Antiquities and Archaeology
Turkey’s Roman spa town in peril
Archaeologists mount last ditch attempt to stop the flooding of Allianoi by controversial dam
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 217, October 2010
Published online: 29 September 2010
london. It looks as if time has run out in the decade-long fight to save the ancient Roman spa town of Allianoi in Turkey from being submerged under 12 to 15 metres of water. Reports have emerged that state workers have filled the second-century AD site with sand in preparation for the release of water from the newly constructed Yortanli dam despite court injunctions halting plans to flood the region.
According to Ahmet Yaras, an archaeologist who led the excavation at Allianoi and a prominent figure in the struggle to preserve the site, workers employed by the State Waterworks Directory (DSI) have removed “the plastic cover placed on the Roman baths to protect the structure against damage from the elements” and have filled the ruins with sand. This move has drawn ire from cultural heritage organisations such as Europa Nostra, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) and the European Association of Archaeologists which have vigorously campaigned for Allianoi’s preservation. Europa Nostra’s executive president Denis de Kergorlay has appealed to the Turkish prime minister “to find an alternative solution to save Allianoi and to stop the current destruction of the site”.
Plans for the 800-metre long dam began in the late 1980s and construction started in 1998. A thorough archaeological survey of the area took place once construction had begun. The excavations that followed uncovered thermal baths, bridges, streets, houses decorated with mosaics as well as hundreds of glass, pottery and metal artefacts. Built 18 kilometres from Bergama under the Roman emperor Hadrian, scholars believe Allianoi was an important health centre where those inflicted with ailments would come to take the waters. The site was declared a Heritage Site of the First Order by the region of Izmir in 2001.
According to Yaras, only 20% of the site was unearthed before excavations were halted in 2006 at the behest of the government. He called the DSI’s recent actions “illegal”, citing court injunctions against Izmir Committee No. 2 for the Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage ordering the inundation of the site not to proceed. In 2008, Allianoi Initiative, a non-governmental organisation, brought the issue before the European Human Rights Court. The case is still pending.
“Part of the reason we are drawing attention to the plight of Allianoi, is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. This is a classic scenario of a government going ahead with a mega-project without having made a timely, proper and detailed archaeological survey and investigation of the site. It’s a case of we’ve built it [the dam], spent a lot of money on it and now we have to use it. There is a lot of prestige tied up in a project such as this dam,” says Europa Nostra spokeswoman Laurie Neale.
Orhan Sílíer, a trustee of the History Foundation of Turkey and member of the Europa Nostra board, feels that heritage preservation bodies are no match for these high profit, politically motivated building projects undertaken by Turkey’s big construction firms with financial support from national and international banks. He also sees the construction of hydroelectric dams and power stations as one of the main threats to cultural heritage in the Black Sea region, “especially in Mesopotamia where river basins served as important centres of civilisation for thousands of years”, adding that other cities have been flooded as a result of dam construction including Samsat by the Atatürk Dam in 1989. The 10,000 year-old settlement of Hasankeyf in the southeastern part of the country is confronting a similar threat with the construction of the controversial Ilisu dam.
Neale points out that this is not just a Turkish problem: “There are a number of big development projects in other parts of Europe and the world that threaten the preservation of important sites like Allianoi.”
Requests for comment from the Turkish ministry of culture and the DSI were not answered.
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