Until 2005 most people viewed Gaziantep as a mere transit point en route to supposedly more interesting places in Southeastern Turkey -- such as the colossal statues atop Mt. Nemrut or Urfa’s pools of Abraham.
All that changed with the completion and opening in June of that year of the massive new wing of the city’s archaeological museum. Built to house the magnificent finds from the nearby Hellenistic/ Roman city of Zeugma, Gaziantep and its museum now boast one of the premier collections of Roman mosaics anywhere in the world.
Not only is the quality of workmanship of the mosaics superb, so is the way in which they are exhibited. Central to the museum is a partial recreation, using original materials, of a room from a Roman villa at Zeugma. The intricate mosaic floor is surrounded by its original colonnade, and sections of amazingly well-preserved fresco complete the scene. In total there are over 800 square meters of mosaic on display at the museum, all imaginatively lit and well explained with information boards in Turkish and English.
What makes the museum even more remarkable is the fact that everything you see could so easily have been lost forever. In 1995 two French archaeologists had been given a six-week permit to dig the site of Zeugma, some 20 kilometers east of Gaziantep, on the west bank of the mighty Euphrates. With only five days remaining and little to show for their efforts, they uncovered a mosaic floor. Permission was granted to extend the excavations, and a race against the clock began to salvage as much of possible of what was clearly a major archaeological site before it was submerged under the waters of the Birecik dam. A frenzied effort by a massive international team in 2000 ensured that many of the mosaics were, indeed, rescued.
Zeugma (“bridge” or “link” in Greek) was founded in 300 B.C. by a successor of Alexander the Great, Seleucus Nicator. A principle crossing point of the Euphrates, it lay on a major trade route between India and the Mediterranean. In the Roman era it became a frontier town -- both a barrier and a conduit between the Roman Empire and Parthian Persia. Zeugma was, naturally enough given its frontline position; a garrison town. However it also developed as a major trading center, bringing it immense wealth.
For the prosperous merchants of the first and second century A.D. in Zeugma, what better way to spend their money than on their homes? Just like their counterparts today, Zeugma’s rich showed off their wealth by having big, showy houses built in the best parts of town (in Zeugma the most expensive plots were those closest to the river on its west bank). These wealthy patrons got together with their architect to come up with a design to their taste -- and when it came to the interior an integral part of most rooms was a mosaic floor.
It is these mosaic floor panels that you can see exhibited so wonderfully in the museum today. Choosing a mosaic floor was a little like choosing a carpet today -- you made your decision based on style and price. Master craftsmen, complete with their pattern books, were attracted from Antioch (modern Antakya) which had a famous mosaic “school.” Once patron, architect and mosaic master had agreed on the design, the craftsmen could get to work.
The first stage was to lay the floor. This comprised of four layers -- large crushed boulders at the base, then a bed of finer boulders topped with a layer of cement. Next came a lime mortar screed, which could be kept damp and “workable” for four days. The top and final layer was made up, of course, of the tiny pieces of stone known as tessarae, which formed the mosaic itself. Fourteen different types of local stone were used in the mosaics at Zeugma, supplemented by terracotta fired at varying temperatures to give different tones. Different colored glass tessarae were occasionally employed for different effects.
When you look at some of the scenes depicted in the mosaics at the museum, it is hard to believe that they are made up of tiny stone tablets, so fine is the workmanship. Many different craftsmen worked on the large mosaic floors at Zeugma. The least skilled and inexperienced were given the job of doing the plain borders and geometric work. Better craftsmen worked on plant and animal scenes. Next up the skill ladder were architectural scenes. Human figures were the preserve of the most skilled and experienced, but even here the work was ranked by degree of difficulty. The less talented worked on hands and arms, leaving the master craftsmen to do the faces. Just take a look at the fragment of mosaic which has rapidly become the symbol, not only of the museum, but of Gaziantep itself -- the so-called “gypsy girl.” Her eyes are expressiveness incarnate and appear to follow you as you walk across the room in front of her.
Most of the mosaics feature beautifully wrought scenes from Greek mythology and legend. Ariadne (the beautiful daughter of King Minos of Crete, treacherously dumped on the island of Naxos by the arrogant Theseus, whom she had helped kill the man-eating Minotaur) is depicted at her wedding with her savior -- Dionysus, god of wine. Achilles, dressed as a woman by his protective mother, Thetis, to prevent him being sent to fight at Troy, is found out when he can’t resist reaching out for weapons proffered to him by the wily Odysseus. Given Zeugma’s riverside location, its wealthy inhabitants were particularly fond of scenes depicting water deities. Most impressive of these is a panel showing Poseidon, second only to Zeus in the Greek pantheon of gods, emerging from the water above Oceanus and Tethys, who were believed to have had 3,000 daughters and 3,000 sons.
There is a wealth of other interesting exhibits in the museum. Perhaps the most spectacular is the large and incredibly well-preserved bronze statue of the Roman god of war, Mars -- also from Zeugma. The audio-visual display, which gives an entertaining 15-minute account of the history, rediscovery and rescue excavations at Zeugma, makes an ideal way to start your tour of this wonderful museum.
It is possible to visit the site of Zeugma (or at least the upper part, as the rest is underwater) but there is little of interest unless you are an expert. This may well change, as excavations continue and there are even plans to turn the site into an archaeological park. In the meantime, however, it’s a pleasant spot -- with the waters of the dam lapping at your feet and birds singing in the olive trees. With the memories of the wonderful collection of mosaics from Zeugma you have just seen in Gaziantep archaeological museum, it’s easy enough to conjure up the ghosts of this once rich and powerful city on the Euphrates frontier.