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Volume 49, Number 5September/October 1998

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Drowned Cities of the Upper Euphrates

All that [the gorges of Euphrates] contained—their hamlets and narrow watered gardens and pistachio trees thinned as if stylish against the binding of the cliffs—the first Assyrian builders; Antiochus' wedding; Sulla with the Parthians; Crassus in the storm and then the routine of the legions—all hung in the still air. —Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates

Written and photographed by David L. Kennedy

Freya Stark knew history and lyrical prose in equal measure. Setting the pageantry of the past against the silence of the present, she made reference to events linked to two of the grandest—and the least known—cities of classical antiquity: Samosata and Zeugma.

Today there are few major towns along the upper reaches of the Euphrates, but in Greek and Roman times this Turkish portion of western Asia's longest river was dotted with cities. One of the most thickly inhabited portions was a 500-kilometer (300-mi) stretch along the westernmost curve of the river's 2700-kilometer (1675-mi) course. The Romans called the province that included the riverbank cities Augusta Euphratensis.

Now, in accordance with the demands of modern Turkey's rapidly growing population, the 20th-century river is being dramatically altered, and the fate of the ruins of these historic Graeco-Roman cities is being sealed as well. The former Roman province is the heart of the Southeast Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish acronym, GAP, a massive scheme of 15 dams that, by 2013, will distribute the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris to irrigate some two million hectares (five million acres) of farmland throughout eastern Turkey.

The first stage of the project was completed in 1991 with the Atatürk Dam, the world's fifth largest. Since then, the lake that formed behind the dam has grown to 817 square kilometers (315 sq mi) in area, and has inundated Samosata, which lies 20 kilometers (12 mi) upstream, under some 120 meters (385') of water. By 2000, the flood-waters behind the Birecik Dam, under construction just a few minute's walk downstream from Zeugma, will rise above that city too.

In size, splendor and relative significance, Samosata and Zeugma stand out among the chain of what was perhaps a score of cities and towns that marked the ancient upper Euphrates in classical times. Both owe their colorful history to their distinctive locations.

One of the major trade routes of the Middle East linked the Arabian Gulf and the Iranian plateau at one end with the Mediterranean and Anatolia at the other. In passing through northern Mesopotamia, it divided in the vicinity of Carrhae, which in the Biblical story was known as Harran, the city where Abraham stayed on his migration from Ur to Canaan at the beginning of the second millennium BC. The branch to the northwest passed over the Taurus Mountains into Anatolia, and it crossed the Euphrates at Samosata; the branch to the west headed toward the Mediterranean, and crossed the river at Zeugma.

Samosata lay in a broad, shallow valley, where in the second century BC it was one of the four cities of the Commagenian kingdom. (See Aramco World, September/ October 1974.) This name is almost certainly the Greek adaptation—which the Romans did not change—of Kummuh, a name that appeared regularly in the annals of Assyrian kings who had attacked and captured what was, in the late eighth century BC, a town of the Neo-Hittite Empire. Hittite relief sculpture has been found at the site, and the wars probably reduced it to little more than a large village or small fortified town by the time of its final capture by Sargon in 708 BC. Sargon exchanged Samosata's population with rebellious subjects from Babylonia. His chronicle states,

"Mutallum of the land of Kummuhu, a wicked Hittite ... saw the approach of my expedition, left his city and was seen no more. That city ... I besieged, I captured. His wife, his sons, his daughters ... together with the people of his land, I tore away."1

In the last centuries BC, a notable city reemerges into the light of history. By 38 BC Samosata was sufficiently rich and secure to withstand a siege by Mark Antony, the greatest Roman general of the day. Perhaps more important, however, Samosata lay at a meeting point of empires and cultures. Over time it was inhabited by Iranians, Greeks and Semites, and intermarriage is well-documented, at least among the royal families of the Roman Near East.

The wealth of Commagene was notable, and it explains the size of the kingdom's capital city. In abandoning his siege of Samosata, Mark Antony saved face by demanding a huge indemnity—of which he likely received only a fraction, if any. The Roman historian Tacitus described Antiochus IV, who in the first century of our era was the last Commagenian ruler of Samosata, as having "great inherited wealth ... [and being] the richest client-king of all."

