The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art

Giving is but the fragrant flower

Inhabiting one’s soul

Should the soul feel its kindred depart

All history will come close

And then it will depart

Between the pull and the push

Your fragrance, Syria

Your civilization, Syria

Will be the fragrance

That quiets the heart*


Painting, drawing, embellishment or ornamentation – whatever you wish to call it, the nomenclature is not important. Painting and drawing have always been a part of Syrian culture. Indeed, writing (or, rather, script) originated from drawing, and in a way, marks also the dawn of (human) history.

One might be perplexed as to where to begin if we are to discuss the art of painting and drawing in Syria. If we begin with contemporary art (that is, art from the end of the 19th century), we would be neglecting the near past, a past in transparent continuity with the distant past. Perhaps the best way to begin then, is to go even further, to the renaissance of the 17th century, a time that saw the revival of Arabic, its translation and the accompanying flowering of the arts of Arabic calligraphy, drawing, decoration and architecture. This was a time during which copies of the Holy Qur’an were written in amazing naskh script against ornamented backgrounds embellished with gold, turquoise and rose. They remain as testament to the marvels of that period. Or, we could talk about the icons that Aleppo artists endeavoured to paint in those times which were, as regards their style of drawing and colouring, absolutely luminous.


Syrian iconography flourished in the mid 17th century, most prominently at the hands of Yusuf Al-Mussawir from Aleppo, a painter, calligrapher and translator. There were two factors behind his genius: firstly, an earnest will for comprehensive growth in the country, and secondly, inherited Syrian artistic traditions which Al-Mussawir would have been alert to, for he was also a learned scholar. I say this in spite of question marks that have been voiced regarding the phenomenon of the Aleppo iconography school, as some critics have sought to interpret it in conjunction with the influence of the West on the cultural milieu in Syria at that time and not as an art form that was born out of Syria itself.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Neolithic Wall Painting in Tell Bouqras, Deir Ezzor Museum

The Convergence of the Fine and the Applied Arts


Nevertheless, the enhancements introduced into Arabic calligraphy during this period were of the highest degree, both in terms of craftsmanship as well as elegance. The thuluth and naskh styles received special attention because they were used for religious books – thuluth in particular used in the Holy Qur’an for the names of the suras (sections) and naskh for the text of the verses.


Both naskh and thuluth were created out of a need to develop the kufic script, the original form of Arabic calligraphy. The letters of kufic were characterised by straightness and heaviness, whereas those of naskh and thuluth were curved and soft. The transition from the stern kufic form to a more curved one potentially dates, at least in Syria, to the sixth century of the Hijri era (corresponding to the 12th century AD), as evidenced by inscriptions on buildings in Aleppo, Hama and Damascus. These inscriptions are considered among the earliest creations in the curved style in the history of Arabic calligraphy.


In fact, we must go back even further if we are to delve into the roots of the visual arts in Syria, often deducing from what remains that which has been lost. Wall painting, for example, does not endure forever: either it fades over time, or is destroyed as walls crumble and fall apart. Since sculpted objects are hardier than paintings and withstand better the ravages of time, sculptures from a given epoch often provide crucial evidence as to the quality of painting or other visual arts from the same period in history. Moreover, visual arts are blended with each other; for sculpture can take on hues of colour, woven fabrics are composed of artistic tableaus, and niches became masterworks of art, and so on.


It is at this point that we might start to distinguish between the fine arts and the applied arts. However, one could argue that this differentiation has rarely been applicable to artists in the East. Artists here have used whatever medium necessary in order to communicate a goal or idea, be it an ornamented plate or plate cover, an effigy of a worshipped figure, cloth woven with strands of concordant colours, or a building constructed to be cool in summer, warm in winter, lit by moonlight and shaded by a grapevine or a palm tree. In short, artists have sought to communicate with others through art that is utilised in daily life.


