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Syrian Civilisation under the Islamic Dynasties: Art, Architecture and Archaeology

2 May 2013


Dr Timothy Power, Lecturer in Islamic Archaeology, presents a special evening lecture series running from 5-9 May at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, on Syrian Civilisation under the Islamic Dynasties: Art, Architecture and Archaeology. The general public are warmly encouraged to attend all or any of the lectures.

This lecture series tells the story of Syrian civilisation under the great Islamic dynasties of the Middle Ages. It presents the historic monuments and artistic achievements of Syria from the Umayyads to the Ottomans, with an introductory session exploring the Greek and Roman legacy in Syria. The focus is on the area of the present Syrian Arab Republic, although takes in the wider historic regions of Bilad al-Sham and the Jazira when relevant. The lecture series makes full use of the world-class collections of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and seeks to provide a meaningful context for the objects on display, including a gallery tour of the Syrian objects on the last day. The course further aims to provide a context for sites and monuments damaged or destroyed in the ongoing conflict, examining their place in Syrian civilisation and highlighting their continuing cultural importance.


Pre-Islamic Syria: Greeks & Romans - Sunday 5 May

Early Islamic Syria: Umayyads & ‘Abbasids - Monday 6 May

Middle Islamic Syria: Zangids & Ayyubids - Tuesday 7 May      

Late Islamic Syria: Mamluks & Ottomans - Wednesday 8 May

The Art of Syria: A Tour of the MIA Collections - Thursday 9 May

Lectures will be held in the Education Centre Classroom (2nd floor) in the Museum of Islamic Art from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. Each lecture will be 60 minutes followed by questions and a catered reception. Further details of individual lectures may be found below.

Pre-Islamic Syria: Greeks & Romans

Sunday 5 May                                                             

For a thousand years before the rise of Islam, the land of Syria was an important province of the Greek and Roman empires. Alexander the Great conquered Syria in 322 BC, which was then ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, whose colonies form the basis of many prominent Syrian cities. The Romans conquered Syria in 64 BC and ushered in a great age of building, to which belong the ruins of Apamea and Baalbek, even the street plan of Damascus. Syria grew rich on the ‘Silk Route’ passing through Dura Europos and Palmyra on to Beirut and Tartus. This wealth enabled Palmyra under Zenobia, ‘Queen of the East,’ to rebel against Rome and establish a Syrian empire that reached to Egypt. The adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine after AD 313 led to a wave of church building across Syria, of which the most famous is perhaps Deir Semaan, with many smaller examples found among the ‘Dead Cities.’ The Arabs became increasingly important in Syria during the Late Roman, or Byzantine period. It was the Tanukh arriving Syria along the Euphrates who helped the Romans defeat Zenobia, so that a generation later the Lakhmid ruler Imru’ al-Qays declared himself ‘King of the Arabs’ in an inscription from Nemara in the Hauran, and the Byzantines ultimately raised the Ghassanid ruler al-Harith b. Jabala “to the dignity of king.” This lecture tells the story of Syria from ancient times to the emergence of a distinct Arab identity.

Early Islamic Syria: Umayyads & ‘Abbasids                          Monday 6 May 

Syria was conquered by the Arabs in AD 636, and the Caliph ‘Umar visited the new province in person, halting at Bosra to build what is reputed to be the oldest mosque in Syria. Damascus emerged as the provincial capital under Mu‘awiya b. Abi Sufyan, who in AD 660 established the Umayyad Caliphate, so that Syria became the centre of an Arab empire which would soon stretch from Spain to China. The Umayyad Caliphs adorned Syria with many important monuments. Mu‘awiya built a famous palace known as the Qubbat al-Khadra’ in Damascus, besides which al-Walid I built the renowned Umayyad Mosque, occupying the site of a Byzantine cathedral and Roman temple. Hisham made al-Resafa on the Euphrates his court and built several palaces there. More Umayyad palaces were built in the Badiyat al-Sham, including Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which provide the backdrop to the stories of the al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani. The Umayyads were overthrown by the ‘Abbasids in AD 750, who moved the capital of the Caliphate from Syria to Iraq. However, the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur built a new cantonment for his Khurasani troops at al-Raqqa, which was to become the main residence of Harun al-Rashid – the Caliph of the Arabian Nights. This lecture tells the story of the Syria during the ‘golden age of Islam’ when Syria lay at the heart of the largest empire the world had ever seen.

