Ancient Syria: Another Cradle of Civilization?

16 JANUARY, 2017

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Traditionally, it has been thought that civilization in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean began in two centers, Sumer in the east between the Tigris and Euphrates, and Egypt in the west along the Nile. The earliest cities are believed to have been built in the flood plains of southern Mesopotamia during the mid-4th millennium BC. There is, however, some evidence that complex urban centers such as Tell Brak were already being built in ancient Syria at the same time. This has led some archaeologists to suggest that civilization began in the north independently of the southern Mesopotamian centers, or even before their emergence. Evidence shows that although proto-urban centers appear in the south first, they also arise very soon afterwards or simultaneously in the north, suggesting that ancient Syria is another center where civilization emerged independently, alongside Egypt and Sumer.

Prehistoric Syria – Earliest Sites are 13,000 Years Old

The earliest proto-agricultural site, dating to about 11,000 BC is located at Tell Abu Hureyra in northwestern Syria near the river Euphrates. Actual agricultural sites first emerge around 8500-9000 BC in the southern Levant. Tell Abu Hureyra demonstrates a precedence of large population centers in Syria going all the way back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic.

Tell Abu Hureyra, Syria. Credit: A.M.T. Moore

Tell Abu Hureyra, Syria. Credit: A.M.T. Moore

Tell Brak, A Bustling Center 6,000 Years Ago

Another important population center in Neolithic Syria was established at Tell Brak by around 6000 BC. This was about half a millennium after the first settlements at Ubaid in southern Mesopotamia were founded. By the mid-fourth millennium, a structure was built at Tell Brak which consisted of impressive architecture and numerous kilns, which suggest that this was not a residential building, but that it was built for large feasts. This is further supported by a large collection of mass-produced pottery plates and animal remains. Objects such as a jade bear and eye-idols have also been discovered which are refined to a degree that suggests craft-specialization. These all strongly imply that by the 4th millennium BC, Tell Brak had become a bustling proto-urban center.

Left: Beads from the cache found beneath a residential building at Tell Brak of the mid-4th millennium BC. Right: Alabaster bear figurine, height 9 cm, mid-4th millennium BC. Traces of red and black pigment survive on the head and claws.

Left: Beads from the cache found beneath a residential building at Tell Brak of the mid-4th millennium BC. Right: Alabaster bear figurine, height 9 cm, mid-4th millennium BC. Traces of red and black pigment survive on the head and claws. ()

Mari and Ebla – Two Innovative Cities of Ancient Syria

Tell Brak is not the only site of its kind in early Bronze Age and late Neolithic Syria. While the Sumerian urban centers were growing in the south, the urban centers of Mari and Ebla were also developing at the same time in Syria. Mari was founded by an unknown culture around 3000 BC. The city is known for a large canal connecting it to the Euphrates River. There is also evidence of extensive urban planning with two defensive rings. The outer one was for defense from floods and the inner ring was for defense against invading armies.

During the Early Bronze Age, the city became a trading hub connecting the Levant and northern Mesopotamia, which included parts of Syria, to southern Mesopotamia and a major center for the trade of metals.

Mari, Syria - A ziggurat near the palace

Mari, Syria – A ziggurat near the palace. ()

Ebla was also founded around 3000 BC. Ebla is known for its extensive cuneiform library. The language spoken at Ebla is also notable for being one of the oldest Semitic languages other than Akkadian. Many Eblaite words and personal names are very similar to the same words and personal names in ancient Hebrew. In the 3rd millennium BC, Mari and Ebla rivaled their southern counterparts in size and influence.

A tablet from the Ebla archive.

A tablet from the Ebla archive. ()

North vs South

Northern Mesopotamian culture may have originally been quite different from southern Mesopotamian culture. The culture of Northern Mesopotamia during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age was essentially Semitic and most of the people of the region probably spoke a Semitic language similar to Akkadian. The Sumerians, on the other hand, spoke an obscure language that doesn’t appear to be related to any known language, modern or ancient, though some have suggested that it is related to the Dravidian language family of southern India – which suggests a very interesting origin story for the Sumerians (which may one day be uncovered, but that is for another article.) These differences highlight how northern Mesopotamia and southern Mesopotamia were in some ways different civilizations during the Late Neolithic and before the Akkadian conquest of Sumer.

The Powerful Akkadians

The inhabitants of Mari and Ebla were probably related to the Akkadians, a Semitic speaking culture that became dominant in Mesopotamia after the 23rd century BC. Both the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures descend from them. The Akkadians appeared in Sumer sometime in the middle of the 3rd millennium. It is not known whether they were invaders or a subjugated people who overpowered their Sumerian overlords. The Akkadians eventually gained power over most of Mesopotamia and the Akkadian king, Sargon of Akkad, founded the earliest empire around 2350 BC.

Illustration of Mesopotamia.

Illustration of Mesopotamia. ()

Akkadian Culture Spreads its Influence

Akkadian culture had a significant influence on Middle Eastern civilization. The Akkadian language remained a language important for religious, scientific, and magical purposes throughout the history of Mesopotamia and was still in use as late as the 3rd century AD. Much of the Akkadian religion and mythology appear to have been borrowed from the Sumerians, or at least share a common source with Sumerian religion and mythology. The Akkadians also used Cuneiform like the Sumerians. Nonetheless, it was the Akkadian culture which came to dominate the Middle East for almost two millennia – until the Neo-Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Persians in 539 BC.

