Looking at the map of Syria, it is very obvious that most of its cities are concentrated in the west, along or close to the Mediterranean Sea. As soon as we turn to the east, the landscape becomes pretty desolate till we reach the Euphrates River where a narrow stretch of land on either side is being cultivated thanks to irrigation. The only road here follows the bends of the river, dotted with occasional settlements frozen in timeless time.
The Romans handily used the river as a natural frontier and built an entire string of forts in the style of the “limes” along the Rhine River, the Arabic Limes. They needed them as a protection against possible invasions, mainly by the Sassanids from Persia. Looking at the map, we find a succession of towns and strongholds that were erected on this western side of the Euphrates River. Starting upstream, I read names like Zeugma, Hierapolis, Barablissos (on Lake Assad), Sura (where the Euphrates turns east), Rasaffa, Halabiye, Dura Europos, all the way down to Babylon in today’s Iraq. I think it is worthwhile to take a closer look at these names to see what they are standing for and what heritage they have left for us.
Although there may have been some kind of a fort at this location, it is generally agreed that Zeugma was founded by Seleucos I Nicator one of Alexander’s generals, in 300 BC under the name of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. It was a strategic location on the trade route to the east connecting Antioch-on-the-Orontes with China. In 64 BC this prosperous city was conquered by the Romans who named it Zeugma, meaning as much as “bridge of boats”, probably because of the pontoon bridge that ran across the Euphrates River, which constituted at that time the border with the Persian Empire.
It is known that in 66 AD, the Romans had a special legion (the Fourth Legion Scythica) stationed at Zeugma to protect their empire against invasions from the Parthians and Armenians. The soldiers must have spent their money lavishly if we consider the wealth in mosaics and frescos that have been discovered. By the time the Commagene Empire was annexed by the Romans in 72 AD, the city reached its highest prosperity and the population must have risen up to 80,000 people at least. But like always, good times don’t last and in 256, Zeugma was invaded by the Sassanid King Shapur I with catastrophic consequences from which the city never recovered, especially since its decline was amplified by the violent earthquake that buried most of it. During the 5th and 6th century it became part of the Byzantine Empire and after ongoing Arab raids, it was abandoned once again. We had to wait till the 10th and 12th century for a small Abbasid town to arise in Zeugma.
Zeugma reached headlines in 1990 when the Dam of Ataturk on the Euphrates was completed as part of the huge GAP-project that covers both the Euphrates and the Tigris. This is the fourth largest dam in the world and belongs with 22 others to this project developed to irrigate a territory as large as Belgium. Thousands of people were expelled from their homes and lands as the remains of old Zeugma were flooded forever. Archaeologists from everywhere scrambled to save whatever they could before the river and sediments would obliterate the ruins. Personally, I consider such an act of destruction unforgivable. A proud city that withstood eons has to make way for money and politics, more so if you consider that a dam has an average lifespan of 30 to 40 years after which the irrigated lands becomes worthless because of the heavy alkali (salt) deposits in the soil. Besides, other countries located downstream of the Euphrates like Syria, Iran and Iraq are claiming and fighting for their share of the water, with little result I’m afraid.
The excavation work done in extremis at Zeugma has brought many gorgeous mosaics to light which have been transferred to the nearby museum in Gaziantep. A few remains of plastered and painted walls have also been saved, together with some columns, statues, and all kinds of smaller household objects, coins, etc.
The mosaics, however, are of exceptional quality and very well preserved. They mainly pertain to one single villa with an endless number of rooms paved with familiar scenes of gods and goddesses. For instance, Poseidon, Oceanus and his sister/wife Tethys; a large floor mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys together; the classical birth of Aphrodite; Perseus who saved Andromeda from a certain death; a very lively scene of Daidalos and his son Ikarios; a picture of Demeter from a doorway; the river god Acheloos, King of Euphrates on one of the frames; a very colorful rendering of the wedding of Dionysus; a clearly Roman representation of Eros and Psyche; an absolutely fascinating gipsy girl, Gaia, with penetrating eyes; another Dionysus, this time with Bakkha under supervision of Niké; a devilish portrait of Silenos, companion of Dionysus ; another image of Methiokos who was in love with Partenope; the god of the Euphrates in all his majesty; Achilles (Akhilleus) from a courtyards that once held a central fountain; a vivid portrait of Europa; Poseidon on his horse-drawn chariot with a bust of Oceanus and Tethys in the foreground; and many, many more. I had to scramble to see them all within the allotted time for the museum visit, and I didn’t want to miss the various wall-frescos that were put back in their original place around the pertaining floor-mosaics. An exquisite collection that is absolutely worth a visit by itself!
According to the latest news, there may still be some parts of Zeugma that remain visible to the anxious tourist but I have not been there yet to see them for myself. I think I was lucky after all to have paid a visit to the majestic collection at the Museum of Gaziantep!