The ancient site of Belkıs/Zeugma was once an important city of the Commagene Kingdom. It is situated about 50 km from the modern city of Gaziantep, on the banks of the Euphrates. Its name derives from the bridge of boats that in ancient times connected the river banks in this place, forming one of the three major river crossings of the region. The significant part of this archaeological site is now lost under the waters of the Birecik Dam, and its most spectacular artefacts - the extraordinary mosaics - are now displayed in the magnificent Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep.
Zeugma started its existence as a Greek town, founded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the Diadochi, the friends of Alexander the Great who fought for control over his empire after his death in 323 BCE. In ancient times, the name Zeugma encompassed the twin cities, perching on both banks of the Euphrates. The western town was also known as Seleucia after the founder, while the eastern settlement was called Apamea as Seleucus' Persian wife name was Apama.
Zeugma was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 64 BCE and soon gained importance as a commercial centre with its geo-strategic location on the Silk Road. It was also situated at the eastern border of the empire while the Persian Empire occupied the vast lands to the east of Euphrates. Interestingly, Marcus Crassus crossed the Euphrates in Zeugma, on his ill-fated campaign against the Parthians.
During the first two centuries of the first millennium CE, Zeugma was also the military base of Legio IV Scythica. Soldiers, officers, and high-ranking officials of the Roman Empire significantly contributed to the city's development and prosperity
The city was invaded and destroyed by its eastern neighbours in 256 CE when the Sassanid king, Shapur I, attacked it. A massive earthquake helped to put an end to Zeugma's wealth and affluence, and the city never restored its previous prosperity. During the early Eastern Roman Empire period, Zeugma was still inhabited. Procopius mentions that Emperor Justinian built a wall around the city and strongly fortified it. Zeugma was abandoned in the 7th century because of the Arab raids.
In the 19th century, first excavations were conducted in Zeugma, and the artefacts discovered at that time can be seen the museums of Berlin and Saint Petersburg. The site started attracting more attention only in the 80-ties of the 20th century. In 1980, the Turkish Government announced the plans of building a dam at Birecik that would inundate Zeugma. The first scholar to alert the international community was Guillermo Algaze of the University of Chicago. He made a field study in the area and publicised the dam plans, but no foreign institution or university became interested in conducting rescue excavations.
The head of the Gaziantep Museum, Rifat Ergeç and his assistant Mehmet Önal, again alerted the international archaeological community in 1994, announcing the beginning of sporadic rescue excavations. They also received some support from the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Their work uncovered a Roman villa and magnificent mosaic pavements. The 1st century CE villa consisted of galleries around an atrium and rooms behind the galleries. The mosaic that adorned the villa's gallery depicted the marriage of Dionysus, god of wine and grapes. Therefore, the building is known as the Dionysus Villa.
The Turkish team, due to financial problems, could not conduct a systematic excavation. Finally, in 1995, the French Foreign Ministry jumped in and promoted the French archaeologist Catherine Abadie-Reynal of Nantes University with her staff at the Turkish rescue excavations until 1999. Reynal cooperated closely with archaeologists from Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa museums.
During the construction of the Birecik Dam, some mosaic fragments were found, so the work was halted as the excavations were carried out. They uncovered a Roman bath, gymnasium, and 36 mosaic panels. In 1997, a large early Bronze Age necropolis was discovered, with almost eight thousand pottery vessels in 320 graves. The archaeologists worked unceasingly through the winter of 1998–1999, uncovering the most widely recognised artefact from Zeugma - the famous Gypsy Girl Mosaic. Moreover, they found the astounding 65 thousand bullae - seal impressions - in an area that is believed to have served as the archives for the customs of ancient Zeugma.
In 1999, more mosaics were discovered, including the ones depicting the head of Dionysus, Oceanus, and Tethys, as well as the mythological Minotaur. Moreover, as the excavation season neared its completion, further mosaics became visible. Desperate to protect these riches from treasure hunters, Fatma Bulgan, the director of Gaziantep Museum, made a decision not to stop the works for winter, despite harsh weather conditions. The archaeologists were awarded for their efforts with further discoveries, including a fountain, a statue of Apollo, as a mosaic of Achilles joining Odysseus to fight in the Trojan War.
In 2000, the ruins of Zeugma were flooded by the Birecik Dam. On May 7, 2000, half a year before the flood, American patron David W. Packard read about Zeugma in the New York Times and spontaneously decided to support an emergency excavation. He immediately hired an English company, the Oxford Archaeological Unit under the direction of Robert Earley, Italian mosaic specialists, and a French team to rescue the most precious artefacts. Under pressure, 60 archaeologists and 200 workers worked at three excavation areas, thanks to a budget of five million dollars. Initial priority was given to salvage and documentation in Zone A that disappeared under the dam waters in early July. The archaeologists moved then to Zone B, scheduled for submersion in October 2000 when the water reached its maximum level. Zone C consists of the higher parts of the city that have not been affected by the dam.
As the result of these frantic emergency excavations, conducted from June to October 2000, 45 mosaics were found, 22 of them almost intact. Because of these fantastic finds, Zeugma was dubbed the "second Pompeii". The mosaics were first exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Gaziantep, but in May 2011, the specially built Zeugma Mosaic Museum was opened.
The site of Zeugma was inhabited in the Hellenistic and Roman era and consists of an ancient harbour which is currently excavated by a team of archaeologists and the remains of an ancient city with several buildings. The acropolis hill still rises above the waters of the Birecik Dam, with various piles of stones and some pillars.
The ancient harbour and the region of the acropolis are not accessible due to the archaeological excavations on that parts of the site. In addition, a specially built walkway has been made to reach a massive pair of hillside villas (the famous Dionysus and Danae buildings), protected by a vast metal hall complete with steps leading up to the various levels. They are reminiscent of the covered villas on the terraces of Ephesus. It is interesting to see the layout of the villas and be able to look down from above into the various rooms such as kitchens and bathrooms. Some rooms still have fragments of coloured frescoes on the walls and even more fragmentary sections of mosaic floor paving.
Most of the astonishing mosaics excavated on site are now on display in the magnificent Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep.
The site lies in a natural environment on the banks of the Euphrates river and is reachable via a good road that leads directly to the entrance of the site. The admission is free.
The site of Belkıs/Zeugma is situated about 56 km to the east of Gaziantep and is signposted from the village of Dutlu. There is no public transport to reach the site, so one has to go by car.
This publication has been co-authored by Michel Gybels and Iza Miszczak. All photos (c) Michel Gybels.