The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where Zeugma lies, is one of the most economically underdeveloped regions in all of southwestern Asia. Known as the Fertile Crescent, the area today actually suffers from low levels of annual rainfall, spotty irrigation and regular cycles of drought.
In the 1970s, the Turkish government announced the Southeast Anatolia Economic Development Project (or GAP as it is known to Turkish officials), which was intended to stimulate the region’s flagging economy. A $32 billion public works program involving the construction of more than 20 dams, 19 hydroelectric projects and numerous canals and reservoirs along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the GAP is expected to irrigate 5 million acres of land and create 3.5 million jobs (in an area with about 10 million residents). Several of the GAP’s hydroelectric dams, including the massive Ataturk Dam and the recently completed Birecik Dam (below) near Zeugma, are already pumping out billions of kilowatts of electricity—a vital contribution to a country that imports millions of dollars worth of power each year.
“The Turks are really trying to accomplish what you Americans did [with the Tennessee Valley Authority] during the Depression,” said Richard Hodges, a British archaeologist who recently began work at Zeugma.
Progress, however, never comes without a price. To make way for all of the GAP’s new reservoirs and dams, thousands of Turks are being displaced from their homes. Many of them (including most of the residents of Belkis, near Zeugma) are being forcibly removed from communities where their families have lived for centuries.
In addition, GAP projects have inundated, or threaten to inundate, a number of important heritage sites. In the early 1990s, for example, the ancient Hellenistic city of Samasota was completely flooded by the construction of the massive Ataturk Dam. Never thoroughly excavated, Samasota is thought to have been the capital of the Commagene kings of the first century B.C.
While most western archaeologists have been reluctant to criticize the Turks for choosing bread and water over mosaics and ruins, a few have noted that there are different ways the GAP might have been planned to avoid disasters like Samasota and Zeugma.
“In western countries, it would have been a requirement of any such project that a detailed survey be carried out, with extensive excavation and conservation as necessary. And [such work] would have been built into the [GAP’s] budget and not left to the modest resources of the Turkish Department of Antiquities or any foreign institute,” David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia observed in a recent on-line editorial about his efforts to save Zeugma.
Just how well the Turkish authorities have learned Zeugma’s lessons should become apparent in the next few months as the government struggles to determine the fate of another important historical site: the town of Hasankeyf (some 20 miles south of modern Batman). The home of an ancient Roman bridge and numerous medieval ruins, most of Hasankeyf is scheduled to be flooded when the Ilisu Dam is completed in 2007. But Turkish archaeologists and the town’s citizens are putting up a spirited fight. “Even if the waters of the dam drown me, I shall never go away from here,” proclaimed one 30-year resident in a defiant statement issued by the Save Hasankeyf Campaign. If the past is any indication, however, the waters will prevail.