This intermingling of forms also meant that different styles could be found across different media, such as coloured pottery, gilded copper or even the use of miniatures in calligraphy. This stylistic and materialistic fluidity went hand in hand with the architecture of any given city, with art and architecture influencing each other. One such example can be found in Bouqras, a site on the Euphrates River, where tools for work or domestic use decorated with animal shapes have been found. At the same site, on the wall of a house, elegant wall paintings of birds were also discovered. All these date to the seventh millennium BC and effuse vitality and expressiveness.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Statue of Ebih-Il, a superintendent in Mari

Historical Roots and Influences


There are of course many historical influences at play – from civilizations such as Rome and Byzantium, the empire of Alexander the Great, Anushiruwan (Khosrow I), and the many travellers, explorers and archaeologists who have traversed this region. How many factors have influenced today’s traditions of art and painting? Perhaps the country’s geography: the Euphrates, the Mediterranean Sea and the desert? Or was it the history of converging peoples and civilizations? Was it the alphabet of the third millennium BC? Or was it Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, Ashur, and Aram and other languages that ended up flowing into Arabic as we know it today? Then there was the first Arab empire and capital of the world, Damascus. The Iram of the Pillars spoke of it in the Qur’an and it is referred to in literature. Damascus has remained since the dawn of time. 


I am not claiming to write the entire history of art here, but, rather, wish to say that drawing, engraving and painting are innate to Syria and their deep-rootedness derives from that of its people. Thus, I will review examples chosen qualitatively, not exclusively, in order to present a picture of the cultural significance of a country heavy-laden with culture and history, and which continues to be rich in its human resources, in intellectual pursuit, and in the arts.

Some Beginnings


As far back as the fourth millennium BC, the Sumerians were using tessellation. Artists would embed coloured ceramic tiles into a wall to create regularly repeated geometric patterns. The detail, it turns out, is everything. Who, for example, came up with the cylindrical seal in the third millennium BC? Some of the world’s greatest works of sculpture cannot match the exquisite beauty and detail of the miniature carvings engraved on them as depressions.


Elsewhere, small mosaics depicting scenes taken from everyday life were found in Mari (Tell Hariri) on the Middle Euphrates. They also date to the third millennium BC. Various materials were used to produce them, such as ivory, lapis lazuli, gold and coloured stones. The pieces would then be assembled in the form of jewellery boxes or musical instruments.


Not only were the people of Mari adept in the arts but they were also expert architects who had control over both aquatic and land transportation routes. The sculptures discovered here pulse with vitality and are especially noticeable in their advanced depiction of faces and hands: Ornina, Ashtart, the goddess of the fountain, an engaged couple, a shepherd…. together these statues, along with mosaics and wall painting fragments, provide vivid scenes from the life of the city’s inhabitants: evening get-togethers, weddings, worship, rural scenes and even preparations for war.


There are two significant things to note here: the first is that these art forms do not originate from previous art; and the second is that they have innate characteristics that continued to come through in subsequent art practices, both the local and the incoming.


To return to sculpture, let us look at the second millennium BC city of Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in northern Syria. It continues to occupy archaeologists, both in terms of its language and its store of information. Whereas the artistic style in Mari tended towards similitude, if I may be allowed the expression, the style in Ebla was different. It leant much more to symbolism and abstraction. Furthermore, inasmuch as we consider the work of the goldsmith an art form belonging to the visual arts, we discover that the Ebla civilization developed the refined technique of gold granulation. This was a technological breakthrough the like of which we do not encounter anywhere else, except in the Etruscan civilization in the fifth century BC, that is, at a period of time much later than that of Ebla.

Cultural Exchange from Far Horizons


As we head towards the Mediterranean Sea, 

this civilizational significance continues with us. 

In the mountains, Baal directs the clouds and commands the storms, 

while Tammuz in the plains changes the seasons …

In the civilization of Ras Shamra (Ugarit) the letters of the alphabet were set.

And who has not plowed through the high waves of the Mediterranean Sea?

But the Phoenicians preceded all the other peoples of the earth in this and were master teachers.

The sea implies openness, exchange, and giving,

In giving and exchange there is wealth and pleasure.


Thus, researchers have observed in the art of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) a combination of Egyptian, Mitanni and Hittite influences, that is, both from the sea and from land. From the coast we move back inland, where between the second and first millennia BC events took place that disrupted and changed the balance of powers that had previously prevailed. Peoples clashed with each other, civilizations intermixed: Hittites, Aramaeans, Assyrians – each erected their palaces, raised their gates and decorated monumental walls (with sculpture on the outside and painting on the inside).


Examples include significant and expressive sculptures from the palace in Tell Halaf, as well as paintings from the throne room of the palace of Til Barsip (Tell Ahmar). In these works, we see the artist spontaneously acting according to a clear programme, in which the features of people are well-defined, each according to importance and status, by means of bold lines and explicit coloured areas. Where the scene was mythical, the artist would resort to symbolism.