As Antiochus's name implies, the kings of Commagene, even into the Roman era, bore Greek names. Another remarkable feature of the public inscriptions of the dynasty is that all are in Greek; there are none in their own language, which was likely a dialect of Aramaic.

The philhellenism of Samosata went further still. When the Romans mustered troops from among their allies to suppress the First Jewish Revolt (66-70), Commagene provided not only 2000 archers and 1000 cavalry, but the crown prince, Antiochus Epiphanes, took personal command of the force,

"... bringing with him ... a bodyguard calling themselves 'Macedonians,' all of the same age, tall, just emerged from adolescence, and armed and trained in the Macedonian fashion, from which circumstance indeed they took their title, most of them lacking any claim to belong to that race."2

But the Commagenian dynasty had its Roman tendencies too. One of the most remarkable discoveries at Samosata was that large stretches of the city walls had been constructed in a style called opus reticulatum, or "net-work," a masonry pattern of small square bricks set diagonally that was fashionable in Roman Italy in the late first century BC, but rare anywhere in the East. Soon after this time, there are records showing that the royal family of Commagene was granted Roman citizenship, and the last Commagenian king was known officially as Gaius Julius Antiochus IV Epiphanes—a colorful mixture of imperial Roman and royal Macedonian Syrian nomenclature.

When Rome annexed the Commagenian kingdom in the year 72 of our era, making it part of the province of Syria, Antiochus was retired honorably to Rome, where his descendants assimilated into the highest ranks of the imperial aristocracy. His grandson was appointed consul at Rome in 109.

Under direct Roman rule, Samosata's fortunes over the following two centuries turned better still. Its aristocracy prospered through participation in Roman politics. The 5000-man Legion XVI Flavia, one of the 28 to 30 Roman legions deployed at the time, was stationed in the city in the second century, and this, too, benefited the city's economy. Samosata produced the satirist Lucian, whose 70 surviving works are regarded as among the best of his time, and, in the third century, another author, Paul, whose extensive writings as bishop of Antioch provoked a doctrinal dispute that was settled only by the intervention of Emperor Aurelian himself.

Tragically, very little archeology was done at Samosata before the site was inundated in 1991, but there was enough to hint at its extent and splendor.

The walls around the city were five kilometers (3 mi) long, and enclosed 200 hectares (500 acres). Samosata was thus three times the size of Pompeii, and 50 percent larger than Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain. A recently declassified US satellite photograph from 1968 provides the first aerial view of the city, showing the wall circuit, some hints of the internal road system and the huge prehistoric tell. On top of the mound, in the 1980's, Turkish archeologists excavated a large building with some surviving pieces of mosaic floors. As the walls of this building are also faced in opus reticulatum, it has been identified as the palace of the Commagenian kings, perched high above the city on what was already anancient tell. It commanded a view out over the Euphrates and across to what was, for several hundred years, the Parthian Empire on the other side. Outside the city walls can be found regular stretches of a raised aqueduct which brought water 40 kilometers (24 mi) to supply the baths and fountains of the city.

By the third century, Samosata's heyday was over. It remained a military base, though the Legion XVI had moved on. Soon after, it became the seat of a Christian bishop, a status which it maintained for several centuries. From the seventh to the 15th century, Samosata was swapped back and forth among Armenian, Arab and Turkish rulers, and the city declined into a town that—though it still commanded a river crossing—had only local significance. By the 19th century there was only a small village on the site, and that too has now been swallowed up by the floodwaters, which also inundated several hundred other potential archeological sites: the riverside wharves, farms, villas, quarries, tombs, cemeteries, the great aqueduct, roads and, downstream in Zeugma, one of the most famous bridges in the entire Roman Empire.

During the long centuries of settlement of this region, one small episode is worth citing because of the insight it gives us about how Samasota, Zeugma and their surrounding territory, though isolated in a remote part of the Euphrates Valley, were nonetheless linked to neighbors and to the wider world. The Eastern Roman emperor Valens (364-378) ordered Bishop Eusebius of Samosata into exile.

"[Eusebius] confided his intentions to one of his household servants who followed him carrying nothing but a cushion and a book. When he had reached the bank of the river (for the Euphrates runs along the very walls of the town) he embarked in a boat and told the oarsmen to row to Zeugma. When it was day the bishop had reached Zeugma, and Samosata was full of weeping and wailing. Then all the congregation bewailed the removal of their shepherd and the stream of the river was crowded with voyagers."3

Unlike Freya Stark, Eusebius could make rapid progress by traveling with the current for the 107-kilometer (66-mi) journey. The writings of Pliny the Elder, from the first century, mention two towns which he passed.

