French woman gesticulating at one camera crew next to a sweep of perfectly preserved mosaic. It was being poked then photographed. The milling people rather than the polychromatic figures in stone held my attention, but instinct told me this pavement was the work of a master. Its exact ornament belonged to the zenith of the Roman province on its eastern frontier. Voyeurs in the form of hundreds of local men watched on, their wives and children mingling with the columns or casually sitting on Roman walls, fascinated by the salvage. Most were villagers, I soon realised. This was their past being unearthed and on the verge of perpetual oblivion. No film director could have wanted more.

Archaeologist cleans one of the figured mosaics
Cleaning one of the figured mosaics discovered at Zeugma.
(Image: CCA-Roma)

My little group wavered on the edge of the throng, and then I led them off through the dusty orchards away from the excavation. What was already clear to us was that, good though this spotlight on one point of Zeugma was, it failed to grasp what the place was about. How far did the ruins stretch? And, more to the point, what impact would the dam waters have? We already knew that the lake waters would only cover the lower 20% of the town. It was the 10% or so above this that was in real danger: a microclimate created by the dam would whip the daily waters against the new shore. As of October, a new lakeside would be created through attrition. Here, the upper part of lower Zeugma would be battered and erased. Paradoxically, those parts where the French missionary was working would survive under the placid dam waters.

Conservation of a mosaic depicting Menander's story of the Synristosai ('ladies who lunch').
Conservation of a mosaic depicting Menander’s story of the Synristosai (‘ladies who lunch’). (Image: CCA-Roma)

We struggled along the lower scarp, weaving in and out of ragged gullies, almost certainly imprecise imprints of ancient roads bisecting the slopes. Then we halted under the pistachios, by now sweating fiercely and aware that more than a kilometre of hillside was at risk. Beneath all of it lay ruins with mosaics like those we had seen galvanising the media’s searchlight.

Further reading
A digital version of the Zeugma site reports is available to be read, for free, at http://zeugma.packhum.org/index.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 100 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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