Dam Project Threatens Roman Ruins in Turkey Archaeologists are racing to finish excavating Roman ruins at the town of Allianoi before they're flooded by a new dam. The Turkish state says a reservoir will allow farmers to irrigate their fields and earn more money.
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Dam Project Threatens Roman Ruins in Turkey

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Dam Project Threatens Roman Ruins in Turkey

Dam Project Threatens Roman Ruins in Turkey

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Archaeologists in Turkey are rushing to complete excavations of some ancient Roman ruins before the fall, when workers finish construction of a dam and the site will be flooded. The Turkish government says the new reservoir will allow thousands of farmers to better irrigate their fields, but archaeologists are protesting the dam's construction, saying it will destroy an irreplaceable piece of history. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to Allianoi and sends this story.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

In a quiet, sun-drenched valley not far from the Mediterranean Sea, a race is under way. On one side, teams of archaeologists armed with picks and shovels dig through the catacombs and foundations of Allianoi, an ancient Roman town built a century after the birth of Christ.

(Soundbite of excavation work)

WATSON: Meanwhile, on hilltops within site of the ruins, trucks and bulldozers grind away, dumping earth into the 800-yard-long, 50-yard-high Yortanli Dam, which will soon turn the valley into a lake.

(Soundbite of construction work)

Mr. HILCARE ATOSCHE(ph) (Turkish Government Engineer): Yes, quite a big lake we will create here.

WATSON: Hilcare Atosche is a government engineer overseeing the dam's construction. The reservoir is expected to provide an economic boost to the region by irrigating the fields of more than 5,000 farmers. But as the huge, earth-filled wall grows daily, Atosche says he faces growing pressure from Allianoi's archaeologists to stop construction of the $30 million dam.

Mr. ATOSCHE: Nowadays they want stop our works, maybe, but this--unfortunately, it's not possible in that time.

WATSON: The dig at Allianoi straddles a dry riverbed less than a mile from the dam. Wooden walkways lead visitors over a honeycomb of exposed foundations of dozens of ancient buildings, including a hole where eight 30-foot-tall columns loom over a tile mosaic floor.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WATSON: During a recent visit, one of the scores of workers laboring under the hot summer sun brought a new discovery to Dr. Ahmet Yaras, the chief archaeologist here. It was a slender brass knife turned green after being buried more than a thousand years in the dirt.

Dr. AHMET YARAS (Chief Archaeologist, Allianoi Site): (Through Translator) And this is a very new, you know, surgeon tool, surgery tool, which is newly found.

WATSON: Just now?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

Dr. YARAS: Just now. Mm-hmm.

WATSON: It's a scalpel.

Dr. YARAS: Scalpel. Mm-hmm.

WATSON: Yaras says they've discovered hundreds of surgical tools similar to this 1,800-year-old scalpel since excavations began here a decade ago, proving that under the Roman Empire, Allianoi was an important medical center and health spa. The entire complex of temples, galleries and ancient market streets here all revolve around Allianoi's natural thermal springs. Yaras leads visitors into a chamber where green water bubbles inside a large, marble-lined bath that's naturally heated to 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dr. YARAS: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: It's hot in here!

Dr. YARAS: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: `In ancient Roman times,' Yaras says, `people traveled from across the world to treat diseases in the medicinal waters here.'

In an adjoining room, two young architecture students carefully plot what may be the last drawings of the bath's stone archways before archaeologists pack up in October and the dam's waters submerges these ruins once and for all.

Ms. PALIN ATASCHE(ph) (Architect): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: `It's sad,' says Palin Atasche, one of the architects. `It will take a miracle to save this place from the water.'

Outside, tourists come throughout the day to get a last look at the ruins, among them a Turkish couple named Gizam(ph) and Barish Delek(ph).

Unidentified Man #2: It's--it will be a serious loss. I don't know. I'm not sure if the government will take the necessary actions for this issue, but I'm sure that we will lose this place. So that's why, I mean, I photograph.

WATSON: A group of Turkish lawyers has joined Dr. Yaras and his campaign to stop destruction of the Yortanli Dam. The dam's engineers argue that Allianoi is not that important compared to the much larger ancient cities that dot Turkey's Aegean coast. Overlooked in the dispute are the residents of the sleepy village of Caltikoru, located halfway between the dam and the ruins.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

WATSON: Among them is a 75-year-old farmer named Osman Sevakias(ph), who says his stone house will also be flooded come fall.

Mr. OSMAN SEVAKIAS (Farmer): (Through Translator) Well, there's no happiness in that for our village because it destroy all our fields and some of our houses. So it's not good for our village, but it's too bad.

WATSON: Sevakias says though he has heard promises, he still does not know when and how the government will compensate him for his property. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

HANSEN: There's a gallery of photos from the ruins at our Web site, npr.org.

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