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Volume 38, Number 1January/February 1987

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Ebla to Damascus

Written by June Taboroff
Photographs courtesy of SITES

As a striking new exhibition now touring the United States shows, Syria, the mercantile and cultural hub of the ancient world, has become one of the modern Middle East's most important areas of archeological discovery.

After gaining its independence in 1946, Syria initiated a concerted program to uncover its history, the most dramatic result of which was the discovery of the site of Ebla, capital of a wealthy kingdom of the third millennium B.C, along with an entire library of cuneiform tablets - enough to quadruple the total written documentation for that period and to completely revise the early history of Syria (See Aramco World, March-April 1978).

To honor this era of archeological discovery, the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities mounted an exhibition of nearly 300 archeological and artistic objects representing 10,000 years of cultural development. The show, Ebla to Damascus: Art and Archeology of Ancient Syria, offers a unique review of 10 millennia of Syrian past as revealed by recent archeological research.

The idea of a Syrian antiquities exhibition originated five years ago. Three organizations played catalytic roles in its realization: the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), which first fastened onto the possibilities of a comprehensive exhibition placing the new Syrian archeological material in its cultural and historic context; the embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Washington, D.C., which gave SITES its support and encouragement; and Aramco, which provided funds for the first phase of exhibition planning.

Ancient Syria witnessed the genesis of mankind's most profound and revolutionary accomplishments: agriculture, writing, and the rise of cities and civilization. Ebla to Damascus follows the thread of this movement, focusing attention on urban cultures from the third millennium B.C. through the first millennium A.D. Objects represent each major cultural epoch from the origins of agriculture to the rise of Islam. The primary emphasis is the determinant role played by Syrian cities - from Ebla, the powerful city-state of the 25th century B.C, to Damascus, the Syrian capital of the Islamic world.

Syria was one of the main areas where the first agricultural settlements were founded. Such Neolithic sites as Mureybit and Abu Hureyra provide evidence of farming 11,000 years ago - earlier than anywhere else in the world. Mureybit is also the site of the earliest known ancestor cult in the ancient Near East; skeletons were found buried under the floor of a building, with skulls displayed on supports made of red clay.

The agricultural life - unlike the hunting and gathering existence - with its alternating seasons of intense activity and relative leisure favored the invention and the development of crafts and technologies. Dwellings became more complex and organized, and religion was focused on fertility. This critical transition is the point of departure for the show and is documented in the exhibition's earliest objects, including stone and bone implements and figural examples of early religious beliefs.

By 4,000 B.C., most of the lowlands of the Near East were organized into small farming villages, and in Syria and southern Mesopotamia - present day Iraq - the stage was set for another great change: the emergence of civilization.

The introduction of irrigation increased crop yields, thus supporting larger populations, and southern Mesopotamia, watered by the slow-flowing lower reaches of the Euphrates river, became a center of population. By 3,500 B.C. many settlements had grown into cities with populations of as many as 10,000 people, requiring more sophisticated forms of political and social organization. Society became stratified, with administrators, rulers, and priests directing the rest of the population. Trade made available copper from Anatolia and stone and timber from the northern mountainous regions.

A numerical system of record keeping was required to handle the administration of food distribution, storage, and production in these complex urban economies, and writing evolved from markings on bullae-lumps of clay used as either stoppers or seals for goods. Signs on these stoppers led to numerical notations on clay tablets which indicated quantities, pictograms were added to illustrate the type of goods stored; finally, pictograms came to represent certain symbols or sounds, and writing existed.

Italian archeologists in 1975 identified Tell Mardikh, located in Syria's northwestern plains, as the ancient city of Ebla, an independent city-state rivaling the greatest of the Sumerian cities of southern Mesopotamia. The dry's wealth came from agriculture, textile production, and control of inland trade routes for timber, copper, silver and lapis lazuli.

The excavation of Ebla yielded a vast archive of clay tablets that preserved a detailed record of the life of the city, revealing a previously unknown kingdom with a civilization as complex, sophisticated and well-organized as any in south Mesopotamia, and demolishing the notion that Early Dynastic civilization existed only in that area and Egypt.

About 2,270 B.C, the Akkadians, a Semitic-speaking dynasty, took control of southern Mesopotamia and launched a series of military expeditions into Syria, destroying Ebla about 2,250 B.C. A coalition of northern and eastern enemies destroyed the Akkadians not long afterward, and the Amorite-ruled kingdoms of Syria emerged as powerful states. These Semitic-speaking peoples were probably originally semi-nomadic herdsmen who lived off the grazing lands between Syria's urban centers. Gradually, Amorites rose to positions of power throughout the region.

Three great Amorite kingdoms were dominant: Yamkhad, Shubat Enlil and Mari. Yamkhad, with its capital at modern Aleppo, succeeded Ebla as the major power in the northwest region, while at Shubat Enlil in the Habur River area, the Amorite ruler, Shamshi-Adad, unified the cities of the northeastern plains.

Despite rivalries among dynasties which led to frequent changes in leadership, Mari, too, grew in influence under its Amorite kings. Under the rule of Zimri-Lim a lavish palace was contructed, but within a century Hammurabi, the Babylonian ruler, conquered Mari and ended its role as a major power.

