Thursday, August 7, 2008

Syria, Trade, & Near Eastern Influences on Greece

Ancient Syria is an interesting place for me, primarily due to its cosmopolitan nature. Ugarit, for example, due to its being a major trade center, was host to a great number of different peoples, including native Syrians, Hittites, probably Egyptians, and perhaps merchants from Mesopotamia further west. All the major trade routes seemed, at one time or another, to convene in Syria. A merchant travelling west from Babylonia would start by going up the Euphrates to Emar, then over land to Aleppo, then south to Canaan; the journey south would be through Syria. Merchants going north would begin from Northern Syria, probably Ugarit, and then travel through the Amanus and Taursus mountains to the Anatolian plateau; Hittite merchants would make the journey in reverse. For Egyptians, the safest route would be by sea up the coast, making stops at Byblos, Tyre, and then most likely Ugarit, in northern Syria. Merchants from Crete would sail in a counter-clockwise direction (winds and currents generally favoured this direction); first they would stop in Egypt and then go up the coast following the route of the Egyptian traders.

There was, in a way, a circular trade route around the Aegean, with branches coming from the west, in Mesopotamia, and from the north, in the Hittite kingdom. M.L. West, in his book The East Face of Helicon, states that in the Neolithic Age, there were already established trade networks in the Near East though he argues that Greece had little influence and was influenced little during this period. I am inclined to agree. Around the 17th century BC, however, we begin to see objects of oriental manufacture on the Greek mainland. The Shaft Graves of Circle A at Mycenae sported Mesopotamian glass beads, tusks from Syria, an Egyptian jug and vase, and a gold pin from Anatolia. This obviously suggests the presence of a circular trade network around the Aegean Sea; it is most likely from this network that the so called “Near Eastern influences” of Greece came about. From the 15th century BC onwards, Mycenaean pottery was arriving in substantial quantities in Cyprus, Syria, and Palestine. West points out, quite correctly, that it was not necessarily the Greeks that carried it that far, however, it does attest to a wide ranging trade network that went both directions because of its circular nature.

The “Near Eastern influences”, however, did not directly follow the “circular” pattern; they more or less moved westward, not around. First, there was no where else for them to go; about 3/4 of the circle was comprised of places from which the influences would come. First, we see them on the island of Cyprus, then in Minoan Crete, and then finally on the mainland. The trade moved in a circle, but the influences moved linearly across the Aegean towards Greece. Influences are, for the most part, seen first in Minoan or Mycenaean civilization, which is obviously due to the fact they antedated significant settlements on the mainland. Take some aspects of religion, for example. In both Minoan and Mycenaean art many scenes of cultic worship are depicted taking place in the countryside, sometimes by a large tree; trees and groves were considered sacred. Here is a cult scene from Mycenae:

Note the tree on the left. There are parallels to this in the Near East. In the Old Testament it seems that Judaism had to combat tree worship. It was common in Near Eastern religions to hold trees, rocks, etc as divine, as idols to be worshipped; it is this that the Israelites had to contend with, for worship of idols in any form was deemed not appropriate. In the Old Testament itself, though, David received an omen from the rustling of the trees:

And let it be, when thou [David] hearest the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself: for then shall the Lord go out before thee, to smite the host of the Philistines. (2 Sam. 5.24)

In a way, the trees become sacred insofar as they bear the sign of the divine.

A sacred stone or column was also a feature of Minoan and Mycenaean art. The god Hermes, incidentally, received his name from the Greek word for a cairn, ‘herma’. Again, if one looks in the Old Testament, a 'massebah' (stone pillar) was a feature of Canaanite sanctuaries. Also, Jacob sets up a stone pillar:

And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it (Gen. 28.18)

And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him [God], even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. (Gen. 35.14)

The term for a cult site in older Canaanite religion is ‘bamah’, which means “high place”. The word could perhaps be connected with the Greek ‘bomos’, meaning altar.

Not the temples themselves, but the principle of the temple came from the Near East, via Cyprus. An interesting linguistic connection is the Greek world leskhai, which refers to a public dining hall, at Delphi, for example. This can be compared with the Hebrew 'lishkah', which means basically the same thing, though, there is no known Semitic etymology for the word.

All these influences passed westward, most likely brought along with the trade goods and were slowly integrated into the 'Greek' society we think of today. Along with the influences from Syria and Mesopotamia, there were perhaps Hebraic ones, as outlined above. For more detail see M.L. West's The East Face of Helicon

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