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                          

 


THE BYZANTINE ART

An icon for the Lady Virgin (Theotokos) and St.George 

Introduction :

In the Byzantine period, Syria significant contribution on the various aspects of civilization such as literature, music, architecture ,sculpture , painting ,crafts and commercial exchange. Consequently, some centres of intellectual activity, science and literature came into existence at Antioch, Apamea, Edessa, Nasibin, Emesa (Homs), and Damascus. For eight centuries, Antioch remained famous as a centre of intellect. Luster was added to it by the brilliant achievement of some men of thought. Chief among whom were John the golden mouth (347-407) and the poet St. Isaac of Antioch . Edessa was also known as one of the oldest and most important intellectual centres to the extent that is was named Athens of the Aramaic world. Here Syriac was first used for literary purposes. At that time, the national feeling grew stronger and dare face the Greek trend. It became necessary, therefore to return to the Aramaic-Arabic as an expression of national awakening.

The school of Edessa flourished until 489 AD., when it was totally destroyed by the order of the emperor Zeno (474 — 476). The professors then moved to Nasibin which became heir of Edessa as a centre of learning. Pre-eminent among the giants of thought in this period are St. Euphraim the Syrian, St. Isaac al-Amadi, St. Simon al-as - Srouji and Philoxenos. Sergius of Ras-el-Ain was famous for his works in philosophy, medicine and astronomy and for his translation of the works of Galien. The credit also goes to Berdesan 155 — 223 who had established the basis for the religious hymns and who introduced music to the church. There is also Rabula of Riha who by his Syriac Gospel dated 586, ornamented with beautiful miniatures and notably bearing the first-ever known portraits of the evangelists. More over, the religious portraits became popular as advised by St. Basil 329 — 379: " Honouring of the images will make us approach their owners." At that time, the Christian art began to have its proper symbols: The pigeon represents the liberal spirit from the prison of the body, the palm represents victory, the olive-branch represents peace. The fish was the symbol of Christ because the letters which make the word fish in Greek respectively stand for "Jesus Christ, son of God, the Saviour ".

The Christian art however, was free from the traditional forms. It was more an expression of the religious thought. The Christian artists considered in fact, that their mission was to propagate the doctrines by image. It is worthy to mention that they did not generally sign their works. That is why these master pieces remain anonymous so that the artists could prove their self abnegation and their indifference to fame.

The antiquities displayed in this wing give the visitor an idea of the contribution of Syria to the creation of the Christian art and its development. This wing consists of four halls. The Hall of Artistic Works, the Hall of Jewels and Coins, the Hall of Syriac Manuscripts and the Hall of the Palmyrene and Coptic textiles.

Byzantine icon made of mosaic

BYZANTINE SYRIA

When Syria came under the Roman rule. various cults had been prevailing in the East - The cults of Hadad, of Atargatis, of Isis, of Mithra and the mystery cults approving orgies practised in a way condemned by the ethical principles commonly observed - Christianity rose as a factor to liberate the country from the Roman paganism and to save the human mind from superstition. The Syrians found in the teachings of Jesus what disperses their spiritual darkness and meets the social requirements which they have been craving for. And it also does revive in their souls the rays of hope in an after life where everlasting happiness be the lot of righteous men. This may elucidate the rapidity with which Christianity spread among the quarters of the Aramaeans in Damascus, Antioch, Edissa, Dura Europos Apamea ... etc.

It was in Damascus that St. Paul saw the light of Jesus and had a dialogue it and the result was that his enmity to Christianity turned into belief in it. lie was helped to escape the by the Christians of Damascus.

In Antioch, the first church was established in 36 AD, wherefrom the evangelists set out.

In the reign of Constantine the Great (274 - 337) the famous edict of Milan was issued in 312 . The edict recognized freedom of faith to the Christians and made Christianity an official religion. Despite the fact that the historians alluded this edict to political reasons, the foundation of Constantinople as a new capital of the Empire is a clear-cut proof of the importance of the East. Eusebius ( 265-340) who was educated at Antioch and became a friend of Constantine. turned out to be the first ever ecclesiastical historian.

In 386 St. Jerome (315 - 420 ) moved into the Syrian desert to lead a solidarity life. He was instrumental in introducing monastic life into Syria which asserts the belief that " The beauty of spiritual values persuades man to withdraw from this mortal world and to suffer martyrdom for the sake of these spiritual values".

After the death of Theodosius the Great (379 - 395), the Empire was split into two halves: A Roman Empire of the West under Honorlus. and a Roman Empire of the East i.e. Byzantine, under Arcadius (395 - 408) who lived at Constantinople in a lofty palace amidst a large entourage indulging in luxurious life and moral laxity which provoked St. John the Golden Mouth (347 - 407 ). St. John led an ascetic life and was celebrated for his insistence on moral and social reform and for his eloquent preaching.

