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ARTICLE: Doç. Dr. ŞEVKET DÖNMEZ PHOTO: SANER ŞEN
The lost treasure of Edessa
Discovered by chance during an urban infrastructure project, the Haleplibahçe mosaic was rescued in an excavation undertaken by the Şanlıurfa Museum. It is one of the finest examples of mosaics from the East.
A FORTUNATE COINCIDENCE
The Haleplibahçe mosaics, which were discovered by chance when struck by a bulldozer during an urban infrastructure project and subsequently rescued in an excavation by the Şanlıurfa Museum, are among the finest examples of mosaics in the Eastern world. Due to the large number of mosaics in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions, the art of the mosaic and its use was regarded until recently as evidence of superior Western taste. But high quality mosaics have now been found in the Euphrates basin, in close proximity at Zeugma (near Nizip) and Haleplibahçe, showing that the art of the mosaic was at least as much a part of Eastern culture as of Western. At Zeugma, for example, a ‘limes’ or border town on the banks of the Euphrates, specimens have been uncovered that are of even greater beauty and higher quality than the mosaic masterpieces in the Roman villas known as terrace houses in the ancient city of Ephesus. The wealth brought to the region by trade is without a doubt the primary explanation for this.
THE EASTERN ADVENTURE OF THE AMAZON QUEENS
The most fascinating aspect of the Haleplibahçe mosaics, a high level product of refinement and taste created from incredibly tiny tesserae or small colored and shaped stones, is the extraordinarily natural appearance of the Amazon warrior queens of Greek mythology. A community of legendary women warriors thought to have lived under the rule of their queen in the city of Terme (Themiskyria) near the Thermodon River on the shores of the Black Sea, the Amazons were defeated in a battle with the Greeks as reported by Herodotus. Forcing the captured Amazons onto three ships, the Greeks set sail on the Pontos Euxenios or Black Sea. But the Amazons soon staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ships. Killing the Greeks and tossing their bodies overboard, the women, who were unfamiliar with the art of navigation, drifted on the open sea, eventually landing in all probability on the shores of what is today southern Russia, where they encountered and commingled with the Scythians. This story told by Herodotus offers clear evidence of a probable link between the Scythians and the Amazons.
As the most powerful group of Eurasian nomadic warrior horsemen to arrive in Anatolia starting in the 7th century B.C. upsetting political and economic balances, the Scythians very probably moved about together with their families. The women of these families were also highly skilled in the use of weapons and in warfare. So the Amazons that Herodotus describes and identifies as a separate people were none other than the Scythian women, who were fending off the Greeks while their menfolk were away at war.
THE STORY OF THE MOSAICS
Four Amazon queens, three of them also known by Greek names, form the subject of the Haleplibahçe mosaic. Usually depicted in war scenes in the representational art of antiquity, the Amazons are shown here in a hunting scene, a feature which again distinguishes this mosaic from all others in the world. Four Amazon queens are depicted separately in the mosaic, each one hunting. Each queen is depicted in a separate corner of the mosaic, two of them hunting on horseback, two on foot. In the top left section is Ares’ daughter, Queen Hippolyte. As she plunges her long sword into the neck of a panther, one hunting dog is attacking a panther and another an ostrich with its wings spread. The expression of pain on the panther’s blood-bathed face is extraordinary. The leopard in this hunting scene had been a fixture in Anatolian art since the earliest periods, and the animals that flank the throne of the famous Mother Goddess of Çatalhöyük are none other than leopards.
Below Hippolyte is Melanippe, on horseback hunting a lion into whose breast she is plunging the mace she holds in her hand. Similar hunting scenes are observed on stellae, sarcophagi and even pottery in Anatolia starting from the 6th century B.C. The Amazon queen, thought to be Antiope, depicted in the top right corner is struggling with a wild animal of uncertain identity using a double-edged ax known as a ‘labrys’ which she holds in her hand.
Another mounted Amazon is depicted holding a taut bow and arrow. It is not known however which animal she is aiming at since this portion of the mosaic has not yet been uncovered. The figure of a partridge in this hunting scene, perched on a rock with its right leg poised in mid-air and its head turned away, astonishes us with its naturalness, almost as if it is going to take wing momentarily and fly away. The appearance on this mosaic of the partridge figure, which is observed on Central Anatolian Iron Age pottery starting from the 6th century B.C., illustrates a strong continuity in the representational art of Anatolia.
The masked figure representing the face of a young girl, dubbed by the locals ‘the Edessa Beauty', which appears on the border around the mosaic is noteworthy for her innocent visage. Other parts of the border include dog, deer and duck figures flanked by two lotuses, and depictions of a wingless Eros.
NOT FAR FROM BALIKLIGÖL
Unearthing in its entirety the architectural structure or complex to which the Haleplibahçe mosaic belongs is essential for dating and making a sound assessment of the mosaic. The archaeological excavations to be mounted in the area where the mosaics are located, which is not far from the historic Balıklıgöl, will probably culminate in the emergence of a second Zeugma here in the Euphrates Basin.
The area where the mosaic is found is also important as the earliest indication of the texture and size of the ancient city of Edessa, which lies inside the modern city of Şanlıurfa today. Edessa was founded in 303/302 B.C. by the Seleucid dynasty. When the dynasty’s hegemony in the region waned, the Aramaeans founded a kingdom by the name of Osroene at Edessa in 132 B.C., and the city in later periods became a crucial ‘limes’ or border town for the Romans in their ongoing conflicts with the Parthians and the Persians.
Dating roughly, if not with certainty, to the 3rd to 5th centuries, the Haleplibahçe mosaic is not only the earliest example among the mosaics unearthed at Edessa to date, it is also equivalent to an economic portrait that reveals the city’s level of prosperity in the period as well as reflecting the flora and fauna of the surrounding area.