A Franco-Turkish team of archeologists is fighting to save ancient treasures from the rising waters of a new dam on the Euphrates.
In two weeks, an archeological dig at Zeugma will be flooded along with a mass of treasures dating from the first centuries AD.
"Here we have a very complete ensemble of the only known equivalent of Pompeii, the ancient city near Naples that was wiped out by the eruption of the volcano, Vesuvius, in 79," said Florence Monnier, of the French government research institute CNRS.
"It is very upsetting," she said of the flooding operation, which began at the end of April and will be completed in October. The Birecik hydroelectric dam is part of a huge regional programme of 22 dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris.
"It is tragic to see all this heritage of humanity disappear," said Hakki Alhan, curator of Gaziantep museum, which will keep the vestiges, saved from the Zeugma site.
"We have about ten days left to dig," said Monnier, who arrived as part of an emergency operation at the beginning of May. "And that is if the river bank does not collapse under us," she said, amid a decor of broken columns and the dust raised by mechanical diggers and 30 workers drafted on to the site.
Because of a lack of time she is making drawings and taking pictures of the frescos that entirely cover the walls of a vast and rich villa uncovered 10 metres (30 feet) below ground. Only a small part will escape the flooding.
"This is a fabulous site, at the crossroads of Anatolia and central Asia," said CNRS archeologist Anne-Marie Maniere-Leveque, adding that it was at the northern limit of the Silk Road to China.
She called it "one of the most beautiful discoveries of the past 50 years in the eastern Mediterranean."
She campaigned for years to try to save the site, taking part in the removal of a dozen mosaics since last autumn.
She said the mosaics were unique, worthy of the great Italian school of painting. "It would take a month to remove what is left of this exceptional villa," she said.
At the moment archeologists are working to free a magnificent 48-square-metre (516-square-foot) mosaic depicting Poseidon (Neptune) rising from the sea aboard his chariot.
The waters of the Euphrates are rising by 30 centimeters a day and are undermining the mud huts of the nearby village of Belkis which are collapsing day by day.
The Turkish ministry of culture pleaded with the international consortium charged with building and operating the Birecik dam to delay the beginning of operations for a month, but the Turkish state could not afford to pay the millions of dollars (euros) that the delay would have cost.
The city of Apamee, on the opposite bank, has already been flooded and we did not even have the time to take a look," said Mehmet Onal, an archeologist with the Gaziantep museum, who has been working on the site for the past eight months.
"We are also going to lose this site, although the dam could have been built three or four kilometers upstream," he said as he stood on depictions of Poseidon and Thetis.
Turkish Culture Minister Istemihan Talay pledged recently to classify sites that will escape from the water as a special archeological zone.
Gaziantep museum is meanwhile set to rival the world's best collections of antiquities, such as those of Antioch and Bardo in Tunis. On display will be a unique bronze statue of the god of war, Mars, said Hakki Alhan -- BELKIS-ZEUGMA (AFP)
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