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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS
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