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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Syria to Give 400 Artifacts For Traveling Exhibition

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria has thrown open the doors of its museums to send the world a millennium gift, an exhibition of priceless treasures that may never again be allowed out of the country.

Nearly 400 artifacts, covering a sweep of human history from the dawn of civilization to the end of the Crusades, will go to Switzerland in November on an odyssey that will have crossed Canada and the United States by the time "Syria: A Cradle of Civilization" concludes in 2002.

"Syria is probably the finest example you can see of many cultures on the same land succeeding one after another," said Francois Tremblay of Canada's Musee de la Civilization de Quebec, which has been working with Syria to organize the tour.

"You really have an overview of different cultures, fr om the very early stages of civilization up to the present," Tremblay said in the artifact-cluttered basement of Damascus Museum while photographing the final selection of treasures for the exhibition catalogue. "Syria was an easy choice."

The collection is spectacular. Although chosen to illustrate themes in civilization rather than purely for their artistic merit, individual pieces are likely to stagger Western audiences.

A figure with a gold lion's head and wings of solid lapis lazuli was excavated at Mari on the Euphrates River nearly 5,000 years after it had arrived as a gift from Ur in Mesopotamia. The refinement of Roman times is demonstrated by a silver helmet and a solid gold mask, both excavated near the city of Homs.

Syria is at the center of the Fertile Crescent, the arc of well-watered land reaching from Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq to Egypt where agriculture began 10,000 years ago. That pivotal position, often falling under the sway of empires at either end of the Fertile Crescent, has left Syria with an unparalleled archaeological record.

Early city states like Mari rose and fell, the Assyrian, Egyptian and Hittite empires battled for control, Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations dotted the land with cities. The Arab invasion of the seventh century produced masterpieces of Islamic religious and military architecture.

Syria is the ideal focus for an exhibition centered on themes in human development: the organization of society, economy and spiritual life. It covers Syrian contributions - such as the first alphabet - until the Crusades, a suitable end because those invasions reacquainted Europe with its own cultural roots in the Middle East. "At the dawn of the new millennium we are trying to reflect on the rules of civilization and the best way is to look at the very early stage and ask ourselves 'What heritage will we leave to our descendants for the next millennium?'" Tremblay said.

The exhibition will open in Basle, Switzerland, and move to Quebec, where it will run from May 30, 2000, to Jan. 7, 2001. It then moves to Edmonton, Alberta, and on to the United States in June 2001, where it will be shown in San Jose, California, New York's American Museum of Natural History and Denver, where it closes on May 5, 2002.

There have been other Syrian exhibitions abroad, although not organized along such thematic lines. And none has included all the items seen this time - and none is likely to in the future.

"Many of the artifacts that have been loaned by Syrian authorities have never been out of Syria," said Tremblay. "And many of them will be on tour for the last time because they are now planning to renew many of their own galleries, and these major artifacts will, after this, stay in Syria."