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The Birthplace of the Alphabet, Syria
By Namit Arora | Aug 2011 | Comments
(A version of this travel essay was published in Words and Pictures Magazine, Issue 1, Summer 2004. Also included below is an 8-min video.)
The road to Lattakia goes over the Anti-Lebanon Range. I had left Aleppo under a blue sky at noon; now a thick fog rolls in, tall conifers appear in the valleys, visibility drops. The pop Arabic music in the bus gets louder but does not deter my fellow passengers from dozing. Handsome villages with brick houses, clean streets, and small domed mosques appear now and again. The bus stops at a rest area with gift shops and restaurants and arrives in Lattakia by early evening. I take a cab to the city center and find a hotel. It is my tenth day in Syria.
Lattakia lies on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and is one of its most modern towns. I see well-groomed women flaunting their feminine charms in tight jeans, sleek coats, flowing dark hair, makeup, décolletage. It feels like Eastern Europe. The evening prayer from a mosque comes wafting down rooftops just in time to remind me: I am in an Islamic country. Its socialistic aims clearly run counter to those of radical Islam, virtually absent in Syria. Just days ago, curiosity led me to ask a few urban young men: which Arab country has the hottest women? The winner: Lebanon, Syria next, and tied for third spot: Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait. I imagine local young women waging a million mutinies daily—in dress, movement, occupation, choice of mates. Each new threshold crossed a potential source of angst and family drama. An intricate web of connections, customs, certitudes, all subject to modernizing change.
Restaurants for stylish people have names like Stop 5 and Last Station—Sadé singing of sorrow in one, the feisty Guantanamera in the other. Wine goblets over bars, waiters speak English, I see women smoking inside; still-life art adorns the walls. In San Francisco, I try and avoid such places but here I find their presence reassuring. Hunger soon draws me in; on the menu I notice ‘sheep testis (200 grams), with potato’ but don’t have the balls to try it. I ask for a kabab halabi with salad, hummus, flatbread, and wash it down with Arak and cola. I amble back through a mist like drizzle, satiated. Kababs in Syria are sublime.
The hotel receptionist intercepts me and insists on serving me tea in the lounge. Free, he clarifies. His boredom must drive him to engage this ajnabi, foreigner. On the wall behind him are pictures of Hafez al-Assad, whose hometown was Lattakia. In Syria his images are everywhere: jovial Hafez, thoughtful Hafez, Hafez with happy peasants, Hafez looking tough in dark glasses. A giant gold-colored statue of the man stands outside the hotel. I ask how his son Bashar is working out. A London-trained ophthalmologist, Bashar was hastily summoned to replace Bassel, his brother and heir apparent, after his accidental death in 1994. When papa al-Assad died in mid-2000, the parliament voted to lower the minimum age for Presidency from 40 to 34 (Bashar’s age). ‘New way,’ the receptionist says, waving his hand, ‘Bashar, good man, good mind.’ He laughs, then says with a wink, ‘no more.’ I am to understand that further discussions on Bashar in this public spot are undesirable. The walls apparently have ears in Syria.
When Bashar took over, he insisted that people not bother with his portraits. But the people didn’t listen—a testimony of their affection for father and son? I ask the receptionist and like other Syrians I’ve asked, he says, ‘we love them.’ But a Palestinian man in Aleppo told me that the pictures are for the Mukhabarat (Syrian secret police). They signal a state-fearing, law-abiding establishment, a minimal insurance policy in a police state. But now that everyone does it, I wonder about its efficacy. If you play by the rules, the receptionist says, the Mukhabarat will leave you alone. Otherwise, one might disappear overnight with nary a trace, especially during papa al-Assad’s reign. Over the years, a dissenting minority suffered, including Islamic radicals from the Muslim Brotherhood. But the common majority accepted papa al-Assad (thanks in part to massive propaganda). How else to explain the intense outpouring of grief at his death? Not only a fixture, he became a veritable father figure to a lot of Syrians.