On the horizons, banners sway …

And damask sways over the goddesses of victory,

Aphrodite ascends the foremasts,

And the milk of infants migrates into foreign lands,

Adonis, Tammuz, and Christ

Wine and Olives … color and chisel,

In Hellenistic and Roman times, passionate desire had as its object Syrian eloquence.


As such, for three centuries before and after Christ, the arts of our land intermixed with incoming civilizations, including the Hellenistic, Roman and Parthian. This was a give and take: during this period, it could be argued that Syria participated in the consolidation of the civilization of the world.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Alphabets of Ugarit

Mosaics, Frescoes and Christianity


We mention here mosaic art production. The examples are innumerable, stretching across regions including Antioch, Apamea, Hama, Palmyra and Shahba while new discoveries continue to be made. Mosaics covered the floors of villas, palaces, schools and temples and effused grace and charm and narrated fables, depicted extravagant scenes or illustrated wisdom.


It is also important here to mention frescoes, which often accompanied mosaics, or were alternatives to them, as found in Palmyra and Dura-Europos (Salhiyeh on the Euphrates). These rare frescoes constitute a basic link in the history of painting in the East. It would also be remiss not to mention drawings found on receptacles, manuscripts written on parchment as well as jewellery production.


At this time, around the turn of the millennium, we find evidence of a struggle between intermixing and particularity. It is as though the particularity of my land’s art was to give expression to people’s innermost feelings and thoughts, so that physical resemblance would no longer be of importance.


In this manner, these Byzantine heirs to the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations continued to engage in the visual arts in Syria in the fourth century AD. These arts were furthermore nourished by Syrian Christian thought, and churches and monasteries across the length and breadth of the land undertook with reverence and grace the decoration of mosaics, painting, sculpture and textiles.


An example of this is the mosaics of Apamea and the areas surrounding it (Jabal al-Zawiya, of Halawa on the Euphrates, Hama, of Maarrat Al-Nu`man, and Deir Al-Adas in Hauran) which all depict paradise on earth. I will summarise here a statement by Jeanine Balty, who has researched the mosaics in Syria, concerning the art of that period: It is a purely Syrian art, because in essence it is ornamental and disregards depth and relief (three-dimensionality) and because it was no longer an art describing a story but rather one expressing a symbol.


It is also worth noting the iconographic engravings found on mementos, lamps and oil flasks, which pilgrims carried with them from the Holy Lands in Palestine and Syria. These objects were no larger than the palm of a hand, and the engravings were miniature work with well-defined features.


Local craftsmen and workshops of long-standing tradition continued to apply themselves to this artistic approach within Christian communities even after the coming of Muslim Arabs to the Levant at the beginning of the seventh century. Some of the finds from the seventh and eighth centuries point to this continuity. Moreover, wall paintings that have been uncovered in Qara, Homs, Qalaat Al-Madiq, and the monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa Al-Habashi), all of which are from the 12th and 13th centuries AD, are in natural continuity with that local art.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Monastry of Saint Moses the Abyssinian

The Coming of Islam


The Arabs of the South brought the message of Islam with them to their kinsmen in the Levant. The suras of the Qur’an were recited in the Dome of the Rock (seventh century AD) and in the Umayyad Mosque and the first minarets (eighth century AD).


The characteristics of the visual arts in Islamic civilization crystallised in Syria in the time of the Umayyad Arab state (661–750 AD) and defined the approach that would be followed under the reign of subsequent Arab and Islamic dynasties.


Among the more grandiose characteristics of the visual arts in Islamic civilization were stylisation and juxtaposition. These were employed in an endeavour to achieve sublimity of form, so that a mathematical geometric framework became the keystone of the work and abstraction came to recount the integrated nature of existence. Thus, there was no depiction of humans in mosques, schools and special prayer houses, but there were wondrously coloured and radiant mosaics and depictions of “gardens beneath which rivers flow”.


However, in the case of civic buildings such as palaces, fortresses and baths, painting and sculpture of persons on the walls of those buildings was allowed: such as hunting scenes or those of delighting in music in company with singers. Moreover, there was surpassing interest in (and care for) gardening, gardens and irrigation around rural palaces and wherever the land was arable.

