Syrian treasures from the ‘melting pot of ideas’

More than any other part of the Middle East, what is now Syria maintained close ties with the Greek world for well over a thousand years after its conquest by Alexander the Great. The Christian period in Syria, particularly during Byzantine dominion or influence from the fourth to the 13th centuries AD, is represented in an exhibition that opened this week at the Athens Concert Hall. Syria: Byzantine Times brings together 184 artifacts – architectural fragments, mosaics, frescoes, pottery, glassware, manuscripts, textiles and metalwork – from the museums of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Palmyra, Idlib, Aleppo and Alexandretta, as well as from the Benaki Museum in Athens. Its position between the Mediterranean basin and the Mesopotamian and Eastern civilizations rendered Syria a melting pot of ideas and ways of life since the very dawn of civilization, as curator Effi Andreadi writes in the exhibition catalog. The first gods were hewn from (Syria’s) rock, the first writing was incised on its clay and the first transparent glass emerged from its sands. It was also an area savagely fought over by the Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks and the Mamelukes of Egypt and upon which Constantinople maintained a slippery foothold even after its military might was crippled at Mantzikert in 1071, until the Second Crusade. Syria, as probably the earliest known Christian place of worship, is where evidence dating to between AD 240-256 has been discovered in the ruins of the frontier town of Dura-Europos. Syria’s early espousal of the Christian faith consolidated its links with the Byzantine Empire, although subsequent, bitter theological disputes had the opposite effect. The early Syrian churches incorporated distinct Graeco-Roman architectural elements. Large basilicas with pediment-topped facades were built out of ashlar blocks of basalt which stood on raised platforms and recall the crepidomata of ancient temples. Along with large photographs of the best known surviving churches, a few representative column capitals are displayed on the ground floor of the Athens Concert Hall, along with six exquisite mosaic panels from the fifth and sixth centuries and some later frescoes. Other artifacts on display include glass tiles with gold leaf decoration from the ninth-12th centuries, a score of fourth to eighth-century glasswork, miniature colored-glass talismans, a group of bronze medical drills, spatulas and scalpels, coins dating from the reign of Anastasius I (491-518) to Michael VII (1071-1078), as well as gold and copper jewelry. Syria: Byzantine Times is on display at the Athens Concert Hall (on the corner of Vassilisis Sophias and Kokkali streets), tel 728.2000, until January 15, from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. Entrance is 1,500 drachmas, 500 drachmas for students and children, and 3,000 drachmas for family tickets.

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