A half century of excavations at Mari by French archeologists has enlarged our understanding of Near Eastern history for the period 2,000-1,000 B.C. Their discovery of the Amorite palace of King Zimri-Lim, a 260-room complex, brought to light objects of fine craftsmanship and materials. The palace walls were covered with paintings of royal and religious ceremonies; statuary was an important element of the decorative program of the palace. Detailed descriptions of palace and family life were kept in the palace archives.

What is remarkable about Ebla and Mari is that the salient features of city life as we know it today - urban centers with monumental architecture, written records, and an administrative apparatus - first found their expression in these Syrian cities, a reading of history only made possible by the last two decades of archeological research.

The Middle Syrian period in Syria and Mesopotamia saw both prosperity and political upheaval. Politics and economics were dominated by the kingdom of Mitanni, with its center on the Habur plains. The Mitanni became the most powerful kingdom in northern Syria, rivaling the Hittites and the New Kingdom in Egypt for control of trade routes.

Outside the Mitanni sphere was the coastal city of Ugarit - modern Ras Shamra - a flourishing crossroads of international commerce in the eastern Mediterranean, linking sea and land trade among Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Cyprus, and Mycenaean Greece. French excavation at Ugarit has revealed objects in an "international style," including Mycenaean pottery and and Egyptian sword inscribed with hieroglyphics.

At the height of its prosperity, from about 1,400-1,200 B.C., the kingdom of Ugarit was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan center with many foreign residents. Excavations at this walled city have uncovered palaces, residential quarters, temples, and vaulted tombs. Archives in several languages consist of legal contracts, administrative documents, letters, and poetry. Diplomatic texts confirm contacts with Egypt, Mesopotamia, Aegean centers and the Hittite court in Anatolia.

About 1,500 B.C., the scribes of Ugarit adapted an early version of the alphabet, consisting of only 30 characters, instead of the 300-odd signs used in cuneiform. Each sign represented only one sound. These simplifications made writing easier, faster and more accessible to a wider group of users. No longer did an exclusive class of scribes have a monopoly on writing. The inscribed tablets found at Ugarit are a principal source of our knowledge of ancient Canaanite culture, opening the Old Testament - its history, religion, and mythology - to comparative analysis.

After invasion, famine and volcanic eruptions devastated the eastern Mediterranean about 1,200 B.C., small independent states, the Neo-Hittite and Aramaean kingdoms, came to prominence in northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia. Their centers were Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Carchemish. The Neo-Hittites were the survivors of the Old Hittite empire, while the Aramaeans were a new population. The Aramaeans, nomads who appeared in Syria about 1,200 B.C., gradually assumed political importance in several regions and exercised a major influence in international trade, particularly the camel caravans.

The Assyrian empire in the Near East began to push westward at this period, and by 700 B.C. most of the Aramaean and Neo-Hittite kingdoms had become provinces of Assyria.

The ebb and flow of political domination continued in the late seventh century B.C. as the Assyrian empire collapsed under the threat of the Babylonians. Subsequently, the Babylonians yielded to the Persians who, in 331 B.C., were replaced by Greeks when the region fell to Alexander the Great. Discord among Alexander's successors gave the Romans the opportunity to gain influence in the region, and in 64 B.C. Rome officially annexed Syria.

The growth of Syrian cities was spurred on by the invaders. Damascus and Aleppo were transformed into Greek and, later, Roman cities, with town planning, forums, temples, and theaters in the classical style. Trade increased, fueled by demand for luxury goods and facilitated by a new system of Roman roads, and Syria became one of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman Empire.

Most rural areas, however, remained largely unaffected by Greek and Roman rule and kept their traditional ways of life. Native Syrian and Mesopotamian gods coexisted and even merged with Greek and Roman deities; Jewish and Christian communities were also present. In turn, Greek and Roman art and religion took on characteristics of Syrian origin.

With the coming of Islam in the seventh century, Syria was once again introduced to a new religion and culture. Cities such as Dura Europas and Palmyra exemplified the interaction of Aramaean, Greco-Roman, and Arab culture. The interwining of these artistic and religious traditions and the creative outcome of their meeting is evident in bronze and marble statues, figurines, and vessels in the exhibit.

Throughout the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, Syria added its own distinctive flavor to newly adapted religious and cultural institutions. It became one of the greatest cultural centers in the Mediterranean and the capital of the Umayyad dynasty. Under Islam, Arabic became the official language and an Islamic style of art began to emerge from the synthesis of ancient traditions and classical forms.

The threads that wind through nearly 10,000 years of Syrian history are varied and telling. From the earliest periods of Syria's past, religion has been a strong inspiration in art, while for more than 5,000 years the Syrians have attached great importance to written language as an instrument of trade, a factor in political and social stability and a pillar of community wealth.

Ebla to Damascus describes, through artifacts, the beginnings of writing, trade practices, and cross-cultural ties, spanning the 10,000 years between the first instance of settled life in 9,000 B.C. to the Islamic era. It examines important discoveries from Ebla in the third millennium B.C., the civilizations of Man and Ugarit of the second millennium B.C.; as well as the urban complexity of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic Syria. By presenting a basis for a new understanding of Middle Eastern civilization and its origins, the exhibition delineates the cultural inheritance of present-day Syria and the part it played in the development of the modern urban societies we all know today.

June Taboroff, who earned a Ph.D. in art and architectural history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, specializes in Islamic art and architecture.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the January/February 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1987 images.