The Coming of the Abbasids


When power shifted and the state was taken over by the Abbasids, the visual arts went on to develop further. That is, the Byzantine and Sassanid influences adopted by builders and artists to realise the initial Islamic approach (pursuant to the directives of the civil-spiritual authority, the Caliph, residing in the Levant) gave way to artistic forms expressive of the aesthetic aspirations of Islamic thought through the sublimity of lines and the movement of curves depicting the whispers of the spirit repeating the Name of the Most High, Allah, to Whom applies: there is no God but He, the Most Merciful.


The Abbasids marked a time during which art and architecture flourished. In the eighth century AD, the city of Raqqa was established on the Euphrates, a marvel of Mesopotamian Islamic architecture as evidenced by its large mosque and amazing gate, which was built with brick and with which he sought to convey enormity of size and grandeur.


In Abbasid palaces we find that the capitals of columns differ in their ornamentation from the acanthus leaf capitals of the Umayyad palaces. Furthermore, painted wood with coloured ornamentation played a greater role than that of decorative plasterwork in relief. And, while coloured wall painting remained, wall mosaics disappeared and there appeared hard glass floor tiling.


Arabic translation activity, which had begun in the Umayyad period and been accompanied by the widespread use of the kufic script form and the ornamentation of manuscripts, takes on a much wider scope in the Abbasid period. Now, translation encompasses all the works in medicine, the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and other fields of intellectual pursuit. This in turn impacted the arts associated with books. As a result, these arts prospered, and the experimentation carried out by calligraphers, draughtsmen and painters became established.


At this point it is important to mention that the area covered by the expansion of Islam, which encompassed both East and West, meant that Islamic thought became a comprehensive stimulator of the arts. As a result, the visual arts in these various areas and regions became similar and congruent, particularly in the Arab East.


In light of this, we are able to have a clearer view of the visual arts in the Levant during the following historical periods: the Fatimid period (10th century AD), the Seljuk period (11th century AD), the period of Nur Ad-Din Zengi and then Salah Ad-Din Ibn-Ayyub (12th century AD), and the Mameluke period (13th century AD till the 16th century AD).


It is no wonder, then, that the increased cultural and economic demands and the exigencies of jihad and defence in those times stirred up construction activity. Fortresses and fortifications were raised most intensely against Frankish fortifications. The school came to constitute a single architectural unit within the mosque, and the mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of prayer) of the mosque was decorated with exquisitely beautiful ornamentation as was the minbar (pulpit). Hospitals (bimaristans) were built in Damascus and Aleppo; they were made of stone, their gates decorated with muqarnas (ornamental structures) with marvellous calligraphic work on their walls. Cities and water networks were organised so that baths and pathways spread throughout neighbourhoods.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Omayyad Mosque, Damascus

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Further Advancements


The Abbasid period also saw advances in glasswork overlaid with enamel, ornamented pottery (engraved with depressions or reliefs) and glazed ceramics. The craft of carving, painting and gilding wood acquired fame while the art of the miniature and the enhancement of Arabic calligraphy excelled. (As mentioned earlier, in addition to the stern kufic scripting style, we encounter exalted curved style types during this time). Furthermore, the craft of the goldsmith and the craft of weaving and dying cotton and silk grew and gained fame.

The Mameluke period too has left us prime examples, including amazing copies of the Holy Qur’an, which bear ceramics decorated with drawing and colours, hammered copper inlaid with silver and gold, and glass lamps overlaid with enamel. Mameluke emirs competed with each other in the creation of emblems and insignia to the point that the elite and those with businesses and professions started to imitate them.

After that comes Ottoman rule over the Levant from the 16th century all the way through to World War I. It is appropriate for our research to give special attention to this period, because the new capability for plunging into modernity and contemporaneity in the visual arts in Syria was crystallised during this period.

Political and Socioeconomic Frameworks


In an attempt to correct the understanding of Arab history, committees constituted of scientists and researchers were created over a quarter of a century ago in the universities and cultural institutions of the Syrian Arab Republic. Those distinguished gentlemen issued serious historical studies, a large portion of which dealt with the Ottoman period (cf. the book in Arabic by Dr Abdul Karim Rafiq: Studies in the Socioeconomic History of Syria in Modern Times, Damascus 1985). Events were thus seen within their political and socioeconomic framework. As to creativity in the visual arts in the Ottoman period, we must deduce it from general history, because the documentation of artistic activity during that period appears to have been sparse.

