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Syria: stuffed with stones

Leaving aside Syria's dodgy politics, the country ought to be famous for many things: the friendliest of people, fertile soils, vibrant and welcoming cities and fascinating archaeological sites. If it's crumbly stuff you love, then Syria's your kind of place. From the finest crusader castles in the world, early examples of the spread of Christianity from the Byzantine period and before, Ottoman palaces, ancient caravanserais to R*man cities that will leave you weeping in astonishment, Syria is indeed blessed.

And you don't have to scratch the surface very hard to see that many of these places were built on earlier settlements - this region is, after all, the cradle of human civilisation. Both Aleppo and Damascus claim to be the oldest cities in the world in continuous habitation. I don't doubt it. Syria's strategic position on trade routes between East and West has given it a unique position in the history of human development.

Ugarit - write it down
Near the Mediterranean port of Latakia lies the ancient, now abandoned city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) inhabited for 7,000 years; from the seventh millennium BC to the R*mans. It is here amongst crumbling walls of an extensive city from the 18th century BCE that the earliest example of alphabetic writing was unearthed on terracotta tablets. For one who loves words, language and writing so much, a visit to Ugarit was essential.

The Ugarit site was discovered in 1928 by a farmer ploughing his fields. Soon after the French began excavations revealing layers of settlements. During the Neolithic 9,000 years ago there was a small fortified town. In the early Copper Age, painted pottery appears with geometric designs and both flint and metal tools. The Middle Bronze Age layer shows great expertise in bronze working and it is from this time that the ruins we saw are from.

Discounting cave paintings, the earliest evidence of writing dates back to 3500 BCE in Uruk, in southern Iraq. As humankind developed the need to record more complex notions arose. All early writing systems (like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese pictographs) use a complete symbol for an entire word or syllable. They could then be combined to express complex thoughts.

The inhabitants of Ugarit went one step further and recognised that speech consists of a finite number of sounds each of which could be represented with a symbol which could then be put together to make words. The alphabet of all phonetic languages today are based on the 30 symbols created by the people of Ugarit: Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit and so on.

A lot is known about Bronze Age Ugarit because they could record their activity. They built palaces, temples, shrines and libraries. They constructed cedar ships and became a great naval power refining many principles of navigation. They traded textiles, ivory, weapons and silver with the cities of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Aegean Sea, Egypt and Asia Minor. The reason for the city's abandonment is unknown; possibly invasion or natural disaster.

It was screamingly hot as we entered the site climbing the small hill on which the site stands. As we stood at the top surveying the complex it became immediately apparent that the level of human and social development was no different from today. OK, they didn't have electricity, or the internal combustion engine or the microchip, but they did have complicated buildings and streets, running water, palaces, civic systems and a level of social organisation that allowed them the time to think creatively about abstract concepts, rather than just survive.

On one clay tablet found, written 3,400 years ago reveals that concerns among the people then is no different to now. It says: "Do not tell your wife where you hide your money." It should, of course, have said: "Let your wife look after your money and you will never be poor."

We shuffled through the beautiful ruins under the searing sun admiring the stone masonry, the layouts of the houses and palaces, the streets and palaces, I found it easy to imagine that 3,000 miles away on the fringes of Western Europe, civilisation would be flowering in similar ways. It's only that here, in the thick of trade routes in the busy pre R*man world, cities were built of materials that do not rot down.

As we drove inland towards Aleppo (which by the way, is where hamsters originate from) the temperature started to rise. We also noticed that in some of the villages 'beehive' houses were still being constructed and used. We stopped at one village to take a closer look and were immediately mobbed by small, friendly children.

The beehive houses still used today are of the same diameter and construction of others found across the Levant that date from the Neolithic. Made of salmon pink mud and straw they are about five metres in diametre and have a conical form with a round flat top and only have one room.

The walls are very thick and each house only has one entrance, keeping them warm in winter and cool in summer.

Mari melts away
Just ten kilometres from the Iraqi border, baking in the relentless sun, lies Mari, a Mesopotamian city first settled 2900BC.

Only revealed from layers of protective sand in the early 20th century the ancient mud brick walls (some five metres thick!) of a huge city lie crumbling away. Now exposed, winter rains and sandstorms hit the site hard and the city appears to be melting back into the dust. But there are still things to wonder at!

Waterproofed with tar, the vast, deep cisterns and water channels are still visible, palaces with niches for statuary in the walls, staircases, bits of Mesopotamian pottery poke up through the sand and to my delight, my very first ziggurat, from where I could see the mountains of Iraq.

Clay tablets found here reveal rich and close trading links between Ugarit on the coast and Palmyra.

Queen Zenobia's Palmyra
Though not within the remit of this website, I must also draw readers' attention to the R*man city of Palmyra.

Not because it is one of the most magical, vast, pant-wettingly beautiful, finely-preserved, fascinating, romantic and exotic of places. And not because in the flat, featureless vastness of the Syrian desert, a single spring welling up through the rock allowed this to become one of the richest cities in the ancient world. And not because of the evidence that Neolithic people settled and farmed here. And not because from 2,000 BCto 106AD it was a minor desert fort used by caravans and bedouin before Trajan got in there to big it up. No, though all of this is true. For the purposes of this website I must tell you about the tombs. Because I just love a funky tomb!
Tower power!
Built and used by Palmyra's residents from 333BC to as late as 128AD the tower tombs are a surprising feature of the landscape just to the west of the main city.

Here, in the Valley of the Tombs they build hypogea, too, cut into the rock, stacking the bodies in the same way as in the towers. Within the sturdy towers - like oversized fire hose drying towers - they placed corpses in neat rows, one on top of the other on stone plinths, just like in a modern day morgue.

In the partially rebuilt tower we entered it was cool and lofty, with marvellous frescoes and statues depicting the dead. It once held 300 bodies. There are loads of these towers, too, in various states of disrepair. The really crumbly ones reminded us of the building style of the 'navetas' we saw earlier this year in Menorca.

Where to go next?

Via Damascus, we travelled south to the magical kingdom of Jordan...

Jane Posted by Jane
18th September 2005ce
Edited 24th November 2005ce

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