by Prof. Hassan Abbas
Historically, the name “Syria” refers to a geographic area that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the west, to Mesopotamia to the east, and from Asia Minor to the north to Egypt to the south. This exceptional geographic location has attracted many groups of people over time, including traders crossing routes linking Europe to Asia on one side and to Africa on the other, as well as armies eager to extend the rule of their state to this meeting point of three continents. People and nations have migrated there, fleeing tyranny and oppression in their places of origin.
The people who came to the region brought with them their beliefs, languages, traditions, tales, culinary practices and music. Although some of them would cause much tragedy and destruction, over time their cultures became woven into the fabric of the cultures of the present inhabitants. This long history of exchange and mixing of multiple cultural forms produced a unique culture, bearing the hallmarks of diversity and heterogeneity. This culture has continued to recreate itself in endless new forms that are sometimes enclosed within specific groups and at other times open up to neighbouring cultures.
Many cultures Syria had known and many have made Syria to what it is now. Some are indigenous; others have been brought by guests coming to the region, who have settled or have left a cultural footprint there. Some of these cultures have disappeared, some transformed into others. They have left their mark on the words and languages used today. Their traces can be seen in popular holidays that originate from ancient times but make a return in later cultures with the same rituals under different names. They are found in dishes whose diverse origins are forgotten but which are found on the same Syrian dining table, along with the different types of music, song and dance that still largely retain the features of cultures that once lived here but are no longer present.
This incredible cultural diversity is the main feature of Syria’s cultural mosaic. It is clear and inimitable in the different types of music known in Syria.
The first musical score in history
Archaeological excavations of the Syrian coast have uncovered human remains from a million years ago. Investigations in various regions of the Syrian desert and river valleys have revealed a continuous human presence across different geological eras.
Starting from the middle of the fourth millennium BC, major civilisations followed each other in succession into Syrian territory. Local and international archaeological expeditions have uncovered sites that bear witness to the importance of these civilisations. Some of these sites have revealed archaeological objects that have had played a major role in human culture and development, including the development of music, such as Mari, Ebla and Ugarit.
Mari, dating back to the third millennium BC, is the oldest of these city states. Excavations have uncovered an entire city, with temples, houses, a royal palace, and libraries with around 20,000 cuneiform tablets and lots of small statues. These include the “singer” (Ornina), displayed at the National Museum of Damascus. It is a small statue, 26cm in height, representing a singer at the temple of Shamash, sitting on a cushion in a position that archaeologists believe shows her playing a musical instrument.
In Ebla, which was at its first peak in 2400-2300 BC, 17,000 cuneiform tablets were found. They contained an extraordinary amount of information about administrative matters dealt with at the royal palace as well as margin notes and dedicated passages that shed light on royal weddings, celebrations to mark the birth of princes, visits by foreign kings and dignitaries, etc. The vast amount of information gives an impression of the power and presence of music, dance and singing in this thriving city.
Ugarit, the capital of the Canaanites, was established in the middle of the third millennium BC and was the birthplace of the first alphabet in history. Music played an important part in its culture. This is demonstrated in the large number of objects with a musical theme, including a small ivory statue of a person playing the cymbals. However, the most important relic of the music of this city is a clay tablet discovered in 1950, classified as tablet h.6
Hurrian Hymn No. 6
This tablet is from the fourteenth century BC and is considered to contain the earliest musical notation in history, that has been found. The upper part of this tablet contains an invocation hymn to the moon goddess Nikkal written in the Hurrian language. The lower part consists of a notation of the hymn using a heptatonic scale.
Numerous attempts have been made to interpret the tune on the tablet, the most famous being those of the Syrian Raoul Vitale and the Englishman Richard Dumbrill.
Other civilisations and cultures followed them in Syria. Each culture brought its own music that stands alongside the music that came before it. The people to whom these cultures belong preserved their music and passed it down through the generations as a key component of their own identity. This has made the traditional music of Syria today a colourful mix of religions (Jewish, Christian, Islamic and others, including the music of the various sects and denominations within these religions), community groups (Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Circassian, and others) and social groupings (folk music, music related to work and various social events such as weddings and funerals, and for children’s games). These types of music differ in their origins, forms, and languages but they are all representative of traditional Syrian music.
…Chapter 2: Music & Religion
Prof. Hassan Abbas was the Program Director of “Culture as Resistance” at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, American University of Beirut and a leading scholar and expert on Syrian culture, and Syrian traditional music in particular. In his book ‘Traditional music in Syria’ Dr. Hassan Abbas distilled his knowledge of years of extensive research on the musical tradition of Syria. His book is available in Arabic here.
After having battled a long-term illness, Prof. Abbas died in March 2021. The team of the Interactive Heritage Map of Syria project is forever thankful for having had the chance and privilege to work with Prof. Abbas and learn from his brilliant mind.