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From Ebla to Damascus: The Archaeology of Ancient Syria, Marie-Henriette Gates, BAR 12:03, May-Jun 1986.

Funerary Relief from PalmyraEight thousand years in the history of ancient Syria are on display in a magnificent exhibit that is touring six American cities.A Collected under the title “From Ebla to Damascus,” its objects vividly illustrate a sweep of civilizations ranging from the simple settlements of the Neolithic seventh millennium B.C. to the great Mesopotamian cultures eventually conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Alexander the Great, to the rise of Christianity and the impact of Islam. The objects have been assembled from museums throughout Syria, and generously loaned by the Syrian government to form one of the most comprehensive shows of ancient art to travel to American museums in recent years. Together these artifacts—whether scraps of clay with imprints of seals or writing, or large statues and wall paintings—allow us to take our own trip into the antiquity of a country that was, to the ancient Near East, the site of the Garden of Eden.

The cultural world defined as ancient Syria extended over an area similar to that of modern Syria, for the boundaries then as today were defined by geographical features. It is a country divided into four topographical zones. To the west along the eastern Mediterranean, a narrow fertile coastal plain is endowed with a series of fine protected harbors. This coast is separated from inland Syria by a low but nonetheless effective screen of mountains running parallel to the coast and extending south into Lebanon. The third and largest zone is an agricultural belt watered by the Euphrates which flows into Syria from the northwest to the southeastern border with Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), and by this great river’s tributaries, whose sources lie to the north, in the Taurus Mountains—the natural boundary between Syria and Turkey. The well-watered steppes in northeastern Syria can support rainfall agriculture; but outside the reaches of the rivers and irrigation, Syria is desert. Within this topographical diversity there existed in antiquity, as indeed to some extent today, three markedly different societies farming communities in the broad agricultural belt and in the coastal hinterland; urban centers, some quite large, along the coast and the commercially important rivers; and nomadic tribes, pastoralists migrating between the mountains and the steppes, and descending into the plains with the onset of cold weather. Ancient Syrian cultures have therefore been described as polymorphic- agricultural, urban and nomadic, with the three loosely integrated rather than independent of each other.

The agricultural communities of ancient Syria are best represented in the archaeological record by the very oldest sites, because excavations for later periods have tended to focus on the more spectacular remains of urban centers. These early agricultural villages date to the Neolithic phase of the seventh and sixth millennia B.C., when techniques for the growing of cereals and the breeding of herds were just being developed. Sites such as Buqras in southeastern Syria and Ramad near Damascus provide the exhibit with the implements characteristic both of their period and of later agricultural settlements as well- pottery and stone vessels, chipped stone tools for cutting wild and cultivated grains, for skinning animals and for working leather, wood and bone, and generous female figurines to secure the successful fertility of both food supply and population. Later deities of ancient Syria were in general closely linked with those natural phenomena that regulate agriculture. Gods such as Dagan in the east and Resheph and Baal in the west were storm and weather deities whose frightening aspects could ravage agricultural production, and were thus to be treated with utmost respect. The dominance of these gods in the official cults of the urban centers and city-states of the third and second millennia B.C. underlines the vital support the agricultural hinterland provided its commercially oriented cities.

The great Syrian cities of the third and second millennia date to a phase known in archaeological terms as the Bronze Age, but this phase could more aptly be called the golden age of Syrian antiquity. These great cities achieved as high a degree of civilization and culture as the other major contemporaneous civilizations of the Near East. In their artistic and literary accomplishments, the cultures of the Syrian cities emulated the cultures of Mesopotamia, to which they were closely bound politically. Thus, the most spectacular finds in the “Ebla to Damascus” collection were discovered at the sites of Mari and Ebla/Tell Mardikh and illustrate well both the nature of these cities and their commercial prosperity. Mari and Ebla were the capitals of city-states whose kings lived in palaces attesting to considerable sophistication. The mid-third millennium palace at Ebla is still under investigation, but it has already revealed monumental architecture in mudbrick with massive staircases, a porticoed court, inlaid decoration and elegant furnishings. The early second-millennium Mari palace contained at least 300 rooms and courts, and several stories; two fragmentary wall paintings in the exhibit can only begin to suggest the palace’s original decoration, of a sort that must have been standard for monumental buildings throughout the ancient Near East. The Mari palace was, however, renowned among its contemporaries. There is record of a king of Ugarit, on the Mediterranean coast, sending an emissary to the Mari palace to admire and to report on its appearance.

