Syrian Civilization
In the field of Legacy
Georgie Can'an
Very much like the Egyptians, the Sumerians and their successors in Syria and Mesopotamia had left many temples, palaces and cemeteries behind, all of which still fascinate the observer by their being huge, artistically precise and well-sculptured. Moreover, they bequeathed us thousands and thousands of tablets that had dated their civilizations and types of living; their records have preserved their literature, laws, certain texts of their prayers, of their social systems and other types of the knowledge they acquired in dateless times.

The surviving tablets excavated in modern times indicate that the Ancient Syrians had excelled in the various genres of literature: they wrote stories, fables, epics and religious hymns; they compiled proverbs and sayings, and composed poetry in various themes. These writings manifest their religious doctrines, moral disciplines and philosophical views; this abundant literary production is, above all, characterized by originality and the variation of motifs.

In their legacy we come across the earliest attempts to discuss and explicate original, philosophical questions like those of life, death, genesis and the essence of Man. Tens of thousands of tablets have preserved documents and contracts of their administrative, lawful and commercial dealings; these tablets also help us get acquainted with their social systems and administrative institutions. Commenting on the Sumerian legacy, the Historian W. Durant (1935:256) says: "from Sumer we had the first method of recording, the earliest ethical ideals, the earliest political and social thought and philosophical meditations, the earliest records in history, mythology, epics and religious hymns, and the earliest lawful contracts; from it came the first social reformer and the first legislator; in it the first parliament of two councils convened; and in it existed the earliest schools."

It also seems that great book-houses (libraries) were established in the Sumerian cities in about 2700 B.C.; excavators have, for instance, uncovered in Sipar (on the Euphrates eastern bank) about 130 thousand tablets inscribed in hieroglyphics; archaeologists have also uncovered a set of 50000 tablets in the city of Tello; these tablets were neatly and systematically organized. This rich Sumerian culture left its traces on the people that settled in Mesopotamia; these traces extended later to other areas in the Fertile Crescent.

The great legacy of the Sumerians in epics and proverbs as well as chemistry, mathematics and other fields of knowledge was either transferred to or acquired by other Mideastern peoples. The tribes, defined later as Akkadaeans, moving from Upper Syria to settle in Mesopotamia, mixed with the Sumerians and adopted their culture that had flourished in pre-historic times (described by historians to have ended in the fourth millennium B.C.).

The Akkadaeans held their ancestors' legacy in high regard and were not embarrassed to re-write what they had inherited. The idea of literary or intellectual ownership was unacceptable to the mentality of the ancient Mideastern people; the name of the author was, therefore, insignificant and it was commonly left out in literary production. The power of imitation played a major role in literature which kept its nature conservative. The ancient literary works were, to the successors, examples that should be followed. The imitators had the feeling that they could not possibly come up with a better literary production. Each generation of artists, therefore, were ambitious to assimilate the previous masterpieces first, and then reproduce them anew. Thus, the Babylonians in their early stages of flourishment were influenced by the Sumerian legacy and tried to imitate or quote it. Later, feeling that the Sumerian culture was prone to decay and loss, the Babylonian intellectuals began to transfer the Sumerian legacy into their (language).

In fact, the literature of both Sumer and Akkad was so intermingled that separation and distinction between what was original and the translations would be impossible to make. This blend is obvious in the story of Genesis, Enuma Elish, in particular, where it is almost impossible to differentiate what was Sumerian from what was Akkadaean. When the Babylonians managed to solidify their political authority and administrative status, they took the direction of writing original as well as compiling and recording their ancestors' literary, linguistic, and scientific works.

However, it is observable that the authors did not systematize their works in each field of knowledge according to discipline; they were not aware of the rules of specialization. Thus, they mixed on their tablets geography with mathematics, epics, laws, contracts and religious texts. This is why the features of Babylonian or Assyrian civilizations as represented in sciences, laws and beliefs, do not appear in separate, distinct units.

The Babylonian texts that reached us are varied and numerous. They cover a period of time between the third millennium and the first century B.C. In Tell Harm'el alone, for instance, about 3000 tablets containing commercial and legal documents as well as letters and administrative manuscripts related to tax, income, and property, were discovered. Most important of these tablets seem to be those containing mathematical tables and problems of Geometry and Algebra; one geometrical problem, in particular, is worth mentioning: II revolves around the principle of similarity between the right-angled, triangles formed by the height falling from the right angle in a right-angled triangle on the hypotenuse. This is one of the geometrical theories attributed to the Greek Mathematician Euclid (c. 3rd century, B.C.) although this was discovered by the Babylonian mathematicians 1700 years before Euclid. In the Temple of Uruk (Urech), excavators came across many clay tablets that included stamps of cylindrical seals for the identification of parties and witnesses in contracts, and entries of wages. They also found thousands of texts of commercial documents: contracts of buying and selling, receipts of payment and delivery, commercial agreements, administrative letters and legal sentences. In fact, an essential part of the Babylonian documents consists of contracts that indicate the great commercial progress they had and the legal system that organized their dealings.

