An Open Letter to the People of Gaziantep

By David W. Packard

The Packard Humanities Institute

The Gaziantep Zeugma Platform (GZP) has been conducting a vigorous public campaign against a temporary exhibition of Zeugma mosaics at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul during 2004. This proposed exhibit would be presented by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, with funding from the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).

The purpose of this letter is to correct certain inaccurate public statements made by the GZP. The decision whether Zeugma mosaics should be exhibited at the Topkapi Palace will, of course, be made according to Turkish law and democratic traditions. PHI trusts that fair-minded citizens of Gaziantep will wish to base their opinions, and especially their public advocacy, on accurate information.

The GZP asserts that mosaics should be exhibited where they were excavated. PHI agrees with this principle and would ideally prefer exhibiting mosaics in situ, at the exact location where they were found. Unfortunately, this option is not possible at Zeugma since the Birecik dam has flooded the excavated Roman houses.

Under these circumstances, the best plan would be to display the mosaics in a new museum at the site of Zeugma. PHI has always advocated this plan. If the GZP truly wants the mosaics to be “exhibited where they have been excavated,” they should support a new museum at Zeugma.

Failing a Zeugma museum, a compromise plan would be to exhibit the mosaics in a museum reasonably close to Zeugma, such as Gaziantep. Housing the Zeugma mosaics in Gaziantep, however, cannot be considered preservation “at the site.”  Zeugma is more than 50 km away by road.

The question of a permanent home for the Zeugma mosaics, however, has nothing to do with the merits of a temporary exhibit in Istanbul. The Gaziantep Museum does not currently have space suitable for public display of the mosaics, and the proposed Istanbul exhibit would be finished long before an appropriate new Gaziantep museum could be designed and built.

In a similar case, the magnificent ancient Greek bronze statues from Riace in Italy were put on temporary exhibition in Rome and Florence, and then returned for permanent display in the regional museum in Reggio Calabria, near where they were discovered.

PHI has never heard of any plan for the Zeugma mosaics to remain permanently in Istanbul, or anywhere else other than Zeugma or Gaziantep.  If PHI had believed that there was any chance that the Zeugma mosaics would not return to Zeugma, PHI would never have offered to sponsor this Istanbul exhibit.


If the GZP had doubts about the ultimate return of the mosaics, the obvious solution would have been to request firm assurances from the national government that the mosaics will be returned to Zeugma.  Instead, the GZP chose to launch a totally unjustified attack on the professional team of mosaic conservators, involving serious misrepresentations.

The GZP claims that the Zeugma mosaics cannot be shipped safely to Istanbul, and that “there is no other attempt to transport any mosaics anywhere in the world.”   

In 2001 there was a major exhibit of Roman Mosaics from the Mediterranean at the Museo Arqueologico Nacional in Madrid. This exhibit included 78 mosaics sent from Italy, Tunisia, France, Portugal, Algeria, Syria, and Spain. It was a tremendous success, with over 100,000 visitors.

In 1995 there was an exhibition on Carthage at the Petit Palais in Paris, with a wide variety of objects sent from Tunisia, including 18 mosaics from six different museums.

In 2000 Syria sent an exhibition with mosaics, Syria: Land of Civilizations, to several cities in Canada and the United States.

Tunisia, a country famous for its mosaics, has been generous in sending them to exhibitions in other countries. A representative from the Tunisian embassy was quoted recently in Hurriyet saying that mosaics from the famous Bardo museum are sent from one city to another around the world, including New York and Paris. 

These and many other examples illustrate that shipping mosaics is neither uncommon nor irresponsible, if it is done with professional care. The preparation and packing of the Zeugma mosaics would be done entirely by the professional mosaic conservation experts who have worked for over three years conserving the entire collection of Zeugma mosaics.  They would also supervise the unpacking and installation of the mosaics in Istanbul, and their safe return after the exhibit.

The GZP claims that the team of Italian mosaic conservators working at Gaziantep have damaged the Zeugma mosaics. This accusation is an irresponsible insult to the dedication and professional skill of a team of conservation experts, who have devoted the past three years to helping Zeugma.  For this reason, I must give a fuller account of Dr. Roberto Nardi and his team of mosaic conservators, why they are now at Gaziantep, and what their work has accomplished.

