“Syria has been at the crossroads of civilisations for over 2500 years — an ancient witness to the fruitful interaction of different peoples and cultures…Damascus and Aleppo are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. They functioned as major seats of commerce and learning for over 1000 years and as a central stage in the critical first century of Islam. Since that time, Syria has demonstrated the power of Islam as a crucible for the spirit and the intellect, transcending boundaries of geography and culture.“
His Highness the Aga Khan
Award Presentation Ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Aleppo, Syria, November 6, 2001
Speech at AKDN
As part of the region of Mesopotamia – from the Greek meaning ‘between two rivers’ (the Euphrates and Tigris) – Syria’s history dates to at least the third millennium BCE. Mesopotamia, later termed the ‘Fertile Crescent’ by historian J.H. Breasted, was known as the cradle of civilisation as it “has inspired some of the most important developments in human history including the invention of the wheel, the planting of the first cereal crops and the development of cursive script. The region was a collection of varied cultures and the most densely urbanized region of the ancient world.”1
Syria, therefore, is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world; archaeological findings date early human inhabitants at about 700,000 years ago. The evidence of the first modern humans dates to about 100,000 years ago. As part of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar (ca. 100 – 44 BCE) and Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BCE) considered Syria an essential area owing to its trade routes and ports on the Mediterranean.
Syria has been part of numerous empires including the Seleucid (312 – 63BCE), Byzantine (476 – 608BCE), Umayyad (661-750CE), Abbasid (1183 -1260), Fatimid (1003-1038), Ayyubids (1171-1260) among many others, leaving their artistic and cultural stamps, revealing the richness of their diverse and pluralistic heritage. Ross Burns states that “few countries can match Syria in the richness of its historical remains.”2
In the arts, Syrian ceramics, especially enamelled glass, were well-known due to the innovative decorative skills of the potters, and were taken to Europe by travellers to present as gifts to the wealthy as well as to the churches. This art of glass-making was subsequently copied with great success at Murano (Venice) although the brilliant metalwork from Damascus continued to find its way across the Mediterranean. Luxurious household wares used by upper classes in the Muslim world were also purchased on the oriental markets.
Historians agree that man-made glass was first discovered approximately 6,000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean coast, now modern day Syria. Trading merchants resting in the region placed their cooking pots on blocks of nitrate by the fire. The nitrate melted and mixed with the sand creating a liquid. As the liquid cooled it became translucent and durable. This is the first noted record of the creation of man-made glass.
Towards the end of the first century CE, the technique of glassblowing along the eastern Mediterranean coast revolutionised glass production. As a result, glass became readily available to the common people for the first time.
Amongst the oldest cities are Palymra – an important centre along the Silk Road – Aleppo and Damascus, dating to the third millennium BCE. Aleppo developed as a cross roads between the east and west, linking the desert to the sea. An important centre at the end of the Silk Road, Aleppo lost its prominence after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Damascus, considered to be among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, was a flourishing centre of trade and the craft industry especially textiles. The textile damask is named after the city which was shaped by many civilizations – Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic. Damascus, considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979, contains numerous historical monuments including the Grand Mosque of Damascus and the tomb of Zaynab bint Ali, daughter of Hazrat Ali, the first Shi’a Imam.
Salamiyya, an ancient city dating to Babylonian times (2300-141BCE) served as the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili da’wa (mission) in the eighth century until 902 CE, at which time Imam al-Mahdi, who was born in Salamiyya in 873, departed for North Africa where, in 909, he established the Fatimid caliphate.
During the Alamut period (1090-1256), Nizari Ismailis acquired several strongholds in Persia and Syria that served as refuge from persecution. At the beginning of the twelfth century, the first da’is (missionaries) were sent from Alamut to Syria, where they initially operated from Aleppo and then from Damascus.
After the fall of Alamut, the Syrian Ismailis came under Mamluk rule (1250-1517) and subsequently, until the early twentieth century, they were subjects of the Ottomans (r. 1300-1922). In 1843, the amir of Qadmus (an Ismaili settlement in Syria) Amir Isma’il b. Amir Muhammad, obtained permission from the Ottomans (ca. 1299-1924) to restore Salamiyya, then in ruins, for the permanent settlement of the Syrian Ismailis. The Ottomans allowed Amir Isma‘il to gather the Syrian Nizaris from different localities and settle them in Salamiyya and nearby villages.
Over time, Salamiyya became an important agricultural centre, where a variety of crops, including wheat and legumes, are cultivated. In 1951, Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III visited Salamiyya, where he established several schools as well as an agriculture institution. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s father, Late Prince Ali Khan, was buried in Salamiyya in a mausoleum adjacent to the Jamatkhana.
1Joshua J. Mark, Mesopotamia, Ancient History Encyclopedia
2 Ross Burns, Monuments of Syria
Almut von Gladib, Islam: Art and Architecture, Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konemann, 2000
Carboni, Stefano, and Qamar Adamjee, Enameled and Gilded Glass from Islamic Lands, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art