The Syria we suppose we know from Middle Eastern news reports -- the Syria of Hafez Assad, of Hamah and the Golan, Alawites and Baathists -- prepares us not at all for the Syria we discover in "Ebla to Damascus," the archeological display that yesterday began a two-year U.S. tour at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. "Ebla to Damascus" demolishes old stereotypes. It is a show that teaches tolerance as it engenders awe.
Like other major loan shows from nations we distrust, from Russia or East Germany, the exhibition forces us to look beyond the adversarial present. The Syrians have sent us the greatest of their treasures -- life-size statues, golden bowls, idols, weapons, amulets, 281 old and precious objects -- of silver, lapis lazuli, steel, stone and clay. Most are unfamiliar. But they remind us that the West owes to ancient Syria enormous debts, infrequently acknowledged.
Ten thousand years of history unfold in this show. Syria gave the world its first thriving cities. Syrian scribes developed the numbers we still use, and writing and the alphabet. A 4,500-year-old tablet of baked clay, whose cuneiform inscriptions are in Eblaite and Sumerian, is the oldest dictionary known. Syria helped to forge Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The caliphs of Damascus once ruled a mighty empire that stretched from Spain to India.
Syria was a crossroads and Syria was a crucible. Arabians and Egyptians, Scythians and Turks, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Macedonians, Mongols, Medes and Hittites, armies without number, battled across Syria, left their marks upon the land and were changed in turn. One feels those waves of conquest, of resistance and submission, in these works of art. A number suggest Egypt. A small, exquisite falcon of bronze inlaid with gold, from 1400 B.C., suggests the Middle Kingdom, though it was found in Ugarit (which in the days of Moses and of Tutankhamen, was the greatest city in the Middle East). Others seem Minoan. At least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, Syrian merchants were importing lapis from Afghanistan and cloves from Indonesia. There are painted vases on display that are probably from Crete. These calm limestone carvings from Palmyra, circa A.D. 150, eerily suggest both old Etruscan art and the stiffly frontal statues of medieval Europe.
This show is full of echoes, and yet one feels throughout an intimidating bluntness, an adoration of divinity -- a spirit wholly Syrian -- in its finest works of art.
Of the many statues here, the nearly life-size votive figure of bearded, bald Shibum is perhaps the most impressive. The image, recently unearthed at the temple of Ishtarat in Mari, was carved out of gypsum 4,500 years ago. Shibum, the surveyor, held the second-highest office in Mari's governmental hierarchy. His hands are clasped before him. He wears a skirt of tufted wool. Though one gathers from the folds of fat at the back of his neck that Shibum was well fed, he does not seem quite human. He feels half man, half god.
His huge unblinking eyes are enough to freeze the viewer. Two thousand years earlier, eyes as large and strange were carved on the otherwise headless "eye idols" that Sir Max Mallowan, Dame Agatha Christie's husband, unearthed at Tell Brak. And that same soul-chilling stare is seen in the rare Assyrian wall paintings on plaster from 750 B.C. included in the show.
Ishtar, El and Baal, Ninhursag and Shamash -- many are the gods of Syria. The oldest object shown is a 10,000-year-old goddess from Mureybit (whose posture, whose clasped hands, predict those of Shibum). When Abraham traveled from Ur to Harran, his route took him through Syria. The Arabian soldiers of Islam, who conquered Syria in 636, loved their god as devotedly as Abraham loved his. Some passionate, uncompromising commitment to religion seems innate to the land. Consider, for example, St. Simeon the Elder, who -- in what Walters curator Ellen Reeder Williams calls "a highly imaginative interpretation of Christ's counsel to avoid worldly temptation" -- spent 42 years living atop a series of narrow pillars, the last of which was nearly 60 feet high. Simeon spent all day standing in the Syrian sunlight. Once a week a servant, equipped with a ladder, brought up a bit of food.
Because Syria ruled the trade routes between Europe and the Orient, and Turkey and Arabia, the Syrians were regarded as among the sharpest, most successful traders of antiquity. The requirements of business, and of record-keeping, helped teach them to write.
Writing, archeologists now believe, evolved from clay invoices called bullae, a number of which are included in the show. More than 5,000 years ago, traders would enclose with each shipment of oil, say, or wool, a hollow clay ball impressed with the sender's seal containing small clay tokens representing the number of jugs or fleeces shipped. Because each bulla was marked with notches corresponding to the number of items sent, the recipient could break it open and make sure the number of tokens matched that of the notches. The bullae were eventually replaced by clay tablets, and the tokens inside by inscribed symbols. Writing was on its way.
Recent excavations have brought to light thousands of old documents. Together they suggest much of ancient Syrian life. One, circa 1250 B.C., is the divorce decree of King Ammistamru II of Ugarit from the daughter of Benteshina, king of Amurru: "She had nothing but mischief in mind for Ammistamru," declares the tablet. "Therfore, he has divorced her. Forever! Now she should take everything she brought into the house . . . and leave." Another tablet, from Mari, informs King Zimri-Lim that his daughter, Princess Shimatum, has given birth to twins, "a boy and a girl! Be happy, my lord." In a third letter, also from Mari, King Yarim-Lim of Aleppo declares war on the king of Der: "I have acted as a father and brother toward you; toward me you have acted as a villain and enemy . . . May I be cursed should I ever go away before annihilating your land and you."
There are many things of beauty here -- ivory tablets, for example, very much like those so admired by King Solomon, and stone vessels of high elegance, and jewelry of gold form the "Treasure of Ur" of Mari, which was buried in a pot of clay in 2500 B.C.
All the objects on display have been lent by the Directorate-General of Antiquites and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Syrians have been exceedingly generous. The 540-page catalogue is a volume of admirable scholarship. The exhibit, which will be at the Walters, 600 N. Charles St., until Oct. 27, is being circulated by the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service. It travels to Denver, Los Angeles, Richmond, Cincinnati and Detroit before ending its tour in 1987 at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. Although it is coming here, it still merits a trip to Baltimore. A beautiful, revealing show, it is well worth seeing twice