Zeugma is an ancient Hellenistic and Roman city known for its intricate mosaics, which have been almost perfectly preserved for 2,000 years. It is home to the largest mosaic collection in the world, with a dedicated institution, the Zeugma Mosaic Museum.
The rooms are the latest discovery in excavations, which have been ongoing since 2005, led by Ankara University professor Kutalmış Görkay. First discovered in 2007, the House of the Muses was named after a mosaic on its floor depicting the nine muses of ancient Greece who, according to legend, rule over the arts and sciences and inspire those pursuing them. Other mosaics found on-site portray stories and characters from Greek mythology such as ocean deities Oceanus and Thetys, as well as lifelike portraits of unidentified people.
According to Görkay, the two symmetrical chambers were used for dining in different seasons. “[They were] designed as summer and winter dining rooms,” he explained in an email to ARTnews. While the rooms are almost identical, Görkay says, “the eastern rock-cut room is more spacious and has a flat ceiling.” The western rock-cut room is also close to an oecus, a large hall or salon, which is covered by a vaulted ceiling made of opus caementicium (or Roman concrete) and bricks.
Although the rough-hewn stone chambers may seem plain today, they would have looked very different when they were first built. “Both rock-cut chambers do not have mosaic pavements, however, their floors were probably paved with figural [designs],” Görkay added.
The home seems to have belonged to an upper-middle-class family, who would have entertained in the dining rooms throughout the year—the two dining rooms, which flank the central courtyard, would have allowed easy access for indoor-outdoor settings.
Görkay believes the House of the Muses was first built in the late 1st century C.E., against a previously existing western wall. “The house took its final form in the late 2nd to early 3rd century C.E., before being destroyed during the Sassanid invasion of 252–253 C.E.,” he explains.
Zeugma, meaning bridge or crossing in ancient Greek, was founded in the 3rd century B.C.E. by Greek general Seleucus I Nicator. The city was originally part of two settlements that faced one another across the Euphrates River, where a floating bridge had been established to enable crossing. Zeugma became an important city for the Romans after they took hold in 64 B.C.E., and it would have held a large population of 70,000 residents, acting as a crucial site for trade and military power.
Much of the town was flooded in 2000, when a new dam was built on the Euphrates, and many of the ancient houses remain underwater to this day.
Görkay’s team of archaeologists have excavated over 50 feet of soil that had buried and filled the dining rooms. Their work will continue throughout 2021, during which they plan to strengthen the structures with steel scaffolding and injections to preserve the finds and avoid collapse, as it is already known that one of the chambers has dangerous cracks in the ceiling.
Once conservation and restoration work has been completed, the space and an on-site museum will open to visitors.