In the reign of Theodosius II ( 408 - 450) Nostorius of Cilicia was living In a monastery near Antioch. The Emperor saw in him The same promising signs of St. John the Golden Mouth, he was therefore, promoted to the bishopric of Constantinople at a time characterized by the appearance of different religions tendencies. For example Apollinaris bishop of Loadica ( Latakia ) stressed the human nature in Jesus Christ. In his logic, Apollinaris was using the Neo-Platonic creed holding that the logos (word) occupied in the divine person of Jesus the place of the spirit which is the highest part of man. Nastorlus, on the other hand, held that in Jesus a divine nature and a human nature were united together in a perfect harmony but not In the unity of a single individual. Nestorius was accused of dividing the person of Jesus and was dismissed from his post. The third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (421 A.D.) and the Council of Chalcedony determined one nature and one hypostasis in Christ.

The national feeling in Syria took up a religious expression. Those who preached monophysitism under the Syrian monk " Barsauma (457) " began to propagate this creed. All those who were harbouring vindictive feelings against the state policy soon subscribed to the new doctrine which was tantamount to the expression of national conscience and an independent trend of the countries. Emperor Zeno tried to win the sympathy of the Syrians and Egyptians in order to put an end to their dissatisfaction but with no success. Anastat ( 491 - 518 ) also tried in vain to please the followers of monophysitism. The love of the Arab East for the phenomenon of the unity contributed to the spread of this doctrine in Syria, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. St. Simeon the Stylites was one of those who believed in this doctrine. The Arab Ghassanids who left Yemen after the bursting of Ma’rib Dam and headed north for Syria, met their Arab brothers of the tribes of Banu Salim and others. They settled permanently in Hauran, embraced Christianity and turned out to be staunch adherents of this faith   .

When Justinus I ( 518 - 527 ) assigned his nephew Justinian the task of fighting the Sassanids, this prince passed through the city of Manbij and got married there to a girl called Theodora. This lady was endowed with beauty and cleverness. It is said that it was Impossible to describe her beauty in words or to portray it. This explains why Justinian was very fond of her. The emperor himself approved the marriage and conferred upon her the epithet of "Patricius". Spite and rancour began to manufacture falsehoods to tarnish the reputation of this Syrian girl who was characterized by broadmindness to the extent that she became the first adviser of her husband when he succeeded the throne. She could, by virtue of her courage, to rescue his throne when the revolution of the two disputing parties broke out. The bodyguard of the Emperor failed to put an end to the sedition which amounted to an extent that made the entourage to advise the Emperor to escape after the rebels had acclaimed Hibatius as Emperor. Theodora turned to her husband saying her proverbial phrase :(" This is a circumstance which does not require adherence to the old rule i.e. the woman should not speak in the council. Those who are interested in the matter have the right to dictate what the course of events should be Every man must die Once. Death to the kingsis far better than abdication and exile. I hope that I would not see the day in which my purple robe would he snatched from me and not to be called the first lady. Emperor: If you want to save your life, it is very easy. You have your ships, you have the sea. As far as I am concerned, I agree to the old saying " The Empire is the best shroud for the dead "). Justinian was affected by these words and instructed his Commander Belisarius to attack the rebels and to put an end to the sedition.

In the Byzantine age Chosroes desired to asser his severalty over the East after the troops of the Byzantine Commander had beaten back the first Sasanid attack. The sasanids renewed their second attack in 541 A.D. in the reign of Cosroes I Anu Sharwan (531-579). Al-Harith II son af Jablah the Ghassanid ( 529 – 569 ) had already fought bravely al-Mundhir III of al-Hirah. The Byzantine Emperor admired al-Harith II and bestowed upon him the epithet of Phylarch and Particius. The Arabs regarded these epithets as the title of al-Malik (King) .

Chosroes took advantage of the fight between the Ghassrnids and their allies the Lakhmids as good reason for his major attack on Northern Syria. The attack was a catastrophe on Manbij, Aleppo and Antioch. He destroyed and looted these cities and captured many of their inhabitants. The Emperor instructed his Commander Belsarius to defend the Euphrates area and the Ghassanids took part In the campaign.

In 562, Al-Harith II accepted the invitation of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and visited Constantinople. He was warmly received there and appeared there in his bright Arab costume and he left a lasting impression on the courtiers to the extend that when the chamberlains wanted to quieten down the small prince Justinus, they would simply shout: Keep quiet! or else we call al-Harith.

