1998 Associate Laureate, Cultural Heritage
France, Born 1955
In 1996, a team of French and Turkish archaeologists began excavating one of the most important eastern outposts of the Greek and later Roman empires. It was a race against time, because the city of Zeugma was due to be flooded by the waters of the very river it was built to control: the Euphrates.
By last spring, that time was up. In April 2000 the water began to rise above the newly constructed Birecik Dam, just 500 metres away from Zeugma in Belkis, and today between 20 and 30 per cent of the city is flooded. Its twin settlement of Apameia, on the opposite bank, has disappeared completely, along with most of the priceless works of art that filled it.
However, all is not lost. In a museum in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, archaeologists pore over the treasures that they managed to salvage in the four short years their rescue operation lasted. Now they face the painstaking task of sorting and labelling those treasures, in an effort to piece together the cultural heritage of Zeugma and Apameia.
Meanwhile, back in France, Dr Catherine Abadie-Reynal, leader of one of the archaeological teams and an Associate Laureate in the 1998 Rolex Awards, awaits a decision from the Turkish authorities as to whether or not she and her colleagues may return next July to continue digging in the portions of Zeugma that remain dry.
Zeugma, which is Greek for "bridge", was founded around 300 BC by Seleucus I, a successor of Alexander the Great. At the time, the city was named after him, Seleucia, while Apameia was named after his Persian queen. Zeugma flourished under Greek rule and later marked the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. For a long time it was the only place where caravans and armies could cross the Euphrates by bridge rather than by ferry.
Because of its strategic position on the trade routes between east and west — between Anatolia and Mesopotamia — it grew rapidly in wealth and importance. At its height it covered an area twice the size of Roman London, and its inhabitants lived in great luxury and style, enjoying a sophisticated culture in the Greek and Roman traditions.
Abadie-Reynal and her colleagues were well aware of Zeugma’s historical significance before they started digging. But they were not prepared for the sheer abundance of bronzes, wall paintings and mosaics they were to uncover in the city’s luxurious villas — not to mention the vast collections of coins and seals. "We could not have imagined that a city on the oriental front could be as rich as it is," she says. "The houses were as beautiful as houses in Ephesus or Pompeii."
To date, eight villas in Zeugma have been excavated, of which three have been uncovered by her team, and a total of 18 mosaics have been rescued or preserved. The most spectacular of these, she says, is a panel depicting the legend of the goddess Pasiphae, which was uncovered from the floor of a dining room in 1999.
The mosaic, which measures approximately 48 square metres, tells the story of how Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, King of Crete, was made to fall in love with a bull. Poseidon had sent the animal to Minos, who found it so beautiful he could not bring himself to sacrifice it. So Poseidon made Pasiphae love the creature, and the offspring of their union was the Minotaur.
The mosaic, which is almost complete and dates from around the end of the second century AD, is remarkable for the sophistication of its construction, the variety of colours the artist used and the realism with which the characters and buildings are depicted. Along with another panel found on the floor of the same dining room, which portrays Dionysus on a chariot pulled by tigresses, it has been carefully dismantled and removed to the museum at Gaziantep, where it has been reassembled.
High-tech Meets Ancient History
The mosaics were unearthed using traditional, labour intensive, and painstaking methods of excavation. But in addition, the teams working at both Zeugma and Apameia have also made use of the most modern techniques available today. Long before either of the sites was covered in water, they were far from being clearly visible or accessible. Zeugma is covered with earth up to six metres deep, while Apameia lies beneath layers of Euphrates mud and the thriving modern village of Tilmusa.
Remote sensing, magnetic surveys and satellite imagery have accelerated the discovery process and revealed street plans for both cities, as well as the Greek-style city walls of Apameia. From this evidence the archaeologists have shown that Apameia was abandoned two centuries after it was founded, in the second century BC. Contrary to popular academic belief, it seems that Apameia, unlike Zeugma, was never seriously occupied by the Romans.
This is just one of a number of surprises revealed by the recent findings. For instance, the researchers have found no evidence of the famous bridge on which Zeugma relied for its prosperity. Long before the Birecik Dam was built, explains Prof. Pierre Leriche, a French archaeologist and specialist in Eastern Hellenic fortifications, the Euphrates had already risen in antiquity. As a result, it naturally destroyed the parts of its banks that might have revealed clues as to how people crossed it.
Moreover, the previously held notion that Zeugma was strongly fortified seems not to be supported by the findings. Historical records show that the city was home to a 5,000-strong Roman legion during the first and second centuries AD, yet Swiss archaeologists working alongside Abadie-Reynal’s team have so far found no trace of the definitive legion camp. Her own team has also failed to find any significant evidence of fortification.
Project on Hold
"We have been looking for city walls and I must confess that we have not found any," she says. That in itself is interesting, she explains, because it suggests that people crossed the river freely between east and west.
During its most recent dig, which ended in October 2000, the 40-strong French-Turkish team shared the field with three others: an all-Turkish team, a British team, and an Italian team of restoration experts. All four are working in collaboration, but at the moment they have been forced to put down their tools while the Turkish authorities decide their fate.
At Zeugma, the area above the newly formed lake is not inhabited, but for excavations to go ahead the government must pay compensation to the local farmers who own it — as was the case in the very first excavations. According to Leriche, past experience has shown that the official machinery moves slowly. "The fields were very slowly expropriated and the peasants frequently did not accept the diggings," he comments.
The Birecik Dam was first proposed as part of a system of 15 dams that, when completed in 2013, is expected to redirect the waters of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris to irrigate approximately two million hectares of farmland in eastern Turkey. Leriche regrets that when plans for the dams were initially put forward, greater efforts were not made to persuade the Turkish authorities to build Birecik elsewhere.
Work in Progress
But Abadie-Reynal points out that at that stage nobody had any idea of the treasures waiting to be discovered, and she is philosophical about the flooding of the two cities. "It is the nature of rescue operations that you can’t save everything," she says. Her objectives were to learn about the organisation of the cities and to determine how the melting pot of Greek, Roman and indigenous Semitic and Parthian cultures shaped their life and architecture.
With the help of computers and digital cameras, in part funded by the Rolex Award, she has done just that. "What’s very interesting about Zeugma is that you can see several influences, particularly in the domestic architecture, which are quite original," she says.
Even after the flooding of the valley there is plenty more work to be done. The legion camp, for instance, may turn out to be hidden on the plateau above the water. The city’s archive chamber, from which more than 65,000 clay seals have already been removed, is also in the preserved part of the site, as are a large square, the remains of a theatre, and a number of basilicas and unexplored villas. The temple of the goddess Tyche, whose likeness appears on the coins of Zeugma, has yet to be excavated.
There is no dam threatening these antiquities, and no great hurry to save them. The only potential obstacle now, it seems, is a bureaucratic one. Abadie-Reynal remains hopeful that when the authorities make their decision, it will be in her favour.
Published in 2001