Not only are the palaces of these kings preserved for us, but, indeed, so too are their names, diplomatic maneuvers and business transactions. Excavations have recovered extensive cuneiform archives kept by scribes whose duties ranged from writing official correspondence between rulers to careful inventories of all products manufactured, imported and exported under their supervision. Thus we read of metals—gold, silver, copper and tin—shipped in from distant places, of woven textiles, of statuary and jewelry commissioned from specialized craftsmen. Typical of the period are votive statues that high-ranking citizens of mid-third millennium Mari dedicated in temples throughout their city. Inscriptions carved on the shoulders of the statues identified each worshipper for his deity. The eyes of these statues were often inlaid with the brilliant blue stone called lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan by a slow and expensive chain of trade contacts, and used as well for the manufacture of precious ornaments. While some of the lapis was worked locally (raw lapis blocks have recently been discovered in the Ebla palace), more was shipped along the trade route west to the coastal harbors of Syria, where it was exported to Egypt and the Aegean.

Just as Mari and Ebla prospered from their locations on an intensely traveled overland commercial route, Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast profited from its maritime trade to develop a highly specialized market in luxury finished commodities for export to Egypt and the Aegean. As early as the second millennium B.C., the craftsmen of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) perfected the carving of wood, bone and ivory, and the decoration of precious metal vessels, skills that would be maintained in later periods (thus Solomon requested from Hiram of Tyre, south of Ugarit, a specialist in these arts for the decoration of the Temple in Jerusalem [2 Chronicles 2-7]). Ivory furniture inlays and embossed gold bowls from the Ugarit excavations blend local decorative themes with motifs derived from the art of the countries for which they were intended. In the ninth to seventh centuries B.C., these buyers were not only Jerusalem, but also the capitals of the Assyrian kings in northern Iraq, whose interest in the Levant involved territorial expansion and control of trade routes to the sea. These skills remained traditional to the area for many centuries; later periods are represented in “Ebla to Damascus” by such objects as a door panel carved with intricate floral patterns for a seventh-century A.D. monastery, and an 11th-century A.D. oak screen from an Islamic mausoleum, both from the region of Damascus.

The third component of ancient Syrian society, the nomads, has left fleeting but nonetheless legible traces in the early archaeological record. The archives of Mari and elsewhere mention them by name as pastoral tribal groups; their relatives are prominent too in the Hebrew Bible (1 Chronicles). Although they were viewed with some anxiety by their sedentary contemporaries, the nomads were well integrated into the economic mechanisms of ancient Syria. They supplied meat, dairy products, wool and skins in exchange for the produce of the farmers and manufactured goods of the cities. By 1000 B.C., with the appearance of the domesticated camel in the Near East, the nomads assumed a major role in long-distance trade. They thus encouraged the rise of caravan cities such as Palmyra, an oasis in the south Syrian desert that blossomed in the early centuries of this era. There colonnaded streets, ornate stone temples, theaters and markets derived their architectural inspiration from the Hellenistic/Roman world; but Palmyra’s prosperity developed thanks to local nomadic trade along the desert route between the Levant and Mesopotamia. Peculiar to Palmyra, and characteristic of the fusion taking place in these caravan cities between classical and nomadic cultures, are the funerary towers erected by tribal families to bury their dead. These stone towers were built of carefully dressed blocks, and divided inside into several stories of shelves for laying out the bodies. Each shelf was sealed off after use with a stone slab carved into a likeness of the deceased. The funerary portraits of Palmyrene ladies illustrate the meeting of these two worlds- their dress mirrors classical fashion, but their wealth flaunted in the heavy jewelry—headbands, earrings, necklaces and bracelets—is a portable fortune of the sort worn by Bedouin women in Palmyra today. It is remarkable that the impact of successive political fortunes has affected only superficial aspects in the lives of the Palmyrenes, who today very closely resemble their ancestors of 2,000 years ago.

If the structure of ancient Syrian society maintained for millennia this symbiotic balance between the pastoral, agricultural and the urban, two overwhelming factors have put an end to what can be considered Syrian antiquity. Two religious revolutions transformed Syrian culture profoundly—the first, Christianity, the second Islam. The tenets of both religions eventually altered or eliminated the ideological vocabulary expressed in ancient Syrian art, as Dagan and Baal ceded their preeminence to the monotheistic religions whose manifestations are again illustrated by objects in the “Ebla to Damascus” collection. They represent a fitting conclusion to the exhibit, whose ambitious breadth succeeds in presenting its viewers with a vivid picture of an ancient world.

a. It is presently on exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and will travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, July 12–September 14; Cincinnati Art Museum, October 11–December 8; Detroit Institute of Arts, January 24–April 12, 1987; and end its tour at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., May 9–September 8, 1987.

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