National Museum of Damascus, Syria
Mentioned by Yaqut al-Hamwy in his Mu’jam al-Buldan, the actual area of the Arab Republic of Syria occupies a strategic place in the Ancient World, connecting the Mediterannean World with the Mesopotamia. Various indigenous dynasties, such as Emesa, flourished in Syria, and even gave to the Roman Empire a series of emperors such as Caracalla, Geta, Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander. The region witnessed the arrival of the cultures and civilizations of Ancient Egypt, the populations from Asia (Khorasan), religions of Classical and Ptolemaic Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire and Islam, all of which marked the history of the region and gave rise to different forms of the arts, religions, sites and monuments, and objects of everyday life. Syria has thus long been the home of different populations, which have moved through the region bringing their respective traditions, cultures, religions and customs with them.
Invitation to itinerary
The territory comprising present-day Syria has been and remains one of the great crossroads of civilization and culture. As such, the region has been renowned for its archaeological discoveries since the late nineteenth century. The exceptional collection of her museums highlight the crucial stages of the history of mankind, particularly in terms of the development of agriculture and the invention of one of the first writing systems (found in Ugarit, the first international port in history, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, from around 6600 BC). Between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, there were many encounters, conflicts, alliances and fusions, knowingly or inadvertently, between the different cultures and civilizations- of which works, ideas and beliefs were conveyed through these material testimonies.
Objects made with materials such as lapis lazuli from Central Asia were discovered at Mari (a city in the Middle Euphrates, founded around 4500 BC) and at Ebla. Other objects made from ivory originating from Nubia and Abyssinia, were also discovered at Mari. Such objects illustrate the very active commercial and human flows of city-states with distant lands, as well as those links maintained amongst the city-states that prospered during the third millennium BC.
During the second millennium BC, the coastal city of Ugarit was a witness to vibrant commercial activities in the Mediterranean, especially from the Syrian coast to the Nile Valley. We can see the taste for Egyptian motifs, through the locally produced glazed ceramics of Ugarit inspired by Egyptian iconography or through imported products from the Land of the Pharaohs.
Objects crafted in Ugarit have been discovered in diverse regions and countries (from Cyprus through Crete to North Africa). These regions also exported products to Ugarit, like the large Mycenaean ceramic crater. Yet, the collection of tablets from Ugarit is the richest source of information to understand the activities of this city – its use of diverse writing systems are represented through them, such as the Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hurrian languages, and the idea of a dictionary attests to the interests of its inhabitants to foreign languages.
In the middle of the second millennium BC, the present-day territory of Syria was at the heart of conflict between two powerful empires, the Hittites and the Egyptians. The vase dating from the reign of Horemheb (about 1320/1310 -1292 BC), and the mould of a Hittite royal seal engraved with the name of the king, Mursili II (1345-1320 BC); both discovered in Ugarit, show the contemporary political situation. Their ultimate battle took place at Kadesh, in around 1300 BC, on the Orontes River.
In about 1200 BC, the city-states on the Syrian coast were destroyed by the "Sea Peoples" who also posed a threat to the Egyptian and Hittite powers. The successive domination of the Assyrians (1000-612 BC) and the Babylonians, then the reign of the Achaemenid Empire persisted for another 400 years, until the entry of Alexander the Great in 333 BC.
Syria in the Classical period was consequently marked by Hellenistic and Roman culture, particularly due to her integration into the Seleucid and Roman territories after the dissolution of the Seleucid dynasty in 64 BC. However, the "Romanization" and the flow of people within this vast territory in the beginning of the first millennium also allowed the inhabitants of this region to play key roles in the history of the Roman Empire. The best known Syrians of the Empire are probably those from the lineage of Julius Bassianus, high priest of the god Elagabalus of Emesa (located near modern Homs). Such as Julia Domna, Bassianus' daughter, who married a senior official under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Septimius Severus (himself from Leptis Magna in modern Libya), who was proclaimed Emperor in 193 AD. With him began the rise to power of non-Italian provincials, and especially those with blood of the Syrian dynasty, by his sons Caracalla and Geta, then by his grand-nephews Heliogabalus and Alexander Severus. Did not Juvenal (Satires, VIII, 162) actually proclaim, "Syrian Orontes has long since flowed into the Tiber"?
A series of objects from the collection of the National Museum of Damascus demonstrates this course of integration of the region to the new Mediterranean order: the two objects dating from the second century AD, discovered in Dura Europos and Hauran- a lamp and an inkwell, representing a character with African phenotype (Nubian). The Greco-Roman goddesses such as Venus and Kore were also part of the artistic repertoire preferred by the people in the region at this time.
Dura Europos, on the Middle Euphrates, is known as one of the greatest cities of its time. It was built by the Macedonians, the successors of Alexander the Great, on a fortified site previously established by the Assyrians. Numerous religious remains confirm the coexistence of several ethnicities and religions during the Classical period. For example, temples dedicated to Greco-Roman deities stood alongside Syro-Babylonian, Palmyrene and Aramaic cultic places of worship. A Mithraeum, a Christian Chapel and a Synagogue famous for its mural paintings dating from 243 were also present.