"Below Samosata ... the towns washed by the river are Epiphaneia and the Antioch called "on-the-Euphrates," and also Zeugma, 72 MP [milia passuum, equal to 1.5 km or 0.9 mi] from Samosata, famous as a place where the Euphrates can be crossed, Apamea on the opposite bank being joined to it by a bridge constructed by Seleucus, the founder of both towns."4

Virtually nothing can be said about the Greek towns of Antioch and Epiphaneia, upstream from Zeugma. Although the sites of both will be inundated by the waters behind the Birecik Dam, only the current French excavations at Horum Höyük offer some insight. Zeugma, however, is different: It consists of twin towns—Seleucia on the west bank and Apamea opposite on the east—named respectively for Alexander the Great's general Seleucus Nicator and his Bactrian queen Apama. Jointly the towns were known as Zeugma, which is Greek for "bridge."

Zeugma was the most famous town along the upper Euphrates, principally because it was the site of the only bridge across the river between the Kurdish Taurus and Babylonia: Samosata and other towns offered only ferry crossings. The bridge thus inspired the name of the metropolitan area: People commonly spoke not about going to Seleucia or Apamea but to "the bridge"—Zeugma.

Inevitably the dual city appears regularly in the works of Greek and Roman writers, since it was the point through which messengers, traders and armies had to pass. The hellenistic king of Syria, Antiochus III, held his wedding at Zeugma in 221 BC; 150 years later, the Armenian king Tigranes the Great ordered the execution of Cleopatra Selene, a hellenistic princess, there. During a storm in 53 BC, the Roman general Crassus led his army across the bridge on his way to defeat and death at the hands of the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae (Harran). It was in Zeugma that, 122 years later, the future Emperor Titus met with envoys of the Parthian king and, in 218, a youthful, deposed Roman emperor named Diadumenianus was captured in the city by a Roman centurion based there.

It was not all great affairs of state, however. Physically the 200-meter (640') bridge appears to have consisted of planks laid across a series of boats tied together and held firm by piers on each bank—a bridge-building technique depicted in Roman art and still used across the Euphrates and Tigris up through Ottoman times. It would have been the daily witness of comings and goings of colorful caravans, envoys between Antioch and the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, pilgrims to the great Temple of the Moon at Carrhae, messengers summoning the Christian bishops from Edessa to ecumenical councils and, perhaps most commonly, peasants bringing their produce into the city.

For at least the first two centuries after the birth of Christ, Zeugma, like Samosata, was a frontier city with a legionary garrison. Zeugma was the base of Legion IV Scythica, whose name appears stamped on tiles made, probably, for the roofs of its barracks. Also like Samosata, it was a city of mixed cultures: The few village names we have for the vicinity are Semitic, but the original colonists were Greek. When the Roman army introduced legionaries not only from Italy but also from wherever else citizen recruits could be found, the city became a true regional melting pot.

The army, which was based there for more than two centuries, would have lent Zeugma a distinctive character. Alongside the Greek spoken by the citizens of the town and the multitude of other tongues used by people passing through, the official language of the army was Latin, which was used every day in the voluminous records we know the army kept. Daily the city would have seen and heard the training and deployments of the 5000 legionaries, the watches of the military guards on the bridge, regular patrols, trumpets from the fortress, parades, celebrations of imperial birthdays, victories and other such military activities. Then there were the off-duty soldiers with their regular pay—which we know to have been generous for the time—and their pleasures. We can guess at the taverns, and there is a remarkable inscription painted on a wall at the Roman fortress city of Dura Europus, far downstream, recording the appearance of a troupe of entertainers, that names Zeugma as the city from which they came.

Soldiers and citizens alike had other forms of entertainment, too. The great urban centers of the Eastern Roman Empire all hosted traditional Greek athletic games, and two inscriptions recording the careers of especially successful competitors survive from the second century. That of "Aurelius Septimius Irenaeus, son of Eutychus, citizen of the Colonia and Metropolis of Laodicea, and citizen of other cities" records that in 221 he twice won competitions at Zeugma as a boxer and runner.

