Whose Eyes Are These?




OF THE MOSAIC, mostly the eyes remain, framed by locks of chestnut hair. On one ear, a hoop gold earring; on the head, a green-gray scarf. There is a flush of red where the hair touches the cheek, deep color rising slowly to the cheekbones. She looks startled; the silent shock of a deer locked in place. Her look turns inward, fear sliding to thoughtful resignation and perhaps fatigue. “She,” I say, though the museum sign explains that there is still discussion about the mosaic’s gender. Some think this is the face of Alexander the Great; others, the earth goddess Gaia.

Many diminutive names were given her at the time of her discovery — “The Zeugma Girl,” “Our Girl” — even though these are doubtless the eyes of an adult. The name that stuck was “Gypsy Girl” (Çingene Kızı), and whatever debate there was about the face’s gender, age, or origin was mostly forgotten with this new mythology. In the 18 years since she has been displayed in Gaziantep’s Zeugma Mosaic Museum, close to Turkey’s Syrian border, the “Gypsy Girl” has become a symbol of the city and of Turkey’s classical heritage. Her eyes are reproduced on countless posters and souvenirs, looking on through millennia.

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The Gypsy Girl mosaic was discovered beneath a fallen column in 1998 during rescue excavations of the second-century Roman settlement, Zeugma, on the banks of the Euphrates River, when the site was about to be flooded with the construction of the Birecik Dam in southeastern Turkey. The mosaic was one of many covering the floor of a Roman villa’s triclinium, the chamber reserved for hosting, with its reclining chairs arranged around the dinner table, lavishly decorated with motifs of flora and fauna and themes of entertainment. The colors of the mosaics’ glass and rock echo the landscape of the Euphrates — the muted yellows and greens; silty hills of oak and ash spreading around the shimmering blues. At the time of the excavations, most of the floor mosaics had disappeared. The villa was looted by black market smugglers in the early 1960s, like many other ancient sites in Turkey. Individual pictures were broken up with pickaxes and hammers, shattering the colorful geometric decorations surrounding them. By chance, the looters had overlooked the Gypsy Girl, hidden beneath a column.

Soon thereafter, 12 of the stolen mosaics resurfaced in New York at the Peter Marks Works of Art Gallery. Among them were depictions of birds, satyrs, theater masks, and the face of a woman with a sideways glance, much like the Gypsy Girl. In 1965, Marks sold the Zeugma mosaics to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for $35,000, with scanty paperwork showing the origin of the pieces as the city of Antioch, a short distance from Zeugma. He also provided pencil sketches showing how the mosaics would have looked in their original place.

Antioch, modern-day Antakya, had been excavated extensively in the 1930s by a group of archeologists headed by Princeton University, with hopes of discovering the city’s ancient Christian sites. The expedition uncovered 300 Roman mosaic floors, 40 of which were taken to the United States alongside thousands of coins and smaller artifacts, which were distributed among universities, galleries, and museums. When Antioch became part of the Turkish Republic in 1939, with strict prohibitions against exporting antiquities, the mission was hastily wrapped up and the last excavated artifacts shipped to New Jersey.

Black-and-white photographs from the Antioch excavation show villagers working deep in the trenches, hauling colossal stones, cleaning baskets of daily finds. In one photograph, two young men, wearing fezes, shalvars, and white cotton shorts, chip away at a mosaic of fish. In another, an old man with a long beard and turban sits hugging his knees in the shade of an olive tree. Behind him is the giant floor mosaic of a striding lion amid a sea of flowers. The camera’s focus is on the art, lavish, exquisite, while the modest people surrounding it appear small, even insignificant.

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In 2011, 47 years after their purchase, the Zeugma mosaics were cleaned, restored, and installed under protective glass on the floor of the new Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University. On the occasion of the mosaics’ inauguration, art historians Stephanie Langin-Hooper and Rebecca Molholt began a collaboration on the works which were still assumed to have come from Antioch. But Molholt suspected that the individually broken mosaics, most of them 12 by 12 inches, pointed clearly to smuggling. It did not take her long to realize that the works were not from Antioch, as the university’s purchase records indicated, and that the pencil sketch provided by Peter Marks were “wishful thinking.” (Since his sale to Bowling Green, Marks had also published an article, “The Ethics of Art Dealing,” in the International Journal of Cultural Property, about difficulties faced by collectors and dealers given the new legal standards imposed on the purchase of artworks.) Scanning pictures of other nearby archeological sites, Molholt noticed that the color palette of the Bowling Green mosaics exactly matched those from the Zeugma excavation; one of the decorative fillings was a softly shaded lotus flower, identical to a border frame in the Gaziantep museum. It took Molholt two weeks to conclude that the mosaics were taken from the same villa as the Gypsy Girl.

