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PART I: Syria - The Fountainhead of Western Civilization

posted on: Jan 18, 2017

Note: This is the first chapter to a book that I am in the process of writing about Syria and was written before destruction descended on the country from all over the world. When terrorism is curtailed, hopefully the whole piece will be valid. The real Syria will return.

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

Fakhri al-Barudi, a Syrian poet who lived early in this century wrote:

         You are Syria my country. In your name is splendour…

You are Syria my country. A beauty on the face of this earth.

For the Syrian immigrants in the Americas, these were among the words of a poem, which was for many years the unofficial national anthem of Syria. The poet had reason to be proud of his country. Recent archaeological evidence has left little doubt that Syria is the fountainhead of western civilization, encompassing the legacy of human development. The secrets of the alphabet, agriculture, astronomy, geometry, literature, medicine, metallurgy, music, religion, science and trade were all born in Syria, a land saturated with history.

A western historian once wrote that Syria is the second home to every cultured individual in the world for in the sweep of history there are few places in the world which can lay a better claim to being the birthplace of civilization. Strabo, Ptolemy and others mentioned it in the earliest existent geographical books. Furthermore, Syria was a country shown on the ancient world maps – in fact, it is the oldest country name that still exists. Guides taking tourist groups through Syria are fond of telling travellers that in ancient Syria the national symbol of all its civilizations was the sun and that the country’s name, pronounced ‘Sooriya’, meaning ‘Land of the Sun’.

A number of historians even claim that one of Syria’s famous civilizations, the Canaanite, better known in the West as Phoenician, gave the world the name Europe. In mythology, Europa the daughter of King Agenor of Tyre, was carried to Crete by Zeus in the form of a bull and bore this god three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon.   Thus, the Syrian connection.

Syria, a name whose etymology remains uncertain, seems to have begun to be used in the Hellenistic period to designate a territory corresponding more or less to modern-day Syria. The country has been often described as the largest small country in the world because of its wealth of ancient civilizations.

The geographical area of historic Syria, from the Taurus Mountains in the north to Sinai in the south and from the Mediterranean in the west to the Euphrates in the east, played an unparalleled role in the annals of civilization. The mighty cultures, which flourished in today’s buried cities of the Syrian heartland, are the foundations upon which our modern world rests. Modern man is indebted to this historic country for much of his thought and learning.

Western archaeologists consider Syria very important in the world’s historic and demographic map – some even call it the: ‘Paradise of Archaeologists’. They have discovered that the history of Syria from the Stone Age up to the Bronze Age is the most important era in the development of human civilization.

Some archaeologists claim, following recent discoveries of ancient ruins left by the First Man in the basin of the Euphrates, on the Syrian coast and the Orontes River basin that, here, in this land humans walked the earth some one million years ago. Stone instruments, such as axes and cutters, uncovered in these areas date back to that era. Even if some do not agree with these conclusions, it has been established, without doubt, that the first human community organized itself in Syria 10 thousand years ago.

Professor Akira Tsowinky of Japan’s Tsukba University declared, at the International Symposium of Antiquities and Museums held in Hama in December 1999, that Syria’s history from the Stone until the Bronze Age was one of the most important periods in the annals of the world. Further, archaeological excavations conducted on various ancient sites indicate that the Syrians were the first farmers in the world this being an unprecedented contribution in the development of civilization – their example to be later followed by other communities.

Entrance to the Royal Palace of Ugarit Excavated ruins at Ras Shamra. Ruins of the royal palace at Ebla, in northwestern Syria, date back to the 3rd millennium BC.

Since time immemorial, this cradle of ancient accomplishments contributed to the advancement of man. It was here that agriculture evolved with the first cultivation of cereals, settlement commenced and civilization emerged. Monuments left behind by the civilizations that once flourished within Syria’s borders are today a priceless heritage of all nations. On the banks of its rivers and in its basins and mountains, in the mist of time, humans emerged from the caves and built their first dwellings and fireplaces. Here, also, man first observed the heavens, first made copper pliable and invented bronze, established the first worship of the mother-goddess and the bull and sang the earliest hymns.

On its al-Badia (semi-desert plains), which extends from al-Jazireh in the far northeast to Bosra in the south, great civilizations were born, preceding those of the Assyrian and Babylonian of Mesopotamia. Syria was the site where humans first experimented with cultivating cereal plants and raising animals. Here, they built towns and practised agriculture, employed animals to assist in agricultural growth and first cultivated barley, chickpeas, lentils, peas, rye, wheat and other plants.

Around 10,000 B.C., permanent villages, the first of their kind in the world, began to be established in which is now modern Syria. Cereal and leguminous plants were found here in their wild state, as were the ancestors of certain species of domesticated animals. The area received enough annual rainfall for cereal plants to grow without human intervention. The presence of these plants, especially barley, attracted grazing animals of various species, depending on the season.

Subsequently, the domestication of animals began. Around 8000 B.C., goats began to be raised in Syria and in about 7500 B.C., sheep were being bred. When goats and sheep became widespread about 7000 B.C., pigs and cows began to be domesticated. The dog, which was useful for rounding up herds, was domesticated even earlier – at the time when animals were beginning to be made useful to man.

