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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Buried City Faces Death by Water

BELKIS, Turkey -- An archaeologist holds in his palm a delicate bronze figurine of Dionysus, god of wine, dug from the ruins of an ancient Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates.

It was just the latest find from the city of Zeugma, which has yielded dozens of superb mosaics, finely painted frescoes, thousands of silver coins, and a one-and-a-half meter bronze statue of Mars, said to be one of the best in the world.

"To find such mosaics, for an archaeologist, is a once in a lifetime dream," said Yusuf Yavas, excavating the site in eastern Turkey. "Then we find a hoard of 3,750 silver coins, then the Mars statue. It's like we are living a dream every day."

But in less than two weeks, the pair of villas where the treasures were found are to disappear under the waters of the billion-dollar Birecik hydro-electric dam designed to boost electricity production in the poverty-stricken region.

"The waters are constantly rising and soon will destroy our dream," said Yavas, gazing from amid the dusty columns to the blue waters now only 5 meters from inundating the site.

Archaeologists say the ancient city covered an area of 2,000 hectares, 700 of which will be flooded by the dam. So far they have excavated just two villas - less than a third of a hectare. Dozens more buildings may never see the light of day.

A bronze-age cemetery of up to 5,000 graves - the biggest ever found - has already been washed away by the water's inexorable rise. Only 400 graves were properly excavated.

Local museum officials have pleaded for time, but so far the answer from the Energy Ministry and the building consortium of Turkish state electricity authority TEK, Gama Endustri and Germany's Philipp Holzmann has been a firm "no."

"It's out of our hands now," said Hakki Alkan, museum director in the provincial capital Gaziantep. "The consortium have invested a lot of money ... and they need the dam to be filled soon, otherwise they lose money."

Some 35,000 people have been displaced by the dam.

Zeugma, which is ancient Greek for link, or bridge, was founded in the third century B.C. by Seleucus I, a general of Alexander the Great. Later taken over by the Romans, it served as a vital staging post in trade with the neighboring Parthian Empire.

Some 65,000 personal and official seals found at Zeugma testify to that traffic. Around 60,000 people, including an entire Roman legion, once lived in the city.

"This may have been on an official dossier," said archaeologist Mehmet Onal holding a charred seal. "Perhaps on a letter to a loved one that was never opened. We can date this to A.D. 252 when the city was sacked and burnt by the Sassanids."

Landslides then covered the abandoned city hiding many of its treasures. A chance discovery of a network of tunnels left by thieves led to excavations and the uncovering of the first mosaic depicting the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne.

"When I first came here in 1993, we found a mosaic that robbers were trying to steal," said Onal. "It made my hair stand on end. The kind of thing I had only seen in books before, what we see here is from the very peak of Roman civilization."

With construction of the dam beginning the same year, French and Australian archaeologists began work to find more.

So far some 60 mosaics and dozens of frescoes have been found and are being removed by three teams of archaeologists working around the clock.

The Turkish authorities say they plan to turn the upper part of the city, not to be flooded by the dam, into an open-air museum.

"Not all of the city will be under water," said Governor Muammer Guler. "We are doing all we can to save the remains from the part of the city that will be under water."