Another famous city of Antiquity, Palmyra, was a prosperous city-oasis of the Syrian Desert: part of a trade network that had connections with Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. It was given the privileged status of Roman colony by the Emperor Caracalla, son of Julia Domna. Some fabrics found in tombs of this city come from distant regions, for example silk from China. The magnificent funerary bas-relief of a noble from the second century AD shows the existence of a wealthy, Romanized population, who nonetheless still maintained a local tradition- as can be seen in the attire of a native dress.
The gold brooch encrusted with precious stones dating from the third to fourth centuries AD was discovered in Dura Europos, and it certainly betrays the high reputation held over the millennia of the region in its silversmith's trade. Further, this piece is an outstanding example of combining different artistic traditions.
After the adoption of Christianity as state religion in Syria by the Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, the already existing practices of religious asceticism fostered the 'Stylite', the Christian monks who would stand on a small platform on top of a pillar for lengthy periods for spiritual salvation; the most famous figure being Saint Simeon the Stylite. The monastery of St Simeon, located 40 km northwest of Aleppo, has attracted pilgrims since ancient times throughout the Mediterranean. The piety of the believers is attested by coins and gourds left by pilgrims which have been discovered in the region (fifth to sixth centuries AD).
After the decline of the Byzantine Empire due to the Persian invasion in the early seventh century, the luminous Islamic civilization asserted itself and made contributions to enrich the millennial cultural features of the region, with Damascus as the political capital of the Umayyads. Successive Islamic dynasties flourished through commercial or conflicting (such as through the Crusades) contacts with other great civilizations as illustrated by the collection of Islamic art in the Museum. For instance, the two Arab-Sasanian coins were used by pre-Islamic Arabs for commercial transactions.
Throughout the whole of the Islamic period, there is clearly a constant and rich commercial and artistic link with Asia, especially China. The famous Horseman of Raqqa, the Water Siphon of a Damascene Madresa in the shape of a dragon, or the Chinese-inspired ceramics, attest to the trend for Chinese motifs. The delivery of Chinese ceramic vases in the eighth century thus launched local production of receptacles of Chinese inspiration. The importation of Chinese porcelain of all types was particularly active in the fourteenth century AD.
Dishes manufactured in Damascus were also exported to the Italian republics. Other influence from noble Italian families on Syria can be seen through the adoption of coats of arms (emblems), observed from the Crusades period and still visible on objects from the Mamluk period. Further, a vase from the Mamluk period can be seen decorated with an emblem of polo mallets, a game which was also spread from Central Asia to the Levant during the Crusades.
The Italian Republics set up their posts to organize trade with the Eastern Mediterranean region. A glazed ceramic bowl dating from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century AD discovered in Damascus shows the profile of a young European man who reminds us of the diasporic lives of European traders in the Levant.
Finally, a beautiful collection of manuscripts from the modern era (eighteenth to twentieth centuries AD) shows the importance of Arabic script, not only for Islamic documents but also for non-Arabic users who make use of it to understand their own languages. This is because the calligraphy derives from many styles, Persian or Turkish, as shown by the three manuscripts in the Museum.
The exhibition, part of a partnership between UNESCO, the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums and National Museum of Damascus, has been conceived in the form of an itinerary through the Museum. Alongside this itinerary, visitors will be able to appreciate the ways in which various cultures and civilizations have interacted with and influenced that of Syria as part of a long-standing process of historical change.
Project of: UNESCO and the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, Syria
Project Sponsor: Spanish Agency for Development Cooperation
Associated Financial Partner: ISESCO
Project Director: Bassam Jamous (Director General of Antiquities and Museums)
UNESCO Project Officers: Nao Hayashi Denis assisted by Minji Song (Section of Museums and Cultural Objects), Tamar Teneishvili (UNESCO Office in Beirut)
Scientific coordinators: Bassam Jamous, Mona Moadin, Wail Houssein (Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums)
Technical Advisors: Anwar Abd el-Ghafour, Zeyd al-Khatib, Ahmad Nassif
Project Team Members: Muyassar Yabrudi, Wurud Ibrahim, Randa Sharaf, Nuha Qabbani, Bassam al-Ali, Hala Mustafa, Hana Hamdan, Ayman Suleyman, Watheq Hmeyra, Bérénice Lagarce, Ali Othman, Ahmad Zeytun, Bushra Ibrahim, Zena Taqi el-Dyen
Special thanks to: UNESCO Beirut Office (Abdel Moneim OSMAN), Permanent Delegation of Syria to UNESCO (HE Ambassador Gnem NSIR), National Commission of Syria to UNESCO, UNESCO Headquarters (Akio ARATA, Oriol Freixa MATALONGA, Katerina STENOU, Ali MOUSA YI, Mohamed ZIADAR, Alain GODONOU, Christian MANHART, François LANGLOIS, Abdelghani BAAKRIM, Michèle CAMOUS, Ammar ASALLY), David TRESILIAN