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ANCIENT CULTURES

One of the first hurdles to overcome for those new to Syrian culture is the succession of ancient Syrian civilizations.  The land was both a bridge between East and West as well as North and South.  With rich natural resources it was the home of many different empires. The ancient arts of Syria cannot be easily characterized like those of Egypt, as they differ dramatically from one epoch to the next.  Technological and artistic innovation occurred at such a rapid rate that one culture separated from another by no more than several hundred years could be entirely different. Cities contemporary in time in various parts of the country could also represent strikingly different cultures, as expressed in their art and literature.  Syria has been, to use a modern term, a land of great diversity. In contrast the history of ancient Egypt can be simplified into a vision of a continuous culture that may be appreciated by general audiences. This characterization, like many others, is not correct in detail, yet it has served Egypt well.  The ‘Land of the Pharos’ is familiar to just about everyone, and there is a natural interest in the subject. Monumental architecture, copious gold finds, and a wealth of literature attest to the sophistication of ancient Egyptian culture.

Syria presents a different picture.  Many of the most ancient Syrian structures were made of mud brick and not stone, yet despite this humble building material, there is still much that survives.   Ancient Syria also boasts many cultures that have influenced neighbouring lands and has provided the foundation for cultural developments in other countries. 

The rise of complex civilizations in the ‘fertile crescent’ during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC included Syrian cities.  Recent archaeological excavations demonstrate that the date for many cultural firsts can be pushed ever further into the past, and every year brings new discoveries.  Many of these sites, while of interest to the archaeologist, offer little in the way of monumental remains. It is here where the rich collections of  Syrian museums are important. Many technological advances over thousands of years of history have begun in Syria. Many types of  glass and glazed vessels occur first in the elite cities of the region.


This is a copy of a Phoenician glass vessel (c. 600 BC) of a general type that was made about a thousand years before. There is good evidence to suggest that vessels of this type were first made in Syria.  Hot glass was fused around a core to produce vessels in a number of different shapes, including this rather playful fish.  Such items can be sold by unscrupulous dealers while touring archaeological sites.  It is illegal to take antiquities out of the country.  Some dealers will state clearly that they sell reproductions - such as this one - and they can be made in the same way and using the same raw materials as the originals.

Ancient Syrian literature is preserved and records many aspects of day-to-day life on clay tablets such as this one (which is a copy made in Syria of a Sumerian original from Iraq dating to c. 3000 BC). Syria is one of the few nations that can boast literature of such antiquity.


This copy of a sealing that would have decorated a clay tablet, serving as a signature.  As an example, the merchant who would have sent this tablet may not have been able to write, and would have used a professional scribe.  He would have made his personal mark with a cylinder seal he carried with him to roll over the wet clay tablet.

Distinctive art was traded from place to place. The Early Bronze Age (3100-2150 BC) witnessed the rise of city states in the middle Euphrates region, particularly Mari and Ebla. Both sites are open for visitors. Ebla in particular has been restored and presented in a way that can be generally understood. The site is some 50 hectares in extent, though only a fraction is restored.  The city walls were some 30 metres thick and 20 metres high.  Many of the archaeological finds from the site are presented in the Idlib museum.

Ebla is one of the most important  Bronze Age sites (3rd millennium) in the Near East. The palaces were not only royal residences, but workshops and storage facilities as well.  The ancient economies seem to have been completely under the control of elites.  The archives - a small room at the entrance to the Palace - kept economic documents recording workers and goods, and were an essential part of the administration. The city seems to have been looted by the Mesopotamian (ancient Iraqi) leader Sargon in about 2000 BC and finally destroyed by the Hittites in 1600 BC.


In 1975 a major archive of clay tablets was recovered in Ebla that attest to wide ranging trade links with ancient Iraq and Anatolia.  The language, termed Eblaite, is of the West Semitic family and was recorded in Akkadian cuneiform (wedge shaped symbols). This is a reconstruction of the archives in the Idlib Museum.  The clay tablets were originally stored on wooden shelves, and could be moved in baskets.  Ironically, destruction of the city by fire preserved the library by baking the clay tablets.  This is one of the earliest state archives to have been  recovered, and many of the tablets are still being translated.  A number of old testament personal names and cities are found on the tablets, giving greater background to an otherwise dark age in Biblical history. Sodom and Gomorrah are also noted as caravan cites on the road to Damascus.

Temple of Ishtar.  Religious structures in Mesopotamia follow a similar plan that has been transmitted into the modern world.  One entrance led into an antechamber that controlled access into the main part of the structure.  The end of the structure probably housed the image of the deity  in a niche along the rear wall, which was probably cordoned off at most times.

 


Treasures from the National Museum in Damascus  show what a high level of culture existed at various times in the past. The Middle Bronze Age (2150-1600 BC) is known for the arrival of the Amorites, who expanded trade to the East.  The Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC) was a period of increasing trade by sea, which is associated with the Phoenicians. The coastal site of Ugarit - also open for visitors - was a powerful trading city.  Copper from Cyprus was traded north to the Hittites and south to the Egyptians.  Their traders flourished across the Mediterranean, eventually bringing  the alphabet to Europe.  Amrit is a splendid site which also dates to about the same period, and  ample monumental remains may be found there.  Amrit is about 7 km south of  Tartus, and is therefore easily reached from that town.  This site is a unique Phoenician religious centre, although there is also evidence of settlement since the 3rd millennium BC.  The site is   extensive, and as defined today encompasses an area 3 km long and 2 km wide.  The main temple area was excavated by a Franco-Syrian team in the 1950's.  It consists of a small lake 48 x 39 metres with a sanctuary in the middle.

The main attraction of Amrit is a sacred lake with a structure in the middle. The artistic style has been described as eclectic because there is no other site like it, but there are influences from the West (Greece) as well as Iran. Much of the complex was built during the 6th century BC. 

The site also has a fragmentary stadium (230 x 30 metres) as well as a necropolis with two monumental towers.  They are 7 and 4 metres high with square bases and cylindrical bodies, and the larger has 4 fragmentary lions about the base.


The monumental towers at Amrit are located in an area of great natural beauty along the coast.  Large depressions to the side of the monuments (not visible here) are quarries where the stone has been mined.

The central role Syria played in world civilization may not be understood by Western tourists who may be more at ease with the Classical Greek and Roman cultures in Europe.  In appreciating how important Syria was in the Eastern Mediterranean - and beyond - over thousands of years, visitors can be exposed to a refreshing change of perspective.

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

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