The eye of civilization


As director of the Oriental Institute Museum, I’ve recently been in Syria, exploring the possibility of constructing a special OI exhibit on the world's earliest cities. Although archaeologists have long known that cities had developed by 3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), in the past ten years several scholars’ work has converged to show that cities of another culture had developed independently in northern Mesopotamia (now northeastern Syria, still between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers) by the same time. This recently discovered northern culture has been illuminated by OI archaeologists McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, and Clemens Reichel, AM'94, PhD'01, at the site of Hamoukar, as well as by work I directed at the largest known of these northern settlements, Tell Brak.

After meeting with officials in the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus, I took a pleasant four-hour bus ride north through the plain of the Orontes River to Aleppo, to visit the storerooms of the Aleppo Museum. Tell Brak was first excavated by Max Mallowan in the 1930s (his wife, the mystery writer Agatha Christie, wrote a charming account of their time there, Come, Tell Me How You Live), and he found a temple in which thousands of small stone figurines had been left as offerings. The figurines depicted an amazing variety of animals, including lions, bears, frogs, monkeys, hedgehogs, and goats. Most famous, however, are a series of enigmatic “eye idols,” which may represent the deity being worshipped.

We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to show these pieces, along with many more recent discoveries, in an exhibit in 2008—that should give us just enough time.

Geoff Emberling
Director, Oriental Institute Museum

Photo: Animal figurines displayed at the Eye Temple in the Aleppo Museum.

April 17, 2006