PICTURE the world 10,000 years ago, on the threshold of the neolithic period: In the valleys of northern Syria, retreating ice cover has left behind rich soil in which wild grains thrive.
Up to now man has been a nomadic creature, but among the people roaming these fertile lands an idea comes: to harvest and store the grains for the sustenance they offer, and, in order to do that, to stop the roaming and settle down.
From this one idea will surge, over the millenia to follow, much of what we today call civilization. And it will be here, in the place we now call Syria, that many of the elements of civilization will be imagined, discovered, and developed, including a written alphabet, the basic structure of cities and states, and instruments that will allow man to chart the heavens and plot distant journeys.
It is this story of a civilization's birth and development, long underestimated and poorly understood, that is told in a stunning exhibition now running through April 30 at Paris's Institut du Monde Arab (IMA).
Spanning more than a million years, ``Syria: Memory and Civilization'' brings Syria's place in human development out from the shadows of Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the east, and puts it in its proper light.
This exhibition ``demonstrates our [Western] enlightenment from the East, and specifically from the lands of Syria,'' says Sophie Cluzan, curator of the exhibit's pre-Islamic period.
She notes, for example, that ``It's in Syria that the first cities are built, about 3,300 years before Jesus Christ - when at the same time in Europe people are just beginning sedentary living and taking up agriculture.''
Cradle of civilization
The exhibition's revelations may come as a surprise to many visitors more accustomed to considering Egypt and Mesopotamia (basically present-day Iraq) as the tandem cradles of civilization. The reasons are many, as those who organized the exhibition point out, for this late recognition of Syria's heritage and contributions.
First, major archeological focus on Syria is relatively recent, dating largely from just the past 60 years. ``That compares poorly to Mesopotamia, which has been the object of archeologists' attention for more than 150 years, and is like yesterday when compared to work in Egypt,'' says Jean-Claude Margueron, an archeologist who directs digs at Mari, one of ancient Syria's chief city-states.
The last 10 years of digging have been particularly fruitful, not only in terms of highlighting Syria's role in civilization's development, but also in debunking a number of previously held theories about man's cultural evolution.
``Recent diggings in Syria have allowed us to understand how man's sedentarization was a cultural choice, a conscious choice to master the environment, and not a response to chronic lack as was so often believed,'' Ms. Cluzan says.
The Syrian government has played its own role in keeping Syria sidelined by rarely allowing - at least until now - important artifacts to travel on loan outside the country. Thus the IMA's exhibition is the first to bring together important artifacts from Syria with others now held outside the country.
Alphabet based on sound
The West's centuries-old fascination with Egypt has also tended to crowd out other Arab countries and cultures (see accompanying story). ``In France and elsewhere the focus on Egypt is encouraged from the youngest ages by the educational program, and it carries on from there,'' says Jeanne Moulierac, the IMA's curator for the exhibit's Islamic period. ``Syria's archeology and past are still very little known.''
That lacuna may be remedied, if the success of the IMA's ``Syria'' is any measure of interest in the subject. More than 200,000 visitors had seen the show in its first 4-1/2 months ending in January, making it a Paris hit despite the much-publicized opening of the Louvre's renovated Richelieu wing during the same period. That success prompted the IMA to extend the show to April 30.
The success of ``Syria'' is due in part to the exhibit's attractive presentation, which draws the visitor through the time frame of one million years, from the relative darkness of man's first primitive stone carvings to the light of a Syria that gives the world the first (cuneiform) alphabet, based on the then-revolutionary idea that a letter can represent a sound. That alphabet is represented on a 1,400-year-old clay tablet, drawn by a student and carefully corrected by a teacher.
The exhibition lighting grows brighter as the viewer moves forward in time. He learns of Syria's contributions: the world's first archives; Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus; and the compass, astrolabes, and astronomical charts that are still considered wonders of precision today.
The show's success may also derive in part from the fact that ``Syria'' gives the Paris museumgoer an excuse to enter the IMA's intriguing Left-Bank edifice - the window treatment on the glass-and-steel structure resembles Arab tiles or an Oriental rug -
which opened in 1987 at the intersection of the eastern end of Boulevard St. Germain and the Seine.
But the central reason is undoubtedly the hundreds of fascinating objects the exhibit displays, ranging from 6th millenium B.C. miniature stone carvings to a clay-tablet treaty between the cities of Ebla and Abarsal (considered the oldest existing diplomatic document - 3rd millenium B.C.) that calls for 50 sheep to be offered in the event that the citizen of one city kills a citizen of the other.
Later centuries offer the marble head of Philipp the Arab, the Syrian who reigned over Rome in the third century; and the stunning black-marble portrait of a Syrian princess, found on the site of a Roman villa near Toulouse, France. These last two objects suggest the reach and influence that Syria once enjoyed. Thanks to the IMA's exhibit, ancient Syria's heritage is beginning to see the light.