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Hand ax
1 million BC

Decorated grooved stone
9000 BC

"Eye idols"
3200 BC

Cultic stela
ca. 3000 BC

Twining device
2800 BC

Mosaic of Hercules
marble, limestone, tesserae
AD 300

copper, zinc, lead, tin alloy
AD 1500

Helmet with mask
silver and iron
AD 50
Syria and Civilization
by N. F. Karlins

"Syria: Land of Civilizations" is a touring blockbuster show of almost 400 works, spanning the Neolithic to the 16th century. It can be seen now at the First USA Riverfront Arts Center in Wilmington, Del., through Oct. 21, 2001.

With Neolithic terracotta mother goddesses, basalt stelae, a dazzling selection of glass, ceramic and stone figurines and vessels, intricately worked gold jewelry, a huge and impressive array of limestone funeral bas-reliefs from Palmyra, a never-before displayed Roman mosaic of Hercules, measuring over nine by seven feet, there is plenty to see.

Organized by the Musée de la Civilisation in Québec in collaboration with the Syrian ministry of culture, the show combines the latest findings in archeology with the pleasures of art. Eleven Syrian museums have made loans to the exhibition, many never displayed before or never displayed before in the U.S. (And according to a local report, the exhibition has not been affected by recent events, though attendance is down somewhat).

After a short introductory film that gives viewers an appreciation of the geographic setting of Syria and an overview of the show, "Syria" begins with flints from the Paleolithic displayed near a mock archeological dig. Neolithic small basalt palettes that would fit in the palm of your hand are etched with markings that suggest they may be a form of writing. Whatever their meaning, it is tantalizing to ponder these decorated remains from 9000 BC.

Chiefdoms emerged around 6000 BC and lasted until roughly 3000 BC. From around 3200 BC come nude female figurines, a vessel in the form of a pig, stone loom weights, seals in the shape of animals and a handful of what have been called "eye idols" in alabaster, between one and two inches high, that were found in a temple at Tell Brak. While prominent eyes are featured in many later representations of worshippers, I am not so sure about these idols being eyes. I say this because of an extraordinary piece on display for the first time.

About 3000 BC, city-states of varying degrees of wealth and power rose and fell until the Aramaean, then Assyrian and Neo-Hittite Kingdoms arrived after 1000 BC. One extraordinary find from about 3000 BC, never seen anywhere previously, is a cultic stela of translucent alabaster, a little more than a foot high. It was found in the former city-state of Mari in 1997, one of 50 objects from a trench beneath the altar of a temple dedicated to the Sumerian mother goddess named Ninhursag.

A suggestion has been made that the figure has large eyes, a small nose and female pubes in the form of a triangle. I think the sexual organs are represented and, perhaps, symbolically reiterated in the double bands of triangles at the top and bottom of the piece. Considering the stela's association with fertility, I suspect the eyes are really breasts and what are assumed to be eyebrows possibly body paint or scarification to further emphasize the breasts.

Also interesting in this context is the new idea that several pieces formerly classified as "eye idols" which have holes drilled into them are now thought to be aids in twisting threads of linen or wool into cord. One three-hole terracotta without incisions from about 4000 BC may have functioned that way, but an idol with two holes and incised marks from about 2800 BC still looks like an "eye idol" to me.

Moreover, all of the "eye idols" seem, like the little stela, to be female torsos, not eyes at all. Seeing them as related to earlier female figurines rather than later orant figures with inlaid eyes and brows, of course, is only one way to interpret these stunning but still enigmatic pieces.

Syria's trade routes brought not only a variety of deities but also all manner of mundane and luxury goods into the area. The routes were fought for and controlled by the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Empires before the Arabs arrived in 636 AD. The importance of trade receives its due with extensive displays of imported and exported goods. One lovely example of much-admired and extensively exported Syrian glass is a blown-glass fish decorated with strands of glass that held oil in Roman times.

A lesson in how terracotta tokens morphed into cuneiform tablets to help the work of traders includes what is considered the earliest known musical staff from 1400 BC. Words to a hymn in cuneiform writing in the Akkadian language are at the top of the tablet. Below in cuneiform are intervals followed by numbers. Sadly, no one knows how to transpose these "notes" onto a modern musical staff, so the music can't be played as yet.

The transmission of the Greco-Roman scientific heritage to the West by Islamic scholars and their own contributions are highlighted with illustrated manuscripts on medicine and astronomy. The instruments they used in their discoveries from astrolabe to inkwells, glass vessels and even a fancy lead plumb line (1300 AD) with floral motifs and the name of the owner in Arabic are here, too.

"Syria: Land of Civilizations" is a gorgeous show, filled with art, history and science. And the Riverfront Arts Center is the perfect spot for "Syria." A cavernous building on the Christina River, part of Wilmington's riverfront redevelopment project, it's more of a trade show venue than an arts center, but the spacious interior is just right for this sprawling exhibition. Strolling the well-paced installation with one of the better Walkman-type acoustiguides makes viewing "Syria: Land of Civilizations" a delightfully unrushed and educational affair.

Already seen in Basel, Québec and the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, the exhibition has one final stop at Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History (Feb.15-May 20, 2002).

If you can't see "Syria: Land of Civilizations" in person, an exemplary catalog - readable, informative, beautifully laid-out and copiously illustrated -- is available in hard covers at the modest price of $34.99. Professor Dr. Michel Fortin of Laval University, Québec, wrote the main text.

N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.