Three firsts from Syria

Writing, a Song and Painting

The First Alphabet Ever

Since my early childhood, I, as well as almost all Syrians, knew that among the many things Syrians can be proud of is the fact that the oldest alphabet in the history of mankind was invented in Syria.

In 1928, quite by chance, a Syrian peasant stumbled on an ancient tomb about 20 kilometers north to Lattakia. The location that is known today as Ras Shamra was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Ugarit.

At the time, Syria was occupied by France. By the following year, an expedition was undertaken by the French to investigate. In 1929, a temple was discovered and inside, laid hundreds of clay tablets written in a previously unknown cuneiform script. In a short time, world archeologists realized that they have discovered the oldest alphabet invented by humanity.

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The previous forms of writing were based on pictures or symbols to represent whole words like the Hieroglyphs used by ancient Egyptians and the wedged shaped cuneiforms used by Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians. It was the kingdom of Ugarit that invented the alphabet in the 2nd millennium B.C. This alphabet slowly evolved into the Phoenician alphabet which is considered the mother of all alphabets in the modern world. Phoenician also evolved into Aramaic (still spoken in Syria today) and Nabatean (the ancestor of Arabic). It was later adapted to form the Greek alphabet, which in turn was adopted by the Etruscans and was further adapted to form the Latin alphabet of the Roman Empire. But that is another story.

The Oldest Song in the World

I was researching the history of Syria for a website I used to edit at the time, Syria-on-Line. Taking my keen interest in music into consideration I was bemused and fascinated to discover that the oldest song in the world also came from Syria!

For fifteen years, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California worked hard to decipher clay tablets relating to music excavated in Syria by French archaeologists in the early ’50s. The 3400 years old tablets were also from Ugarit and had markings that provided a form of musical notation. One of the texts formed a complete cult hymn and is unanimously considered by music historians to be the oldest preserved song with notation in the world.

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Finally in 1972, Kilmer, who is also a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, presented the first interpretation of this song based on her study of the notation. The tablets date back to approximately 1400 B.C. The tablets did not only include words and musical notation, but also instructions for the performer and notes on how to tune the stringed instrument. This was a major factor that allowed Kilmer and other musicologists to interpret and produce a modern realizable version of the song.

Recently, the North American premiere of this work was given at the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus by a Dutch musicologist, Dr. Theo J. H. Krispijn, a professor in Assyriology at LeidenUniversity in Holland. He performed the song while playing the lyre, a medieval musical instrument.

The song is a hymn to the moon god’s wife, Nikkal. The haunting and sad interpretation is entitled The Prayer of an Infertile Woman, with lyrics, as printed in the Chicago Tribune, including:

She [the goddess] let the married couples have children,

She let them be born to the fathers

But the begotten will cry out, ‘She has not borne any child’

Why have not I as a true wife borne children for you?

The Chicago Tribune noted that “to a Western ear, the tonal sounds are very familiar. The notes are equivalent to a Western-style major “Do-Re-Mi” scale, which brings into question the theory of such a scale being only as old as the Ancient Greeks of 2000 years ago. Professor Kilmer’s interpretation of the song, made in 1972, even includes a form of harmony, two or more notes played at the same time, which was previously thought to be non-existent altogether in ancient music.”

Robert Fink wrote in Archeologia Musoicales (Feb, 1988): “This evidence both the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago flies in the face of most musicologists’ views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks, 2000 years ago”.

The Most Ancient Painting in the World

However, one thing that stunned me only recently was the discovery of the oldest painting ever in Northern Syria.

Recently, French archeologists excavating in Djade al-Mughara discovered a couple of wall paintings that are 11,000 years old. The French team leader Eric Coqueugniot commented that the 2 square-meter painting looked like a modern art work by Paul Klee. The other painting still needs meticulous and precise excavation before both paintings would be put on display in the Aleppo museum next year.

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According to the US-based Science Magazine, the world’s oldest wall painting was hitherto considered the one found in Turkey. But these two new painting found near Aleppo are at least 1500 years older than the one in Turkey.

Written by Imad Moustapha

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