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Zeugma – also Seleucia, Seleuceia, Seleukheia, Seleukeia, Seleukeia Euphrates, and Selevkaya Euphrates – is an ancient city of Commagene; currently located in the Gaziantep Province of Turkey It is a historical settlement which is considered among the four most important settlement areas under the reign of the kingdom of Commagene.

Historical background

In the Hellenistic Era the city was called Seleukeia of Euphrates. The ancient city of Zeugma, originally, was founded by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the generals of the Alexander the Great, in 300 BC. At that time the city was named after the general and called Selevkaya Euphrates. And the population in the city was approximately 80,000.

In 64 BC Zeugma was conquered and ruled by the Roman Empire and with this shift the name of the city was changed into Zeugma to mean "bridge-passage" or "bridge of boats". During the Roman rule, the city became one of the attractions in the region, due to its commercial potential originating from its geostrategic location. Because the city was on the Silk Road connecting Antioch to China with a quay or pontoon bridge across the river Euphrates.

In 256, Zeugma experienced an invasion and it was fully destroyed by the Sassanid king, Shapur I. The invasion was so dramatic that Zeugma was not able to recover and thrive for a long time. To make the situation even worse, a violent earthquake hit the city and buried it beneath rubble. Indeed, the city never gained the prosperity once achieved during the Roman rule.

In 4th century, Zeugma and environs became a Late Roman territory. During the 5th and 6th centuries the city was ruled over by the Early Byzantium domination. As a result of the ongoing Arab raids the city was abandoned ance again. Later on, in the 10th and 12th centuries a small Abbasid residence settled in Zeugma.

Finally a village called Belkis was founded in the 17th century. Later on Belkis/Zeugma became one of the four major attractions of the Kingdom of Commanage.

Legio IV Scythica

During the Roman Era, the Legio IV Scythica was camped in Zeugma. For about two centuries the city was home to high ranking officials and officers of the Roman Empire, who transferred their cultural understanding and sophisticated life style into the region. Thus the military formation acquired a Roman character and gave rise to an artistic trend of necropolis sculpture. In this respect, samples of beautiful art appeared in the form of steles, rock relieves, statues and altars. This unique trend in sculpture and art made the newly emerging Zeugma art well recognized in whole region. Zeugma became considerably rich, owing to the liveliness created by Legion formation. At that time, there was a wooden bridge connecting Zeugma to the city of Apamea on the other side of Euphrates, and current excavations revealed that there was a big customs and a considerable amount of border trade in the city.

The proof for this assumption came from the findings in the excavations carried out in “Iskele üstü.” In this site 65,000 seal imprints (in clay) called “Bulla”, were found in a place which is believed to serve as the archives for the customs of ancient Zeugma. The seal imprints used in sealing papyrus, parchment, moneybags and customs bales are good indication of volume of the trade and the density of transportation and communication network once established in the region.

Recent Excavations and The Legacy of Ancient Zeugma

In 1987 Gaziantep Museum excavated two tomb chambers which had been broken into by antiquity smugglers in the necropolis southwest of Zeugma, revealing fresco on the walls and statues on the terraces in front of the chambers. These statues are now in Gaziantep Museum. In 1992 the watchman at the site, Nusret Özdemir, reported renewed illegal activity here, and a trench dug by antiquity hunters was discovered in the centre of the city. Excavations commenced on the same spot by a team from Gaziantep Museum led by director Rifat Ergeç uncovered a Roman villa and magnificent mosaic pavements. The 1st century AD villa consisted of galleries around an atrium with eight columns and rooms behind the galleries. The mosaic which adorned the villa's gallery depicted the marriage of Dionysus, god of wine and grapes, to Ariadne. Sadly, six of the ten figures portrayed in this mosaic were stolen on 15 June 1998.

In further excavations here, in which David Kennedy from Australia participated in 1993, part of the central panel of the mosaic pavement belonging to the terrace of another villa turned out to have been stolen long since - probably around 1965 - so the two figures are missing from the knees upwards.The missing mosaic fragment was later found to be in the Menil Collection at Rice University in the city of Houston. The two figures seated side by side in this mosaic are the two legendary lovers, Metiokhos and Parthenope. At the request of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, the stolen fragment was returned, and the complete mosaic can now be seen in Gaziantep Museum.

When mosaic fragments were discovered during construction of the Birecik Dam wall which commenced in 1996, Gaziantep Museum had the work halted while excavations were carried out that revealed a Roman bath and gymnasium, and 36 mosaic panels which were added to the museum collection. In 1997, on the clay quarry area in front of the dam wall a large bronze age cemetery was discovered and excavated. Nearly eight thousand pottery vessels were found in 320 graves going back to the early bronze age. The museum staff worked unceasingly through the winter of 1998-1999, uncovering such important and beautiful finds as the Akratos and Gypsy Girl Mosaic and 65,000 bulla (seal imprints in clay) in an archive room at İskeleüstü, making Gaziantep Museum possessor of the largest bulla collection in the world.

In 1999, in a building in the lower quarter of the city, mosaics depicting the head of Dionysus and Oceanos and Tethys with sea creatures were discovered. From 1996 onwards, with the threat of being submerged under the waters of the new dam, salvage excavations were carried out by C. Abadie Reynal of Nantes University in France together with archaeologists from Gaziantep and Sanliurfa museums. In 1999 a mosaic pavement depicting the mythological Minos bull was discovered at Mezarliküstü, and at the end of the excavation season further mosaics were visible at the thresholds of other rooms. Not wishing to leave the mosaics at the mercy of the treasure hunters who are so active in the area, Gaziantep Museum’s acting director Fatma Bulgan decided to carry on with excavations through the winter months. Despite difficult weather conditions they went on to uncover a fountain with its own tank at a depth of three metres, and a marble figure of Apollo, as well as another mosaic pavement with nine figures depicting Achilles being taken by Odysseus to fight in the Trojan War.

Also during salvage excavations under Mehmet Önal, an archaeologist from Gaziantep Museum, two more Roman villas were uncovered. These villas, which stood side by side, were burned and razed by the Sassanids in 252. The fact that they lay under three metres of rubble had protected them from treasure hunters, and their frescos, mosaics and other artifacts were almost completely intact. A bronze statue of Mars, which aroused increased media interest in Zeugma, was found amongst storage jars in the larder of one of the villas. Altogether seventeen mosaic pavements have been revealed in the villas, whose walls were decorated with colourful frescoes. Excavations of Zeugma have been divided into three areas, initial priority being given to salvage and documentation in Zone A, which sank under the dam waters in early July. Work then moved on to Zone B, which will be submerged in October 2000 when the dam water reaches its maximum level of 385 metres. Zone C, on the other hand, consists of the higher parts of the city which will not be affected by the new dam. Zeugma is one of the foremost of Turkey’s archaeological and historic sites, and the attention focused upon it from all over the world will undoubtedly continue over the years ahead.

Oceanus and Tethys, Zeugma Mosaic

Oceanus and Tethys, Zeugma Mosaic, made between the 1st and 2nd centuries

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