Middle Islamic Syria: Zangids & Ayyubids

Tuesday 7 May

The ‘Abbasid Caliphate fragmented in the tenth century AD, whereupon Syria was troubled by invading Byzantines and marauding Bedouin, until being divided between the Isma‘ili Fatimids in Damascus and Shi‘ite Hamdanids in Aleppo. The situation was further complicated in the eleventh century, when Syria was invaded by the Turkish Saljuqs and the Frankish Crusaders, creating a patchwork of competing amirates or principalities. In the twelfth century, Sunni Turkish amirates such as the Artuqids of Mardin and Zangids of Aleppo began to gain ascendency, legitimising their wars against the Isma‘ilis and the Christian invaders in religious terms. The Turkish prince Nur al-Din Zangi gave expression to this ‘Sunni revival’ in his building projects in Aleppo and Damascus, a process which culminated under the Kurdish general Salah al-Din Ayyubi – the Saladin of Crusader legend – who established the Ayyubid empire, wherein Syrian domination was extended over Egypt, Sudan and Yemen. The ‘Sunni revival’ is associated with a transformation of Islamic architecture, marked by the introduction of the madrasa and new mosque forms, together with new styles of surface decoration (‘Arabesque’) and stalactite vaulting (muqarnas). During these centuries of contested authority in Bilad al-Sham, Crusader fortresses such as Krak des Chavaliers were built and Muslim cities like Aleppo were fortified, effecting a lasting change in the rural and urban landscape of Syria. Artistic production, too, was revolutionised in this period, and has traditionally been linked to a flourishing bourgeoisie. This lecture tells the story of Syria’s leading role in the ‘Sunni revival’ and the contribution of the Zangids and Ayyubids to the development of a Syrian national identity.

Late Islamic Syria: Mamluks & Ottomans Wednesday 8 May

In AD 1258 news reached Syria that the Mongols under Hulegu had sacked Baghdad and killed the ‘Abbasid Caliph. The Ayyubids collapsed before the Mongol advance into Syria: Aleppo was ransacked, its Great Mosque and Citadel destroyed, its people massacred or enslaved. So it was that the Ayyubids in Egypt gave way to their Mamluk slave-soldiers. Amongst the first of these, al-Zahir Baybars, rallied the Muslims against the Mongols and defeated them at the Battle of Ain Jalut in AD 1260. He spent the remainder of his life fighting the Crusaders and Mongols in Syria, before being buried in Damascus, his legend living on in the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars. The Mamluk Empire peaked in the first half of the fourteenth century, during which time the long-ruling governor of Damascus, Saif al-Din Tengiz al-Husami, set about restoring post-Mongol Syria. Yet in AD 1401 the great cities of Syria were again devastated by the Turko-Mongolian troops of Timur – the Tamerlane of Marlowe’s play – who burned alive the terrified citizens of Damascus herded into the Umayyad Mosque. The Mamluk Empire thereafter slipped into a steady decline, reversed only with the coming of the Ottoman Turks, whose Sultan Selim ‘the Grim’ conquered Syria in AD 1516. Syria prospered in the first centuries of Ottoman rule, when the souqs of Aleppo were brimming with Persian silk sold to European merchants, and Damascus was beautified by the ‘Azem dynasty of governors. Indeed, throughout the land of Syria, local notables under Mamluk and Ottoman rule sponsored works of art and architecture to adorn their towns and cities. Much of the present urban fabric of Syria dates to this period, which is similarly well represented in museum collections, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. This lecture tells the story of Syria during the last great flowering of the Islamic dynasties and their living legacy in the present Syrian Arab Republic.

The Art of Syria: A Tour of the MIA Collections

Thursday 9 May

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha has a world-class collection including many fine examples of Syrian craftsmanship. Most of the Syrian material dates to the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with some from the Ottoman period, including ceramics, glass, metalwork and manuscripts. The collection includes masterpieces of Syrian metalwork, many with highly evocative figurative scenes, offering a fascinating insight into the social mores of the Ayyubid and Mamluk elite. Some objects are known to have been commissioned or owned by historic figures, such as a beautiful painted vase made for the maristan (hospital) of Nur al-Din Zangi in Damascus, or the huge incised tray of the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad declaring him to be “Sultan of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.” This lecture tells the story of Syrian civilisation through its artistic endeavours in the Middle Ages.