This volume celebrates and commemorates the extraordinary richness and variety of Syrian archaeology. Like the British Museum’s 2010 History of the World in One Hundred Objects, this book aims to present the depth and breadth of Syria’s past by highlighting a selection of its most fascinating and important sites. The chronological periods covered stretch from the Palaeolithic to the Abbasid, and the sites are spread across all of Syria’s modern provinces.
The book begins and ends with sections by the editors: an introduction to the importance of Syria’s past at the start, including a clear map of all sites covered, and a brief synthesis at the end. Between these sections, the sites are organised by chronological period, and most sites are allotted two to eight pages, including text, plans, photographs and short bibliographies. The images are of excellent quality throughout, despite many of the research projects belonging to the pre-digital era. The authors of these short but illuminating site biographies are the directors of excavations, a far-flung international group of 113 scholars that the editors have done well to gather and manage. The Bronze and Iron Ages dominate, with 54 of the selected sites, followed by 23 prehistoric sites (five Palaeolithic, 12 Neolithic, and six Pottery Neolithic/ Chalcolithic), 19 Hellenistic-Roman-Byzantine, and seven Islamic. Clusters of sites inevitably appear where hydro-electric projects increased the intensity of research, such as along the Upper Euphrates River in the Tabqa Dam and Tishrin Dam areas. The Upper Khabur is also well represented, reflecting its importance during the 4th-1st millennia BC as one of several Near Eastern “heartlands of cities”. If there can be one criticism, it is that the editors have not devoted a section to surveys (either satellite- or ground-based), which indicate the many thousands of additional, unexcavated sites that make Syria’s past so intricate and compelling. The limited number of sites and monuments from the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled from Damascus, is another slight surprise and disappointment, but these are small issues compared to the book’s powerful contribution.
As the editors remind us, Syria hosted many of the innovations and ‘revolutions’ of the human past, particularly in prehistory: the movement of early Homo out of Africa; the Neolithic Period’s sedentary villages, domestication of plants and animals, and invention of pottery; and some of the world’s earliest cities. By contrast, the position of Syria during the Bronze and Iron Ages (3rd-1st millennia BC) is downplayed here, and the region is described as a ‘pawn’ in the midst of greater powers, subject to frequent ravages by armies and deriving its importance mainly from the trade routes that ran through it. However, the editors missed an opportunity to force us to rethink this traditional passive position. The importance of Syria has suffered in comparison to Iraq primarily due to the location of many past political capitals in Iraq (e.g. Agade, Ur, Babylon, Ashur, Nimrud, Nineveh) and the richness of Iraq’s ancient textual record. The dissection of Syria’s past cultural traditions and geographic zones also contributes to this situation: the Mediterranean coast that is closely connected with the southern Levant; the Upper Euphrates with its links to Anatolia; the mid-Euphrates that is an extension of southern Mesopotamia; and the Jezirah that often acts as ‘western Assyria’. But this book gathers and eloquently presents powerful sites and sophisticated local material culture. Ebla and Tell Leilan surely rivalled Kish and Babylon; the Mitanni controlled Assyria for over two centuries; the Aramaeans successfully integrated into the Neo-Assyrian empire until they were irreplaceable; and Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs owe their inspiration to the artists of Aramaean and Neo-Hittite states of northwest Syria. It was only in the Classical era that Syria became a dependent state, and even then there were pockets of resistance and an exuberant hybrid culture.
Much of the information, plans and images in this book have appeared elsewhere, but bringing them together is of enormous value. And there are some site reports that have not yet been published as comprehensively elsewhere, e.g. the excellent overview of Late Chalcolithic Tell Feres. It is impressive to see the accumulated knowledge of streets and neighbourhoods at so many sites, whether through decades of excavation (Tell Munbaqa, Tell Mastouma, Tell Halawa, Tell Bderi) or through the combination of excavation and geophysical prospection (Tell al-Rawda, Tell Sheikh Hamad, Tell Toueini, Tell Bazi, Tell Chuera, Gindaros, Jharab Sayyar). Dramatic monumental tombs (e.g, Tell Banat, Umm el-Marra, and Palmyra) and palaces (at Tell Beydar, Tell Mozan and Qatna) are balanced by more quotidian evidence of lithic tool production (Wadi Mushkuna Rockshelter) and pottery workshops (Tell Kosak Shamali). Those archaeologists who focus on the Chalcolithic-Iron Ages are perhaps less aware of the incredible Palaeolithic sites found in Syria, such as Dederiyeh Cave, and the clear descriptions of these early sites’ significance are salutary. The rich Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine heritage of Syria is also ably amplified; the sections on Jebel Khalid, Cyrrhus and Sergilla, Ruweiha and el-Bara are particularly strong. It is understandable and justified that four sections are devoted to various aspects of Syria’s most famous site, Palmyra, including a section co-authored by the late Dr Khaled al-As’ad. This site’s tombs and temples are well-known, but descriptions of Palmyra’s quarries, textiles and Bronze Age cairn field are a revelation. There are few other books that drill down into Syrian archaeology so specifically, perhaps only Akkermans and Schwartz’s Archaeology of Syria 1 and Burns’ Monuments of Syria.2 This book does not replace the extended discussion of temporal trends and the deep examination of sites and material culture found in those works, but it does an excellent job of summarising the real highlights of archaeology, and archaeological research, in Syria. The range of research questions addressed by these projects is also impressive: from region-specific details of chronology, political change, trade connections and craft production through global issues of mobility, materialisation of beliefs, urbanisation, climate change, and the past interactions of humans and the environment.
The book is very much a response to the conflict in Syria since 2011; the editors’ two main concerns are the destruction of globally significant cultural heritage and the impact of heritage loss on the people of Syria. But the book also serves to remind us that the threats to cultural heritage in the Middle East are complex and long-term, related to modern development as well as to poverty and conflict. The intensity of looting of sites and museums has certainly increased since 2011, but some of the sites examined here are now under the waters of lakes created decades ago by the dammed Euphrates. Others are threatened by modern construction and inexorable city expansion. And an aerial photograph of Resafa (p. 382) is notable for the hundreds of looters’ pits clearly visible within the city walls. But the image is from 1999, not the expected post-2011 period.3 This book is a strong statement about Syria’s rich heritage and the vitality of archaeological research there, a vitality we can only hope will eventually return. The archaeology of Syria deserves to be so well celebrated.
1. Akkermans, P. and Schwartz, G. 2003. The Archaeology of Syria, From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (ca. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Burns, R. 2009 (1992, 1999). Monuments of Syria–An Historical and Archaeological Guide. London: I.B. Tauris.
3. See also Casana, J. 2015. Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria. Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-152.