In the widely publicized event of the mosaics’ rediscovery, the Turkish media expressed indignation that the works were stepped on daily (even though they were under glass) and that they were displayed at the entrance of the art center as mere decoration. The newspapers might have found a better case for offense among the Antioch mosaics at Princeton, several of which were installed without protection in lobby entrances or building exteriors as recently as 2008. Since their arrival from Antioch, they’d cracked and faded, unprotected from the effects of snow and rain.

After seven years of negotiations between Bowling Green and the Turkish government, the 12 mosaics were shipped back to Gaziantep in December 2018. In her press-conference speech, Professor Langin-Hooper called the return a “triumph,” adding,

I use that word “triumph” deliberately, as it refers in Roman times to the celebratory display of looted artworks taken by conquest, paraded through the streets of Rome. Today, however, we have a modern triumph — a reverse triumph, if you will. The looted masterpieces get to go home.

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In animist art, there is a moment when putting in the eyes or the mouth of a sculpture separates the object from its maker, taking on a life of its own. The same is true of breaking apart, when a fragment takes on new meaning through all that it leaves open to the imagination. In the 18 years that she has been alone in a dimly lit room of the Zeugma Museum, the Gypsy Girl has taken on a different identity. No other mosaic in present-day Turkey has quite such a grip on the imagination, though there are many to choose from: ones that are bigger, fuller, or more easily accessed, such as the spectacular Deesis mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Because of their relationship to the Gypsy Girl, the arrival of the 12 mosaics from Ohio was surrounded by a flurry of excitement, more than any other artwork that the Turkish government has actively sought to repatriate in the last decade, including those displayed at the The Met, the Louvre, and the Pergamon. The return was told as a tale of homecoming. “Our Gypsy Girl will finally be united with her family,” said Gaziantep’s mayor; the minister of Culture and Tourism that she would finally be united with her “sister,” meaning the sideways-glancing depiction of a Maenad, follower of Dionysus. The Maenad has vine leaves and grapes flowing out from her hair. She wears the same, golden earring as the Gypsy. But though her eyes are askance, they are mischievous and full of determination, unlike those of her sister’s.

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I visited the Zeugma Museum in May 2015. The previous day, I had been at Göbeklitepe, the world’s oldest temple dating to 10,000 BC, a period before human settlement. The day before that, I was at Mor Gabriel, the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, where Aramaic is still spoken. For several years, the monastery had been under threat of losing its lands to the area’s Kurdish population as well as to the Turkish treasury. On the day of my visit, a Muslim villager had brought her sick child to the monastery for blessing. Her face was intricately tattooed; her head scarf the same dusty shade of purple as the thistles poking thickly from the parched soil. I sat down in the courtyard to rest when a priest came up to me and asked, in English, from where I was visiting. When I told him that I was Turkish, he paused, then said kindly, “Don’t worry, it’s all right.”

History surfaced all around in blaring fragments, hacked away from the pieces that joined it together, without any apparent relevance or kinship to what was happening all around. On the day I arrived in Gaziantep, the al-Nusra Front had issued a declaration of war against Kurdish militia in Aleppo, barely a three-hour drive from the Zeugma Museum and the native town of my great-grandmother. In the car, the Syrian border blurred into crimson and ink at sunset, the white peaks of refugee tents stretching for kilometers in parallel to the road.

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In Greek, “zeugma” means bridge of boats, referring to those tied together to connect the two banks of the Euphrates. I learn this from a video about the Zeugma Mosaic Museum issued by the Ministry of Tourism. It is narrated by a young, enthusiastic man with an American accent. He adds, all too predictably, that the name of the ancient city is just like Turkey itself, a bridge, or better, a mosaic of civilizations.