By 7000 B.C. all of Syria had joined the Neolithic age. The domestication of plants and animals seems to have been well established in the more hospitable zones of the whole Middle East. It was at about this time that farmers and stock-raisers moved onto the semi-arid steppe where irrigation was first initiated. By around 6000 B.C., life based on agriculture and animal husbandry had become widespread in Syria and villages were becoming larger urban centres.

Sometime later, farmers began to use ploughs pulled by animals instead of cultivating the earth with digging sticks and primitive, man-drawn ploughs. The invention of metal instruments eased the building of irrigation canals and the growth of domesticated fruit trees. Texts dating from the 3rd millennium B.C. discovered in Ebla mention that certain fruit trees were grown and that olive oil and wine were produced. This was the first instance of vines and olive trees being planted in Syria.

The Syrian landscape, conducive to a sedentary lifestyle, was peopled successfully by different societies. Each of these in its own way developed social, economic, intellectual, spiritual and artistic value systems – laying the groundwork for modern civilization.

Burial mounds of cities from antiquity, known as tells, dot the entire landscape – each a witness to successive human settlement. They are not mere heaps of earth and stone, but a tale of history and culture written by humans thousands of years ago. In this cradle of ancient civilizations, it is said that whenever one removes a stone, found beneath it lays a relic from a bygone culture. Considered a paradise of tells across the Syrian landscape there is today more than 3,600 of these tells – to be found in every corner of the country. From the relics found, archaeologists are piecing together the history of the ancients.

Mari male and female-statues Mari statute of a singer

Loaded with souvenirs from the past, the land provides a comprehensive range of archaeological treasures. One of the richest countries in the world in historic remains, the whole of Syria is like one large museum – a mecca for archaeologists and others who flock to the country to unravel the secrets of the ancient world.

The brushes of Western traveller-painters like Charles Robertson, Lord Leighton, Ed Vance, Frederick Dewin and hundreds of others, visiting the country at the beginning of the Middle Ages and continuing to the present, have expressed a deep admiration for the beauty of Syria and the warmness of its people. This artwork tells the story of how these travellers were enchanted by the country.

Syria’s fabulous treasures guide the visitor’s footsteps into the world of antiquity. They reflect some thirty-nine known civilizations, which go back at least 8000 years.   The vestiges of these civilizations, which have long disappeared from the Middle East, entice, then, enchant foreign travellers to the region. The remains of Amrit, Ebla, Mari, Palmyra, Qadesh and Ugarit, some of the first well-organized cities in the world, are a natural attraction for tourists.

Seemingly enhancing the invitation of these earlier civilizations are the subsequent Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine remains one sees everywhere throughout the country. One of the most important of these conquerors was the Romans who occupied Syria under General Pompey in 64 BC and made the country a province of the Roman Empire. During Syria’s 400 years of Roman rule, the province was administered by a succession of some 100 governors who built splendid structures and fine roads – remnants of which remain.

Ugarit, today known as Ra’s ash-Shamra, was the home of the original alphabet, which gave birth to all of the western alphabets. The impressive ruins of Palmyra, built by the wondrous architects of Queen Zenobia and the Nabatean/Roman cities in southern Syria, in their stones, tell the story of cultures which once glowed in this land.

The Temple of Amrit Palmyra, Syria citadel overlooking the ruins. Palmyra, Syria

Successive waves of migrations from the Arabian Peninsula from the beginning of civilization gave Syria an Arab identity. This enabled it to withstand the invasions by the Hittites, Persians, Greeks and Romans and, at the same time, preserve its own culture relatively intact. The Arab/Islamic era after 636 A.D. finally confirmed the country’s solid Arab character.

Greater Syria, which for centuries included modern-day Jordan, Lebanon, Antakiya in Turkey and the Palestine area, is the birthplace of Christianity.   It was the home of Jesus and the apostles. Here, Jesus was born and here he performed his miracles. Remains of towns from the earliest years of Christianity that today appear as ghost towns, still stand on the windy plateau of northern Syria – reminders from a vanished world.

Syria was an Arab kingdom long before the Arabs achieved glory with the coming of Islam. For fifteen centuries before the Muslim armies entered the country the people had spoken and written a vernacular that is a sister language of modern Arabic. The 1,000 year-rule of Syria by the Greeks and Romans never erased this tongue.

Monuments of the Umayyads, a dynasty, which at the dawn of Islam made Syria the heart of the Arab world, whisper to the tourist of the splendour of the first glories of the new Arabian religion which today encompasses a fifth of humanity.

No less impressive are the Frankish forts and castles built by Europeans who attempted to conquer the Muslim lands. Crac des Chevaliers, Marqab, Mudiq, Masyaf and the Castle of Saladin line the mountains overlooking the fertile valley of the Orontes and, on the other side, the Mediterranean. They bear witness to two centuries of conquest, defeat, then the gradual disappearance of these northern invaders.

Cuneiform tablet found in Ebla from 2400 B.C.