Robert B. J. Mason

Near and Middle-Eastern Civilizations (NMC)
University of Toronto

University of Toronto - Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations - Mason Home - Unnofficial Mason - Royal Ontario Museum

Syrian Ceramics

Trade, industry and technology in medieval Syria

Industry, technology and trade are important aspects of human behaviour. We have government ministers, economists and industrialists telling us that all the time. These are not newly important phenomena, but go back to the beginnings of the development of human culture. My interest in industry, technology and trade covers all of time and the entire world, but there are a few places where their study is particularly fruitful. One of foremost of these is Syria. If we consider trade, it is obvious that Syria lies at the crossroads of the Old World. Routes that extend east to China and west to the Mediterranean and Europe, plus routes north to central Asia or eastern Europe and also south to India or Africa, all cross at this point. Not only did this trade produce wealth, it promoted indigenous industry to take advantage of these excellent communications. A wide range of industries developed here, notably glass, ceramics, textiles, leather and metalworking, and some of these, notably glass and ceramics, were technologically dynamic. This brings us to technology, for apart from the inducements provided by trade and industry, Syria's position as the interface between east and west provided considerable impetus to the development of technology. Tremendous advances took place here which were transmitted to east and west.

My research on the trade and technology of this region is focussed on the glazed ceramics of the medieval period, specifically in this case the period from about AD 700-1500. Syria provides an opportunity to examine trade in ceramics across the extent of the Old World, and also the innovative high-technology ceramics produced at centres like Damascus.

Although my research generally involves ceramics found in Syria, I have studied material from a multitude of sites, but I have been particularly involved with three sites, Aleppo, Tell al-'Acharneh, and Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi.

Aleppo: This is one of the great cities which grew in response to developing industry, technology and trade in Syria. Whenever throughout history the Bedouin of the desert were restless, preventing trade from east and south to pass from Iraq and Iran through cities like Palmyra and Damascus, then the safe route lay through Aleppo. The city of Aleppo was brought into existence by two things: the river Kowayk, representing the only source of water between the Euphrates and the rivers of western Syria; and an immense rock outcrop which eventually became the site of the city's citadel. Between the rock and the river the city grew, becoming not only a centre for trade, but also with important industries of its own. Like the oasis city of Damascus, the unique position on which the city is based means that it was continually occupied, and is a great city to this day. This means that although it is an archaeologically rich and interesting site, it cannot easily be excavated. The one area that is exposed, is within the area of the citadel. Here a Syrian-German mission is excavating under the direction of Wahid Khayyata, director of the Museum of Aleppo and Kay Kohlmeyer from the Fachhochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Berlin. My interest in Aleppo is in the Islamic or medieval glazed wares. In this regard Aleppo provides a very useful site due to its position as a centre for trade, as pottery found at the site can have origins as disparate as Spain and China, while the sequence of strata provides evidence for dating the pottery.

Tell al-'Acharneh: This is essentially a Bronze-Age and Iron Age site in the Orontes Valley, yet with a very important occupation of the early 12th century. The importance of this medieval occupation is that it was of a very short period of occupation, it apparently being a Crusader castle occupied for only a few years around AD 1110. This provides tremendous aid in the dating of the pottery. Excavations at the site of Tell al-'Acharneh are directed by Michel Fortin of Laval University, Quebec.

Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi: The third site I am involved with is so important that it warrants its own web-page!

This research has been funded in part by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum

Location of ceramic kiln sites in Syria
Location of ceramic kiln sites in Syria

Syrian lustre-ware pot
"Tell Minis" style lustre-ware, Syria, circa AD 1075-1100 (photo courtesy W. C. Pratt)

Aleppo Citadel
Aleppo Citadel: Main Gate

Aleppo pot
Bowl made in Damascus circa 1400, excavated in Aleppo

Tell al-'Acharneh
The Orontes Valley from Tell al-'Acharneh

"Tell Minis" style Incised wares from Tell al-'Acharneh, circa 1000-1025 AD

University of Toronto - Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations - Mason Home - Unnofficial Mason - Royal Ontario Museum