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Part of the Gypsy Girl’s power is due to her lack of denomination. It might be less apparent, for example, to call the return of a Christ mosaic to Antioch a “homecoming,” even though St. Paul and St. Peter both lived and preached in the city and there founded the first church. Yet these histories, along with the Greek and early Roman ones are almost entirely absent from the Turkish national curriculum, which mostly follows the arrival of Turks from Central Asia. The history of Anatolia springs into existence with their appearance, stifling thousands of years of multiple, intertwining inhabitation. The ancient heritage of Turkey thus requires a double-vision. It is at once there and not there, boasted and ignored.

The Gypsy Girl, however, is nothing but eyes. No part of her makes her foreign or insists on her difference. She is whatever you would like her to be. Give her a familiar name, and she becomes one of us, whereas a “Gypsy” is rootless in her wandering, easily exotic, and malleable.

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A cliché about the Gypsy Girl is that she is “the Mona Lisa of Turkey.” Museum signs, newspaper articles, and online forums attempting to explain her importance invariably talk about her three-quarter look, the effect of which is that her eyes follow you everywhere. The explanation is intended to reveal the trick, to deliver the viewer from the grip of art with a rational explanation of why it moves us. What isn’t revealed with the technical description is the reason for our fascination with silent, mysterious women — from the Virgin Mary to the Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Venus to the Gypsy Girl — why it is that the melancholy, abstract beauty of a woman, at once mature and girlish, knowing and silent, has such a hold on our imagination.

The Irish novelist Colm Tóibín writes:

It is as though her insistent and mysterious power arose precisely from her shadowy presence; it is as though the devotion to her grew from this very absence and silence. She could thus be re-created with greater force in the imagination of those who prayed to her and who sought her intercession.

Tóibín is referring to the Virgin Mary, in the afterword to his book The Testament of Mary, though he may as well be describing the Gypsy Girl. Perhaps the actual zeugma uniting civilizations across millennia and cultures is the allure of the silent woman, reproduced again and again in the history of art. These women cannot speak for themselves, because they exert no subjective selfhood in their silent gaze. There is nothing that distinguishes their true person; nothing challenging, or rebellious, to mark their unique standing. They are exotically Other — gypsy — because they are imagined and made by men and are the opposite of their makers’ subjective, embodied existence. Yet their Otherness is unthreatening: girl rather than woman. As such, they are easily possessed by the imagination and claimed as one’s own.

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From its very beginning, the story of the mosaics is a story of ownership: the lands of the Euphrates contested among the Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Ottomans; the noble families whose lavish homes attest to their wealth; the looters and the dealers; the institutions who want to display the culture at their command. There is smugness in ownership, the wish to prove that what you own rightfully belongs to you: these are our lands, our discoveries, our religion and culture. These possessions represent us more than they represent you. “[I]t must be noted that the Turks themselves can claim little credit for their archeological treasures,” a Der Spiegel article explains. Turks only arrived in Anatolia in the 11th century and therefore have no relationship to what was there before them. The suggestion is that identity and belonging are fixed, that they cannot transform, nor can they embrace what is foreign. “When the new Muslim masters took over,” the article continues, “the region’s illustrious past faded into obscurity. The water-pipe-smoking caliphs were more concerned with pursuing their own interests.” Ownership asserts itself as a moral status in face of the immoral other, insisting that the indolent caliphs are not worthy of a noble Western heritage, because to own is to be superior. It is how a tribe stamps its mark upon another; a civilization retains legitimacy; patriarchy tightens its grip. The vanquished, dispossessed of their belongings, are buried under the names, stories, and moralities assigned to them by the new titleholders.

“We liked her so much that we decided to take her under our custody,” says archeologist Rifat Ergeç about the Gypsy Girl, at a panel on Gaziantep’s history. He is part of the team that discovered the mosaic in 1998 and is humorously recounting the story of her transformation from a buried fragment to the city’s symbol. He produces a national identity card he’s prepared for the newly adopted Gypsy Girl. The father’s name is “Turkey,” mother’s name “Anatolia.” Her place of birth is Zeugma, place of registration the Gaziantep museum.

As part of his joke, Ergeç has chosen to include the mosaic’s marital status as well. This section is marked when one turns 18, as single or married. At one time, though there was no legal framework to do so, registry officers would write “Virgin” on the identity cards of young women, laying their hands on what is most private. This, too, is ownership. It is what Ergeç has decided to put down for the startled, mosaic eyes. The eyes of our girl.

The newspaper article notes that his presentation is met with laughter and applause.

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Ayşegül Savaş is a writer based in Paris. Her first novel, Walking on the Ceiling, is published by Riverhead Books.


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