Ancient Roman spa in Turkey about to be flooded

Nymph fountain in situ at Allianoi (has been removed now)The 2nd century Roman thermal spa complex of Allianoi outside of Bergama (ancient Pergamon) in Turkey’s Izmir Province is in the process of being filled in with sand. Cranes and dump trucks manned by workers from the Turkish State Waterworks Directorate are filling the whole site — 17-foot walls, mosaics, colonnaded porticoes, the still-working thermal spa fed by a natural hot spring and much, much more — in preparation for the entire valley being flooded and turned into an irrigation reservoir for area farmers.

This nightmare has been in the offing for 5 years. Organizations like Europa Nostra and UNESCO have tried to stop construction of the Yortanlı Dam and the subsequent flooding of the valley, but they were only able to delay the project. The Turkish government could not be budged. Now the dam is built and the flooding is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

In theory this sand filling is meant to preserve the site so it won’t be damaged in the flooding, but the government is refusing to allow archaeologists access so it’s not like they’re going about this in a responsible way. The flippant comments from officials are hardly soothing.

Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu … said in late August: “Allianoi does not exist, it is an invention… There is just a hot spring like many others across Turkey.”

His remarks were roundly criticized while the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the European non-governmental preservation organization Europa Nostra and archaeologists from the European Union urged the Turkish government in a letter to preserve the “common heritage” at Allianoi.

But the game seems to be over: Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay quashed hope of saving Allianoi last week when he dismissed the idea of questioning the local archaeological commission’s decision in late August to bury the site for preservation.

“After all, Allianoi remained underground for a long time and it surfaced only during drilling works,” he said.

Professor Ahmet Yaraş, who excavated the site for 9 years and is now the leader of the Turkish NGO Allianoi Initiative (in Turkish only), is horrified. He believes 80% of the site has yet to be excavated and that the filling will, at best, do no good at all. Once the valley is flooded, sediment will build up quickly, so even if in some nebulous future the site were drained, archaeologists would have to dig through 20 feet of sediment to even get to the sand fill.

This isn’t the first time Turkey has dammed and flooded an area, submerging its ancient heritage. They’ve been building dams since the 70s to extend agricultural productivity and hydroelectric power, and sadly, preserving cultural patrimony just doesn’t seem to be a priority for the politicians.

Allianoi site, reconstructed thermal baths on the front right