The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          

 


Syria  

AMRIT

Amrit's enigmatic cistern, in actual fact a beautiful fountain, nearly square, is presumed to date from the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, though many consider it much older, the work of a long-vanished cult. It measures exactly 56.48 meters long by 50.49 meters wide; and was enclosed by a princely arcade whose lintels were supported on sturdy and well-worked stone pilasters.

In the center stands, to this day, an elaborate stone altar, supposedly, in its time, consecrated to Melkart in his avocation of healer, though it surely had an oracular application as well. Oracles were a common form of healing, through communion with "the powers", or were used as cautionary tales concerning "right conduct", as well as for more politically oriented interests, such as the rights of the monarch, royal policy, even military strategy.

Later, in the confusion of migrations in search of water, new pasture lands, new trade routes and new markets, combined with the missionary zeal of any incoming populace, the gods and cult-figures began to merge. Melkart, originally a Greek deity associated with curative powers, became identified, for the coastal Phoenicians, with the Egyptian healer Eshmun, and for later Greeks, more attuned to conquest than curing, with Hercules. But was Amrit Phoenician or Greek? It might have been a colony of the ubiquitous Arameans, an Aryan offshoot, who are presumed to have come from the Caspian, or perhaps the Indus Valley, ultimately to dominate western Syria. (See: Gregory L. Possehl, Indus Age, The Beginnings, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1999.)

Or possibly Amrit was a dominion of those intrepid Amorites, a Semitic people, amorphous and ill-defined, but a nonetheless assertive and even ruthless collection of pasturing people, possibly from the area of the "Five Rivers" of the Punjab, who had already founded a chain of kingdoms in Mari, in Babylon, in Terqa, Ebla, Ugarit and Byblos, among many others, as they wended their way toward the west. Their name, in fact, from the Akkadian amarr?, means "west".

Did they come from the west or were they bound that way? A god Amarr?, gifted with great powers of persuasion, frequently occurred in personal names and on the characteristically Mesopotamian cylinder seals, often holding a crook or staff. He was the essence of the Amorite mystique.

The Hyksos invaders of Egypt were verifiably Amorite. (See: Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, edited by Piotr Bienkowsky and Alan Millard, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). Hamurabi of Babylon was the sixth king in an Amorite dynasty. His famous code of law conformed to an Amorite ethic. (See: Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 BC, London, Routledge, 1995, 2 vols.); Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, once Hamurabi's ally, ultimately his rival, was Amorite, and so fell victim to the same ethic. (See: Gwendolyn Leick, Who's Who in the Ancient Near East, London, Routledge, 1999).

The idea of a cosmic battle at the time of the creation was Amorite. The Amorite language appears to have served as the foundation on which those other Semitic languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, evolved; and according to Hebrew texts Amorites lived, deeply entrenched, in the hills of Canaan east and west of the Jordan, "a force with which both Philistines and Israelites will have to deal" (Joshua 24:15). Who were these people? Why such diversity of action and perception?

Perhaps it was a result of the metaphysical, since supposedly "prophetic speech" was attributed to the Amorites, and according to the archives at Mari, it was introduced by them, thus the secret of their tremendous impact, by means of "induced" perceptions, or visions uttered extemporaneously, as in a trance. Despite the derision of the Sumerians, who regarded the Amorites as "crass and barbarous, strangers to civilization", this vague assortment of nomadic tribes, at each of its eventual settlements, had already merged with the local population and so often simply disappeared from the records as an identifiable entity, yet had left an indelible mark.

°°°

Amrit, singular and mysterious, virtually unlike anything else anywhere in the world, lies 8 kms. south of Tartous (to the Crusaders, Tortosa) on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and, according to historians, was a continental foothold for the Phoenicians (Syro-Canaanites), who administered the temple site from their colony on the island-shelf of Arwad, just 2.5 kms. offshore. Yet its unique design was not, according to Leonard Wooley, (See: The Art of the Middle East, New York, Crown Publishers, 1961) by any means Phoenician. For him, the intricate altar -- or allusive monument, or commemorative marker -- in the center of the cistern might have been Syro-Hittite, Assyrian, Persian, possibly even Indian, technically far superior, as he says, to anything attributed to the Phoenicians, "who may have been marvelous seamen and traders, but who were definitely not sculptors in stone". The quality of the stone was poor in coastal Syria, for one thing, so lent itself badly to the art of sculpture; and for another, the Phoenicians excelled at transportable goods, easy to market, but were loathe to undertake anything as cumbersome as stone sculpture. As for an orthostat in Sinjirli basalt, dating from around 730 B.C., or the Neirab stelae of the sixth century, "although the inscriptions are in Aramaic the sculpture cannot be considered Phoenician."

Amrit was traditionally regarded as a cult site over a magical spring, with curative powers, and an adjacent necropolis for those who were not cured. Archaeological remains have been identified -though no one knows with what culture-and can be established as far back as the sixth to the eighth century B.C. Yet an examination of the area reveals evidence of stable habitation, as well, in the area around the temple precinct, including, just beyond the spring, the ruins of a stadium. The city might have been, as many suppose, by turns a Phoenician suburb associated with Arwad, as well as a Greek outpost, termed then as Marathos, which in any case was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. Later, the whole coastal area was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Even today, a military base occupies the land corresponding to a part of the city that might have been residential, thus obliterating all opportunity for further investigation.

The mystery, therefore, remains unsolved. Who built the famous towers, those meghaziles or "needles" (or "spindles"), curiously akin to the architecture of the Cham in Central Vietnam, raised over subterranean funerary chambers (hypogaeum)? What happened to the Tower, or Pillar, of Snails, that massive black basalt cube that once sat on a pedestal, but has now fallen, and lies half-submerged in a marsh? (Similar cubes, associated with cult deities, can in fact be found in Nabatean tombs at Petra in Jordan, dating from about 400 B.C. and are remarkably similar to the Kabah in Mecca.) Is the strange monument (al-Maabed or "naos") an Achaemenian reference? Is the altar in the center of the cistern, surrounded by pillars, an allusion to the Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab? Or the reverse: might the famous Punjab temple have been inspired in Amrit?

Amrit, Amritsar. A joyous dilemma, wistful and remote. Amrit, Amorit, Amorite. A lonely site, of long grasses and jaunty wildflowers, the humming of bees, the flight of dragonflies, the caretaker's dogs, that follow us along a narrow path down to the spring; an isolated site, on an otherwise well populated stretch of coast, at the ends of the earth and the beginning of time.

 
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