The second-century Roman ruins at the city of Allianoi once stood tall under the blue Turkish sky, as seen in a file photo. But like the rest of the site's archaeological treasures, these structures are now covered back up with sand.
Today, however, the well-preserved ruins lie in the path of a proposed dam that would flood the region to create an artificial reservoir. The Yortanli Dam will provide water for thousands of acres of agricultural land, and farmers living near Turkey's Aegean coast strongly support the project.
Turkish officials say that covering Allianoi with sand before the flooding will protect the site for the future, and earlier this month teams completed the reburial. But the dam project is still being challenged, both in the courts and among conservationists and other opponents.
Photograph by Manoocher, National Geographic
Allianoi, one of the world's oldest existing bath and spa settlements, began to disappear under the sand—one wheelbarrow at a time—in September 2010.
The decision to rebury the site, near the modern-day city of Bergama (map), was made in August by a local preservation board, and it has been hotly protested by activists and archaeologists.
"The method is obsolete and it will destroy, rather than protect, the ancient site," İlker Ertuğrul, a member of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review newspaper.
Columns rise from shallow water amid the ruins of Allianoi in a February 2008 photo. Roman notables once flocked to the city's pools, bathhouses, and other structures to enjoy the health benefits of the natural springs.
Architect Ertuğrul told the Hürriyet newspaper that covering Allianoi with sand will provide little protection from floodwaters.
The region's relative warm water will cause chemical reactions that will destroy metals, mosaics, and even stone walls at the site—all of which have so far been remarkably preserved, Ertuğrul asserted.
A statue of a water nymph that once graced Allianoi's baths was lifted to the surface in 2002. The nymph has since become a symbol for those fighting to save Allianoi.
Archaeology magazine named Allianoi one of its top five "Sites Under Threat" for 2010, saying that international proposals to surround the site with a "waterproofing" dam or to relocate notable structures such as the thermal spa have been ignored by the Turkish government.
Photograph by Images & Stories/Alamy
A classic Roman arch provides a window into the past at the spa town of Allianoi, Turkey, in February 2008.
Nadine Moeller, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said excavations in Egypt's Nile Delta often unearth structures that have survived below the water table. That means it's possible parts of Allianoi could survive reburial and subsequent flooding.
"Anything organic is disintegrated, but mud-brick or stone structures are usually still there, and you can excavate them with the right techniques," Moeller said.
Photograph by Mustafa Ozer, AFP/Getty Images
The ancient splendor of Allianoi comes to life in this reconstructed thermal bath, seen in a file photo.
Some opponents of the dam believe that increased tourism might be one reason Allianoi is worth saving.
There's also the potential for finding unknown treasures. By some estimates, as much as 75 percent of the site has yet to be excavated.
It's unclear how the ruins of Allianoi will fare if the dam project proceeds. The University of Chicago's Moeller is optimistic that the city might not be destroyed by flooding, but she's not so sure about Allianoi's future prospects as an archaeological site.
"I think if it's covered, it could stay pretty well preserved," she said. "Obviously water damages things like wood or painted frescoes that wouldn't survive. But the structures and other things like pottery I think will stay.
"But once there's a dam and a lake on top, when is anyone ever going to see it or excavate it again?"