Turkey continues all efforts to bring back its historical treasures that have been smuggled abroad. The last fruit of this endeavor is the homecoming of the 12 mosaic pieces that belong in the ancient city of Zeugma.
In the late days of last November, Turkish Airlines carried a set of very valuable mosaic pieces from the United States of America to Turkey. The Turkish Airlines plane flying between Chicago and Istanbul first brought the artifacts to Istanbul and then took them to Gaziantep. The officials waiting at Gaziantep Airport held their breath as they watched the homecoming, half a century later, of the 12 pieces of the Zeugma mosaics. Among the pieces smuggled out of Gaziantep that are regarded as part of the decorative border of the “Gypsy Girl” mosaic are unique artifacts depicting an Indian peacock, a bird carrying a branch in its beak, a young Satyr, a mask of Pan, a maenad mask, and a female theater mask. These valuable items were meticulously unloaded from the plane in order to be displayed at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum along with other mosaics found in the ancient city of Zeugma.
Zeugma, where the mosaics were found, is located in the village of Belkıs in the Nizip district of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey. This settlement was built by Seleucus I Nicator around 300 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, Seleucus was one of the four generals to share the empire’s lands, and ruled a kingdom bearing his name during the Hellenistic period. He built two cities at the shallowest part of the Euphrates, laying claim to both banks of the river. The one on the western bank was known as Seleucia by the king’s name, while the other one was named Apamea, inspired by Apama, Seleucus's wife.
Unable to withstand rivalry with Seleucia, Apamea was eventually abandoned. Bearing military and financial importance due to its location, Seleucia was conquered by the Romans 200 years later and was renamed Zeugma. Transformed into a prominent commercial and military border town, Zeugma's golden years were in AD 100, while the settlement started to lose power when it was conquered by the Sassanids in 253.
Mostly comprising residences, the remains of the city of Zeugma date back to the period between the first century BC and AD 200. Roman houses with courtyards and views of the Euphrates are the most striking remnants of Zeugma's residential areas. Similar examples of these hillside mansions are found only in the ancient city of Ephesus, also in Turkey. It’s hard not to feel jealous of the inhabitants of Zeugma, who, on a sunny day, sat under a canopy in a courtyard and watched the luminous effect of the Euphrates, and, come evening, dined in guest rooms decorated with mosaics and conversed reclining on daybeds. The contents of the crates heading for the Zeugma Mosaic Museum belonged to such a villa. The villas in Zeugma were suddenly abandoned after a Sassanid raid, but it was thanks to this abandonment that the famous mosaics remained intact under the houses' ruins.
The breathtaking mosaics resemble a photograph album hiding clues about the lifestyle and the intellectual world of the people who once inhabited the ancient city of Zeugma. The scenes in the mosaics were selected based on the function of the rooms they were displayed in. For instance, the backgrounds in some of them include scenes from the romantic stories of ancient couples. The mosaic of Eros and Psyche was excavated in a leisure room. It’s also believed that the parts depicting mythological scenes about water, such as the mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys, used to decorate pools or similar areas. The mosaics in the guest rooms that hosted feasts, the most important occasions for socialization for the Greek and Roman communities, depict scenes from mythology and folk stories. The renowned "Gypsy Girl" mosaic was found on the floor of a dining room in Maenad Villa.
The course of the archaeological excavation changed with the possible flooding of certain parts of Zeugma due to the construction of the Birecik Dam over the Euphrates. As a result of daring endeavors which were indeed a race against time, the Roman settlement complex was excavated and the unearthed mosaics and frescoes were placed in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. The "Gypsy Girl" was found during the rescue excavations in Zeugma between 1998 and 1999; however, most of this 300-square meter floor mosaic had been dismantled and smuggled out of the country in the 1960s. The senior inhabitants of the Belkıs village told the teams of archaeologists that many other floor mosaics were also taken abroad during that time. The "Gypsy Girl" was miraculously saved because it was hidden under a part of a toppled column. The excavation teams lifted the piece of the column and saw the face of a young woman wearing a scarf and round earrings, her hair partly exposed –she was named the "Gypsy Girl" due to her hoop earrings. However, she is actually believed to be one of the maenads (the women accompanying the god Dionysus) in the cult festivals of Dionysus. While some claim that she is Gaia, the goddess of Earth and the ancestral mother of all gods in mythology, others assert that the face in the mosaic belongs to a man, and that he could even be Alexander the Great. Putting aside discussions regarding the figure’s identity, many travelers have been mesmerized by the portrait of this figure with disheveled hair and high cheekbones. The mosaic is 78 centimeters in length and 52 centimeters in height. Her dreamy brown eyes follow you as you circumvent the mosaic. We can go as far as to say that the "Gypsy Girl" is the "Mona Lisa of Antiquity."
Soon transformed into a symbol of Gaziantep and displayed in a special case, the "Gypsy Girl" was not alone when it was under the ground for centuries. It was part of a bigger mosaic with other pieces covering the floor. The remaining 12 parts of this mosaic were stolen, and later found in an art gallery in New York in 1965. The owner of the gallery contacted the officials at Bowling Green State University. He stated that the mosaics were brought from Antakya and that there was no official request for their return, and sold them to the university. The university restored them and started to display them in one of its buildings. A new era began in 2012 when art historian Stephanie Hooper began a research project claiming the mosaics might originally be from Zeugma, not Antakya. Turkish officials contacted both the university and the FBI requesting their return. However, it was not easy to bring the mosaics back to their homeland since Turkey had to prove that they were smuggled out of the country. Prof. Dr. Kutalmış Görkay started research to this end.
During the Zeugma excavations, archaeologists found the remaining pieces of the floor mosaic's border and proved that the patterns on the smuggled pieces formed a part of it. Each piece could easily fit into its original place. Both Hooper and Görkay were sure that the mosaics were smuggled from Zeugma, and this initiated the return process. The university stated that it had paid 260,000 USD for the mosaics in 2012 and demanded a refund. As the negotiations continued, the public opinion in Turkey did not remain indifferent. Tens of thousands of signatures were collected with the endeavor of the magazine Aktüel Arkeoloji demanding the return of the mosaics. People composed songs for Zeugma and opened workshops to keep the art of mosaic making alive. The legal process was finalized with Turkey’s victory. It was decided that the university would display a replica of the smuggled pieces, created by mosaic masters from Gaziantep, and the originals were brought back to Turkey to be displayed at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum.
Spanning nearly 2,500 square meters, the mosaic continues to surprise visitors at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. One feels as if diving into a sea of mosaics, while admiring the transformation of thousands of tiny stones into a work of great harmony. The "Gypsy Girl" mosaic became a symbol of the Zeugma mosaics, which defy time with their colors, and has finally been reunited with its siblings. In contrast with this joyful news, the sadness in the eyes of the "Gypsy Girl" is still present. Maybe it’s for the dozens of other artifacts smuggled out of Zeugma whose whereabouts are unknown.