A Race to Save Roman Splendors From Drowning

Buoyed by a $5 million grant from an American foundation, the team hopes to dig up mosaics and artifacts, and to create a historical park and resort.

A new lake is being formed as water from the Euphrates River backs up behind a new dam. Turkey is in the midst of a huge dam-building project that is to provide electric power for the country's booming economy and irrigation for parched farmland in southeastern provinces.

The ruins here are those of Zeugma, an important Roman garrison town on the ancient Silk Road. Trade made many of its merchants wealthy, and they decorated the floors of their villas with elaborate mosaics.

Experts say there may be hundreds of exquisite mosaics under the dusty hills, along with a rich trove of other artifacts.

Although archaeologists have been working here sporadically for more than 20 years, they began intensive work only recently after realizing that the inundation was imminent. It quickly became clear that Zeugma was a far more bountiful site than most specialists had realized, but by then it was too late to stop the flooding.

Belkis, the town that once stood below the Zeugma site, has already disappeared under the new lake. A new Belkis is being built on a nearby hillside, but many residents are embittered by what they say is the government's indifference to their plight.

News accounts of the flooding of Zeugma have appeared in many countries. Hardly a day goes by without a foreign journalist or television team appearing here.

In Gaziantep, the nearest city, more than 1,000 tourists have arrived in the last few weeks, according to hotel managers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers. Before the wave of publicity, they said, it was a rare month when even a dozen tourists came.

Some Turkish archaeologists and government officials seem uncomfortable with the clamor from abroad, apparently viewing it as a form of interference that borders on insult. Directors of the Gaziantep archaeology museum, where artifacts dug up at Zeugma are piled high, scorned an American philanthropist, Shawn Estes, who appeared here two weeks ago and offered the museum a gift of $20,000. They also refused to allow him to work as a volunteer at the site, and when he addressed the local Rotary Club he was accused of harboring a secret plan to steal mosaics.

''I suggested that he ask permission from the Directorate of Museums in Ankara if he wanted to work or donate money,'' said Kemal Sertok, who is coordinating work at the site. ''In Turkey we only employ staff archaeologists.''

The authorities have, however, accepted a $5 million grant from a California-based foundation, the Packard Humanities Institute. Louise Schofield, who represents the foundation here, said it might donate more money in the future.

''Our work is going to be in three phases,'' she said. ''First is the rescue excavation of the area that will be covered by water after Oct. 4. Then there will be a very large conservation program in cooperation with the Turkish team. And then, in the long term, there is a plan to turn this site into a major archaeological park.''

With at least 10 more dams scheduled to be built in southeastern Turkey in the coming decades, conflict between advocates of economic development and historical preservation may grow.

The next focus of this conflict is likely to be Hasankeyf, a historical town 260 miles east of here that is to be inundated in a few years.

A British company has won the contract to build the dam at Hasankeyf, but opponents are waging a vocal campaign in Britain. When they invited the mayor of Hasankeyf to attend one of their protest rallies in London, the Turkish authorities advised him not to go, and he canceled his trip.

''We're hoping to defuse this sense of confrontation,'' said Richard Hodges, a British archaeologist who is helping to direct the Zeugma excavation. ''I'm interested in preserving culture, but I also like to drink water and use electricity. If we can make this project work, it can be a model for Turkey's future.''

But some Turkish preservationists reject the idea of such compromises. ''The appropriate lessons should be drawn from this and newly planned dam projects should be halted,'' said Asket Tibet, general secretary of the Archaeologists' Association.

That call was echoed by the general secretary of the History Association, Orhan Silier. ''The world's leading historians are trying to reinterpret history by using findings from these regions,'' Mr. Silier said. ''Yet we leave them under water.''

It is still unclear, and may be for years, how much of Zeugma is being lost. Some specialists believe it may be less than 10 percent. Others say there is no way of being sure, since an unknown portion of the city is already under water and no one is certain how much remains buried beneath the adjacent hills.

Photo: Local workers clearing away soil from an ancient Roman villa at the Zeugma archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Part of the site is under water because of the waters rising behind a Euphrates dam. (Staton R. Winter/Liaison, for The New York Times)


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