Papa al-Assad’s socialist dictatorship did produce social order, negligible crime, relative freedom for women, a gentle Islam, low economic disparity, no abject poverty, public health services, highways, bridges, electricity, clean water, etc. But it also had a dark side: repression of intellectuals and dissenters, little freedom of press or speech, a climate of surveillance and suspicion, the related ills of corruption and nepotism. Bashar is no liberal democrat but compared to his father, he seems to favor more civil freedoms, gradual economic reform, and information technology. I’m inclined to see him as a Syrian flavor of Rajiv Gandhi, and his father as an amalgam of Indira Gandhi and Stalin. Like so many other non-Western societies, Syria is responding to the stronger cultural, economic, and political currents of Western modernity (as defined by individualism, competition, and democracy). That these currents are not largely indigenous raises awkward questions. In a review of several works by Naguib Mahfouz, JM Coetzee wrote,
In the century and a half that followed Napoleon, Islamic countries took on a range of Western concepts and institutions identified by them as essential to their modernization. Much of the unsettledness of the region today issues from a failure to fully absorb and domesticate such essentially secular Western concepts as democracy, liberalism, and socialism. The question the region faces is: Can a culture become modern without internalizing the genealogy of modernity, that is, without living through the epistemological revolution, in all its implications, out of which Western scientific knowledge grew? ‘The new outlook [in Islamic countries] is modern in a way, but it is a mutilated outlook,’ writes Daryush Shayegan. Modernity has been absorbed, but only in a ‘truncated’ way.’ 
The receptionist is curious about me: my home, job, motivation for visit. In Syria, I lie and say that I live and work in Bombay. It distances me from American politicking in this region. I also wish to know what the locals make of an Indian. I find charming the idea of a traveler from an ancient land in another; I’ve even practiced saying this Bogart style: Who, me? I’m from al-Hind. As I’ve discovered, al-Hind is a welcome association in Syria, not the least due to Bollywood. Inside the Gates of Damascus, an elderly man who spoke no English animatedly tried to convey his regard for Gandhi. But for most others, sharing a city with Amitabh Bachchan is dazzling enough. Cabdrivers and waiters rattle out names of their favorite stars; I nod appreciatively and try to hide my amusement.
The birthplace of the alphabet
I am in the Levant to visit a few archaeological sites—or ‘lost cities’ as I prefer to call them—to see some of the desert landscape, and to learn something of present day Syria and Jordan. As a kid, when I first came across the term ‘lost cities’, I was mesmerized. A whole city lost? Lost? I've seen many lost cities since then but have lost none of my fascination for them. I am in Lattakia to visit another—the nearby ruins of Ugarit, the 2nd millennium BCE city credited with the invention of the alphabet.
The earliest evidence of writing itself dates back to 3,500 BCE in Uruk, Mesopotamia (modern south Iraq). Many consider it the most valuable invention for human progress. Writing was not an isolated invention but related to the changing pattern of life of the period. The first cities were coming into being, agricultural production, landholding, and trade were becoming more complex. Records of various transactions had to be kept. All early writing systems (e.g., Mesopotamian Cuneiform, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Chinese Pictographs) employed a unique symbol for a word or syllable, i.e., they were logo-syllabic systems. Two or more symbols were combined to express complex thoughts.
The problem was that the list of symbols and combinations soon became very large, growing without much of a logical scheme. This hampered the spread of writing and its complexity restricted it to specialists, i.e., a professional class of scribes who gained enormous power and prestige. Their long training and vested interests further impeded simplifications in writing. Here is a sample of what an Egyptian scribe thought of his profession: ‘Behold, there is nothing better than writings! I can see no calling comparable. (The office of scribe) is greater than any calling. There is nothing like it on earth.’ In Civilization Before Greece and Rome, HWF Saggs writes,
The major changes came from peoples who enjoyed a degree of Mesopotamian or Egyptian contacts which made them aware of the advantages of writing, but who were not sufficiently integrated into those cultures to have the benefit of scribes trained in either the Mesopotamian or the Egyptian writing system. These conditions applied above all to Palestine, parts of Syria and Crete. It was the peoples of these areas who in the second millennium were driven to produce forms of writing simpler than the old logo-syllabic systems. 
The people of Ugarit were the Canaanites, precursors to the Phoenicians. They were perhaps the first to recognize that human speech is built upon a finite number of atomic sounds and all that’s really needed is a symbol for each. They devised 30 symbols, and this basic idea apparently inspired all later phonetic alphabets (yes all: Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, Tamil, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, etc.). As a result, writing opened up and scribal power reduced; any child (or foreigner) could now easily learn to read and write. This innovation may sound simple but it took two millennia to arrive at it. In Histories, Herodotus acknowledged that the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians. The names of most letters in the Greek/Phoenician alphabets are clearly related—alpha/aleph (ox), beta/bet (house), gamma/gimel (camel), delta/dalet (door), etc. Notably, the Ugaritic alphabet only had consonants—the pre-Homeric Greeks added the vowels.
