Rescue on the Euphrates

By Hodges, Richard | History Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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Rescue on the Euphrates


Hodges, Richard, History Today


AFTER APPEARING ON THE FRONT PAGE of the New York Times (`Dam in Turkey May Soon Flood A "2nd Pompeii"' on May 7th this year), as well as numerous other national newspapers, the Euphrates bridge-town of Zeugma, virtually unknown a few months ago, has witnessed a major rescue excavation on the lower terraces of the Graeco-Roman city as the waters from the $1.5 billion Biricek dam rose day-by-day. In the aftermath of the rescue project, all involved hope that the experience may provide a model as Turkey embarks upon work on ten more great hydro-electric dams in the archaeologically rich region between the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Zeugma was the most famous town along the upper Euphrates, principally because it was the site of the only bridge across the river between the Kurdish Taurus and Babylonia. Towns grew up either side of the bridge: to the west lay Zeugma, to the east, Apamea. The Hellenistic king of Syria, Antiochus III, held his wedding at Zeugma in 221 BC; 150 years later, the Armenian king, Tigranes the Great, ordered the execution of Cleopatra Selene, a Hellenistic princess, there. In 53 BC the Roman general Crassus led his legions across the bridge on his way to defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians. Here the East met the West, so appropriately it was the base of the Legion IV Scythica. In the mid-third century it was on the list of Roman cities sacked by the Sassanian king, Shapur I, as he swept down the Euphrates.

Little was known about this exceptional city until recently. In 1993 Professor David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia carried out trial excavations (published as `The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates', by the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I., 1998), followed by Catherine Abadie-Reynal of the University of Nantes who has excavated in several parts of the 200-hectare city, and using geo-physical methods, mapped the eastern bridgehead of Apamea before it was flooded in 1999.

The fate of the riverside terraces of Zeugma, which once looked eastwards across the great bridge, some 8 per cent of the ancient city, was sealed when Turkey decided to use the waters of the Euphrates to generate electricity and develop irrigation and drinking-water supplies in the region. The dam forms part of an ambitious network of similar projects in south-east Turkey, which, co-ordinated by GAP (Guneydogu Andolu Projesi), a state company situated in the Turkish prime minister's office, has effectively helped to transform this once backward region of the country. Unfortunately, only as the dam neared completion was the full extent of the archaeological promise apparent.

Last April, with the waters rising each day, the Franco-Turkish excavators encountered wonderfully preserved third-century mosaics in a town house in which the wall-paintings were preserved to ceiling height in some rooms. A fine veneer of charcoal covered many rooms, while the paintings on the lower walls were invariably scorched. Whole pots, small statues and even the iron rim of a chariot wheel came to light in the charcoal. Not surprisingly, news of these discoveries spread quickly. The Economist's Turkey correspondent was the first to put Zeugma's fate before an international audience; The New York Times then published its story in May. This attracted the attention of Dr David Packard, President of the Packard Humanities Institute, who contacted the President of GAP, Dr Olcay Unver, and, through fruitful negotiations, signed a memorandum of understanding on June 8th, which, with active support from Turkey's Ministry of Culture, led to a slowing up of the rising waters and the creation of an integrated collaborative project to rescue as much as possible with a professional archaeological team.

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