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Turkish Dam Threatens Ancient City

May 18, 2000

BELKIS, Turkey (AP) _ Restoration worker Mine Unsal is racing to salvage an ancient mosaic depicting the mythological sea god Poseidon as the waters of the Euphrates climb a foot a day behind her.

The mosaic pool, which also features the god Oceanus and a dozen colorful fish, eel and shrimp, is just one of 14 mosaics that have been discovered in the ancient Roman city of Zeugma.

Those mosaics, and thousands of other artifacts, could end up under water in as little as two weeks if Turkey does not delay filling the nearby Birecik dam. Already the water is just 90 feet from the site.

``Zeugma’s mosaics could rival those of the best museums of the world,″ said Mehmet Onal, who heads the excavations 18 miles north of Syria.

He wants the government to put off filling the dam for a few months so he can continue a dig that has uncovered 60,000 ceramic seals, elaborate Roman columns, frescoes, a bronze statue of Mars and 3,700 silver and bronze coins.

``This is just a drop in the ocean,″ said archaeologist Yusuf Yavas. ``We’ve only excavated two villas and what we have found is breathtaking.″

But Turkey appears unwilling to stop the flooding, which is part of a multibillion-dollar project to irrigate land, alleviate Turkey’s electricity shortage and create jobs.

With the dam 97 percent completed, delaying the filling would be difficult and would cost $30 million per month, officials say.

``I don’t think that the country has the luxury to afford a delay,″ said Yuksel Onaran, general manager of Birecik A.S., the company building the dam.

Faced with mounting pressure, Culture Minister Istemihan Talay has promised to expropriate pistachio tree fields on the upper terraces of Zeugma with donations from Birecik A.S. Parts of the city spared from the floods would be turned into an outdoor museum.

Countless treasures, however, would still disappear 50 feet beneath the river. ``A third of Zeugma will be lost to the Euphrates,″ Onal said.

But not everyone agrees on the importance of the site.

``We’re unlikely to learn anything new or advance our knowledge of the Roman era,″ said Toni Cross of the American Research Institute in Turkey. ``There are more important sites.″

Zeugma, Greek for bridge, was once a military outpost on the fringes of the Roman Empire and at its height is thought to have been bigger than Roman London or Pompeii.

The ancient Greeks and Romans ruled parts of Turkey for centuries, as did the Byzantine Empire, leaving artifacts in almost every corner of the country.

``Wherever you swing a pickax in Turkey a historic treasure splashes out,″ Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu said.

Turkey devotes much effort to reclaiming antiquities that have been smuggled abroad, but with just under 4 percent of its budget devoted to culture, many items are left unearthed or unprotected.

At Zeugma, where excavations began in October, Unsal covers the Poseidon mosaic with an adhesive cloth _ the first step before it is cut from the ground and placed in the nearby Gaziantep museum.

Another dam, meanwhile, has immersed the ancient city of Samosata, 45 miles away, where valuable Bronze Age tablets may have been lost. Construction of a dam on the Tigris river threatens Hasankeyf, a medieval city.

A few hundred yards from the digs, Nahide Ozdemir cannot understand what the fuss is about.

Her village, Belkis, is already half-submerged and nearly everyone else has moved away. She says her family has not been paid a fair price for their home and has nowhere to go.

``What do I care about the ruins,″ Ozdemir said. ``I am so worried about what will become of us.″

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