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The BBC's Chris Morris
"A race against time"
 real 28k

Friday, 19 May, 2000, 18:50 GMT 19:50 UK
Turkish dam threatens Roman dig
Zeugma ruins
A world-class historical site about to be flooded
By Ankara correspondent Chris Morris

Archaeologists in south-eastern Turkey are working round the clock to save the ancient Roman site of Zeugma from flooding by a new dam.

Serious excavation of the Zeugma ruins began only nine months ago.

It has already revealed about 60 mosaics dating from the first and second centuries AD, including some of the finest ever found.

The ruins are situated on the edge of the swelling Birecik Dam, part of a vast chain of hydro-electric projects which Turkey is building on the Euphrates River.

Time-capsule

The proposed Ilisu Dam, which has already caused international controversy, is part of the same scheme.


I wanted to save everything before it was flooded. But this is state policy.

Museum director Hakki Alkan

Zeugma was a rich garrison town on the eastern edge of the Roman empire. It was destroyed by fire, invasion and an earthquake.

Since then, the remains have been undisturbed for centuries, preserved like a time-capsule by an ultra-dry climate.

When archaeologists began excavating, they could not believe what they had found: twelve peerless mosaics in just two villas.

There could be dozens more hidden beneath the surface.

Lack of money

Vivid scenes from Greek mythology emerged from under piles of rubble: one showed the Sea God Poseidon on his chariot with the water deities Thetis and Oceanus.

As the dust is wiped away, the glory of ancient Rome sparkles into life.

Map
Zeugma was on the edge of the Roman empire

Yusuf Yavas, one of the archeologists working on the site, says he considers Zeugma comparable with the ancient town of Pompei in southern Italy.

"Nearly all the rooms have mosaics on the floor. The 100 villas became 1,000 square metres of mosaics," he says.

But much of the city will be submerged before excavation can begin. Asked why it started so late, Mr Yavas blames lack of money.

"There was not enough interest. We could not find any sponsors."

Bronze statue of Mars

Now the mosaics are being removed by expert art restorers to a museum in the nearby city of Gaziantep.

They are covered in white fabric, and then cut into carefully chosen pieces.

One of the experts, Jelal Kucuk, says the work is difficult because there are so many intricate figures on the mosaics. He cannot understand why the dam project is not being delayed.

Zeugma mosaic
The glory of ancient Rome

A bronze statue of the war god Mars was found a couple of weeks ago.

The recovered works are simply stacked in a garden outside - waiting to be pieced back together.

The museum's acting director, Hakki Alkan, says nobody had any idea what was hidden in the ruins of Zeugma. And now there is nothing they can do to save it.

Ironically the minister of tourism, Erkan Mumcu, decided to pay a visit to Zeugma, shortly before it disappears under 15m under water.

The local media scrambled through the ruins, to the dismay of the archeologists who feel they are losing valuable time.

But the official view is that there is more than enough to excavate on the top of the hill.

Local residents

As for the local people living in the nearby village of Belkis, they have other concerns: their homes are threatened by the dam.

Several villagers said they had only received a fraction of the compensation promised by the state.


Of course we value history. But human beings are more important.

Villager Mahmut Ozdemir

"Of course we value history", says Mahmut Ozdemir. "But human beings are more important. We're talking about newborn babies and old people here - you can see them all up on the mountains."

One villager has been knocking down his own house. He will sell the bricks and timber before it disappears under water.

The school building there has almost gone - the modern village of Belkis is sharing the fate of its Roman ancestor.

Excavation at Zeugma will continue until the water starts to seep into the ruins. Then, if the money does not run out, new digs will begin higher up the hill.

As well as priceless mosaics, the ruins have already yielded the largest collection of Roman seal impressions ever found.

But time is running out to find any more mosaics.

Within weeks, a world-class historical site will disappear under a man-made lake.

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See also:

22 Jan 00 | Europe
Turkish dam controversy
26 Feb 00 | Middle East
Iraq and Syria resume ties
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