The calm that prevailed in the Levant in the 16th century made it possible for the Ottomans to carry out building projects that provided benefits of a philanthropic character, such as mosques, schools, special prayer houses, pathways, baths and inns. Examples of this in Damascus include the Sultan Salim, Darwishiyah and Sinan Pasha mosques, and in Aleppo the Khasrawiyah and the Behramiyah mosques. Moreover, the protection of the pilgrimage caravan from the Levant was organised in that period, as well as transit trade between Europe, Asia Minor and the East.


In the Ottoman 17th century, signs of a regional-national awakening in the Arab region appeared; this manifested itself in the revival of Arab heritage in language and literature. Concomitantly, signs of instability began to appear as local emirs challenged the central rule of the sultan in order to control economic activity in the country.


This awakening/renaissance reached its height in the 18th century, especially in the Levant, where trade relations with the West were being consolidated (an example of this was the production of silk and its marketing in the Italian states).


The 18th century was also characterised by two further developments, the first of which was the emergence of strong local governors in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The second was the regulation of professional guilds in the land and the consolidation of their traditions (ibid. pp. 160–192). These events took place amongst the wider socio-political backdrop of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798) as well as, closer to home, the increased role neighbourhood leaders began to play in leading urban society. However, it was the national awakening of the 19th century that truly defined the Syrian national consciousness, as feelings for independence increased.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Taoufiq Tarek, Dummar Road, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 70 cm, 1908

National Awakening and European Legacy


Three things distinguish this period. Firstly, the rule of Ibrahim Pasha over the Levant (1831–1840), during which government systems were modernised and foreign consulates opened in the country. Secondly, the publication of Arabic newspapers in Damascus and Beirut and the establishment of cultural societies and, thirdly, the equipping of the port of Beirut for merchant ships and the opening of the Beirut–Damascus road in 1863. All this activity took place in parallel to the industrial revolution in Europe and the influx of Western commodities into the country impoverished local craftsmen and enriched tradesmen and middlemen.


It was during the Ottoman period that the Levant began to gradually come into contact with the European West and its contemporaneous thought. I do not exaggerate when I say that the Ottoman occupation of the Levant, and the Ottomans prevailing through the use of firearms over the Mamelukes (who held to the traditions of swordsmanship and horsemanship in war), was a victory of European technical rationalism over the inspired adroitness of the East.


It is important to note that at this point I am affirming here historical reality without engaging in a definitive discussion. This is because the event that is of primary interest to us has to do with the fact that the ambulant painting, which deals with an image (or a subject matter) within a framework that is unrelated to the utility of objects, came to be part of our acquired cultural taste by way of Europe.


However, the taste for the acquisition of ambulant paintings remained a matter exclusive to an elite group and was not shared by the wider public. The emirs and governors marketed silk, wheat and rich handicraft products, possessed firearms, promoted transit trade, and protected the trade caravans, the Levantine pilgrimage caravans together with the attendant markets and exchange of goods. All of these activities made it possible for rulers, military men and feudal lords to become exposed to the West and acquire a taste for some of its customs in clothing, behavioural patterns, commodities, lamps, techniques of war and portraiture.


The other matter that I wish to affirm here is that Syria during the Ottoman period held on to its arts and traditional industries.


In the 18th century, strong local governors were patrons of the Arab arts in architecture and ornamentation. Thus As’ad Pasha Al-Azem in Damascus, Ahmad Pasha Al-Jazzar in Acre, Emir Bashir Shehab in Lebanon and Dhaher Al-Omar in Palestine enriched their palaces luxuriantly with those arts. Examples of this include the Azem palace in Damascus, the Azem palace in Hama, and the Beit Ed-Dine palace in Lebanon.


On the other hand, the admiration the Ottomans had for the beauty of the arts and crafts of Syria encouraged expert workers to go to Istanbul. Syrians too borrowed aesthetic elements from the art of Istanbul and introduced them into ornamentation, jewellery work, furniture and clothing.


It is not easy to determine the extent of the reciprocal cultural influences between those who are closely related or distant, or to estimate the amount of give and take between the two parties involved. Professional guilds, which played an important role in the Levant in the 17th and 18th centuries, established ordered social relations, and there was a concordant fellowship among the members of each guild across different confessional and religious affiliations.


