A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Spectacular Byzantine mosaics revealed
A richly bejeweled woman appears in a mosaic as a personification of the city. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
Modern Edessa overlooks the ancient villa. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
Edessa was originally a Greek city and even after its people were converted to Christianity, imagery from classical mythology, including depictions of Amazons, remained popular. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
The wounded lion struck by Melanippe's weapon struggles for life. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
A man, possibly from Palestine, leads a zebra. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
The centaur Chiron, another figure from Greek mythology, is depicted in the mosaics. (Pasquale Sorrentino)
The Turkish city of Şanliurfa (ancient Edessa) is surrounded by desert bounded by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Euphrates River to the east, and Syria to the south. Few tourists ever go to this part of southeastern Turkey except to visit the 12,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe ("The World's First Temple," November/December 2008). But fewer than 10 miles from the sanctuary is another archaeological site of great interest--a palatial home decorated with some of the finest Byzantine mosaics yet found, depicting bare-breasted Amazons, exotic animals, and figures from Greek mythology.
In early 2006, during construction of a parking lot on the city's western side, workers uncovered a mosaic with simple geometric patterns. Nurten Aydemir, director of the Şanliurfa Museum, at first assumed it was part of one that had been found in 2005, and that it would only be a relatively simple, small excavation to reveal the mosaic. Aydemir had the construction stopped and began a salvage project to preserve its remaining sections.
But as the excavation proceeded, she was shocked to discover the remains of a large villa with 11 rooms spread across more than half an acre and floors covered with mosaics in almost pristine condition. "I couldn't believe we found such valuable things in a zone that was supposed to be free of any archaeological remains," Aydemir says. She quickly assembled a team of 15 archaeologists and conservators from the museum. They concluded that this was an elite house, possibly the residence of a Byzantine official (no inscriptions were found to indicate the occupant's name or position), and dated the mosaics to the fifth or sixth century A.D.
Edessa was founded in 303 or 302 B.C. and named after the old capital of Macedonia. Over the next centuries, it became an important stop on the Silk Road for merchants carrying luxury goods to Antioch for export across the Near East. In A.D. 177, King Abgar of Osrhoene, a kingdom of Nabatean tribes from the northern Arabian Peninsula, made the city his capital, first under the protection of the Parthian Empire of ancient Persia. In the ensuing years, Edessa became a prominent and economically successful city. It continued to flourish under the Romans and then the Byzantines, becoming a center of Christian learning. "It was very important for us to find mosaics that are so well preserved," says Aydemir. Not only is the subject matter unique, but, "For the first time we can really show that into the fifth and sixth centuries, the city reached the height of its riches," as evidenced by the opulence of the mosaics.
Next, the archaeologists plan to uncover the rest of the house and hopefully more mosaics. "We have many more months of excavation, perhaps going all the way through 2010," says Aydemir. Eventually, the entire area will become an archaeological park. But for now, construction work has been stopped and the archaeologists have what is most precious to them--time.
Marco Merola is ARCHAEOLOGY's Naples correspondent.