Ugarit was an independent kingdom from the 18th century BCE. Its military and economic history has been revealed by the tablets found in the palace archives. The Canaanites flourished most from about 1,450 to 1,200 BCE, producing royal palaces, temples and shrines, a high priests’ library, and other libraries on the acropolis. With their strong ships built of the cedars on the mountains of Lebanon, they became the greatest naval power of the age and knew many key principles of navigation. They traded textiles, ivory, weapons, and silver with the cities of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Aegean Sea, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Akkadian was the international language. Around 1,200 BCE, Ugarit likely fell prey to the invasion of Philistines, northern tribes sometimes called the Sea Peoples. But other possibilities like a famine, a big earthquake, or a massive fire have not been ruled out. Its population then was likely under 10,000.
Ugaritic gods represented forces of nature, each symbolized by an animal, and routinely intervened in the affairs of men. Some of these were: El, the master of the gods, their eldest and wisest, and the creator of the universe. Baal, the son of El, was the god of storms, thunder and rain, land and hills. Asherah, the wife of Baal, was the goddess of love, fertility and war. Dagon was the god of wheat and the plough, particularly honored by the Amorites, a nomadic people from Upper Syria, of whom Hammurabi of Babylon was the most famous king. Other gods included Moot, Anat, Astarte and Kashir. Ritual weeping for the dead was apparently common—the hope being that their grief will someday move the gods to return them to their world. Women were priests as well. Religious worship involved imbibing alcohol and orgiastic sex by priests and worshippers, deemed necessary to convince Baal to send rain, seen as akin to semen, both life-giving. 
Texts discovered on site not only ‘constitute a literature of high standing and great originality but also have an important bearing on Old Testament studies ... the patriarchal stories in the Old Testament were not merely transmitted orally but were ... of Canaanite origin ... [this] has led to a new appraisal of the Old Testament.’  In Ugaritic literature, Yahweh is a son of El; the story of the flood is told. Scores of references to Baal appear in the Old Testament.
The ruins of Ugarit
The sky next morning is a glorious blue. As I set out from the hotel, a shoeshine boy notices my mud-caked shoes and joyfully leaps in the gesture of a high-five. When I merely smile and slink away he is visibly disappointed. I locate a minivan to Ugarit, 16 km north of Lattakia, and get the last remaining seat. The minivan stops on demand, people hop in and out; soon I am the only passenger left as Ugarit is the last stop on this run. We leave the town behind, traffic peters out; we’re now moving along the coast; there are only a few scattered houses, their yards abundant with ruby grapefruits. ‘Turkiye?’ the driver asks. ‘Hind! Welcome!’ He drops me near the short unpaved path to the ruins. Turning around, he raises the volume on the Umm Kulthum song.
I climb a flight of steps and reach a ticket booth. Right ahead, I see the remains of the ancient city on the mound of Ras Shamra (fennel hill). Few tourists come even in the peak season, not the least because Syria is on the US roster of terrorist nations. A good many who visit are reserachers; in fact, for each visitor to Syria, Egypt has 20, France 400. I see none today. Besides, Ugarit competes with other, more (structurally) spectacular archaeological sites in Syria: Palmyra, Afamea, Bosra, Serjilla, etc., even though they are relatively recent, lying closer to us than to Ugarit. Travel guidebooks don’t help either; the authors of Lonely Planet Syria were ‘aggrieved’ by the admission fee structure—US $6 for foreigners, US $1 for locals—to the ‘badly maintained’ site of Ugarit, and wondered what they had paid for. The result: no hustlers, no tour guides, no one to step in front of the camera.
The city entrance is a grotto-like vaulted passageway. It leads to the foundation walls of the royal palace which had an area of 10,000 sq. meters, ninety rooms around eight courtyards, with a piped water system and drainage. I pass through reception rooms, courtyards, guard rooms, a banquet hall, a royal garden. Many stone walls are over six feet high. The Ambassadors Hall once had a fountain with fishes, the ground was covered with floorboards. Near the acropolis are the ruins of the temples of Baal and Dagon, and the library of priest Rapanou. Clay tablets found here not only have official correspondence but also lists of animals and deities, weights and measures, even ways to treat sick horses. Invaluable for philologists is a comparative lexicon of Sumerian, Hurrian, Babylonian, and Ugaritic words.
A peasant’s plow uncovered Ugarit in 1928; the French soon began excavating. Soundings made through the Ras Shamra mound have revealed a sequence of layered settlements since the Neolithic period. The earliest—already a small fortified town in the 7th millennium BCE—shows a pre-pottery stage with flint tools. The next settlement layer includes sun-dried pottery. In early Chalcolithic, or copper-stone, Age, painted pottery appears, then geometric designs; flint tools competed with metal tools made of copper. The Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium) layer yielded various monochromatic burnished wares and some red polished ware. The Middle Bronze Age (2nd millennium) layer reveals high expertise in bronze metallurgy—the visible ruins correspond to this period.
