Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A tale of two cities: the mosaics of Antakya and Gaziantep


Antakya was, of course, Antioch, one of the most important cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine worlds, rivaling Rome, Constantinople (İstanbul) and Alexandria, whilst Gaziantep, occupied by everyone from the Assyrians through to the successors of Alexander the Great and the Arabs to the Mamluks, has long made the most of its position on the trade routes linking China and India with the Mediterranean. 

These two cities, which culturally share much in common with nearby Syria (Aleppo [Haleb] is only 88 kilometers from Antakya, 95 kilometers from Gaziantep) are also home to the best cuisine in Turkey, with Gaziantep baklava and Antakya künefe competing for the honor of being the nation's finest desserts. But from a tourism perspective the greatest single draw in both cities are the remarkable mosaics bequeathed to them by the world's most successful empire builders, the Romans. Only Tunisia's Bardo Museum can rival this blessed pair of Turkish cities for the quantity and quality of mosaics on display, making them two of the most important collections in the world.

A spirit of debauchery

Antakya's Archeological Museum is situated on the west bank of the now sadly canalized Asi (ancient Orontes) River, on a traffic island surrounded by French mandate-period buildings — impressive if the modernist/Art Deco style is to your liking. The museum itself dates back to the short-lived, inter-war French colonial period, with construction beginning in 1934 at the behest of the French archaeologist M. Prost. Completed in 1938, the museum's primary function was to house the incredibly detailed and colorful mosaics unearthed by American and French archeologists from the wealthy Roman suburb of Daphne (today's Harbiye) a few kilometers out of the city. Today still something of a retreat for picnicking families by day, rakı-drinking "bad boys" by night, in Roman times water-rich, laurel- and cypress-shaded Daphne was a country getaway for the oft-decadent, wealthy elite of Antioch. They had great villas built for themselves amidst the cool greenery around the great Temple of Apollo, itself the focus of sporting and theatrical performances, drama and poetry reading competitions.

The drabness of the exterior of the Archeological Museum (admission TL 8), revamped in 1975, does its best to dissuade potential visitors from discovering the delights inside, but don't be deterred. The mosaics that once floored the sumptuous dining rooms, salons and courtyards of Daphne's bourgeoisie are splendid. Mostly dating to the second and third centuries A.D. (though there are examples from as early as the first century A.D. and as late as the sixth century) the multi-hued mosaics panels, most artfully displayed for maximum impact on the walls of the museum, are a visual treat. Many of the mosaics deal with themes from Greek mythology, including a poignant scene of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, just prior to her sacrifice to the gods, a heinous act that would appease Apollo and allow the Greek fleet to sail to Troy and recover Helen. Such scenes are commonplace on mosaics all over the Roman world, but other images are more irreverent and hint at the spirit of debauchery for which ancient Antioch was notorious — a positively priapic hunchback, Bacchic dancers, jugglers and a well-endowed negro fisherman.

Given that over 300 mosaic panels were unearthed at Daphne and Antioch's port city, Seleucia ad Piera, it's no surprise to learn that the mosaic artists of Antioch were famed throughout the Roman Empire (or at the very least its prosperous eastern half) — in fact, mosaic masters from Antioch were also behind the equally splendid mosaics rescued so dramatically from the floodwaters of the Birecik dam and now on display in Gaziantep's new purpose-built, state-of-the-art mosaic museum.

The mosaic 'baton' is passed on

It's hard not to feel sorry for the good citizens of Antakya, despite its wonderful cuisine and marvelous mosaics. The province of Hatay, of which it is only the second city (after İskenderun), only became part of Turkey in 1938, and it often seems like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. Cut off from the main flow of republican Turkish history, this once fabulously rich and important city became something of a backwater until trade with Syria re-invigorated it in the 1990s and the first decade of this millennium — only to be cruelly set back by the recent unrest in its Arab neighbor. The discovery of a welter of mosaics at the Hellenistic/Roman settlement of Zeugma, on the Euphrates just east of Gaziantep, in 1995, meant Antakya was no longer the mosaic "capital" of Turkey. Not only did Gaziantep happen upon a collection of mosaics at least the equal of those in Antakya but, buoyed by income deriving from the massive Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) and a go-ahead municipality, it was able to present the mosaics and other artifacts rescued from the floodwaters in a brand-new addition to the city's Archeological Museum, which opened in 2005. Gaziantep has now gone one stage further by opening, in June 2011, a purpose-built museum that is able to display many mosaics that the previous museum was too small to accommodate — some of them in beautiful recreations of the rooms of the villas in which they were found.

Mosaics on the frontier

Zeugma ("bridge" or "link" in Greek) dates back to 300 B.C., when it was founded by a successor of Alexander the Great, Seleucus Nicator. Situated on a major crossing point of the Euphrates, it initially prospered because it controlled trade between India and the Mediterranean. Absorbed into the Roman Empire in the first century B.C., it continued to boom, even more so when the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire settled on the line of the Euphrates, and Zeugma became an important garrison town. But trade dominated the life of Zeugma, and wealthy merchants had villas built on the sloping banks of the river. No doubt encouraged by the sales techniques as well as the artistry of mosaic masters from Antioch, who arrived armed with pattern books, the rich villa-owners would choose the style of flooring they wanted — the grander the better. It is these mosaics that are now on display in Gaziantep's new museum. They are so incredibly intact because of the relatively short span of time they were on show, for in the mid-third century A.D. Zeugma was sacked and burnt by the Parthians. The debris from the burnt houses collapsed in on the mosaic floors and kept them covered from the elements, until they were rediscovered almost 1,800 years later.

As at Antakya, some of the 1,700 square meters of mosaics uncovered are displayed on the walls of the atmospherically lit museum, but far more are displayed as they would have been in the long-lost villas, on the floor. Even better, some of the courtyards or rooms they would have adorned have been rebuilt around them, complete with graceful columns capped by gorgeously carved capitals, making it possible for even the casual visitor to conjure up images of the domestic life of a well-off Zeugma family. Depicted are grandiose scenes from Greek mythology — poor Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus after helping him slay the Minotaur, Queen Pasiphae and the bull that impregnated her to produce the monstrous Minotaur, Poseidon surveying his ocean domain. There is as much interest in the border areas, usually left to less experienced mosaic artists, surrounding the figurative panels — perspective cubes that appear to tilt as you walk around the edge of the mosaic, the stylized wave of the Greek crest, often used to frame water scenes, or the zigzag pattern used in the shallow pools placed in courtyards, which appeared to shimmer with the play of the light on the water above.

When I visited the Gaziantep mosaic museum earlier this month, there were still bits of the main exhibition space cordoned off whilst the labeling of yet more mosaics was done, a whole new wing yet to open. This perhaps accounts for the derisory entrance fee of TL 5 — it's sure to rise once the museum is fully opened. The price even included entry to the site of Zeugma, 20 kilometers east of the city, on the road to Birecik and Urfa. With your own transport its worth making the trip out there, as much work has been done to excavate a series of villas built on the hillside above the waters of the dam. Covered by a weatherproof canopy, and reminiscent of the terrace houses on show at Ephesus, it's possible to amble around walkways built above the rooms of the villas, admiring the mosaic floors, cellars, water pipes and other domestic details of these ostentatious residences.

Hopefully it's just a matter of time before Antakya can come up with the funding to display its own wonderful mosaics in the same way as Gaziantep. Both museums are, however, superb and well worth making the effort to see — just make sure you save the best until last by visiting Antakya first.