Ancient Syria's History Rivals That of Egypt, Mesopotamia A Paris Exhibit Traces Early Civilization from a Point outside the Fertile Crescent

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PICTURE the world 10,000 years ago, on the threshold of the neolithic period: In the valleys of northern Syria, retreating ice cover has left behind rich soil in which wild grains thrive.

Up to now man has been a nomadic creature, but among the people roaming these fertile lands an idea comes: to harvest and store the grains for the sustenance they offer, and, in order to do that, to stop the roaming and settle down.

From this one idea will surge, over the millenia to follow, much of what we today call civilization. And it will be here, in the place we now call Syria, that many of the elements of civilization will be imagined, discovered, and developed, including a written alphabet, the basic structure of cities and states, and instruments that will allow man to chart the heavens and plot distant journeys.

It is this story of a civilization's birth and development, long underestimated and poorly understood, that is told in a stunning exhibition now running through April 30 at Paris's Institut du Monde Arab (IMA).

Spanning more than a million years, "Syria: Memory and Civilization" brings Syria's place in human development out from the shadows of Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the east, and puts it in its proper light.

This exhibition "demonstrates our {Western} enlightenment from the East, and specifically from the lands of Syria," says Sophie Cluzan, curator of the exhibit's pre-Islamic period.

She notes, for example, that "It's in Syria that the first cities are built, about 3,300 years before Jesus Christ - when at the same time in Europe people are just beginning sedentary living and taking up agriculture." Cradle of civilization

The exhibition's revelations may come as a surprise to many visitors more accustomed to considering Egypt and Mesopotamia (basically present-day Iraq) as the tandem cradles of civilization. The reasons are many, as those who organized the exhibition point out, for this late recognition of Syria's heritage and contributions.

First, major archeological focus on Syria is relatively recent, dating largely from just the past 60 years. "That compares poorly to Mesopotamia, which has been the object of archeologists' attention for more than 150 years, and is like yesterday when compared to work in Egypt," says Jean-Claude Margueron, an archeologist who directs digs at Mari, one of ancient Syria's chief city-states.

The last 10 years of digging have been particularly fruitful, not only in terms of highlighting Syria's role in civilization's development, but also in debunking a number of previously held theories about man's cultural evolution.

"Recent diggings in Syria have allowed us to understand how man's sedentarization was a cultural choice, a conscious choice to master the environment, and not a response to chronic lack as was so often believed," Ms. Cluzan says.

The Syrian government has played its own role in keeping Syria sidelined by rarely allowing - at least until now - important artifacts to travel on loan outside the country. …