A musical piece on a clay tablet, dating to the 14th century BCE, has also been excavated. Ugarit, in other words, employed musical notation a full thousand years before Pythagoras. It used the Sol-Fa scale and is therefore the real foundation of western music. The piece lasts three minutes and is characterized by rhythm, which, according to a specialist, ‘sounds very familiar to us’. One clay tablet reveals something of the Canaanites’ family values:
‘Starting from today I Yaremano give up all my properties to my wife Baydawe and two sons Yataleeno and Yanhamo. If one of my sons treats his mother Baydawe meanly, he must pay five hundred pieces of silver for the king. Beyond that he should take off his shirt, leave it on the door’s lock and go into the street. But the one who treats his mother Baydawe with respect and consideration, his mother will give him all the properties.’
Of the many stories found on clay tablets, one recounts the myth of king Daniel and his son Aqhat who was killed and eaten by eagles. Following this event all plants died. The deed was avenged by his sister Paghat and she perhaps even managed to bring him back to life. Hundreds of tablets still await deciphering due to their poor state. The best known epic of the Canaanites, however, is The Legend of Keret, written c. 1,500 BCE. Little is known of king Keret—where he ruled, how or if he was related to the kings reining at the time the epic was composed. His kingdom, or its capital, was called Hubur. Parts of the story are missing but here is an outline:
King Keret’s family has been entirely wiped out except for himself. He weeps bitterly over the extinction of his line, but El appears to him in a dream, and Keret begs him to grant him posterity. Thereupon El gives Keret detailed instructions for preparing and conducting a military expedition to Udum and demanding the granddaughter of Udum’s king in marriage: the king’s name is Pabel, the girl’s Hurriya. Keret follows the directions and, as El predicted, Pabel dispatches a delegation to his headquarters to treat for peace. So Keret makes his not unreasonable demand, the messengers retrace their steps, and ... apprise their lord of Keret’s terms. [missing tablets] Keret marries the fair maiden and begets a numerous progeny. Then, for reasons which are not quite clear, Hurriya, in Keret’ s name, gives three successive banquets, apparently to three distinct groups of people. [missing tablets] Keret’s children are grown up. Keret himself passes through a severe illness, which causes intense grief to those about him, especially to his son Elhau and his daughter Thitmanet. In the end El himself creates a female being, Sha’taqat, to remove Keret’s illness. While the king is convalescing, his eldest son, Yassib, has the impudence to suggest that since he is neglecting his kingly duties he ought to abdicate in Yassib’s favor. For this his father roundly curses him. [missing tablets] 
What’s interesting is the siege of a distant city over a woman, a theme central to both Homer’s Iliad and Valmiki’s Ramayana. Mystical thought suffuses this verse fragment from The Legend of Keret:
Grand the plans of gods and man,
But when the day is done —
Bones broadly scattered in the sun,
For ironic Moira* the fray hath won.
And naught remains for Apollo’s progeny,
But to sing her praise,
In comic agony. [* Fate, or the will of the gods]
On a clay tablet, someone’ s anguish is expressed in these evocative words:
My brothers swim in blood like crazy men.
I ate my stone like bread. And for a drink,
I drank my blood.
My tears have replaced my food.
Another fragment is from a letter to the authorities. In it the writer laments,
The poor has become rich.
The wise is in despair.
Our crops have been stolen.
The vineyard is in ruins.
And our town has been destroyed.
And on one clay tablet this timeless reminder to men written 34 centuries ago,
Do not tell your wife where you hide your money.
According to mainstream scholarship today, our human ancestors were once nomadic hunter-gatherers, with language and many recognizable religio-cultural practices like burying their dead, wearing bone and stone jewelry, and even creating cave art and figurines. What followed, in roughly this order, was agriculture and domestication of animals, permanent settlements, pottery and metallurgy, the rise of cities, specialized crafts and trade guilds, persistent social hierarchies, organized religion and monumental architecture, and eventually money, writing, and the alphabet. Though late arrivals, how the last two have quickened the pace of change!
Lost in thought, I wander about the desolate ruins. Humans inhabited this site for nearly 7,000 years, from the 7th millennium to Roman times. I try to imagine the city at its prime, its street life, homes, people. The breeze has pulled in low clouds, it might rain. The damp earth is overgrown with weeds; worm hills abound, tiny white and yellow wildflowers dot the ground. The Mediterranean Sea is on the horizon. There are still no tourists; only the bells on a few grazing sheep break the calm.
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