Theodora was one of the followers of monophysitism. She did her level best to achieve the victory of this creed but in vain. The Ghassanid King met her and agreed to appoint Jacob

Bardaeus bishop of the Church of the Monophysites. The Monophysites suffered a serious loss with the death of Theodora in 548 at a time when Justinian was working for the unification of Eastern and Western Wings of the Empire. Justinian began to adopt a policy of violence, absolute power and intolerance against any creed that does not agree with his policy. This resulted in an estrangement between the Byzantine on one side, and the Monophysites and the Ghassanids on the other. The Ghassanids’ influence has spread widely from ar-Rasafah in the North until al-Petra and covered the areas of Harran, as-Safa and al-Balqa’. and Bosra became their religious capital. The estrangement soon turned into enmity to the extent that Justinian II (565-578) decided to do away with the influence of the Ghassanid King al-Munzhir to meet the Byzantine Governor in Syria to discuss with him important issues. The message sent to the Byzantine Governor reached the hand of al-Harith by mistake and he got to know the bad intention of the Byzantine Emperor. He was hurt much for this bad intention and ingratitude towards the Ghassanids. After a period of alienation reconciliation was effected between them.

The Persians continued to raid against Syria since 572 A.D.( the reign of the Sasanid King Chosroes II and the Byzantine Kings: Justinian II, Tiberias II and Maurice 582 - 602). The Ghassanids fought on the side of the Byzantines against the Sasanids and their allies, the Arab Lakhmid-Mundhirites. Al Mundhir ibn al-Harith II (590) managed to burn the Lakhmid capital. The Byzantines. however, remained on their guard against the Ghassanids who became influential and supported the adherents of Monophystism. This may explain why the Byzantine governor in Syria extended an invitation to the Ghassantd King and his sons to attend the dedication of the Huwarin Church in 582, while attending the function, the Gassanid King was arrested and sent with his wife and children into exile to Constantinople and then to Sicily. Al-Numan ibn al-Mundhir was also arrested by a similar device and was sent to Constantinople at a time when the Sasanid danger died out. A civil war broke out in Persia and Chosroes had to effect a reconciliation with Maurice, the Byzantine Emperor, but Chosroes II swept over the country (A.D. 608) carrying destruction wherever he passed. At that time Meraclius headed for Constantinople where he was crowned there in 611.

The Sasanids had ruled al-Hirah after the death of King al-Nu'man . The Arabs rose against them and against their hireling lyas ibn Qubais (602 - 611) and achieved their best victory over the Sasanids at the famous battle of Dhi Qar. The Sasanid Commander Shahr Baraz headed for Central Syria in 613; captured Apamea and destroyed it. He also attacked Antioch and could capture Damascus itself and to march on towards Jerusalem which he conquered and put a garrison there. The citizens wiped out this garrison, an act which provoked Shahr Baraz who returned and killed the people of Jerusalem and drove its patricians into exile.

From 556 A.D. the Byzantine Empire became very weak because of the spread of disease, the excessive taxed and he earthquakes. The citizens were desperate to the extent that they considered these misfortunate a signal for the approaching end of life in this world.

To add fuel to the fire. Chosroes had sent Heraclius a letter worded in vainly, pride and insolence. The Emperor swore to march to the battlefield at the head of his troops. In revenge for the insults, Heraclius overturned the altars of the fire- worshippers at the capital of Media and the city of Zoroaster.

The attention, however was then shifted towards the two Byzantine and Sasanid capitals. The question being asked at that time was: " Who will be the master of the East?" Until then, no one expected that the disputing Arab tribes will be unified by the Call of Muhammad to the faith of the great Creator. His sacred books and His messengers at a time in which dissatisfaction reached an extent that made the people consider the acts of the Sasanids as those of highway men. The Syrians found the power of their next of kin in the Arabian Peninsula a salvation from foreign oppression. When the Arab army met the Byzantines’, the former appeared very strong and seeking martyrdom for its belief, while the Byzantine array fought indifferently and without any enthusiasm. The Syrian Arabs were given assistance from the Syrian brothers and as such the Arabs under Abu Ubaidah and by the assistance of the Syrians who resented the Byzantine rule, were able to liberate Bosra. The Byzantines failed to recover that city in the batt1e of Ajnadeen which made Heraclius feel dispaired and later on he sent all the legions to the East to fight but all his efforts were of no avail. The Byzantines attempted to resist at Damascus, but the natives who were distressed of the Byzantine rule helped the Arab brothers to enter the city in 635. They also helped them in the liberation of Homs, Hama ,Ba’albak . Heraclius had to withdraw for good from Syria and to bid her fare-well in proverbial words. And from that time on a new Arab era started making Syria the starting point for the liberation of Iraq from the Sasanids and for the spread of a Muslim Arab civilization .

 
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