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Syria’s National Museum

Hugh Macleod

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010

On a wall in Damascus a bush is burning. Suleiman, in his wisdom, advises the butchering of children to solve maternal disputes, while Abraham heads off up the hill to sacrifice his only son. Moses, meanwhile, has taken his shoes off and is breaking the golden cow before floating slowly along the blessed banks.

“All the colours are original,” said Rahsh Rahsh, a.k.a. Abu Mustapha, the man who for the best part of a decade has watched over one of Damascus’ best kept cultural secrets.

“In all the time I’ve worked here not a single person has ever been allowed to take a photograph,” he said, as we discussed the huge second century frieze tucked to the back of Syria’s National Museum, recovered from the ruins of a Jewish synagogue, built at Doura Europos, now Deir Ezzour, close to where the Euphrates flows into Iraq, and brought to the Syria capital in 1935 by a team of French archaeologists.

Sensitivities aside (Syria is still technically at war with Israel), as with the majority of this maddeningly magnificent museum, the extraordinary frieze – an early example of the Christian impulse for graphic representation on Jewish religious art – remains entirely uncelebrated.

With no signs to point the way, no labels on walls and without even a light to illuminate it, we had only discovered the treasure by chance.
“Do you want to see the temple?” Abu Mustapha asked as we shuffled about the Classics section, awaiting the return of the museum’s head curator, Monam al-Moathen. She had kindly agreed to give us the guided tour, as the only practical way a review could be written. At the time there were virtually no labels for any of the 500 or so artefacts on display and no quality guide book to the museum’s varied delights.

“I can explain to you all about an artefact from the Mamlouk era, but not how our museum is going to become famous in the world,” said Moathen. “The museum is not free to publicise itself. All promotion is taken care of by the General Directorate of Antiquities.”

The cultural wealth of the National Museum is inspiring. The entrance is the gate from the south façade of Qasr al Heir al Garbi – a huge castle build during the Omayyad empire –rebuilt from thousands of tiny fragments over fourteen years.
Inside are classical mosaics, Apollo at his harp, singing the glory of the earth, Philopolis dispensing truth in ceramics recovered in perfect condition from Shahba, the ancient Roman city, founded by Emperor Philip the Arabian, a half hour drive south of Damascus.

Also from the south, prehistoric statues – Minerve the goddess of victory – carved from the famed volcanic basalt of the Huran. More statues, a pure marble Venus, the original gold necklace still hanging delicately from her neck, dating to the second century. Further along the wall, large red ceramics from Greek potters who traded with the Syrian coastline.

Down some steps and into a re-constructed underground burial chamber from the days when the warrior Queen Zenobia of Palmyra still led her armies against the mighty advances of the Roman Empire.

Up the stairs and back in time two millennia, a skeleton laid out from a grave of Syria’s eastern desert. Along the corridor, another hunk of basalt; only look closer and you discover the rock is a treaty, drawn up between rival kings, carved into the stone in Aramaic, the language of Christ, that is still spoken in Maloula, a mountain village north of Damascus.

The blue staring eyes of Mari temple statues, left in place of a real worshipper, to appease the gods of the third century BC Euphrates city-state. Gold, silver and copper coins from when Damascus was the capital of the Islamic Omayyad Empire that stretched from Spain, across North Africa to the western border of China.

Perhaps the highlight of the museum, again little known, is a tiny clay tablet dating back to 14th century BC. Written on it are the thirty cuneiform letters of the world’s first alphabet – Ugarit – running left to right and small enough to fit into a pocket – the world’s first pocket dictionary, as it were.

Moves have been underway to improve the presentation and publicity of the museum. Nicholas Randall, photographer for the book “Syria Revealed”, took shots of fifty of the finest artefacts from the four eras – prehistoric, ancient, classical and Islamic – and the full-colour guide book to the museum’s marvels was published in the spring of 2006.

The museum also teamed up with Louvre, which agreed that rather than pay money for the privilege of exhibiting some of Syria’s treasures, a French team would be dispatched to assist their Syrian counterparts in rejuvenating the Oriental arts section of the museum.

That kind of barter deal, Moathen admitted, remains necessary if revenues generated by the museum are to be used for the benefit of the museum itself, rather than be swallowed by the state Directorate. Despite such efforts, the journey out of the wilderness for Syria’s National Museum will require something like a Biblical sea-change.

“I ask many people in responsible positions in the country whether they have been to the museum,” said Moathen, of the attendance of Syrians to a national treasure trove it costs them the equivalent of $0.30 to access. “They say, ‘Yes, I came with school one time.’”