ARTICLE: OZGEN ACAR PHOTO: ONDER DURMAZ
Stories Worked In Stone
The Zeugma Mosaics
The Zeugma mosaics unearthed at Nizip display the finest workmanship in the world. They await visitors now in the new building of the Gaziantep Museum.
T wo thousand years after sinking into oblivion, a few years ago the ancient city of Zeugma was suddenly jolted awake. Founded on the fertile banks of the Euphrates River, which gave life to so many pre-historic civilizations, it flourished under the Commagene Kingdom and grew to enormous size with the coming of the Roman Empire. Following the damage inflicted on it by the invading Sasanian state, it soon drifted into a deep slumber. Until, that is, excavations got under way some two millennia later. Once one of the world’s largest cities, Zeugma, albeit smaller now, is alive and well once again, this time under the roof of the Gaziantep Museum—the world’s largest mosaic museum, which surpasses even the Bardo of Tunus and the Antakya Museums in the ancient city of Antioch. And each of the mosaics, which are worked in colorful stones like fine embroidery, has a story to tell. In one you find yourself in the middle of the Trojan War, in another in thrall to the ‘Gypsy Girl’s piercing eyes.
FROM POSEIDON TO APHRODITE
Zeugma, which was founded in the 3rd-4th century B.C. by Seleucus Nicator I, one of Alexander the Great’s commanding generals, is situated at one of the easiest fording places on the Euphrates. Hence its name, ‘Zeugma’, which means ‘bridgehead’ or ‘crossing place’. Thanks to its strategic situation on an east-west axis, it quickly grew and developed, becoming one of the four major cities of the Commagene Kingdom founded in the 1st century B.C. in the post-Hellenistic period. When the region came under Roman hegemony, one of the empire’s thirty legions was stationed here, the 4th Scythian. Its presence fuelled trade, trade in turn brought wealth, and when that wealth attracted artists, Zeugma became a metropolis of 70 thousand people. On the banks of the Euphrates merchants built villas with a perfect view of the sunset. And in the courtyards of those villas they added refreshing, mosaic-paved pools. With their mosaics depicting Poseidon, Oceanus, Tethys and the river gods, these villas on the banks of the Euphrates transformed Zeugma into a virtual fine arts museum. Swelling shortly to twice the size of London and three times that of Pompeii, the city rivalled the Athens of its day. It is some of these mosaics, which date back to that period and are exhibited today at the Gaziantep Museum, that draw attention for their scenes depicting tales from mythology. Mosaics portraying, for example, the rise of Venus-Aphrodite from a sea shell, or the family of Achilles trying to deter the great hero from going off to war where he will slay the Trojan prince Hector, or Bacche, dancing in honor of Dionysus’ return from India with Nike, the god of victory, to name just a few. Meanwhile a mosaic depicting the comedy, ‘Women at Breakfast’, by the ancient dramatist Menander, against a
stage-set background, bears the signature of the well-known artist Zosimus.
But the most interesting mosaic at Zeugma is, without doubt, that of a Maenad, in other words, a wild dancing girl at a Dionysian festival. To visitors she is ‘the Gypsy Girl’, whose smoldering eyes, like those of the Mona Lisa, seem to follow you from whichever angle you look
There are many properties that make the Zeugma mosaics unmatched in the world. If the quality of carpets is judged by the number of knots per square centimeter and the vividness of the colored threads that are used, then a similar criterion distinguishes mosaics. The smaller the ‘tesserae’ or tiny stones that are used, the more beautiful the mosaic. The masters of Zeugma, for example, used 400 teserrae to reflect emotion in a human face. Similarly, while four or five different colors might be used in other mosaics, in the Zeugma mosaics this number rises to 12 or 13. And the artists’ use of various shades of color added further depth to the images. Yet another feature that renders the Zeugma mosaics unique is perspective, which was employed in these masterpieces at least a thousand years before its discovery by the painters of the Italian Renaissance. It is also noteworthy that, like modern painters, most mosaic artists signed their works.
An 850 square-meter portion of the 1500 square meters of mosaics unearthed in the excavations has been restored today. Some 550 square meters of these are on exhibit in the museum, where 120 square meters of a 150-square-meter mural are also on view for history buffs.
FIRST IN THE WORLD WITH 100 THOUSAND BULLS
But the pleasures of life enjoyed by the residents of Zeugma around their mosaic-studded pools came to an end in the 3rd century A.D. As Rome’s power waned, the city was first attacked by the Sasanian King Shapour I and later destroyed completely by a powerful earthquake. The seat of a bishopric in the Byzantine period, it fell into the deep sleep we mentioned earlier when the last bishopric came to an end in 1048. In 1999 excavations commenced to save Zeugma, known today as the village of Belkıs in Nizip townshisp of Gaziantep province. For this still somnolent ancient city was about to be inundated by the flood waters of the Birecik Dam. Time was short. As the dam rose, Gaziantep Museum Director Dr. Rıfat Ergeç and archaeologist Mehmet Önal worked day and night summer and winter in a race against time. A French team headed by Catherine A. Reynal joined in the excavations. In the fall of 2000, it was announced that the riverside villas identified as ‘Strip A’ were to be inundated. The excavations were therefore accelerated and a portion of these structures was saved. Scholarly studies in the region are continuing apace. But the wealth of the Gaziantep Museum, where the works rescued in the excavations are on exhibit today, is not limited only to mosaics and murals. Following an intervention by Deputy Museum Director Fatma Bulgan, a 1.55-meter tall bronze statue of Mars is also being exhibited under special lighting and protected by laser security. Important findings that illustrate the economy and modes of communication of the period form another aspect of the museum displays. The ‘bulls’, for example, seals imprinted in clay for enclosing documents prior to dispatching them to their destination, constitute one of the museum’s greatest treasures. With the discovery of close to a hundred thousand of these seals in the excavations, Zeugma now claims first place in the world, surpassing the islands of Crete and Delos which held the previous world record with 21 thousand such bulls.
The upshot is that Zeugma, despite war, destruction and the passage of time, preserves her place as a mystery of the first order even today...