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Roman-era mosaics home at last in Turkey's Zeugma

Turkey has welcomed back 12 fragments of mosaics illegally excavated and exported decades ago to the United States and they are now on exhibit at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep.
Visitors take pictures of  the missing pieces of the historic "Gypsy Girl" mosaic on display in an exhibition at their origin in Gaziantep, Turkey, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC1B70413E10

“Every work of art is beautiful and meaningful in the place where it belongs.” In a statement that is also a political manifesto, Turkey’s Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy welcomed back 12 fragments of precious Roman-era mosaics on Dec. 8. at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. They were illegally excavated in the Hellenistic city of Zeugma in Southeastern Turkey and smuggled to the United States in the 1960s. “We will chase and bring back home all the cultural wealth that have been pillaged from this geography,” the minister said.

The fragments, about 50 by 50 centimeters (20 by 20 inches) each, depict theatrical masks, river birds and minor deities. They were identified by experts only a few years ago and recovered by Turkish authorities through an agreement with Ohio's Bowling Green State University, which had acquired them in good faith.

In the last 15 years, Ankara has tried every possible means to reclaim its cultural heritage improperly taken abroad, from international tribunals to strong-arm tactics such as revoking excavation permits to archaeological missions. On many occasions, it worked.

Since 2002, Turkey has recovered more than 4,000 artifacts, including a Hittite sphinx from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the upper half of a “Weary Heracles” statue from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and golden jewelry from the Penn Museum now proudly shown at the new Troy museum.

The Zeugma Museum, which opened in 2011, is a converted factory leftover from the state-owned alcohol and tobacco company. It claims to be the largest in the world exclusively devoted to mosaics. It exhibits in a spectacular display more than 5,000 square meters of floor decorations, dating from the second, third, fifth and sixth centuries CE. Some of them have been placed in their original settings complete with frescoed walls and meticulously reconstructed ornamental swimming pools.

The mosaics were discovered in the luxury villas of Zeugma on the Euphrates River in the mid-20th century as well as in other archaeological sites and Christian churches in the surrounding area. Some are colorful descriptions of scenes from Greek mythology, such as Eros and Psyche and the abduction of Europa. Others are geometric patterns. Today, most of it is housed in the twin buildings of the museum, which also features storage and restoration laboratories.

The Zeugma Museum is very popular with tourists, both Turkish and foreign, attracting an average 200,000 people every year. In the first 11 month of 2018 the total has already jumped to a record of 251,000. Zeugma and its mosaics became famous worldwide when they were excavated in the '90s, saved before part of the ancient city was submerged by the waters of a giant reservoir. Archaeologists are still at work in the higher areas.

Gods and other characters from the Greco-Roman cultural tradition such as Poseidon and sea nymphs, Oceanos and Tethys and Achilles and Ulysses capture visitors' imaginations with their realistic portraits, vivid colors and refined craftsmanship.

The museum’s best known piece, “The Gypsy Girl,” is misnamed. Displayed alone in a darkened room suffused with soft music, hung on a wall like a painting, this piercing-eyed young maenad — an uninhibited follower of Dionysos, god of wine and ecstatic debaucheries — has become the symbol of the museum and of Gaziantep itself.

She has been misidentified as Gaia, the personification of Earth, and even as Alexander the Great. Others still have compared her to Mona Lisa for the enigmatic look in her eyes. She is an ideal icon for book covers and merchandising.

The bit of mosaic floor was found under a broken column in the middle of the dining room of the famous House of the Maenads in Zeugma. Not much else remained, as most of the mosaic was apparently broken and removed by smugglers. The 12 fragments repatriated from the United States are just a portion of the missing pieces.

Their story reads like a thriller, its plot full of twists. They were bought by BGSU from an art dealer for $35,000 in 1965. Their origin was believed to be legal excavations in Antakya, not far from Zeugma, but their provenance was never certified. The 12 panels stayed in storage for decades and nearly forgotten. It was only in 2010-2011 that they were restored and exhibited in the new arts center of the university.

However, while planning a conference to present the mosaics to an academic audience, professors Stephanie Langin-Hooper and Rebecca Molholt realized that there was no documentation whatsoever of the findings in the archives, not even sketches, that the shape and dimensions of the blocks — roughly chopped — were typical of smuggling and that the geometric motifs and style of shading were perfect matches to the mosaics of the House of the Maenads, a very well known site.

BGSU immediately canceled the symposium and posted a press release online Feb. 7, 2012. The two professors published their conclusions in a scholarly journal the following year. The Turkish authorities wasted no time in asking for the restitution of the mosaics but an agreement was reached only last May. Bowling Green will receive high-quality replicas and a plaque explaining their journey over the Atlantic. The professors and the university also received high praise and warm thanks from Turkey's culture and tourism minister at the ceremony.

In Gaziantep, exotic birds, theatrical masks, the satyr Silenus (a companion to Dionysus) and another maenad are now displayed in a temporary setup. Museum director Emine Ozturk explained to Al-Monitor that it will take another two or three months to design and build a permanent display. Her idea is “to exhibit them together with the other pieces already in the museum, so as to recreate the original floor.” However beautiful in its decorations, it will contain many gaps, as many more fragments, illegally removed and sold, still need to be identified and retrieved.

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