Each guild had masters of trade, craftsmen and labourers as its members, and was headed by a sheikh (sheikh of the guild or sheikh of the craft) appointed by a letter issued by the Sultan. There were numerous guilds in Damascus and Aleppo comprising silk workers, glass-blowers, blade-smiths, tanners, goldsmiths, builders, carpenters, coppersmiths, textile printers, bookbinders etc. One can deduce from this the diversity of crafts that were flourishing, and the Ka`bah cover carried by the pilgrim from the Levant at this time was embroidered with silk and gold thread. Arab carpentry was the basis for the art of Persian embellishment, which involved verses in Arabic script and paintings depicting city views, fruit and flowers.

Carpentry, Books and Calligraphy


Arab carpentry served as the basis for the wooden mosaics of the Levant, which today both Easterners and Westerners avidly seek to acquire.

As to book binding, is it not an eminent art form, involving as it does leather carving and the use of marbled paper! And inasmuch as the most important books were religious manuscripts, the book in its totality became an artistic product in the service of Sufi spirituality.


Moreover, Arabic calligraphy, which glorified the spirit and mysticism of Islam, kept on being enhanced until it attained the pinnacle of accomplishment in the Istanbul style, which spread among the calligraphers of the Levant in the Ottoman period: it abounded on the pulpits and mihrabs of the mosques, while house walls were filled with verses of praise and thanksgiving. The colours used in Arabic calligraphy –  gold, sky blue, blue and rose – were selected to symbolise heavenly radiance.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Georgeous Al Musawwir, St. Georges, 23.7 x 17 cm. 18th Century


Iconography in the Levant and Egypt also has a history in the Ottoman period. Thus, in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine we distinguish two 17th century schools: the Aleppo school (17th and 18th centuries) and the Jerusalem (Al-Quds) school (18th and 19th centuries).

The Aleppo school continued the Eastern tradition as found in the Balkans, Asia Minor, Crete, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. As for Jerusalem, its painters borrowed from the art of the European Renaissance as encountered in religious paintings and publications that were entering into the Holy Land. These painters attempted to interpret Western art in Eastern terms; their icons came out polished and hybrid.

Between the two aforementioned schools, popular painters appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries. They copied many icons from older times with a naïve feel and primitive technique. People liked their production, and homes were filled with it.

This popular type of icon is of interest because it converges with popular naïve art paintings that spread in homes, shops and cafes; these were painted on paper, cloth or glass and dealt with popular themes, such as romance and horsemanship.

The Visual Arts in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Art - Features - Atassi Foundation

Abu Subhi Al Tinawi, Abla, Drawing on glass, 18 x 13 cm



As an art form, portraiture was relished by governors and emirs in the 18th century and by the 19th century was flaunted by the urban middle classes as a status symbol. These were honest classical paintings initially painted by Italian, French and Turkish artists. 


Subsequently, talented young people became professionals in this type of painting in Beirut, Aleppo and Damascus at the time that the art of photography spread in the country by way of foreign and local photographers. 


Since the 18th century, travellers and explorers have come to the Levant. They brought with them draughtsmen of archaeological remains and natural scenery. The libraries and museums of the world are filled today with masterworks of carving and printmaking. These document how our markets, neighbourhoods, and the apparel of our kinsfolk were. Contemporary researchers have added photographic pictures to those drawings and compared them to the paintings of orientalists. These have all become an amazing source for investigative historical and sociological studies.

Moreover, those images, whether portraits, depictions of natural scenery, drawings or photographic pictures provided the basis for the renaissance of the visual arts in Syria and Lebanon ever since the first quarter of the 20th century.


Thus, the first generation of artists was committed to the realistic and impressionistic styles of painting, the principles of which they had studied in Western academies. Early initiatives in sculptural work appeared right up until the 1940s, then surrealism and fauvism appeared. The artists of the second generation applied themselves assiduously to following and keeping up with the conceptions of contemporary art up to the 1960s, when political and social events began to become a major concern, playing a large role in the overall artistic production.


Together with artists’ political and social orientation, orientation towards the old artistic heritage came to the fore and inspiration was drawn from it in the creation of contemporary works of art.


Closing Thoughts


This is but an overview of the history of visual arts in Syria and brief introduction to major figures who contributed to it. Some of them have long since passed away and some continue to carry the torch. The torch accompanies the artist on his path and does not die out in his hand until he himself becomes a torch and a path; one generation succeeds another, and the dream of the awakening accrues. The child bears the joy and the tragedy … the olive branch … and the alphabet.



Translated by Iskandar Abou Chaar

Edited by Anna Wallace- Thompson

*Opening poem extract by Elias Zayyat, translated by Rula Baalbaki