Semitic culture probably did not originate in northern Mesopotamia, but northern Mesopotamia has always had a Semitic character. Since the Middle East has been ruled by Semitic speaking peoples for most of its modern history, first the Assyrians and Babylonians and later the Muslim Arabs, it makes sense to call the region of Syria another cradle of civilization.

Top image: Tell Brak, an ancient city in Syria ()

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References

“Ancient Syria” by Joshua Mark (2014). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at:

“Mari” by Henry Curtis Pelgrift (2016). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at:

“Recent Finds from the northern Mesopotamian city of Tell Brak” by Geoff Emberling and Helen McDonald (after 2002). Antiquity. Available at:

“Babylonia” by Jona Lendering (2004). Livius.org. Available at:

“Akkad” by Joshua Mark (2011). Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at:

“The archives of Ebla and the Bible” by Jeff A. Benner. Ancient Hebrew Research Center. Available at:

 

ARTICLE TWO:

Trading in the Bronze Age: Living the High Life in the Great Syrian City of Ugarit

19 JANUARY, 2017

Ugarit is an ancient city located on the coast of Syria. The ruins of this site are in the form of a tell (or mound) known as Ras Shamra, and are situated 10 km (6.2 miles) to the north of Latakia, the main port city of the country. This was an important city from about 1450 BC to 1200 BC, after which it was completely abandoned. Whilst Ugarit did not become a superpower in the ancient Middle East, it was a significant economic center, as it served as a major trade center between Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor during the Bronze Age. The Ugarit inhabitants knew how to use their economic position to their advantage and withstood the rise and fall of many of their overlords. They are also remembered for their unique language.

Dating Ugarit

According to the archaeological evidence, Ugarit had been inhabited continuously since the Neolithic period, i.e. around the middle of the 7th millennium BC. Nevertheless, it was only around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC that the city began to develop as a trade center.

Excavated ruins at Ras Shamra.

Excavated ruins at Ras Shamra. ()

The Ugaritic King List and other Ugaritic epics state that the Amorites, a semi-nomadic people from Mesopotamia, arrived in Ugarit at this point in time. The first exact dating of Ugarit comes from a carnelian bead identified with Sesostris I, a pharaoh from Middle Kingdom Egypt who lived during the 2nd millennium BC. This bead is also regarded as the earliest evidence of contact between Ugarit and ancient Egypt.

Bust of Senusret I in the Neues Museum, Berlin.

Bust of Senusret I in the Neues Museum, Berlin. ()

One of the factors contributing to the success of Ugarit as a trade center is the fact that it was located at the crossroads of the Near Eastern land routes and the Mediterranean maritime routes. This also meant that the superpowers of the ancient world coveted this area of land, and sought to exert their influence over it.

During the middle of the 14th century BC, for example, Ugarit was a vassal of the Hittite Empire, and fought against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. At another point of time, however, they were under the control of the Hyksos.

Ugarit’s Fickle Alliances

Ugarit relied on its economic, rather than political or military, prowess to survive in the ancient world. It was also a pragmatic entity that adapted to changing situations. For example, as mentioned earlier, Ugarit was a vassal of the Hittites. Nevertheless, the loyalty of Ugarit depended on the strength of their overlords. When the Hittites were powerful, their merchants were given special treatment, and financial as well as military support were provided. On the other hand, when the Hittites were in a weak position, Ugarit did not hesitate to exploit the situation at hand.

Location of Hittites.

Location of Hittites. ()

Yet, for all its acumen, Ugarit collapsed around the middle of the 12th century BC due to a combination of several factors. These include the migration of the Sea Peoples from the West and the ruralization of the Ugaritic countryside, which contributed to the collapse of the palace-temple economy. Ugarit was forgotten by history, and only rediscovered in the early part of the 20th century.

Site Discoveries

In 1928, a tomb was discovered by a farmer who was working in his field. This discovery was reported to the French authorities, who were the colonial masters of the country, and an archaeological expedition was sent to study the site. The first cuneiform tablet, in Akkadian, was discovered just five days after excavations began. By 1935, the site was identified as Ugarit, thanks to the tablets.

Paved floor and walls in the ruins of the Ugarit palace.

Paved floor and walls in the ruins of the Ugarit palace. (Mohammed osta/)

In addition to these inscriptions, texts written in an unknown language also came to light. Though written in cuneiform, it was determined that the language was alphabetic, rather than logo-syllabic (in which the signs represent syllables rather than letters), like Akkadian. This language was eventually deciphered, and identified as Ugaritic, a Northwest Semitic language in the same family group as Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic.

An Akkadian inscription.

An Akkadian inscription. ()

Further excavations have been undertaken, as well as the translation of the Ugaritic texts that have been unearthed. In the latter, such well known pieces of ancient Near Eastern literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Flood Story have been found. The most important text of this language, however, is the Baal Cycle, which is a set of stories about the Canaanite storm god Baal.

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian.

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian. ()

Top image: Ugarit Palace Entrance. Source: 

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References

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Ugarit. [Online]
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King, J., 2012. Ugarit. [Online]
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Pardee, D., 2002. Ugarit Ritual Texts. [Online]
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Sacred Destinations, 2017. Ugarit, Syria. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2017. Alphabet of Ugarit. [Online]
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, 2017. Ugarit. [Online]
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