Urfa mosaic museum reflects ancient history of the Turkish city

Roman, Christian and unique Seleucid-period mosaics in Turkey’s third-largest mosaic museum

 Roman marble mosaic, A.D. 194; Eastern Roman Empire, near Edessa (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Roman marble mosaic, A.D. 194; Eastern Roman Empire, near Edessa
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Two thousand years ago, in their luxury villas, the Roman elite walked upon floor mosaics depicting fantastical scenes of wild animals, heroic Greek mythology and colorful geometrical designs artfully made from impossibly small stones.

In 2006, when the southeastern Turkish City of Urfa, officially known as Sanlıurfa, was undertaking a construction project next to renovation work on the Sanlıurfa Archaeological Museum, workers unearthed sections of such Roman mosaics. Work was halted and in the subsequent three years of excavations, the spectacular mosaic floors of an entire Roman villa were revealed.

The "Amazon Villa"

Rather than removing the mosaics from the villa for exhibition at the museum, the mosaics were kept in place and the Haleplibahçe Mozaik Museum was built around them, opening in 2015

It was dubbed the “Amazon villa” because of the stunning large rectangular mosaic depicting an Amazon hunting scene on the floor of the hall opposite the villa’s entrance. The villa’s mosaics also portray scenes from the life of Greek Trojan War hero Achilles, as well as birds, tigers and lions.

 Mosaic floor of Roman villa depicting servant leading a Zebra. (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY) Mosaic floor of Roman villa depicting servant leading a Zebra. (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

The Amazons were a race of warrior women in Greek mythology known for their riding skills, fighting ability, courage and pride.

Enduring varied religious rules

In antiquity, Urfa was known as Edessa. It is believed that as early as 190 CE, Christianity had taken root among the people of Edessa and its surroundings, and was soon made the official religion by King Abgar IX. It became a prominent center of Christian learning, however, under Roman rule many Christians were martyred. Following numerous changes of rulers, the area adopted Islam as its official religion.

Some mosaics found in the region now also on display in the museum attest to the ancient Christian history of the area, including a sixth century CE mosaic depicting a scene of an unknown martyr that was found in a nearby village of Sabuncu.

Another mosaic from the floor of an ancient tomb in the village of Yolbilen from the same period depicts the four disciples of Jesus who according to Christian tradition wrote the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Both mosaics have inscriptions in the ancient Christian Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic that emerged in the first century CE.

THE KINGDOM of Edessa — which was ruled by the Abgarid dynasty for a short period starting in the second century BCE and up to the 3rd century CE — created its own mosaic style, which included the embedding of the date of the completion of the mosaic in Syriac, making it easy to date and place them. Many of the mosaics were discovered lining the floors in cave tombs in the city, some of which are located right across from the mosaic museum. Many others have been looted or destroyed by construction.

In 2012, this unique dating of the mosaics enabled the Turkish authorities to locate and repatriate a unique, extremely well-preserved marble mosaic of Orpheus, son of Apollo, playing his lyre to tame the animals, dating to 194 CE, which had been looted in 1998.A Jewish researcher

of ancient Aramaic and Syriac named Judah Ben-Zion Segal had documented a similar partially-preserved Orpheus mosaic in situ in a burial cave near Edessa so the style and design was known to be local to Edessa burials.

Proof of thievery 

How did the Turkish authorities know it had been stolen in 1998?

Because a roll of film the thieves had taken to be developed contained evidence of the looting. The thieves never came back for their pictures, but the store owner alerted the authorities, and when the mosaic surfaced in a public auction ending up at the Dallas Art Museum, the Turkish government asked for its repatriation.

The mosaic's return

Since its return in 2015, the mosaic has been exhibited at the Haleplibahçe Mozaik Museum.

“There are quite a few mosaics of Orpheus playing to animals, but an Orpheus mosaic with the Syriac date is unique to Urfa, and only two exist – the one documented by Segal and the one which was repatriated,” said Prof. Boaz Zissu, a classical archaeologist from the Martin (Szusz) Land of Israel and Archaeology Department at Bar-Ilan University.

The top inscription names Barsaged as the person who laid the mosaic. The lower inscription notes the completion of the mosaic as the floor for the burial chamber of a man named Papa the son of Papa and his family in the month of Nisan in the Seleucid dynasty year of 505, which coincides with 194 CE.

“This is the earliest Syriac inscription ever found,” said Zissu. “These inscriptions are so special that it was possible for the Turkish authorities to prove the mosaic originated from Edessa. This was a happy ending story with the mosaic returning back, which usually doesn’t happen. The bad news is that the original context is forever lost.” 

The writer was a guest of the Turkish Tourism Board.