By modern times, Zeugma, like Samosata, was little more than an archeological site. Only the small villages of Belkıs and Tilmusa remained, one on each bank, along with traces here and there of a more urban past. The existence of a major Graeco-Roman settlement around these villages has been known to western travelers ever since W. F. Ainsworth reported in 1842 on the temple at the striking acropolis now called Belkıs Tepe. But until recently there was widespread professional disagreement regarding the location of Zeugma itself. In retrospect, there should have been no controversy, for as long ago as the 1740's the Englishman Richard Pococke passed nearby:

"After I had left Beer [Birecik] I enquired if there was any place on the Euphrates of that name [Zeugma]; and I was informed that about twelve miles above Beer, there was a place called Zima"5

But a medieval castle at Birecik misled many who followed; they assumed—erroneously, it turned out—that the castle overlay Zeugma and marked the site of the bridge.

Until 1992, there was no excavation at Zeugma. On the face of it, there was little to see: gaping caverns cut into the rock that marked long-robbed tombs; jutting remains of some buildings, evidence of the durability of Roman concrete; fragments of carved architectural pieces; and the platform of the temple set high above the town on Belkıs Tepe.

But the villagers knew that the ancient remains were, for the most part, buried deep beneath the soil. From at least the 19th century the site was continually pillaged, and the more attractive tombstones found their way to museums and private collections while enterprising tunnel-diggers zeroed in on the rich houses and stripped them of their mosaic floors. Fragments of the best known of these, called the Provinces Mosaic because it apparently portrayed a number of heads, each personifying a province of the Roman Empire, are today scattered in collections from Jerusalem to Berlin.

However, recent explorations and excavations undertaken in advance of the Birecik dam's bulldozers have been immensely productive. A dozen previously unknown, well-preserved tombs have come to light, along with scores of inscriptions, a theater, cisterns, an aqueduct channel, parts of the city walls, a bath building and two exceptionally fine houses containing superb mosaics.

The houses at Zeugma are typically Greek, designed about a peristyle courtyard that opens to rooms all around. One house lies on a steep bluff 50 meters (160') above the riverside road, and it had particularly stunning views across the water to Apamea. Excavations exposed several rooms and a superb polychrome mosaic with two well-executed figures. Although looters had hacked away parts of it some decades ago, part of the name of one figure survived, enough to tell us it began with "Par," which can confidently be restored as "Parthenope." Since Parthenope is associated in myth with Metiochos, her suitor, the mosaic's second figure was probably he.

It is particularly interesting that the recent excavations indicate that both houses were likely destroyed in the mid- to late third century, and never rebuilt. Indeed, the sites of the homes were not reused either, and thus this desirable part of the town has apparently been unoccupied ever since that time. A clue to why this is so lies far to the east, at Naqsh-e-Rustum in the Fars province of Iran, where the Sasanian Persian king Shapur I inscribed a great trilingual statement recording his invasions of the Roman Empire at that time. Among the long list of Roman cities he claims to have "burned, ruined and pillaged" are both Zeugma and Samosata.

Zeugma, however, recovered, and it is last heard of in 1048, when a bishop of Zeugma attended a church council, although by then it had probably shrunk tolittle more than a large village squatting in the ruins of the Roman town. Much of the Roman army that had invigorated the town's economy had been based elsewhere since 160, as the Roman frontier had moved east.

Zeugma is now being explored by Turkish, French and Swiss archeological teams, but the scale of the effort is small in light of both the riches the site holds and the brief time remaining in which to carry out the work. Within two years, Zeugma will experience a devastation unmatched since the army of Shapur broke in some 17 centuries ago. When the green water slides silently as a snake into Samosata's ruins, the silence and stillness along the upper Euphrates will exceed even that which Freya Stark described.

David Kennedy is a professor of Roman archeology and history at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He is the author ofThe Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates, published in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1998 by the Journal of Roman Archaeology (isbn 1-887829-27-0). He can be reached at [email protected]

1 D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Chicago, 1927
2 Josephus, The Jewish War, V:460, Loeb translation
3 Theodoretus, Historia, Ecclesiatica 4:13
4 Natural History 5:12, Loeb translation
5 R. Pococke, A Description of the East, London, 1745

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the September/October 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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