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Turkish dam plan threatens 'remarkable' Roman ruins

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • The ancient Roman spa town of Allianoi in Turkey risks imminent flooding
  • Flooding would occur when the hydro-electric Yortanli dam is opened
  • Currently only a quarter of the site has been excavated
  • The site has yielded beautiful mosaics, columns and statues

London, England (CNN) -- In Allianoi, an ancient Roman spa town near Bergama in Turkey, workers have been busy heaping sand onto the ruins.

It's the opposite of what you would normally see at a recently discovered archaeological site.

But Allianoi is being buried in preparation for flooding that will occur when the multi-million-dollar Yortanli dam, which is sponsored by Turkish State Hydraulic Works, opens.

The site dates as far back as the second century and features exquisite architecture, mosaics and sculptures.

Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, the Secretary General of Europa Nostra, an organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage in Europe, told CNN that Allianoi is a "remarkable heritage site" that gives "important scientific insight into Roman art, architecture, engineering, hydrology and pharmacology."

Despite pleas from archaeologists, environmental groups and the European Union, the Turkish government plans to go ahead with the proposed flooding.

Turkey's Minister for Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay was not available to comment, but a spokesperson provided CNN a translated statement made by Gunay at a recent press conference via email: "There has been a formal objection made [to burying the site in protective sand.] No conclusion is reached at this moment," the statement said.

"But for now," it continued, "Not holding the water, keeping Allianoi out of the dam or not having the dam, is not a question for us."

Under pressure from local farmers to open the dam -- which would irrigate almost 8,000 hectares of land -- the government finds itself in a tough spot.

Dr. Orhan Silier is President of the History Foundation of Turkey.

"The Turkish government is caught between two influences," he told CNN. "On the one hand, the heritage organizations, asking them to stop the flooding, and on the other hand, agricultural workers around the Allianoi, asking them to finish the construction of the dam."

The Turkish government is caught (between) heritage organizations, asking them to stop the flooding, and agricultural workers, asking them to finish the dam.
--Dr. Orhan Silier, President of the History Foundation of Turkey

Pressure groups including Europa Nostra, the Association of Turkish Archaeologists, and the Economical and Social History Foundation of Turkey have been stepping up their pleas to save Allianoi. They say the situation is becoming increasingly critical.

Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic told CNN: "We believe that there is still a chance that Allianoi can be saved.

"There is still the possibility that the Turkish government can make a very important, symbolic and political decision to save the site and not go on with flooding."

She acknowledged that this will not be easy, but said that by saving the site the Turkish government could reap very different benefits.

"There is a new demand for cultural tourism that could be wonderfully exploited and that site could be a very important attraction," she said, adding, "Let us not forget that even the World Bank said that culture is the fourth pillar of development."

Allianoi is not just causing political issues inside Turkey's borders. The country, which has long been trying to join the European Union, has received several objections to the proposed flooding from Brussels on the grounds that it contravenes EU and Turkish rules on preserving ancient monuments.

Within Turkey, groups and individuals are becoming increasingly vocal on the subject. Last month, members of the Turkish Nature Association chained themselves to construction equipment on the site, hoping to stop the flooding and publicize the situation.

Turkish pop star Tarkan -- singer of long-running Turkish number-one single, "Kiss Kiss" -- has pledged his support for Allianoi, prompting Turkish environment minister Veysel Eroglu to retort that he should mind his own business.

On Sunday thousands of protesters, including members of teachers associations, demonstrated at the site.

But Mehmet Aydin, 52, who grows cotton, tomatoes and corn on his plot near the site, told AFP: "They exaggerate, I do not think there is much of the ancient there. It is just a hot spring."

Allianoi was discovered when routine excavation on the proposed dam site took place, in 1998.

According to Silier, there is still much excavation work to be done. He told CNN that the potential for more finds is considerable, estimating that only a quarter of the total area of the site has been dug up.

Artifacts uncovered at the site include a stone statue of a water nymph, which has become the poster image for the campaign to save Allianoi.

Others include items relating to Roman ideas about hydrology and pharmacology, as the site was originally a health spa and still features a hot spring bath.

Found artifacts have been transported to a nearby archaeological museum in Bergama.

Allianoi's future, however, is far from certain. At the time of writing, according to Silier, a brief reprieve has been won by archaeologists headed by Dr Ahmet Yaras, who has formally appealed against the burying of the site.

For now, the Turkish government's commitment to the dam stands resolute; and Allianoi's archaological mysteries are likely to remain a secret.