In May of 2000, the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) offered to help with the emergency rescue work at Zeugma. We signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and with GAP.  Since June of 2000, PHI has provided more than ten million dollars of support for excavation, conservation, and publication at Zeugma. Some of this money was used to support excavations by the Gaziantep Museum.

On June 12–14, 2000, PHI sent a team of experts to make an up-to-date assessment of the conservation requirements arising out of the excavations at Zeugma. This team included Professor Richard Hodges and Dr. Roberto Nardi, who is one of the leading experts in the world on mosaic conservation and is vice-president of ICCM, the International Committee on the Conservation of Mosaics. Dr. Nardi was recommended to PHI by Dr. Nicholas Stanley Price, the director of ICCROM, an intergovernmental organization with 100 member states and affiliated with UNESCO.

In the two previous years, many mosaics had already been excavated by the Gaziantep Museum and by others.  Many of these mosaics were stacked in piles in the garden of the Museum (exposed to the weather) and in the basement of an adjacent building. They were subject to damage from humidity, temperature, and micro-organisms. The storage conditions were totally inadequate and there was no infrastructure for conservation of the mosaics.

Numerous photographs exist from June of 2000, documenting the deplorable storage conditions of the Zeugma mosaics at the Gaziantep Museum.

Dr. Nardi proposed a comprehensive plan for the professional conservation of all Zeugma mosaics.  The work would be done by professional conservators, specialized in mosaic conservation, according to the international standards of their profession.

PHI agreed to provide full financial support for this important project, which was conducted by the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica di Roma (CCA), under the immediate direction of Dr. Nardi. This program has involved teams of up to twenty people working more than three years. PHI has provided more than three million dollars in funding for this activity. Nardi has trained many Turkish collaborators to work with his team on the project.

The Gaziantep Museum did not have any adequate space for this conservation work, or even for proper storage of the mosaics. PHI therefore paid for the construction by GAP of two new buildings, located behind the museum. These buildings provide a fully equipped laboratory for mosaic conservation, and they will remain for the future use of the Gaziantep Museum.

The conservation process involves many steps and patient attention to details.  A full description of the process has been published in the technical literature and is available at the web site

The conservators normally divide the larger mosaics into smaller sections of approximately one square meter, with the divisions following the original pattern.  The mosaic stones (tesserae) are applied on mortar prepared according to the original ancient formula, and then mounted on new Aereolam supports (aluminum honeycomb designed for aeronautical use). The newly conserved mosaics can then be reassembled for display with complete fidelity to the original design.

 This method makes it safer to work on the mosaics and safer to transport and store them.  When the mosaics are packed for shipping, each section is about one square meter and weights about 70 kg.  Each box contains three sections. In special cases, a small mosaic can be shipped complete, but there is no question of trying to move an entire large mosaic at one time.

A few tesserae at the edges of sections are sometimes shipped loose (in a bag or temporarily attached). These are then placed in position when the mosaic is reassembled for display. The exact position of every single piece is always fully documented.

When CCA began its work, many Zeugma mosaics were lying in piles at the Gaziantep Museum, not protected, not organized, not documented, not conserved. Those mosaics certainly could never have been exhibited to the public in that state.

Four years later, thanks to the dedicated work of CCA, organized and funded by PHI:

·              the entire collection of Zeugma mosaics has been professionally conserved and documented to the highest standards.

·              The Gaziantep Museum now has a proper facility for storage of the mosaics.

·              The Gaziantep Museum now has a proper laboratory for future conservation work.

·              Local Turkish technicians have received valuable training and experience in doing this work.

·              Most important of all—the mosaics are now ready to be exhibited to the public, in Zeugma, in Gaziantep, in Istanbul, or elsewhere.

CCA also helped set up temporary displays for the Gaziantep Museum, after the main displays were put in safe storage in March of 2003. In addition, CCA implemented a program to protect the site of Zeugma, which is especially subject to damage at the shore line.