In Nippur, the excavators uncovered a tablet (now in the Museum of Philadelphia University) that includes a library list of contents that has 62 items; it dates back to the end of the third millennium B.C.; another tablet (now in the Louvre Museum) contains 68 titles. The width and variety of topics in many tablets surviving time and invasions and containing much of the cultural identity of the Ancient Syrians, as Moscati (1957) put it, are indeed terrific.

Linguistic questions were not disregarded by the Ancient Syrians; the Babylonians and Akkadaean left us dictionaries the items of which were arranged in the two dialects of the country, the Sumerian and the Akkadaean, in a surprisingly accurate and well-organized way. The kings of the Sargon family, who were highly concerned about and careful for the progress of sciences and letters during their reigns, got the ancient Babylonian works copied and deposited in the great library established by Ashur Bani Ba'l (668-626 B.C.) in Nineveh. Incidentally, this library of Ashur Bani Ba'l had no counterpart in the Ancient World in terms of the abundance of its materials and variety of motifs and subjects. In the reminiscences of the excavated site of the library, 30,000 clay tablets were found, with a precise system of listing, cataloguing and indexing. On some of these tablets, this statement appears: "May the anger of Ashur inflict whoever removes a tablets from its place, and erase his and his children's names from the surface of the Earth." However, the British government has moved about 25000 tablets from the library of Ashur Bani Ba'l to the British Museum, ignoring the anger of Ashur and disregarding the rights of ownership and legacy.

In a letter to one of his workers, Ashur Bani Ba'l says: "When you receive this letter of mine, take your men with you and look for all the tablets available in Borsippa and in the Temple of Ezida: copy them and send them to me." The archaeologist and historian, A. Parrot (1960: 119) says: "No other civilization in the history of mankind has conferred on humanity such a large number of recorded documents as that of Mesopotamia." He adds: "No other race in the world has had such a livelihood as that ostensible in the Babylonians' preparation of records that contained all aspects of human life in history, sciences, letters, religious beliefs and social affairs. This great fortune, represented by their seals and engraved tablets, has thrown light on many aspects of their civilization; due to it, we have come to know many of the names of their cities, their beliefs and social life."

In the third millennium B.C., the Kingdom of Mari had climbed up the ladder of civilization: the excavated documents indicate an excellent social and administrative organization in addition to wide commercial relationships with neighboring states; this was stated in more than 25000 tablets discovered by Andre Parrot.

In this age, Ebla was at the peak of its development and prosperity. The excavated tablets in Ebla, Tell Mardikh, include commercial texts of receipts, entries and what was related to the exchange of commodities and goods in addition to official correspondence of the State, and royal decrees concerned with the State policy and its treaties. Other texts discovered in Ebla are connected with administrative, economic and legal affairs; the mythological and literary texts include proverbs, sayings and epics. School homework and teaching exercises are also found in certain texts; some tablets had the pupil's name and the teacher's signature: these texts and the like are the best evidence of organized formal leaching in those very early times in Ancient Syria.

The most ancient dictionary in the world, a Sumerian-Akkadaean one, was also uncovered in the archaeological excavations of the Kingdom of Ebla: it is now 5000 years old. Naturally, the making of dictionaries could not possibly be achieved without a suitable, rich educational and cultural environment. The highly wealthy legacy will surely remain the focus of attention ctf so many interpreters, researchists and analysts in the coming years, as W. Fulco (1976) says.

In Western Syria, the Canaanites had also reached a high peak on the ladder of civilization. They recorded their achievements in the various fields of knowledge prevailing in their times. Thus, the libraries of Ugarit abounded in human affairs, political, economic, scientific, literary, and social. The archaeologists have found these models of Canaanite legacy distributed in the Temple Library, the ' State offices and the city Palace. Researchers believe that most precious of these tablets are those that preserved dictionaries of two languages for educating priests, scribes and intellectuals, who had to master the languages or dialects used in Ugarit in those days; writers seem to have mastered other dialects and languages of their time used in Ugarit like Egyptian, Hittite, Sumerian, Babylonian and Canaanite. This means that Ugarit must have been an educationally scintillating center in addition to being a prosperous commercial city.
The Canaanites and the Aramaeans must have had, in different places of their land, other lustrous, literary and scientific, centers. But, it seems such a heritage is either still under the soil or obliterated by the hoofs of invaders' horses.