Back in 1998, while overnighting in Antakya, Turkey (Antioch!), I got up early before our afternoon bus into Syria — the setting for my worst travel illness experience ever — to go visit the local museum. I was blown away by the mosaics there, not fully aware of just how many existed in Turkey, the superhighway of history, where the Turks are just the most recent of a whole parade of civilizations from the Neolithic to the Byzantines. (The Turks entered the neighborhood in 1070 when the Seljuk Turks took Aleppo; the Ottomans captured Istanbul in 1453; Ataturk founded the modern republic in 1923.) Back in 1998, one of the best mosaic collections in the world lay inside this rather unimpressive little building. At one point, so gobsmacked by the mosaics, I became distracted and stepped over a low chain around a large outdoor courtyard mosaic floor. That’s right, I stood smack in the middle of an ancient mosaic floor, suddenly aware with a flash of panic and looking around for witnesses as I tiptoed back outside the chain hoping I wouldn’t make an CCTV highlight clips. This is the day I met Poseidon. Handsome devil, isn’t he?
I didn’t know it at the time, but three years before my Antakya visit, a large collection of mosaics was discovered in the ruins of a Hellenistic-Roman town of Zeugma (dating back to 300 B.C.E.). Archaeologists were thrilled. Then the Turkish government decided to build a dam on the Euphrates River which would flood much of the area. Archaeologists were horrified. Work began to remove as much of that artwork as possible and in 2005 they found a home for the mosaics in the municipal museum in Gaziantep. Not a good enough venue for such a collection, a more modern museum opened in 2011, and it’s a stunner.
Here’s just one fine example, but I’ve got a Zeugma mosaic photo gallery on the main site, including a shot of the famous “Gypsy Girl” mosaic. Numbers abound as to the amount of actual mosaic area. Some say 1700 square meters but I’ve heard as much as 2,000, and with extra space in some secondary salons, there could be more the next time you visit.
On the boulevard in front of the museum is a series of statues honoring Gaziantep’s important status on the Silk Road. But if mosaics are not reason enough to visit here, you should also know that Gaziantep is the foodie capital of Turkey. (See my posts from our Gaziantep trip). Few other places are so diverse in their cuisine and some dishes — baklava, for one — are said to be best eaten here.
The Zeugma Mosaic Museum houses the largest collection of mosaics in the world. We spent a good couple of hours in here. Photos were allowed. After the first main hall, there is another hall with even more mosaics and space to grow. These tend to be less ornate and primarily animal figures, so if you are running out of time, these are the rooms to miss. Still, if you were in any other museum, it would still be a wow moment. It’s a memorable experience to be so close to such impressive art and to see them laid out as they once were someone’s walkway or parlor floor. Just one piece of advice: don’t walk on them.
Do It! You Know You Wanna Do It!
Zeugma Mosaic Museum
Mithatpaşa Mahallesi Hacı Sani Konukoğlu Bulvarı 27500, Şehitkamil
GPS: 37.074889, 37.386128
+90 (342) 325-2727
Admission was 10 TL (roughly $5)
Flights from Istanbul to Gaziantep can be rather cheap, as low as about $100 r/t and cheapest if you buy while special fares are still available. I’ve used CheapOair (an affiliate) for these internal Turkish flights as it lays out the comparisons with the little budget airlines nicely and typically has a little discount (use LASTMIN10 for a promo code). Unfortunately, flying there from other Turkish cities requires a flight back to Istanbul as the routes work like spokes. But hey, who doesn’t want to see Istanbul, right?