Demonstrating their gratitude for this help, on March 11 the Gaziantep Museum escorted a hostile group of persons accompanied by TV cameras into the CCA conservation work area. This group shouted insults at the Italian conservation team, accusing them of damaging the mosaics and harming Turkey. Members of the Italian team were later placed in police cars and taken back to the Museum for interrogation.

This disgraceful scene was the direct result of public hostility generated by the misleading and irresponsible statements of people who knew, or who should have taken the trouble to learn, the true facts. The Italian team of mosaic conservators was needlessly subjected to rudeness, intimidation and humiliation. 

Archaeology is not a treasure hunt, designed to make excavators famous by displaying their looted trophies.  Archaeology is a serious scientific enterprise, involving the obligation to plan for the long-term conservation and publication of the excavated site and of any objects found.  The public should not be encouraged to believe that continued digging for treasures at Zeugma will lead to world-wide fame, without any need to plan for the conservation and publication of objects they hope to find.

PHI has long supported a responsible plan for Zeugma. In an e-mail dated October 8, 2000, I described my proposal for a Zeugma Museum to Dr Olcay Ünver, the President of GAP. Here is part of my message, which was later leaked to the Turkish press. 

Would the Ministry of Culture consider making a promise to house all Zeugma objects (including all mosaics) at a new absolutely first-class, museum at Zeugma? What if we engage (perhaps after a competition) a world-class architect and design a world-class museum that takes advantage of the site (overlooking the Euphrates among the pistachio trees) and is worth a trip “in itself” as a tourist destination. Then the mosaics and other objects will make a visit even more desirable.

In a letter to the Minister of Culture, M. Istemihan Talay, dated May 25, 2001, I again discussed PHI’s proposal for a Zeugma Museum and Study Center.  At a press conference in Istanbul on June 21, 2001, PHI proposed creating (and helping to fund) a new Zeugma Foundation.  Here is part of my statement:

This foundation would design and build a new Zeugma Museum and Study Center at the site. All objects excavated at Zeugma (past, present, and future) would be stored here. Storerooms with adequate space and appropriate environment would be provided, along with workshops for study and conservation.

The Museum would have a large area for public exhibition of objects found at Zeugma, including the famous mosaics, but also other finds of all types. The Zeugma Museum would aim to provide the highest quality visitor experience, and it would expect to become a major tourist destination in its own right.

There would be a firm commitment to professional conservation of all objects, as well as the excavated site itself. The conservation program would have the dual goal of conserving the finds and also providing opportunities (as a training center) for the continued development of Turkish expertise that can be applied also at other sites in the region and elsewhere in Turkey.

The Museum and the archaeological site would be integrated fully into the regional planning, as a kind of “archaeological park.” Other historic sites in the region might be coordinated into a master plan, both for scientific study and for touristic development.

The Museum and Study Center would provide employment opportunities for the local population. The increased tourism generated by Zeugma could have a major economic benefit for the region. It is especially appealing for me to imagine that, in addition to its scientific rewards, a properly designed project at Zeugma could help support a better life for the local residents of the region.

PHI has always believed that the development of Zeugma as a regional tourist attraction could help improve the lives of the local residents. PHI had also hoped that Zeugma would provide opportunities for genuine collaboration between Turkish and international scholars. Unfortunately, the Gaziantep Museum has not welcomed PHI’s attempts to encourage collaboration with a broader group of Turkish and international colleagues.

When we first discussed a possible Istanbul exhibit last year, the Director of the Gaziantep Museum strongly expressed his opinion that the mosaics must first be exhibited to the people of Gaziantep.  In response, PHI worked hard to organize an exhibit in Gaziantep before Istanbul. PHI agreed to pay for all exhibit expenses and for insurance of the mosaics. In fact, the Gaziantep exhibit had been scheduled to begin on April 2 at the Gaziantep Convention Center.  It has, of course, now been cancelled by the legal actions of the GZP.

Showing mosaics to NATO leaders has never been a motivation for PHI, and it is not now our purpose. We did not even know about the NATO event until many months after we first discussed the exhibit with the Ministry.  We do think that a NATO visit could generate international news coverage, which could stimulate future tourism to Zeugma.

This letter is long, but I hope the people of Gaziantep will understand that PHI and CCA have acted in an honorable manner in trying to help Zeugma and Turkey.